Monday, December 17, 2007

Batumi, Not Quite Sure If It Is A Republic of Ajaria, Georgia

Georgia is popular with backpackers mainly for the renowned hospitality and friendliness to be found in the villages of its mountains. Wine flows, songs are sung and the guest is shown the warmth of Georgian hearts and homes. That is why many travellers come here in droves. In the summer.

In winter the tourist gets to freeze his arse off in crumbling bus stations just to be told that the road is snowed in or that the risk of avalanches is too great. From personal experience I know that Georgian mashrutka drivers are fearless creatures who believe their beat-up Ford Transit can handle like a rally car and who augment their courage with frequent swigs of chacha (local homemade voddie). If these fellows say you can't get somewhere it's sound information indeed.

If the mountains won't come to Mahomet then Mahomet can do as he bloody well pleases. If Arabin can't go the mountains he sods off to the seaside. Hence I am in Batumi, Georgia's answer to Mallorca. Here I can watch the Black Sea form under a palm tree. This is actually wise as it's sodding raining here.

Being confined to drinking Turlkish coffee and eating cheesy pastries in cafes I got to writing mainly to avoid having to answer inane questions from teenage sailors in the Georgian navy. As is my habit, I started to ponder the reasons for this region being as it is.

A map and a glancing knowledge of history helps to undertand this neck of the woods. The Caucasus is a mountainous area (easy to defend, a fucker to conquer) that links the Black Sea to the Caspian. Its neighbours include the Turks, the Persians and the Russians, all of which have a tendency towards empire building and all equally aware of the need to secure this area if they want to fuck over their rivals. Cue a rich history of invasions and dust ups. The aggro more or less ceased when the Russkies won and the area had the joy of spending many years of fun as part of the Socialst Brotherhood and get to see many fuckugly concrete monuments getting built on their soil.

The disparate peoples of the Caucasus somehow managed to a sense of self despite the imposition of dullness from Moscow. When the Soviet empire went tits-up the culturally and ethnically diverse groups of this area finally had the freedom to do what they wanted. They had a fight

Armenia and Azerbaijan had a war over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Various ethnic cleansing attempts on both sides kicked off this war. The Azeris had the advantage of better economic resources, more military hardware and the not-so-discrete assistance of Turkey. The Armenian fighters had an assorted bunch of homemade weapons so naturally the Azeris lost and gained a large quantity of that Caucasus specialty; internal refugees.

The Azeris seem particularly bitter about this. Having an entry stamp to Nagorno will get you refused entry to Azerbaijan and an Armenian one guarantees you a fun time at the border. I have been told about the evils of Armenia more times than I wished I had whilst in Azerbaijan. One woman even gave me an earful on the sequence of names on my guidebook. The Armenians don't really seem togive a toss as they focus their hatred towards Turkey plus they didn't have their army arse-raped by a bunch of ragtag guerillas.

Georgia hasn't fought with its neighbous as it was too busy fighting itself. Beyond fighting in Tbilisi for control of the state there was a number of regions who reckoned they should be countries. Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Ajaria all decide to secede and it went as peacefully as you can imagine. Georgia got its own lot of internal refugees. The place I am in agreed to be a half-arsed Auonous region with the Georgian government after the Rose Revolution but there are elections coming up so it's possible the newly rebuilt bridges to Batumi might be blown up again.

In case some of you might be thinking that maybe these countries would have been better off staying within Russia you only have to look to the North to the earthly paradises of Dagestan and Chechnya to see how well that idea holds up.

Anyways I now have to think of stuff to do in Batumi that doesn't involve getting soaked. I am toying with going to the Stalin Museum. The one in the mustachioed murderer's bithplace cost a very capitalistic $15 so I gave it a miss but the local hommage to Georgia's most famous child is reputedly quite cheap. Part of the Georgia tourist experience is being told nice things about one of the most reviled men on the planet or so I've been told by assorted denizens of the Baltic States that seem to be the only folk aside from me stupid enough to go to the Caucasus in winter.

Take care,


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Yerevan, Armenia

I had a fun-filled trip from Ganja to Tbilisi that consisted mainly of being woken up by various officials and either handing over my passport or waving in the direction of my bags. The Azeri border folk got a but miffed by my persistnce in staying under the blanket but the Georgians were a jolly lot were more amused than anything else. One customs lady helped me with the custom declaration form (it was in the obscure Georgian alphabet that reminds me a lot of the Cambodian one) and agreed with me that "2 rucksacks, big and small, containing stuff" was actually a pretty good description of what I was bringing into their country.

I got into Tbilisi, secured lodgings and set about curing my stomach ills by filling myself up with the Georgian staple of various pastries filled or covered with cheese. Suitably stodged up I hopped onto a Mashrutka and set off on the scenic road to Yerevan. Well, mostly scenic. After going over the Pambak mountains I got to glimpse a huge blanket of fog. This covered the bowl that Armenia's capital nestles in. We descended into the peasoup and the first identifiable thing I saw in Yerevan was the huge neon sign of a brandy factory. An omen?

Yerevan is nothing truly remarkable but not ugly either. From what I could glimpse through the fog it has a suitable amount of nice plazas, museums and statues including a huge one of Mother Armenia holding a sword and daring someone (the Turks?) to come on and have a go. Best of all there are cafes that serve real coffee and barbecue joints that do pork.

Now that I am amongst the infidels again I am eating as much piggy as I can before I exit the Caucasus and re-enter the lands of those whose God doesn't dig swine. I am not worried about booze as I know that there are few countries on Earth were getting pissed is truly a challenge.

One thing of note to see in Yerevan is the memorial and museum commemorating the Armenian Genocide. If I decide to go there it will be on my last day in the country so as not to put to much of a downer on my short time here. This won't stop me from writing about it now.

There are some good sources on the web abouty this atrocity so I will just outline the basics here. At the beginning of the 20th century the Ottoman Empire started to attack the Armenians that they ruled over. This started off with localised massacres then escalated into a more systematic attempt at extermination with confiscation of assets, deportations, death marches and concentration areas. Estimates of the death toll range from half a million to 2 million.

It was the first genocide of the 20th centuty and sadly not the last. It can be called a genocide as the evidence points to a planned attempt to wipe out a whole people. The sequencing of events, from arresting and killing Armeniaa intellectuals in Constantinople and disarming and killing the Armenian conscripts in the Ottoman army points to something that was well thought out.

You could wonder why this matters. The reason this is still relevant today is that, should I write this in Turkey, the above paragraphs could get me sent to jail (even stranger is that you can end up doing porridge for taking the piss out of the Turkish assembly). Using the words "Armenian Genocide" apparently insults Turkishness, whatever the fuck that means. Turkey's notorious article 301 has linked historical revisionism to national identity. Turkey is so adamant in not recognising what they have done that they are actually willing to harm themselves as a result. The denial of what was done to the Armenians offers a great weapon to those who want to block Turkey in one of its most desired long term objective: entering Europe.

Whether or not Turkey shoild join Europe is a complex one but I suspect the debate hides more basic principles. At the forefront of the naysayers is France. They have many reasons to say non but what I suspect is the real motive is that France is generally unhappy at any expansion of the EU. This would go against the unavowed French policy of creating a tightly linked political entity that they would have great control over. The "Welcome Turkey" brigade is headed by the UK who do so as it helps the unavowed British policy of creating a Europe so large and diverse it becomes essentially ungovernable as a whole and therefore has to revert to one big free market area. Also the Yanks want Turkey to join and HM's governement is only to keen to do their bidding.

Turkey and its silly laws and denials allows the opponents of EU menbership to easily fuck them over whenever the subject is discussed. All an opponent has to do is make some day in some country Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day and it guarantees an overreaction from the Turks. It then becomes quite easy to portray the Turks as dodgy, childish and ill-tempered Asiatics who don't truly get what modern democracies are about. Turkey could remove this problem just by admitting that what happened was genocide and that would probably be the end of it. As far as I know there are no perpetrators or survivors alive so reparation payments would be unlikely and/or hard to evaluate.

I still don't know what is worse. Denying history or letting that denial shoot yourself in the foot. Stupidity compounded. At the moment Turkey has some success in bullying other countries into not calling the genocide exactly that, particularly with the US. Bush and Rice recently scuppered a motion by the US house to recognise the Armenian Genocide as Turkey threatened to stop being a good friend in the War on Terror. This little piece of blackmail will cease to work when the White house will have as resident someone who (privately) recognises TWOT for the nonsensical bollocks it is. Turkey will have to acknowledge that it gains more than it gives by being chummy with the yanks.

Moving on. Tomorrow I will get myself to Echmiadzin, the Vatican of the Armenian Church. They claim to have a piece of the spear that some centurion put through the ribcage of JC while he was up on the cross. The Armenian Church was a national church when the Catholic Church was but a collection of fanatics hiding in Rome, totally unaware of the vast power their church would one day have and the many young boys their successors would be able to molest. The big boss of the Armenain Chruch is confusingly called ther Catholicos which is cool but doesn't score as much fun points on terms of address as he is also a Holiness. I prefer the Orthodox "Your Beatitude". That's a title.

After that it's off to some village for a piss-up with a Peace Corps volunteer who invited me after a chat about the worlwide differences and similarities in getting bladdered. He claims getting completely aresholed in Armenai is a unique experience and I strongly believe in discovering local mores.

Take care,


Friday, December 07, 2007

Ganja, Azerbaijan

Finally made it to the amusingly named second city of Azerbaijan. The name is an approximate of the Azeri alphabet's name for the place. The town has nothing to do with a nickname originating in potheads trying to palm off their habit as relogious practice.

I stayed 3 days in Sheki in a restored caravanserail. This sounds cute but it's really due to a very nasty bout of food poisoning that, predictably, filled my mind with happy thoughts about this country.

Anyhoo I eat enough immodium to get me to Ganje and the next day set about trying to leave the place. This might prove tricky and for the moment it looks like this will require showing up at the train station at 3.30 in the morning and trying to buy a ticket on the train itself. Fortunately I am assisted by very helpful Azeris with whom I am related (the tentacles of my family are spread far and wide).

Being made to spend 2 days puking my guts up has skewered my view of Azerbaijan. Now that I am on the receiving end of some great hosipitality the good thing would be to reconsider my slightly negative stance on this country. I will do nothing of the sort.

There are a few things about present Azerbaijan that I could write about but the fun stuff is better put in a context of regional politics which I will post about as I leave the region. The rest is simple to lay out. The place is oil rich and the presidency was passed from father to son. Catch my drift?

So, from a place famous for, well...., nothing really, I depart to a place known for, well..., Stalin.

Next stop Tbilisi

Take care,


Saturday, December 01, 2007

Baku, Azerbaijan

The capital of Azerbaijan on the Caspian sea smells of oil. Literally. The promenade is full of couples being romantic and trying to ignore the passing tankers and the scent of Brent Crude.

I now have a personal reason to loathe oil companies. Besides propping up dictatorships, corrupting political processes, ensuring the West's foreign policies are borderline abject, heating the planet when not fucking up the environment on a local basis, Big Oil has now sent its minions in droves to this place to make lodgings and beer very pricey for innocent backpackers. Let's all go renewable. Fuck 'em.

Baku has a reasonable array of mosques, city walls, etc to make it worth a short and expensive stay. Once again I am drawn to the local big tower. My distubing fondness for phallic symbols aside, it had a fun story (amongst many) to explain its name of Maiden Tower.

It's claimed some local lord got into his head to marry his own daughter. The girl was understanbly a bit queasy at the prospect and did the fairy tale thing of setting a difficult challenge for her icky suitor. She requested that he built the biggest tower ever for her before whe would consent to some highly unnatural rumpy pumpy. The sicko was not deterred and had the thing built. Upon completion, our distressed damsel went to the top of it and flung herself to her death. A beautiful tale for the fireside.

Amusing anecdotes about parental abuse aside, a quick glance at the thing shows the story to be bollock. The arrow slits and single entry indicate something built for defence and not to please a lady. If it had been done to please a chick it would have been far more ornate and floofy, incest or no incest.

Baku's wealth has some advantages as it is wonderfully familiar in layout, looks and services. There is a good availibility of comfort chow from around the globe, street names are visible and I don't need an envelope to carry a day's worth of cash. Even the dosh is familiar to a fault. The new manat (coins and notes) looks remarkably like the euro.

All these perks have somehow given me a wee boost and for some reason this boost gave me an idea. As I am now in an enlightened region where the entry requirements for Westerners are to show up with a passport, a smile and some dollars, I have decided to add Armenia to my little blitz through the Caucasus.

Next stop, Saki/Sheki

Take care,