Wednesday, October 28, 2009


In a dusty corner shop in downtown Tbilisi, amongst the cute but useless souvenirs, Stalin beamed back at me. The Man of Steel, butcherer of countless millions, 'Uncle Joe', had been reduced to a label on a wine bottle. I suppose I could think of worse ways to be commemorated, but it seemed cheerfully fitting that this champion of Marxist revolution should now be used as a marketing tool in his home country of Georgia.

Nausea was setting in thanks to my traditional Georgian breakfast of Katchapuri, a colossal boat-shaped hunk of bread, knuckle deep in melted white cheese and fried eggs and drowned down with a large glass of coca cola. I wasn’t sure if it was the heartburn, lactose intolerance or a sudden urge to vomit, but for a brief and miserable moment I was forced to consider the benefits of veganism.

On all my travels, I had experienced a few moments where my life could have ended rather absurdly- falling from a pirate ship at a rickety theme park in northern Syria; a bad case of food poisoning- not obtained in a third world country, but rather in a quaint little Indian restaurant in central London; and falling into a drain in a nondescript village in Guatemala. I began to wonder if Katchapuri would be the end, and how it would look on my gravestone: ‘Died (not so tragically) of gluttony, somewhere in the southern Caucasus.’

Luckily Georgia’s other famous dishes managed to save me from certain death. Ken, me and two Swedes that we had met at the border (Viggo and Jens) were recommended a local restaurant by our hotel owner. In the basement of a shop in central Tbilisi, we found heaven. Though the waitress couldn’t speak a word of English and the menu was in the completely undecipherable Georgian, we pointed at a variety of dishes which were translated in the guidebook. With no idea of the prices or food quality we ended up stuffed to the brim with melt-in-your-mouth juicy dumplings, eggplant with walnuts and garlic and shashlik, skewers of marinated, grilled pork… all washed down with a litre of fine local wine. We received the bill with trepidation, wondering what this ‘top five best meals of our life’ would cost us. $30 for the lot brought it swiftly to the top of the list.

As we had crossed the border from Turkey, I noticed the roads degenerate and the skirts get shorter. Now that I had spent some time wandering the streets of Tbilisi, the contrast in cuisine, religion, landscape, language and culture became much more obvious. Georgia stands out for all of these reasons- a mountainous, mineral rich country with varied landscapes and climates- from sub-tropical to continental- making it ideal for everything from skiing to wine making. Although Muslims make up a sizeable minority (around 10%), Orthodox Christianity remains dominant and is widely practiced. The Georgian language is blessed with a beautifully curvaceous script and unique pronunciation, making it virtually impossible for travelers to understand. I did learn the Georgian word for ‘thank you’- ‘madlobt’ (თჰანქ yოუ) - although I still managed to forget it so many times that I would accidently merge it into an indecipherable blend of Turkish, Russian and Arabic phrases.

I only had two days in Tbilisi so I wanted to make the most of its fantastic food, cold beer, cobbled streets, hilltop cathedrals and suburban markets. Although the country’s capital and home to close to 1.5 million inhabitants, Tbilisi seems very small. We were told that Georgians love to flock to the Black Sea coast when the weather warms up, and as it was the height of summer, it may explain why the city centre felt eerily empty at times.

While strolling past the parliament, we somehow ended up in the middle of a protest. It seemed the entire police force of Georgia had turned out in rather severe looking riot gear for this day. It turned out that US Vice President Joe Biden was in town, and the Georgians weren’t happy. Since April the opposition had been gunning for the resignation of their president, Mikheil Saakashvili, and they wanted to make it clear to Biden that their authoritarian, warmongering president was guilty of human rights abuses and a failure to initiate promised democratic reforms. Mock jail cells had been erected across the front of parliament, protesters lined the streets and police had closed areas of the city and the central city metro line. We waited around for awhile but in the end the protest petered off undramatically.

We spent the last night in Tbilisi at an English pub, of all things. Sitting outside in the balmy evening air, talking to a homeless Chechnyan woman and listening to some young Georgians attempt karaoke, it couldn’t have felt further from England.

The next day Ken and I said our goodbyes to Jens and Viggo, the two Swedes whose black jeans and even darker humour I would miss. They were heading to Armenia while we were off to Batumi on the Black Sea coast. I’d had my fill of monuments and museums, my money was running out, and I was looking for a relaxing seaside end to my eastern journey before heading back to Istanbul.

Thanks to another unfortunate food poisoning incident, my lasting memory of Tbilisi’s bus station was of lying half conscious and crumpled in a stifling minivan waiting for it to fill, and finally on the sidewalk, begging Ken for a quick death or at least a pretty toilet. So to McDonalds we went, where I emptied my stomach before making my way back to the hotel to sleep off a raging fever. By nightfall I was feeling human again, so we headed for the railway station to take the night train to Batumi.

I woke to the morning light and soft drizzle tapping at my cabin window. Peeking through the curtain, I was greeted by a verdant collage of sub-tropical rainforest and the dark mass of the Black Sea looming forth.

Batumi is the last stop on the Transcaucasian Railway and is the largest port in Georgia. It’s also on the Baku Pipeline, making it an important player in the oil industry. Less than 30 minutes drive from Turkish border, it’s an interesting mix of local and Turkish vacationers and businessmen who come to stroll along the palm lined promenade and painstakingly tan themselves while standing upright on pebbled beaches.

I’d read about Batumi’s botanic gardens, a spectacular 111km mass of flora and fauna on the shores of the Black Sea. A lush wonderland of species from across the world, I was surprised to find it had a New Zealand Garden, even if it did consist of a few randomly placed ferns next to the gum trees that made up the Australian Garden.

It’s a compulsory cultural experience to see inside the depths of a nightclub in an ex-Soviet country. As much as I detest these manmade abominations, I felt it was my duty to endure a night on the town for the sake of research and bizarre entertainment. Batumi’s nightlife is centered on its beachfront clubs blasting dreadful techno music to vodka fuelled teenage girls. It could have been the music, hefty entrance fees, lack of sleep or jealousy at the ability of Georgian girls to totter through sand on six inch heels, but I didn’t last long on the town that night. Maybe I’m just getting old.

Ken and I parted ways the following day. After a week of Ken’s heroic rescue attempts from starvation, sickness and strange men it was time for me to find a home and a job back in Istanbul, and for Ken to continue on his way across central Asia. I’d miss my dear travel friend, whose unfortunate travel experiences and cheesy grin outdid mine hands down.

The rain was falling with unwanted vigor the day I left Georgia. Soaked to the bone and still full from my last dumplings, I said my last goodbyes to this strange and beautiful land.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Going East

It had always been a dream of mine to travel the length of Turkey and to make it right to the far east... the Wild East... where few travellers have the time or will to go. Virtually impassable for parts of the year due to heavy snowfalls, the east remains a mystical place, with its rugged, desolate landscape, dramatic mountain ranges, sparkling lakes, ancient castles and centuries old Armenian ruins. Although my grand plan was to take the exotic sounding Trans Orient Express train from Istanbul to Tehran, unfortunately time, money and the violent post-election riots meant I'd sadly have to miss the sands of Persia for now. Instead I took the decidedly less romantic (but infinitely more practical) long distance bus from Hatay on the Syrian border to Van in the far east of Turkey.

It wasn't long ago that it was virtually impossible to backpack here due to violent political clashes between Kurdish separatist fighters (PKK) and the Turkish military. The situation has calmed dramatically since the 1999 capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, and the area is now largely peaceful and easy to travel in. The military presence is still obvious, especially on the towns bordering Iran and Armenia- right where I was heading- and I passed through a few military checkpoints on my travels, one of which had a pack of rather scary looking dogs watching on.

I arrived in Van, a city on Turkey's largest lake, Lake Van. Its mouthwash blue waters are out of this world; as if a part of the Caribbean had magically landed here. The town itself- with beautiful scenery, a large student population and a number of key historical sites- is a good base for exploration of the Lake and its surroundings.

I booked in at Hotel Aslan- 'Hotel Lion', which I can only hope was named for its jungle coloured interior... though perhaps the New Zealand bush would be a better comparison- brown and damp, with some rather strange inhabitants. The good thing about backpacking out east is that there's a severe lack of backpacker hostels, so I was free from the suffocating confines of dorm rooms. The flipside of this was the difficulty in meeting other travellers, so for the majority of my eastern Turkish experience I was either alone or sought out by locals.

Van's culinary claim to fame lies in its breakfasts; they are so famous, in fact, that they have a street aptly named Kahvalti Caddesi (literally, 'Breakfast Street'). My first stop after the harrowing bus journey was a genuine Van feast. I packed into a restaurant on a narrow alleyway to enjoy a delectable assortment of morning goodies. Fresh herbed cheeses, wild honey, boiled eggs, tomatoes, olives, fresh bread and an odd honey sponge... delicious.

All fired up, I got the first bus towards the lake for a day of sun and ancient history. Lake Van also boasts a series of islands, the most visited of which is Akdamar Island, homeplace of Akdamar Church. This Armenian cathedral, constructed in the 10th Century AD, is perched on a rocky outcrop in the middle of the tiny island. Once the seat of Armenian patriarchs, it was abandoned in the late 19th century due to conflict between the Ottomans and Armenians. It was recently restored and reopened as a museum by the Turkish government.

It's fairly easy to get to the Island from Van- just a short dolmus (shared taxi) ride followed by a ferry crossing. Getting back to Van proved a little more difficult, and the three hours I had to wait to led me to a group of Iranian hippies who were staying at the nearby campsite.

While on my way to the local bus station I had made friends with a local student, Adnan, who offered to show me around the town and its castle that afternoon to practice his English. When I finally got back to the town we met back up and he took me to see the castle. Van Castle is a surprisingly large hill-top fortress, and settlement is said to have begun here around the 8th century BC. It took a couple of hours scrambling over steep, dusty paths at sunset to see the fortification in its entirety. Adnan was a perfect guide.

It's unusual to see many women alone on the streets, so not many foreigners get a chance to talk to local women. I felt very lucky, then, to be invited into the home of a local family while waiting for my bus out of Van. I was shuffled in by hoards of children and their mothers to a little roadside house beside a stagnant river in the town centre. The house, with its low ceilings and silk flower packed living room, felt cozy and familiar. With television blazing, the matriarch fed me tea and bread on faded mattresses on their living room floor.

The girls crowded around my camera, posing for photographs, and excitedly began to tell me the life story of their family, all in the Kurdish language, of which I understand next to nothing and which has no real relation to Turkish. Still, it's amazing how far gestures and spontaneous sign language can get one in such a situation. I was graphically recounted the story of the death of one woman's brother. Whether it was murder or suicide I couldn't quite get, but the grief was obviously deep and fresh. All I had on me to give was an old packet of very melted chocolate biscuits, so we munched away until I had to catch my bus.

I felt that it would be a sin to come to eastern Turkey without seeing Mount Ararat. Ararat, with its surreal looking peaks and year long snows, lords over many lands. Now Turkish territory, it's also the backdrop of the Armenian capital of Yerevan, and its summit is a mere 16km from the Iranian border as well as an enclave of Azerbaijan. A militarized zone for most of the 20th century, the mountain was only opened for tourists in 2001, and takes a lot of money and bureaucratic nonsense to gain permission to climb. I didn't have the patience, fitness or desire to tackle the mountain, so I took to eating and watching instead.

I nabbed myself a cheap hotel in the town of Dogubeyazit with panoramic views over both the town and Ararat, and for the first time in months I had the use of a kitchen. As nice as it sounds to have meals cooked for you everyday, I was in desperate need of something other than bread and meat. To say I was 'Kebab-ed out' would be an understatement. I cooked up a giant bowl of tomato pasta and spent the rest of the evening on the top floor lounge gazing at the majestic mountain, which is said to be the resting place of Noah's ark.

Dogubeyazit's famous man-made landmark is Ishak Pasa- a spectacularly beautiful 18th century hill top palace and administrative complex, undoubtedly one of the best castles I have ever seen. Its location, in full view of the majestic Mount Ararat, and with fields expanding in all directions, defied all my expectations.

When I came out of the palace it didn't take long before I was approached by groups of teenage girls, apparently confused by this tall, gangly blonde girl going solo by the Iranian border. Cellphones were whipped in flurries from leather handbags and I became the subject of the most remote photo shoot of my life. I wasn't quite sure if they had mistaken me with someone from Hollywood or outer space. To avoid seeming rude, I posed with women, children, young and old men. It was not uncommon to have random babies thrown at me, either. To this day I still wonder what percentage of the Middle East population has my photo, and I won't be surprised to one day come across myself on You Tube.

Thanks to the infrequency of bus services and my dislike for very early starts, my next destination took a lot longer to get to than I expected. To get to Kars, not more than 150 km from Dogubeyazit, it's necessary to first take a bus to the town of Igdir, change buses, then go onto Kars. What I didn't realise was that there would be a 3 hour delay between changing buses, and so I ended up Igdir, a town of about 120,000 on the border with Iran, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Thanks to my Igdir friends- Hakan, Kurban and Ali- whose friendliness, generosity and apricots I will never forget.

I arrived in Kars as the dusk was setting in. Despite having near perfect weather for the entire duration of my time in the Middle East, it decided to rain in Kars. I had just finished reading a Turkish novel about a town cut off by heavy snow falls, providing the perfect environment for a gruesome coup. The town was Kars. And as I approached the town centre, I was greeted through the drizzle with mud, military barracks and buildings as grey as decaying teeth

The rain only got heavier and colder and it took some time before I finally found Hotel Kent, the 'best budget option in town.' Tucked away on a side street with prime views of rain sodden footpaths, it looked more like a low end brothel than anything else.

Just when I was beginning to question why and how I ended up in this godforsaken town, I was saved by the only foreign inhabitants of the hotel- an ageing British sometimes-journalist and a wide-smiling Australian dentist named Ken. Within minutes of introduction, tensions were already rising between the journalist and the dentist, the latter of whose Indian origins seem to prompt the Brit into enacting a painful slowing down of speech and movement while in his presence.
Despite this, and at risk of starting our own coup, we decided to join forces the next day to tackle the town's most important gift, the medieval ruins of Ani.

Ani is an abandoned former capital of an Armenian kingdom and is said to have once been inhabited by an incredible 100,000 – 200,000 people. Due to its rather remote and desolate location about 45km from Kars, we were lucky to be one of only a handful of tourists, so we had free rein to wander through the crumbling remains of this ancient place. Most of the site has been left to the elements is in various states of disrepair and it's hard to imagine that this former city once rivalled Cairo and Baghdad in importance.

On my last day in Kars I still had no idea what to do next. All rational signs were pointing me back towards Istanbul- to a job and the comforts of slightly settled life. However, when Ken suggested I join him on a detour to Georgia, I thought... why not?

We set off early the next morning, heading for the most remote border crossing in Turkey.

Monday, October 12, 2009


Entering Lebanon was just like any other day in the life of a traveller: get in the queue. Wait. Step. Wait. Step. Wait. Smile at facetious official. Fill in pointless form. Pay money to corrupt government. Smile. Stamp. Welcome to Lebanon.
We got back in our waiting shared taxi and continued on our short journey from the border to Beirut. Our vintage American taxi wound up and down the mountain range surrounding the city, along the increasingly urbanized highway until finally coming to a stop at a concrete yard. We only had the name of a hotel suggested to us which was supposedly only a few minutes walk from this 'bus station.'

Talal's was not easy to find; hidden up a few flights of stairs in an otherwise unremarkable grey apartment block off a main road. The tiny reception also functioned as a lounge, which was to become the site of many cramped but enjoyable evenings spent drinking cold beer with an eccentric mix of travellers.

Once we were settled in at the hotel we took an afternoon walk around Gemmazye, the nearby bar hub famous for its western themed nightlife and restaurants. Beirut is indeed the party capital of the Middle East, and it was obvious from the first encounters with locals that we had strayed far from the conservative culture of Syria. Everyone is just so damn cool. Girls giggling over Cosmopolitans in a lounge bar; guys reclining with a Heineken listening to jazz- and even at a whopping seven dollars a drink, who's counting? The locals switch effortlessly between Arabic, French and English in a country where its universities bear names such as the American University of Beirut; Lebanese Canadian University; and the Ecole Superieure des Affaires.

Beirut is a dazzling city, surrounded by verdant mountains on one side and the jade waters of the Mediterranean on the other. Construction is ongoing and rapid, and for every pile of war ravaged rubble there seems to be a new sushi bar, gelato shop or glittering hotel looking on. The energy and optimism is palpable as the city undergoes yet another reincarnation, and the feeling of being witness to this re-birth was electrifying. Any preconceptions I had faded into the dusk and I was overcome with child-like excitement.

Our trip was organised at such last minute that I hadn't had a chance to let my family know I was even going to Lebanon. I sent off a quick email to my parents that night:
Hi guys, great to hear from you. We are in Beirut now! Not nearly as scary as it sounds.''
I had an email from my father not long after:
''This trip has certainly taken you to places that you hadn’t necessarily intended to visit. Have you witnessed any live shelling yet?''

There was no shelling for us on that trip, although we heard our share of horror travel stories from other backpackers from our hotel. One evening, while meeting up for a drink and water pipe at a clifftop restaurant, we caught up with two dazed looking young travellers- one from Northern Ireland and the other from Canada. They had been walking around the Hezbollah dominated refugee camps that day, merrily taking photos of their surroundings, when they were forced into a car and taken to Hezbollah headquarters.

Their interrogation lasted a couple of hours and took much ego boosting along the lines of ''Hezbollah good. Israel bad. Canada likes Hezbollah'' (two thumbs up). In the end, ''the guys,'' they said, ''were kinda friendly, and offered to drop us back at the hotel.'' We were more concerned about the power cuts, however- each day, for several hours at a time. Nothing can really prepare you for a cold shower in the early morning, no matter how much you try to rationalise it in the context of a war-ravaged developing country.

Back at the hotel we were lucky to meet a journalist who offered to take us on a three day tour of the rest of Lebanon. We rustled together a group consisting of myself, Kristin, a kiwi mechanic named Kerry and Torry, an American girl who had just finished working in Jordan. We piled ourselves into the car and headed south along the coast towards the border with Israel. Driving through the quaint fishing villages of Tyre and Sidon, past the sparkling (though predictably polluted) waters of the Mediterranean, it's easy to miss the war-shattered buildings, sandbag checkpoints and martyr posters honoring those who have killed and been killed.

Along with Beirut, southern Lebanon has seen its fair share of bombings, gunfire and landmines, often due to its close proximity to the Israeli border. Standing right next to the fence between Lebanon and the border, in a seemingly tranquil spot, I asked our journalist guide what would happen if I tried to jump the fence to the Israel side. ''Well'', he started, ''Firstly you would have to get past the landmines in the strip below. Once you got through those you would have to dodge fire from Israeli snipers hiding in the the hills above us, who are watching us as we speak. There will also be people hiding in the grass below. All follow a shoot to kill policy.''

Recent Lebanese history is violent and complicated. Following independence from France in 1943, Lebanon maintained a largely calm, stable and prosperous economy. However, when the Lebanese Civil War broke out in 1975, 15 years of violent warfare followed with an estimated 150,000 killed, 200,000 injured and up to 900,000 internally displaced. Despite extensive rebuilding in the country, violence again broke out in 2006.

This is a country where the state, rather than distance itself from religion, has instead used it to define its political makeup. In a bizarre attempt to minimize sectarian violence and correct ideological religious imbalances in parliament, the Lebanese government has embraced a system called Confessionalism whereby the government is strictly divided on religious lines. The President, for example, must be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim and the Speaker of Parliament a Shi'a Muslim. While guaranteeing representation from all of the major religions in the country, it's easy to imagine the paradox effects of such a system.

The religious divisions are often obvious, with many grouping together geographically into majority towns or suburbs. On a simpler level, dress can be a clear indicator of religious affiliation, such as a headscarf or length of skirt on women, while Druze men tend to have moustaches and wear white hats. Bad feeling runs deep and in southern Lebanon, none is so obvious as hatred for Israel.

It was fitting, then, that we visit Al- Khiam Prison Museum. This former prison, once a Lebanese army base, was taken over by the South Lebanese Army (SLA) and purportedly used by the SLA and Israeli soldiers as a brutal prison camp until the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. Following the withdrawal, Hezbollah converter it into a museum, but it was destroyed by the Israeli airforce in 2006. It has been resurrected as a museum again, although it is now mostly just piles of very disturbing rubble. There is little doubt, though, that hideous torture was commonplace and included methods such as electrocution and long periods of solitary confinement.
Walking around the former prison, it feels more like a theme park from a horror movie. Tattered Hezbollah flags wave eerily in the breeze. Children, on an educational Sunday outing with their family, play on the disused tanks and peep at eachother through bullet holes. Old rockets have been shuffled around so that they all point in one direction: towards Israel, a blatant 'fuck you' to the neighbours.

But Lebanon is not all tanks and terror. After our day of political history in the south, we took in some highlights of the north and east, past the spectacular seaside ruins of Byblos and onto the cedar forests which Lebanon is famous for, despite extensive and badly managed deforestation. These woodland jewels rise out of dramatic hills dotted with wildflowers, ancient hermit caves and Christian monasteries. The fact that so few cedars remain somehow make them all the more beautiful.

It's also no secret that Lebanon has some of the best wine in the Middle East; its Mediterranean climate, French influences and liberal leanings lend itself to wine making. Heading east from Beirut, the natural landscape is interrupted now and then by grand vineyards and their accompanying restaurants.

On our final day in Beirut we headed to Sabra and Shatilla, open refugee camps housing mostly Palestinian refugees who fled the conflict in Israel. The camps are often remembered for the massacre that took place there in 1982, when up to 5,000 inhabitants were brutally slaughtered over three days. The massacre was led by a Christian Phalangist militia following the assassination of their leader, Bachir Gemayel, the recently elected President of Lebanon, and carried out with the knowledge and protection of the Israeli Defense Force.

The majority of camps' inhabitants have been refused citizenship by Lebanon. Unable to return to Israel or to integrate properly into Lebanese society, they remain as unwanted aliens with little chance of getting out. Access to property is severely limited due to a law which forbids those with no recognized state (such as Palestine) to own property outside the camps. It's of little surprise then that Islamic militias and terrorist organisations have moved in, using its inhabitants to further their religious and political causes.

The narrow streets of the camps are overshadowed with dilapidated apartments blocks and tyre weighted shanties. Pictures of fighters, martyrs and even Saddam Hussein are pasted on bare, sometimes bullet scarred walls. Children ride on rusted bicycles in the dust, or pack into darkened internet cafes to play outdated warfare games The local market is bustling, selling everything from freshly squeezed fruit juices to leather boots while a corner pizza shop churns out fresh and delicious treats.

As we were leaving the camps a group of men approached us to ask us the usual questions: where we were from; did we like Lebanon; what were we doing here? When they discovered Kristin was from Norway, one broke out into fluent Norwegian while the other, when he found out I had lived in Sweden, excitedly started speaking Swedish. It turned out that both had lived in Scandinavia but had returned for their family- they'd come home.

From the camps we headed to the public beach, to sunbathe, swim and try to make sense of our day. In many ways it had summed up the week we'd spent there. Lebanon is mad, maddening, sickening, friendly, disgusting and beautiful. It's familiar and alien all at once, and it doesn't take long before the checkpoints, guns, guards and bullet holes start to feel unexceptional; part of the routine of everyday life in Lebanon. Its bizarre contrasts give it an edge like no other, but by the end of the week I felt as educated as I did confused.

I left Lebanon on a Monday. Kristin was flying back to Norway and I was heading back to Turkey. As there is no practical way to reach Turkey by water, the only way to get there by land is to transit through Syria. So I packed myself into a shared taxi with Kerry the Kiwi and two Lebanese businessmen. Arriving at the border, Kerry and I were told that the free transit visa for Syria (which was promised at the Ministry of Immigration just four days earlier) no longer existed and we would have to pay US$85 for less than twelve hours in Syria. Two weeks earlier I had paid almost half of that for a 30 day visa.

One of the Lebanese men in my taxi who spoke both Arabic and English helped us to argue with immigration for an hour, but we were not successful. Despite this, our new translator-cum-engineer on his way to work in Syria reached into his wallet and paid for my visa, refusing any offer of compensation. 'Enjoy your travels', he said with a smile, and got out of the taxi to begin a new day of work.