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.

 

 

 

 

Medea, Princess of Colchis

I loved the heroic stories of the ancient Greeks when I was a kid. I actually knew the difference between Theseus and Perseus and knew all about Helen of Troy (‘was this the face that launched a thousand ships?’), the labours of Hercules but I particularly enjoyed the tale of Jason and the Argonauts in their quest on the oracular ship, the Argo, for the Golden Fleece1. guarded in the kingdom of Colchis. Just as Troy was re-discovered as a real place, in the nineteenth century, Colchis too has been identified as an actual place at the eastern end of the Black Sea, in modern day Georgia.

I never bothered to visit Troy when I was in Turkey recently but I was intrigued to pass through the former kingdom of Colchis, just north of Batumi in the former soviet republic Georgia. In the main square, there was no statue of the so-called hero Jason, but instead, on a towering column, proudly holding aloft the Golden Fleece, the statue of Medea, Hecate’s witch-priestess, the sorceress daughter of King Aeëtes and the Caucasian nymph Asterodeia and Jason’s accomplice in his quest for the Golden Fleece.

Statues generally honour male heroes but here was a statue honouring this incredible woman, driven by forces beyond her knowledge, and led by her own ambitious, driving powers committing the most appalling acts of fratricide, regicide and filicide in the name of love helplessly engendered by the very gods themselves. Mind you, I wouldn’t say Jason was much of an angel, either. Here’s my take on Medea’s story.

IMG_1600

Medea, the daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis, the guardian of the Golden Fleece upon which the security of the kingdom depends, is smitten by Jason on first sight because the goddesses. Hera, who had sworn to aid Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece, and Athene, who wanted revenge for the past misdemeanours of Pelias, usurper of Jason’s throne, persuade Aphrodite to bribe her son, Eros, to make Medea conceive of a fierce passion for the Argonaut.

Aeëtes refused to hand over the Golden Fleece, reasonably enough and threatened to tear out Jason’s tongue out and chop off his hands. Medea convinced her father, the king of Colchis, against his will, to offer Jason the fleece on condition of fulfilling seemingly impossible tasks – yoking fire breathing, brazen hoofed bulls, sowing dragon’s teeth, from which fully armed warriors will spring, itching for a fight and other heroic acts.

Medea promises to use all her powers to help Jason to yoke the twin bulls and to overcome the sprouting warriors on condition that he love her forever and take her back to Greece on his return. Jason swears by all the gods of Olympus to keep faith with her. Medea concocts blood-red pomegranate juice mixed with the two stalked Caucasian crocus and honey, which shields Jason’s body and weapons.

Aeëtes, shocked at the ease at which Jason performs the impossible tasks and unaware of his daughter’s assistance to the hero, goes back on his word and foolishly confides in her that, during a banquet to celebrate Jason’s achievements, he plans to burn their ship, the Argo and massacre all his companions, the Argonauts.

Medea immediately leads Jason and his companions to a grove where the Golden Fleece hangs, guarded by a dragon of a thousand coils, larger than the Argo itself. Medea soothes the hissing monster with her occult incantations as Jason stealthily unhooks the Golden Fleece from the oak tree and hurries down to the cove on the Black Sea where the Argo waited.

Setting sail immediately, an enraged Aeëtes followed Medea and Jason, chasing, not only his daughter and the fleece but also, his only son, Medea’s brother, Apsyrtus who had accompanied them. Desperate to slow her father, Medea kills her younger brother and tosses him, piece by piece, overboard, forcing her father to stop and collect each piece in order to be able to provide full funeral rights.

Unfortunately, the oracular beam of the ship Argo, refused to sail further with them aboard until atonement be made for the murder.

Jason and Medea travel overland to Aeaea, the island home of Medea’s aunt, Circe who reluctantly purified them of the murder with the blood of a young sow! The Colchian pursuers, guessing that Jason and Medea would be picked up from there, demand from the king of Aeaea, on behalf of their king, Aeëtes, the return of both the fleece and Medea herself.

Citing ill treatment at the hands of her father, Medea sought protection from the local queen. The king was obliged to respond to the demands of the Colchians and, influenced by his wife, proclaimed that if Medea was virginal, she must be returned to her father but otherwise she could stay with Jason. The queen immediately told Medea and she and Jason bedded there and then on the Golden Fleece.

Heading home, passing the isle of Crete, Talos, a monstrous bronze guardian, blocked passage to the Argo by but Medea soothed the brute with her honey mouth, promising to make him mortal if he would only drink from the potion she offered. Gulping it down greedily, Talos fell into a deep sleep and Medea removed a bronze plug from his heel which sealed the single vein running the length of his body. Out gushed a colourless fluid which had served him as blood, rendering him inanimate.

Finally reaching Jason’s home of Iolcus, they discover, that in their absence, the usurper Pelias has finally killed Jason’s aged father and mother and fortified the city so that it is impenetrable to the Argonauts. Medea then offered to take the city single handedly and told Jason to hide the ship nearby and wait for her signal of burning torches on the palace roof. Disguising herself as a crone and carrying a hollow image of the goddess Artemis, Medea approached the city gates and demanded entry, crying out that the goddess Artemis wished to honour the piety of Pelias by making him young again so that he could sire heirs to his throne.

Pelias, no fool, doubted her until Medea transformed herself before his very eyes into her youthful and beguiling form. Behold now the power of Artemis, she cried as she chopped an aged ram into thirteen pieces and boiled them in a cauldron before the king’s wondering eyes. Muttering Colchian incantations and appealing to Artemis to assist her, Medea pretended to rejuvenate the ram by suddenly producing a frisky lamb from inside the hollow stature of Artemis that she had positioned beside the cauldron. Fully convinced now, Pelias, lulled by Medea’s charms, fell into a deep sleep on his couch. Medea then ordered his daughters to cut up their father’s body, just as she had done with the ram, and boil him in the same cauldron so that the rejuvenation could begin. As soon as the bodily parts were in the cauldron, Media led the daughters up onto the roof of the palace, each of them carrying a lit torch so that they could invoke the power of the moon while the cauldron was simmering. Seeing the lit torches being waved on the palace roof, Jason and the Argonauts stormed the city successfully only to later accept banishment by the Iolcus council. Jason, fearing the vengeance of Pelias’ daughters for the cruel murder of their father, wisely abandoned the city to them.

Following Medea’s advice, Jason set sail again on the Argo and presented the Golden Fleece to the temple of Zeus before heading to the Isthmus of Corinth. Medea, the only surviving child of her father Aeëtes, the rightful king of Corinth before he moved to Colchis, now claimed the throne and the Corinthians, awed by both Medea and Jason’s deeds, accepted Jason as their king.

A prosperous decade passes and Medea presents Jason with several children but his eye is caught by Glauce, daughter of king Creon of Thebes, and he renounces his vows to Medea, determined to take Glauce to his bed. Medea urges him not to, reminding him that he also owes the throne of Corinth to her but Jason insisted that an oath made under pressure was non-binding. Medea appeared to give way and sent all of Jason’s children to Glauce bearing a hand-woven white gown and a tiara of fine gold as a peace offering. No sooner had Glauce slipped on the gown and placed the tiara on her head when she burst into unquenchable flames, consuming not only her, but also her father, King Creon and all the child messengers that Medea had borne Jason.

Leaving a destitute Jason, unloved by the gods for having forsaken his vows to Medea in their name, Medea, fled in a chariot pulled by fearsome serpents, first to Thebes and then Athens before hearing her uncle Perses had usurped the throne of Colchis from her father Aeëtes. Hastening home Medea restored and then expanded and ruled the kingdom with her father.IMG_1855

 

I suppose that counts as a happy ending for Medea but poor old Jason wandered destitute until, finally returning to his birthplace, he sits down to rest under the beached remains of his ship, the Argo, and a beam from the bow falls on him, killing him outright!

 

  1. Apparently it was quite common to stretch a sheepskin on a wooden frame and place it at an appropriate place in the river where gold particles could be deposited and colleced later.

Lobio

I suppose every country in the world has some sort of national dish – Ireland – Irish Stew; England – Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pud; Italy – Spag Bol; USA – Hamburger & Fries; Germany – Wurst mit Mayo; Turkey – Lentil Soup (though not quite sure if that is the national dish and in Georgia – the country, not the state in the US – all the restaurants in Tbilisi and wherever else I went, seemed to serve Lobio Nigvzit – a hearty bean stew in a small clay pot. (Apologies to anyone who feels I have misrepresented their national dishes above)

IMG_2256Lobio is, at its most basic, just a thick stew of mashed beans with some or all or the following ingredients – fresh coriander, walnuts, garlic, onions,pomegranate molasses, fresh parsley or celery leaves, mint, chilli flakes, roasted whole coriander seeds, but it can be upgraded with bacon, beef, cheese etc. Here’s my take on the basic – feel free to add extras as you wish, but a word of caution, without any of the extras, it is still a deeply satisfying dish

Ingredients

1 mug of red kidney beansIMG_2241

1 cup walnut halves or pieces, finely ground

5 cloves garlic, minced

3 bay leaves

1 cup finely chopped coriander or flat-leaf parsley, dill, basil, celery greens

1 large, brown onion finely chopped

* 1/4 mug pomegranate molasses or red wine vinegar

 

1 tablespoon ground coriander, or to tasteIMG_2260

1 teaspoon ground thyme

2 teaspoons kosher salt, or to taste

1 teaspoon smoked paprika or to taste

Method

Soak the beans, preferably overnight, in cold water but at least for several hours. I used one mug full of red kidney beans and covered them with buckets of water and they had pretty much doubled in size by the next day.

Drain the beans and cover with fresh water, add a few bay leaves and bring to a brisk boil before lowering the heat and letting the beans simmer while you chop onion and the fresh herbs finely.IMG_2258

When the beans are soft but still have distinct texture, add some salt and continue cooking until the beans are softer. Adding the salt too early can keep the beans from becoming tender. IMG_2261Drain but keep back some of the liquid and use the back of a wooden spoon, or a potato masher, to mash the beans on the side of the pot. Remember to remove the bay leaves.

Pound the parsley, garlic,fresh and ground coriander, chilli, thyme and smoked paprika and whole mixed pepper corns in a mortar and pestle. I could find the pestle only and not the mortar so I used my mum’s old food processor, a Moulinex MasterChef 350, which I helped myself to when she was in hospital one time when I was back visiting. My sister assured me that our mum would not be using it again and that I would get better use out of it. And I do. It’s ancient but it still does the job!

Add the pounded or whizzed ingredients to the ground walnuts, also whizzed, and stir well with the pomegranate molasses before adding to the beans.IMG_2262

IMG_2259Fry the chopped onion until golden and add to bean mix. Heat and thoroughly stir in reserved cooking liquid from the beans for desired consistency. Garnish with a few leftover parsley or corainder leaves, or whatever you have!

* pomegranates are a fairly new thing fro me and certainly the pomegranate molasses was a major new addition to my pantry. Tangy and sweet and sour, I bought it in a Middle Eastern style grocery but if you can’t find it, red wine vinegar can be used, I suppose. Incidentally, the pomegranate molasses is lovely mixed with sparkliing water for a really refreshing – and different – drink.

Variation: add chorizo, bacon or yoghurt

Qvevri Wines

One of the reasons I went to the Caucasus – and Georgia in particular – was because of the claims wine was ‘invented’ there in 6000 BCE, or 8000 years ago, give or take a few centuries. IMG_1726The Washington Post, National Geographic, The Daily Mail, the BBC, CNN, The New York Times and the ABC all ran fairly recent stories bruiting the news of radio-carbon dating of pot shards and bio-molecular and DNA archaeology of grape pips from the Stone Age accurately dating wine making to that period in Georgia.

Alvin Toffler in his seminal book The Third Wave claimed that humanity advanced in sudden ‘waves’ or periods of intense adaptation and progress. The third wave was the technological and communications one which swept the world within the last century. The second was the Industrial Revolution but the first – and probably the most important wave – was the adaption of farming and the domestication of animals by our Neolithic Stone Age ancestors. Without this first wave, Toffler claimed, nothing else could have been achieved, which brings me back to wine.

To my mind, there is no question that wine was ever invented. IMG_1685Just as no one can claim the invention of the wheel or the discoverer of fire, similarly, no one can claim to have invented wine. Nevertheless, legends lay easy claim to the latter. Noah, after he landed the ark on Mt. Ararat (on the borders of modern day Turkey and Armenia) disembarked the animals and planted a vineyard after which he got horribly drunk and made a disgrace of himself. All of which begs the question of where he originally came from because he must have brought the vine shoots or saplings with him in the ark!   Then there is the much older Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh which also details a deluge after which the eponymous hero sets out on a quest to discover wine and the immortality it can bestow. Another Persian legend describes how Jamshyd – a semi-mythical king – kept grapes to be eaten in jars. One of his handmaids, out of temper with the king and his court, attempted to top herself by drinking the juice from the foaming grapes in one jar, believing it to be poison. Instead she discovered the delights of alcoholic inebriation which she then passed on to the king who, according to the XVII Rubaiyát of Omar Khayyam (The Fitzgerald Translation 1859)

‘They say the Lion and the Lizard keep

the courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep

It must have been a joyous discovery when the first Neolithic farmers found that the grapes, hoarded for leaner times, had fermented and changed magically into a drink other than the contaminated and disease ridden water that they had been dependent upon all their lives.

Three factors independently appeared, more or less at the same time, that all combined to give us the wine that we know today. Firstly the widespread presence of vitis vinifera, the wild Eurasian grape vine in the valleys between the greater and lesser Caucasus mountains, secondly the cultivation of barley and wheat which allowed food reserves to be stored, and thirdly the invention of pottery for making and storing wine.IMG_1854

But back to Georgia where the most astonishing thing is that wine is still made in the same way that our prehistoric ancestors made it.IMG_1619

First the grapes are crushed – sometimes in large, hollowed out logs – before the juice, the skins, the grape pips and even the stalks are poured into qvevri, large earthenware jars, (several hundred to thousands of litres in size) often lined with beeswax, which are then buried in the ground. The juice ferments using wild yeast while the ground maintains a steady geothermal temperature and the conical shape of the qvevri allows the wine to circulate and clarify naturally.

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A glass of ‘white’ qvevri wine compared to ‘normal’ white wine

These qvevri wines – also known as ‘natural’ or ‘raw’ or unfiltered wines – have a distinct orange or amber coloured hue due to the skin contact during fermentation and taste quite different to European wines which are fermented without the pulp. Nevertheless, qvevri wines can differ in style with both sweet, semi sweet and dry wine all being made from the Saparavi grape.IMG_1707

Wine is such an integral part of Georgian life that wine is made by just about every family as grape vines are ubiquitous throughout the country. Roughly 500 of the world’s 2000 grape varieties hail from Georgia although less than 20 varieties are used in wine making.

Kakheti, in the eastern part of the country is probably the most famous wine producing area in the country and that is where I went to sample the Saparavi dry red and the white Tsinandali in the town of Sighnaghi.IMG_2166

Under the Soviet rule, the Russian taste was for strong, sweet wine with extra sugar added which led to a decline in quality but since Georgia’s independence in 1991, wine makers have upped their game and while still producing wine in the traditional qvevri fashion, now also produce high quality wines in the western style.

References

https://www.washingtonpost.com/…/earliest-evidence-of-wine-found-in-giant-8000-year…

https://news.nationalgeographic.com/…/oldest-winemaking-grapes-georgia-archaeolog…

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/…/Scientists-discover-8-000-year-old-wine-bottles-Ge…

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-41977709

https://edition.cnn.com/2017/11/14/health/oldest-wine-georgia-study-trnd/index.html

http://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2017-11-14/oldest-wine-georgia…pottery…/9143874

The Story of Wine – Hugh Johnson New Illustrated Edition 2002

A History of the World in 6 Glasses – Tom Standage 2005

Uncorking the Caucasus – Dr. Matthew Horkey & Charine Tan 2016
 

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.

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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.