Thursday, 26 January 2012

The Sarpi border crossing - Goodbye Georgia, Hello Turkey

It was time to head west again and cross the border into our first non-ex-Soviet country since China 7 months ago. Marshrutka hopping, we were heading to the the Sarpi border crossing. The most striking thing about this particular border is the Georgian immigration building. A feat of engineering and striking modern design, it is as if the Georgians screaming 'Hello Europe, let us in!!' Although usually a big no-no at borders I just had to get my camera out and take a picture. No one seemed to mind, I am guessing they get it all the time, they can't build a building like that and not expect people to take photographs.

On getting to Turkish immigration they checked our passports and explained that we needed to buy the tourist visa before we could get stamped in. The official waved vaguely to a line of buildings. This was border crossing number 18 on this trip and by far the busiest border we had crossed so far. Trucks and cars waited patiently to cross and there were lots of people milling about. We were confronted with an array of buildings and went into random doors to ask about the visa. Eventually, at the very end of the line of buildings, we found a small booth where we handed over $20 each to get the visa. Why this booth wasn't at the immigration check at the point of entry I don't know.

Our next challenge was to get the visa stamped. We returned to several of the offices we had visited in our initial search but to no avail until I finally put my foot down and demanded that the poor unfortunate official behind one particular desk stamped our passports. He laughed, refusing to be drawn into any argument, happily giving us the stamps we needed and wished us a good trip.

We were on our way again, now all we needed was some form of transport into the local town where we could get a bus. And then it hit us, for 7 months we had been in the sphere of Russian influence and could communicate by speaking Russian, now, with just a few steps, we had left this sphere and with a jolt found that we couldn't communicate what we wanted. We were also sans guidebook so weren't even very sure where we had to go. We knew the next town was called Hopa but every time we asked the minibus drivers they pointed to the taxi rank. We were totally confused and couldn't work out how all the people coming across the border were continuing their journey. In the end an empty minibus agreed to take us to Hopa. When we got to a village called Kemalpasa he dropped us off and, for no extra cost, pointed us to a minibus to Hopa. The riddle was solved. Minibuses from the border only go to Kemalpasa, there you need to change to go to Hopa and beyond.

I am embarrassed to admit that we were quite excited at getting to the coach station in Hopa. The last time we had been on a big coach was the National Express we had taken to Heathrow. It was a sign that we were getting closer to home; closer to things more familiar. At the coach station there was an array of choice. We opted for the next bus to Trabzon and loaded our bags. Then, whilst nosy-ing around the station waiting for our coach to depart we spotted another coach that happened to be leaving for Cappadocia, the place we needed to get to, in 15 mins, no need for any changes! We quickly abandon the first coach and swapped onto the direct one. Welcome to coach travel in Turkey, they go everywhere, any time of day or night, amazing. Within 15 mins we pulled out of the station and settled down to our 16 hour over night journey.

Georgian immigration building, Sarpi border crossing

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Last trip in the Southern Caucasus - the Black Sea coast

We had now spent several months in the Southern Caucasus of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia. The closed border between Azerbaijan and Armenian, as well as the central location of Tbilisi, meant the we had continually returned to the Georgian capital before setting out again. So, it was with some sadness that we set out on a snowy evening to catch the night train west.

The train took us to the Georgian Black Sea coastal town of Batumi, the capital of the autonomous province of Adjara. It is the third autonomous province of Georgia, South Ossentia and Abkhazia being the other two, but is distinct in two ways. Firstly, it is Islamic and borders Turkey, secondly, it a very stable region on Georgia and has not had any separist movements. As a consequence of this stability it has developed into a resort town and has had some tasteful restoration of the old centre. 

My knowledge of Adjara was however food related. Out of the seven different types of Khachapuri (cheesey bread) I had been sampling over the last couple of months my favourite was the Adjarian Khachapuri which, as I find is often the case, happened to be the most unhealthy, fattening and heart-attacking inducing of them all. I couldn't wait to tuck into an Adjarian Khachapuri in Adjara.

But first we had to find somewhere to stay. The address the taxi dropped us off at, in the grey dawn, was boarded up, so we shouldered out rucksacks and went to hunt for somewhere else to stay. At the next place the owner, flicking cigarette ash onto the thread bare carpet, informed us that we couldn't see the room as someone was still in it. We decided that we had seen enough away and headed up the road to look for somewhere else. After another taxi ride we found ourselves on a street which looked like a building site with a road which comprised of muddy puddles, potholes and rubble. There was no sign at the address indicating that it was a hostel and an Alsatian patrolled the gates. 

It turned out that the Alsatian was a complete softie and the its family owned a large house with several spare rooms which they offered to travellers. With somewhere to sleep secured we headed into the centre of town to find both Adjara Khachipuri as well as Aaron, a friend working in Gori, Georgia, who was taking a short holiday in Batumi with his sister Emy. We were successful on both fronts and over a beer shared a huge Adjara khachipuri. The correct technique for eating such a cheesy delight is to take the boat shaped bread which contains the cheese and melting butter, as well as an egg and mix it all up together. Then proceed to tear off bits of the soft white bread and dunk them in the mix.

The centre of town was a lot less like a building site than the outskirts we were staying in and had retained its charm with cobbled streets and pretty buildings. The sea front had flanked by a broad, wooden walk way and palms. It being late Novemeber, the sea lay still and cold beyond and the beach was wonderfully deserted. 

Adjarian khachapuri - yum

Modern Batumi

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Crossing borders diplomatic style and more dental work

Steve, the British Defence Attache, offered us a lift from Yerevan back to Tbilisi. Needless to say we nearly bit his arm off and were perfectly happy to fit in with his work plans. His chauffeur picked us up, with our grubby backpacks, in his plush Range Rover, outside the British Embassy. It was sleeting as we left Yerevan and the low cloud was reducing visibility on the high passes. I was glad to be in a vehicle which would have passed an MOT, and sat back and relaxed in the leather seat. This was beyond doubt the most luxurious mode of transport we had experienced on our trip. But the best was yet to come.

At the Armenia/Georgia border we experienced border crossings diplomatic style. This consisted of driving to the front of the queue (a Range Rover has no problems mounting the curb and using the pavement), hand passports to the driver, wait for driver to get them stamped and then proceed whilst trying to avoid eye contact with those in the queue scowling at you - knowing full well that the next time I crossed the border I would the one scowling in the queue.

Back in Tbilisi I had to face yet another dental appointment. My dental 'episodes', as James liked to call them, had been numerous, and too long to transgress here. This particular episode had actually started in Nepal on Day 10 of our trek when I cracked a molar but then had been made worse by the Tajikistan episode and now I couldn't ignore it any longer. I knew I had found a good dentist to do the work in Georgia when I noticed that the American Ambassador had the appointment after mine - an American wouldn't just go to any dentist surely?

I needed another root canal and unfortunately this meant lots of injections. The dentist found it very difficult to inject the correct spot to numb the pain and I must have had over 20 injections. The reason for this difficulty was apparently due to me having elderly teeth! Something related to the location of the injection needing to be different for elderly people. I was not quite sure what was more annoying, the resultant bruise on my left jaw or being told that I had elderly teeth.

During the week of dental appointments I developed a sty on my left eye. This resulted in the eyelid swelling up all red. I now had a bruise on my left jaw and a swollen left eye. I looked in a terrible state, and James was embarrassed to be seen with me, thinking that people may have thought that he caused it. Luckily Steve had invited us to stay at his house so I could recover whilst watching the BBC. However, it did mean an emotional goodbye to the Why Not? Hostel cats who I had got a soft spot for.

In between dental appointments James and I managed to fit in a day trip out to Mtskheta (Georgians like strings consonants together). Just north of Tbilisi and a short marshrutka ride away, Mtskheta is one of the oldest town in Georgia and for this it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. At its centre is the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, where I donned a headscarf to take a look around. Mtskheta is also famous its   lobio a hearty bean dish cooked in a clay pot. It was another bitterly cold day, although the sun was shining, and we were glad of the piping hot, filling meal before heading back to Tbilisi.

These were our last few days in Georgia and we were soon to head off on our last journey, west, towards Turkey.

Murky weather on the drive from Armenia to Georgia

Tbilisi in the sun

Mother Georgia - the statue overlooking Tbilisi

Inside the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, Mtskheta

Woman waits outside the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, Mtskheta

Friday, 13 January 2012

Khinkali - a bit like dumplings but much, much bigger!!

From Stepanakert in Nagorno Karabakh we got a direct marshrutka back to Yerevan. The snow was worse than ever and had turned the roads to ice rinks. Our marshrutka driver was a maniac. Chain smoking, he weaved in and out of the more cautious traffic. I was exhausted and fell asleep to be woken up by James swearing at the driver who had decided to race another marshrutka. Side by side the two marshrutkas had hurdled down the slick road until they had caught up with another vehicle, at which point our marshrutka had overtaken it, whilst the other had undertaken it, in order to continue the race.

Through pure luck we survived the journey and allowing us to spend several days in Yerevan. One evening we met up with Steve, the British defence attache based in Tbilisi, Georgia, and who we had met in the KGB bar with the tag line 'we are still watching you' (the bar is actually nothing more exciting than a chain, but it provided us with some amusement to have a drink there), in Tbilisi a few weeks earlier. He was on a work trip in Yerevan and invited us out. We walked from our cosy little backpackers hostel down to Republic Square to meet Steve in the lobby of his hotel - the Marriot. Steve introduced us to some of his work colleagues, some Brits, some Americans, all greying ex-military men. It looked like it was going to be a long night, but they were buying the drinks at the bar which was just as well really with the prices in the Mariott.

We all headed to a local restaurant where I was expecting to have to make stilted small talk all night whilst downing glasses of wine to numb the pain. It actually turned out to be a hysterical evening resulting with belly ache from both eating too much and laughing so much. It begun with everyone ordering starters as well as mains, Steve then ordered a couple of other local dishes which he thought we should try and then, as an after thought, decided to order 2 khinkali each, which are rather large steamed, meat dumplings. That amounted to 14.

We should have guessed when the first couple of plates amounting to 20 dumplings appeared that the waiter may have got the order wrong. Another couple of plates followed giving a total of 40 dumplings. Together with all the other food we had ordered there was an obscene amount of food and there was no way that we could eat it all. After the meal James and I spent the rest of the evening visiting every dark alley and underpass in Yerevan to try to find some homeless to donate the surplus Khinkali to. Earlier that day it had seemed like we were tripping over people begging in the street. Unbelievably, we had great trouble in finding anyone to give the food to and after an hour of searching we gave the the Khinkali to some flower sellers who were still open. They promised to pass them on to someone who needed them.

Flower stall outside the covered market, Yerevan

Monday, 9 January 2012

Nagorno Karabakh - Black Garden Mountains

Nagorno means Mountainous in Russian whilst Kara means Black in Turkish and Bakh, Garden in Persian. This name describes not only a mountainous landscape with fertile soils but also alludes to how ethnically complex the region is. Despite Nagorno Karabakh being 94% Armenian Stalin assigned it to the the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. In 1988 protests in Karabakh and Armenia were the biggest the Soviet Union had seen and a few years later, as the the Soviet Union disintegrated, war between Armenia and Azerbaijan broke out. Many parallels can be drawn to the wars in the Balkans, including atrocities on both sides, but the major difference was that the West really didn't care. By 1994 Armenia had taken control of not only Karabakh but also seven Azeri regions and over 1 million people became IDPs (Internally Displaced People). A ceasefire was negotiated and both sides dug in on either side of the line of control, occasionally sniping at each other. Azerbaijan and their Turkey allies blockaded Armenia, hemming her in on eastern and western flanks. And this is how it remains today; two armies facing each other, ready to engage in another full blown war. Karabakh would like to be independent but not even Armenia recognises this and for the tourist this manifests itself in the fact that a pseudo visa is required to visit the region.

We got a marshrutka to Stepanakert and stayed in a B&B which smelt of drains and took functional utilitarianism to a whole new level. It also didn't include breakfast. The town itself, however, wasn't as grim as I was expecting and modern apartment blocks were being built. They did not have much archetectual merit but at least they were not as brutal as the previous Soviet attempts. It was bitterly cold but we found a nice cafe which we visited regularly to warm up.

To the east of Stepanakert, towards the line of control, was the formerly Azeri town of Agdam. It used to be home to 100,000 people but now is completely deserted. We were expecting to see a war-torn ghost town including the old mosque but it was actual a lot more razed than we were expecting, and we could not even locate the mosque. Rather than war damage, it seems that the town was gradually being dismantled so that the stone could be reclaimed to build new houses in Stepanakert. As we surveyed the tumbled down walls a truck rumbled passed loaded with masonry and one of the few signs of life in the town was a scrap metal yard. Lev, our taxi driver, was an Armenian born in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. He fought in the war, most probably against his former Azeri neighbours. A quietly spoken man, who didn't mind stopping regularly so we could take photos as it meant that he could have yet another cigarette. Gazing over an Azeri graveyard as we took photos he quietly mentioned that it was where he had been shot. He looked sad and said "there needn't have been war".

Back in Stepanakert we visited the Museum for Missing People and met Vera. Vera curated the museum, which also housed all the documentation on the missing from the war, as well as writing on the situation. Vera herself had lived through the war and her son was missing. She showed us a small shelf which displayed her son's uniform, pistol and wedding photo. It was heart breaking to see the grief that she lived every day but during our time in Nagorno Karabakh she was the person most open to reconciliation . She had worked on programs to find closure for both sides and explained her outlook with simply saying, "we are all mothers".

That evening we met up with Nick and Pam from the Halo Trust, an NGO at the forefront of mine and munitions clearance. We went to a local restaurant where Nick ordered a carafe of mulberry vodka, together with beers. The meal was excellent and Nick, a manager at Halo Trust, and usually the only Brit in Stepanakert, seemed to enjoy having a few other Brits to talk to. Pam was in accounts and over from Head Office to keep everything in order and introduce Nick to spreadsheets. By the time we rolled out of the restaurant it was late and snowing hard. We were all quite pissed and Nick started a snow ball fight which ended in an innocent bystander being hit.

The following morning I felt dreadful. We managed to get to the bus station in time to catch a bus up the road to Shushi. Shushi is located on the hill above Stepanakert and had been an Azeri town. During the war it had been used to bomb Stepanakert until the Armenians had overrun it, which was when most of the damage to the town had been made. Now the population is made up of Armenians, some displaced from Baku, and many houses lie empty, as do the mosques. We headed to a tower block to find a room at a homestay owned by a French/Armenian-Syrian couple. We were invited in for tea and sat around the table, as I tried to befriend a particularly vicious cat but unfortunately there wasn't room for us and they rung around to find us a room.

It was now late afternoon and we still hadn't had any lunch so before heading to the other side of town to find where we were staying we popped into a (the) local restaurant. It was empty apart from the owner who sat around a table with his son and a couple of friends. They were drinking vodka and as soon as we sat down offered us some. This was the last thing I wanted but politely declining didn't work. The ferocious burning of the inocuously clear liquid continued all the way down my throat into my empty stomach and I couldn't conceal a grimace. The men found this hilarious. The food was very welcome afterwards.

After a couple of wrong turns and the several sets of directions, trudging through the snow, we managed to find Saro and his wife's house. A litter of puppies tried to follow us into the house. Tea was quickly brought and we huddled around a gas heater, the only source of heat in the house. Saro was a jovial man, now working for the Interior Ministry He enjoyed practicing his English and was extremely well connected and intelligent. He had been born in Baku, internally displaced, fought in the war and then settled in Sushi. He was interested in our visit to Azerbaijan and he asked, as many other Armenians had, "and how did you find the Azeris?" This question always made me feel incredibly sad. How we, having been in Azerbaijan for all but 5 days, could give people like Saro, who had grown up in Azeribaijan, any great insight into the Azeri people I don't know. We had found that, apart for religion, the Azeris had been incredibly similar to the Armenians, a lot more similar than either is to the Georgians, but this was not the answer most Armenians want to hear. We retired to our room and only escaped hypothermia due the very welcome electric blanket.

Typical street scene in  Stepanakert

Little left of the Azeri town of Agdam

The Azeri cemetery where Lev had been shot.

Lev and James by the tank memorial to the war.

James with Lev and his taxi

Abandoned mosque in Sushi

Saro and James

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

How to obtain a Nagorno Karabakh visa

Nagorno Karabakh is internationally recognised as territority of Azerbaijan but today it is occupied by Armenian troops. When Stalin carved up the Soviet Union, despite Nagorno Karabakh being 94% ethnically Armenian, he allocated it to Azerbaijan. During the chaos of the break-up of the Soviet Union Armenia and Azerbaijan entered into an open conflict which was to last for 6 years, eventually resulting in Armenia taking control of not only Nagorno Karabakh but also 7 ethnically Azeri territories. Today Karabakh wishes to be independent, but not even Armenia recognises this. However, as with Abkhazia, Karabakh has a Foriegn Ministry and requires visitors to obtain a visa to enter. Luckily it is quite a simple process. We had heard that it was possible to obtain a visa on arrival in the capital Stepanakert but, as we had some spare time in Yerevan, we decided to get our visas in advance. We took a marshrutka to the Permanent Representative of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic where we managed to charm the women in the visa office to process our visas as we waited. There were no other tourists about (November isn't peak season) and they were happy to do it for us. The rather stern looking woman behind one desk explained that the processing time was usually 24 hours. We were given a form to fill out on which we had to list all the areas we would be visiting. Not having any plans we listed them all. When presenting the finished form at the visa office we were told that one of the areas was not open to tourists and it was tipex-ed out, the rest were fine. The staff were very helpful and offered us advice on where to stay as well as having useful maps for sale. They leafed through our passports making a note of the fact that we had visited Azerbaijan, but they did not question us about it or even delay the issuing the visa. The visa they were actually most interested in was our one for Afghanistan. The woman said, 'in all my years of doing this job,' of which I think there had been many, 'I have never seen a visa for Afghanistan.' This led to many questions about being a tourist in Afghanistan.

We got our 21 day visa for 3000 Drams, considerably cheaper than we were expecting - when does that ever happen? The staff would have stuck it in our passports had we not asked for it to be kept loose. We had heard that the Azeris were quite touchy about anyone who has been to Nagorno Karabakh and if we ever wanted to return to Azerbaijan it would have been hard to deny having been to Karabakh with a the visa stuck in our passport. Instead the visa was attached by a paper clip - easily removable and also saving another precious page in my passport. In addition to the visa, we were give a letter stating where we were planning on going. We had to produce this letter when entering and exiting Karabakh. On entering, the border guards took a cursory glance of it, making a quick note of the details, and when we exited the letter was kept by the immigration officers. During our stay in Karabakh we were only ever asked for any documentation when checking into hostels. There is also now no need to register on arrival in Stepanakert, contrary to what was stated in our guidebook. We were told this by the office in Yerevan and double checked that we had heard correctly. By the fact that we didn't have any problem I can assume that this information is accurate. Once we arrived in Karabakh we had no problems whatsoever visiting the places we wanted to and I found it a lot more relaxed and easy to travel in than I was expecting.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Armenia - cultural surprises and a tumultuous recent history

After our trip to Abkhazia and Zugdidi James and I got the over night train back to Tbilisi. Now there was snow on the hills and it was significantly colder. We wanted to get to Armenia before it got any colder so bought a ticket for the night train to Yerevan (yes, I know this takes three times as long but, for backpackers on a budget, it doubles up as a cheap night's accommodation).

As always we were sharing our platskartny compartment with a selection of characters. Carman was an Armenian making one of her many trips between Yerevan and Moscow. Esa was a Kurd from Turkey on holiday. I clocked him immediately. He had a lost puppy look about him that I have seen on many occasions as a nervous traveller steps into the unknown. He had not researched his destination, where he was going to stay or what there was to do, his plan was to find someone who spoke Kurdish, who he was sure would show him around, but in the meantime we would have to do. As soon as we got off the train he latched onto us. We tried to lose him in our hunt for an ATM or money changers. In the end Carman offered to exchange our US dollars for Armenian Drams. Esa followed us down to the metro station, where we had to pay for his ticket into town. We eventually made it clear that he was not welcome to follow us until he got a better offer. I felt a bit bad, as we left him outside the metro station, but he was immensely irritating and I knew that he would continue to invite himself along to everything we did in Yerevan.

It soon transpired that we had written the wrong address down for the hostel which had been recommended to us. Just as we gave up looking for it, and not wanting to incur the cost of a taxi to a different hostel, we stumbled upon it when setting out on foot to find a different place to stay. The Penthouse Hostel was worth the hunt, as well as the effort it took to climb the 5 flights of stairs. It was spotless and homely with stunning views over Yerevan and beyond to Mt Ararat, a huge 5000 m volcano. Mt Ararat is actually in Turkey but dominates the Yerevan skyline. It is a daily reminder to the Armenians of the loss of Western Armenian territory to the Turks which causing the Armenian Genocide between 1915 to 1923 in which 1.5 million Armenians lost their lives. The Turks still deny that this event took place and it is the reason for the continued Armenia/Turkey border closures.

No one we met had mentioned Yerevan to be an interesting city, so we had no expectations. After a couple of days looking around, we decided that we loved it. The art galleries were world class, probably a result of the huge Armenian diaspora who now contribute to and fund many galleries. The stark cascades building houses the Cafesjian Museum of Art. A gallery which mainly comprises modern art using glass, much of which is the collection of Gerard Cafesjian's, a wealthy Armenian-American. Another highlight was an exhibition by photojournalist Ruben Mangasaryan whose powerful images depicted local people during both the war in Nagorno Karabakh and the earthquake in 1982 which compounded the suffering.

We were keen to travel to Nagorno Karabakh ourselves and spent a morning getting the correct paperwork before attempting to get a marshrutka to Goris, a town conveniently located to break-up our journey to Stepanakert in Karabakh. Our out-of-date guidebook let us down again and we wasted several hours trying to find the correct place to catch the right marshrutka. By the time we had found the right place we had missed the last one. We weren't the only stranded travellers, however. Helen (a Brit) and Jamie (a Aussie) were also looking for a ride to Goris. This made four of us, the perfect number for getting a taxi. We had met Helen and Jamie the previous night in our hostel. Unbelievably they already knew about us and our trip. They had done almost exactly the same trip but starting in Chengdu, China, instead of Kathmandu. They were the first people that we had met who had taken the boat across the Caspian Sea as we had and were planning to continue all the way into Europe like we were. They had read about us in various guest books in Tajikistan and other places. Needless to say we weren't short on conversation for the 4 hour journey to Goris.

Winter had come early here as well and we pulled up to the homestay in the snowy darkness. We had been delayed due to drifting snow on the highest section of the road, which had reduced us to a crawl. Luckily the homestay had room and mulberry vodka was complimentary.

The following morning we caused massive offence to our host. He was shocked to hear that we would not be visiting the Tatev Monastery a day trip away. "It is essential!" he said. But we were monastery'd out; without the capacity to view a single other church or monastery. Instead we walked around the town, made up of solid stone houses, reminiscent of French farm houses. At one point we came across over 100 sober young men waiting outside an office. We didn't ask them why they were there but I would guess they were being conscripted into the Army. On the outskirts of town, through a cemetery, was an extensive network of cave dwellings. Nowadays, if they had any use, it was to stable animals.

We needed to catch a marshrutka to Stepanakert which entailed standing on the road out of Goris trying to wave one down. Like the Georgian alphabet, Armenia has it's own script. This meant that we had to spot 
Ստեփանակերտ on a speeding marshrutka in time to wave it down. We didn't have a chance. A taxi driver had noticed our failed attempts and came to ask if we would like his services. Explaining that we didn't have the money to take a taxi and we just wanted to catch a bus, instead of the run of excuses taxi drivers usually gave us - all the buses will be full, there are no more marshrutkas today, they won't stop in Goris etc. etc. etc. - he said that he understood and would help us wave the right one down. Ten minutes later we were speeding out way of Goris, Stepanakert-bound. If ever there was a sign of the Armenian's hospitality and kindness this was one.

Views from our hostel balcony over Yerevan towards Mt Ararat.

James walking through Goris cemetary with cave dwellings in the background.

Looking back towards Goris and the snowy hills.