Islands in the Sun

Moher
Cliff of Moher, West Ireland

I love islands and island life, possibly because I was born on the far flung western isle (Ireland) or maybe because my childhood was suffused with island adventure tales – Enid Blyton’s Famous Five’s escapades on Kirrin Island (and the slightly more mature Adventure series – The River of Adventure, the Mountain of Adventure and, inevitably, the Island of Adventure with Philip, Jack and his parrot Kiki, Dinah and little Lucy-Ann) – and followed up with R.L. Stephenson’s Treasure Island and R.M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (which was the first book to ever make me cry when Bloody Bill, the pirate, died!).

 

Then again, perhaps it was the magic of flying on a two engine Fokker Friendship prop plane from Dublin airport to The Isle of Man with my parents for another childhood holiday. One time we flew from Collinstown, later to become Dublin International, and once, more exciting, left at midnight from one of the city’s quays on a ship that seemed to loom immense in the glare of lights. Magical gardens and bridges where a fairy toll is ‘demanded’, cats with no tails and a unique ‘Q-Celtic’ Manx language – sadly now extinct, the last native speaker having died in the mid seventies – Manx was related to Scottish Gaelic and Irish as opposed to the ‘P-Celtic languages of Welsh, Cornish and Breton. I still remember the  buzz and roar of the annual TT motorbike races around the island and the excitement it generated.

On the other hand, it may have been the summer picnics to Dalkey Island2 (the closest

Coliemore
Coliemore Harbour

island to where I lived in Dublin as a child) which seemed to require such advance planning on the part of my parents. The No. 8 bus from the heart of the city would go past our house on the corner of the Monkstown Road and on through Dun Laoghaire, Sandy Cove and eventually the terminus at Dalkey and from there the walk, lumbered down with tartan rugs, picnic baskets, flasks of hot tea, buckets and spades, to the harbour at Coliemore from where my father would bargain with brawny men to row us across to the uninhabited island of Dalkey Island* crowned with a Napoleonic era Martello tower. Uninhabited except for a few goats, a Martello tower, a freshwater spring and a ruined church. Family picnics, diving off the small, whitewashed rocks where the rowing boat left us off and picking up fresh mackerel for dinner on the homeward trip.

 

Whatever it was, it seems that those most magical times have extended into my adult life and have all been centred on islands. Simple man, simple dreams3, I suppose. By horoscope, I fall under Cancer – a water sign – and in the Chinese zodiac I am a (water) snake and despite having enjoyed myself in mountainous regions worldwide – The Himalayays in Nepal, the Andes in Peru, the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia, the Pyrenees on the Spanish-French border, I feel my strength and vitality are at their peak when I am close to water, especially salt water!

With so many thousands of islands in Indonesia I have explored so few, Bali ages ago and more recently, the Gilli Islands off Lombok – an easy four hour direct flight from Perth here in West Australia and then a 90 minutes taxi ride to the port at Bangsal from where the public boats set out for the islands. Bali is a subtle blend of festive Hinduism and local traditions, Denpasar and Kuta being over commercialised  but it is still easy to escape to central Ubud and the black sand beaches along the north shore at Singha Raja. Everybody seemed talented – whether it was in dance or performance, wood and stone carving, music or hospitality and fluent in so many ways. I had to buy extra bags in Bali to accomodate all the carvings and knick knacks I acquired the first few times there.  I recently came across a few thousand rupiah from that time and when I produced them in Lombok last week, people laughed in incredulity at my crumpled bills. They have been out of date for almost forty years! IMG_3295I headed off initially to Trawangan, the party island, with plenty of bars and loud music and the furthest out from Lombok but after two nights of drinking cheap cocktails – two for the price of one – made with local spirits – I had a vicious headache and decided to try the delights of Menos, the middle or the ‘Robinson Crusoe’ island, the smallest and the quietest the three. Beautiful, semi unspoilt islands – no cars or motorbikes only bicycles and little pony and trap carts and a sunrise on one side and a sunset on the other side of the island. Three days on Menos and, with my time running out, I spent the last three nights on Air, the island closest to Lombok itself. IMG_3310All three islands were unique in their own way and were small enough to stroll around in less than two hours and all offered scuba training and day and night dives and probably excellent value if that is the kind of thing you like. I’m a bit different – I just wanted clear, deep water and that’s where the islands fell down for me as, for a hundred metres or so around all three islands, the water was shallow and while appearing to be sandy, was, in fact, made up of dead and broken white coral shards which made getting into and out of the water difficult and painful. Coral cuts tend to fester easily and reef shoes – which, of course I didn’t have – would be an absolute necessity. As it was, the water was so shallow that trying to swim overarm out to deeper water my finger tips brushed the broken coral with each stroke. Not ideal unless you want to lounge by the swimming pools most of the resorts provided.

A relatively new ‘discovery’ for me, Lombok is the large island next to Bali and, in theory,IMG_3317 should be just as beautiful. Certainly a fantastic ride from the airport skirting the capital and rushing past small villages and up over a jungle clad mountain with monkeys on the roadside, attracted by heaps of durian on sale, glimpses of the coast as we head down to the port. I am sure there are gorgeous beaches there too but I was set on new island horizons, the three small islands off the north west of Lombok.

Samosir, on the other hand, was almost an island, in the middle of Lake Toba, near Medan in Sumatra, practically the far end of the Indonesian archipelago from Lombok. My son fell, fully clothed, off the dock once we arrived and I had to jump in after him. That’s all I can really remember except for some really ratty accomodation.

So, on to all my favourite islands and how to rank them – by cost? (Rottnest island off Perth in WA is hideously overpriced); by beauty? (most S. E. Asian islands); by ease / difficulty of access? (although that has changed with airports springing up everywhere); by people? (all of them!). A listing in no particular order and with distinct memories of times past and present.

Lamai Koh Samui
Lamai Beach, Koh Samui

Ahh, Asia, every other island paled into significance once I came across Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Tao and Koh Samet.  Those tropical paradises, first visited in 1981, originally by slow, flat-bottomed overnight ferry from Dongson to Koh Samui before a pickup truck ride to Chaweng or Lamai or Bo Phut beaches still represent earthly paradise to me. Back in the early 80’s, I’d pay something like a nightly 30 Baht for a beach-side hut on stilts and have banana pancakes for breakfast, Tom Yam soup for lunch and barbecued fish 

Lamai
Lamai Beach, Koh Samui

for dinner, all washed down with icy Singha beer in cold frosted glasses and Mehkong whisky and soda water. Beautiful sandy beaches, relaxing beach massages and a gentle shelving beach so that you could run and dive straight into crystal clear waters. Now you can fly from most places into Ko Samui airport – one of the most appealing airports I have ever been in. Prices of course have gone up since my first visit and many beach side resorts also offer that abomination – a swimming pool! Koh Phangan was, I think, the ‘party’ island north of Koh Samui – the originator of the full moon parties? Koh Tao consisted of three tiny rocky islands connected by sand banks at low tide. I swam around the largest island once. There used to be just a handful of beach huts and a restaurant; now I believe it is packed but it must still be beautiful. All I remember of poor old Koh Samet are mosquitoes and ants!

 

I lived in Malaysia for three years and evocative names in Penang like Batu Fennenghi and Jalan Chulia where I bought my first ever SLR camera still stir me but it was off the east coast of northern Trengganu that the real tropical paradises of Perhentian and Redang lay. Deserted, at the time and  used only by local fishermen for its fresh water supply – hence the name ‘Perhenti’ / Stop, in Malay. I used to hire a local fishing boat from Kuala Besut, where I lived for three years and would make almost weekly trips (on a friday) to the island and come back to the kuala, sun-burnt, salt bleached and dehydrated to revive myself with large bottle of cold Anchor beer, served from metal tea pots into heavy ceramic cups in the only Chinese cafe in the kampong. I camped on the island for nearly  a week once while trying to study for my Graduate Record Examination into an American university, thinking I would have no distractions! Even further out than the Perhentian islands lay Redang. it was once used as a detention centre for Boat people in the aftermath of the Vietnam war. I much preferred the Perhentians where I swam with sting rays, turtles and small (leg-long) sharks in waters no deeper than three or four metres. Gorgeous!

A fast ‘coffin boat’ from Brunei Darussalam would bring me to Labuan, a duty free island off the coast of Malaysian Sabah in Borneo – an absolute haven away from alcohol-free, strictly Islamic, Brunei.  I used to treat myself and stay in the golf course hotel. Alternatively, I’d go over with some friends in their boat, depart Brunei legally, arrive in Labuan, stock up with up to 50 cases of beer (ballast, we used to call it) and return to Brunei illegally after dark when the customs had closed, off load the beer on a deserted beach where other friends were waiting and then report to Brunei customs the following morning, claiming the Evinrude engines had been giving us trouble and we had only just arrived! Another world, another time!

And then, of course, there is Hong Kong and with this view from my rooftop, what more could anyone ask?HK1

Lamma island, just off the bottom of HK’s 

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA
Fish farms off Sok Kwu Wan, Lamma, HK

southern bottom, was such a laid-back spot off frenetic Hong Kong. ‘Draw-string pants, mismatched socks and guitar music’ I once heard someone describe the lifestyle there compared to HK’s bankers. One ferry from HK Central would arrive at Sok Kwu Wan on the north east side of the island with its fish-farms and quayside restaurants. I used to walk from there to the other side of the island with its ATM, bars and more seafood restaurants and a different ferry from Yung Shue Wan back to HK.

HK4
HK mini Buses

 

Lantau Island had the big Buddha (the biggest, seated, outdoor, bronze Buddha in the world,) as well as a great South African barbecue beachside restaurant with jugs of Margaritas. Cheung Chow, One of Hong Kong’s favourite suicide spots for some bizarre reason. Punters would rent a small chalet, close the doors and windows and light a charcoal barbecue and suffocate themselves.

 

Phu Quoc, off the most south westerly tip of Vietnam, looks closer to Cambodia and was fairly unspoilt and quiet when I was there about 20 years ago. So much so that the ‘resort’ I was staying in offered to sell itself to me after a night’s drinking with the owner! I choose what I would like to eat the following day from an ‘oral menu’ and he would make a trip to the local market just for me! The island boasted of its famed peppercorns and fish sauce which, locals zealously informed me, could not be brought on board an airplane lest the bottle break and its pungency imperil all on board!

Singapore was definitely my first ever S. E. Asian island! Gaping, like some yokel from the sticks, I went shopping along Orchard Road and bought my first – and only – portable typewriter – an Olivetti – there back in 1981.  Do those things still exist? The incredible humidity in the air – like walking into the bathroom after somehow had a long, very hot shower with the door and windows closed and the coolness of the Long Bar, in the Raffles Hotel, surrendering to Singapore slings, was a blessed relief after the turmoil of shopping!

I did an MA in the State University at Stony Brook, half-way out on the north shore of Long Island, a long spit of land reaching out into the Atlantic from New York City and did my drinking in places like Setauket and Port Jefferson and my swimming in the creek on the northside and in the Atlantic on the south side.

I worked one summer on the island of Sylt, the jewel of the ‘German Riviera’! I was ‘ein nacht portier’ at Hotel Ursula in the main town of Westerland. Long, windswept sandy beaches where elderly people played volley ball in the nude and where I was eventually fired when it was discovered that I didn’t really speak any German but it took nearly three weeks before that was discovered!

The Île de Noirmoutier is not really an island as it is connected to the French mainland by a causeway flooded daily by the incoming – and fast – tide. Famous for its new potatoes, I remember it for lazy afternoons drinking white wine with a touch of Cassis with old friends.

Slow, laid back, very patchy wi-fi, Cuba offered differently aged Habana rumsIMG_0631(apparently Bacardi sided with the Batista government forces against Castro and so signed their death warrant on the island) in generous mojito cocktails. Music in the bars at night – and everywhere – extravagantly old American cars lovingly tended (or rusted out heaps beyond repair), fat women squeezed into tight lycra and old men and women smoking cigars the size of a baby’s arm.

From Puno in Peru I went out to the amazing floating islands made of bundled reeds on Lake Titicaca, part of the border between Peru and Bolivia.

IMG_0089
Floating Reed Island, Titicaca

 

Trampoline-like under foot, the reeds were used for their shelters as well as their boats.

IMG_0088
Reed boat, Titicaca

 

 

Half an hour by fast ferry off Fremantle in West Australia,  Rottnest island is clearly visible from the mainland and like the Gilli Islands, there is no motorised transport – just bicycles and beautiful beaches, fresh octopus and, the island specific, quokkas (a type of small, short tailed wallaby). While beautiful and charming, the island is, in my opinion, mega expensive for what it offers..

Hainan
Hainan Island

Hainan island is China’s most southerly port and submarine base and I stayed in the same hotel where the Miss World beauty contest was once held in the southern city of Sanya. Parts of the beaches were cordoned off by the military, as I discovered when I ignored shouted warnings strolling along a sandy beach. Only the clunk-clunk of a pump-action shot-gun being cocked brought me to my senses.

 

Macau casinos held no 

Macau3
One of the fancy casinos

 

attraction for me but Portuguese food and wine certainly did in the area around the old harbour as well as crumbly old ‘Fawlty Towers’ type hotels. I’d return to HK laden with chorizo, olive oil, tinned anchovies and bottles of a slightly sparkling white wine.

 

Almost directly opposite the Chinese mainland city of Xiamen is Penghu County, a drab island claimed by Taiwan and reached by a three hour ferry trip from Xiamen itself. One of the most heavily shelled / bombed places after 1949 when the Nationalists retreated. The main culinary delight seemed to be  oyster omelettes!

Next up, after the Thai Islands mentioned above must be Puerta Galera in The Philippines. A half day bus trip out of Metro Manila down to Batangas and then a ferry over to Puerto Galera on the island of Mindoro. Fantastic! I stayed at the end of a rocky promontory with a floating bar a 100 metres away. Cold San Miguel beer cheaper than a coffee or a coke, mellow Tanduay rum, tiny, bitter little calamansi limes, green skin, bright orange inside with slippery pips, friendly people and crystal clear, deep water – perfect.

In late December, the sun rose around twelve noon in Reykjavik, Iceland and set again at about four pm. Ideal in some ways – use your imagination – the hotel in the small town of Hverageròi where I ended up for some reason, was overheated and I pushed the window open to let some air in and the window froze open overnight, as did the lens of my camera later that day. Amazing to come across hot houses growing bananas and tropic plants benefitting from underground thermal power.

So, a retrospecive look at islands sparked by my recent trips to the Gilli Islands, Indonesia.

1 Islands in the Sun – Harry Belafonte

https://www.last.fm/music/Harry+Belafonte/_/Island+In+The+Sun

2 Dalkey Island Photos – Niki McGrath

EFFECTS

3 Simple man, simple dreams – Linda Ronstadt‘s Asylum album released in September, 1977.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QLk90r2sJMc

Yerevan and Environs

During the Yalta conference towards the end of the Second World War when the three Allied leaders, all with a penchant for booze, (Winston Churchill favoured champagne and brandy, Franklin D Roosevelt enjoyed martinis while Jozef Stalin, a native of Gori in Georgia, indulged in vodka and – to the detriment of the Georgian wine industry – super-sweet red wine), met to carve up post-war Europe, Armenian brandy was served which, apparently, won over Winnie’s heart.  Good enough reason for me to relinquish the delights of Georgian wines for Armenian brandies.

The overnight train from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, groaned in past grimy, dis-used lots, abandoned factories and unfinished, ugly concrete slab buildings – an air of  neglect, lovelessness, and dilapidation, dismal and decrepit. Not the most welcoming entrance into Yerevan, the capital city of Armenia, sandwiched between Georgia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan.

IMG_1878It was early morning and still cool so I decided to walk from the, admittedly, statuesque central station to the hostel I had booked at random before leaving Tbilisi but the walk didn’t change my initial opinion of the city despite the plenitude of park benches and drinking water fountains. Overall the impression was one of grey, concrete drabness. The hostel was small, cramped but cheery with two Filipina girls laughing and cooking breakfast in the tiny kitchen but only a small, top bunk was available and I decided to move on.

Untended vines, the thickness of my thigh, sprouted from broken pavements, climbing above fashionable shops on the ground floor, masking the ugly, squalid looking apartments two, three, four and five stories above while a dusty church  topped a small bare hill opposite aIMG_1881 Carrefour supermarket. I was beginning to regret having made the sweaty overnight trip here until I turned a corner and  ended up in the English Park, a shady, IMG_1921fountain filled park with a cafe and bar in its centre beside the big screen showing the latest matches from the 2018 World Cup.  Just around the corner from my new hostel was an elegant and upmarket food hall IMG_1882leading to a broad, pedestrianized avenue with a stream of fountains running down the central area, culminating in Republic Square. Massive, monolithic buildings of naturally coloured tufa, a rock made of compacted volcanic ash, in various shades, IMG_1885ranging from light pink pastels with a hint of orange formed a semi-circle around the Central Bank, and the National Art Gallery and Museum, almost completing one arc around the huge central fountain – musically choreographed and floodlit by night, as I was to discover later.

Fountains, parks, churches – Armenia was the first “European country” to become Christian in something like 330 A.D. – almost a century before St. Patrick arrived in pagan Ireland in 432A.D – and grapevines seemed to crowd the city,  which I could look down on after climbing the endless steps known locally as ‘the Cascades’ to the multi-level IMG_1898IMG_1904Cafesjian arts centre, named after the Armenian-American who funded the completion of the former Soviet era construction.

Cold beers – I loved the Name ‘Zadecky Goose’ – and lamb kebabs in the English park, watching the world cup matches at the convenient time of 4PM IMG_1915followed by classical concerts at the National Concert Hall with brandy chasers afterwards began to pall and it was time for a change of scenery.

IMG_1890I have spent twenty-odd years living in Asia and during that time visited most of the ruined and fabled lost cities and temples – Pagan in Burma, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Ayutthaya in Thailand and My Son in central Vietnam, so I decided to do something similar here in Armenia.

Garni is the only pre-Christian structure remaining in this devotedly Christian nation. Built by Tirdates I around 77A.D., with reparation payments of 50 million sesterces along with Roman craftsmen provided by Roman Emperor Nero, the classical Graeco-Roman style building may have been a tomb, thus explaining why it escaped destruction during Armenia’s militant Christian past. Possibly IMG_1980

a temple dedicated to Mihr, the sun god in the Zoroastrian mythology, the massive colonnaded building, perched on the edge of sheer cliffs, would have been a perfect spot from which to hurl sacrifices! Huge steps led up the front IMG_1996entrance, forcing me to scramble up, practically on my hands and knees, proper style for entering a pagan temple, I thought.

A twisting road lined with cherry and other fruit trees led to a spectacular monastic settlement at Geghard a few kilometres away. Established in the early 4th century by Gregory the Illuminator, on a former pagan sacred site, inside a cave with a freshwater spring, and surrounded by towering cliffs and tumultuous drops on every side, IMG_2006 the incredible monastery huddled in the rock face where ascetic monks must have eked out a precarious existence in caves in the cliffs reached only by ladders or ropes, ‘adding prayer to shivering prayer’* and exposed to the elements. IMG_2039Apparently, the old monastery had, along with the monks’ quarters, churches, shrines, a seminary, an academy of music and, of course, a manuscriptorium where, presumably Gregory hung out. And all this was all just as the Armenian alphabet was being invented! To add gloss to the whole place, relics included the original spear used by the centurion to pierce IMG_2024Christ on the Cross, brought here by St. Jude – known, inexplicably here as Thaddeus The spear pictured here was just the case for the relic now kept elsewhere in Armenia, – as well as a chunk of wood said to be from Noah’s Ark!

Lake Sevan, about 70 k outside Yerevan and at 2,000 metres, promised cooler weather from the city’s stifling, hot summer where daily temperatures seemed to always be north of 38°C and the idea of bathing my feet in a local lake rather than Armenia’s beer, wine and brandy appealed to me. IMG_1967 No-one could call Sevan a pretty town and on the advice of another passenger on the bus, I skirted the town completely and headed out towards the Sevanavank monastery, founded in 874 A.D., built on the southern shore of a small IMG_1942island, which, after the lake was drained during the Stalinist era, transformed into a peninsula at the north western shore of the lake.IMG_1966

The lakeside was more appealing with a smattering of fashionable hotels clustered around rusty shipping container-like ‘rooms’ offering cheaper rates and massage to gawking tourists, many of them from neighbouring Iran, judging by the head-scarved women wearing what looked like voluminous dressing gowns.

Determined to watch the World Cup games, which my hotel was not showing, I ended up with a taxi driver, willing and smiling to my demands for ‘fussball’ and beer, who obligingly drove me around from betting shop to betting shop inm Sevan town before throwing up his hands in despair and taking me to a micro brewery on the edge of town where the staff were either unwilling or unable to turn the channel to the impending Australian Vs. Peru game. The taxi-driver – grinning maniacally – seemed happy to wait on the opposite side of a two lane motor highway while I gulped darkish beer and gnawed on tough lamb / goat bones before sullenly returning to my lakeside hotel and back to Yerevan the following morning.

Another day to stock up on Very Superior (VS); Very Superior Old Pale (VSOP); and Extra Old (XO). brandy and then the clunky train back to Tbilisi.IMG_2632

* ‘adding prayer to shivering prayer’ is a line from the poem September 1913 by William Butler Yeats, Ireland’s first Bobel Prize winner for Literature.

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!