Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Famous Georgians

Most people will be hard pressed to name any famous Georgians. Some armchair sports fans may be able to name a couple of football players and current affairs buffs may even manage to recall the name of their current president. However few people realise that one of the most influential figures of 20th century history (world history even) was Georgian. The name Iosif Vissarionovich Dzugashvili might not ring many bells, but everyone recognises his nom de guerre: Stalin. During his rule of the USSR from 1924 until his death in 1953 it is estimated that he was directly responsible for the deaths of some 20 million people in various purges and pogroms (making him the second most murderous individual ever after our good friend Chairman Mao, at least according to the following list). Add to that his role in spreading Communism to post-WWII eastern European countries and we get one of the most despised people that have ever lived.

Which is why a visit to Georgia, and more specifically the town Gori, is a surreal experience. This is where Stalin was born and went to school. And to honour their most famous son the main street is called Stalin avenue, there's still a large statue of him in the main square in front of the town hall, and in Stalin park there's a museum to the man himself. The museum feels it unnecessary to bother visitors with the gulags, forced migrations and persecution of intellectuals and instead devotes itself to his childhood poetry, revolutionary works, rise through the ranks of the Communist Party (managing, quite amazingly, to airbrush Stalin's main rival Trotsky out of the entire exhibition) and defeat of the Germans during WWII. The grandiose building is full of pictures of Stalin in various poses and in various media (photos, paintings, carpets, porcelain dishes). In front of the museum building is the house Stalin was born in, standing alone under a grand pavilion. It wasn't moved there and lovingly restored brick by brick, instead the entire neighbourhood that used to surround the house was flattened to make room for the park and museum. And if you were to ask the inhabitants of Gori what they think of their illustrious son the general response would be one of admiration that a local boy became such an important person. A portrait of Stalin in a Gori home is no uncommon sight, some people bake cakes on his birthday and for others the first toast at feasts is reserved for the great man (instead of God). Such selective, collective amnesia is truly scary and I was actually slightly relieved to leave the town (which, apart from its penchant for totalitarian dictators is a rather charming little place). An argument, if ever I saw one, for the importance , and power, of history, and those who control it.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Twin Cures For Communism

I have only spent a few days, so far, in Georgia, but it is proving to be an interesting place already. The landscape is pleasantly bucolic, with small villages, rolling green hills (with the Greater Caucasus always looming to the north) and fruit-laden trees all around. Here in the east of the country the vine is king and most houses are draped in it, with huge, green clusters swinging invitingly from every corner. The seem slightly more homogeneous than the Azeris, with most of the men being rather stocky, with dark, straight eyebrows and somehow they seem to lose their necks at their 30th birthday. Overall they seem slightly more reserved than their eastern neighbours, but I'm told that that changes once you give them a bottle of wine. At least the view of femininity has been cleared up, with sundresses, haltertops and tanktops de rigeur in the Summer heat (a most pleasant change from the Subcontinent and Iran).

Since independence Georgia has had a pretty rough time with a minor civil war and three breakaway regions (one of which has since been brought back into the fold whilst the other two, strongly backed by Russia, are still playing hard to get). In order to deal with post Soviet stress Georgians are looking at things to fill the ideological void of Communism (not that there was much ideology in the USSR) and have found the two palliatives common to many ex-Communist countries: nationalism and religion. The former is easy to understand as the Georgians are a small country with a long, and independent history. Furthermore their language is very particular, belonging to its own, tiny language family and not related to any others (Georgian is probably the least spoken language to be the official language of a country). This unrelatedness, along with their strange alphabet, has made me give up on the language already and try and concentrate on Russian instead. It seems to me as if in every Georgian word they completely forgot about vowels until halfway through; this seems to be especially true of place names e.g. Tblisi and Mstkheta. This makes the Georgians especially proud of their heritage (and possibly also slightly bewildered that they've managed to survive so far). Intertwined with this patriotism is the special place religion occupies in the Georgian psyche. Georgia was only the second country in the world to accept Christianity (after Armenia) and its national church is an independent part of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Although religion was suppressed during Communist rule it has come back with a vengeance today. Walk into any church in Georgia and it will most likely be packed with people, young and old, men and women, genuflecting, lighting candles and kissing icons; and that's not just on Sundays but in the middle of the day on Monday as well. This is particularly evident if one goes to Mstkheta, the old capital, where two of the holiest churches in the country are situated.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

3 Weddings And Some Murals

Shaki is touted as the most historic town in Azerbaijan. Given the competition that's not saying much, as Azerbaijan has been the battleground between three major empires (Persian, Ottoman and Russian) as well as having a couple of Mongol hordes rampage through, so very little of historical note is left. There's a small palace with some pretty murals and two caravanserais dating back a couple of centuries and a quaint, clean old town. But, once again, the attraction has been the people.

Upon arrival we were confronted with an accommodation problem when the only cheap hotel decided to make a tidy profit from a couple of foreigners and quoted us $20 for a grotty room with no running water (in the entire building). After getting no help from the tourist office and being unable to find anyone who could offer a homestay (or even a patch of garden for us to pitch our tent) we were about to head out of town to find a decent place to pitch when along came a youth who spoke decent English and offered for us to stay at his place for only $2 each. Though a bit wary at first we soon warmed to Farux (for that was his name) who is a student in Baku and is now killing time during the Summer holidays. Whilst chatting and drinking chay in the town square we noticed a lot of loud music coming from various hotels and restaurants. Farux informed us that it was 'wedding season' and asked whether we wanted a look. We said sure, and before you could say "I do", we were whisked off to the nearest shindig. We planned to stay close to the exit and watch surreptitiously from the sidelines but were soon spotted and dragged onto the dancefloor. Tawnya was a bit bewildered and at a loss, but the dancing was very similar to Persian dancing and so I knew (sort of) what was expected and just closed my eyes, flailed my arms and let myself go with the flow. After helping ourselves to a few canapes and posing for pictures it was off to the next wedding party. Again our attempts at inconspicuousness were to no avail and we were dragged into the festivities. Only this time it was Lezgin dancing, which is a hell of a lot faster and involves kicking legs as well as flailing arms, which just had me in knots and laughing. And then from there it was on to another party that was beginning to wind down, although they still had some bowls of fruit left out so it was OK. It was certainly one of the most surreal evenings of this trip, and at least it has made up somewhat for the weddings of friends and family I have missed back home. But it will be odd for the three married couples when they come to review their wedding videos and find a couple of strangers dancing (badly) in the background.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Personality Goes A Long Way

On my trip so far I have been to many autocratic regimes with dodgy leaders and dubious dictators, but never have I seen such a blatantly overt personality cult being promoted like it is here in Azerbaijan. Buildings, billboards and most other unoccupied spaces are covered by posters and quotes from Heydar Aliyev and his son Ilham, even in such remote and far-flung villages as Xinaliq. Truck drivers are offered $20 to put stickers of them on their windshields, and of course no town would be complete without a Heydar Aliyev street. Particularly scary are the billboards of the two together: little Heydar, with his evil, scheming grin and Ilham, the big, bumbling son; they look just like a cliched movie baddie and his incompetent henchman. What makes this all the more surprising is that Aliyev pere, though president for 12 years, has now been dead for the past three, and that, theoretically, this is a democracy with elections enshrined in the constitution. Nevertheless when Aliyev Sr. saw that he was going to croak he quickly shoe-horned his son into the presidency. Then, during last year's elections, Junior, despite having a huge propaganda machine and a muzzled press, thought it best to crack down heavily on democracy marches with heavy-handed police tactics and arbitrary imprisonments. Although this raised some objections in the West, they were rather half-hearted due to the immense strategic importance of Azerbaijan in supplying oil to Europe and America, especially with the opening of the new Baku-Tiblisi-Ceyhan pipeline that pumps oil to Europe's doorstep.

Anyway, we have continued our path eastwards, though with one small side-trip to another remote village in the mountains called Lahic. The main draw to this charming place is its singular culture and language (though to me it seems as if every valley in the Caucasus is home to a different ethnic group with its own language). Some 1000 years ago a Persian shah 'imported' some Persian master-craftsmen to the area and set up the village for them. The place was prosperous and thrived right through to the 19th century and managed to preserve its Persian language (which still exists to this day, though it has changed too much for me to be able to properly understand it). Then under Russian rule it went into decline, going from a population of 15,000 at its peak to 2,000 today. But it is now making a comeback as a tourist destination and things seem to be picking up. But, as is so often the case, the cultural and historic showcase was upstaged by a random oddity: a half-built motorway bridge across the valley, connected to nothing and going nowhere, the relic of an ambitious Soviet plan that ran out of money and into the breakup of the Union.

Sunday, August 20, 2006


During this trip I've been relatively lucky in that I've had no real run-ins with police, bureaucrats and officialdom in general. That changed last night when I had to stay in an army outpost in the village of Laza in the mountains of Azerbaijan. To explain how I ended up there I had better start my account a few days earlier.

Tawnya and I quickly left Baku, heading towards the northern town of Quba, the gateway to the mountains of Azerbaijan. From there we got a ride to the picturesque village of Xinaliq, perched on a rocky outcrop in a valley and ringed by towering mountains, oddly enough devoid of trees and just covered in close-cropped grass. Due to its remote location Xinaliq, despite only having a population of around 2000, has its own, unique language and culture. We spent a couple of days there, experiencing the local hospitality (being fed, shown around and having lovely chats) and hiking up a local peak. We then set off south towards the village of Laza, some two days hike away through mountain valleys only seasonally populated by sheep, goats and their herders. The trek ended up taking three days instead due to several mishaps on the first day. Immediately outside of Xinaliq one has to ford a particularly muddy stream and Tawnya managed to get stuck in quicksand up to her thigh, and then minutes after managing to free herself produced some quicksand of her own. We then missed a vital fork in the path (only visible whilst looking backwards though) and got stuck for a couple of hours at a fork in the river. After backtracking along an unpleasantly dangerous ridge we found the right path, but Tawnya's intestines were not feeling happy and so we decided to call it a day, set up camp and rest.

The next day was far more productive and we met a Czech couple (Misha and Ice) who were going the same way as us and so we set off together. Luckily, at a spot where a stream had to be forded we met a local shepherd on his horse who carried us across one at a time (although I still almost managed to fall in, continuing my sour relationship with those beasts) and accompanying us along our path, providing fording assistance whenever necessary. Upon reaching his makeshift hut we had a rest and a quick bite (we were rationing our food because of the extra day) and were about to set off again when our shepherd friend told us to stay for chay. Stay for chay we did, as well as for a big pot of boiled mutton! Rested, and feeling rather full, we shouldered our bags and headed up and over the main pass and towards the other side to find a suitable place to set up our tents. Just as we found such a place a young herder came bounding over, saying it wasn't such a good place, and inviting us to his camp a little way off to have some chay (everything in Azerbaijan seems to revolve around chay). After being inundated with tea for an hour or two we were getting itchy to set up our tents; and the area around the camp wasn't particularly handy for that purpose: covered in poo and rather steep. But our shepherd hosts pointed to their tent and then to one further down the hill, indicating that we could sleep in theirs whilst they would move down the hill for the night. We decided to take them up on their offer as they had already slaughtered a goat for us and it might be rude to leave. After our tasty (and undeniably fresh) kebabs it was time to sleep, and we were mortified to discover that our hosts had vacated their tent only to sleep outside, in the open air on the bare hilltop! These people just continue to amaze me with their generosity.

On day 3 one of our hosts, Parvez, guided us down to our destination, Laza. He even carried Misha's 20kg backpack down the whole, steep descent because she was feeling very unwell. As we descended it got progressively hotter and the grassy slopes gave way to oak forests and then the rocky river valley. Once we had crossed the final ford we were met by soldiers and escorted up to the village. I was too tired to think anything of it until we stopped at the army post and were asked to hand over our passports. But when faced with people with guns you just nod and agree. They then started to ask us random questions. We felt it very strange as, although Azerbaijan isn't overrun by tourists, this trek is popular and well known. Then the officer in charge turned up and asked us some more questions and then it finally dawned on us: he was trying to poach us away from Parvez. Obviously not much happens in this remote place and the officer wanted the prestige of hosting foreigners. Obviously Parvez had no chance and we had to part company (we had really wanted to buy him a little present, like a bottle of vodka, but were unable to do anything with our passports in custody). Being a host seems to be a great honour here and I'm happy to play the role of guest (although sometimes I feel very embarrassed that I can't offer anything in return, though that wasn't the case here). We were fed and given a room to ourselves and in the evening the chief came by to have a chat where he recounted happy days as a student in Soviet Almaty and hiking in the mountains. In the morning we were given breakfast, our passports and allowed to carry on.

The trek was truly amazing: not just because of the amazing hospitality, but also the stark, empty mountain scenery. And I also discovered that I am able to do such a hike with such a heavy backpack, something I wasn't sure of before, but that has turned out to be one of the main purposes of this trip: finding out my limits and seeing what I am and am not able to do (although next time I might try and leave more stuff behind to be picked up afterwards).

Monday, August 14, 2006

Apocalypse Here

Baku's position as the main city of the Caucasus is due entirely to the oil-rich Abseron peninsula on which it is situated as well as the Caspian oil fields. From the earliest days of history the area was known for the strange fires that used to burn as if from the very rocks themselves. I've already mentioned the wells and rigs that dominate the Abseron landscape, to that you must add hundreds of miles of bright yellow pipes that snake across the countryside, beside roads and climb walls, carrying the gas and oil to refineries, and the parched, windswept sandy scrubland that occupies the little amount of land that isn't oil related. The whole area is one "huge Jahannam" according to my friend Emin, as the heat, humidity and searing winds make the place horribly inhospitable. Adding to the Stygian atmosphere are the outlandish sights of Qobustan and Yanar Dag. The latter is a 10m-long section of mountainside that has been burning continuously for the past 50 years. It is a truly baffling site as the rocks are not consumed by the flames and yet they look like ordinary stones. But the crowning spectacle surely has to be Qobustan. Qobustan is home to some important neolithic rock carvings, as well as the easternmost Roman remains in the world, but they are small potatoes compared to the little-known mud volcanoes. On a rather nondescript hillock by the sea you can find half the world's mud volcanoes. Ranging from midgets only a few centimetres across to 10m giants, these bizarre wonders fart cold mud for the enjoyment of the few hardy visitors who have heard of them (most Azerbaijanis, even those living close by, have absolutely no knowledge of them). Although the volcano hill is within sight of the main road you might as well be on the moon: the eerie monochrome craters, the lack of vegetation and the isolation. Getting there proved to be no problem, but our return journey proved to an odyssey for our Zhiguli, first snapping a fan belt and then getting stuck in deep sand, twice. The last time our driver flashed us a golden-toothed smile, motioned for us to stay put and set off, beer-belly swinging, to find some help. Help was finally found and we managed to escape dying from thirst in a horrendously unfashionable car. A most dishonourable way to go indeed.

Saturday, August 12, 2006


This past week with Sian has been great fun for both of us as we've been spoilt rotten by Azeri hospitality. Unfortunately Sian feels she is unable to cope with backpacking for 2 months due to various unresolved problems. So it is with great sadness that we've had to part company prematurely again. I sincerely hope that things get better for her soon so that we'll be able to travel together again.

But, as one avenue is blocked another is cleared. So, although Sian is gone, yesterday another traveller I've met during this trip (in Hotan, western China) just came to town and is wanting to see the Caucasus. So Tawnya and I will be checking out this far-flung, ex-Soviet corner of Europe. Plus she has a tent which will hopefully make accommodation cheaper!

Friday, August 11, 2006

The Kindness Of Strangers

Throughout this trip I have often been helped by complete strangers who expect nothing in return; indeed I would have floundered and failed early on if it wasn't for their help. Sometimes it is only an answer to a question, giving directions or advice, pointing out that I have left my hat back at the internet cafe (again) or letting me know that I have reached my stop on the bus. Sometimes the help is more substantial: a lift, a long, educational conversation, a cup of tea or a meal. Despite the bad press Islam gets in the press (along with my general allergy to religion) and general conversation, Muslim countries, and by extension Muslim people, are by far and away the most hospitable people I have come across. I thought that Iran was the acme but have just been blown away here in Azerbaijan. Throughout this past week we've hardly been able to spend anything on food, with various people insisting on being our hosts.

A particularly striking example occurred today. We were waiting by the side of the road in a northern town to try and hitch a ride to a nearby castle. A local man came by and after asking us what we were doing and where we were going brought out a chair for Sian to rest (it was midday and traffic was slow). Then came a bottle of cool water. Then a while later he offered us the shade of his garden and said that in an hour workers would be heading past to begin their shifts and that we would be unlikely to get a lift until then. The hour quickly turned to five as we had lunch and afternoon tea of bread, cheese, cucumbers and tomatoes (the latter two coming from their garden) washed down by cups and cups of tea, sweetened by delicious blackberry jam. We talked of anything and everything. Despite Askar (the man's name) having no more than the minimum 10 years' education, being out of work and living in a small town, he was surprisingly knowledgeable about many subjects, ranging from world history to politics and geography, saying that he listened to the BBC world service every day. Somehow I doubt a person in a similar situation back home would be so well informed. And in the end, after having travelled out all the way to this town we finally had to head back to Baku. Though, far from being a failure because we hadn't seen what we had set out to see, the day was our most enjoyable because of the unexpected warmth and affection that was lavished upon us, complete strangers, by people whose means, materially speaking, are far below our own. It shames me to think that such behaviour is unheard of back home. Instead we worry about robbers and psychos and our own petty problems too much to recognise the humanity in people around us.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Land Of Confusion

My first few days in Azerbaijan were slightly confusing due to a couple of factors. Firstly they are in the middle of a currency change whereby old and new notes are being used interchangeably. To make matters particularly confusing, instead of doing the standard "chop a few zeros off" they have instead divided by 5000, making conversion an exercise in arithmetic. So when buying a doner kebab the other day I gave a 1 manat note and got 1000 manats back in change. But I'm beginning to get on top of things. The other source of discombobulation is language. In Azerbaijan, especially in Baku, you're just as likely to hear Russian as Azeri. Now I don't speak either, but Czech is similar to Russian and Azeri has many loanwords from Persian. And then there's always the trusted traveller standby of English. So my first efforts at communication were a hopeless mish-mash of all three languages. However I have come to the conclusion that Czech, with a dodgy Russian accent, is the best way forward. Not only because it seems (sort of) to be working, but also trying to learn Russian will help me in the other Caucasian countries, whereas Azeri won't.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

New Challenger

When you cross the border from Iran to Azerbaijan you feel yourself stepping through a communist time warp. The towns on both sides of the border may share the same name, but there the similarities end. The Azerbaijani Astara has every imaginable Eastern European cliche: Lada cars (which I though had died out along with the Berlin Wall), hideous floral dresses, men who think that wearing mobile phones conspicuously on their belts makes them powerful businessmen, crude, boxy concrete buildings, enough gold teeth to give Fort Knox a run for its money (as it were) and babushka headscarves. Indeed, most of rural Azerbaijan, at least that which I saw on the drive up to Baku, seems to be stuck in some sort of Soviet Groundhog Day. Baku, on the other hand, is a completely different kettle of fish. Arriving from the south you skirt the Caspian coast, with its sandy beaches and sunbathers, oil rigs and scummy water. The oil rigs and nodding donkeys stretch right to the city limits and give the outskirts a Mad Max atmosphere, but their effects are also seen inside the city where the wealth is apparent in the high concentration of German cars and chic boutiques.

Anyway, I mentioned in my last post that I was in a bit of a hurry to get to Baku. You see, many people on my trip have asked me whether I don't get lonely travelling alone. And my honest reply is that, no, I don't really, because though I may be travelling alone I am constantly meeting people. Plus, when travelling solo one is obliged to try and make contacts with the local people so you see, relatively, more of local life and customs. Though, of course, my encounters are always transient and sometimes I do feel like it would be nice to have someone to share an experience with. One such transient encounter was in southern India whilst catching the mountain train to Ooty. I saw a single girl backpacker waiting for the same train and so Sian and I spent a couple of days in Ooty together before our paths inevitably separated. We got on really well and kept in touch in the hope that our paths might cross again. Unfortunately that never happened and she had to return home to the UK. However, she has managed to find a small window in her schedule before going to uni in October and has taken a gamble on me by coming out to travel with me in the Caucasus. So, say hello to Sian who has the unenviable task of being my first long-term travelling companion since South America. Let's see if she can survive the ordeal!

Friday, August 04, 2006

Khasteh Nabash Iran

So, my time in Iran has finally come to an end and I'm actually in a bit of a rush to get to Baku and Azerbaijan so will be getting a couple of buses straight there (but more about that in my next post). It is time to summarise my thoughts and impressions on Iran.

Despite having been here quite a few times before I was still surprised, and pleasantly so, by what I found here. Of course there are many problems with Iran and its government, but those are so often repeated with great fanfare by American and Western propaganda (sorry, did I say propaganda? I meant to say objective media) that they are common knowledge. I would like to concentrate on what makes Iran a pleasant and fun place to travel around in. As mentioned before it is very clean and well-developed: the cities are full of trees and parks (every street in Tehran, except the narrowest alleyway, is lined with trees); the roads are impeccable; the buses comfortable and often better than their European counterparts (click here to read my Czech bus odyssey from 2 years ago); the food is clean, healthy and of good quality (impeccable bowel movements throughout my 3 months); there's cool, clean, free drinking water on almost every street corner (when I think of the difficulties in getting drinking water in India...) and the people, certainly the highlight of any trip to this country, friendly and generous to a fault. In some ways I was slightly disappointed by the lack of adventure and difficulties to be surmounted. Paradoxically, despite the government pouring significant funds into sprucing up and restoring the many cultural and historical monuments around the country, they really make it difficult for visitors to actually enter the country: my visa was by far the most expensive I have had to buy yet, plus I needed to get an AIDS test as well (you'll all be glad to know that I am HIV negative). This seems to me very counterproductive as more tourists means more foreign money and, perhaps more importantly in the current political climate, a greater understanding by foreigners of this complex country.

Well, that's about it really, as I've already pretty much written about everything worth mentioning already, although before I leave I’d like to add a little something about Iranian taxis (because I haven't been able to find an opportune moment to do it before). Now I generally never take taxis whilst travelling as they are prohibitively expensive, but here in Iran they have a unique system (at least I've never seen it anywhere else) of share taxis. These are cars that ply fixed routes and pick up passengers anywhere along them, even being used for short intercity distances. They serve to complement the bus network and are faster, more frequent, more comfortable and a bit more expensive. But the disconcerting thing about shared taxis is that they are generally unmarked, cheap cars (often Paykans) and it is therefore very difficult to distinguish between them and ordinary, private cars. So when you are wanting to catch a share taxi you often have to resort to standing by the side of the road and shouting your intended destination at any passing vehicle with its window down in the hope that it may be a taxi. This can lead to some confusion, as I found out a few days ago when a car pulled up beside me and a lady got out. I subsequently got in, only to discover that it was in fact a private car and that they had just happened to drop the lady off right by where I was standing. Needless to say I was mortified and mumbled my apologies whilst quickly scrambling out. So, if you are ever catching a taxi in Iran, just double check and make sure that it actually is a taxi.