A Travellerspoint blog

Iceland

Since returning from Asia in 2011, Iceland has been top of my ‘To Visit’ list and after managing to talk my sister into cycling round it, it turned into one of the most exhausting but rewarding holidays’ (as opposed to longer travelling stints) I’ve ever had in one of the most visually spectacular country’s’ in the world.

The trip began in slightly challenging circumstances- and that was just trying to get our bikes to Gatwick! Once we did touch down in Iceland and got to Reykjavik we quickly realised transport would be an issue. The plan was to take the bus to Lake Myvatn in the North and spend a week in the North before beginning our cycling odyssey; therefore we bought a load of food shopping then went to the bus station only to find that there’s essentially no public transport in Iceland, only private buses for tourists. They only run during the Summer months, normally only once a day and they aren’t cheap. That 6 hour journey cost over £100 and the first week or so proved to be very expensive as the several short (i.e. half an hour) journeys cost between- £15-£20 on the limited routes. Bus fares aside though, the first week was a wonderful introduction to this incredible land.
We began on a scorchingly hot day which proved to be a huge false dawn (more on that later) whilst cycling round beautiful Lake Myvatn. It lies on the Mid Atlantic ridge which runs through the centre of the country and is a rift lake which basically means it has formed in the hollow between the two continental (North American and Eurasian) plates that are moving away from each other. It’s surrounded by lava fields, a couple of cracking volcanoes and one of the main geothermal plants which supply 90% of the heating/electricity in the country. Walking around the steaming vents of Namafjall and looking out over the lava fields which stretched to the horizon gave an awe inspiring introduction to this land of fire and ice.

After a couple of days on the lake we headed North to the lovely coastal village of Husavik where we both fulfilled something on our wish list by going whale watching. Certainly since the ‘Cod Wars’ of the 1970’s, whaling is probably the single issue Iceland attracts any international criticism from. When the global moratorium on whaling was established in 1986 Iceland fought it against it briefly before stopping whaling in 1989. However, in 2003 they recommenced the practice and currently kill about 200 whales a year- largely for food. Icelanders are fiercely protective of their independence (they rejected joining the EU in May this year) and bitterly resent being told what to do by other countries. In the past a beached whale was considered the height of luck in Iceland as sales of the ambergris could support entire coastal villages for years at a time and most Icelanders now take the view that as long as whaling is done sustainably the practice should continue. I fundamentally disagree with this for lots of reasons but during my time in Iceland I realised that tourists are much of the problem; whale meat is sold as a ‘delicacy’ in all of the top restaurants in Reykjavik. Apparently it really isn’t that tasty but the novelty factor means tourists do consume it in large numbers and this is helping to sustain the market and keep whaling commercially viable.

At the same time whale watching is one of if not the most popular tourist activity in Iceland as in the plankton rich waters of the North you have a 95%+ chance of seeing humpbacks. It was a pretty memorable (albeit nippy) trip as we were happily given a 3hour break from the rain to look round the beautiful Skjalfandi Bay. After around an hour and a half we’d seen plenty of dolphins but no whales so it was a wonderful relief when we finally spotted a couple in the frigid waters. Their sheer size is amazing to behold up close and certainly seeing them breaching (leaping out the water) would have to go down as one of the most impressive wildlife experiences I’ve ever had. It left me with a warm feeling for a few days afterwards and it did puzzle me why the country would want to jeopardise such a wonderful natural sight (and such a big tourist earner).

From Husavik we then proceeded to Asbyrgi where we did a soggy 2 day hike along the stunning canyon formed by the raging Jokulsa river. It was actually fairly flat for most of the way but was punctuated by incredible basalt rock formations, a terrifying section on a cliff edge and a memorable rope aided climb up a cliff to Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall. It’s used at the beginning of the Alien prequel Prometheus (far and away the best scene in the film!) and really is something up close as 193 cubic meters of water pound down the 45m high cataract every second. After 2 days hiking in the rain we were both delighted to have a relaxing evening in the northern blue lagoon at the end of it as we went our separate ways the following morning.

The core of the trip was the cycling and it began the next day in ‘challenging’ conditions.
When meeting people from around the world on my travels my two biggest annoying questions to answer in in conversations is them (presumably influenced by Sherlock Holmes films/novels) saying “Aaah you’re from London, you get lots of fogs don’t you?” and “It rains a lot there doesn’t it”?
To the first statement the short answer is not since 1956, when the Clean Air Act was passed.
To the second question my answer tends to be not really, it’s just grey/overcast much of the time. Indeed London only gets 106 days of rain a year and when you bear in mind that most of them will involve short, non-day ruining showers and London just isn’t that wet a place- the Atlantic rains have largely emptied out over Wales/the West country by the time they reach the ‘Big Smoke’.
In Iceland, in contrast, being located in the middle of the Atlantic water cycle, on any given day there’s a 70-80% chance of rain depending on the time of year. And it would be one of the most memorable/challenging things about spending a month on this incredible island cycling/hiking and sleeping every night in a tent.

I had 4 dry days out of 32 and at times it threatened to be if not quite trip ruining, then it seriously damaged my enjoyment of being there! Iceland has virtually no trees and is 90% empty so there are no bus stops or buildings to shelter under. Peddling away for up to 11 hours a day in the rain can get you down and since I was camping I had no means of drying my clothes so I found at times it was a real challenge to keep myself motivated to keep going.

By far the hardest cycling section was in the first few days as I spent around a week cycling through the notorious interior. The roads are through the volcanic sands which make up the Icelandic desert in the centre of the country and are only open for around 3 months a year. Despite being the driest part of the country I had a terribly wet run of weather when for 6 days it rained pretty solidly and keeping peddling on the slow, painful washboard roads was a real challenge. After an epic first day of 110km (60 of them on the dirt) I arrived at Heroubreidir, the beautiful, crown shaped national mountain. I camped a cold night at its base then tried to climb it the next day only to be gutted by having to turn back only a few hundred meters from the summit. As in the UK it had been a particularly cold winter and the snows still hadn’t melted. It was the first time I’ve ever ‘failed to summit’ a mountain but on a near vertical cliff I knew I had no other option.
Somewhat disgruntled I then cycled on to the amazing Askja stratovolcano. It covers a huge area and has several massive calderas formed by the last big eruption in 1875, despite the rain, hiking around through the snow to the different crater lakes with views out over the desert below triggers up some pretty powerful emotions- as I would feel many times. My final stop in the interior was to a place called Kverkfjoll which is where the desert meets the gigantic Vatnajokull ice sheet above and is famous for geothermal vents melting parts of the glacier forming ice caves. Seeing nobody for hours at a time I was again reminded just how empty this country is and how immense its open spaces are. Ahead of me I had a 160km ride North East out to the ring road but after having already made several repairs on the rocky interior roads eventually my back tyre gave up for the final time.I found myself in quite a lot of trouble around 80km from the nearest town with only about 3 hours of light left. I had no choice but to push the bike for 20km where my road joined another and having not seen a car for so long miraculously one turned up and saved me by giving me a lift into town. A week in the interior had left me shattered so after getting my bike fixed I spent 5 hours the next day doing nothing, just sitting in the variety of hot tubs offered at the local swimming pool!

The next day I cycled South up and over the Oxi pass which in places was a terrifying descent as the incline reached 17% and my loaded bike was much harder to steer but I made it to reach the 20km long Berufjordur. The following days were spent gliding along the South coast zipping round the fjords and just generally loving riding on the empty tarmac ring road which circles the island after struggling through the interior. Whilst the rain was generally tough I was much luckier with the wind as I only had one genuinely bad day with a headwind when it took me over 4 hours to cycle 60km, I then took a left turn and covered 14km in half an hour!

I had a couple of long days of about 130Km and on both days I had calm weather; having calmer weather or even a slight tailwind really does make almost all the difference mentally when cycle touring. Iceland is an amazing place to cycle largely because of the scenery, of the 1000km or so I covered I’d say only around 50 of them were fairly dull as you’re constantly rewarded with fjords, lava fields, waterfalls, mountains, glaciers, and beaches to name just a few of the features you see as you travel. When you’re having to fight the wind however and having to constantly pedal just to keep any momentum going the enjoyment factor drops rapidly, throw in the rain and uphill gradients and cycling becomes quite a depressing experience. It influences your mood so much that I don’t think I’d want to do it for more than a few weeks at a stretch and can’t really understand how people can do it for years on end.

After a couple of hundred km along the fjords I finally made it to the infamous South coast sandurs where the road wasn’t built until as late as 1974 due to the landscape. In Iceland many of the volcanoes are covered under icecaps, when there is an increase in tectonic activity the ice caps can start to melt from the heat causing lakes to form under the ice. If this process continues, eventually the lake will burst out and the water can start moving downhill very rapidly in an outburst flood called a jokulhlaup. Major floods such as in 1996 where everything in the flood’s path was destroyed can leave huge areas with no communications and the glacial melt water flows cause plains to form en route, called sandurs. They’re not really found anywhere else in the world and they’re pretty spectacular as they stretch up to 70km wide and are dead flat. Whilst you can see Vatnajokull above you, on the other 3 sides you can’t see anything but the sands stretching out into the distance and in head winds must be terrible to tackle- I had calm weather and zipped through them!

En route I stopped off to do some hiking at the gorgeous Skafatell national park and the otherworldly and incredibly photogenic ice lagoon. Essentially huge chunks of ice break off the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier as it reaches the sea, however many of the chunks are too big to fit through the narrow entrance to the sea so end up floating in the lagoon that’s formed for months on end. The icebergs come in a variety of colours from dirty grey to beautiful azures and in the middle of a 10 hour day on the bike felt like probably the best photo stop I’ll ever make!
After visiting one of the ‘world’s best beaches’ at Vik (volcanic black ash sands) I took the ferry to the Westmann islands which counts Surtsey amongst its members. I was staying on the amazing island of Heimaey which aside from being the Icelandic fishing capital has a series of lovely maroon coloured volcanoes to climb. One of which was home to probably the most memorable campsite I’ve ever stayed in, you could climb the sides of the crater to look out over cliffs full of puffins and the lava fields from a big eruption in 1973 which increased the size of the island by a full 20%.

I then started moving inland to the ‘Golden circle’, an area about 60km East of Reykjavik and home to many of Iceland’s most famous sights including (the original) Geyser. It hasn’t erupted properly since the 1950’s but thankfully Strokkur is right next to it and is probably the most reliable geyser in the world, ejaculating steam and water every few minutes. About 30km down the road is the world heritage site of Pingvellir; aside from being home to the world’s first national parliament (the Althing from 930AD, just 64 years after Iceland was first settled by Norwegian farmers) it’s an 8km rift on the mid- Atlantic ridge and one of the few places in the world where you can actually walk ‘between tectonic plates’. Obviously a pretty significant place but many tourists complain at the fact there are so many other tourists in the area.

In the past Iceland was actually somewhat off the beaten track as a tourist destination as thanks to limited international connections and one of the strongest currencies in the world it was simply too expensive for most people to visit. However, in 2008 the global financial crash hit Iceland harder than almost anywhere as thanks to reckless gambling on global capital markets by the so called ‘Vikings’ (nickname given to aggressive bankers) which led to the collapse of its banking system and many companies around the world (including Woolworths) that were purchased by them. Almost overnight Iceland became around 1/3 cheaper to visit and spurred on by EasyJet/WOW air starting cheaper international flights the tourist sector has rapidly expanded from under 300,000 in 2002 to an estimated 750,000 and contribute 6% of GDP this year. When you consider that most people stay for under a week and don’t venture out past the Golden Circle, at the honeypot sights it can feel the ‘wild nature’ charm of the country, which is why people came in the first place, is lost a bit.

In Iceland the financial crash famously led to around 25,000 or 10% of the country rioting in the ‘Kitchenware Revolution’ (protestors banged pots and pans) as this nation with no army struggled to maintain the peace. Since independence from Denmark in 1944 virtually no country in the world has had a smoother existence with virtually no problems of note to speak of and extremely high social and economic indicators across the whole of society.
Controversially the government elected to preserve its massive welfare state rather than pay back foreign debtors (such as Barnet council) and as the country has rebounded strongly since, some suggest it offers an alternative to the austerity programmes followed by most of Europe since 2008. From my own point of view whilst there is much to admire about the social welfare system in the country, I think it's ultimately too small/isolated to try to extrapolate too much from their experiences and if bigger countries started ignoring their debts then global trade would decline considerably and that would probably lead us to be worse off ultimately.

After 56 straight hours of spirit crushing rain in the Golden Circle it finally stopped on my way back Reykjavik and the endorphins started to kick in as I realised I’d completed the cycling part of the trip. However, I wasn’t done there as after resting up for a night I headed back out the next day to hike Icelands most famous trek, the 90km from Landmannalaugur in the interior to Skogar on the coast.

For such a short trek the variety of landscape we passed through was out of this world; in Landmannalaugur the landscape began amidst geothermal pools and lava fields. The various gases and chemicals being emitted from the Earth gave the mountainous landscape a beautiful polychromatic sheen with orange, dark blue and red cliffs being topped off with lime green heads of grass which would grow on the tops of the mountain peaks. For the first night I had to dig a trench to set my tent in to prevent it being blown away by the wind but with the long hours of daylight I was able to get out of the cold quite early and visit a couple of glacial caves before continuing gradually onwards. As we continued through the lava fields by far the biggest hazard was having to ford the streams. Whilst I had to do plenty over the course of the month in Iceland the hardest overall were on the second day of the trek as the already brown water was raised thigh high thanks to a storm 2 hours earlier making them genuinely quite scary. The knowledge that you’re balancing pretty precariously in freezing cold water in your socks whilst carrying all your important documents with no idea what you’re stepping on is not a great feeling! But I got through them and an atrocious third day of constant rain to the oasis of Porsmork just before the final stretch of the hike. Whilst my luck generally with rain wasn’t great I found myself saying a short prayer of thanks to Freyr- the Norse God of Weather when I woke up the next day. Grey rain was replaced by beautiful blue skies and I gleefully took advantage on the 1000m climb up to the pass between 2 glaciers, which coincidentally happened to be the eruption site of the 2010 Eyjafjallajokull eruption. It wasn’t the easiest of climbs but after having eaten most of my food by this stage and buoyed by the outstanding weather I was a happy boy when I reached the top.
The eruption site is just a bit amazing- like a giant ashtray. Much of the landscape is still smouldering away and is still (memorably) very black. You can’t pick up many of the rocks as they’re still too hot and 2 of the worlds newest mountains, Modi and Magni have been created which you can climb giving incredible views out over the landscape as well as indescribable feelings of a)this is an unbelievably cool experience and b) nature is just amazing. After enjoying but having to fight through some aspects of the adventurous trip it really did feel like I’d been rewarded…and the rewards kept coming as I finally saw the sea and took ‘the route of the waterfalls’ down to it. I passed no less than 26 smaller falls as I descended before finally reaching the 60m high Skogarfoss just before the sea. A cracking ending to an exhausting, but stunning trek.

Iceland was the first country I’ve been to which I can categorically say is more expensive than England and unfortunately this did limit my activities in the last few days a little bit. The Blue Lagoon cost 40Euros to go to and even things like museums cost a tenner so the last few days in Reykjavik were somewhat quiet. I had planned to run the marathon on the final day but various injuries picked up hiking/cycling put an end to that plan and I’m not sure I would have had the energy anyway as the month had left me fairly drained. Instead I found myself enjoying the coffee shops, pubs and swimming pools of the small city quietly although I was lucky enough to be there for the national day at the end of August so there were lots of free concerts and cultural performances to enjoy.
Somewhat surprisingly Iceland is a global arts centre with a thriving arts and music scene but it in it's literature where Iceland can claim to be one of the world's leaders. Home to some of medieval Europes finest writing- the sagas from the 13th century through Nobel winning Halldor Laxness to the situation today where no less than 1/10 of the population are published authors! All over Rejkjavik are statues are rocks and statues which read out poetry to you and having spent 95% of my time on the country’s natural attractions it was quite nice to get a bit more of a feel for the human side to country.

All in all an exhausting but unforgettable month, I left feeling a) I would definitely like to come back in the Winter and b) this travelling lark never gets boring…..

Posted by carlswall 29.08.2013 15:34 Archived in Iceland Comments (0)

Eastern Europe


View Eastern Europe on carlswall's travel map.

When I traveled overland through Central Asia (or ‘The Stans’) last year I realized I’d been to all but 4 of the former SSRs and so this trip was very much about visiting the last few and getting a sense of closure from not so much ‘that part of the world’ but the general Soviet cultural legacy in its different locations. The area I’m traveling from Moldova to Lithuania is very much Eastern Europe but I think the general phrase Eastern Europe needs a bit of clarification. Since the beginning of the Cold War it’s meant anything East of the Iron curtain but the term is now surely out of date for many of the countries that were ‘behind the curtain’. In literal terms geographically the likes of Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia are Central Europe and culturally they’ve moved on a long way from Soviet times- maybe a phrase like Danubian Europe would better connect them to their cultural near neighbors such as Austria. For the countries of the former Soviet Union though the accuracy in applying the term is much harder to call and viewing the cultural positionings of the four countries I visited was definitely one of the core features of the trip.

My trip began in one of Europe’s ‘lesser known’ and one of its least visited countries- Moldova. I’d wanted to visit there ever since reading Tony Hawks amusingly offbeat and very British adventure Playing the Moldovans at Tennis in the late ‘90s but my experiences were slightly less bleak than the way the book portrayed the country. There was glorious sunshine every day and temperatures were consistently in the mid 30s, it’s the most rural country in Europe with the landscape vastly different to the Soviet stereotype of belching chimneys and blackened miners- i.e. no hammers but plenty of sickles.

Whilst it’s quietly pleasant for a few days, as with most countries that have few tourists there’s not a huge amount to do there although the undoubted tourist highlight was going on a woozy tour of a vineyard- the country is sometimes described as having the best value wines in the world and certainly being asked to pay just over a Euro for a lovely bottle of red is definitely a fond memory.

In many ways it almost doesn’t feel like a full country, and with the Transnistrian issue it almost literally isn’t. Moldovans speak Romanian and the national identity is very weak being largely invented by the Russians during Communist times; with no real industrial economy it felt more like an agricultural region of a bigger country (e.g. the Soviet Union) and its future looks uncertain to say the least. In the last few years Albania has overtaken it to leave it as the poorest country in Europe and more than a quarter of the population have left to find work elsewhere in Europe since independence. What’s hampering the country even further was my next stop of the breakaway republic of Transnistria.

It’s a de jure part of Moldova but is one of the group of 10 or so breakaway countries (like Kosovo, Abkhazia etc.) in the world which run themselves totally independently with their own government, army etc. I was quite nervous crossing the border as it’s notorious for foreigners to get hit for bribes by the police but things went agreeably smoothly on both entering and leaving the country. The region is on the East bank of the Dniestr river and refused to join Moldova at independence in 1991; as with elsewhere in the USSR ethnic Russians had been moved into the region en masse and despite being part of the Moldovan SSR, with pictures of Vladimir Putin up everywhere their loyalty is clearly to the Great Bear rather than independent Moldova. Again there’s almost nothing to do in terms of activities and culturally it felt very much like an agricultural region of Russia. It’s famously corrupt and in recent years arguably its main claim to fame has been the success of its football team FC Sheriff who play in an incredible stadium… but is essentially a front for a mafia mogul who runs virtually every business of note in the tiny country. The dispute does neither the very poor Moldovans nor Transnistrians any favours, they fight now and again but there’s plenty of Russian troops to keep the peace and it’s the constant bickering between the two sides which is really halting their development. The vast majority of the power supply is produced in Transnistria but they ask Moldovans such high prices that Moldova retaliates by blocking other trade and with their aging populations, relatively isolated locations and limited economic activity it’s difficult to see how either side can move forward. Furthermore because of the dispute it means the EU is unwilling to open negotiations for Moldovan membership or supply much aid and ultimately the poverty (certainly by European standards) of the area and the lack of upward mobility meant I was pretty pleased to get to Ukraine- where things are very different.

The BBC previews of Ukraine before the European Championships were little short of disgraceful, rather than making any attempt to describe the country’s history, culture or even tourist attractions it focused on nothing else but its football hooligans with a hyperbolic commentary from Sol Campbell over the top. Despite the undoubted problems the country has with its football fans this is clearly a minority and its only one small aspect of this large country; quite what the BBCs motivations were in doing this I don’t know. In conversations with me a couple of Ukrainians lambasted the BBC over it, angrily questioning the negativity towards them and highlighting the hypocrisy of the British media as they cogently pointed out it was the England captain who was in court over a racism charge and England has a more famous hooliganism reputation than any other country in Europe. Parts of the Ukrainian media blamed the fewer than expected visitors for the tournament on this negative publicity but I think hosting half the games in the remote Eastern and non-tourist friendly cities Kharkiv and Donetsk probably had more to do with it. So, based on those documentaries and reports people could have a negative view of Ukraine, which considering the Euros were their big chance to sell themselves to the world doesn’t seem remotely fair.

(Definitely not ‘The’) Ukraine is the largest country in Europe (discounting Russia) and one of the pleasures of traveling around is seeing the differences in landscapes and cultures of the different regions. To begin with I spent my time on the Black Sea in the gorgeous city of Odessa, scene of the Potemkin incident and great beaches. Aside from the boulevards full of ex-sailors playing chess and gorgeous coastal setting probably the most memorable part of the city are the inhabitants themselves; an extroverted, cosmopolitan lot who are utterly self-assured in their status as the chicest city in the USSR. Whilst the raffish mafia types add an air of menace, the city’s legendarily beautiful women lighten the tone massively and it was no surprise to find it’s the centre of Ukraines massive bridal mail order business. It’s been going on a long time, predominantly with American men and from their point of view you can easily see what they’re getting with the image obsessed Ukrainian women (Mila Kunis is their current standard bearer) but I couldn’t work out why the trade still goes on now. Since the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the government changed Ukraine has been doing very well economically. For several years it was posting annual growth of 6%+ and whilst that’s slowed down recently, the quality of life in the big cities at least is catching up with its Central European neighbors so I’m not sure how marrying a bloke twice their age from Indianapolis will see a massive improvement in their quality of life.

The Ukrainian flag is a blue half symbolizing the sky above a yellow half symbolizing the corn fields that are a constant feature of the landscape for much of the country, but my next area to visit was the Crimean peninsula way down on the Black Sea which has a very different landscape to the rest of the country and is also heavily contested between Ukraine and Russia. The coastline is utterly stunning, composed of sheer mountain cliffs rising 1500m straight up from the sea, bizarre rock formations and plateaus covered in Cypress and Juniper trees create an environment not dissimilar to the Mediterranean. There are some fantastic national parks to hike in and explore and on top of that it has a rich history from various eras: the old Tartar khanate, the Crimean war and more recently the Yalta conference. It forms the Western part of the old Russian Riviera which stretched all the way round to Abkhazia and Georgia and even now at this time of year is rammed with lower middle class Russian holidaymakers.

One of the things I was curious to see in Ukraine was how the Euros had affected traveling there as a tourist and the answer came in extremes. In Kiev and Lviv where games were hosted, the government has clearly spent a lot of money on new signs and information booths, all in English and incredibly easy to use- getting around and doing things was effortless. In contrast I actually found the Crimean tourist attractions immensely disappointing due to the lack of facilities/information for non-Russian speakers. Aside from Russians there are few overseas visitors to the area and they tend to do things on guided tours, consequently the museums at the Livadia Palace in Yalta where the conference took place and the Crimean war museum near Balaclava are poor to say the very least with minimal information offered with no background, context or analysis of the very important events that had taken place. The Valley of Death where the Charge of the Light Brigade (now a vineyard) took place in particular had absolutely nothing to indicate this with the viewpoint overlooking it now home to a WWII diorama for no apparent reason. Much better was the nuclear submarine factory in Balaclava near Sevastopol which is fascinating to walk round the endless gloomy corridors and the super sized bits of machinery tunneled underneath a mountain right on the coast. This area has only been opened to the outside world for about 15 years (you needed a special permit previously) as it was here that the Soviet navy had its headquarters but in post-independence Ukraine is proving to be one of the biggest problems for the fledgling state.

In many ways Ukraine was the ‘poster boy’ of the USSR, the propaganda images of hearty farmers in the cornfields and stakhonovite miners from the East of the country smilingly working for the common good was the image Stalin et al liked to portray but it masked the reality on the ground. Much of the country is covered in a loam soil which makes it one of the most fertile parts of Europe and it’s no surprise that it became known as the breadbasket of the USSR. However, whilst Ukrainian products were sold in Paris and Rome to demonstrate the strength of the Soviet economy, during the early 1930s none of the food was being released to locals as Stalin ordered the deliberate starvation of the population in order to head off any nationalist intentions to break free of the Soviet yoke. An estimated 3-5million died of starvation between 1932-33 and all over the country there are memorials to the dead in Europes ‘forgotten genocide’. Vladimir Putin recently refused to accept any accusations of genocide from Ukraine and unsurprisingly it’s a contentious issue between the 2 countries. The other major way Stalin tried to head off Ukrainian nationalism (or indeed any other independence movements across the USSR) was to move large numbers of Russian immigrants into the country and it’s this that is causing problems now. There’s currently an election campaign underway and the 2 main parties are loosely based round ethnicity; the main ‘Ukrainian party’ is led by the glamorous hero of the Orange Revolution Yulia Tymoschenko and looks defiantly West wanting to join the EU and NATO and have much greater integration with the rest of Europe based around a Ukrainian identity. However, Russian is marginally the most widely spoken language and where Russians form a majority in the East of the country and in the Crimea, political tensions are highest. Backed by Moscow, several times the Crimea has threatened to secede and the governments response was to kick out the Russian navy. Russia responded by hiking up gas prices 500%, this left Ukraine temporarily paralyzed as gas is its main source of power so a deal was agreed to allow the Russians to stay until 2042 though it’s quite clearly only a stop gap solution. As the biggest ‘other SSR’ and a split population, Ukraine is clearly the biggest prize in the ongoing proxy war between Russia and the West for influence in former Soviet states The current leader is the Russian speaking but neutral leaning Viktor Yanukovych and whilst he’s been something of a stabilizing force for the country he’s also put Tymoschenko in jail for a contentious corruption charge (which meant virtually all top European politicians boycotted the Euros) and until a more harmonious relationship between the 2 communities is worked out its future economic and political ambitions will continue to be argued about.

The idea that Soviet cities are grey, unpleasant places full of concrete has largely been untrue in my experience and the capital Kiev was no exception. Aside from the lovely riverside setting it boasts an underground cave system that is eerily lit up to reveal the mummified remains of dozens of monks in glass coffins, you don’t see anything more than hands and feet but it’s still an odd sight in the middle of the city. Elsewhere underground it has one of the deepest metros in the world (it doubled as an A-bomb shelter), escalators are much faster than usual but journeys still take up to 8 minutes and people just sit down and wait.

However, also nuclear fusion related by far the most memorable thing I did in Kiev or the entire trip for that matter was a tour of Chernobyl; the Lonely Planet lists it as ‘the worlds weirdest day trip’ though I don’t think that’s been true for a while as it’s been opened up in the last few years and whilst expensive at $160 for the day it’s nonetheless an incredible experience. You have to apply in advance to get security clearance and have to wear full sleeves and closed shoes to stop your skin touching any affected material, they even give you a protective mask when you arrive. However, over 25 years since the accident the risks are pretty small, even 50m away from reactor No. 4 where the reaction happened the guides Geiger counter only gave a reading of about 4 or 5 millirems per hour (14 and up is harmful to humans) although in the forest we did see 25+ ratings as soil retains the radiation better. There are 2 exclusion zones of 10km and 30km and there are far more people around both of them than you might think. Chernobyl itself now has around 4,000 people living there and thanks to a massive grant from the EU a French company are building several sarcophagi over the spent reactors. There’s also a big firefighters unit, probably the most dangerous legacy of the disaster left is the risk of a massive forest fire spreading contaminated air around and having seen a massive one in Crimea which they were fighting for 3 days I can see why they’re quite paranoid about it in this part of the world. Workers work 15 days on, then spend 2 weeks out but there are plans to repopulate the 30km zone in the next 5 years or so. Whilst there were more people kicking around the site than I was hoping I still got a bit of a feel of the recent ‘classic film’ Chernobyl Diaries; whilst looking round the ruined city of Pripyat nearest to the reactors you can see the cinema and town hall etc. but best of all was the abandoned blocks of flats. I was in a very strange group of people in that no one else said a word for 7 hours so left them by climbing up to the higher floors. Everything of any value has long been looted and the buildings are now slowly falling apart, even in broad daylight entering the ruined apartments with the wind howling to find who knows what was still near terrifying and definitely the memory I’ll remember strongest from this strange and sad environment.

Whilst the accident happened in Ukraine due to the winds blowing the radiation North the country most affected by Chernobyl was my next stop Belarus. Getting the visa for Belarus brought back unpleasant memories of traveling in Central Asia as aside from the extortionate cost, you have to do needless paperwork and it takes a week. A lot of the guidebooks describe it like taking step back in time or as a Soviet time capsule but that’s definitely an exaggeration with the usual McDonalds et al on show. However, Belarus is most definitely an outlier within Europe- or perhaps that should be the pariah of the continent. Like all the ex-Soviet ‘Stans it’s run by a nasty dictator named Edward Lukashenko who’s run the country since 1994 with dire results. He imprisons thousands and tortures or executes almost anyone who disagrees with him; whilst the police presence is visibly nothing like as strong as Uzbekistan for example, it’s perhaps symbolic that the most high profile building in the capital Minsk is the giant KGB headquarters bang in the centre of town.

Even ignoring the human rights abuses the country is in economic trouble with its currency in near freefall dropping 100% in value in less than a year as Lukashenko has effectively turned his back on Europe and developed almost total dependence on Russia. As the name suggests (Belarus means white Russia) the two countries have a very similar heritage with Russian the dominant tongue and I can remember only a few pairs of countries with such similar cultures. Indeed in many ways it did feel essentially like a Russian satellite and everyone I spoke to was certain that a reunification with Russia is more likely than a democratic revolution, possibly within the next 5 years, they really don’t have a bright future with Lukashenko in charge.

There aren’t many sights to see and most of them revolve around World War II or the Great Patriotic War as it’s known around there. Towards the end of my GCSEs I lost interest in history as aside from the endless preaching (sorry ‘teaching’) about the Holocaust we just seemed to do loads of stuff about how Britain ‘won’ the war- traveling round this part of the world shows you who really did. Four times as many people died on the Eastern front than in the rest of the world combined with an area like Belarus perfectly illustrating that with over a quarter of the population dying and most of its major cities completely destroyed. As part of the Soviet legacy there’s no doubt they go overboard with huge memorials everywhere to the glorious dead, seemingly half the Russian language films and TV programs are set during the war yet at the same time they almost deliberately ignore the following 45 years of Communist rule. Nonetheless it’s an important part of the historical culture of the area and it’s interesting to see.

Despite the somewhat bleak view of the country I’ve painted I actually had a great time staying with a DJ and partying till the small hours every night enjoying the vodka and I left the country feeling a bit annoyed I couldn’t stay for longer as I was running out of time.

And I continued the partying in my final stop of Lithuania; I had my birthday weekend before I caught my flight and thanks to an old French friend and some very friendly locals absolutely smashed it up on the yummy microbrews. In contrast to Ukraine and especially Belarus, the atmosphere in Lithuania feels different as soon as you cross the border. Unlike most of the former Soviet republics the Russians didn’t move people into Lithuania so it’s ethnically homogeneous and doesn’t have any of the cultural and political issues that come with residual Russians. As the occupation museum housed in a former KGB prison in the capital Vilnius shows the Soviets committed some terrible atrocities in the country and the constant booing of the Russian basketball team in the Olympic match between the 2 sides reflected the lack of love felt towards Russians. The country became the first of the SSRs to declare independence in 1991 and since being admitted in 2004 the people appear to be avowedly pro EU with the young country looking determinedly westward for its future.

Like most Eastern bloc countries it initially struggled after independence but especially since joining the EU and the trade benefits it brings Lithuania economy has been booming to produce one of the best economic growth rates in Europe. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be making them happy though. Before I went there I knew Lithuanian people were famous for 2 things; one was the average height of the people- the reason why a 3.5m strong country is consistently ranked top 5 in the world basketball rankings, it’s also one of only a small number of places where I would regularly see women let alone men who were a couple of inches taller than me, but then the second one was the suicide rate. The world leader of that unwanted record it’s perhaps notable that many of the other higher placed countries are former Soviet states. Whilst to some extent that can be put down to the usual financial pressures and the like I think the widespread alcoholism is also a key contributor. I think traveling in former Soviet states is the only time I’ve felt somewhat guilty about drinking so much; I found it very easy to literally get into the spirit and join the locals in dropping shots of vodka at crazy times e.g. 10am and then carrying on with the rest of the day. However, I did this with the knowledge that it would only be for a short time whereas for men especially that really is their life. Aside from just how cheap it is (a bottle of vodka normally costs about $1-3) one of the main causes is the lack of mobility in large parts of the country. For example if you live in rural Russia, Ukraine or Belarus and do a normal job (and that can include things like doctors) you’ve little hope of earning more than maybe $200 a month with scant opportunity for increasing that. It’s a far cry from the flashy money of Moscow or Kiev and the social and financial gaps between core and periphery regions is one of the biggest problems the region faces. Aside from the suicide rates it brings other social problems such as a surplus of women (the men drink themselves to death by their mid to late-50s on average) and a generally unpleasant/unsafe feel to places as you weave in and out of the drunks. Whilst the likes of Belarus and Lithuania have banned drinking in public I think they may need a more aggressive taxation policy to curb the (male) populations addiction- hopefully leading to improvements in wellbeing indicators and also providing more state income.

Aside from the partying the end of the trip was agreeably relaxing, the Lithuanian capital Vilnius has the largest ‘old town’ in Europe and with its manageable size and interesting architecture it’s a very pleasant place to spend a few days. Although my highlight in Lithuania was definitely the Curonian Spit in the Baltic Sea, it’s the world’s 2nd longest at 100km and its ownership is split in half between Lithuania and the Russian exclave of Kalingrad. I rented a bike there and did the 50km ride from the mainland to the border and back again and it was a wonderful way to enjoy this part of the world. Whilst the word Baltic has become used as an adjective for cold weather the sun came out for me and cycling on the flat spit protected by the 60m high sand dunes was a cracking experience. There were various beaches to stop and swim at too and once again I realised quite how much fun cycling can be and what a great way it is to explore the world. It does feel good to have seen so much of the USSR and whilst I’m not going to be able to travel for a while now the heavens were kind to me and on my final bus to the airport provided a double rainbow to light up the sky- traveling is great.

Barney

Posted by carlswall 27.08.2012 03:48 Archived in Moldova Tagged landscapes mountains churches buildings people ukraine belarus lithuania moldova transnistria Comments (0)

Turkey

Merry Christmas from Istanbul!!!!

Once famous for where Europe meets Asia, capital of the Ottoman empire and home of the Greek Orthodox church it is of course now better known for being only the 2nd international city (after Venice) to appear in more than one Bond film. And ever since 1999 I’ve wanted to have Christmas in Turkey but then Denise Richards got married to Charlie Sheen, so I thought better of it and will fly home tomorrow.

When writing these kind of emails it’s very easy to become quite solipsistic, and whilst I’ve tried to avoid that and focused on the countries I’ve visited, this one will be different and be more about me. But like the others will feature lots of irrelevant stats of my time away e.g:

No. of times I was stung by wasps, on the lips, in Pakistan: 2

The dream plan was to make it all the way to Paris overland and get the Eurostar home but I simply ran out of time as I promised my Mum I’d be back for Christmas. I could in theory have ignored that promise but on a practical level traveling in Winter is a very different beast to warmer weather and also a couple of months more in Europe would’ve left me flat broke whereas now I’m returning with at least some money.

Average spend per day: $22

And it’s not as if Istanbul is a bad place to end things; the fascinating street life, history on every corner and its beautiful ‘hills and water’ natural setting (I’m writing this with a view of the Bosphorus) means it’s been a very enjoyable last week. Whilst the capital Ankara is deeply forgettable and I decided not to head to either the Med or the Aegean I’ve done some other fantastic stuff here in Turkey. Aside from seeing Troy and Hierapolis I also headed to Europe briefly at Gallipoli to see where Mel Gibson died and the Aussies suffered their worst defeat til The Oval, 1938.

Coldest temp: -12 degrees (Central China)

Hottest temp: 51 degrees (Southern Uzbekistan)

However, the undoubted highlight was hiking around Cappadocia for a week; one of the most memorable landscapes I’ve seen on this trip, every day I found myself clambering around the gorges and valleys as the fairy chimneys and home caves of the ancient troglodytic Hittites loomed above me. It snowed a lot and whilst that made some of the descents very scary (my vertigo seems to get worse as I get older) it also added a nice counter to the natural reds and pinks the rocks are colored. And then to end everything at the ‘end of Asia’ here in Istanbul does feel quite cathartic.

No. of countries visited: 36

I do have quite mixed feeling about Turks; the ongoing problems with Kurds and Armenians I’ve written about before and like so many other countries (Iran, Israel, US etc.) the endless crass nationalistic propaganda based around the military is a deeply unattractive part of the culture. It also seems to be a pretty violent society too. Cops toting guns seem to be everywhere and reminiscent of Russians they seem to be totally unable to talk issues through with one another. In the short time I was there I saw 4 fights break out (over next to nothing), earlier this season the Turkish FA banned men from the stadiums as the fans kept fighting too much and it didn’t surprise me to see MPs starting to fight in parliament on the news one night. I said to the guy next to me they’d probably be sacked in England if they did that and he replied by saying it happens quite frequently in Turkey. But then having recently been to other Muslim countries there’s a lot to like about Turkey too.

No. of days I’ve been away: 927

Whilst I’ve never been much of an England fan I’d definitely have to disagree with the sentiments of one of English fans most famous songs: ‘With St George (a Turk) in my heart… I’d rather be a Paki than a Turk”. Having recently been to the likes of Pakistan and Afghanistan where their slavish literal devotion to a 7th century Arabian prophets version of God (or imaginary friend as Jimmy Carr would call ‘It’) seems to have caused poverty, neverending bloodshed and other not very good things, in the 21st century it’s easy to see why the West has so much invested in Turkey, in every sense of the word.

No. of volumes in my journal: 15

The idea that you can be religious (as many Turks are) but that religion shouldn’t be the basis for everything else in life is the greatest legacy of the Father of the Nation Kemal Ataturk and is much of the reason why Turkey is probably the most successful Islamic country in the world. Whilst it’s secular constitution which doesn’t allow women to wear the veil in school or in government offices and the banning of religion in politics or the law is rightly famous and perhaps a model for some of the countries involved in the Arab Spring, even simple things like seeing people having dogs as pets or having a beer in public felt strangely uplifting after the restrictive codes of behavior in the Muslim countries further East.

Shortest time in one country: 4 days (Brunei)

Longest time in one country: 5 months (India)

In recent years its economy has been doing very well but the governing party is much less pro-Western compared with previous governments and draws its support from the more conservative countryside. Whilst the recent shift away from being allied with Israel is understandable, their relaxing of the ban on the veil and pushing other Islamist policies as well as their appalling press freedom record means Sarkozy and others putting the breaks on them joining the EU is probably justified, even if it has some in the West quite worried about the countrys’ future direction. As the designated ‘bridge to the Muslim world’ from Europe and America its geopolitical role is crucial to hope for closer integration with their Arab neighbors so ultimately the West has to persist in trying to encourage the Turkish brand of Islam throughout the Middle East and let people there have the individual freedoms that Turks enjoy and Pakis don’t.

No of times I phoned ‘the family’: 2 (both Xmas Days)

Perhaps the stat which stands out the most (aside from how I didn’t follow that Bob Hoskins BT ad too closely) was how long I’ve been away for. It works out to just over 2.5yrs which, unless you’re a gypsy (in which case you won’t be able to read this but I hope you liked the pictures!) is a long time to be on the road- to put it in some sort of context, MJ was still alive when I left England.

No. of times I thought about returning home: 1 (when Orient drew Arsenal in the cup)

As you can probably imagine my thoughts about returning home are very mixed; on the plus side I get to see my dog and Leyton Orient and I’ll no longer have to deal with some of the negative sides of traveling. Certainly no longer having to carry ‘my life in my pocket’ (passport/cards etc.) will be appreciated as will sleeping in the same bed and I sincerely hope I don’t have to exchange a word with a taxi driver or cop for a good while. I have taken a heck of a lot of risks on this trip in different ways; hiking solo in various wildernesses, going to Afghanistan etc. and somehow I’ve come through essentially unscathed. I couldn’t get an insurance policy for the last year of the trip so not getting my passport or money robbed (tho other stuff was) during that period and even more importantly never getting injured or ill (that’s cos I’m vegetarian) over such a long period has been crucial in the success of the trip. I have been very lucky.

No. of times I was robbed: 2 (1 minor, 1 major (and that was on day 17!)

But then on the downside I’ll have to shave more frequently than ‘when I can be bothered’, live a life more ordinary and having to get a job has the inevitability of an unloved season (poor me). Of course 2 and a half years is a fair chunk of my life to leave in Asia and so the smallest things are getting me quite emotional about finishing the trip; put it this way just listening to China Girl by Bowie nearly brought me to tears a couple of days ago thinking about China! In writing these emails I can only hope the interest and enjoyment I felt in traveling in the region came across.

% increase in No of tattoos: 100%

The reason I write these is based on the idea that if you’re gonna go away for so long you probably should make a bit of effort to let people know what you’re doing, but if you managed to read every word of the 36 (I think) missives plus the ‘bonus’ sporting one then you probably have both a cushy office job and can consider yourself amongst the more loyal members of the immediate McKendry family. Thanks Mum!! But I hope the overly passionate polemics about issues you’ve never heard of and gratuitous digs at Michael Howard and Hilary Clinton haven’t been too unbearable and maybe you even enjoyed the odd line. No? Oh well.

I started with a Bond reference and so I’ll finish with another (very laboured) one by saying it won’t surprise anyone who’s known me longer than 10 minutes that I’ve had the following haiku tattooed onto me:

“You only live twice,

When you are born, and when you

Look Death in the face”

And with what I’ve been privileged enough to see and experience I end this trip safe in the knowledge that it will take the hooded one a moment longer to stare me down.

For the final time,

From Istanbul,

Barney

Posted by carlswall 15:09 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

The Caucuses

For the penultimate time on this trip: hello from abroad. Sorry if this one’s too long- this past month or so I’ve been crisscrossing the Caucuses (at 1 stage I held 6 currencies) including visits to a couple of countries that ‘aren’t’, and even a story where I pissed on a dog. So there’s a fair bit to pack in.

Azerbaijan was my final ‘tricky visa’ to get and I was pretty surprised to see they designated 2011 as a ‘Visit Azerbaijan’ year as they’ve made getting a visa near impossible. But after getting rejected a couple of times elsewhere, for some reason the consulate in the random city of Batumi in Georgia said yes so I was able to (almost) complete my goal of going to every non Arabic country in Asia. The last 1/3 of the trip especially has been a logistical battle traveling though the part of the world with the hardest (and most expensive) visas to get so I’m delighted I’ve come out OK as numerous times I seem to have been in pretty dodgy situations. Getting to Georgia was great as it was the first country I’ve visited since Japan to just stamp you in no questions asked and seeing as Azerbaijan/Armenia have most of their borders closed it came in real handy to be able to use it as a base for the region. I do feel so, so lucky to have been to as many places as I have- I think in the next few weeks it will start to sink in. The one country I didn’t visit was North Korea which, like my failure to buy a Filipino bride earlier in the trip was ultimately just too expensive and not easy to get a visa for, I guess I’ll have to save up once I get home.

In the Caucuses I spent the most time in Georgia and I can’t praise it enough; for lesser known countries I’ve been to on this trip I’d add it to the likes of Myanmar and Bhutan as my top recommendations for holidays. I had heard that despite its small size Georgia would rank as one of the most beautiful countries in the world and I was not disappointed. Aside from the cracking capital Tbilisi (it did feel great being back in a European city) the variety of landscapes is superb, from the Adjaran coast to wine regions and the awesome mountains you’re always surrounded by great scenery.

Several of the popular hikes in Georgia are mini-pilgrimage routes as, like Armenians Georgians have a wonderful knack of building churches/monasteries in prominent and impressive locations on the top of mountains or perched on cliffs above the mountain villages below. Unsurprisingly for a country named after its patron saint and with a flag 5 times more holy than Englands the church is very important in Georgia and you can see how the people suffered in atheist Soviet times where they were often destroyed and mass attendees sometimes interrogated by the KGB. As in places like Poland religious freedom was an important part of the independence movement and in the same way that a reassertion of Islam has been a way for Central Asian countries to form their own identities, in Georgia re-embracing Christianity seems to be an important part of the new country’s psyche.

On one of said hikes up to a glorious monastery I got joined in the snow by a stray dog who I called Georgina (original eh?); she walked all the 2hr way up with me but as we were coming down we ran into a scary problem. The shepherds dogs in the Caucuses would have to rank only behind Tibetan dogs as the scariest I’ve seen; they tend to be formed by the terrible combination of being massive, extremely territorial and very fierce. Many times I’d be walking along when dogs would come at me and I’d yelp back in fright only to be saved by the dogs chain catching and keeping them away. But this time a dog came out from behind a bush and towards me with sufficient ferocity that I fell backwards, and realized it wasn’t on a chain. The dog weighed about 50-60kg and at this point I was pretty petrified it would try to maul me or something but instead it went for the tiny (maybe 4 or 5kg) Georgina- a Georgian guy later told me they’ll always attack dogs rather than humans. It didn’t really go for her but still managed to bite the poor girl and rip open a wound in her back. I got in the middle of them and managed to push the big dog away but Georgina was clearly in pain. So I carried her away from the big dog and used the only antiseptic I had to hand (so to speak) on her wound. I then carried her down the mountain and after I’d bought meat for the 1st time in my life for her (it’s expensive isn’t it?!!) she seemed OK. Not for the first time it was quite hard saying goodbye to an animal I’ve become attached to whilst traveling and seeing my dog again at home is definitely one of the things I’m most looking forward to returning for, in fact I may cry when I see him.

Aside from the cracking scenery and interesting sights one of the most enjoyable aspects of the country are meeting the Georgians themselves. They’re a very outgoing people, always keen to chat and offer their hospitality, traveling in less visited areas in the last 3 or 4 months the way people treat you has been a world away from the ‘foreigners= walking ATM’ (everyone wants a withdrawal..) attitude in places like Vietnam earlier in the trip. Whilst the Bible clearly states that Noah invented wine the Georgians are under the impression they did and it forms an agreeably important part of socializing here regardless of the hour- several times I found myself really quite drunk in the middle of the day as people would ply me with booze on buses or just in their houses. I could never quite work out how (or sometimes ‘if’) restaurants and even hotels seemed to charge for it as they would just bring endless terracotta flagons of it and it never seemed to cost very much. The drinking process was quite ritualized and almost felt like being back in Japan spending half the time standing up as you go through a ceremony of umpteen toasts to Georgia, God, Carl Griffiths etc. which don’t ever seem to stop and get ever more tenuous and baffling as the party gets drunker.

Aside from the vino Georgian meals can be truly epic, particularly in the mountains it’s common to stay in homestays with local families and my waistline visibly expanded as they’d serve up to 9 courses in a sitting over 2hours. My favourite other Georgian contribution to world cuisine were the sublime Katchaburis, again not a dish to eat if you’re watching the calories they’re something like a pie filled with cheese and each region has its own variation on the theme. Perhaps the most memorable of these were the ones from the Adjaran coast which were made up of: a boat shaped bread with melted cheese inside and on top, more melted cheese, a few knobs of butter and a raw egg- absolutely delicious for the first few mouthfuls. Then you have to stop or you throw up.

In recent years Georgia has become a real success story; just 8 years ago the country was unstable, economically stagnant and with big corruption and crime problems. However, in 2003 the famous Rose revolution took place where Mikheil Saakashvili was swept to power and since then Georgia has been booming. Thanks to free market policies the economy has been getting 8% growth, corruption has been almost entirely stamped out and in many ways the country looked to be on a very successful future course.

But whilst Georgia is doing pretty well generally, it has since independence had a couple of major thorns in its side in the shape of the 2 breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The country has fought 2 wars over them versus a combination of local separatist forces and Russian ‘peacekeepers’, during the independence process in 1992-93 and more recently in 2008. The Ossetians/Abkhazis speak different languages and have always seen themselves as separate peoples but after they and Georgia were annexed by the USSR Stalin decided to put them into the Georgian SSR (if that’s the right abbreviation). But in the run-up to independence in the late 1980s they started making noises about becoming their own countries again and started fighting with the Georgian army. After a while Russian peacekeepers intervened decisively in favour of the Abkhazians/South Ossetians and so between 1993-2008 they basically became de facto independent countries, i.e. with their own flags and governments etc. but recognized by no-one.

Unfortunately the conflict became a part of the broader geopolitical game between the West and Russia; to hasten the demise of the USSR the West recognized an independent Georgia, and crucially its external boundaries far too quickly i.e. when they were still fighting in Abkhazia/South Ossetia. Georgia quickly became a strong ally on ‘Russia’s doorstep’ and as the West rather foolishly backed the Georgian position on Abkhazia/South Ossetia Russia retaliated by offering support to the breakaway territories. This situation continued up until 2008 when the increasingly bellicose statements of Georgian leaders ended in what’s probably the worst military decision in living memory: ‘let’s reclaim the territories by attacking Russia’ (or at least its peacekeeping force). Unsurprisingly they got utterly routed within 3 days.

South Ossetia is tiny, virtually lawless and almost totally reliant on Russian support, it’s only possible to visit from Russia too so I didn’t, but you can go to Abkhazia surprisingly easily. I had to apply for an entry letter online in advance but I was really worried the Georgian army at the last checkpost would simply not let me ‘out of Georgia’ or ‘back in’ once I tried to return, at least not without interviewing me suspiciously. But I’m delighted I did it as they let me go virtually no questions asked and let me back in fine too as I guess by their logic I hadn’t ‘left Georgia’, although apparently if you go Russia-Abkhazia-Georgia then you can get into serious trouble for entering ‘Georgia’ illegally. When I got to the capital Sukhumi as some countries employ (e.g. Israel) they didn’t actually stamp my passport, just gave me a very pretty visa on a separate sheet of paper that I could do what I liked with. Nice.

And as with Georgia it’s not unattractive; the entire country slopes East to West with ever visible snow capped Caucasian peaks becoming covered in very dense pine forests right down to the Black Sea coast. It’s blessed with a lovely sub-tropical climate- locals say they don’t really have a Winter and I managed to go sunbathing a couple of days which at the end of October was a bit of a surprise. All this means it came to be called ‘The Jewel of the Russian Riviera’ during Soviet times where protected by his 300man bodyguard Stalin famously had his holiday home , interestingly all the furniture including the snooker table had to be lowered/made smaller cos he was just 1.56m! I’d picked up just about enough Russian in Central Asia to get by and whilst there’s not masses to do the scenery is great and there’s effectively only one main road so getting around was a doddle.

Most of the fighting took place in the ‘border regions’ and after crossing the creepy bridge that marks the border the first 30km were like something out of a horror film, specifically The Hills Have Eyes. The road becomes full of gigantic potholes and all around you are deserted buildings with bits missing from them. It improves as you go North but even in central Sukhumi large numbers of nasty Soviet era towerblocks are derelict and appear to have been that way for some time. Whilst part of that is down to them becoming unsafe from the fighting it’s mainly due to the massive depopulation that has taken place in Abkhazia; under Georgias most famous son Stalin the Soviets implemented a policy of ‘Georgification’ of Abkhazia so that by the late 1980s the half million population was split nearly evenly between Georgians and Abkhazis. But during the ‘92-93 war pretty much all the Georgians returned to Georgia to escape the fighting and the 250k or so internally displaced persons’ (IDPs) has become one of the most controversial issues of Abkhazias status.

Even now some of them are still living in temporary shelters in Georgia and whilst they’re (briefly) allowed to check on properties they may own in the border region, Abkhazia says there’s no way they can move back permanently until Georgia relinquishes its claim on the area, which doesn’t look likely to happen.

I think the Georgians were in the wrong in the conflict as you eventually had the ironic position where the West was trying to uphold a Soviet Stalinist policy and Russia was actually trying to protect minority groups. In the aftermath of the war Medvedev made his famous speech about it marking the end of the previous 20years ‘unipolar world’ but the aftermath of the conflict says a lot about the differences in the financial support and propaganda machines operated by the West and Russia. Abkhazia and especially Russia were made out to be the bad guys in the Western media and the country is now recognized by only 6 states (inc. Nauru, Tuvalu and Vanuatu) whereas in very similar (possibly less justified) circumstances the Western backed (and technically illegal) independence of Kosovo from Serbia is widely touted as a triumph of justice or similar and is now recognized by 85 states.

Unable to trade with other countries, Russian tourism is one of the few ways the country can actually make money so there’s plenty of them around, and using the Rouble and Russian alphabet the country does in many ways feel like a warmer Southern satellite of the Great Bear. However, the few Abkhazis I spoke to were adamant they weren’t ‘Russian puppets’ to annoy the West with, which the Georgian media is convinced they are. Given the Wests unstinting support of Georgia and Georgia repeatedly threatening their very existence I don’t think they really have any option at all but to look to Russia for support. Whilst Abkhazis acknowledge they couldn’t survive without Russian financial and military support as the ubiquitous national flag shows they’re very proud of their independence and so for example in the recent presidential election the Russian backed candidate soundly lost.

The 2008 conflict has also done huge damage to Georgia’s future aspirations as a country; as they didn’t even consult their Western allies before attacking, (and understandably not fancying getting dragged into a war with Russia in the future) NATO cancelled membership negotiations indefinitely and the Georgian dream of joining the EU can now be put in the ‘unlikely’ category, which is exactly what Russia wanted. Georgia probably should just accept that Abkhazis don’t want to be a part of Georgia and just let the issue go, they could then restart trade and diplomatic ties with Russia and maybe their hopes of NATO/EU membership could be a reality once again.

Then it was onto my Aunt’s favorite country of Azerbaijan, the land of the two black golds (caviar and oil) and where the national stadium is famously named after a Russian linesman. My view of it unfortunately isn’t massively positive, if Georgia would be one of my top holiday recommendations of this trip then Azerbaijan would join the likes of Bangladesh and Kazakhstan in the ‘you can skip ‘em’ category. Since the 3 Caucasian countries went independent their continental location has been somewhat debatable; geographically they’re in Asia but they’ve talked themselves into competing in Eurovision and UEFA (so has Kazakhstan somehow) as culturally they’ve more in common with Europe than Asia. However whilst white, Christian Georgia and Armenia face towards Europe Azerbaijan feels much more like Central Asia with its weak Islam, rampant corruption and massive personality cults. They see themselves as Europeans (though I couldn’t work out why) and whilst I think it’s feasible the Georgian/Armenian dream of joining the EU can happen in the medium term future, Azerbaijan is much further off as in many ways it’s still pretty backward- if I said Kazakhstan wasn’t really a fitting location for Borat Azerbaijan definitely is.

That said, in the countryside the people were very kind again and whilst not quite Georgia the scenery is still impressive though annoyingly at this time of year thanks to a combo of the snow and the army much of it was off-limits. There’s also not too much in the way of ‘human sights’ so I think I’ll most remember the country for how divided it is between the rich and poor.

There’s a spot just outside Baku called the James Bond oilfield cos it’s featured in The World Is Not Enough, the plot of the film is (partly) about the building of the $4bn pipeline from the Caspian to Turkey (and on into Europe) which went online a few years ago and since it misses both Russia and Iran would rank as one of the biggest overseas policy successes of the Clinton administration. Whilst the nearly 200yr old Caspian oil industry is the world’s oldest, production shrunk dramatically during Soviet times but the new pipeline has transformed the industry and indeed the country as a whole. Whilst Baku is situated on a pretty natural bay, the nodding donkeys (oil derricks) both onshore and off are visible absolutely everywhere ruining the views and there’s even an 'oil platform city’ housing over 2000 workers 45km into the Caspian. But whilst it’s not pretty to look at, with oil prices being consistently high Azerbaijan has become filthy rich and indeed has one of the fastest growing economies in the world (posting 30%+ annual growth rates) almost entirely on the back of the pipeline. But unfortunately the wealth hasn’t been spread remotely evenly.

When you cross the border into Azerbaijan it’s immediately obvious that 80%+ of the cars are either Ladas or Mercedes with hardly anything in the middle. Whilst most capital cities are culturally/economically different to the countryside, Baku would have to be one of the most extreme examples I’ve seen. In the countryside off the coast it’s very easy to find villages without electricity or even running water and as you can see in their clothes and food people clearly don’t have a great deal of money to spend and the conservative slightly backward atmosphere feels like you’ve gone back in time 50 years. Yet when you go to the boomtown capital Baku it’s a different world with designer clothes boutiques aplenty and silly vanity projects like building the worlds biggest flagpole (though I think they were building a bigger one in Dushanbe when I was there) and laughably trying to stage the Olympics (they lost to London). Worse than that though are the doughy European oil execs and suited mafia types very visibly throwing cash around on champagne and Russian hookers to give the city a seedy and quite tasteless atmosphere. Instead of actually trying to improve the country’s Soviet era infrastructure, poor human development indicators or even trying to cut the rampant corruption the president Ilham Aliyev seems far happier spending the cash on building endless roadside memorials and a park, a museum and a main square statue in every town dedicated to the former president. Who coincidentally was his Dad.

The Baku metro for example has apparently been earmarked for expansion/improvement for over 10 years but for some reason this hasn’t happened and remains the front runner in ‘the hardest to use metro in the world’ competition. I never saw a map within a station or even on a train and the staff don’t have any. Even more ridiculously there are no signs in platforms (and sometimes not even on station entrances) so apart from the announcements in Azeri (at least in Tbilisi they’re in English) when you arrive you literally can’t know where you are. To make things even worse most of the stations have meaningless names e.g. Y1, M2 etc. so the only way I found I could use it was just to tell fellow passengers which part of the city I wanted to go to and they’d let me know which stop to get off. After a spell in the Far East using some of the best metros in the world it’s a slight relief to know there are some places worse than London I guess.

After Azerbaijan it was onto pretty Armenia, one of the oldest ‘peoples’ in the world Armenians life in the 21th century is slowly improving but as centuries go they had a bit of a nightmare 20th and the legacy of history feels very strong all over the country.

Unfortunately one of those legacies is Soviet architecture; covered in forested mountains it’s not an unattractive place but Armenia represents perhaps the nadir of Communist indifference to nature that I’ve seen in the USSR. All over the country areas of stunning natural beauty have just been ruined by quarries or chemical factories being built in the most illogical places such as the stunning Debed Canyon in the North. In the mountains rather than traditional cottage style rural dwellings you’d expect the Soviets just put up huge, ugly towerblocks everywhere which aside from ruining the landscape creates a feeling of quite intense poverty, which isn’t necessarily accurate but makes you feel quite uncomfortable around. Indeed having managed to negotiate good relations with Russia, Iran and the US the country has been doing fairly well economically in recent years, as in Georgia it did feel like being back in Europe and I did appreciate being able to drink and go to clubs etc. in a much more liberal atmosphere than in the likes of Iran.

One of Armenia’s claims to fame is the title of the first country to adopt Christianity- as early as 300AD. As in Ethiopia/Egypt/Syria the belief system developed separately from Europe (apparently they differ on ‘the nature of Christ’) so the church is something like the 3rd branch of Christianity (along with the Catholic and Orthodox versions) and Echmiadzin near the capital Yerevan became the equivalent of Rome or Constantinople as the headquarters of the Church. The country is littered with 1000yr+ old churches and monasteries in spectacular locations and in amazingly good condition; they have a slightly different atmosphere as they’re much darker and they're less decorous than most churches. I really enjoyed spending time around them though as Armenia would probably compete with the likes of The Philippines or Poland for the country with the strongest Christian faith so it’s very interesting seeing the populations devotion in action. Whenever you pass a church on a bus all the passengers make the sign of the cross and it’s quite funny watching the end of mass as they’re not allowed to turn their backs on the cross so everyone has to back out the door very slowly.

As in Georgia the church was a constant in the assertion of the national identity in Soviet times but perhaps even more so in the aftermath of the genocide they suffered in the closing days of the Ottoman Empire. I was disappointed in my Mum when she emailed to say she didn’t know anything about Armenia, but then again as the sublime The Onion once put it:

Armenia: proof positive that the near eradication of an entire people can be almost completely forgotten by the rest of the world when the victims neither own the media nor have the means to buy the political agenda for the next 50 years.

In the attractive capital Yerevan there’s a very good museum about it and lays out the tragic story of how in the first World War Lenin did a deal (foreshadowing Hitler and Stalin 20years later in Eastern Europe) with Turkish leaders to effectively carve Armenia in 2 to be shared out between them. Whilst the Russians then created the Armenian SSR Turkey decided to ethnically and religiously cleanse the Armenians and repopulate their areas with Muslim Turks. The Turks were much less systematic in keeping records than the Nazis with Jews later on but the commonly agreed figure is that 1.5m were killed and it’s often described as the first organized Holocaust of the 20th Century. The main tactic used was to kill most men on the spot then send women and children out on death marches to the Mesopotamian deserts in Southern Turkey where they’d starve or be beaten to death. The Turks deliberately released psychopaths from prison to speed up the killing (it only took the Summer of 1915) and with the usual rape and torture tactics it’s quite unpleasant to read about the barbarity involved. As one Armenian guy put it: “We don’t call them Turks, the word we use for them translates as something like ‘they who must not be named’- it’s like Harry Potter!”

From an earlier time and in a more isolated part of the world there’s nothing like the paper records of the Nazi Holocaust but there’s still an abundance of evidence of all kinds- photos, eyewitness statements etc. so the vast majority of the world (including the Muslim world) have at some point offered sympathy to Armenians. But this makes the Turks very angry as in what’s become the strangest aspect of the tragedy- they simply refuse to accept it ever happened.

Whether it be politicians, the media or (as I saw in what’s now NE Turkey) the general population they use a variety of qualifying statements- ‘not that many died’, ‘they weren’t killed they starved because of food shortages caused by the war, ‘the evidence of it has all been faked’ etc. but it basically adds up to a denial that it ever happened. As I saw in the Kurdish areas there is something really quite unpleasant about Turks, a sort of racial superiority complex over their neighbours which obviously goes a long way back into history. But whilst most countries accept they’ve made errors in the past and apologise for it (to an embarrassingly frequent degree if you’re Angela Merkel) Turks seem to think they can behave like they did 3 centuries ago and just don’t seem to accept any responsibility for their actions.

This denial of history has had odd effects in Turkey, it’s a crime for a Turk to say it happened (as Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk found out in 2005) the only memorials you’ll find to the period are ones commemorating dubious claims of reprisal attacks by Armenians on Turks and whenever another country makes acknowledgement of the genocide such as the US congress in 2007 Turkey gets absolutely livid, threatening to expel ambassadors and the like. As with the Kurdish issue (and similar to Serbias refusal to accept their own more recent massacres against Bosnians) I think it’s inconceivable Turkey can join the EU whilst they’re clearly denying this type of historical fact.

Aside from the human cost in lives, Armenia suffered something of a cultural genocide; they were kicked out of half their country (which they’ve never got back) and lost areas of cultural importance in the process. In the legend of their origin Armenians are descended from one of Noahs great grandsons Hayk and Mt Ararat (where the Arc ended up) is incredibly symbolic to them- it looms beautifully over the capital Yerevan, pictures of it appear in seemingly every Armenian front room, and everything from beer to sons are named after it, it even appears on the national seal so losing it to Turkey in such a fashion obviously hurts. Furthermore the breakup of their country meant that millions of Armenians fled the area so whilst that’s the rest of the world’s and particularly California’s gain in some cases (Cher, Gary Kasparov, Andre Agassi… Kim Kardashian) they’ve become a very divided people with twice as many Armenians abroad than in what’s left of their country so their identity has become necessarily pretty fragmented.

The ongoing controversy over the genocide means their Turkish border is still closed but so is the Azeri border to the East over the Nagorno Karabakh issue which was my next memorable stop.

Whilst hitchhiking in Azerbaijan I got picked up by a few guys who were delighted to see a foreigner, they quickly took me to a bar and as we were playing pool one of them started telling me what music he liked. He came up with Sinatra (ok), Presley (ok), Paul Anka (eh?) but then shocked me by saying Charles Aznavour. I couldn’t help but blurt out “But he’s Armenian”!! to which he responded “Is he?” and spent the next few minutes looking a bit sullen about it…

Somewhat similar to Abkhazia, Nagorno Karbakh is a disputed territory which is a de jure part of Azerbaijan but sort of operates as an independent country. However, ethnically, culturally and linguistically the people are Armenian and as they didn’t even check my passport at any stage so it felt just like another province of Armenia. Despite the population being Armenian Lenin gave Nagorno Karabakh to the Azeri SSR but in the runup to independence the locals made it clear they didn’t want to be part of a new Azerbaijan. After the Azeris massacred an Armenian village, fighting broke out between the two countries in the early ‘90s and after 30,000 deaths in a brutal conflict Azerbaijan eventually suffered a humiliating defeat to a country less than half its size. There are no Azeris living there but they still want it back and for reasons I simply couldn’t understand the Azeris just will not give up on the issue. It was reminiscent of The Falkland Islands in Argentina or Kashmir in Pakistan where every day the television and newspapers are filled with anti-Armenian propaganda to the extent that anyone who votes for Armenia in the Eurovision song contest is arrested and interrogated over it. The other thing Azerbaijan spends its money on is its military and as recently as 2009 the Azeri president threatened to attack if Armenia doesn’t hand NK back. It’s quite sad to think decisions taken probably fairly flippantly almost 100yrs ago by Stalin are still causing so many problems in this part of the world.

I think part of the reasons for the tensions in the Caucuses are because all 3 countries used to be much bigger and more powerful at certain points in the past and define themselves by their history. However they’ve been gradually outmuscled by much bigger Iran, Russia and Turkey and lost territory and power so subsequently give off the impression of being frustrated by their inadequate current sizes. Also, as with the European empires in other parts of Asia when the Soviet Union broke up trying to base the new countries on the old flawed administrative boundaries just hasn’t worked. Whilst they’ve managed to avoid war in Central Asia they’ve had plenty of rioting but the mountainous Caucuses are a much more complicated region composed of lots of languages and ethnicities and trying to group them as just 4 countries(+Russia) isn’t enough as the ongoing problems in Chechnya, Ingushetia etc. show.

I did have a great time in Nagorno Karabakh though as desperately needing a physical challenge before I came home I spent a week walking the 200km long Janiper trail. Nagorno means mountainous so it was hard but utterly beautiful. My biggest fear was the snow and predictably Mr. Murphy turned up and it started snowing within half an hour of me starting to walk. I therefore had to do the entire trail in ankle deep snow which meant an extra challenge but also added a wintry beauty to the whole landscape. The thing I liked least was having to cross the streams, the water could go up to thigh height so I’d have to take off my trousers and cross them- at this time of year the cold almost brought me to tears and as they were frozen over I’d have to kick through the ice which just left my legs bleeding painfully. The trail was so poorly signed I ended up getting lost loads of times and found myself taking risks my Mum definitely wouldn’t approve of. Several times I found myself in fairly tight spots totally lost in the wooded mountains in the mid afternoon knowing I simply had to find a village in the next couple of hours or I would freeze to death in the night. This normally meant I just followed streams or an old logging track on one occasion and I was always a very happy boy when I found a village. Despite often being very, very poor the people were monumentally hospitable, I would just knock on a door and ask if I could sleep there and virtually every time they’d say yes immediately and subsequently throw food and drink at me. I’d normally go through a bottle of the potent oghee (60-70% fruit vodka) with the man of the house and every night was memorable. Perhaps the strangest was when I arrived at the edge of a village at dusk and the only house with a light I could see had a sign up saying Danger! Mines: Keep Out. But the light was on so I thought it was worth risking a limb and after I knocked on the door it turned out to be a base for a demining crew from the Halo Trust. They seemed to invite half the village in and just plied me with booze. Fantastic.

I did quite a bit of that last night here in Tbilisi as it’s been a hedonistic end to my time in the wonderful Caucuses. I really have enjoyed it here but I base time round the sporting calendar and since Spain have just won the Davis Cup there’s really not much left for this year. Tomorrow I’ll get the long bus to Ankara then Cappadocia and Istanbul for a final couple of weeks in Turkey where the final email will definitely be shorter.

Til then, from Tbilisi,

Barney

Posted by carlswall 15:06 Archived in Georgia Comments (0)

Kurdistan

…After crossing the Georgian border from Turkey thanks to some errant hitchhiking I got spectacularly lost and ended up walking up a mountain pass for 3hrs in the snow before I got saved by the unlikely figure of an English 50yr old who looked like my Dad on holiday in a rental car. He then drove me through the snow to safety in the form of the lovely Black Sea city of Batumi in Georgia, where back in a Christian country we proceeded to get very drunk.

Although this email is actually about Kurdistan, where I wish they didn’t serve the tea in glasses- the normal serving is about 1-1.5 inches of sugar, I haven’t yet been able to stop myself from doing a double take and a frown as I begin to stir. And you have to drink quite a lot of tea here; if there’s one adjective I’d use to describe Kurds it’s ‘hospitable’- you can barely go past a tea shop without an offer of a glass and a cigarette. As with most Muslim countries it’s very much a man’s world so as you don’t see women in virtually any public spaces (restaurants, tea shops etc.) I can’t imagine how it would be like traveling as a girl in this part of the world. Aside from how much they like their sugar another very noticeable thing about Kurdish men is how they dress; in most parts of the world women tend to dress more colorfully/interestingly but not here. The standard Kurdish male outfit is composed of a very baggy boiler suit type of thing topped off by headscarves which can vary from Yasser Arafat style black and white ones to gorgeous lilac ones with gold tassels. It’s definitely a look which recommends oneself to grow a paunch and topped off with a thick moustache I’ve unwittingly found myself deeply admiring the fashion scene here.

Although the same can’t quite be said for the food; since leaving China food generally has been a big problem, partly in the unhealthy, often abysmal quality of it but mainly in just the sheer lack of variety on offer. Whilst in countries like India or China you basically don’t find anything but Indian/Chinese food, within those cuisines there’s a huge variety of dishes available so you never get bored. But Central Asia onwards you’ll be lucky to find a restaurant with more than a few things on a menu and bizarrely considering how rich it is Iraqi Kurdistan was maybe the low point. As far as I could tell there seemed to be only 2 food types in Kurdish cuisine: 1) sweets- in the form of literally hundreds and hundreds of sweet and pastry shops and 2) kebabs.

In a week there I never saw a restaurant/cafe which served anything but kebabs, literally nothing but kebabs, sliced onions and bread, some maybe offered a saucer of salad to go with it. Even in the centre of the capital Arbil, a city of 1 million people: nothing but kebabs. I’ve never seen a more limited diet, so after eating nothing but crisps and pomegranates for a while it was great crossing into Turkey and eating kahvalti, borek, and pide amongst others. Whilst my Mum will shortly be in tears at the prospect of my impact on the Xmas food bill, going home and being able to eat different (healthy) types of food is definitely something I’m looking forward to. But I’ve still got a bit more exploring to do first…

Before coming to Turkey I had another jaunt off the beaten track in Kurdistan in Northern Iraq; whilst the Sunni or Shiite Arabs continue their fratricide in the South, Kurdistan is a haven of calm in the region- it’s not just for the mountainous scenery that it’s known as ‘the Switzerland of the Middle East’ and apparently US/UK forces used to go there for holidays during the 2nd Iraq war!

Unfortunately it wasn’t cheap to travel in and the polychromatic mountains aside there wasn’t too much in the way of sights but it’s sometimes nice to go somewhere a bit unknown and have no other foreigners around you. The people were really friendly too and maybe even outdid Persians in their hospitality. This is one part of the Muslim world where if you say you’re American or British, rather than a look of scorn and mutterings of ‘infidel’ you’ll get a handshake and almost guaranteed offer of chai as they see NATO as liberators.

During the ‘60s and ‘70s they tried repeatedly to gain independence unsuccessfully then really struggled under Saddam. During the mid ‘80s he conducted a genocidal policy killing some 200,000 Kurds and famously showed his sadistic streak in the chemical attack on Halabja in 1988. Therefore he was hated by Kurds even more than other Iraqis and when NATO won the first Gulf war their situation improved considerably.

As one of the conditions of the ceasefire at the end of the war, the UN established self-autonomy (own flag, parliament, leader, security force etc.) for the area and now it has seemingly next to nothing in common with the rest of the country, indeed I’m not sure I can really claim to have been to Iraq. Security is high but it was almost totally spared the 2nd war and never felt remotely unsafe; and whilst the Arabs fight over control of the post Saddam country, somewhat off the radar Kurdistan has been doing very well for itself.

As the frequent sightings of oil derricks and refineries in the desert testify it’s home to the worlds’ 6th largest oil reserves and the money that started to flow in from European/US investment is definitely visible in the Western standards of roads and other infrastructure that are being built everywhere, the future does look very positive. That said when the road gets close to the mixed (Arab/Kurd) cities of Kirkuk and Mosul you suddenly see heavily manned army bases as control of these cities are still being fought over so remain some of the most dangerous cities on earth. Both sides claim the cities belong to them and due to the oil deposits nearby it’s the main bone of contention between the 2 sides, their unresolved status is probably the only thing stopping Kurdistan from going fully independent.

As and when they do decide to form their own state it would be great because once you cross the border into Turkey things become very different as the status of the Kurds there remains arguably the most controversial issue in modern Turkey. As I was crossing into Turkey I told the immigration officer I’d come from Kurdistan and he immediately aggressively (gratuitous glare and pointed finger) corrected me that “It’s not ‘Kurdistan’, it’s ‘Iraq’” and that was a bit of a taster for this very ethnically divided country. Up until just a few years SE Turkey was firmly closed to Turks as well as foreigners, as depending on your terrorist vs. freedom fighter preference the area was terrorized by the PKK (armed Kurdish independence movement) or the Kurdish people rose up against the tyranny of Turkish rule to result in a 2 decade long civil war.

The Kurds number some 30 million, so split across 4 countries (Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran) they form one of the largest ethnic groups in the world without their own state. Whilst in Iraq things are now very good for them in the other countries their status is highly controversial to put it mildly; on my last night in Iran I literally didn’t have enough money to stay in the only hotel in the border town but after explaining the situation to a local guy, with customary Kurdish hospitality he invited me to stay at his house. As he plied me with booze he told me the fairly chilling story of how his Father had been imprisoned, tortured and eventually executed by the regime for the crime of being a member of an organization seeking greater autonomy for Kurds in Iran. Neither Iran nor Syria is prepared to listen to the idea of losing chunks of their territory to a new Kurdish state and will violently stop any moves towards it, but it’s in Turkey (where they’re most numerous) that the issue has gained most prominence.

The roots of the problem date back to the creation of the new Turkish Republic following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the 1st World War. With the aim of creating national unity, the Father of modern Turkey Kamal Ataturk refused to acknowledge Kurds as a separate people (which persists to this day) and amongst other things banned their language, national dress and even Kurdish names.

After 50years of repression the Kurds got a bit better organized and developed a ‘gun and ballot box’ strategy to try and get more rights. So from the mid ‘80s the army imposed martial law in fighting the PKK as SE Turkey became a virtual war zone, 30,000 people were killed and the area suffered massive depopulation as people left en masse to escape the violence.

The war ended in 1999 when the PKKs leader Abdullah Ocalan was captured by Mossad (this is when Israel and Turkey were friends) in Kenya and he’s now under a Spandau prison style regime with over a thousand guards to himself.

Since then things have got much better in the area, the security situation has been brought under control and much of the Turkish army has moved out though there’s still plenty of bases around. Furthermore in light of Turkeys long running membership bid the EU has put strong pressure on them to grant the Kurds more rights, so they cancelled Ocalans death sentence, to some extent can now speak and write their own language in schools and newspapers and they’ve even allowed Kurdish television channels. They also eventually released a group of Kurdish MPs who controversially spent 10years in jail for declaring allegiance to the ‘Turkish and Kurdish peoples’ in parliament. This violated Turkeys unusual law of ‘insulting Turkishness’ being a criminal offence and again the EU said either you release them or we stop negotiations. As a result the Kurds are very positive about the EU and whilst it would come 2nd to full independence a Turkey within the EU, and the extra protection it grants is seen as a more realistic goal. Whilst the government may now pay lip service to the Kurds position having officially improved, discrimination still definitely takes place on a ‘secondary level’ i.e. huge areas of employment are nearly off limits to Kurds (including teaching in most of the country) as Kurds have a significantly lower standard of living than Turks and a glance at Turkish television or the tabloids reveal that all the celebrities literally look more like me than the darker, Persian looking Kurds.

I only spoke to a couple of Turks about the issue and thanks to decades of negative propaganda about Kurds from the government and press they quickly launched into outright racist rants (most ironically by a taxi driver who’d just been deported from Germany) against Kurds and it’s quite obvious they see them as second class humans and won’t ever consider them as ‘Turkish’.

As you may have read in the last few days there’s been a massive outbreak of hostilities as a PKK attack killed 26 soldiers only for the Turkish army to respond with a huge 10,000 man deployment chasing the PKK into Turkish Kurdistan and even into Iraq. On a personal level I was delighted to miss the action by just a few days but it’s yet more evidence that despite the situation improving the conflict still seems set to run. Whilst in recent years the Turkish government has reluctantly made some small measures to increase Kurdish freedoms, until at the very least they give them autonomy, for me it’s inconceivable that Turkey could be allowed to join the EU whilst operating quasi fascist policies against its own citizens.

As with the Iranian and Syrian governments, the Turks have seen the success of Iraqi Kurdistan and are worried about the independence movement starting up again, flying the Kurdish flag and publicly stating that Kurdistan should be a separate country is still very illegal -a newspaper editor recently got 166 years in jail for that ‘crime’. Regardless of what state you’re in any Kurd will tell you that a unified Kurdistan is the dream they’re striving for and I found them such likable people I sincerely hope they make it. Whilst I wrote about it before in China(and several other countries), if there’s one issue that’s been a constant through my trip in Asia is that there simply isn’t ‘enough’ countries in Asia, too many people don’t have freedom and I stridently hope that the map becomes much more complicated in the years ahead.

Whilst the political situation is worse on the Turkish side the sights are much better, aside from some of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world there are some beautiful mountain ranges with the huge Lake Van being something of a centerpiece for the region. It was warm enough that I could wear shorts for a bit longer than I expected and amidst spectacularly friendly people I can’t help feeling how much more enjoyable the traveling has been since leaving Central Asia.

I managed to climb 2 mountains called Nemrut Dagi, one a massive volcano with a huge crater lake and the other more famous one with giant moai like head statues at the summit and hatching to visit the remote ancient capital of Ani near the Armenian border was a fantastic experience. I also spent a few days at the base of mighty Mt Ararat, whilst it’s too expensive to climb, the 5137m high Fuji like peak is fairly beautiful and I felt spiritually richer to visit somewhere so important in the history of man. When the great flood took place in 2349BC Noahs Ark came to rest on the top of Mount Ararat whilst every other living thing on earth drowned (at this time no people or animals living in the Himalayas or Andes could go uphill). Then the waters receded, Noah lived to 950, invented wine and his family repopulated the entire earth as everyone else had died. You learn a lot from the Bible.

From Batumi,

Barney

Posted by carlswall 15:04 Archived in Iraq Comments (0)

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