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.



At 1:47 AM, Anonymous Megan said...

ahhhhh so you didnt make it to nakhchivan! i read the post title in my RSS and didnt realize it said 'nada' before nakhchivan :) silly me!

when i was in georgia i never made it to batumi (i chose abkhazia instead based on time constraints) and never made it into eastern turkey although i REALLY wanted to. i had heard some great things about the kars region from some friends!

sounds like you enjoyed yourself! cant wait to read your next post, as usual :)


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