A Travellerspoint blog

December 2011


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,


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,


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