The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.
Russian Warship, Sevastopol

Russian Warship, Sevastopol

Russian Warship, Sevastopol

Russian Warship, Sevastopol








I’m in Sevastopol, Ukraine.

The city was formerly host to the Soviet Black Sea Fleet. After 1991, the fleet was partitioned between Ukraine and Russia and both halves are still based at Sevastopol, although most of the warships I spotted had Russian ensigns.

Like Vladivostok, Sevastopol was a closed city during the Soviet era, so it feels strange to be able to wander freely and admire the once guarded fleet.

The city also hosts an eclectic mix of memorials from the Crimean War, WWII and Soviet periods.

Crimean War Cannon, Malakhov Mound.

WWII Artillery, Malakhov Mound.

I’ve been through the Lenin Mausoleum and the Mao Mausoleum. The Kim Il Sung Mausoleum is much, much, more intense than either. Definitely no loitering, chattering, or smirking.

We were strongly encouraged by our guides to dress in our best clothes and to wear shirts and ties for our visit.

The Mausoleum is a large sprawling building, formerly the Presidential Palace. Visitors are carefully screened before entering. Cameras and bags must be left behind. And of course we had surrendered our cells phones on entering North Korea.

We were conveyed inwards through marble corridors on long moving walkways and escalators. As foreigners, we were given priority over patiently queuing North Koreans. The general mood was one of hushed respectful silence, and we tried to blend into that. Rumor has it that Chinese tour groups are no longer allowed to visit the Mausoleum, supposedly because they tended to be too noisy and thus “disrespectful”.

As we neared the inner sanctum we passed through air blowers to blow away any dust we might bring with us.

We passed through the “Hall of Lamentations” where by holding little MP3 players to our ears we heard a description of how the North Koreans had lamented the Great Leader’s passing. (The MP3 players also kept us quiet and attentive.)

Then finally we entered the sanctuary and paraded around the preserved figure. As we had been instructed we bowed carefully at the sides and base. (But not at the head. Not at the head!) Kim Il Sung looks much less waxy and distinctly less vampiric than Lenin, but I’m afraid he does look rather Brezhnev-esq.

We exited into a room full of the Great Leader’s honors and awards. We all relaxed slightly and admired the lengthy collection, including two Orders of Lenin, a standard Stalin WWII victory medal, and honors from most of the former USSR Republics and many other nations. The only US honor was a degree certificate from the little known Kensington University of California. Some of the honors were posthumous, even as recent as 2007, presumably to recognize Kim Il Sung’s continuing role as the DPRK’s “Eternal President”.

Breathing more easily, we now headed out. We were discreetly studying the inward bound North Koreans and they were similarly studying us. Sometimes covertly, sometimes fairly openly, occasionally defiantly staring past us. Mostly they seemed simply curious, occasionally friendly, in a very few cases hostile. Some of these visitors might be making a once-in-a-lifetime visit to Pyongyang to see the Great Leader, so they were naturally curious at the unexpected bonus of exotic foreigners.

I wonder what they made of us? I do rather fear that the regime makes use of visiting foreigners as further proof of the Leader’s greatness. See, even foreigners come from far away, neatly dressed, to bow at the Great Leader. Hmm. That isn’t quite what I had in mind.

More DPRK pictures.

I attended the Mass Games in Pyongyang. They were a bizarre, wonderful and very intense experience.  (More photos here.)

The current version of the games, the “Arirang”, tells the history of North Korea through a giant series of dance and gymnastic sequences. There are reportedly up to 100,000 participants, although only a few hundreds or thousands appear in any one scene. Fifteen thousand children with giant flipcard books provide a continually changing background display. The games take place in a giant custom-built stadium. I had coughed up the 150 Euros (ouch) for a first class seat in the central viewing area.

Birth of Kim Jong Il

The many scenes include the historic birth of Korea; the struggle against the Japanese; a celebration of the birth of Kim Jong Il (yes, really!); the happy prosperity of the nation (!!); a joyful vision of the future reunification of Korea; and a paean to Chinese-Korean friendship.


The tone is not particularly militaristic. It is often light and in a few places even playful, with friendly pandas doing pratfalls, and comical chickens and pigs dancing to celebrate prosperity. There is no overt hostility to either South Korea or the US. But the background music is stirring, the massed coordination is often daunting, and the general mood is intense and fervent.

Photographs and videos can’t really convey the intensity of seeing the live performance. As soon as you step in, you are swept up in the forceful warm-up music. The staging and presentation are extremely skilful: you initially see a vast wall of banners and then through them advancing what seems like an infinite army of performers. The stadium is too wide to be easily taken in in one glance, I had to keep my eye roving to see the full picture. The scene transitions are often cleverly dramatic: as one scene winds down and the actors start to exit, we are allowed to glimpse a new army of performers massing in the back, then the lights are dimmed, leaving just enough light to see a shadowy horde surging forward onto the arena floor.

The dancing and gymnastics are well choreographed. If they were performed by a few score people, they would be only moderately amusing. But when they are performed on the Mass Games scale they become a very different thing. Some of the scenes are elegant ballet like performances, other are mass marching or banner waving, others are seemingly informal, such as the invasion of the happy farm animals.

Most of the performers are young adults. A couple of scenes involved hordes of 8-10 year olds.

The performances are skilful, but on this scale a few flubs are probably inevitable. I noticed a couple of the younger kids accidentally collide and go sprawling. But part of their training seems to be in quick recovery, and amidst the mass of performers you have to watch carefully to spot glitches and the overall experience continues undisturbed. There was heavy rain in mid-performance. We spectators were safely under cover, but the performers got pretty wet and had to cope with shallow puddles.

I liked the experience enough that I coughed up more Euros the next day for a second look. It was actually better the second time, partly because I had a better sense of what the script was trying to say and partly because I could anticipate the timing and what to watch for. Also, since it was dry, they were able to include the concluding grand firework display this time.

It’s great. Just do it.

I took a marshrutka out from Stepanakert to the old scenic town of Shushi.

Shushi was on the front-line of the 1990’s Nagorno-Karabakh war and suffered heavy damage.  It was an Azerbaijan stronghold, opposing Armenian-held Stepanakert.  Over the course of the war most of the population fled, and the town still has many abandoned buildings.


I started at the Ghazanchetsots Armenian Orthodox cathedral, which is partly restored but mostly new built and looks very spiffy.  The interior has some well-executed modern murals in a classic icon style.  Then I strolled out to the old city walls.  These also appear to have been fairly aggressively restored after the war: most of the stonework looks fairly new.

After some searching, I found my way to the remains of the old mosque. In an elegant theological touch, it’s two minaret towers have the Arabic letters for “Allah” repeated in white-on-red stripes ascending up towards heaven.  The mosque interior is gutted and the courtyard is overgrown with weeds.

The center of town contains many decrepit old Soviet-style apartment blocks.  But there is also some amount of new construction and renovation going on.  Further out there are many derelict and abandoned buildings, some mere shells.

The Old.
The New.
The Abandoned.


The Peaock Throne

The Peacock Throne

The Tehran National Jewels Museum is truly over-the-top, with a staggering collection of gem encrusted artifacts.

I had missed this when I was in Tehran in 2008, so I made sure to catch it this time.

The collection is in 37 large display cases, full of many lavishly decorated items. There are bright crowns, covered in pearls, a red and green encrusted globe, endless small artifacts covered with small red, green, and white stones.

OK, my first reaction on seeing all of this was to assume it couldn’t all be real. There is just too much stuff. And too many bright colors. It looks like costume jewelry. It can’t possibly all be real. Can it?

Reza Khan Crown

Reza Khan Crown

Then I stopped, and thought, and read the guide book. This is the accumulated collection of the Shahs of Persia. For several centuries they were the wealthiest potentates of the region, avidly buying up the best gems for their treasury. And that collection was never broken up. The 19th c. shahs added to it, including many large South African diamonds. The 20th c. Pahlavi shahs added further jewels and the collection survived the 1979 revolution intact. So, yes, the Museum is hosting the centuries old accumulated collection of very wealthy rulers. So, gulp, it is probably mostly real. (Even the best museums have the occasional imposter.)

Some of the more striking pieces include

  • the Reza Khan crown (with 3380 diamonds and 368 matched pearls)
  • Jewelled Buckler

    Jewelled Buckler

    the Darya-i-Nur “Sea of Light” 182 carat pink diamond

  • a large globe with the land marked with rubies and the seas with emeralds
  • a sword scabard entirely covered in 1869 rose-cut diamonds
  • a circular shield decorated with giant rubies and emeralds
  • just outside the vault proper is a display room holding the jewel encrusted Peacock Throne.

Oh my.

Jewelled Globe

Jewelled Globe

Some items do look rather gaudy: I guess when you use large emeralds and rubies, it is hard to look restrained.

The Museum is not sign posted. It is in a bank vault underneath the Melli Bank on Ferdossi Street, but to reach the Museum you need to enter via the the Central Bank building just to the North. They store your bag (and camera), run you through a metal detector and then send you South across a courtyard to the vault.

The Museum hours are 2:00-4:30 pm on Saturday to Tuesday. It is definitely worth trying to visit if you are in Tehran.


The Caged Queue

The Astara border crossing from Azerbaijan to Iran turned out to be a bit of a zoo.

The border crossing is very slow, and to maintain order the Azeri authorities have created a special queuing area with four distinct queues separated by cage-like walls. Every 30-40 minutes the authorities would open the steel door for one of the queues and let 20-30 people into the main immigration area. Each queue might only move every couple of hours.

Ahh, but the Azeris do not like to queue. Especially not for 4+ hours. So when a door opened some people in adjacent queues would frantically climb up through the roof and try to force their way down into the moving queue. And as the authorities tried to reclose the steel door, people would frantically try to force their way through anyway, sometimes using planks of wood to try to reopen the door!

Queue Jumping

I arrived at 8:15am. There were already several hundred people queued. By 11:45 I was still stuck in line and I climbed up and traversed out for a bathroom break. But of course, at that very moment our steel door opened, my queue started to move, and I had to frantically start climbing back in. Luckily people saw that I was just reclaiming my earlier place and made it easy for me, which was nice of them.

But woops, I was spotted by the authorities. You! I was waved angrily to the head of the line. I don’t speak Azeri, but the gist seemed to be a rather annoyed “You’re a foreigner!” I was ushered through into the immigration area and then ushered to the front of the inner queue. I felt simultaneously guilty for queue jumping and also slightly silly for not having played the “foreign tourist” card earlier.

I was quickly processed through Azeri immigration, with only a short discussion of British football teams. But the Iranian side was more interesting.

I was stamped into Iran fairly quickly. But then after a short pause, I was escorted upstairs to the immigration police headquarters. Where everyone was very nice, but my papers were very carefully checked. The chief himself reviewed all of my many passport stamps, no doubt looking for the dreaded I*****i stamp. He exclaimed in mild amusement when he finally deciphered “Paraguay” and the mood got a little lighter. Eventually he was done, everyone seemed happy, and I was handed off to a soldier with a rifle, apparently to show me out. Ah, but not quite.

The soldier escorted me out of immigration. And then into town. And then towards the local police station. And then into an interview room. Woops. But everyone seemed pretty relaxed and the police merely rechecked my passport and asked the usual “where are you from” kind of questions. And then I was carefully fingerprinted. This was probably the main reason for my visit to the police station: UK immigration fingerprints Iranians, so Iran is determined to return the favour.

After fingerprinting, I was led out to wash my hands and then waved onwards. Amidst the enthusiasm to check my passport and fingerprints, I had somehow bypassed customs, so we were all done. Hurrah!

After all that, I splurged on a taxi to Ardabil, and then took a bus on to Tabriz.

Practicalities: I think my timing (8:15am on a Saturday) was especially bad.  I arrived after the locals had already mostly joined the queue, and very few people were joining behind me.  By the time I finally got through, there was only a fairly short queue behind me.   If I had arrived at (say) 2:00pm I might have had only a fairly short wait.  Also, I should probably have played the “foreign tourist” card earlier.  There seems to be an area to the left (East) of the caged queue where some officials were housed and maybe I could have talked my way through there.