Friday, September 27, 2013

Un-Blood Curdling Kurdistan

The little Turkish guy in the beat up minivan drove me about 50 m to a window where a bunch of people were trying to push their passports through a tiny hole, trying to get themselves and their families stamped out of Turkey.  One needs to be both patient and pushy in such situations.  It also doesn't hurt to be large.

That done, the driver then had to go past a number of other checkpoints, where he flashed his papers.  We were now out of Turkey, and 50 m later we were at Iraqi immigration.  Well, technically Iraqi.  For this would be the only Iraqi flag I would see in all of Kurdistan, and even here it was dwarfed by the Kurdish flag.

Then a couple more car paper checks and we were finally free and clear in Iraq, er, Kurdistan.  I had just gone through one of the poorer parts of Turkey; this was poorer still.  It kind of reminded me of a nondescript town/highway location in northern Mexico circa 1980.  As on the Turkish side, I would soon see untold hundreds of trucks in various stages of waiting around.

But for right now I had to find a share taxi to the first major city, Duhok.  Research had said that share taxis would be right at the border.  Taxis there were, but they were all owned by short, ugly young men, all jabbering away in Arabic about how they wanted $50.  I hadn't really been hassled on this trip so far, so I was in no mood for it.  Especially when they followed me around as I tried to walk away. 

After standing there for about 20 minutes trying to figure out what I was going to do, I had a piece of luck.  An Iraqi who lives in France also needed to go to Duhok.  Sometimes being a semi-polyglot comes in handy, and in French I learned that we could share a cab for $13 each.  Off we went.

Feeling as exotic as hell, we drove past the first Iraqi town of Zarko, and then down through some hills that looked a bit like tree dotted hills of Central California, but mostly like barren nondescript northern Mexico.  The road was four lane, but the worst rolling paving job ever.

I got left off in downtown Duhok on a late Sunday afternoon, with the nice French Iraqi guy helpfully pointing out money changers and hotels.  After a couple of tries I found a hotel which met minimal standards, for a cost of about $25.  It's interesting, but even basic hotels in the Third World these days seem to include a/c, satellite TV, wifi, and a refrigerator.  And hot water.  Hot damn.

I was in the bazaar area, although ancient souk it was not.  Still, if modern, it contained a myriad of interconnecting arched aisles, and on Sunday evening it was absolutely mobbed with customers.  Very Arabic vibe.  Of course, as in other such places, the vast majority of goods on offer were cheap ones, which is what the locals can afford and are looking for.

Myself, I was looking for food, and not finding much of anything.  I finally had to settle for some really bad street felafels.  Well, better than nothing, and also very Arabic.

After a good night's sleep, I was out next morning looking for a share taxi to Kurdistan's main city, Erbil.  Except for the jabbering annoyances at the border, I was finding the Iraqi Kurds to be pretty low key and nice.  Much quicker to laugh than the Turks.  And pretty much totally honest.  Money changers just sit on the streets with giant wads of money in front of them. 

For a share taxi, I just went into the office and told the man I wanted a 'single'.  I then sat in the room while enough customers showed up to fill a car.  Then we walked out to a cab and started out.  No over charging foreigners.  Everything straightforward.

Duhok is still in the dry hills.  But soon we descended down towards the flat Mesopotamian plains.  Kind of like the Central Valley in California if they didn't have irrigation.  Hardly inspiring, but then again, this was friggin' Iraq.  And as we curved around just to the north of Mosul, the police checkpoints just to the south of the road reminded me that just a few miles south I would be Dead Man Not Walking Very Far Before He's Dead.

But here on the Kurdish side you would never believe that war or danger was anywhere to be had.  There are many police checkpoints, but mostly you are just waved through.  And as we reached the outskirts of Erbil, there was plenty of simultaneous new construction going on.  These guys are going for it.

As I've already intimated, Kurdistan isn't exactly the most photogenic place in the world.  In fact, the whole place has exactly one tourist sight, the Citadel in Erbil.  It's an ancient city of around 50 acres that's raised about fifty feet above the plains around it.  Very photogenic.  And at it's foot, by Erbil's slightly more authentic old bazaar, is where the local taxi deposited me.

Finding a hotel here would be slightly more problematic.  The first one, recommended by the LP, had no elevator, and one horrible crappy room all the way at the top, with a filthy squat toilet.  All for $30.  Absolutely no one had ever heard of the other LP recommended one.  And all of the other bazaar hotels I could find were just about as funky

Almost despairing in the 95 degree heat, I turned a corner and there in front of me was a big, blue glass building with 'Lord City Hotel' plastered on it.  The rooms were small, but they were clean and had all of my minimal amenities.  And for $40.  I was saved.

After a suitable rest, I went out to explore my environs.  Besides the citadel on the hill and the bazaar, there was a small, pleasant park and a stone building with clock tower that looked like it had been left behind by the British.  Unfortunately, there was also a lot of traffic, and hordes of bustling people who weren't stopping to shake my hand.

I decided to ascend the citadel, and soon discovered that it may be a tourist sight, but it's hardly a tourist site.  First, you have to curve around the base until you get to the one access point.  Then up a long sloping road.  At the top there is only about a block that you can walk along, and all that surrounds you are broken down stone houses.  On the up side, it is a major restoration project of the Kurdish government, so that maybe in ten years or so...

As I got back to the road that sloped back down, I saw a lone woman who looked like she was an actual tourist.  She turned out to be a 40 year old Polish lady who traveled even more crazily than I.  On this trip she had first gone to Trabzon, Turkey, to get an Iranian visa.  Then, instead of just crossing into Iran, she had come down through Iraq in the hopes of crossing at an obscure border here.  The purpose of Iran?  To apply for that elusive Turkmenistan transit visa in Tehran, then wait two weeks, hopefully pick it up at Meshad, through the baking desert of Turkmenistan, then out at an extremely obscure Caspian Sea border post with Kazakhstan.

Well, she wanted to go to Sulaymeyah tomorrow.  I had been planning on Wednesday, but, really, by now I had 'done' Erbil, and that hotel room was mighty small.  So I decided to go with her.

The next morning we found some yogurt and bread for breakfast, and then took a taxi out to the long distance 'garage' for share taxis to Sulaymeyah.  Again, everything straightforward.  By now the roads were mostly four lane and mostly in decent shape.  The landscape, if anything, was drearier.  Although there was a fair bit of excitement when we reached Kirkuk.  Here we were on a freeway that actually cut through part of the city itself.  Again, a few miles south...

Sulaymeyah was a little smaller than Erbil, though they still claim that it's close to a million.  This time the recommended hotel turned out to be tatty, but okay.  It was next to the city's big mosque, and next to the city's tatty, but okay bazaar/shopping area. 

The city's only real 'attraction' is the Saddam Hussein terror museum.  So we took off for it, walking through said old school shopping area, then through Suly's more 'uptown' section, replete with a Ramada Inn.  A hot day, but bearable.

The 'terror museum' is actually just the former secret police headquarters for the city, left pretty much as it was when the regime was chased out in 1991.  Old Soviet tanks in front of the place, rotting barbed wire on the walls.  Inside were holding cells and a couple of torture rooms.  Overall, however, I was struck with the how mundane the bare concrete rooms inside the bare concrete buildings were.  Just outside the walls, the regular world would have been going on even as the secret police were trying to extract their confessions.

(By the way, out guide pointed out that, if you didn't crack during the torturing, they would let you go.  But if you did confess, even if actually innocent, you would then be shot.)

What was most affecting, however, was a video of the events of 1991.  I had forgotten, but what had caused the US and UN to institute the No Fly Zone that freed the Kurds was the fact that, after the Gulf War, millions upon millions of Kurds had just up and fled into the mountains, preferring an icy death of starvation to living under Saddam.  Like I said, very affecting.

Of course, you can only see so many terror museums before you start to get hungry.  And we were very fortunate to have seen a big fancy Pizza Plus restaurant just a few blocks away.  We headed there now, and had a most delicious huge vegetarian pizza.  Those street felafels hadn't done my intestines any favors, so real food was a precious find.  Moreover, I noticed that that Pizza Plus had fancy printed tissue boxes, and thus inferred that this must be an Iraq-wide chain. 

So that, even if I hadn't had a chance to taste the fear of Baghdad, I could at least taste its pizza.

Now we continued our pretty much forlorn search for souvenirs of Iraq.  First, since they probably get about two thousand tourists a year, they don't exactly have souvenir stores.  Second, the Kurds don't like to admit that they are part of Iraq, so what trinkets we did find were Kurdistan ones.  Still, the search continued off and on into the evening.

Next morning Maria was up and gone for the bus into Iran.  Hopefully she won't get eaten by any ayatollahs.  I had Wednesday all for to sit around and do nothing.  Part of the Nakhchivan Void that had been created.  But my poor old aching body wasn't objecting to the down time one bit.

More than enough time to scroll through hundreds of Arabic TV channels.  Did you know that there is MTV Arabia?  And that Saudi soap operas show women in real clothes?  And how the hell did an Ethiopian music video channel get up there?  And although I couldn't understand any of it, it was still cool to see the Baghdad Nightly News.  Same set, same blow dried presenters.

Stroll over for pizza and salad.  Stroll back.  Hang out in the room, writing and reading.  Roll into Thursday.  The nice Syrian refugee kid at the front desk let me hang out in my room until 3 pm.

Then time for one last walk around Suly to reflect on the last few days.  There's probably not much relationship with the vibe here and the one down below.  Kurdistan has been effectively independent since 1991.  As in Turkey, the men look rather hard and tough, but are surprisingly low key anpolite.  The women display all levels of covering, but no one looks askance at even the most westernized.

And as I took my taxi out towards the airport, and got away from the older downtown, I could see very clearly had quickly this area was becoming actually prosperous.  Trying to beat the traffic using back streets, I saw plenty of pretty nice houses.  Buildings were a'building all over the place, many of them even classy.  Considering that in 1990 this was Saddam's most backward area, it's all pretty impressive.

This is one area in the world where I don't mind enhanced security.  But, while thorough, the process at the airport was exceedingly sane and civilized.  Nothing like the police state paranoia that they have in Israel.

I sat there for a couple of hours in the tiny international airport waiting for the flight to Dubai.  Everything was exceedingly normal. Perhaps if HW had gone all the way to Baghdad in '91, then divided it into three autonomous parts, given Baghdad to the Sunnis and paid off the Sunni tribes, the whole country would be positive and peaceful now.

Perfect hindsight, sure.  But you got any other intractable problems you want me to solve?


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Huck Finn In Iraq

Now I have no meaning to insult anyone by having to remind them that I am as ignorant and humble born as a person could ever possibly be.  And yet somehow adventures keep coming out of nowheres and keep taking me with them.  And that's the only ways I can come close to explaining how I comes to meet President George.

If you've been reading bout my other adventures, you'll know that we had a horrible time of it with the king and the duke.  And you'd be well advised to think that President George was another one of them lying scoundrel scalawag just like those others.  But right at the outset he calmed my mind by showing me a certificate saying hows he's graduated from some big eastern University.  And then he shows me a t'other certificate saying hows he's also attended the Electoral College.  And that the perfessers there had gone and selected him to be President.

Well, once that was all established and certain, I didn't know what to say.  But President George had plenty.  'Cause he wanted us to go with him and help liberate some people all the way on t'other side of the world.

That sore worried African American Jim right at the get go.  He says, 'Scuse me, suh.  But I's had terruble troubles jes liveratin' ol' Jim.'

And I says, 'Jim here's my friend.  And I'm always bound and determined to help him, no matter what.  But I hain't no Abolitionist.  I can't go around liberatin' folks whuts belongs to other folks.'

But President George said that he weren't no Abolitionist neither.  And that I was missing the whole point.  Because these here people he was talkin' about had this astonishing large treasure in gold.  'Cept it weren't ordinary gold, but black gold.  And that when we wuz done liberatin' them, we wuz all going to be richer than the richest merchant who could have ever lived in New Orleans.

But that weren't the half of it.  Because these peoples wuz ruled by an evil king named Hoosayn.  'Cept that they don't call them kings over there, they calls them Saddams.  And he allowed that when we goes and defeats this Saddam Hoosayn on the field of battle, and then capture and kill him, why then we're gonna be the most famous and renowned two people in the entire world.  And I'm thinking to myself, not even Tom Sawyer can come up with adventures that are this so flat out adventuresome.

Well, now this plan was starting to make sense.  And when President George said that we wuz gonna be seeing Ai-rabs and camels and maybe elephants and maybe dancin' girls in gauzy dresses, I was plumb hooked.

But Jim, he wuz scaired when he found out that we wuz gonna be rafting down the Tigers and You-Fraidies River.  He says, 'If yooz afrayeds o' dat river, why's you goin'?'  And, "I don like snakes, suh.  And tigers, they be even warse!'  And all he ever done heard of Ai-rabs wuz that they had magic lamps and that they cast terrible dreadful spells.  (Maybe that's 'cause I had told him so just a few weeks back.)  And he didn't want no part of none of it.

So now it was just me and President George.  And I can't tell you how we got over there, 'cause you'd never believe me, not when I told you about the flying Air First One.  And even if you did believe me, than you'd up and think that President George wuz one o' them sorcerers Jim wuz so scaired of.  But he weren't.  In fact, once you got past him using some of them strange University words like 'misunderestimate', and once you got past his funny Texas ways of talking, he was downright plain and simple..

Anyways, before I could get over my amazements, we up and transported over here to this place of Iraq.  Although President George didn't use the word 'transported', he said that we wuz now 'dee-ployed'.  Indeed there weren't no time before we wuz dee-ployed dab in the middle of the Tigers River.  Just like he said we wuz goin' to be.  'Cept that I hain't seen no tigers yet.

Now this river here weren't like the Mississippi.  No, it was skinny and rather wretched.  Furthermore, there weren't no forests crowdin' the shoreline.  At most there wuz a few palm trees.  Other than that it was mostly dirt.  In fact, the whole blastin' country was nothin' but dirt.

So there weren't no logs floatin' along that we could tie together.  But what this river did have wuz hundreds and hundreds of metal barrels.  That's what President George said the local people stored their black gold in.  I still hain't seen none of that, but maybe that's because I wuz so busy lashing all them barrels together.  President George, he tried to help.  But I guess that all he's good at is being President, 'cause he doesn't seem to be too good at nothing else that I've seen.

Well, we'd been moving along at night for a certain while, seeing as how when we tried to go during the daylight, then some of the Ai-rabs along the shoreline would be shooting at us.  President George said that they wuz Saddam Hussayn's men, but pretty soon he wuz gonna bring the United States Army over here and show them who's boss.  Meantime, though, we had to be hiding and sneakin'.

Things had been going like this for about a week, I guess, and I wuz starting to settle in and we wuz making good progress.  Then one early morning, just as the light was about to break and just as I was hunting up a place near a grove of palms to hide the raft, who should show up a'paddling along on two of them barrels but two of the scraggliest, orneriest men that I have ever seen.  When they got real close they shouted out that they wuz Americans, and so that we had to let them aboard.  So I guess we had to, and we did.

Now the first of these two rapscallions was really tiny and wiry and old.  And I could tell right away from his eyes and his thin lips that he wuz just as mean a man as my pap.  Maybe meaner.  And as soon as he gets on our raft and shakes off some of the dirty water that was all over him, he interduces himself as the Secretary of Deefense. 

His partner gets on the raft, too.  He looks just a bit younger than the first one, but still pretty old. And he's kind of portly and totally bald, and he keeps holding his side like he's a-feared that he's about to have a heart attack.  And he stands up as straight as possible and shakes off his dirty water, and he declares himself to be the Vice-President.

Now don't that beat all?  What be the odds of having all these high ranking and prominent people all here together just on the whim of Providence?  I couldn't hardly contain myself.  I said, 'Gentlemen, I'm right proud to meet you.  My name is Huck Finn.  And this person here... is President George!'

I could tell right away that they wuz taken aback.  'Cause a Secretary of Deefense is might important.  And a Vice President even more so.  But a President, well he's the outrankingest of them all.  And I could 'mediately tell that these others didn't appreciate being outranked.

But President George showed them his certificates.  And they had to accept it.  Although I had my suspicions right away that, they bein' up to no good, and President George being a trusting soul, but maybe not the most intelligent of ones, our plan of liberatin' might well be way-layed.

Not that my thoughts on the matter would 'a made any difference.  I wuz always s'posed to be steering the raft, whilst they wuz in the wigwam up in the front studying up plans to attacking Saddam Hoosayn's black golden palace at Bag Dad. 

Now about them plans, I wuz starting to get a mite worried.  'Cause, first of all, when I happened to ask in passing if any of them's ever been in a war, they all said that, yes, indeed, they had had the chance.  But unfortunately for alls of them, they were made to be de-furred instead.

So I asked them if they had any experience in handling guns and shooting 'em.  And they looked at each other kind of sheepish.  Finally the Vice President allows that he had had a chance once to shoot some quails. But instead he had shot someone in the face with buckshot, so's that ever since no one has allowed him near no guns any more.

That brings the story up to about the present.  Bag Dad is just a few days off now.  And there still hain't been no United States Army showing up.  But President George says not to worry.  And the Vice President says that this here will be a cakewalk.  And the Secretary of Deefense says that all them Ai-rabs will indeed be treating us as the conquering heroes and as the Liberators that we be.

For me, I'm just hoping and praying that ol' Jim wuz wrong and that President George is right.  And that maybe in a few days, after we whip that Saddam and bring him to justice, and after all the praising and all the celebrating, that I'm going to have myself over twenty giant wooden treasure chests, just like famous pirates have, all filled to the brim with that black gold.

And if this adventure works out perfect and just so, then I'll also be getting  to see myself one of them dancin' girls.  And maybe an elephant besides.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Dogubayzit / Diyarkabir

In October, 1970, I was in the middle of my first trans-other-continental journey, heading for my guru in India.  I had been in Istanbul a couple of afternoons ago, coincidentally on the same day that the guy from Midnight Express was being busted.  I boarded a dolmus in Dogubayzit, the last broken, dusty town in eastern Turkey, and saw that there were a couple of other backpackers (although we called ourselves hippies then) coming with me.  One of them said in passing, 'You did get your Iran visa, didn't you?'  Iran visa?  Somehow that had totally slipped my young mind.  Oh well, I'll just talk my way through at the border...

But when I got there the Iranian guy just automatically handed me back my passport and said, 'Consulate. Trabzon.'  And that was that.  I looked at my map.  Trabzon was over several mountain ranges and over 400 miles away.  Talk about the deflation of the stupid.

Back to Dogubayzit and a Saturday night in this one tired burro down.  I got a 'bed' in a weird dorm with a dirt floor and a bunch of drunk Turks for 17 cents.  Then the long journey to Trabzon.  The long wait for the visa.  The long trip back.  Another 17 cent night.

So Dogubayzit holds a lot of memories for me.  And, given that Americans ain't too welcome in Iran these days, I never really expected to be back.

But here I was boarding a small bus in Kars and going over the empty, nondescript bumpy mountain landscape towards Igdir.  When we got there we were in the middle of some actual agriculture, and the small city wasn't nearly as wretched as people had said.  This would have been my jumping off point for Nakhchivan, and the highway sign pointing to it mocked me as we drove past.  For now I was on a dolmus to Dogubayzit.

Less than an hour later we were there.  And in 43 years they had replaced the dirt road, one street full of metal stalls town with a city of 40,000 or so people, businesses, neon, and cars.

I looked around for Mt Ararat, the nearby 16,000 foot giant snow covered Noah's Ark volcano that dominated the clear blue fall sky way back then.  Drat, covered by the clouds that have been intermittently raining on me for a couple of days.  And it looked like they had also put up a bunch of other mountains and crags that I didn't remember from before.

About a block from the dolmus stop was the best hotel in town, where I plopped down $35 for the night.  It included a balcony looking out on Ararat, and I was assured that the view was almost always clear at dawn.  A short rest and then a stroll and a search for the time long, long ago.

Well, as usual, it wasn't there.  So I negotiated for a taxi to take me up to the town's big tourist attraction, which is a palace build by some Kurdish chieftain a couple of hundred years ago.  It was one of those places that looks really impressive as you're driving up the hill, but is just a bunch of empty stone rooms once you've paid the admission.  Still, it gets in the guide books, and then all the tourists have to go out of their way to see it.

Well, back to town.  Scrounge for food.  Back to hotel.  The sun was going down and the clouds were clearing up.  I could now see about 90% of Ararat, up to the first part of the late summer snow cover.  An early bed so I can catch the dawn.

But when I woke up there was a small thunderstorm going on.  Drat again.  I packed my things and headed over to the dolmus corner.  The first small bus was leaving for Van at 6:30.  And I was on it.

We got to the Van otogar (bus terminal area) at 9:15, right after a bus for Diyarkabir had left.  Now Turkey is just made for buses.  Big, but not big enough to require air travel.  And with gas at almost $10 a gallon. even people with cars would rather just bus it.

So Turkish buses have evolved into monuments to Huge.  Over fourteen feet high, with giant panes of glass all around. the Mercedes Benz beasts boast little video screens for each seat.  And a steward who comes around offering water, chai, and juice.  Style and comfort.  And rest stops that come every under two hours.

I had to wait until noon for the next one, which is about the longest I've ever had to wait at any Turkish city for any other Turkish city.  They're that flash.  So I walked a couple of blocks and found a small market, where the buy let me sit and eat some cheese and bread that I had bought from him.  Then I moseyed back to the open air terminal area and wrote some songs.

The route starts by snaking around Lake Van, which is a pretty big blotch on a map of Turkey.  I hadn't been expecting much, but it was actually quite beautiful, with waters almost turquoise in places.  It took two hours to drive around to the other end of it. 

Then we were down, down, down some pretty rugged mountains.  And then we were in some relatively flat, relatively uninspiring irrigated agricultural land.  Through the fabled joke city of Batman.  And finally, at a darkened 7 pm, at the otogar in Diyarkabir.

Freeways had taken my buses to the centers of Stockholm and Helsinki, so I hadn't had to deal with endless urban nightmares on the entire trip so far.  But Diyarkabir was well over a million, and the otogar was on the far northern edge of it.  The thieving taxis wanted $10 to go into the center, so screw them.  Instead I lugged my stuff over non-pavement and across unlit multilane roads to where the local dolmuses stopped. 

With great good fortune I got on one where the driver spoke some English.  He even understood where I was trying to get to.  So I tried to remain confident as he went down bewildering street after bewildering turn, knowing that if he changed his mind and just dropped me off somewhere I was a goner.

The city's big tourist attraction are its seven mile in circumference ancient walls, and I had kept asking people for the Harput Gate.  But when we got there about 300 meters of the wall had been removed since my LP guide of ten years ago.  And now there was a giant pedestrian space in its stead.

The LP had also said that here was where I would be encountering the Ancient East, with women in all encompassing chadors and bearded men in baggy pants.  But all I could see were modern neon lit businesses and people in jeans and t-shirts gabbing on their cell phones.  Fortunately, the hotels listed were still there, and I took the first one that passed minimum muster.

The next morning I was out and about in the 'old city' inside the walls.  But there were no winding alleyways and scenes from the past, only more Turkish everyday businesses and Saturday shoppers.  What in the world were those LP writers smoking in those hookahs of theirs?

My first task was to figure out how I was going to get to Iraq tomorrow.  The first option was to take Turkish buses to the last town before the border, take a taxi to the border, then an Iraqi share taxi to the Dohuk, the first major Iraqi city.  This would involve a certain amount of lugging and haggling.  The second option was to take a scheduled international bus.  Problem with that was that they had a huge wait at the border, and all the ones I had heard of only went at night.

Now there are a gazillion different bus companies in Turkey, and the relevant local ones all have little offices in each city, kind of close to each other, but not necessarily.  So first I had to find each one, and then find out which went to the border, and which had the through service.  With no one speaking English.  I was pretty much striking out when I found the last office.  Good news!  They had a through bus.  And it came through at 10 in the morning.  This was too easy.

With a weight off of my shoulders, I now strolled about a km to the southern stretch of the walls and found the place where you climb up.  I had kind of expected a nice paved tourist walk, but instead there were just knobby remains unrepaired for centuries.  Soon I was on a totally unprotected stretch with a 30 foot drop on one side and a 50 foot drop on the other.  And a pretty hefty crosswind.  Oh crap.  And with legs I wouldn't trust on an unknobby roof.  Steady the breath... Just look forward... One step after another...  I made it the 60 or so feet until a little piece of remaining sidewall reappeared.  And the rest was semi-protected,  But I had to ask myself as I slowly descended the old steep stairs at the end: When am I going to stop doing this stuff?

Safely back at street level, I finally saw one woman in a chador and one guy in baggy pants.  Amid about 18,000 other people looking perfectly normal.  I turned right at one alley where signs said I would find two old churches.  One was an old Armenian church whose reconstruction was just lavishly written up in last week's Economist.  The Armenian emigres behind that should have saved their money; the 'new' church reeked of Sunday School way more than of spirituality.  And considering that there are only 20 or so Christians of any kind left in Diyarkabir...

The other church was a Chaldean one.  Even I know squat about the Chaldean rites.  And it wasn't all that incredible, either.  But I did meet a Canadian couple, microbiologists on holiday, and we got to talking and walking through the remaining few tourist sites together.

At some point they mentioned that they had rented a car, and so I jokingly said, 'You wanna drive me to the border tomorrow?'  But they actually thought that this was a terrific idea, the weird allure of Iraq being that enticing.  So we mulled it over a while, and they decided to go for it.

Next morning at 8 we met and they retrieved their car.  It was easy getting out of Diyarkabir on a Sunday morning, and soon we were chugging along on the 130 miles or so to the Iraqi border.  We were planning to mostly go alongside the Syrian border, but after a misplaced road sign or two we were on the 'scenic route', which wound through some poor, rocky countryside in some ways reminiscent of some of the crappier parts of the American West.  Same distance, though.

And then we were past Cizre.  And then we were past Silopi, the last Turkish city.  By now not only the landscape was nothing special, but all kinds of industrial detritus lined the road.  And hundreds and hundreds of trucks.  Most of them in an endless line that must take them a week before they ever get to the front of it.

Cars could scoot around them, though, and finally we got to the first Turkish border building.  We parked, because we were hoping that they could bop across into Iraq for an hour or so.  But it was now clear that everything was way too chaotic for that to happen.  And it turned out that even I couldn't walk across.  I would have to be in a vehicle. 

The border guy stopped an old minivan driven by a Turk, and he agreed to take me.  My new friends John and Carol said that it had been enough of an adventure to get this far.  And I had to agree that it was pretty trippy here.  So we said goodbye, and I put my stuff into the old minivan.

Iraq awaited.


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Nada Nakhchivan

When I was last (and first) in Batumi, in 2004, it was about the most decrepit place I have ever seen.  And I'm including Haiti and West Africa.  The central square had the dragged out quality of a cruddy provincial town.  The few stores had nothing to sell.  Some of the buildings looked like they might have once been stately, even elegant, but that was long before decades of Soviet decay and 13 years of Georgian independent disaster.  With the hot and humid air and the uncollected garbage, you could actually smell the decay.  My 'taxi' was a motorized horse cart, and the driver had to pay off a sleazy gangster before he could take me to the train station.  (The first class sleeper to Tbilisi cost $4.)

So when I approached the city now, my mind was blown.  It was like they had replaced Port au Prince with a Europeanized version of Fort Lauderdale.  New cars.  New banks.  Businesses lining every street.  Bus service.  Lots and lots of people walking around like they had a life.  All in nine years or less.

It was a drizzling rain, but I decided to walk from the marshrutka depot to see if I could find my hotel.  That's not as easy as it sounds, since the Georgian alphabet is a bunch of indecipherable squiggles.  But there were occasional Latinized transliterations, and after a km or so I was there.  Back to 3 star quality: my own bathroom, wifi, and plenty of hot water.  Plus cable TV--5 Georgian channels and 95 Russian ones.

When I went for a Sunday afternoon stroll I also saw a lot of signs in Cyrillic.  War or no war, and even though they are disgusted with themselves, the Georgians and Russians just can't quit each other.  And that helped to explain where all the money had come from to transform this place.

Because Batumi has a style that I can only describe as Soviet Fairy Tale  I don't remember all the turrets and gables and domes from when I was there before, but the fantastical designs were from an other, very strange era.  And at the shore there was a new Radisson.  And an even newer Sheraton.  Not to mention a 5 star Intourist (!) casino.  And one bizarre modernistic tower after another.

At the Black Sea itself--again a rock beach--there was a new, wide 'boardwalk', a Santa Monica pier, and building after building a'building as far as the eye could see.  Of course, on a rainy Sunday there wasn't much action going on, so I returned to my hotel.  On the way I found the Azerbaijan consulate.  It was right next to the Iranian consulate, which kind of made sense, since so are the countries.

Monday morning I headed back over there  For this was the reason I was here.  You see, the Batumi consulate is the only place in the world where you can get an Azeri visa without the cumbersome Soviet era 'letter of introduction'.  Other post-Soviet countries like Georgia, Armenia, and Ukraine have made it super easy to visit.  But Azerbaijan has lots and lots of oil money, so they don't need no stinkin' tourists.  So this Batumi consulate was a big deal.

Problem was, although in my research people had said that they had picked it up the next day, right before I left I saw that there was now a three day wait.  Hmmm.  Those were the three days I had set aside for visiting Nakhchivan.  So if I waited around for the visa, then I couldn't actually go. 

Still, I was hoping that my golden, silken tongue might have an effect.  So I walked up there, had the guard get the consulate guy, and I explained my predicament.  He was shy and friendly, but he said with the authority of someone from an authoritarian state that there was no way he could waive the three day rule. 

I walked over to the Santa Monica pier and pondered my problem.  With perfect hindsight, I could have come here straight from Tbilisi on Wednesday (with no sleep), found the consulate, filled out the application, then gone to Zugdidi and Abkhazia, and then come back today to pick it up.  OR I could wait the three days, and then in a madcap rush put my foot into Nakhchivan and still get to southern Kurdistan by next Thursday.  But both ideas required a youthful energy (and stupidity) that I no longer had.

Besides, who wants to wait around in the humidity in this alternate reality seaside resort for three days?

So it was back to the hotel, gather my belongings, and take a marshrutka the 20 km or so down to the Turkish border.  This was enough post-Soviet fun for one trip.  Although, as I walked into Turkey the muezzin's call at the border mosque reminded me that from now on I would be in the land of Islam.

No matter.  Even in this far eastern, conservative part of Turkey the majority of women were unscarved.  It's a pretty secular place.  And so will be the other countries.  Actually, though, fundamentalist or not, I find most Moslem countries to be safe, friendly, and honest.

And I particularly like Turkey.  Turks don't slap you on the back and say 'Howdy', but they are almost uniformly polite and helpful.  Which would come in handy right now, because I would need some help in negotiating the strange route I was taking.  First I needed to take a dolmus (the Turkish version of a marshrutka, only more comfortable) to the nearest coastal town of Hopa.

No problem.  Now I got on one that was going up the gap in the towering coastal mountains up to the small city of Artvin.  Up and up, then along a new road carved above a massive lake from a giant hydro project.  At Artvin another dolmus was loading up for the town of Savsat.  Up and up through the sea of mountains some more, past yet another super-modern hydro project and lake. 

Savsat itself was a pretty hardscrabble town of only 8000. And it was getting late in the day.  Fortunately, though, a dolmus driver was taking off for Ardahan, even though I was his only customer.  I guess he was just going home for the night.   I was riding shotgun now, and really enjoying the scenery, for now we were high enough to only have pine trees and meadows.  Very Colorado looking.

We finally topped out at 7700 feet, which was pretty impressive considering that I was at sea level just a few hours earlier.  And now the landscape changed to how Montana looks like when it changes from dry prairie to rolling.  Out in the middle of God knows where, where hardly anyone else gets a chance to get to, now I was in my element.

The sun was setting when we got to Ardahan, which thankfully was a more prosperous town of 20,000.  That's all the further I was getting tonight.  About 100 m from the dolmus terminal was a basic hotel, but a bed and western toilet was all I needed.  The wifi was a bonus.

Not to mention the incongruous modern pizza parlor a couple of blocks away.

The next morning bright and early I was rolling my backpack the several blocks to the town's other dolmus terminal, this one for points north.  My destination was the city of Kars, and as we drove along I was once again on the high steppes of the Anatolian plateau.

Kars is one of those exotic end of the world destinations.  An ancient Armenian capital, then a major Ottoman outpost, even held by the Russians between 1880 and 1920 ...  Unfortunately, the city itself was now just a collection of streets and workaday businesses.  I now had to find the 'top choice' Lonely Planet hotel.  After five wrong directions and attempts, I finally discovered it down an alley.  Guess what?  The LP map was wrong.

It was a friendly, quality place, though.  And I would have liked to take a refreshing nap when I got to my room.  But no.  Because I still had a Nakhchivan angle.  You see, there's also an Azerbaijan consulate at Kars.  And although they do require a letter of introduction, I knew of a travel agency in Nakhchivan.  If I could get a Turk to call it (Azeris speak Turkish), and they faxed me a letter...

So it was off to the consulate.  And when I explained my plan, the nice people said, 'Sure, if you can actually get a letter'.  Okay, if I do, when can you issue the visa?  'Seven to ten days.'  As in Batumi, their eyes were sympathetic, but the rest of them was going, 'No way, bub'.

Darn those police states!

Well, who needs Nakhchivan anyway?   It's not like it's an actual country.  Besides, any idiot can just hop on a plane in Baku and get there, no problem.

Besides, here I was at that strange juncture where Turkey, Armenia, Iran, and (sigh) Nakhchivan come together.  Truly one of the Ends of the Earth.  Might as well enjoy what I can.

So I went back to the hotel and took that nap.  Then I walked up to the top of a big hill, past an 11th Century Armenian church and a 12th Century Seljuk mosque, all the way to the ruins of the 14th Century Ottoman castle.  And back down to the hotel, stopping for tea and baklava on the way.

Having become enormously fat on the trip so far, I was trying not to eat.  What made it easier right now was that, although I love Turkish food, everything here in the boondocks seemed to have sheep heads floating in it.  But around 7 I was starting to get a bad hunger headache.  So I got directions to a pizza place.  Found it, but it was already closed for the day.  Drat!  Now what am I going to do?  I turned a drab corner in this drab city and--are you kidding me?--there was a Burger King.  I went in and ordered the Bean Burger special.  Sure, I had to wait fifteen minutes while they eventually found a bean burger to fry up, but...

Next morning I had signed up for a tour to the ruins of a fabled lost city that you've never heard of.  That's okay, neither had I.  It was called Ani, and in the 11th Century it was the capital of Armenia and it rivaled Constantinople for splendor.  Then came the Seljuks and the Mongols and a giant earthquake.  More recently it found itself 10 feet from the border with the Soviet Union, so, needless to say, Cold War tourists were few.  Even now it is still 10 from a border, this time with Armenia, which also doesn't get along with Turkey.  But they're too puny to worry about.

My tour mates were two Taiwanese backpacking girls, a relatively rare breed.  Our driver dropped us off at the entrance and waited while we walked around for three hours.  I had expected to see just a few stones sticking out of the ground, but the whole thing was actually rather impressive.

First, the setting.  Definitely End of the Earth: Brown empty steppes with crappy mountains in the background.  A semi-ominous sky.  A little canyon snaking besides the 100 acre or more site.  And that ominous red border fence.

The city walls were twenty feet high and several hundred meters of them remained.  We walked inside, and, although no houses or other small structures remained, several impressive churches and/or mosques stood all around.

We followed a loop, first to a half of a round church that had been built in the 11th Century to hold a splinter of the True Cross which had been brought from Constantinople.  Down the hill was a complete round church replete with some of its original 13th Century paintings.  Extremely cool.

 On and on we went, checking out the remaining structures, and stopping to contemplate how, a whole frigging millennium ago, this was a city of 100,000 souls.  That nobody even knows of today.  At one spot there were indeed the foundation stones of some houses, and it was remarkable how cleanly cut and cleanly fitted they were.

Then we were back to the entrance, back on the road to Kars, and back to the hotel.  Since I now had non-Nakhchivan days to fill up, I had decided to just rest the rest of the day.  My knees, my legs, my aching bones could use it.

And as of right now, my trip was officially half over.


Sunday, September 15, 2013

My (Very Short) Weekend In Abkhazia

First, a little geopolitical introduction:

Russians and Georgians have always rubbed each other the wrong way.  So when the Soviet Union split up in 1991, it was pretty much Good Riddance.  Except that Georgia had kind of been the prettiest part of the USSR, and it was their relatively warm Deep South.  And Georgia's culture and economy had been tied to Russia for at least 150 years.

Now the Abkhazians had been a totally different Caucasian group all along.  But when Stalin was drawing up the boundaries of the new Soviet Union, he 'gave' Abkhazia to Georgia.  And in the ensuing years many Georgians moved to Abkhazia and settled there.  Which the Abkhazians didn't really like.  But, hey, it was one big Soviet Union, right?

But once Abkhazia was part of a new, independent Georgia, they really didn't like that.  So they started their own war of independence, won it, and kicked out hundreds of thousands of Georgians.  Which didn't sit well with Tbilisi.  But for 17 years the whole Abkhazia/border area sat there in extremely poor devastation.

Then in 2008 Georgia decided to start a war with Russia, hoping that George Bush would intervene and start World War III on their behalf.  But even he wasn't that dumb, and so they got totally gooshed.  But the positive outcome was that now that Russian soldiers were defending Abkhazia, it could become an actual (if mostly diplomatically unrecognized) country.  And both it and the Georgian region around Zugdidi could finally see stability and economic progress.

So now it was Thursday morning, and I had just taken a taxi to the border.  I stopped at a tiny Georgian police kiosk and they asked me why I was going to Abkhazia.  I said, 'tourism', they looked at my passport, and waved me on.

I then walked about a third of a mile through the summertime countryside, mostly over a long, low, rundown old bridge.  A few poor Georgians were trudging in each direction.  When I got to the other side there was a small Russian kiosk, where I handed them my passport and Abkhazian letter of introduction, and then stood there for a couple of minutes while they looked at me through two way glass.  Then they kept the letter, gave me back my passport, and a hundred feet beyond waited a marshrutka that was going to the capital, Sukhumi.  All in all, it was one of the most low key Third World borders ever.

But first we had to stop at the first town, Gali, which in my research had been described as the most dangerous place on Earth.  I was fully expecting to see rusting out, blown up tanks, and kids playing hopscotch with spent shell casings.  But instead it was hardly a town at all, more like a crossroads in the midst of cornfields.  And, yes, there were some empty concrete slabs of buildings on the way, but you see that everywhere in the former Soviet Union.  It was supposed to be a fifteen minute stop, so I sat there in a plastic chair by a plastic table quietly drinking a Pepsi.

That dragged out to a half an hour.  Then the driver came and said we were going.  Funny, there were four Czech kids who had also crossed the border this morning.  Where were they?  We drove a few blocks and stopped for fifteen minutes more.  Finally the Czech kids showed up.  Turns out that when they got off the marshrutka 45 minutes ago they had immediately walked around taking hundreds of pictures.  Which isn't the smartest thing to do when you're in a sensitive border area.  So they had been at the police station all that time answering questions. 

Anyway, back on the road.  And it was pretty empty countryside for the next hour or so until we got to Sukhumi.  Then all of a sudden the driver stopped and said this was it.  As I got out, the Czech guys, who were continuing, yelled out that the visa office had moved a couple of months ago.

Great.  If there was one thing my Abkhazian research had established, it was how to go get the official visa once you were in Sukhumi.  Oh well.  I supposed that if I found the old office, there would be information there about where the new office was.  So I started out.

But first I had to figure out exactly where in Sukhumi I was.  Looked like I was near the old railway station in the northwest part of town.  So all I had to do was head south to the Black Sea, find Lakoba Street, and then keep walking east until I found number 21.

The shore was only a few blocks away.  And, wonder of wonders, I found a street sign that said 'Lakoba' in Cyrillic.  Now all I had was the trans-Europe problem that building numbers only change building by building, not block by block, so that it might be a mile and a half between, say, #168 and #21.  Which it was.  In hot humidity.  Although, thankfully, my pack was light.

Okay, big Foreign Ministry building.  I tramped up.  A nice young soldier pointed to a posted page in English which said where the new visa office was.  Six blocks back the way I came and one block up.  Off I went.

When I finally got to the new digs the process was fairly painless.  The buy printed out a personalized visa which I could carry with my passport, I paid him 400 rubles ($12), and that was it.  I was an official Abkhazian tourist.

Although now I had the larger problem of finding tonight's accommodation.  Someone had recommended a 'hostel', which indeed was listed on Hostel World.  And the listing had said that there was no indoor plumbing, but it also said that they spoke English and really liked meeting interesting people.  Sounded quaint and appealing, since the only other not-totally-over-the-top option was finding babushka grandmothers on the west side of the beach renting out spare rooms.  Where Uncle Vlad would likely be snoring away.

And they had emailed, saying that they could pick me up in town.  But when the nice guy at the visa office called, the hostel guy sounded kind of rude, and said that I needed to go to the MVO Sanitarium.  Wherever that was.

First, though, I had to eat.  So I headed down to the beach, figuring out that this was where the action would be.  I was right.  Even though it was the end of the season, there were still a fair number of Russian tourists straggling about doing beach things.  Of course you should understand that, like other Black Sea destinations, Sukhumi has a rock beach.  But I guess that if you're Russian you take what you can get.

Oh, and like Yalta, there were also small freighters just off shore.

Anyway, I did find a nice restaurant, and since Georgian/Caucasian cuisine seems to be centered around cheese and bread, I was able to order something decent.  Now, stomach stuffed, I set out to find that MVO Sanitarium.

I can decipher Cyrillic, but I only know about eight words in Russian.  Which is about eight more than any Abkhazian knows in English.  But they are nice people, so at some point someone got me on a local marshrutka that took me a km or so to the MVO.  Okay from here I had printout instructions from Hostel World.  Go straight; turn right' turn left under bridge...  The instructions stopped there, and I was still in the middle of town.  After about twenty minutes of confusion I went into a bar, and a guy called the hostel number.  The dude at the other end acted all pissed off, but finally said he would come down and get me. 

He finally showed up in an old Russian military truck that I would have had trouble getting into when I was 20, and we drove up the hill.  When we got to the 'hostel' there was a half inch mat on a concrete floor.  When I kind of objected to that, he said that he also had a 'double' for $9, and we went up the hill a little more.  Still no mattress, but at least an old beat up couch.  By now it was too late to do anything else.  Besides, those babushkas might not even be there at the end of the season.

He went away, and I surveyed my situation.  No stove, no fridge, no water.  And now I had to... go.  I'm certainly not squeamish about using an outhouse, but this was a filth encrusted tiny hole in some concrete.  Hmmm.  Take off my boots.  Take off my pants, so that they don't drape in the filth.  Put boots back on so that my feet don't drape in the filth.  Okay, I know that squatting is the way that Nature intended us to do this.  But have I mentioned my knees? 

In great pain I realized: I really am too old for this s---.

Back to the room.  There was an old plastic water kettle that worked, and some dirty water in a jug.  Let's see, if I boil it and kill the germs, is it okay to drink the dirt?  Better to marshal the very few sips I have left...  Well, at least there was a nice view as the sun set.   And fortunately I was exhausted.  Because as soon as the sun was down, so was I.

I awoke at the crack of dawn ready to implement Plan B.  First, I walked all the way down the hill to the gates of the MVO Sanitarium.  Turns out that it was a Soviet relic, complete with a mosaic of a beneficent Lenin at the entrance.  I walked to the rock shore and turned west, hoping to follow it all the way to downtown Sukhumi.  But the surroundings got pretty decrepit, and soon I saw why: a creek blocked my way.  So back I went, wandering among the moribund ghostly buildings of what was once a proud People's vacation destination, and med it back to those sanitarium gates.

My next task was to find a map of Abkhazia.  A couple of women had just opened their souvenir kiosks, and I supposed that there might be a postcard with a map on it.  No dice.   But one of the ladies did have a t-shirt.  So I noted that the town furthest west was Gagra.

I was starting to get the hang of this place, so I had a nice shopkeeper call up for a taxi for me, and the nice taxi driver took me to the marshrutka stand by the old railway station.  One was about to leave for the Russian border, so I hopped on and told him to drop me off at Gagra.

West of Sukhumi it got hilly and subtropical; it's weird to see palm trees in the former Soviet Union.  And the whole situation looked more lived in and better off the closer we got to the Russian border.  When I got off at the Gagra 'plage' I was less than twenty miles from Sochi, home of the soon to be Winter Olympics.

The beach at Gagra is the best in the former Georgia.  In fact, it is the consistency of small pebbles.  And it was relatively crowded with swimsuited Russians of all strange shapes.  A jet ski buzzed by.  A couple sailed by paragliding.  The sky was deep blue.  You could see why the Russians would never let this go back to Georgia.

On almost every street corner in Abkhazia there are people set up with card tables and large posters with various pictures of what you would see on the myriad tours that they are selling tickets to.  The pictures looked great: An old monastery, Stalin's dacha, lakes in the mountains.  But the tours would all be in Russian, and I wouldn't even know how to find the bus if I bought a ticket.  So I just took a picture of the pictures, and let it go at that.

By now I had seen Abkhazia from border to border.  Behind the small coastal plain rose steep green mountains.  And behind them even steeper snow covered ones.  And it would be great to get up in there, but without a tour that wasn't going to happen.  Besides, there was that little problem with accommodation for tonight.

So I found a couple of ladies who were waiting to flag down a marshtrutka to Sukhumi, and went with them.  And when we got there another one was just about to leave for the Georgian border.  I went over to the little food stall and ordered 'edeen bolshoi Pepsi & dva ceer'.  And away we went.

Arrived at the border around three.  A Russian soldier asked me a whole bunch of questions, but he was really just trying to show off his English.  The guy behind the two way glass took my visa away and gave me back my passport.  I walked the third-mile back.  The Georgian police guy checked my passport to make sure nothing Abkhazian had been stamped in it.  And I took a taxi back to Zugdidi, where I knew a real bed and a really good Georgian meal would be waiting for me.

So, in short: Abkhazian people, nice.  Georgian people, nice.  Russian people, strange, but okay.  Why can't they just get along???

Saturday was now open for me.  So I arranged for a pickup at 7 am to go to the town of Mestia, which is in the midst of the snow covered mountains on the Georgia side of the border.

It being so early in the morning I was expecting to get the first, best seat.  Instead I got the last, worst one.  And almost everyone else in the marshrutka was an Israeli backpacker.  Now you hardly ever see Israeli tourists in the rest of the world, but in those few places where you do see them , that's all you see.  And each individual seems oblivious that they're all traveling around in giant herds.

Anyway, at the first rest stop I maneuvered myself to a better seat, and the rest of the journey up was satisfyingly spectacular.  Mestia itself was a small quaint Georgian mountain town which was quickly transforming itself into Backpack Central.  Almost each building was a guest house.  And an ersatz alpine center square was nearing completion.  Still, it was a really nice setting, and if I had had a companion and/or my legs weren't too totally crapped out for a hike, it would have merited a stay. 

But I also knew that I wanted to be in Batumi Sunday afternoon.  So, after a couple of hours, I spotted a marshrutka cruising around for passengers, and I hopped on board.  This time I got shotgun, so had a really great view of gorgeous green mountains and blue sky going down.   Back to my nice bed.  Back to that great restaurant.

And it also turned out to have been a smart move.  Because that night a lot of rain rolled in.  Who knew how cold and miserable it was up in Mestia right now?


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Going Past The Finland Station

Finns call their country 'Suomi'.  So when I got off the ferry, I dropped to one knee, stretched out my arms, and sang:

Suomi, how I love ya, how I love ya
My dear old Suomi
I'd give the world today
To be there sweatin' in my S-A-U-N-A
I know the Sami are waiting for me, praying for me
Up in Helsinki
The folks down South will see me no more
When I get to the Suomi shore

And why shouldn't I be exultant?  Not only was Finland my final European country, but it was also number 200 on the Century Travel Club list.  And since I can't imagine that there are more than 7,000 people in the world who have done this, I was now finally one in a million in something.

Of course all the hundreds of other people getting off the ferry were looking at me kind of strange.  Especially because I had all that whiteface on.  So I got up and set about trying to find my hostel for the night.

It would later prove to be about two blocks away, but thanks to Google Maps I ended up walking over a mile and a half.  Down dirt paths and over railroad tracks in the gathering gloaming.  I finally found it: an old, small, defrocked cruise ship that now housed, among other things, an HI hostel.  I crammed into my small cabin, extending the nautical theme for one more night.

The next morning I took a Turku city bus to the downtown terminal, where I boarded another bus for Helsinki.  This was my big chance to see rural Finland, but, as with Sweden, it looked a lot like upstate New York or down province Ontario.  About 3 pm I was disgorged unto center city Helsinki.

Not much to see here.  I got my bearings, and once again tried to follow computer directions to my lodging for the night.  After only a few wrong turns, I actually found it: the fifth floor of an apartment building that called itself a hostel, but was really ten small rooms mostly housing single men of various ethnicities.  Kind of a 21st Century boarding house.

My small room was kind of big though, and even with peeling paint was pleasant enough.  Besides, the hot water and wifi worked, and there were no lines for the tiny bathroom.  And I said I wouldn't whine any more, but these days that's what $75 buys you for lodging in Helsinki.

The next day was supposed to be warm and sunny, but instead was cold and drizzly.  No matter.  I had determined yesterday that an hour seemed to be more than sufficient time to 'get' Helsinki and move on out to the airport.  Now usually I have low opinions of places when I first arrive because I am tired and grumpy and confused.  And usually the next day sets me right.  But, rain or shine, it was clear that my first impression had been correct.  Prague and Paris had absolutely nothing to worry about.

Nonetheless I hopped on a ferry for a short ride out to Finland's biggest tourist attraction, the Suomelina Fortress, which is a mile or so out in the harbor.  It was kind of cool to be 50 miles from Estonia and 250 miles from St Petersburg, but the fort itself had to be the lamest, most prosaic one ever.

Kind of like Helsinki itself.

So I went back to my room, collected my stuff, and headed out to the airport.  Good thing I did, since the plane left earlier than I had thought.  And I couple of hours later I was wandering around the Warsaw airport.  Well, now things should be getting interesting.  Indeed by 4 am their time I was deplaning at the Tbilisi, Georgia airport. wandering in and out of REM sleep. 

I took a taxi to the main marshrutka stand, where maxi minibuses squash around 20 or so customers within themselves and then take off for various cities in your typical ex-Soviet country.  It was now 5:45 and one was leaving for Kutaisi at 7.  Kind of a wait, but then I got to choose the first seat.  And then once we got to Kutaisi it was easy to find another marshrutka going to Zugdidi.

I got off at Zugdidi where my Google Map told me to, but it turned into a two mile trudge through the hot sun to find the actual address.  And me with no sleep.  But once the place and people were finally found, everything became honky dory.  I went to a Georgian restaurant where I decidedly overate some of the most delicious food in the world.  I packed my mini-backpack for tomorrow's adventure.  And then I took the opportunity to catch up on that missing night of sleep.

Monday, September 09, 2013

You Mean There's A 'Country' That Even I Hadn't Heard Of?

How to define 'country'...  Obviously, you first include all the U.N. member states.  But Taiwan doesn't belong, and nobody doubts that it's a country.  Scotland is legally considered a separate country in the UK (and, boy, do the Brits love their legal definitions).  Puerto Rico is allowed to compete in the Olympics as a separate country.  Citizens of China and Tanzania have to get special visas to visit Hong Kong and Zanzibar.  So where does one draw the line in this vast gray area?

And I thought that I knew all the exceptions and all the semi-countries.  But until I was planning this trip I was never aware of the special status of the Aland island.  You see, they are close to Sweden and are ethnically Swedish, but somehow Finland got a hold of them after World War 1.  So a deal was struck: They would have their own Parliament, hoist their own flag, print their own stamps.  And now they even have their own web suffix (.ax).  So who am I to deny their existence?

I landed at Stockholm's airport at 6 am their time, 4 am by body's time.  I wasn't intentionally trying to be masochistic.  It just turned out that all the connecting flights between the weird places I was going were in the middle of the night.  So I staggered out into the morning light and caught the bus into town.

The only other time that I had ever 'done' Sweden was in 1977, on a Eurail Pass.  (Remember those?)  And there had only been a couple of hour stop to walk around Stockholm.  Today I would have five hours.  I stuffed my stuff in a storage locker and headed out.

My first impression wasn't great.  I was in the Sheraton/Radisson district, and everyone was rushing around going to work.  Plus my lack of sleep wasn't great for my disposition.  But I finally found my way across a bridge into the Old Town area, and, it being 8 in the morning, I pretty much had it to myself.

Parliament.  The royal castle (Wow, are Scandinavians unimaginative when it comes to castles.).  Narrow streets of 18th Century buildings.  I found some pastries to munch.  I decided to stop whining about how expensive everything is and just accept that my home currency sucks.  I made it to the water on the east side of the Old Town.

Across the way was another peninsula with a park-like setting.  The walk around would be way too long and tiring.  I sat on a step and fell asleep sitting up for about half an hour.  When I regained consciousness I noted that the hop on/hop off sightseeing boats in front of me would probably be a good deal for a tourist, since Stockholm's theme seemed to be one of islands and peninsulas.  But I didn't have time for that.

I walked into the shopping district and saw all the Gucci blah, blah, blah stores.  Then back over the bridge into Old Town again.  By now it was noon and the streets were crammed with tourists.  Back towards the bus station, and the shopping streets were jammed with shoppers.

At 1 the bus left for the 90 minute ride to the ferry.  I strained to stay awake, since this was to be my only opportunity to see non-city Sweden.  As it did 36 years ago, the outdoors reminded me of southern Ontario: vibrant birch and other northern trees, pleasantly rolling farmland.  A sunny day in the low 70s.

There was a medium to large car ferry, and it took about 2 and a half hours to get there.  Kind of neat to be cruising the Baltic.  Then we bumped on shore and I and hundreds of other passengers rolled our luggage along a long, long exit ramp.  I was in Marienham, the 'capital' of the Aland islands.

It only contains a few thousand people, and as I rolled my way to my hotel--my first real one of the trip, with breakfast and an en suite bathroom and everything--I was reminded of a resort town in Michigan, albeit with slightly larger, boxier houses.  At the end of the season, with everything in the process of shutting down...

The sidewalk was certainly rolled up when I went out looking for dinner at 7:30.  But there was a cheap little pizza place still open, and when you're a vegetarian and a world traveler, pizza is usually the best that you can possibly hope for.  I went back to my room and completely wasted body and mind finally got the chance to conk out for the night.

The big thing to do on Aland, since it is totally flat, is to bicycle around,  So on Saturday morning I gave a 10 euro deposit to use one of the hotel's bicycles, and I took off.  After a few blocks I discovered that they had totally lied about the flatness.  Especially for an old guy with bad knees and no gears on the bike.  Oh well.  It would also mean plenty of downhill gliding that I hadn't anticipated.

There were well maintained bike paths heading outside of Marienham, and I was very diligent in using them in my projected journey to the south end of the peninsula.  Except that an hour and twenty minutes later I found myself back at the same starting spot in Marienham.  After finally applying due diligence, I realized that the only way to get to Lasko was to share the road with the cars.  Fortunately there were very few of them once I had gotten past the urban sprawl of the capital tiny town.

It was another beautiful day and the Michigan analogue continued, with tiny little lakes and outcrops and inlets and boats and summer homes.  All extremely pleasant to bike around in.  And when I got to the end of the line I turned around and pedaled back to the hotel.  All told, around 30 km.  Which sounds like a lot more than 18 miles.

And then hang out in my hotel room, occasionally watching the lame BBC feed, which is usually about the only English speaking channel you can get in these furrin' lands. 

Sunday morning I packed my things and then walked across the street to Aland's maritime museum.  Turns out that in the 1930s the Aland islands were the only place in the world which still operated commercial sailing vessels.  Turns out that there was one route where it was still cheaper to use sails, and that was in taking Australian grain around Cape Horn to England.  So it was actually pretty fascinating. 

And in the water right next to the museum was one of those ships, a 300 foot long four master.  And you could walk into all the little cabins, and, most interestingly, the giant cargo holds down below.  So it was really easy to pass a bunch of time being curious.

But then I had to trundle my stuff a few hundred meters down the waterfront to catch the 2:30 ferry to Finland.  This was going to take 5 and a half hours, but the boat was slightly larger and more modern.  In fact, it was a semi-cruise ship, with a casino and a duty free and a Cool Jazz sun deck bar in the back, where I could sit in a comfortable chair and watch the islands drift by.

And there were hundreds and hundreds of them.  Many of them just a few rocks cobbled together, a couple of them just big enough to put one large wind vane on, a few of them behemoths of an acre or so.  Never have I seen so many tiny flat islands.  It's a wonder a boat channel can exist between them.

After a couple of hours the Alands were over and there was a spot of open water.  But twenty minutes later all the tiny islands off the Finnish coast showed up.  By that time I had finally left my perch in the sun and had gone looking for some overpriced food.  Past the Finnish stand up comedian, and, wha?...  Finnish karaoke going on.  I picked up the book and there was indeed a section of 'international' songs.  I asked the girl, 'Do Finns know this song?  How about that one?'  She kept nodding her head.  Then inspiration struck: How about 'Burning Love'.  A light of recognition lit up.  So I took the mike and belted it out.

Somehow Elvis and Finland seem to go together.


Saturday, September 07, 2013

My Icelandic Saga Ends

Just a little more rhapsodizing about the place:  It's like pictures of Greenland or the High Arctic, except that you can drive around in it.  Virtually any place you stop and gander would be a national park in just about every other country in the world.

There's just that little problem with the weather...

But Wednesday morning the sky was almost entirely blue, and by 11 am it was getting--dare I say it?--almost not cold.  In fact, for the first time on my circumnavigation I could actually take off a layer.

Instead of a Hyundai I should have been driving a Fjord, because now I was driving up and down and around all the indentations on the east side of the country. Not quite as dramatic as the northwest, but wonderful enough.  And, hey, it was a sunny day.

For those not of a geological bent, I should finally explain why Iceland is so geomorphically special.  You see, what with Europe and North America having drifted apart for the past 100 million years or so, new land is continually being created in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  Usually way below sea level.  But for some reason the area that is Iceland has been pushed up.  Which is why it has all the lava and volcanoes and geysers and such.

But besides lava it also has obsidian and jasper and calcite and quartz crystals and all sorts of other cool minerals from the Earth's mantle.  And in 1922 a girl was born in a small, totally isolated village on one of these fjords.  Her parents improbably named her Petra (which means 'stone'), and from a young age she decided that, since she was no good at writing poetry, instead she would glorify God by collecting all the beautiful rocks He had made.  So for around 50 years or so (she just died in 2012) she would climb the incredibly steep and high mountains behind her house and geodes and calcite spars and the like. 

She ended up with almost 100,000 of them, and she ended up displaying them all in her house and in a garden she created behind it.  Needless to say, it is now one of the most singular and strangely inspiring roadside attractions in the world.

And what makes her story even more interesting is that, whereas all the young urbanized Icelanders are hip and thin and English speaking, my impression of the rural people is that they are/were direct and honest, but simple and relatively unimaginative.  Also rather unsentimental, as you might expect from people who have spent a thousand years making a (precarious) living primarily by killing things.

I left the last fjord behind and hit the southern coast of Iceland.  As I pulled into the fishing port of Hofn, my last hostel stop on this journey, I could see up the coast to the west a giant glacial tongue reaching the sea.  Yesterday I had seen Iceland's great ice cap from the 'top'.  Now I was seeing it from the bottom.

As I started out Thursday on my 300+ mile dash to Reykjavik, I could quickly determine that these glacial tongues--white, but with a lot of black dirt in them--licked down every available and conceivable break in the mountains.  In fact, my first major stop (along with a lot of other tourists) was at a famous iceberg filled lagoon at the end of one of these tongues. 

And the second major stop was at Iceland's most popular national park, Skartafell.  Which is on a tongue of land in between two tongues of glacier.  By now it was (for Iceland) amazingly warm: up to almost 60.  And no wind.  For once I was able to take a walk and not be absolutely miserable.  Up I went for 4 or 5 miles, sans even jacket, to see the requisite waterfalls and endless views.

Back down and on the road again.  Soon, after a couple of other detours, it was close to 6 pm, and I was entering Vik, Iceland's southernmost town.  It is also the country's rainiest spot, but still the weather today was blue and balmy.  What an amazing end to an amazing trip.

Just a couple of days ago I had been musing for the zillionth time in my life about how birds and small animals always seem to just get out of the way of oncoming cars.  But as I was slowing down to enter the small town a skua--an extremely large and, apparently, extremely stupid sea gull--wheeled up in front of me.  And SPLAT!!!  The eastern third of my windshield shattered into a hundred different cracks.

I was strangely detached from the experience.  After all, I wasn't to blame.  It was an Act of Gull.  Who knew that you were supposed to take highly evasive action should you see a skua?

I drove on, now calculating that, taking time to stop for pizza, a short nap, and filling out forms at Hertz, I was now on a tight schedule to get to the airport.  I stopped to take a picture of that unpronounceable volcano that shut down air traffic in 2010, and then to gawk at one last spectacular waterfall.  But a vicious cold wind had now arisen, breaking my two day idyll.  Back into the car and driving into the still never ending sunset twilight just two weeks before the Equinox.

I got to the airport at 10:45 and the Polish kid at Hertz determined that the skua had also bounced on the roof, and that what would have cost $300 to fix in Poland would cost $1600 here.  Hmm.  I guess I'll now find out if that supplemental credit card insurance actually covers stuff.  (Update: It apparently does.)

Then a quick jaunt over to the terminal to sign in for my 1:15 flight to Stockholm.  And as I sat there dreading the sleepless night ahead of me, I also concluded that this 3100 km ride was one of my greatest ones ever.  In fact, if possible, I would immediately get to the back of the line and do it all over again.

Except maybe for the part about squashing the skua.  Oh, and the part where I almost killed myself sliding off of that icy mountain road,

Other than that... 

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Iceland, Glorious Iceland

The wind and the rain got worse as the day progressed, and the snowline inched down the mountain.  A bunch of people arrived, and they were all stuffed in the small common space, jabbering in strange tongues and cooking strange meats.  So it was good that I had secured a single room upstairs.

As I lay there, it was instructive to be experiencing just how severe Iceland could be.  Even in August.  And to realize that before the country got rich off of sealing, fishing, dodgy banks, and now tourism, this was an incredibly poor place.  And that people had been huddling together here for over a thousand years.  And you thought 13th Century England was tough...

And it was easy to see why Scandinavians liked their Socialism.  Somehow making sure that everyone didn't freeze to death was a little more important than Personal Liberty.

Anyway, the forecast had been for miserable weather for the next few days, but early Saturday morning broke calm and clear.  I went for a very brief walk up the flat fjord grassland, and then hit the road.

One of the nice things about having your country made out of lava is that it's very easy to carve tunnels.  There was a five mile long one lane tunnel through to the next fjord, plus a left turn you could take in the middle of it for another three mile tunnel north.  When I had cleared all the tunnels I was in the town of Isafjordur, at 2000 the largest place in the northwest.  Not much happening and not much to see.  A pastry at a bakery, a quick stop at the Bonus supermarket, and now I was curving about, in and out and around fjord after fjord.

So long as the weather is at least a quarter decent, I was quickly confirming that Iceland is--and I do not use the term lightly--truly mind-blowing.  A touch of Atlantic Canada, a touch of its far north (and I love both places), but they are only a tiny fraction of the wild reality of this place.  Sorry to gush, but the combination of the blue waters, various shades of dull green moors and grasses, and every kind of lumpy and jagged mountain and eroded cliff side possible, not to mention the patches and dabs of snow, was like an endless National Geographic special.  And I was in my little red car, puttering about, taking it all in.

Not that the weather wasn't still rotten enough that you couldn't spend more than a few minutes at a time standing or walking around.  And not that most people probably wouldn't have the same tolerance I do for being stuffed in a small space driving on small (often gravel) roads for hours and hours at a time.  But, hey, leave me to my pleasures.

Outside of Reykjavik there are only about 100,000 people in a country larger than Pennsylvania.  So it was surprising to see so many farms, most of them in impossibly picturesque locations.  Mostly sheep.  But also some dairy cows.  For, what with volcanic soils and endless summer daylight, there were a fair number of extensive hayfields, and big white plastic covered balls of hay scattered everywhere.

I found the night's hostel; nothing special.  I kind of thought that I might find interesting travelers, but virtually everyone else was at least a couple, and almost all were Germans.  I have yet to meet another American, and only one Brit.  Still, hostel beds and bathrooms are clean, and it's a cheap and painless way to spend the night.

Sunday was more of the same: Twisting around headlands, stopping at small fishing towns, driving through tunnels.  It had been partly sunny, partly cloudy for the past 36 hours, but the sky darkened considerably as I got to Akureyri, at 17,000 Iceland's second largest 'city'.  I walked around the two block downtown, but it was Sunday and nothing was open.  By the time I left the cold, dark rain had descended.  There's no way to put a good spin on that.

But Monday was clear/partly cloudy again, although blustery.  I headed down towards Lake Myrvatn and its geological wonders.  Quite prepared to be amazed, I was a little underwhelmed by its 'fantastical' lava formations.  Bryce Canyon it weren't.  The pseudocraters at the south end were kind of neat, and the sky was now pretty blue, but the wind was up to forty miles an hour, so the quick walk around them became somewhat of an ordeal.

By the time I drove over the small pass and saw the giant hill of sulfuric deposits and valley of boiling pools and hissing vents that made Yellowstone look like kid's stuff, the wind was now at fifty miles and hour with gusts up to blowing you over.  This was getting ridiculous.

And then up to the Kramla site, where less than thirty years ago there was all kinds of violent activity.  And it was only about a kilometer walk to the caldera, but the wind and cold were so extreme that when I finally got to see the flat sea of recently congealed lava, I was like one of those mountain climbers who can only spend twenty seconds at the top before they have to go back down again.

About thirty km away was one more tourist site, the Dentifoss waterfall.  I sat there in the parking lot for a while, trying to remember a windier wind that I had ever walked in.  Sure, it was Europe's most powerful falls, but then Europe is a pretty dinky place.  Finally I decided to go for it.  And I'm glad I did.  Because it was really... powerful.  And you could basically walk right up to it.  One of those amazing pictures that just takes itself.

The hostel for that night was on a sheep farm way in the middle of nowhere.  In fact, it was on a peninsula that bills itself as the End of the Earth.  I don't know about that, but the northeast of the country is pretty darn isolated, and here was one of the few places in this incredibly indented place where the ocean laps right up on the shore.  I stood there, and the only thing north of me was the Pole.

Today was Tuesday, and most of it was spent driving through the wilderness, climbing up one unbelievably steep mountain and then down the other side, then climbing up another one into the interior and actually seeing Iceland's incredible southern icecap on the near horizon.  Never been close up to an icecap before...

Finally over yet another steep mountain pass and down into my first of the long series of fjords on Iceland's eastern side.  A semi-large car ferry in the harbor about to depart for the Faeroe Islands and Denmark.  Just astounding natural and quiet beauty all around me.  Why, there was even about two minutes today when the outside air wasn't freezing.  What's more, the evening sky is finally clear, so there's always a chance of northern lights.

That would just be icing (to coin a phrase) on the cake.