Thursday, September 28, 2006

Fast. Food.

So I've finally made it to Turkey and only two time-zones separate me now from home. Upon crossing the border I had hoped to hitch a ride with a lorry (after having heard from other travellers about the ease with which Turkish drivers pick you up) to Trabzon, but after almost 3 hours had to give up and take the bus instead (apparently there has been some sort of police crackdown lately due to the recent spate of bombings, so drivers are reluctant to take rides). I arrived at dusk and the town seemed deserted, for a minute I thought I had arrived at the wrong place, and then I noticed all the restaurants were full of people sitting and waiting patiently, but not eating. The food was in front of them but they just ignored it. All was deathly silent. Had it been a film tumbleweeds would have been rolling past me as I strode about. Suddenly a cannon broke the silence, pigeons fled to the skies, a mosque started wailing and the city started to gorge itself. Welcome to Ramadan. I'm finding the fasting rather difficult and have to sneak to my room to have a few bites during the day. It's not that fasting is obligatory in strictly secular Turkey, but you feel rather rude eating in front of people who aren't and can't. Although some restaurants have tucked away little corners where you can get a meal during the day (the whole month is great for waiters who lounge around all day reading the papers and shooting the breeze).

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


I have finally reached the west coast of Georgia and its main port city of Batumi on the Black Sea. Although a very popular Summer beach destination for many Georgians palmy-fringed, sun-kissed and sandy it ain't. It's the off season, it's raining and the beach is pebbly. The latter fact did, however, afford me some amusement as I harked back to my childhood days and spent half an hour skipping stones. But the town is actually quite clean and pretty. Western Georgia used to be the ancient land of Colchis where Jason and his Argonauts sailed to recover the Golden Fleece (a legend that has its roots in reality as in the mountains of Svaneti people used to place sheep pelts in streams to catch nuggets of gold in the wool). Having just reread the (abridged, online version of the) story I find Jason a very poor hero indeed, mainly because it was his girlfriend, Medea, who did most of the hard work in obtaining the Fleece, and then, when he got home and claimed his throne, he dumped her for the princess Glauce. I therefore think that, along with the dictum about being wary of Greeks and their gifts, one should also add: "beware of Greek heroes, they're bastards." (To that category one could also add Theseus who deserted Ariadne after she helped him kill the minotaur.)

But I digress. My time in the Caucasus is drawing to a close and it is with a heavy heart that I say goodbye to this small, yet charming and varied, region (not least because I've fluffed my timing and will be entering Muslim Turkey just as Ramadan is getting under way, so that now I have a month of fasting to look forward to). I've been bowled over by the hospitality of the people and the mountain scenery. The food, on the other hand, could do with a bit of work as the regional staple of bread and white, salty cheese (often served with tomatoes and cucumbers) gets rather samey after a while (especially if, unlike me, you are a vegetarian and are unable to go for option number 2: mutton stew). The Georgians, inventive bunch that they are, have even developed an ingenious way of administering both cheese and bread in a single package known as khachapuri, which combines white, salty cheese in a pastry filling. Yummy! It is also heartening to travel in countries that have potential and seem to be developing it and improving. And although, as a simple tourist, things seem to be going well for people with nice boutiques, fancy cars and mobile phones a-plenty, the picture is not so rosy when one scratches below the surface. Salaries for teachers barely exceed a dollar a day and many of them often have second jobs; often people will sit for hours on the street with just a small bucket of sunflower seeds or garden fruit to make a little bit of extra cash. Running water (let alone the hot variety) and electricity are also not assured and cuts are frequent (I didn't experience the water outages myself as the places I stayed in often didn't have running water anyway). When staying with a French NGO worker in northern Armenia I asked how people coped. Her reply was that "ils font du business", illustrating her point by showing me the grocery shop across the road which is a front for the main local mafia, an open secret in the town. Similarly gambling seems to be a pretty big thing with slot machines on the main street in Batumi, in the metro in Baku and, most disconcerting (and probably blasphemous) of all, the main road to Echmiadzin is lined with poker joints and casinos. But I'm an optimist, and I hope things will get better, especially for Georgia, which seems to me to be a country full of potential, especially for tourism.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

A Walk In The Park

If you visit Georgia you can't help but know the name Borjomi. The town is home to the eponymous, sour-tasting mineral water that is consumed by the gallon by all Georgians, whereas all visitors avoid it like the plague. During its glory days in the 80s people from all over the USSR flocked to the town's many sanatoria to reap the benefits of the water's medicinal properties (though, if you were to believe the locals, every Georgian drink has medicinal properties: wine, vodka and home-made rotgut included). But the town has fallen on hard times since those halcyon days; firstly becoming home to many refugees from the breakaway province of Abkhazia in the early 90s, and just lately its water has been hit by a Russian trade embargo. However, there are still some optimists counting on European tourists to reverse the town's fortunes and are building an amusement promenade along the bubbling Borjomi stream, complete with swimming complex, dodgems and even a (small) roller-coaster. And the objective observer would say that they have a point. Leaving aside the taste and curative powers of the water, the town of Borjomi is beautifully located in a steep, meandering river valley, with forested hillsides all around. And if this attractive setting were not enough it is also the gateway to Europe's largest national park (actually second largest, but the other one is the entire northeast chunk of Greenland, and I doubt if tourist facilities exist there).

Well, I just had to go, and I certainly wasn't disappointed. Perhaps for the first time on this trip here I found a place that corresponded almost exactly to my preconceived image of a country: sharp mountains with hidden valleys and rushing streams; verdant, mixed forests of pine and hornbeam with the latter beginning to turn russet and golden, heralding the coming of Autumn; the smell of mushrooms mingled with pine needles; the last wildflowers being hurriedly seen to by industrious bees; and, best of all, hardly another soul to be seen during my 3 days hiking. Getting away from the hustle and bustle of towns and marshrutkas and "getting back to nature" was very relaxing and rewarding (whilst I was having lunch on my first day I was surrounded by a group of squirrels who came up to within only 3m of me which was all very cute and Disneyesque). This being nature, there were, of course, a few hardships to deal with, most notably the rain and resultant tracts of swamp I had to traverse (it seems that my shoes, although Gore-Tex at the outset of my trip, can no longer be said to be), often surrounded by stands of nettles, just so that I wouldn't get any thoughts of going around. But I kept my spirits up by talking to myself (I'm already resigned to the fact that I'm mad), solving all the world's problems in my head and singing Monty Python's take on "All Things Bright And Beautiful". Anyway, I'm back in civilisation now so that I can get my fix of internet before heading off again.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

See Saw

I left Karabakh under a cloud. I had missed the last marshrutka out of town (at a ridiculous 4pm) and was determined to hitch. Somehow I thought the cloud, and its accompanying downpour, would make drivers more sympathetic to my plight. But more than two hours later I hadn't caught anything except a slight cold. I was about to give up when the "special evening express marshrutka" came along and whisked me away to Yerevan. Fantastic! I thought. That is until I got to Yerevan at 1am that is. Not wanting to go to a hotel (too expensive) and unable to go to a homestay (too late) I kept my cool, strolled over to the Genocide memorial overlooking the town centre, and pitched my tent among some bushes. Not only is this camping malarkey a good way to save money, but it can be rather exciting as well. I just had to make sure I awoke early enough the next morning to be able to sneak away without attracting any undue attention (of which I had enough in Karabakh).

There was one main thing left to do around Yerevan, and that was to visit the Holy See of the Armenian church at Echmiadzin, home to Catholicos (their equivalent of the Pope) Garegin II. People expecting the grandeur of the Vatican would be sorely disappointed by the rather humble nature of the place, but its spiritual importance to Armenians is immense. And with that, and a few other bits and bobs, I bade farewell to Armenia as the cooling weather, and my lack of warm clothing, is urging me on to warmer climes.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Vee Have Vays Of Making You Talk

My main reason for coming to Karabakh, was actually to see something that isn't in Karabakh itself, but in the area occupied by Armenian forces. When I was in northern Iran I travelled along the road that hugs the border with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and in the parts of Azerbaijan controlled by the Armenians one could see whole towns and villages completely empty and gutted. Those ghost towns intrigued me and I wanted to know what they would look like up close. Would there be signs of conflict, of the lives that were led before having to flee, of resettlement? So for me the attractions of Karabakh were not the pretty churches that tour buses are shuttled to, but the signs of what was before, the communities living together and then, suddenly, split apart. That might sound morbid to some people, but I don't believe that visiting a country should be confined to seeing the pretty churches and museums, but one should also try to get an impression of a place's history, its roots, its passions, its problems. Therefore I don't believe one should visit India without seeing the poverty as well as the Taj Mahal.

So with that in mind, my aim here in Karabakh was to visit the ex-town of Agdam. Agdam was an almost entirely Azerbaijani town, lying in the plain just to the east of Karabakh proper. In July 1993, as the Armenian forces were poised to attack, the entire population of Agdam, numbering some 150,000, fled. The attackers arrived to find an empty city, and, to make sure that it remained that way, they started to loot the place. Everything that was of any use was stripped and taken off to rebuild damaged Armenian homes, leaving nothing but the skeletons of buildings. Interestingly enough, the only building to remain (more or less) intact is the central mosque. It is possible to climb the minarets to get an eerie view of the town as it is slowly reclaimed by mother nature. Of course, I was not given permission to visit Agdam as it is right next to the front line, but well, that's not something that should discourage a tourist, eh? So I got on a marshrutka (minivan used as a bus, the standard mode of transport in ex-Soviet countries) and got dropped off as it passed through the town. Then I just walked around. Not particularly difficult. And even though there's less and less to see all the time (you can always hear some hammering in the background as somebody works at removing another girder for their house) just knowing that so many people used to live, love and laugh there and now the place is all but empty, left over to a couple of families, their pigs, an army barracks and fig trees and brambles makes one feel an odd sense of emptiness. I spent a couple of hours pottering about through the rubble and rusting ovens (apparently everything was of use except the ovens, of which there was probably a surplus amongst the Karabakh Armenians) and taking pictures and was just about to catch a marshrutka back when a soldier (captain? sergeant?) noticed me and asked me if I had permission to take pictures. This ended up with me in a police station trying to explain to some befuddled officers that I wasn't an Azerbaijani spy and that, in fact, this is the sort of thing that independent travellers seek out to see. In Karabakh they only have busloads of tour groups coming for a day or two from Yerevan to see an old church or two. It took a lot of persuading, going through my passport ("so, you've been to Azerbaijan, Iran and Pakistan, eh?"), going through my previous photos (needless to say they forced me to delete the ones of Agdam), and asking strange questions (I still think that at the end of it all they didn't get why I was travelling). In the end they let me go but kept my passport until I left Karabakh. In the end it was quite a surreal experience, and obviously the Karabakh police really have far too much time on their hands as they spent well over 5 hours with me and even got a local English teacher in to interpret for them (it was quite interesting to chat to her about working conditions and pay, which are abysmal). So, anyway, I've had encounters with the military in all three Caucasus countries now (I'm placing NKR in with Armenia for this) and I prefer the Georgian military. At least they feed you and let you keep your passport.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Europe's Forgotten Conflict

During the early 90's many of the world's headlines were being taken up by the breakup of Yugoslavia and the resulting ethnic violence, whilst at the same time two other European* countries were slugging it out backstage. For over 5 years Azerbaijani troops fought Armenian separatists over Nagorny Karabagh. The region lies entirely within Azerbaijan but had an Armenian majority, which, as the USSR was itself disintegrating into its constituent republics, was a recipe for disaster. (In fact most ex-Soviet countries, borders of which were often drawn by our friend Stalin, have ongoing border disputes and ethnic unrest. It is believed that this was a deliberate policy of "divide and rule".) As ever more strident Karabakhi demands for independence were met by greater obduracy from Azerbaijan the whole situation quickly spiralled into a conflict in which two communities that had lived side by side in relative peace for centuries became enemies overnight. Neighbours became foes and families split apart (one anecdote tells of a mixed town which was split down the middle to such an extent that one mixed-marriage family was cleaved in two with the father taking 3 children to one side of town and the mother taking the other 3 to the other side). Eventually, with the Armenians having the upper hand, a ceasefire was agreed. Most of Karabakh was under their control as well as Azerbaijani lands to the south and west that connected it to Armenia. But the human cost was great. Although the direct casualties were relatively low, numbering around 30,000, some 300,000 Armenians were expelled from Azerbaijan and 750,000 Azerbaijanis went the other way, mostly from occupied territories. Many of these Azerbaijanis still live in makeshift refugee camps more than 10 years after the fighting has stopped and are a huge burden on the country. Armenia has also suffered. Although their side ostensibly 'won' Armenia took some economic battering with its eastern and western borders (with Azerbaijan and Turkey respectively) closed, so that it is only connected to the outside world via Georgia to the north and a thin sliver of Iran to the south. And despite the ceasefire there is no official peace, despite many summits and negotiations, and so the situation could possibly flare up at any moment.

There is still resentment on both sides about the war and it is not uncommon to talk to people who fought in it or lost family members. And although the war seems to have ended on the battlefield (apart from a few pot-shots across the ceasefire line every now and again) it has carried on in the media and history textbooks. Armenians claim that Karabakh belonged to greater Armenia, wistfully remembering the halcyon days of Tigranes the Great (95-66BC) and pointing to maps where Armenia borders the Mediterranean, Black and Caspian seas, and pointing out the great many old Armenian churches in Karabakh. And though factually true they neglect to mention that for the past 500 years the region has been under the control of Azerbaijan under its various incarnations: under Muslim khans, as part of the Russian empire or as a Soviet republic. In reply to this dubious historical justification the Azerbaijanis have invented their own, even more fantastical, version of history in which the Armenians only arrived after the Russian conquest of 1828 and that the old churches were built by the mysterious Albanians who were in fact ethnic Azerbaijanis but just happened to write in Armenian script. They also gleefully point out the fact that Yerevan was an Azerbaijani city because it used to be called Erevan, somehow not noticing not only that the difference in spelling and pronunciation is so small as to be immaterial but also both versions are spelt exactly the same way in Armenian script. But this battle for the past misses the point entirely that ancient, historical borders are no basis for land disputes today. Otherwise the Mongolians could claim most of Asia and a good chunk of eastern Europe, or the Greeks everything east up to the borders of India.

Either way the self-declared Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), which, incidentally, is not recognised by any country, including Armenia, is a place that I have wanted to visit for some time now (and not just because I am a (passport) stamp collector as my father seems to think) ever since seeing it in a world atlas, surrounded by Azerbaijan but with an arrow pointing to Armenia, when I thought to myself "there must be an interesting story behind that". So here I am to see what a country that isn't a country looks like. My first thoughts are that it is slightly more like Azerbaijan in character. There is a greater penchant for moustaches and ridiculously elongated shoes amongst men and gold teeth amongst women, whilst many older people prefer to speak Azeri rather than Armenian or Russian. In fact whilst hitching a ride with a Karabakhi truck driver he started babbling at me; I was about to explain that I don't speak Armenian when I realised he was speaking Azeri instead.

*Pedants might argue that the Caucasian countries are geographically not a part of Europe and instead belong in Asia (for those of you who are interested the following web page goes into the technical details of what constitutes a continent and where the boundaries are drawn, fantastic if, like me, you have spent countless nights awake pondering the "Continent Conundrum"). Indeed, one of my favourite questions I ask people in the region is whether they feel more affinity towards Europe of Asia (the results are pretty much 50/50 among all three countries). The governments, however, would all like to see themselves as European and use some subtle, and not so subtle in the case of Georgia, means of doing so. For example the new Azerbaijani bank notes look remarkably like Euros and even have a map of Europe on them (which, of course, contains the Caucasus), whereas in Georgia the blue EU flag often flies in tandem with the Georgian one from ministry buildings. But, for me, the final arbiter in the debate is FIFA which has put all three countries under the jurisdiction of UEFA for footballing purposes.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A Load Of Old Vank

Armenia's landscape of mountains deeply gouged by fast-flowing streams probably played a major role when ancient Armenians decided on, what seems to have been, their favourite pastime: building vanks (monasteries) in dramatically inaccessible positions (like Tatev Vank, pictured below). As one travels through the country the pattern seems apparent, with countless monasteries and churches clinging to cliffsides and hilltops and tucked away in unlikely gorges. My favourite so far would have to be Geghard, some 30km from Yerevan, which used to house the spear that allegedly pierced Jesus whilst he was on the cross. It's not my favourite because of its location or architecture (though both are suitably noteworthy), but instead it fascinates me as the main matagh (animal sacrifice) site in the country. People bring animals, mostly sheep and chickens, to be ritually slaughtered by adepts wearing crowns of flowers by the nearby thicketed stream. All this to the accompaniment of music and tom-toms. On the weekend I visited there was a real festive atmosphere with families setting up tables, cooking khoravats (barbecues) and children playing ball games and splashing in the stream. It seems funny to me that these people who take such pride in their Christian heritage, and especially in the fact that they were the first nation to adopt Christianity, have such blatantly pagan customs and rituals (although, to be fair, many of the practices that we believe to be specific to one religion or another often have their roots in older, pagan beliefs that they replaced). But whatever the origin, any excuse for a party is fine by me.

Friday, September 08, 2006

First Impressions Of Armenia

The main road to Armenia from Tblisi winds its way through the stunning Debed canyon. Finally a proper canyon, with high plateaus ending in precipitous drops into a gushing river below. Unfortunately this idyll is spoiled somewhat by remnants of old Soviet mines and factories that blot the otherwise pristine stretch of countryside. Along the lip of the canyon are many old towns with accompanying churches and monasteries, some dating back over 1000 years, like the beautiful monastery complexes at Haghpat and Sanahin. Eyeing each other across a deep valley that feeds into the canyon the two sites are gorgeous and show a degree of design and craftsmanship that were unequalled in contemporary western Europe (they were built in 976 and 966 respectively). Though what I really liked was the apparent rivalry that there must have been between the two seats of learning, as Sanahin, the elder by a full 10 years, means "Older than that one" in Armenian. Things are also getting distinctly pricier in this neck of the woods as the local dive in Sanahin wanted $8 for their crummy room. I said "no thank you!", walked up the hill and camped under an electricity pylon above the town.

Anyway, then it was on to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. It's certainly not as pretty as Tblisi, especially when you are driving in as the Armenians still seem to be rather fond of the Soviet style "rabbit hutch" apartment blocks. However the downtown area is nice enough, the saving grace being the use of local basalt (that varies from dark grey through to beige and pink) as the main building material, so that buildings, though generally of one colour, are not uniformly so, creating a charming "patchwork" effect. The city is bursting with nice boutiques and girls all dressed up very chic and all seemingly on the verge of going somewhere; the young men, on the other hand, have a bit of catching up to do in the style department. A lot of this is being, at least partly, funded by diaspora Armenians, with a great many public buildings being named after wealthy Armenian-Americans. Plus it's difficult to go anywhere remotely touristy without running into a busload of the aforementioned diaspora descendants "finding their roots".

It is impossible to visit Armenia without noticing the huge place the 1915 Armenian Genocide has in the national psyche. It is estimated that around 1-1.5 million Armenians were killed by the regime of the Three Pashas in Western Armenia and the rest of Turkey under cover of WWI. Even the location of Yerevan is a constant reminder as the double peaks of Sis and Masis (Little and Big Ararat respectively) loom large in the distance, though formerly in the heart of Armenia now they are just over the border in Turkey, and all the Armenians can do is look wistfully at them (which they do a lot). It is also possible to find almost any product named Ararat, be it cognac, toothpaste, baby food or kitchen appliances. It's also impossible not to visit the Genocide memorial where an eternal flame burns and wailing opera music is piped to every corner of the site. The adjoining museum is also very powerful, with moving (emotionally that is) pictures and accounts from the time. One gets a sense that the entire nation is fighting to keep the memory alive and to exact an apology from the Turks (not something that seems to be likely in the immediate future though).

Tuesday, September 05, 2006


The Greater Caucasus in northern Georgia are bigger and wilder than their Azerbaijani brothers further east. So I decided to make further use of Tawnya and her tentedness as we set off towards the town of Kazbegi, sitting in the shadow of its namesake mountain, for a little mountain adventure. The town was our base for a few days as we made small excursions to nearby mineral springs for a spot of swimming; waterfalls (unfortunately too shallow for swimming, but just the right place for a spot of lunch); and a beautifully situated church with stunning views right up to the iconic, glacier-capped Mt. Kazbeg. We also hung out with other travellers and the host of our homestay, Vano, who, once you could decipher his English, was full of interesting facts and anecdotes, such as the one about his Italian, missionary grandmother who was kidnapped by his grandfather. Apparently bride-napping used to be the main form of courtship in the Caucasus "back in the days", although it is dying out now for some reason.

After a few days we decided to hike over to the next valley along, some 50km away, from where we could catch a ride back to Tblisi. So, armed with a photo of a map of Georgia, plenty of food (chocolate bars, peanuts, bread, cheese, dates and a slab of speck for me) and a vague idea that we were supposed to "head east", we set off for the fabled town of Barisakho and its bus stop. The first day was easy, following a jeep trail to the last village in the valley (called Juta) and so it passed almost without incident, except that when we stopped for lunch outside a church we got accosted by a couple of nuns who decided to feed us. On the second day we headed towards the Chaukhi crags (see below), which would be visible for most of the day. Soon after leaving the village we were joined by a large, white sheepdog, with the customary clipped ears Caucasian mountain dogs all have. Initially we were a bit alarmed as throughout the region we had been warned of vicious sabaka (Russian for dogs) and told to be on our guard. But our companion was friendly and the only danger she posed was from her over-boisterous playfulness. So with Bitch in the lead (I wasn't feeling at my imaginative best for naming her) we carried on, following animal tracks that would disappear and reappear quite frequently. For several hours we passed right under the kilometre-high cliffs that are the rock-climbing capital of Georgia. Eventually we got to a cirque and had to pick from a series of steep, trackless scree-lined slopes to scramble up to get over the pass. After a lot of huffing, puffing and sliding we eventually reached the top of the Chaukhi Pass, some 3400m above sea level, and had a fantastic panorama across the Caucasus, with mountains stretching away as far as the eye could see (most notably to the north, just over the border in Chechnya). We then noticed that we had taken perhaps the trickiest of the ascents on offer, but that didn't matter as it would be all downhill from there. An easy proposition one might think, but not when the slopes are that steep and scree-y. In fact, after less than 30 minutes of descent I was wishing I was still facing an uphill slog. After several slips and bruises we reached the more docile river plain below, complete with meandering rivers, grazing cows and still accompanied by Bitch, who we were feeling really sorry for as we had nothing proper to feed her and she was a long way from home. So, with aching feet we set up our tent, had a quick bite and quickly dozed off.

The next morning, as I opened up the tent I saw that Bitch had been lying in front, guarding us through the night. She was obviously very hungry as she was whining and chewing on grass and so we decided to give her a loaf of bread from our supplies (despite it not being proper dog food she yummed it right up). It was then up for another day of hiking down to Barisakho, though whilst the day before we had had blue skies throughout, the weather had finally turned and the mountains were continually shrouded in cloud and we had frequent showers. Towards the end of the day, and only several kilometres from our goal, I flagged down a jeep to see if we could get a lift down the road. The driver turned out to be a border guard and he wasn't going our way, however he did offer for us to stay at the small army barracks; an offer we no longer found at all odd and accepted with gusto. Soso turned out to be a fantastic host (as all Caucasians seem to be) and he spoiled not only us, but also Bitch, rotten (we ended up getting a room to ourselves with satellite TV!). The next day we caught the morning bus back toTblisi whilst also finding a nice, new home for Bitch with Soso at the barracks.

Tomorrow I will be heading south to Armenia whilst Tawnya is thinking of making another trip to the mountains, probably wistful of the romantic bride-napping stories that she heard and hoping that not all the old traditions have died out.