Monday, December 7, 2009

Crossing the Black Sea: som ereflections

All travel must come to an end, and it is now over a week since I returned from my journey from Odessa to Tbilisi and Baku.

I have missed posting, and have not done so for a couple of reasons; firstly, of course, is the requirement to work when one returns after a two-week absence, and secondly posting shifts from a daily report to a more reflective commentary, and I have been reflecting.

I love to travel to unusual places, and like so many other wanderers pretend to substitute observation with understanding. Observation is simple; it is a matter of watching and reporting. Understanding takes time and needs context, a commodity in very short supply. For myself, it was the enforced stay on the ship that allowed me to meet people whose acquaintance I would never otherwise have made, other than fleetingly, without our unscheduled respite on the Black Sea.

The countries of the former Soviet Union are unique, and their development has taken many different forms; from the Eurocentric evolution of the Baltic States to the inward pose of Belarus; from the resource-driven economies of Central Asia to the rather individualistic and quirky countries of the Caucuses and Black Sea, they are all different. There are, however, similarities; all have some legacy of the Soviet central planning in which a single country became a centre of production of a few items required by the Soviet block as a whole. By extension, other than a country's assigned product, everything else was imported from another specialised region. While one may argue the logic of such a system, when the block breaks up it leaves a lot of independent countries with some degree of singular skill and no breadth of expertise.

Of course, many of these specialisations were illusory, with industrial plants that were outdated fifty years ago, and little strength in a modern economy; today, the mantra of all is the absolute need for jobs to bring each region or country out from their malaise. There are vast differences between the major cities and the balance of each country, and the gulf between those who have money and power in and within the emerging economies and those who do not is striking.

Which leads me to the conversation on the boat, and the difficulty that my travelling companions had in seeing a future. "Without jobs", they said, "there is no possibility of development; and as long as we allow the Chinese to make everything we will not have jobs." It was instructive to hear how often China came into the conversation. From comments about China's manufacturing juggernaut and its effect on local business to their on-going quest to control the resources of Africa, China was on everyone's mind.

How developing economies, fragile at best, will be able to forge a path between the corresponding desires of the Chinese manufacturers and the West's desire to control the global levers of economic power remains to be seen. The issue is, however, noted by all, and that is a good sign. A high level of public education is a very strong legacy of the Soviet system, and in many cases of a level that is considerably higher that one might expect; this legacy also bodes well as people struggle to find their country's place in the global firmament.

As a destination to travel to, I think that the Caucuses are tremendous; they offer visitors stunning scenery, fascinating rural life, interesting cities, wonderful food, pleasant wines and above all some of the most hospitable people in the world. And they are accessible; frequent flyer point redemption puts Tbilisi, Baku and Yerevan on the same level as Southern Europe; those travelling on mileage redemption to, say Rome, would use no more points to extend their trip to include one of the Caucasian capitals, and I would highly recommend doing so.

I loved both Baku and Tbilisi, Yerevan too from a previous trip, and am already booked to return in August for a longer look, and a journey that does not include a ferry.

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