Saturday, April 27, 2013

Azores To Zanzibar: The World's 20 Most Fascinating Places

This is not a travel guide, although most of these places are probably more exotic and quixotic than wherever you went on your last vacation. Rather, it's a collection of places that have piqued my interest in my research on history, with a few thrown in maybe because they are mostly just obscure, out-of-the-way, or esoteric. Some general themes I've noticed are separatist movements, stateless nations, Portuguese colonialism, geographic determinism, and parallelism.

in no particular order. . .


Church and Mosque

There are cultural crossroads and then there are cultural crossroads. Zanzibar is two islands and a smattering of islets, off the coast of Tanzania. The larger island of Unguja has been occupied since the Paleolithic, 22,000 years ago, but that cave was subsequently occupied by bats and leapords with no further human remains found up until 2800BC...possibly the longest time period that an island once settled by humans was later abandoned by them. Despite Zanzibar's proximity to Africa and original Bantu settlement, it has been ruled, settled, and largely populated by succesive waves of immigrants, mostly from Persia and the Arabian Peninsula, for the last two thousand years. Since at least 700AD Zanzibar was involved in the lesser-known East African slave trade, eventually becoming the primary slave market and hub for human slaves bound for the Middle East and India. Later Zanzibar was taken over first by Portugal and then Britain, resulting in it's unique Muslim/Christian character. The British war to capture Zanzibar is on record for the shortest war of all time: basically, they just started shelling the palace, who almost immediately raised a white flag. Although a part of Tanzania, Zanzibar's government is considered semi-autonomous. The thing I find most fascinating about Zanzibar is the large community of Zoroastrians there (Zoroastrians represent possibly the oldest religious community  on Earth, started in Persia) that have occupied the island for hundreds of years, eventually producing Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Queen. The economy is based on tourism and growing spices such as cloves.

Dome Of The Sky

When you think of Tibet and genocide, I bet you don't imagine Tibetans doing the killing. But what if I told you that hundreds of years ago a Tibetan Empire ruled over by the Dalai Lama conducted brutal (but in the end, unsuccessful) ethnic cleansing in this region subsequent to it's conquest? The Ladakh ended up remaining Buddhist anyways, and had to fend off similar campaigns of conversion-at-swordpoint by Hindus and Muslims. But being mountain-people resisting flat-landers, these subsequent skirmishes were a walk in the park compared to resisting the great Lama himself. Ommm. The Ladakh people now occupy the Eastern portion of India's Kashmir state, towards the Kingdom of Nepal, straddling the dome of the sky.

Chinese Vegas
Hong Kong on acid? No, just the Portuguese Hong Kong. Both cities were established to police trade between China and the European nations that controlled them. Founded in the 1500s, the Dutch tried to invade in 1622 and there invasion was repulsed almost totally by African slaves: the confused Dutch said that they saw very few actual Portuguese in the city. For some reason Japan never invaded Macau in WWII, meaning it prospered greatly through the war as the only neutral port in all of China. The Portuguese did not fully and formally relinquish all possession of Macau until 1999 and it still operates as a semi-independent entity with the same status as Hong Kong within China. Unlike Hong Kong, which has prospered primarily as a financial hub, Macau is distinguished by harboring the world's highest concentration of casino gambling. Chinese Vegas, baby.

Indian Catholic
The father, the son, and the holy. . .Brahma??? Goa is India's smallest, richest, and most Catholic State. Do you smell Portugal? Good call. If you like tropical beach resorts that include both ancient stone battlements and Hindu temples that wouldn't look out of place in old town Amsterdam, Goa is a good place to start. Who needs Bali?

The Seven Sister States
Northeast India
File under: parts of India that probably shouldn't be. The Seven Sisters make up that weird lumpy arm of India north and east of Bangladesh, connected to the rest of India by only a narrow bridge of land. The people of one of these seven states, the empire of Assam, used to occupy or dominate the others, which might make for some awkward dinnertime conversations. But this region was not historically ruled by ancient Empires like the Mughal which brought together all of India under a single banner, helping forge the national identity. In fact it was Burma that bullied and eventually occupied the region prior to British occupation. And really it was only this joint occupation by the British, along with the region's tenuous Hindu majority that brought the Seven Sisters into Delhi's orbit. But the region's many cultures remain extremely independent from greater Indian culture and less swayed by the latter's hunger for global tastes and modernization.

Sabah and The Sulu Archipelago
File under: parts of Malaysia that possibly shouldn't be. Sabah is at the fat Northern tip of Borneo, and ended up as part of Malaysia due more to the post-colonial shuffle rather than any cultural affinity with the peoples of the dripping tip of the Malay peninsula. To this day some in the Phillipines lay claim to this ground, although in some ways their claims are equally tenuous. See, before the Europeans fully consolidated the area, Sabah was ruled by a Sultanate headquartered off the coast in the Sulu Archipelago, currently part of the Philippines. The bickering continues to this day.

Jilin snow sculpture
What you see above is a snow sculpture and one example of why China will always inevitably win in the end, despite repeated setbacks. Manchuria itself is another good example. Once a rainbow quilt of different ethnicities largely controlled by the Manchus, the region is now largely the domain of Han Chinese, who represent probably the world's most successful ethnic brand. And what is ethnicity but a shared belief, an attempt to remake the world in one's own image? Over the long march of history, success means embracing this process in new ways, finding the right balance between inclusivity and brand management.

Kamchatka Penninsula

The world has perilously few frontiers left, places that can be said in spirit not to be ruled by men and women but by wild nature itself. Russia has a disproportionate share of those that remain. It gives me hope that Russia's fertility rate is low and it's population has been in decline. Perhaps slowly man's empires are receeding, leaving room for the great tribes of nothingness to claim their rightful footholds on this planet.

The Guianas
Guiana Space Center
Once upon a time everybody that was anybody in the colonization game had their own little slice of paradise. Their own little Guyana. Spain's Guyana ended up in Venezuela. Portugal's Guyana was gobbled by Brazil. Britian's Guyana, a real "Guyana's Guyana" struck out on it's own as Guyana (really original guys). Dutch Guyana got a makeover as independent Suriname. And the French still have their own tiny little Guyana,  maybe the world's last extra-European colony that is part of a Continent's mainland. And what do they use this patch of lush jungle for? Rocket base. Ballsy.

What the hell is Italy anyways? Are Italians Romans? Are they just a bunch of people who happen to occupy a peninsula and speak the same language? Have they believed themselves into existence? What the hell was Yugoslavia? Shouldn't speaking the oldest Romantic language earn you some kind of nationalist clout. Apparently not. Pretty though. Insanely pretty. Maybe the prettiest places are those that have never ruled themselves, but ruled by everyone else at one time or another. Maybe in the long run it's better to be a good host than a great conqueror. Who needs a brand when you have a peninsula in the Adriatic and stunning old-Roman architecture? Who needs the world when you have the sea?

Yakustk and the Sakha Republic
Sakha Republic
 The Sakha Republic is not really a Republic at all but a state of Russia. But within that context it bears a mark of great distinction: it is the largest sub-national governing unit on Earth. At over 3 million square kilometers, it is nearly twice the size of Alaska and much more sparsely populated. Sakha even beats Greenland in size although Greenland wins points for emptiness, as it is little more than a melting glacier at this point. More than 80% percent of the population of Sakha is Yakutsk, a Turkic tribe who used to nest mostly around Lake Baikal, the world's largest fresh water lake by volume, near the point where Mongolia and Kazakhstan reach out to one another. The capital Yakutsk used to be the kind of place Stalin sent people that made him feel nervous. Now it rules over the "Republic" that produces 95% of Russia's diamonds, a veritable empire within an empire, a paradise for loners and lovers of cold winds.

The Azores
Hawaii West
The Azores is one of the few colonies Portugal got to keep. They might actually deserve it too because all evidence points to the Azores being totally empty when the Europeans landed on their shores. They still did plenty of damage, denuding a unique temperate rainforest environment, but nobody's perfect. Weirdly, there's a state of Brazil (in fact Brazil's "whitest" state) that was settled mostly by Portuguese born and raised in the Azores, sort of a colony squared. In 1835, no joke, they got into a war over dried beef. The Azores themselves were formed by volcanoes and are considered the most remote island chain in the North Atlantic, and definitely deserve the title "Hawaii West".

Southern Chile
Some colonies are chomping at the bit to break away from their distant masters. Some are a little bit more mellow about the process. See: Canada. Perhaps no Spanish colony clung as tightly to the security blanket of The Crown than Southern Chile, which fought against Northern Chile for the privilege to stay Spanish until the very end. Even though they lost, things didn't turn out too bad for the Southern island of Chiloe. Seems like a nice quiet little corner of the world, peaceful, lush, quaint, a little bit rusty. So they needed a little bit more time in the womb? So what? What's so great about growing up anyways? Turns out there was more than enough time to be Chileans, in the grand scheme of things.

One of the biggest problems with letting the Nationalist genie out of the bottle is that you never know just how many wishes it's going to grant, and to whom. When little Georgia broke off from the USSR, who knew that it contained multitudes, that miniscule Abkhazia would get uppity? Maybe it's just a Caucus thang. Maybe it's a Colchi thang. Who wouldn't want their own cozy little Black Sea mountain enclave? Who wouldn't want their own awesome flag?

Once essentially a Jesuit subnation within New Spain, Misiones is the ragged end of that weird little nub of Argentina that cleaves Paraguay from Uruguay. Basically it's not a Guay because the Society of Jesus we now associate with liberal Catholicism excised enough of the Guarani people from the area to give it an "Argentine character", in the mean time leaving behind ruins that would look at home in the Nile delta


Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR)
Many nations build walls and fences along their borders, but seldom are nations so rigidly defined by such a seemingly impermanent construct as the SADR. Literally a sand berm, the "Moroccan Wall" is the symbolic made literal, a wonderful metaphor for the powerful illusion of national identity. So much in this world depends on walls of sand

. Rwenzururu
I picked the Rwenzori mountains of Uganda and the secessionist movement they harbor just to serve as a placeholder for the tragedy of apportionment in Africa, which proceeded much more according to the arbitrary ideas of thoughtless outsiders acting on colonial boundaries than the national ideas of Africans. It's not like nobody tried to take Africans' self-conceptions into account during this process, they just weren't really listened to. So Africa, with the possible exception of the Middle East, wound up with some of the world's most arbitrary national boundaries. Shucks.

Northern Alliance
t's probably pretty clear at this point to any student of history that the Afghans really don't like to be ruled or occupied by anyone else. A more recent development is that other people do not enjoy being ruled by Afghans. You might remember the Northern Alliance, a multi-colored dreamcoat of ethnicities that started shooting at the Taliban long before we started giving them guns. This region should probably be renamed Badass-stan.

Formerly Prussian Konisberg, Kaliningrad is a perpetual exclave, a city in search of a country, a relic of a time in Europe's history when conquest was easier, and royal genetics often trumped the heredity of the peoples who farmed a patch of land. Lithuania, Germany, and Poland all have valid claims to this territory but nobody wants a war. So inertia is the King of Konisberg now. The king is dead. Long live the king.

A series of card or chess games (history forgets which) between the Raja of Cooch Behar and the Maharaja of Rangpur resulted in a pockmarked and unworkable border between modern India and Bangladesh that persists to this day.

Nationhood is a fiction from which we seem to be unable to awaken. Maybe this is because we need governance, but there is an aspect of governance which must always be arbitrary. That's the nature of rules in general, isn't it? The need to draw a line where no line exists in fact.


  1. Seems like would make a welcome entry in this list :)

  2. Transnistria seems like the closest thing in our reality to William Burrough's "Annexia" in Naked Lunch. It's Soviet-style crime state that exists only to check and to manufacture passports, and to harbor the gray market's middle managers.

  3. Great post. I know you didn't intend it as a travel guide, but you may have confirmed my suspicions that I'd really like to see the Kamchatka Peninsula before I die.

    1. Thanks Ryan. I feel like the appeal of Kamchatka (which has been several years running for me now as well) as a travel destination is also it's downfall. It's just too far away from anything. You end up having to weigh on the one hand a trip to Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand (for example) against a trip to Siberia, Siberia, and Siberia. Not that it isn't still tempting.