Thursday, October 31, 2002

Imagine you are in a sauna...

Imagine you are in a sauna and it's hot. Really hot and sticky and uncomfortable, and all you want to do is get out. And you know that there is a cool room with fresh running water and green grass and plenty of shade, and all you have to do to get there is step through the door. So you do.

This, according to our Syrian guide around Lebanon, is what the leader of Hamas said goes through the mind of a suicide bomber.

But I'm skipping ahead.

The last email had us in Palmyra, with one casualty (broken elbow, two badly sprained ankles) on the truck. He's healing up now, but spent most of yesterday on the back of a donkey whilst the rest of us clambered up and down the hills and mountains of Petra. But I'm jumping ahead again.

Syria first!

From Palmyra to Krak des Chevaliers, via the city of Homs. Krak was a crusader castle, so well designed that it could be defended completely with only 200 men and it was never taken in combat. I have to agree with Paul Theroux too - it is the 'epitome of every schoolboy's fantasy castle'. With walls, moats, turrets, a drawbridge, cunning defensive features and all in incredibly good condition. Lots of history here about invaders, Salah al-din, crusaders and so on.

One of the best stories is about one surrender of the castle. The soldiers inside got bored defending the place, so they parleyed for safe passage in return for the castle. The Arab commander agreed and the 200-odd soldiers left in peace. However, when the commander crossed the drawbridge he saw that both corridors leading off the entrance hall were zig-zagged. Fearing an ambush, he left the castle and used his catapults to fire against the south wall for a week or so until the tower caved in and he entered that way instead - finding an empty castle. Oops.

From Krak back to Homs for lunch then on to Damascus where Mike (the driver) got a bee in his bonnet about the truck not being spotless and got us all to spend the afternoon stripping it bare and cleaning it out. One of the fringe benefits of an 'economic expeditions' trip!

The next day I left Syria behind and journeyed, with about 10 others, Westwards across the border to Lebanon with our strongly-opinioned guide. He spoke about Lebanese history, about 'greater Syria' (some Syrians want to join with Lebanon - and perhaps eventually Iraq and possibly Jordan - to form a new, Islamic, country. The Lebanese, who are 40% Christian, are not so keen on this idea.), about the noble struggles of Hamas, the evil of the Jews, the countries bordering Lebanon (The Sea to the West, Syria to the North and East, and 'Palestine' to the South). All very interesting, and the insight into his opinions, rather than just dry history and facts, probably made him the best guide I've had since Central Asia.

Lebanon itself was astounding, from the jaw-dropping ruins of Baalbek - enormous temples using the biggest stone pillars ever cut, intricately carved facades, 19th century grafitti from pre-Victorian tourists and the spiritual and physical headquarters of Hamas - to Beirut. Beirut, totally destroyed by more than 20 years of civil war. Beirut, where the street of the 'green line' that divided Christians from Muslims can still be made out today (the buildings that are not caved-in shells (or partly destroyed 'by indiscriminate Israeli rocket attacks' are full of bullet holes). Beirut, where the Central Business District was a collection of rubble in the early 90s. Beirut, where the same CBD is now full of shiny glass and steel and modern reconstructions of the period buildings that used to stand there. Beirut, where the economy was in tatters after 25 years of war. Beirut, where 'drop-dead gorgeous' men
and women walk the streets in designer clothes and the central streets are lined with cafes selling coffee and ice cream in scenes that could be lifted straight out of Milan. Only it's cleaner and newer and sparklier and the people are better looking.

Beirut is the cliche. Beirut is the 'city of contrasts' and the living example of a people who have decided (for now at least) to put the bloody past behind them and get on with rebuilding the country and having a good time.

It's a thin line, though. The constitution mandates that the top three posts in the country must go to persons from certain religions - ie. the president must be Lebanese Christian, the Prime Minister from a certain Muslim sect and so on. And the traditional balance of religions and their proportions (as used in drawing up the constitution) has been distorted by the influx of 700,000 Palestinian refugees (Lebanon has a population of about 3.5-4 million), who have no country and hence no passport and no vote, and have to live in refugee camps. Some of them have been in the camps since the 60s, many have been born there. To top it all, Israel still occupies a 'buffer zone' in southern Lebanon, to go with the Golan heights (part of Syria) and the West Bank (formerly part of Jordan).

As darkness fell, we left Beirut and headed back to Damascus.

And the next post.

Thursday, October 24, 2002

It's all lies.

It's all lies.

There is internet in Syria (and melons too).

Mind you, it's expensive, everything's backwards (the cross to close the program indow is in the top left and the 'back' button points to the right) and the cafe's run by a dodgy aussie running some kind of proxy software to get around the national site-blockers. Reminds of days back at CapOne getting around In7053x's http proxy...

Everything's groovy, Aleppo intense, Palmyra fantastic, sun incredibly fierce and tiring, Arabic difficult. Oh yes, and we lost one guy off the roof of the truck yesterday (in the middle of the desert) and spent a tense afternoon driving to and then getting him patched up in hospital. He's ok now, but has three of his limbs in plaster. Oops.

Off to Krak des Chevaliers this afternoon (almost wrote this 'arvo... there's no hope left...)

Monday, October 21, 2002

Wonder #8?

Quick update (well, that was the plan, but it has turned into a bit of a monster) before I enter the internet black hole that is Syria. Apparently ISPs are not allowed there, but we shall see. Shame really, since Syria never signed any international copyright agreement, so Napster could set up shop there and be perfectly legal(ish!).

Left the Antipodian campers in Goreme, sitting outside Fat Boy's pub.

Then the adventure began. 8 o'clock bus from Goreme to Kayseri with NZ travelling companion (who left his slightly peeved girlfriend with the group for three nights). 90min wait in Kayseri for connection to Kahta, met Turkish family and conversed something like this:
"Lutfen (gesturing to the chairs), take a seat"
"teshekur, teshekur" (they take the seats, except the one next to me - the daughter prefers to sit on a table)
"Lutfen - take a seat! :)"
She moves, tentatively, closer.
"Where are you going? (with lots of hand signals)"
"Ankara."
"To Ankara?"
"Hayir. (No)"
"From Ankara?"
"Hayir. Batman."
"From Batman? (a town in East Turkey)"
"Hayir (smiles all round)"
"To Batman?"
"Hayir (more smiles all round)"
"????"
"Friend"
"Aha - meeting friend from Batman!"
"Hayir"
Then the friend turns up and we figure out that they're seeing him off.
"Where from?"
"I'm from England, my friend from Yeni Zelanda."
"Ah - English" At this point the father talks in Turkish with the son, something along the lines of 'son, you're learning english at school - talk to these people!' He gives an embarrased smile, tries to think of a question then gives up. We've all been there when we meet someone French or German with our parents in tow...

Anyway, the conversation picked up a little (the son, 18, and daughter, 24, could speak reasonable english once they got started) and they translated the political cartoons in the newspaper that wrapped our sandwiches and the father ended up giving us a turkish lesson - how to say 'I like Turkey - it's beautiful', 'pleased to meet you', 'she's beautiful', etc. Quite an enjoyable way to kill an hour in a bus station.

As they left the guy who sold us the ticket was spotted running around looking frantic. He was looking for us because the bus was due to go in 5 mins and, for the first time in Turkish history, it was on time.

Fun drive to Kahta. Tried to sleep on what appeared to be an 'ergonomically designed' chair, but was actually impossible to be comfortable unless you were sitting bolt upright and lying across 2 of them caused great distress to your kidneys, ribs or hips where the 'anti-roll super-comfort system' dug in.

Arrived zombified at 5:30am in the dustbowl that is Kahta otogar (bus depot). Tried asking about what time buses ran to Antakya (which we needed that evening) but nobody seemed to have ever heard of Antakya or Antioch (but, now I'm here, I can testify that it does exist and it's extremely vibrant). But then our moustachioed survivor turned up.

"Antakya? You must go here. Osmaniye. At one of these times (pointing to the timetable). Then find new bus to Antakya. Hostel tonight? Where are you from?"
"Yeni Zelan-"
"-ah, I have 2 New Zealanders in my hostel already. Come with me."
"5 minutes please."
"ok" (he walks out the door of the bus co. office)
We confer about whether to go to Antakya that night or the next morning.
He returns: "Hostel room - 10 million."
"That's a little expensive, we were hoping for 7 or 8" says Karl.
"ok, 8. Come with me."
"5 minutes, lutfen!"
(he walks out the door of the bus co. office)
He returns: "Come with me. 600m to hostel. Free information service. Nemrut Dagi tours, bus reservations, change money."
"5 minutes, lutfen!"
(he walks out the door of the bus co. office)
He returns: "Come with me. 600m to hostel. I need toilet! Quickly! 600m"
"ok, ok!"
So we get into his car, drive about a km, stop outside a door, and watch as he leaps out of the car and dashes for the loo. We sit stunned in the car for a minute, then decide to go inside. It turns out to be the side entrance to the hostel and he reappears about 5 or 6 minutes later, slightly flustered and trying to hide the splash marks down his trousers (presumably from the sink) behind the counter.
"sorry. not good. (pointing to his stomach)"
"it's ok!"
Then he starts talking about trips up to the mountain, and we explain that we're going to leave that evening so he makes us an offer we can't refuse - a good price for the trip and use of a room and shower until midday. Sleep!

At midday we get up after 5 1/2 unexpected but very welcome hours of sleep, take turns to have an argument with the temperamental and very hot shower then get bundled out of our room by a young turk. It's still 30 mins before the trip was meant to start. Another early turkish departure?
"Need bank, yes?" asks the lad, after leading us out to a minibus with engine running and 3 slightly bemused looking tourists inside.
"Yes."
"Tamam. (ok)"
We get in and drive helter-skelter through town. I get some cash then we helter-skelter back to the hostel.
"Now you pay."
"Ah - ok." So we wander inside with our bags and pay him for the tour.
"Anywhere we can get some food?"
He points us to a dodgy kofte (meatball) shack on the edge of the wasteground opposite the hostel. We get our kofte-in-a-doners and Karl blags a rolly off the shack owner in exchange for a filter. He then explains with glee - (pointing to his big tin of tobacco, "bir milyon (1 million lira)". picking up filter cigarette "pakete, bir milyon!" then he lights it, takes a deep drag and leans back with a smile.

We mosey back to the hostel and across to the minibus, engine still running, tourists still waiting, and climb in to set off up Nemrut mountain.

Nemrut:
Mini-tumulus fairly funky
Septimus Severus bridge v.impressive (almost 2000 years old and still in use today - with a little concrete added here and there)
Ruined city had funky relief frescoes and a very long, dark, tunnel.

Nemrut itself excellent - lots of 2000yo giant heads and decapitated statues on top of a windswept mountain, backed by a huge, man-made, pile of rocks. Atmospheric yes. Undoubtedly impressive and well worth the trip, but not quite the 8th wonder of the world.

Back to Kahta for about 2 hours down the bone-shaking mountain road. Driven to Otogar, sorted out tickets then went hunting for food. Found funky local house-o-lahmacun (Turkish wafer-thin pizza) and ate our fill. Only two passing locals shyly popped their heads around the door to ask us where we were from before scampering off.

With a couple of hours to kill before the bus we wandered down the street past a building housing a political rally for Ataturk's CHP party. We walked slowly past the door to get a glimpse of the speaker inside and past the plastic tables on the pavement surrounded by party supporters, aged 7 to 77, chatting over mini-glasses of turkish tea.

To cut (another) long story short (cos this email is already WAY too long). They started off with the usual hellos, and where are you from, and lots of hand shaking and offers of tea and almost no English spoken. Then, when there was a good-sized ring of people (totally) surrounding us and hot tea in our hands, they asked us "which party best? Severmisin (do you like) AK party? Severmisin DEHAP party?".
"!"
A quick look at the posters on the wall then I said "Hayir - severim CHP. Severim... Denis Bay...kal. (reading what I hoped was a name off one of the posters)"
(smiles all around the circle, much relief within the circle. Phew.)

We spoke, gesticulated, got fed way too much chai (the caffeine content of which is probably why I got no sleep last night. Well, that and the sod's luck that Karl (6 foot 4) and I (6 foot 1 in my socks) got the two seats with the least legroom on the bus and may well have blood clots the size of Wales by now.), got shown a guy up to his elbows making kofte for everyone present, took photos that we now have to post to an almost illegible address in Turkey, met the speakers and party leaders, almost made the mistake of naming Galatasaray as a good football team when most people there supported Fenerbahce, talked (carefully) about politics ("Ecevit (current PM of Turkey) bye-bye"), got fed the incredibly spicy kofte-in-a-doner whilst the onlookers laughed at our distress before removing all the chilli peppers from their own portions, and generally passed an excellent 2 hours. Oh yes and Karl was given a CHP lapel pin. I'm very jealous.

Caught the no leg room edition of the six hour bus to Osmaniye, complete with over-officious conductor - "You Must Sit Here!" (after moving us for the third time to the smallest seats on the bus. Maybe he didn't like Karl's lapel pin) and psycho driver at the controls who decided to carry out some bizarre experiment on the medium-term effects of extreme heat and lack of oxygen on the human body (no air flow, no air con, no nothing. just hotter and hotter and less and less air on a bus where EVERY seat was filled. Much fun!). Arrived 4:20 am in Osmaniye, played draughts and drank (more) tea until 5am dolmus (minibus) rocked up. Sat in cramped minibus (again, no leg room. Indeed, almost no room at all) for 30 mins whilst driver discussed something with his mates then set off for Iskendere. Arrived about 7am, bundled straight onto bus for Antakya.

"Kach para Antakya? (how much to Antakya?)"
"Tamam, tamam (OK, OK)" (driver says, gesticulating to sit down).

fall asleep. woken up 90mins later by guy talking rapid turkish. finally figure out that he's the un-uniformed conductor and pay him. Get out of bus. Get shoes shined in bus station then a cut-throat shave from incredibly camp barber to pass time until things open properly. Found out museum (main reason for coming here) is shut all day mondays (damn the 5 year old rough guide I borrowed from the truck). So we spent today wandering the streets of Antakya, slightly zombified. Ate lots of Lahmacun and ice cream. Thought cinema would be a good idea, but only found a porno den. Interesting 70s soft-focus ultra-soft porn, though - first film even in English so we could follow the plot! Got bored and left cinema to write ultra-long emails to anyone that'll listen.

So I hope you've enjoyed it!

Hopefully(!) meeting up with the truck tomorrow morning then crossing the border into Syria...

Saturday, October 19, 2002

Turkish Delight (what else would the title be?)

We pick up the travels of our intrepid would-be explorer in Istanbul where he meets a new group of travellers...

24 of them to be precise, Aussies, Kiwis and Irishmen with names like 'Edge', 'Farmer', 'Leon', 'Gubby', 'Bud' and 'Octavia'. Plus a crazy driver called Mike who slurs his words even when not stoned or drunk (which he normally is within one hour of finishing driving for the day). But it's all good. In a way. And definitely 'Economic' (the company that runs this trip from Istanbul to Cairo is called economic expeditions).

This merry bunch of men and maidens set off one day late from Istanbul (partly because Mike was hung over from the night before) towards Eceabat, near the Galipoli battlefields. The UV lit bar next to the campsite showed scenes from previous years' Anzac day memorials. A couple of photos of thousands of Antipodians standing in silence to hear the services at the battlefield, and dozens of photos of the evening's carnage in the bar afterwards (beer funneling, dancing on the tables and general drunken excess). I guess their grandfathers fought for freedom, so a celebration of life is fairly appropriate.

Galipoli itself was a fairly moving tribute to the folly of war. Half a million men lost in a six-month stalemate that typified trench warfare. In places the trenches are only a metre or two apart. In one place they actually tunneled into each other and the men reached around the corner to pass messages and cigarettes and shake hands with their foes before the order came to charge into each others' bullets. The guide shared many stories of the somewhat surreal friendships between the men on each side, thrown together as they were by their commanders but still acting as human men between the battles.

As for the commanders, a couple of the Allies got sacked (or whatever the military equivalent is) whereas the Turkish Commander became a living legend and led the country to independence, founded the Turkish Republic, reformed the country's institutions and now has his face on every banknote and statue in every town. His name was Ataturk. And his portraits look a little like Paul Daniels (he was rather fond of his cloak, gloves and top hat, so looks a bit like a magician).

Then across the Bosphorus by ferry and on to Selcuk, via Truva (Troy). Troy needs a little imagination, but if you're familiar with the tales it's quite easy to imagine Achilles dragging Hector's body around the walls behind his chariot, or the city in flames after the infamous horse incident. Speaking of which, there's a shockingly unhistoric 'replica horse' outside the ruins.

However there's also a fairly scientific theory about how the Trojan siege may have been broken - there was an earthquake at roughly the right era that broke down part of the walls, which would have allowed the Greeks to stream in and take the city. They might then have built a giant horse in thanks to Posiedon, God of the seas and earthquakes, who was quite fond of horses (used to ride them through the surf - remember the Guiness ad with the white horses and the surfer?), and it all got mixed up before becoming part of Homer's epic.

Selcuk next, about halfway down the west coast of Turkey, and a couple of nights at 'Atila's Getaway'. Camping with a swimming pool, hot showers and a funky bar - this is economic overlanding with style! Octavia's birthday celebrated on our first night (involved much vodka, space cake, a sexually oriented game of 'I have never' and an unscheduled dip in the pool).

Then back to the culture. A morning in Efes (Ephesus). WOW! It was amazing because it's very well preserved, enormous, beautiful and easy to imagine life in antiquity, whilst walking down the main street or sitting on the steps of the theatre or stepping into the architecturally ingenious library (that's quite small but uses clever tricks to appear much bigger). A jaunt around the Efes museum filled in the gaps, but I missed out on the ruins of the Temple of Artemis (one of the 7 wonders of the world) up behind Efes.

This was followed by a controversial day full of exciting group dynamics, personality clashes and lack of communication up in the Greek village of Sirince (pronounced like 'Syringe'). Perhaps it was too much of the local wine, but the group has since pieced itself back together. Mike reckons he let things get out of hand on purpose to get the group to realise the importance of respecting each other, etc... I think he just liked the wine.

On again, south down the coast to Koycegiz. A beautiful hostel marred only by the bedbugs infesting our room (spotted them in time, though, so didn't get ourselves - or the truck - infested). An excellent day cruising around the lake and swimming in the med. Then a dark morning listening to the news from Bali. In retrospect, the solemn mood perhaps helped bring the group back together.

On we went south to the mosquito infested treehouses and cabins of Oludeniz campsite. Picturesquely situated on the edge of the Blue Lagoon (where the film was shot) but the calm blue waters also serve as a breeding ground for mossies and any exposed skin was covered in red lumps the next day.

Half the group then headed off for a 4 day booze cruise whilst the rest of us went for the active option: one day climbing 400m down into then back up from Butterfly Valley (using a scraggy path most of the way, but partly ropes as well); one day climbing up waterfalls, clambering over rocks, wading through silt and swimming under boulders to get as far into Saklikent gorge a possible(a LOT of fun - Jon I understand the joys of caving now!); and one day hiking up a mountain near the ruins of Olympos to get to a lost city at the top.

I need a holiday... (but I'm sure I'll get no sympathy from y'all!)

A full day's drive yesterday and now I'm back in Goreme. Which is a little odd. It's only about 3 weeks since I was here last, but it's noticeably (much) colder at night and there are hardly any tourists here atm (compared to the hordes we saw last time).

OK. A couple of snippets about Turkey that you may not know...

*) 1,600,000 Turkish Lira to a US dollar (but inflation is in the double digits)

*) 3 barriers to EU entry (according to a Turkish economist I met yesterday) - unemployment (20%); inflation and the economy; dodgy democracy and civil rights

*) elections on Nov 3rd. Current PM may get less than 10%. Dodgy media baron may get more than 10%. DEHAP party founder (and the most popular politician in the polls) has been banned from being 'founding member', so he became party chairman. He's now likely to be banned from that as well, so will only be able to wield behind-the-scenes power. This is what is meant by 'dodgy democracy', I guess.

*) good wage in Istanbul about $300 a month.

*) lots of (female) Aussies seem to come here for a week and stay for months or years, getting jobs and boyfriends and the whole nine yards. I've met 3 or 4 such people out of about 40-50 aussies - does that mean 6-10% of Aussies stay in Turkey?!?

*) 20% of Turkey's 60 million inhabitants are of Kurdish descent

*) EU wants Turkey to un-ban broadcasts in Kurdish and generally be nicer to the Kurds. Non-Kurdish Turkish people, most of whom know someone who died fighting the Kurds and Ocalan's troops, think this is an insult and the Kurds should be Turkeyfied. (According to an article in the Turkish Daily News)

*) Turkey is keeping an eye on the Kurds in Northern Iraq. They're worried that if they get a degree of self-rule (or even independence) the Turkish Kurds will want the same. The government has even mentioned the possibility of sending Turkish troops into N.Iraq to stop the Kurds there.

Apart from all this, I'm thinking about leaving the truck for a few days and heading East to Nemrut Dagi (allegedly the Eighth wonder of the world) before meeting them again on the Syrian border.

Sunday, October 06, 2002

Strewth, ay?

Met the new group this morning.

26 people including Mike, the driver.
23 from Oz and Kiwiland, 2 Irish and lil old me.
24 seats in the truck. Could get cosy.
departure date delayed by one day - hopefully not an omen.

Slightly more seriously, though - the group seems like a good bunch of people, truck's not as bad as I feared and the tents are in good nick, if a little small.

Just hope that I don't pick up an antipodean accent, ay?

Saturday, October 05, 2002

Turkiye (Turkey)

Got to speed this email thing up...

here goes:

Entered Turkey in the very north-eastern point.

Sumela:
monastery perched on a cliffside. Fantastic frescoes inside (including Jonah and the Trout (or so it looks like), giant Virgin, giant Jesus, lots of Eastery scenes) but somewhat wrecked by (a) the grafiti scratched into all the ones within reach, (b) the big lumps taken out by shepherds and randoms over the centuries and (c) the big lumps taken out by a gang of art thieves in an abortive attempt to make off with them in the eighties.

Black Sea Coast:
Nice to see (geddit?).

Cut across the mountains, camped in the middle somewhere near Sivas then on to Cappadoccia.

Cappadoccia (Kapadokya):
Quite a culture shock after the almost complete absence of tourists throughout Central Asia and the Caucasus. Tour buses full of pensioners, guided tours with flags-on-sticks everywhere you look, restaurants and hostels and bus stations and tour company offices packed full with back-packers. Oh yes, and lots of aussies all of a sudden!

The formations themselves (fairy chimneys, underground cities, churches and fortresses carved out of rock, camel-shaped columns, phallic columns, Mr.Whippy formations, etc) are very groovy. We went under, round, though and over them using the truck and our hiking boots during the day, a hot air balloon at dawn and taking our lives into our hands to climb around inside one of them one afternoon. Some of the girls got a little emotional on the climb (obviously, they were never 'scared' as such...).

I almost, accidentally, bought a $5000 vase as well (for $1000). Don't name ANY price unless you intend to make a purchase, even in response to 'oh, how much did you think it was worth?'!!!

Sped across from Kapadokya to Istanbul, where I've been since:

Lavish palaces, complete with harems, libraries, treasuries full of golden armour, emeralds the size of your fist and a magnificently displayed dazzling giant diamond.

Byzantine and Ottoman and modern architecture, including the famous Blue Mosque, the enormous Suleymane Mosque, the incredible Hagia Sofya Cathedral->Mosque->Museum, the fourth longest suspension bridge in the world, the Rustem Pasha Mosque with its funky tiling, the serene Beyazit mosque devoid of tourists, and lots more.

lots of street hassle for single girls (one of the girls in the hostel came back today totally shattered from the constant attentions of the locals and one of my room-mates moved to a different hostel to escape the attentions of the guys working there)

lots of carpet-hassle for everyone (look inside my shop sir... wouldn't you like to buy a carpet sir? ... where are you from sir? oh, a carpet would look nice in England ... Wait! You've forgotten something! No, I don't think I have. Yes, sir, you have - you've forgotten to take a look at my carpets! .)

fun to be had haggling in the many bustling bazaars (Egyptian (spice) bazaar, with all manner of funky foodstuffs; covered (Grand) bazaar, that's bigger than some shopping malls and has more than a thousand vendors; side bazaar, next to the grand bazaar and open even when the GB is shut on Sundays; ripped-CD bazaar; and so on...)

lots to do in general, with nightclubs, cafes, restaurants, internet, bookshops, museums. Met lots (well, about 4) people that came to visit and are now working in Turkey. It's quite a nice place, just seems to me to be a little economically and politically unstable.

and lots of history to brush up on - Ottomans, Byzantines, Hittites, Ataturk, WWI, WWII, Crimean War, Romans... all incredibly interesting.

So, tomorrow I meet a new group and we head off together around the coast towards Syria. Apologies for the drying up of interesting things to say... I've got email burn. Hopefully I can pick up the level again for the next update.

Sakartvelo (Georgia)

Why are country/place names sometimes so different in English compared to their mother tongue? Take 'Georgia' for example. In Georgian, the country is called 'Sakartvelo'. Maybe it's something to do with the patron saint of the country (Saint George, of dragon slaying fame - same as England)?

Anyway, on with the tales:
crossed into Georgia and spent the first night camping on the edge of a small mountain village called Gremi. Stopped off in town first to buy 10l of home made wine from one of the houses, then camped and made dinner. Which happened to be caviar and vodka for starters (both dirt cheap in those parts), then incredibly tasty pasta and meat washed down with the incredibly smooth local wine. This is how life is meant to be!

Whilst eating dinner, a car pulled up and some locals got out and started chatting to us. After about 15 mins they invited (all 15 of) us to their place for drinks and a chat around a warm fire. We tried to decline, but they just postponed till the next morning, converting the offer into one of breakfast.

So, next morning (happened to be one-of-the-girls-on-the-trip's birthday) we had a hearty breakfast then had a quick look at some precariously perched Georgian churches (they seem to have a penchant for building churches on top of mountains and at cliff-edges). Then we hunted for the house of the Georgians who made the invitation the night before. We found them eventually and they invited us all up to their balcony where they chatted with us through our interpreter for 5 mins then started to bring out the 'hospitality'... watermelon, candied watermelon, doughnut-style pastries, bread and WINE. Lots of wine. For breakfast. And not only was there wine on the table, but our hosts kept making toasts. Which is ok, a basic toast must be followed by a polite sip of the vino. Then they warmed up and started making bigger toasts to more worthy subjects, and named all the toasts 'to the bottom (of the glass)'. Very dangerous, but it got us all in the right mood for a day of birthday celebrations!

When we finally escaped the suffocating (in an incredibly good way) hospitality it was on with the itinerary -

first off to a medieval nunnery. With a beautiful, serene, Georgian Orthodox chapel, and fragments of fantastic frescoes. Unfortunately they have been destroyed by successive whitewashing - first by the iconoclasts (the Georgian (Russian?) Orthodox church went through an Iconoclastic (icon breaking) period where they decided that all religious imagery and statuary was contrary to the commandments and smashed/whitewashed/destroyed it all) and then by the soviets (who thought that religion was anti-communist, so they converted the chapel into a grain store).

second, to a winery. More Georgian wine (of varying qualities), quite close to the border with Chechnya. Therefore, there were lots of Georgian army blokes around. Armed with macho poses, big bellies and evil stares. There seemed to be a particularly high concentration of them in the winery too - must be a very important site of great strategic importance...

then a mountain drive towards Tbilisi. Until the road ran out due to a mudslide and we had to backtrack onto the less scenic route.

Arrival in Tbilisi just before dusk for a magical introduction to this jewel of the Caucasus. It has a river through the middle, a couple of hills in the middle, mountains in the background and lots of churches sprinkled liberally over the landscape. In the reddish glow of sunlight it's quite amazing. Time enough to go to our hotel (of which only three floors were open. The rest were full of refugees. In Georgia, the refugees are from South Ossetia (northern Georgia) and the North-West of the country and are fleeing from separatists (who want to be a part of Russia, I think). PS. I think I got a little mixed up in my names of Azeri provinces. "Nagorno-Karabakh" is the bit East of Armenia and occupied by Armenian troops. "Naxcivan" is the exclave between Armenia and Turkey. Now you know!)

Then out to a 'traditional' Georgian banquet. Lots (AND LOTS) of top-notch food, caraph after caraph of drinkable wine, lots (AND LOTS) of toasts from our Georgian guide (a different one from the morning, I think they were taking it in shifts to get us inebriated), a dodgy moment when my fellow travellers discovered that I was drinking pear juice instead of wine (I was trying not to get *totally* hammered...), then no-hands dessert, which turned into "pass the peach" Or plum. Or grape. :P(: Carnage. Carnal carnage. Excellent!

Then it all ended up in a nightclub with stupidly cheap vodka and a funky mix of latin and techno music. I think I've invented a new dance form: techno-salsa...

I'm sure I've lost a good proportion of my readers by now so lets up the speed:

Rest of time in Tbilisi:
Great - lots of history, interesting sites, lots of things to do, including Irish bar with Georgian band covering pink floyd whilst 18 yo girls dance like monkeys and a woman who the three of us SWEAR was a man proceeded to pull a slightly drunken local.

Mountains of Shovi:
Interesting, if bloomin cold - the back of nowhere, totally run-down. Raining when we arrived and miserable - set the tone perfectly. Explored 'Sektor X' an old soviet secret area, posed for pics in the lap of a crumbling Stalin statue, had incredibly stodgy food for dinner then drank all our wine supplies to keep out the chill.Next day the sun came out and we went for a 6 hour hike into the mountains. Stunning views in the valley near the top of the mountains - looked like I imagined the Shire out of lord of the rings, and one half-expected a hobbit to pop out of his hole at any moment.

Small towns en route:
Visited another winery (taste/price ratio of Georgian wine is excellent!). Stopped in one town and one of the passengers got given a bouquet of flowers by a 15 yo girl. Given local moonshine by a market trader in exchange for taking his photo (luckily I didn't go blind, but it was touch and go for a few mins).

Kutasi:
Happened to coincide our visit with the anniversary of the birth of the Virgin Mary, so got to go inside the ruined (roofless) cathedral that's closed 364 days a year. Saw the Georgian patriarch (the Georgian Orthodox church's pope) and lots of local politicians giving sermons and speeches, with bodyguards looking shifty in the background. One passenger got chatted up by half a dozen 18-20 yos (same one who got the bouquet from the 15yo) - but he's 30 so decided discretion was the better part of valour.

Batumi:
Happened to coincide our visit with the first day of the Batumi women's tennis open. So got to wander in for free and take lots of courtside photos of young tennis beauties. One passenger (the same one, again) spent about 3 hours, in the blazing sun, taking photos of them and trying to chat them up.

From Batumi to the border, then across to TURKEY.

But that's another country, and another email...

Thursday, October 03, 2002

The Land of Fire

For everyone except Alex - concentrate on your work instead! (and thanks for the crepes) :)

Azerbaijan.
"Land of fire". So called because, in ancient times, there were plumes of fire escaping from the ground. These days, the plumes have been capped with oil or gas wells to harness the hydrocarbons instead of just causing wonder to passing explorers and inspiration to the Zoroastrians (more on them later).

The trip across the Caspian lasted almost 20 hours, but the difference between the underdeveloped Turkmen coastline around Turkmenbashi and the over-industrialised black-smoke chimneys of Baku in Azerbaijan could hardly have been more pronounced. Well, I guess I'm exaggerating a little - both sides were polluted, Azerbaijan is just an order of magnitude more developed.

So, into Baku after a brief stop at Azeri customs. And the differences continued - Baku is an almost normal, almost european-style, city (albeit situated in the middle of one of the most polluted coastlines in the world). They have nightclubs, bars, taxis that have meters and that don't drive faster and faster until the tyres squeal (nor do they try to overtake on blind corners), McDonalds (the first I'd seen since Tashkent), sensible internet (and a CD writer to offload my photos onto), and shops with normal things inside. All quite a come-down compared to Central ASia, in a way.

However, there were some notably non-European things. Like the price of vodka; the large number of pros in all the bars; and the fact that only one floor of the hotel we stayed in was open to tourists. The other 14 floors all house refugees from the conflict with Armenia.

(Quick history bit: When Stalin carved up the south of the USSR into republics he was a little random about where he drew the borders. As such there are numerous exclaves (bits of one country in the middle of a different country) and areas within one country's borders which ethnically belong to a different one. Stalin did all this to minimise nationalistic tendencies in the Soviet Republics but, come independence, it's caused a number of headaches and heartaches. Headaches like the impossibility of visiting some parts of Uzbekistan unless you have a Tajik visa (there are blobs of Uzbekistan in the middle of Tajikistan). And heartaches like the current Armenian occupation of the south-west of Azerbaijan, making somewhere between 1-in-10 and 1-in-5 Azeris into refugees. It gets better, of course - there is also an Azeri exclave (Nagorno-Karabakh) to the South-West of Armenia, now totally cut off from Azerbaijan. (I think all traffic has to go from Nagorno-Karabakh west into Turkey, then north into Georgia and around into Azerbaijan, because the borders with Iran and Armenia are closed.))

Anyway, after a Turkish dinner (because international restaurants were suddenly an option again) and a quick bounce around some of the seediest bars in Baku with two of my fellow travellers (we visited every 3rd bar we saw - a highly recommended way to explore parts of town you don't know) we went to bed merry and they fought off their hangovers the next morning as we explored the city's history.

A Palace built by a 6 foot 7 king (allegedly some viking connection there, but I didn't fully understand the guide) complete with giant-sized flights of stairs;

a mausoleum with the architect's name sneaked into the tile-pattern (but written in reverse so that nobody spotted it for hundreds of years);

the tall and curiously shaped maiden's tower, symbol of Baku (apparently). Nobody's sure why it was originally built but the best guess it that it started out as a Zoroastrian 'tower of silence' where they gave their dead an 'air burial' - ie. put their dead out on platforms so that the birds could pick the flesh off the carcasses.)

the heroes alley - a park full of graves to fallen soldiers from the conflicts with the Soviets and Armenians in various conflicts in the 1990s. Most of the grave headstones have a haunting portrait etched into them, but some are blank (unidentified bodies) and some head stones have no tomb (body never found). And they are not all soldiers - they include journalists and women who stood up to the invaders but did not live to tell the tale.

plus caravansarais, carpet shops, carpet shops in caravanserais, a big rickety wheel (the Baku eye?), and views across from the white city (the nice bit in the middle) to the black city (the industrial bits along the coast).

After a day in Baku there was a day exploring the Qobustan peninsula - mud volcanoes (Andrew fell in to one and got covered in grey liquid mud - it was all very funny until we realised how close he came to dying. But he was still alive, and covered in mud, so we laughed some more.); stone age cave paintings (oldest about 13000 BCE I think we were told); musical rocks; fields and fields of oil and gas wells - as far as the eye could see in some parts; a man changing his pants right next to the road and a Zoroastrian fire temple.

(Quick religious bit: Zoroastrians. Ancient (really ancient) religion based on fire-worship. Inspired by the flames coming out of the ground in Azerbaijan. Said to have influenced Christianity and Islam in some way (perhaps something to do with monotheism? I don't remember exactly). The temple we saw used to have an eternal flame in the middle and flames burning in every cell around the central courtyard (it was built on top of a natural gas field) but the Soviets built a big gas mine behind the temple, so all the eternal flames have gone out. In the cells there were models depicting the different methods of ablution employed by the Zoroastrian monks - like holding their limbs in the air until they were paralysed through lack of blood, lying on hot gravel, wearing 30kg of manacles and chains 24h a day for life, and so on. Interesting to note that mankind has been worshipping hydrocarbons since (before) the year dot - and there was me thinking that it was a post-industrial obsession!)

From the Qobustan peninsula, a quick stop back in Baku then north towards the Georgian border. Stopping off for the night at Sheki, staying in a converted caravanserai. Then on towards GEORGIA

but, that's another country and another email!

Tuesday, October 01, 2002

Golden Statues and Sand Blasted Gas Holes 2

First off, an explanation, since lots of those unread emails seem to be people asking how I'm getting from A-B. I was travelling with a group of about a dozen people (more in Kyrgyzstan beacause the Eastbound and Westbound trips overlapped), in an overland truck with a company called Dragoman. Now that I'm in Istanbul, I've left the truck behind and exploring Istanbul on my own until the 6th when I meet up with a different group - the ominously titled 'economic
expeditions' to travel down to Cairo via Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. When I get to Cairo (9th Nov) I'm planning to make my way south on my own to Aswan then back up, flying home at the end of November. So yes, Karl, I have come from Tashkent all overland (except for the ferry from Turkmenbashi to Baku) and will finally get to Cairo all overland too.

Picking things up again after the desert city of Jerbent...

We left Jerbent, sand-filled houses and cheesy camel milk behind and headed south to Ashgabat, the capital of T├╝rkmenistan whose name means 'city of love'. The travellers I met in Kyrgyzstan all spoke of Ashgabat's 'Florida bar', home of the most beautiful women in the world and very little else, so we were intrigued to discover if the legends were true...

However, first we arrived in Ashgabat (driving on the wrong side of a dual carriageway until the traffic police started shouting at us and blowing whistles), driving through the gold and marble (well, white stone) gates. For those of you who don't know much about Turkmenistan's political situation (like me before the trip) here's a quick summary:

Gained independence in the early 90s like all the other CIS countries. Kept communist ruler, as head of a renamed party (like many CIS countries). However, he also renamed himself, to "Turkmenbashi" which means head of all Turkmen and published a big pink bible about the future of the country and how all the tribes should unite behind him. This is now the second most important (and studied) book in Turkmen schools, after the Qoran. He also promised
enormous wealth that would come by selling Turkmenistan's oil reserves to foreign markets. Shortly after his first election victory, he called another, got about 99.5% of the vote and declared a 'period of stability' for Turkmenistan - no elections for 10 years.

In the past decade or so since independence the economy has fallen apart, unable to trade through Moscow as in the USSR days. There are plans for oil pipelines and railways to connect all parts of the country, but the pipeline is still a pipe dream and the railway is 1/3 built in the past 10 years (our local guide claimed that there was too much sand (in the desert) and they have to keep digging out the tracks). However, what the people of Turkmenistan do have is Ashgabat. Fed by a canal all the way from Uzbekistan (the longest canal in the world I think?), which loses about 50% of its water through evaporation and is heavily blamed for the rapid shrinking of the Aral Sea (it takes its water from the main tributary of the Aral). And in amongst the fountains (inc. the biggest fountain in the world) and the neatly mown lawns
there are statues. Statues of Turkmenbashi. Often at the top, or backed by, giant marble monuments. Oh yes, and all the statues are gold. Of course. Fountains, gold statues and neat lawns - in a desert country...

It's a personality cult par excellence. And to complement the gold statues, there are posters of Turkmenbashi in various poses all over the country. Maybe not in Darvaz or Jerbent, but in Dash-Orguz at the north-eastern edge of the country, on the edge of the desert, there he is. In carpet pose 1a. In Boris Yeltsin, recovering alcoholic pose 2a. In sickle harvesting the wheat pose 1c. And so on... something new for me, and it puts Fidel to shame. More posters, sir, and some gold statues please! One more thing. Turkmenbashi has taken a leaf out of the French Revolutionaries' book and decided to rename all the months of the year and do away with the current un-scientific Roman hangover that is our current naming convention. So now we have Turkmenbashi (January), February named after his wife, March named after his mother, one named after his son, one after his dog, and so on... much better!

Anyway, once we accustomised ourselves to the randomness of Ashgabat's green and gold spendour there was enough time to gatecrash two weddings (and get invited to the front of the official photographers to take photos) at the 5-legged monument (there's a 3-leg, 5-leg and 8-leg monument - named after the number of buttresses on their sides.); visit the 'olympic stadium' - not sure when Ashgabat had the olympics though; visit a neon lit ice-cream parlour
inside the 8-leg; take a look around the carpet museum and see the two largest carpets in the world and then... ...an evening at the Florida bar.

And it was all we were promised. Some of the most beautiful women in the world, outnumbering the men more than 5-1, all strutting their stuff on the dancefloor. However, the majority of them were pros so it was all look and no touch, but what a sight. :) If Turkmen visas weren't so difficult to get hold of, I'd recommend Ashgabat as a great place for a stag weekend! Not only would you go to Florida bar on the Saturday night, but on Sunday there's the culturally flavoured sensory delight that is Ashgabat market. One of the biggest in the world, where allegedly you can buy anything from spare parts for a lada to carpets, turkmen hats, live animals, live munitions and ex-soviet military vehicles. Unfortunately I didn't see any of the latter, but it could have been because I only got 2 hours sleep the night before... Did
see flying camels though. (I'll show you the pics when I get back!)

Florida bar, golden statues, carpet museum and Sunday market. Then, with four new passengers in tow, we headed West once more, towards the coastal port of Turkmenbashi (named after the eponymous leader, perhaps), stopping off at an underground, geothermally warmed, sulphur-smelling lake on the way and camping overnight between a spaghetti junction of pipelines in the middle of the desert.

Turkmenbashi town involved a VERY long wait for customs (almost 8 hours), during which they confiscated everything woven that they found on the truck - quoting the 'no export of antiques or carpets more than 6 sq metres in size' rule, but impounding a kitsch Lenin carpet (coffee table sized) and about a 8 carpet bags (made from tattered carpets) bought for less than $10 each.

Fortunately all the real carpets were well hidden and escaped their eagle eyes.

So, finally to the ferry and we sailed off into the night (after a long and very loud argument between our drivers and the Bubushka in charge of cabins on the ferry, her shouting only in Russian and them only in English), leaving Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, indeed 'Central Asia' behind us as we headed for the Azeri port city of Baku.

But that's a different country, with different stories in the next post !