Middle East Trip 2006


In the Fall of 2006, I made an amazing trip from the Caucasus to the Himalayas. This intensive 30 day trip thru 13 countries included hot spots: Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Kashmir in India (75% Muslim and wanting independence), Georgia (being squeezed by Russia) and Nepal (with a decade long insurrection by Maoist rebels.)

It is impossible to convey the emotional and intellectual impact of this trip. The mixture of ancient civilizations, competing ethnic groups, 7 religions, current conflicts, historic rivers & major mountain ranges, and the depth of history defies simple summaries. This is travel as it is meant to be for the experienced & adventurous traveler.

The map is numbered in the order that I visited the 13 countries. Below the map is a table of the 13 countries with basic statistics like population, area, GDP per capita, and life expectancy. These statistics have been color coded to help you visualize patterns. You may want to spend a few minutes studying the map and table before proceeding.

Main Map

No. Countries Visited
Life Expectancy Popula-
tion (M)
(sq km)
Elevation (m) GDP/
Total Male Female Lowest Highest
2  Georgia (Tbilisi) 76.1 72.8 79.9 4.7  70K  0 5,201 $3,400 
7  UAE (Abu Dhabi) 75.4 72.9 78.1 2.6  81K  0 1,527 $45,200 
4  Turkey (Istanbul) 72.6 70.2 75.2 70.4  781K  0 5,166 $8,400 
1  Armenia (Yerevan) 71.8 68.3 76.0 3.0  30K  400 4,090 $4,800 
6  Iran (Tehran) 70.3 68.9 71.7 68.7  1648K  -28 5,671 $8,400 
5  Iraq (Baghdad) 69.0 67.8 70.3 26.8  437K  0 3,611 $1,800 
10  India (New Delhi) 64.7 63.9 65.6 1,095.4  3287K  0 8,598 $3,400 
3  Azerbaijan (Baku) 63.9 59.9 68.1 8.0  87K  -28 4,485 $5,400 
8  Pakistan (Islamabad) 63.4 62.4 64.4 165.8  804K  0 8,611 $2,400 
11  Bangladesh (Dhaka) 62.5 62.5 62.5 147.4  144K  0 1,230 $2,100 
13  Nepal (Kathmandu) 60.2 60.4 59.9 28.3  147K  70 8,850 $1,400 
12  Bhutan (Thimphu) 54.8 55.0 54.5 0.8  47K  97 7,553 $1,400 
9  Afghanistan (Kabul) 43.3 43.2 43.5 31.1  648K  258 7,485 $800 


One common question: Is how do you arrange such a complex trip? For difficult and unusual trips, I turn to Universal Travel Systems. UTS is the travel agency associate with the Travelers Century Club, a organization for travelers who have visited at least 100 countries. I have traveled with UTS before to countries like Cuba, Libya and North Korea. For this trip I used a UTS tour to 9 countries in the greater Middle East and added for solo travel 2 countries in the Caucasus (Armenia & Georgia) and 2 countries in the Himalayas (Bhutan & Nepal).

Almost every country required a visa. This added expense and required 2 months of calendar time for the visa service company to shuttle my passport between embassies in Washington, D.C.

This complex and intensive trip required 27 flights in 30 days as shown in the table below. The lack of daily plane flights also meant that in some cases, I had to go overland. For example, from Yerevan to Tbilisi required that I travel with a car, driver and guide for 4 hours from Yerevan to the border, cross about 100 meters thru the border alone where another car and driver (he had been waiting for over 2 hours) for 2 more hours drive to get to Tbilisi.

There were only 6 in the core group of travelers from the Travelers Century Club. These were exceptional people and it was a delight to travel with them because they were real travelers who would prioritize seeing new things over temporary convenience. For example, we sometimes had to miss a meal in order to see something additional. Another good example was having to get up early. No one complained about getting up at 3:30am which we had to do about every third day. To see the Khyber Pass, we willingly got up at 4:00am and traveled hundreds of additional miles overland and rearranged flights.

I found that my one year of college Russian was helpful in the Caucasus. My two years of college German was very helpful in Turkey when a young monk gave us a tour of the Christian monastery using German. I was amazed that his native language was Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. We came across some people who spoke German in part because I was traveling with two retired German teachers and our tour leader, Herbert Goebels, is German. English-speaking travelers are fortunate that so many people everywhere speak basic English.

Since we were traveling primarily in Muslim countries during Ramadan, eating and drinking during the day was tricky for us because it is very rude to eat and drink in front of people who are fasting.

I had exceptionally good weather. Just one day of rain during my month-long trip.

Log of All My Flights
# Date Flight Cities Hours Miles Comment
1. 9/22 BA 296 Chicago - London 7.5 3950 2 hours late
2. 9/23 BA 856 London - Prague 2.0 637 3 hours late
3. 9/23 CZ 930 Prague - Yerevan 3.5 1610 Airline lost my bag
4. 9/27 J2 224 Tbilisi - Baku 1.0 283 On-time
5. 9/28 J2 251 Baku - Nakhichevan 1.0 250 On-time
6. 9/28 J2 258 Nakhichevan - Baku 1.0 250 My bag arrives in Baku!
7. 9/29 J2 003 Baku - Ankara 2.2 897 On-time
8. 9/29 TK 622 Ankara - Batman 1.5 462 On-time
9. 10/1 TK 631 Diyarbakir - Istanbul 1.7 642 On-time
10. 10/1 TK 1276 Istanbul - Tehran 3.0 1255 On-time
11. 10/2 Mahan 89 Tehran - Shiraz 1.2 432 On-time
12. 10/3 IR 328 Shiraz - Isfahan 0.6 221 On-time
13. 10/5 IR 45 Isfahan - Dubai 1.2 600 On-time
14. 10/6 PK 234 Dubai - Islamabad 3.0 1213 On-time
15. 10/7 PK 251 Islamabad -Kabul 0.9 233 On-time
16. 10/9 PK 250 Kabul - Peshawar 0.5 138 On-time
17. 10/10 PK 381 Islamabad - Lahore 0.6 163 On-time
18. 10/11 PK 270 Lahore - Delhi 0.9 262 On-time
19. 10/12 IC 825 Delhi - Srinagar 1.2 399 On-time
20. 10/13 IC 822 Srinagar-Jammu-Delhi 2.1 406 1 hour late
21. 10/14 AI 520 Delhi - Dhaka 2.0 887 On-time
22. 10/16 Z5 005 Dhaka - Kolkata 0.8 146 On-time
23. 10/17 KB 121 Kolkata - Paro 0.8 250 On-time
24. 10/20 KB 202 Paro - Kathmandu 0.8 250 On-time
25. 10/21 RA 217 Kathmandu - Delhi 1.5 506 On-time
26. 10/22 BA 256 Delhi - London 9.5 4169 1.5 hours late
27. 10/22 BA 299 London - Chicago 8.5 3950 30 minutes late

Overall Observations

There were some common denominators that struck me as I traveled. First, the people in all of the countries I visited were friendly, and Iran is one of the most pro-American countries I have ever visited. Although the people are friendly and gladly let you take their picture, generally they have to be coached to smile.

Second, small modern cell phones with color screens were in all countries. In the major cities, all of the business people have them. This is a relatively recent event and represents a revolution in the way small businesses operate.

Virtually 100% of the airports had flat display screens with flight info unlike the US where old CRTs are still being phased out. The security checks and re-checks at airports were incredible. I was checked over 100 times on 27 flights!! The record was in Afghanistan with 6 checks from before you are allowed to even enter the airport grounds to the last one at the top of the stairs just before entering the plane. My checked luggage was virtually never opened because X-ray equipment is everywhere, and most countries did not open my carry on-luggage. Hand checks in India and UK resulted in my contact lens solutions being seized.

In the Muslim countries the urinals are too high probably because Muslim men normally squat to urinate and don't use urinals. Toilet papers rolls were very short in most countries. Perhaps paper is in short supply? In general, there were a mixture of Western and squat toilets in tourist areas, and only squat toilets in rural areas. In Bangladesh, a crowd of a dozen curious children followed us as we went to the toilets.

The USA may be behind on flat screens in airports, but our toilets are decades ahead of this part of the world as are our highways. The roads are not very good in most countries. In 5 (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal) of the 13 countries I visited, driving is on the left. In general traffic is chaotic with Bangladesh the worst.

Traffic signals are a mixed bag. In some countries, there are few signals or there is human-directed traffic. In other countries there are countdown timers next to the lights so you know how long you have to wait for the light to change. People may turn off their engines thinking that it will save fuel while waiting for long lights. One light had a 90 second count down.

One unexpected common denominator is the altitude. In general, these countries have the highest peak elevations in the world. So this trip was to the top of the world.

Finally, most of these countries had some portions conquered by Alexander the Great.


In most of the countries visited on this trip, the most impressive public buildings are places of worship. We visited places of worship from 7 different religions. Typically we visited multiple places of worship every day.

This trip became a kind of religious survey because of all of the different religions and the amount of time we devoted to them.

The table below may help orient you to the religions where we visited places of worship. There will be, of course, a range of opinion on the number of adherents, but the ranking of religions would be generally agreed.

Religions Ranked by Number of Adherents
Rank Religion No. Adherents Founding Year
1 Christianity 2.1 Billion 30 CE
2 Islam 1.3 Billion 622 CE
4 Hinduism 900 million ~3000 BCE
6 Buddhism 376 million ~500 BCE
9 Sikhism 23 million 1500 CE
12 Judaism 14 million 2000 BCE
17 Zoroastrianism 2.6 million 1000 BCE

If you investigate some of the links on the number of adherents, you will discover that secular/nonbelievers are the third largest category with 1.1 billion people. This means that Hinduism is the third largest religion.

The two largest religions, Christianity and Islam account for more than half of the people on the planet. Thinking about them from a genealogical point of view, we observe that Jesus and Mohammad were distant cousins with the common ancestor of Abraham.

One religion was new to me: Zoroastrianism, founded in ancient Persia. Zoroastrians worship the light and their places of worship are called fire temples. Their main principles are "Good words, good thoughts and good deeds." This is perhaps the oldest monotheistic religion in the world, and was once a major religion.


Clearly religion is one of the major difference between these countries. The initial table above shows that GDP per capita and life expectancy are also major difference. Population density would be another key factor.

Literacy rates given the table below show major differences that correspond to differences the traveler can observe. The 3 countries of the Caucasus (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan), once joined together in a Soviet Republic, are almost 100% literate. This may have been the only positive achievement of Soviet Communism.

On the other hand, the 2 countries with the lowest literacy in this group (Iraq and Afghanistan) have also had the bloodiest history in the past 30 years. In Pakistan, an editorial in a leading newspaper stated the literacy rate was 34% for men and 17% for women. This is much lower than the CIA's figure of 48.7% in the table below suggesting that the CIA is using a weaker standard of literacy.

Studying the literacy rates and religions in the table below allows you to see some key patterns.

No. Countries Visited
(CIA fact book)
Literacy Rate Major Religions
Total Male Female
2   Georgia 100 100 100 Christian (89%), Muslim (10%)
3   Azerbaijan 98.8 99.5 98.2 Muslim (94%)
1   Armenia 98.6 99.4 98.0 Christian (99%)
4   Turkey 86.5 94.3 78.7 Muslim (99%)
6   Iran 79.4 85.6 73.0 Muslim (98%)
7   UAE 77.9 76.1 81.7 Muslim (96%)
10   India 61.0 70.2 48.3 Hindu (81%), Muslim (13%)
8   Pakistan 48.7 61.7 35.2 Muslim (97%)
13   Nepal 48.6 62.7 34.9 Hindu (81%), Buddhist (12%)
12   Bhutan 47.0 60.0 34.0 Buddhist (75%), Hindu (25%)
11   Bangladesh 41.1 53.9 31.8 Muslim (83%), Hindu (16%)
5   Iraq 40.4 55.9 24.4 Muslim (97%)
9   Afghanistan 36.0 51.0 21.0 Muslim (99%)


In addition, to this overall trip report, there are going to be individual trip reports for each of the 13 countries containing altogether about 300 of the 3000 photos that I took. This will take months complete them all. My report on Iraq is now on the web.

There are so many highlights in this trip that putting together an overall list didn't work. I tried it, but abandoned the list after I reached 30 entries in 3 minutes. The highlights will be given in the individual trip reports.

I can give my overall personal insight after this incredible trip: the most important thing that ever happened to me was being born in the United States of America.