Monthly Archives: September 2017

Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan

Here I am racing along on the main road from Almaty to Bishkek (Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan) in a taxi believe it or not. My good wife, Julia, bless her, had a minor fit a couple of years ago when I walked across the border into Tajikistan, quite justified actually. She made me promise not to walk across any more borders so I haven’t, but did sneak one from Israel to Jordan. I could have taken a mini bus, or marshrutka, for this trip but it would involve walking about a mile across no mans land and I would break my promise. I found a company called Kiwitaxi who for a very reasonable rate will take you from A to B, door to door, actually less than a taxi from Marin to the airport, or Winchester to Heathrow, for this ride. So I’ll live blog as I go.

I’m on the steppe which is kind of romantic though a bit featureless and way in the distance on my left, to the south, are the Lli Alatau mountains (part of the northern Tian Shan range) and they have snow on them. I had always thought of the steppe as covered in swishing long green grass, almost right, grass yes, but it has been over a hundred (38C) degrees here every day for five months so its rather brown or “golden’ like California before the rains start. (Quick aside: Here I am miles out in the Kazakh steppe and my phone rings! It’s Julia from California! She must be psychic.) We just stopped so that Mucheed, driver, can imbibe a shot of the national drink, fermented mare’s milk (Kumis) with bits in, no thanks, I’ll stick with the pink stuff!

The steppe is actually rather fabulous, it’s so vast and I can see it stretching away into the haze in the distance with the occasional village far, far away. Farming seems to be what they do here; there are sheep, the occasional cow, goats, horses (sorry about that) and much hay baling of the swishing grass. If you have passed the time with the Great Russian authors and poets you must agree they did a much better job of waxing lyrical about the steppes than me. Perhaps we should just leave it to them.

Of course sometimes things don’t actually work out as planned and today the border was closed to vehicle traffic. Sergei met us on the Kazakh side and then helped with my bags across the very short border crossing. Emigration took about a minute, immigration a little less and he had parked his car very close to the barrier which meant leaving one country and arriving in another took about five minutes, there was no sign of Customs. It was an almost pleasant experience.

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Mountains.

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The rolling steppe.

 

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Outings in Georgia.

There’s lots of famous scenery to be seen around the world and up there with the best must be Scotland, the Rocky Mountains, Santorini etc, but why is the North Caucasus of Georgia never mentioned? I took an early morning tour out of Tbilisi and headed north through the usual car sales strips, the out of town Malls until the countryside began with a rather charming banner across the road announcing ‘Happy Journey.’ There were more churches on crags to be seen and after an hour or so we began to climb, climb I should add out of the 110 degree (43C) heat of the plains into the cooler mountain air. First stop was at Ananuri, a village beside a reservoir featuring a castle containing two churches dating back three or four hundred years. But what a lovely name, Ananuri, almost as charming as the name of the local currency, the Lari with a trill on the R. It was crowded in the parking lot and the power was out so no tea and off up the Georgian Military Highway we went, headed for Russia.

Up and up, above the clouds were the hang gliders soar; it was all very, um, photogenic. We passed through Alpine like villages set about with chalets and condos, the occasional ski lift, obviously winter sports are big business in the winter. To the top of the pass at 2,400 meters (8,000 ft) and down into the pretty town of Kazbegi strangely renamed Stepantsminda, but nobody calls it that. There was an odd hint of India as we drove into town, cows in the road, wandering cows, cows sleeping all over. I asked but all I got was shrug. It is clearly a centre for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts but what struck me most were the trucks pouring through to and from Russia. The wait to clear customs at the border was obviously lengthy and there were trucks parked beside the road for miles and miles, waiting. I saw British trucks, Spanish, French, Italian; it was quite extraordinary, think of the mileage. The most famous ‘church on a crag’ in Georgia is just outside Kazbegi and at 2200m or over 7,000 feet you have to wonder, how did they build it all up there.

The next tour that the amiable Sofia and Khatia arranged for me was to the old capital of Georgia, Mtskheta, it’s got a ch in it somewhere, not too far out of Tbilisi and features, yes, and you’ve guessed it, “a church on a crag.” Sorry about all the churches but as Georgia was the first country to adopt Christianity they do feature rather largely in any description. The cragged one, Jvari, is reputed to be the first Georgian church and stands high over the plain with fabulous views over the old city and the confluence of a couple of rivers. I managed to squeeze my visit in between the coach loads and my guide did what he did at all the churches we visited, went off and lit candles. Fine with me. Down the mountain to the old city where it was incredibly hot and there were many pauses for water. There is a cathedral in Mtskheta, a huge affair containing within its interior two more churches, I don’t think I have seen that before. Interesting though to think this has been a Christian center since 327.

I had an enquiry about the political situation in the Caucuses and replied that it is complicated. For a start when I was in Batumi I befriended a large holidaying family from Baku the grandmother of which was an English teacher. Lots of friendly chats with grandmother translating for all the different ages, wine flowed and food shared until she asked me where I was going next. Armenia I replied upon which she burst into tears “You must not go, they are killing our people.” No arguing with that so I didn’t go to Armenia. Its all about Nagorno-Karaback which is either Armenian or Azeri and there is an ongoing war to determine which. I didn’t judge it expedient to try and learn more from the grandmother. As far as I can determine it was Azeri and is now Armenian. One of the results of this is that there is a tiny area of old Azerbaijan isolated in Armenia and hard up against the Iranian border called Naxcivan with no way in or out except by plane. Images of the Berlin Airlift of the late 40s spring to mind and I simply cannot figure out how it manages to exist, but its there and it exists. The Azeri authorities are very sensitive about this and if you have an Armenian stamp in your passport they wont let you into Azerbaijan. At the border from Georgia the Azeri the guards went through my bag looking for Armenian products, I had none.

Then of course there are South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both of which were at one time part of Georgia but are now under the control of Russia. There are terrible stories about these two breakaway regions and the 1991 wars were particularly brutal. The UK Foreign Office and US State Department do not recommend travel to either and I wasn’t going to challenge their recommendations but I did glimpse South Ossetia from the train outside Gori, the birthplace of Stalin.

I’m a big fan of Georgia now and wholeheartedly endorse it as a worthwhile destination for its food, wine and fabulous scenery. Of course you could do worse than staying at the Penthouse Hotel on Metekhi street and do say hi to Sofia and Khatia from me.

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Tbilisi Old Town by day.

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They have the best balconies in Tbilisi.

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These are the famous sulfur baths.

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Spectacular Tbilisi.

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Ananuri.

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North Caucasus Mountains.

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More mountains.

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Trucks lining up to enter Russia.

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The Tsminda Sameba Church, Kazbegi.

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Cows!

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Jvari Church, Mtskheta.

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Here is Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta.

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I like the view from the river.

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Thank you.

 

A Trip to Tbilisi.

Georgia in the South Caucasus is a country I was only just aware of,, but after meeting someone, only one, who had been there it seemed a place I should visit. A young woman, Haibin Zhang from Beijing, travelled on her own through each of the Caucasus countries, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan and had no qualms about safety; in fact she was very enthusiastic. From Turkey, where I left you last, there was a bus from Trabzon to Batumi and early one morning I boarded and set off for the border. Although the bus indicated that it was going to Batumi it in fact didn’t, it only went as far as the border where we were all removed into the noontime heat and joined the massive line (queue) to cross into Georgia. It was fairly gruesome, as the crowd had no idea of an orderly line and burly border guards with long sticks tried to keep everyone from spilling into the parking area. That took about four hours. It was horrible. Then the usual arrival in a new country routine of changing money and finding a way into the nearest town. Accomplished that and found a taxi to my hotel where my room was on the 8th floor and no elevator (lift). It wasn’t a very good day!

I was warned about Batumi and the warnings were correct. It is one of those Russian Black Sea resorts that one hears about and I resolved to leave as soon as I could find a way out. There is a very fine train from Batumi to Tbilisi, the capital city, and for just a few dollars I went on my way. Dropped off at my hotel in a sort of alley I looked around for reception but there was only an elevator with indications that I should go to the 4th floor. Up I went to be greeted by Khatia and Sofia who seemed to run the place in a very efficient and friendly fashion. My room had a balcony with views over the old city; floodlit churches perched on crags and an old castle. What more could I ask for, there was even a wine shop on the ground floor!

I really took to Tbilisi, its one of those cities where if you stop to look at the map people come up and offer to help, even if their English is not great. Did you know that Georgia was the first country in the world to convert to Christianity? Neither did I. The food is rather unique and with respect for vegetarians who might read this I won’t go into some of the more popular dishes but the National Dish is Khachapuri Adjaruli. A canoe shaped loaf of bread about a foot long and two inches thick arrives from what appears to be a tandoori oven or tone (with an accent on the E) filled with melted cheese, bubbling, then butter is added and an egg is broken into the middle of the sizzling mass. You eat it by dipping the crust into the goop and try not to think of your lactose intolerant friends. It was just delightful to see children racing home from the bakery with their big bag of canoes in time for dinner.

I’ll mention the wine but should write a whole chapter on it. There was wine making in Georgia in the Neolithic age 8,000 years ago and the quality has been improving ever since. I have read that before tourism the Georgian Immigration officer would stamp your passport and give you a bottle of wine; this is no longer the case, at the Turkish border anyway. Everywhere you go there is wine, you can even have it for breakfast. Sweet wine is popular as is orange wine but I stuck to a very robust dry red and enjoyed every evening.

My last blog was rather long so I will stop here and try to write again on my excursions in the country. There is a lot to see even if some of the sites are hard to pronounce. I’m thinking of Mtskheta for instance…

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Church on crag.

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Churches on crags.

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And yes, I rode the aerial tramway to the top.

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The famous clock outside the equally famous marionette theatre in Tbilisi.

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River, bridge, church on crag (and seagull) Tbilisi.

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And again.

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Tbilisi Old City at dusk.

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Freedom Bridge, Tbilisi.

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A sunset.