Trains and Boats and Planes

With the exception of balloons, submarines and helicopters, I have tried most major forms of transport – yes, even camels, elephants and horses – but I have to admit that trains are my favourite mode of travel – especially long distance ones, with a sleeper and a restaurant car, hurtling me through time and space.

There have been disappointments of course. One time, on a short trip from Dublin to Cork, I treated myself to a first class ticket, but warm cans of Guinness from a ‘bar-cart’ – not even a bar-car! – detracted from the overall experience.

I was looking forward to different train trips in the Caucasus but unfortunately there were no trains along the southern shore of The Black Sea in northern Turkey which I covered in hops and leaps in very comfortable, intercity coaches but I was really looking forward to the overnight train from Batumi, just over the border from Turkey, in Georgia to the capital, Tbilisi.IMG_1860

Because of prior difficulties regarding statehood, nationality, form of government and current strains of economics and global trade, the entire region seemed to be unhappy with its immediate neighbours. ‘Turkey has no friends,’ lamented one young professional who had taken her masters at a Dublin university and that story was echoed in one way or another in each of the countries I visited.IMG_1861

Tbilisi would be my hub and from there I could get an overnight train to Yerevan in Armenia and to Baku in Azerbaijan. The only problem was that since none of the countries permitted inter-travel, I would have to retrace my steps to Tbilisi each time before heading off again. While I could enter Armenia from Georgia I couldn’t continue on to Azerbaijan. I’d have to return to Tbilisi the same way and then take another train to Baku on the shore of the Caspian Sea.

Similarly, I could take a train from Tbilisi to Baku but I couldn’t go from Baku to Yerevan in Armenia. What that all meant was a lot of overnight train trips from Tbilisi throughout the Caucasus.

Impressed with the modern Stadler train which whisked me effortlessly from the brand new looking station in Batumi to Tbilisi, I expected, foolishly perhaps, something similar on a longer, overnight, cross border experience.IMG_1862

Despite starting in Georgia, the train was Armenian and didn’t look remotely like the sleek brute that had delivered me to Tbilisi a few days previous. This particular train looked like trains did in Hitchcock movies so, pre-warned there was neither bar nor restaurant car on the fifteen hour trip between the capital cities, I stocked up on red wine and brandy accordingly. Thank God I had because the only amenities provided turned out to be a box of sugary jellies, a bottle each of still and fizzy water along with a fresh pillowcase and sheets.

I handed over my first class ticket to the burly blonde guarding the steps outside my carriage who glared uncomprehendingly at me when I greeted her and asked her name. ‘Lana’ she growled before ushering me up the steps impatiently as if the train were just about to depart.

IMG_1865Strolling up and the down the narrow corridor outside my compartment – there was another twenty minutes before the train was due to leave – the only differences I could see between the carriages was mine had the top two bunks removed, leaving only the bottom two.

The window in the compartment was sealed shut and masked with voluminous drapes of bleached out nylon. Only every third window in the carriage corridor outside opened partially. Not a major issue if the air conditioning worked, but when I found Lana, brewing coffee in her private ‘office’, and made IMG_1864panting sounds, mopping rivulets of sweat running down my face and neck and pleaded for the air con to be turned on, the brutal blonde overseer of the first class compartment seemed not to notice the 37 degree heat and only reluctantly turned the a/c on low, only to turn it off every time the train crawled into another small, sun-baked station.

When I tried to open the half window in the corridor outside my compartment to get a breath of air, she bustled bossily down and shouted at me, along with emphatic hand gestures, to close the window.

“Well, turn the bloody a/c on again” I retorted peevishly, the sweat stinging my eyes and my shirt sticking like a wet rag to my streaming skin.

My initially chilled beer  was almost tepid when, glaring at the sugary jellies and the bottles of water I opened it.

Usually, the regular clack-clack of the train would lull me to sleep but this time, seeming to compound the heat, the train groaned along, accompanied by what sounded like extended and sporadic heavy machine gun fire from the iron wheels.  I had already finished the wine and was about to dose myself with the brandy when immigration marched down the train, collecting passports and then disappearing with them for a worrying length of time before returning them just as the train ground to a noisy and shuddering halt at the border with Armenia. IMG_2083 Surprisingly – and pleasingly – smartly dressed Armenian officials came down the corridor with laptop computer scanners and handed back my passport within a minute of collecting it.

Dawn broke as I panted by a window I had furtively opened – no sign of the bossy Lana – looking at a high white cloud before eventually realising it was the snow-capped peak of Mount Ararat towering over the plains. IMG_1876Arrival time rolled around and the train still trundled noisily over flat, dusty plains with no sign of an imminent city. IMG_2081Questions to Lana about the expected arrival time were dismissed with a brusque hand gesture and a shrug and it was a good four hours late before the train finally shuddered to a halt in Yerevan itself.

I was here, that was the main thing and Armenia is famed for (among other things) its brandy – the only brandy Winston Churchill would drink, apparently – so what could go wrong? And there was the return trip to look forward to and to compare with the overnighter to Baku later on.

 

 

 

 

Georgia Reconsidered

A big red M outside Tbilisi’s main station marked the entrance to the city metro – probably the longest, deepest and fastest escalator I have ever been on and, like the bus fare from the border to Batumi which cost something like 30 ct, the trip on the metro were priced similarly or even cheaper.

The Georgians I met – generally local punters in a bar or café or wait staff in the same places – were all terribly proud of being Georgian and were especially keen to distance themselves from anything Russian, having finally extracted themselves from the sphere of influence wielded by Imperial Russia, Soviet Russia and The Russian Federation. Armed only with red roses, protesters demonstrated for twenty-three days outside the Georgian parliament in November 2003 in order to bring about peaceful change and a new slant towards westernisation.

A waiter or waitress’ recommendation from the local menu invariably followed the same line, ‘this very, very good, this very good, this very good, this … Russian, this very, very good’.

This ‘turning away’ from their former rulers led to increased tensions with Russia, culminating in the brief 2008 war where the Federation forcibly backed two separatist revolts against the Georgian state. One night in a small bar half way up a hilly side street near the Opera, a fluent speaker of English confided in me that he hated the Russians. They killed his brother during the war in South Ossetia.IMG_1759

IMG_1760 2Popping up from the metro two stops away from the main station – again an incredible ascent – onto Shota Rushtavelli Ave I was amazed to see how fashionably modern Tbilisi was. I don’t know what I was expecting – perhaps something slightly less developed than a Western capital, perhaps something slightly shop worn – but what I got was an amazing melange of old and new.

Opposite the Opera house where I was staying, it was only a IMG_1732short walk past the parliament buildings and down to Liberty Sq. and from there to the old town where crumbling buildings and shaky balconies edged fashionable pedestrian areas and parks.

IMG_1752 2Flea markets selling Russian junk crowded the bridge before a maze of small streets leading back up to Liberty Square in which the centre plinth was so high that I couldn’t actually make out what stood on top. IMG_1632

And then, as if this wasn’t enough, there was a cable car connection to the old Persian fortress overlooking the city and the hot spring baths with fashionable wine-bars and restaurants spread out below in inviting pedestrian areas and squares.IMG_1642

Despite having lived in Milan for almost three years, to my shame I never once went to La Scala, one of the most famous opera houses in the world. This time, staying opposite the Tbilisi Opera and Ballet State Theatre House on broad Shota Rustavelli Avenue, all I had to do was take the underpass and the Opera house was right there.

IMG_1769 2I saw the premiere of one of Verdi’s little known (certainly to me anyway) operas – Simon Boccanegra – an opera with a prologue and three acts with one intermission, the brochure informed me. A Google search of the plot baffled me but the splendour, the lighting, the colour, the drama and the music and the voices had me entranced – although the only word I actually heard was ‘Maria’ – and I became an opera lover overnight!

IMG_1619But time to leave the capital and explore the Kaheti wine region, the major wine growing area in the southeast. After all, in this part of the world, Neolithic farmers were making, drinking, enjoying and worshipping vitis vinifera 8,000 years ago so I assumed they knew how to make a decent drop.

And then there was the idea of  hiking in the Sveneti – the mountains region up in the northeast, rubbing shoulders with the breakaway state of Abhazia.IMG_1825

More of that later.

 

2 Georgian Lari = about $1.15 Australian cents

3 Georgian Lari = about $1.70 Australian cents

 

 

 

Georgia – First Impressions

A mini bus from Trabzon, on the far north east of Turkey’s share of the Black Sea, snaked past a long line of trucks queuing up to ender Georgia, many of which were backed-up in one of a string of tunnels leading up to the Turkish exit border post at Hopa. The bus could only go so far before we all had to get down and walk across the border throughIMG_1569 creaking, makeshift corridors of bare plywood and on into a no-man’s land where a very impressive Georgian border post, sparkling white in the sunshine, waited. No visa is needed for Georgia but my passport was scrutinised lengthily by a serious faced official before being smudgily stamped.

Out into Georgia proper and there’s a waiting, but already packed, minibus on to Batumi, Georgia’s premier port that I decline clambering in with a backpack. I wait for another emptier mini bus to materialize. One does and I scramble in along with another horde of people crossing the border and off to Batumi, all for about thirty Australian cents!

Asia or Europe or Asia Minor or even Eurasia? I couldn’t tell. The people didn’t look Asian the way people in Vietnam, Hong Kong and Malaysia looked Asian – they all seemed fair-skinned with blue eyes and dark hair, although many girls dyed their hair blonde. Caucasian or Circassian?

I suppose Batumi, the bustling seaport where the mini bus from the border dropped me off, had a hint of Asia with its grubby street market where spices, fruit – cherries and raspberries – veg and cheese were loudly hawked from stalls and barrows. Grimy Thai massage parlours, decorated with twinkling fairy lights, were shoulder to shoulder with casinos and slot machine joints. The beckoning and giggling girls in the doorways were definitely Thai – I stopped to chat to some of them – but their business was mostly with Turkish men who come over the border for a bit of fun. Where in God’s name is there any border with a town on either side where one side always appears better / more attractive / cheaper /more appealing than the other (and where there are truckloads of cross border trade)?

Pick anywhere on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic (Irish butter was always cheaper over the border in N. Ireland), or the border towns north of Khota Bharu in Malaysia and Sungai Golok and Narathiwat on the Thai side, or Hong Kong and Shenzhen, or Tijuana in Mexico and some place in Texas, and Temungong in Brunei Darussalam and Limbang in Malaysia but you get the idea. Oh, let’s not forget the overland border crossing from Saigon into Cambodia. Border towns worldwide always seem a bit seedy but all have that same frísson of excitement on first arrival.IMG_1570

Anyway, away from the market area and into a beautiful cloister-like square (Georgia became a Christian country in 301 C.E.) with restaurants on three sides. A pretty red-IMG_1572 2haired waitress dressed like a flight attendant with a jaunty blue hat, served me my first and excellent Georgian beer. I don’t know the name of the beer because it was written in the Georgian alphabet, which, to my eye looked unintelligible, full of squiggles, radii and what looks like badly written numbers.IMG_1591

What I did like about Batumi in particular were the mosaic style cobbled streets, the Botanical Gardens overlooking a muddy and uninviting Black Sea, the Cable Car that went to nowhere – well, there was a cafe and below that there was an empty, church tower – IMG_1599the musical fountain near the Ukrainian restaurant that had a dress code (I was not allowed to eat up on the balcony) and the somewhat gaudy buildings, IMG_1602the impossibly tall column of Medea (of Jason and the Argonauts fame),IMG_1639the excellent craft beer – although I meant to drink Georgian wine IMG_1605specifically! But what really bowled me over was the certainty on the part of everyone I spoke to that the Georgian language was directly related to the Basque language and that in the past Georgia had been called Iberia and that just proves it! Fantastic.  Yes, I know this bottle does not say Iberia but then aagain I find it hard to believe Georgian and Basque languages are related.IMG_1685

 

The Black Sea Silk Road

Evocative, far away places and names like The Ho Chi Minh Trail and The Silk Road are, perhaps unintentionally, misleading, as they both seem to imply a single trail or route. In actual fact, as the Americans discovered, the Ho Chi Minh ‘trail,’ parts of which had once been primitive footpaths that had facilitated trade for centuries past, was a vast and complex network of routes and roads.

Similarly, I discovered, the ancient Silk Road was the first intercontinental pathway in history for facilitating the exchange of trade, science, art, cultures and ideas through a myriad of trade routes between its empires and kingdoms.

One obvious route into the fabled East must have been along the southern shore of the Black Sea (Kara Deniz), inhabited by ‘hostile tribes,’ not least among them being the Amazons, according to Homer. With that in mind, I decided to start in Istanbul and travel east along the Black Sea before heading into Georgia and its neighbours. Trabzon, on the far south east corner of the Black Sea, would be a major focal point where the overland, intercontinental Silk Road divided and extended eastwards to the ancient commercial centres of the Caucasus and the great oasis cities of the Central Asia and on into China proper.

Once I started to look at Google Maps, it began to seem a bit more complex. Istanbul looked a long way from Trabzon, almost on the border with Georgia. This was going to involve lengthy bus trips, sadly, no trains here along the edge of the Black Sea. But first I had get out of massive Istanbul and cross the Bosporus!

Following the curving tram tracks from Gulhane, the first ferry terminal I came to on the sea front was closed but a terminal IMG_1518further IMG_2180down had an old steamer crossing the Bosporus to the rather appealingly named bus station of Harem.

IMG_2183

From there, apparently, I could catch a shuttle bus to somewhere else from where I could get the other bus to some place further down the coast.

Well, that was as much as I could understand, given my knowledge of Turkish.

However it all turned out well, a shuttle bus arrived more or less promptly and wove a tortuous route out of the city to a massive Metro bus station on the eastern outskirts. Into a sleek and modern coach which, no sooner had it pulled out onto immaculate highways, IMG_1553than a conductor was pushing a trolley down the aisle offering tea, coffee, soft drinks and a choice of three snacks! Six hours later we rolled into Bartin only it wasn’t Bartin exactly as I was bustled off the coach and onto a waiting mini-bus that raced off in the opposite direction to another part of Bartin where another mini bus finally took me to Amasra.

 

IMG_1534According to Homer, warriors from Bartin fought on the side of Troy against the Greeks. Certainly Amasra, known as Sesamos when it was founded by the Miletians in the 6th century BCE, would be worth fighting for its elegance, beauty and location on a peninsula made up of two inlets joined by an ancient Roman bridge.IMG_1522

My hotel room overlooked the harbour where a few beers, a fried fish dinner, a bottle of wine (190 New Turkish Lira!), raki and a cup of coffee restored the inner man after the travels of the day.

Back to Bartin days later, only one mini bus this time, and another mini bus out to the bus station and off to Sinop, reputed to be the happiest town in Turkey. Dropped off suddenly from the coach, I was rushed across the road and into a mini bus (again), which eventually dropped me off on Sinop ‘neck,’ the birthplace of the 3rd century BCE philosopher, Diogenes the Cynic.

Apparently, some time like 335 BCE, Alexander the Great was intrigued by the philosopher’s eccentric habit of living in an empty wine barrel, paused on his conquest east to ask if Diogenes needed anything.

‘Yes,’ the philosopher replied. ‘Move away, you are blocking my sunlight.’ (Fairly brusque, I would have thought myself, given he was speaking to a proven conqueror.)

A solid castle, with a cafe on its top ramparts overlooking one of the most beautiful natural harbours of the Black Sea, served cold beer while a small quayside restaurant provided a magnificent feast of over 50 small dishes (mezze) for brunch. No need for a dinner after that!IMG_1542

Tasty lentil soups for breakfast, along with tea and then later coffee with a sweet, tart glass of cherry juice, a little date and walnut snack and some weird, white, sticky mastic goo in a glass of water.

On to Samsun in a smallish but comfortable coach. Compared to my previous stopovers, Samsun seemed huge, a modern, industrial city that has served as a port for centuries. Its other claim to fame is that Kemal Ataturk landed there on 19 May 1919 to organise the defence of Anatolia.IMG_1546

The Fiesta Bar, around the corner from the first hotel I saw when I got off the coach, was dark and gloomy inside and I seemed to be the only customer besides two sad looking elderly staff who hastened to turn on disco lights just for me in an attempt to enliven the place. The beer was cold but tasted bad and I put it down and picked up a kaleidoscope-like tube from several crates stacked near my table. Idly I twisted the tube and with a bang, the bloody thing ‘shot’ me in the thigh, not hard enough to tear my pants but hard enough to leave an angry mark on my leg. Time to leave, thinks I and I did, leaving an unfinished beer behind.

Frustrated that the Fiesta was the only bar in town, I took a taxi to what was gaily proclaimed as “Bar Street” about 10k from the hotel where the first ‘bar’ there didn’t serve beer but the Olympiad next door did. Back to the Fiesta only to find that it had an open, airy but empty rooftop, which I hadn’t noticed before, so it was definitely time to move on to Trabzon.

The procedure at the bus ticket office was now comprehensible – buy a ticket, wait for the shuttle to the bus station, board the large, black Metro CIP bus – premium economy class this time! – and relax. Within minutes of pulling out, a pretty steward served a meal and I snoozed on a very pleasant trip to Trabzon.IMG_1565

First impressions however were of a grimy city, well used by generations of occupying Assyrians, Miletians, Persians, Romans, Goths, Comnenes and Ottomans but more importantly perhaps, it boasted an easily accessible roof-top bar, Gunnes, which actually had people in it, drinking too. More lentil soup and succulent charcoal roasted lamb and it was time to move on away from beer and into the birthplace of wine in Georgia.

Jelly Wrestling

I have just come back from eight weeks, mostly in Eastern in Europe, some of which I spent walking about 600K from Sopron in Hungary to Trieste in Italy.

I brought my iPhone with me and the idea was that I would blog stuff to my website as I wandered along. I think I did it once. So much for that idea! I suppose other things – drinking super cheap beer and dealing with blisters and blackened toe nails – got in the way.

I had a wonderful and memorable time and I kept thinking how boring my home in Australia is when compared with the sights and scenes throughout Eastern Europe.

I returned home last week and I went down to my local – boring – pub for a quick pint before dinner. In recent years, the place has been tarted up so that on one side is the “family-oriented bistro” and on the other side is the so-called “sports bar” joined to the TAB or betting shop where a few elderly men hang out, watching the races or footy on the large screen TV’s.

This night the car park was unusually full and I thought there might be a “skimpy” serving the drinks as they usually drum up custom. As I walked up the back steps to the sports bar, I overheard some guy on the phone excitedly explaining why he couldn’t leave just yet because of the “jelly wrestling”! What?

Inside, the place was packed with tradies, still in their work boots and hi-vis clothes of yellow and orange, talking animatedly and drinking up a storm – it was Friday night after all.

In the middle of the floor was an inflatable child’s paddling pool filled with blue, gelatinous, soft, squishy beads. In the pool itself were two bikini-clad girls grappling with each other, slipping and sliding around in the blue goo.

Whenever one girl managed to “throw” the other, the victor would mount the victim and cursorily simulate sex with a few thrusts of her glistening hips, to the uproar and applause of the watching men.

Well, I never saw that in the country towns and villages in Slovenia or Croatia for sure, I thought to myself. I just wish Australian beer was as good and as cheap as it was there!

Footloose & Fancy Free or Footsore & Weary

Started this European Peace Walk — this is me on the first day – on Tuesday July 04, from Sopron in Hungary and ending in Trieste in Italy, passing through Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, Slovenia and finally Italy. In Croatia now and about half way there but the blisters are mounting. So far, great food, interesting people and cheap beer. On the down side, I am sick of trudging through muddy, ploughed up corn and wheat fields and getting lost in dark forests where I am a main course for voracious insects and fair game for stinging nettles!

In Krapina, Croatia, letting the blisters heal. Seems like a fantastic little kip – loads of bars and cafes and there is even a museaum devoted to Neantherthal Man!

South America Summary

A rather amazing trip, from Cuba in the far north, down to Ecuador and on to Peru, where I ate guinea pig, alpaca and llama, missing out on Machu Pichu but taking a 22 hour bus ride from Lima up to Cusco in the heart of the Andes. Over then to Lake Titicaca and a boat trip out to the weird, artificial islands of floating reeds and over the border into Bolivia where the bus seemed to climb endlessly and I lay sprawled in my seat, munching coca leaves and gasping for breath as we topped 4800 metres. A gradual descent then, of only 200 metres towards La Paz, only to find the city blocaded by local indigenous people who had thrown up ramparts of earth and rubble blocking the main highway into the city. Eventually we had to stop and take on an Incan guide who showed the bus driver how to thread his way rough narrow, grimy back streets until we eventually arrived, me exhausted and still panting, in La Paz. The next day, the whole city ground to a standstill as angry miners paraded through the city centre, while heavily armed police with pump-action grenade launchers stood on every street corner, heavy steel chains in their hands ready to seal off any street disturbance. The next day it was the turn of the students and again the city centre was paralysed. Enough was enough for me, and, still breathless, I managed to get a bus out and south, although that took unneccesary hours as again we had to thread our way past endless blockades. Finally, a train, one of the noisiest and decrepit trains I have ever been on, down as far as the Argentinian border. What a relief – an ordered, organised city with working traffic lights, freeways and highway diamonds and gorgeous wine. Even better was the black market In foreign currency – the official rate for US dollars being about 9 pesos to the dollar. Unofficially, the rate was about 16 to the dollar, and quite openly so – touts hanging around outside banks and exchanges. Made quite a difference to the budget and was able to afford some very decent wine. On from Salta, on the border into serious wine country, thought the most magnificent canyon and arid countryside to the little town of Cafayate where I spent more than a week eating huge steaks and plundering their bodegas. Down to Tucuman and Córdoba (cities I had never heard of, where accomodation was hard to come by as it was the middle of an exceptionally long holiday weekend. On again to Mendoza , the real heart of Argentinean wine and more steaks, huge 500 g slabs of bleeding cow on a plate washed down with more than a bottle of red wine. Bliss. I seem to have adopted a paleolithic style diet where all I ate was meat – no veg or fruit, just meat and gulped wine.

I made enquirers about a bus over the Andes to Santiago in Chile, only to be informed  that all bus services over the Andes between Mendoza and Santiago had been suspended due to bad weather and snow. So more steak and red wine and eventually I managed to get a ticket for Saturday but no guarantee that the bus would run the 8 hour trip.

What a ride! Probably the most exciting and certainly most scenic bus trip I have ever taken.

Finally the end of the trip approaching in the form of Santiago, Chile and I could breath again, altitude a mere 480 metres only. A few days there, more steaks, and yes, more red wine but now that I have arrived in Valpariaso, it is gorgeous seared tuna fish with a salad of avocado, asparagus and tomato and white wine.

I must admit, with tales of the Gringo Trail in mind, I was expecting to be offered tons of coke and weed, but it was a surprisingly sober trip. I bought a gram of coke in Ecuador for $15 and approached it with trepidation, rolling up $100 bills in expectation. I thought it might be best to do it straight and then go for a beer and that is what I did. A tiny bit of speed, maybe, and nothing else.

Bought another gram somewhere else and marginally better – I was only doing this, of course to help with the breathing. Somewhere else, in one of the hostels, got chatting with one of the guys working there, I think he was a Brit, and he invited me to share an actual lump of coke which was – I think – much better but as I stayed up until 5:00 am, I’m not too sure. I then had to face a 14 hour bus trip so I was a subdued little man for a while.

General Observations

Cuba – very fat ladies squeezed in to tight Lycra pants; very generous measures of rum; great music in the bars, mildewed buildings.

Ecuador – organised and efficient, gorgeous ceviche, panic buttons in this taxis, dry Sundays!

Peru – no pepper in restaurants, crap coffee, grey Pacific, rum served with whipped egg white, coca leaves for chewing with a lump of stevia (to help with altitude), super clean wet markets, amazing displays of fruit, veg never seen before, enormous servings of meat, inca women with very long plaited hair, shawls and bowler hats perched on their heads

Bolivia – a shambles, road blocks condoning off La Paz from the outskirts, erected by local indigenous in protest at …, huge street protests in La Paz, seriously armed police with pump action tear gas shotguns, trouble breathing most of the time.

Argentine – easy border crossing with no paperwork at all, bus searched by troops at a military checkpoint, huge highways and flyovers, a modern country (compared to Cuba and Bolivia), a black market in U.S. Dollars.

Chile – Lovely wines – Colchuagua Valley (despite the fact that I never made that pilgrimage) being one of my favourites.

Lounged my time away in Valparaiso and small coastal towns like Viña del Mar, bravong myself for the long flight actoss the pacific to Sydney na d onwards to perth.