Showing posts with label Caucasus. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Caucasus. Show all posts

Friday, October 31, 2014

Georgia in the Caucasus: Travelling with Journalists

As you probably know, Georgia, at the eastern end of the Black Sea, is one of my favourite countries in the world. Tbilisi, its capital enchants, Svaneti and Tusheti are two mountainous regions beyond description and the wine-growing region of Kakheti and its gorgeous community of Sighnaghi are utterly wonderful.

However, one sometimes gets to believe one’s own rhetoric, and faced with the critical eyes of an audience unseduced by its charms sometimes one’s loves shatter and fade.

And such was the worry when I agreed to arrange a group tour of Georgia for a dozen North American journalists last month.

We met at Tbilisi airport in the wee hours of the morning; most flights to/from Europe whizz in and out between 3.00 and 5.00am, and although the Georgians are quite used to this eccentricity, it comes as a bit of a shock to newcomers. However, whisked off to our hotel, and allowed a restorative six hours sleep, we were duly shaken from our reveries and taken for our morning (well, noon by now) wine-tasting.

Alaverdi Monastery

The wine is good too; with a history of making wine in clay qvevris for 8,000 years, they have learned a thing or two, and it was a joy to see the cheeks of my hard-nosed scribes start to shine with their new found friends in Georgian wines.
Wine is to Georgians so much more than an alcoholic drink. It is one of the very strands that combine with religion, language and history to create the fabric of this most interesting and hospitable country. The vine is a symbol of the nation; when Christianity was originally brought to Georgia in the fourth century by the remarkable woman, St. Nino, her cross was made from twisted vines. She must have been a remarkable personality, for the Queen of the time, Queen Nana requested a meeting, and converted to this new religion, and Georgians have never wavered in their belief.
Ikalto Academy

The next days were a most extraordinary journey; we visited ranches, cities, monasteries, convents, a 12th centurywine-making academy, a museum to Stalin, the ancient capital of Mtskheta, the mountains of Svaneti, the UNESCO heritage village of Ushguli in the high Caucasus mountains, a partly-restored Soviet Military Spa (where we slept for a night, and delighted in the ephemera of the bar/disco), souvenir shops, two national museums and a bath house. We rode with the best guide in the region, Tamara Natenadze on a tour organised with my colleagues from the best travel company in the region, Living Roots.

The incomparable Tamara

And we had fun. We had surprises, and above all, we had a dozen journalists who were quite astonished that Georgia had been able to remain under the radar for so long. I reminded that that they were, in fact, the radar, and that was why they were here. And so, after a few toasts, and promises of endless friendships and everlasting joy, they left to ponder a most remarkable week.

Georgia is a remarkable country; it has every asset that a destination could want from active winter skiing, both heli-skiing and the more conventional variety to a culture that is fascinating and accessible. It offers opportunities to travel on high mountain roads in 4WD vehicles, go white-water rafting on a number of great rivers and enjoy fine accommodation and a bewildering variety of incredible food and wines.

Georgia is truly a destination to be visited now; it is ready, and is the destination that we all want to visit on our worldly wanderings!

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.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Bye Bye Baku

What a remarkable trip. A journey like this, while simple today, would have been almost impossible only twenty years ago when this part of the world was an integral part of the Soviet Union.

To travel within the USSR required a degree of planning and cooperation that left most tourists visiting only the main, keynote cities and sites. I most certainly would not have been allowed to travel on a ship as I did, and would never have been able to spend time with, and get to know Andre, Archi, Ia, Tony and Aydin as I have been able to do.

My journey would have been grey; it would have been coloured only by sporadic flashes of life surfacing in unexpected places. As it was, I saw countries that are deeply troubled in many ways, but alive and with a sense of community that is often driven by a shared hardship.

I was left to wonder about many issues that we take for granted. Has the liberalisation of the economic environment really helped the majority of citizens? Has the disappearance of the “black market”, or perhaps more accurately the “parallel market” caused greater hardships for those unable to reach the comparative productivity of the west? How have so few been able to amass so much, so quickly, and will the spoils of the undeniable riches of the region ever get shared?

Business is difficult, with a bureaucracy that can defeat all but the most fervent; capital is hard to come by and credit expensive, and often denominated in foreign currencies and carrying a huge exchange risk. Think Iceland. Local money is short, think of the 10% reduction in ridership on the Baku metro in answer to a fare increase from $0.07 to $0.20; this is not indicative of well spread wealth.

An average monthly salary in Georgia may be about $200; insufficient cash to drive much expansion and these levels of income live side by side with those fortunate enough to be involved in the global economy, and making salaries comparable to their western counterparts.

My days in Baku left me with a bewildering sense of “user pay”; from petty traffic violations to, and I have to be honest here, the ability to bypass a queue of 1000 or more at airport security by slipping $10 to a willing policeman. Georgia, formerly regarded as the most corrupt country in the region has really cleaned up its act, although its relative poverty and the inability of most to be able to grease the outstretched hands may have had much to do with it. The Ukraine defies imagination in regards to the level of user-pay officialdom that permeates society, and forces a sclerosis as deep as the Soviets.

I love travelling in the region, and intend to continue to do so, and get to more of the more remote areas in the mountains bordering Russia. To visit even the capitals is a treat and a reminder of travel in the past, tinged with the very real global economy that has laid its mantle firmly over the economic future of the region. I have met so many warm, kind and truly hopeful people; I have seen sights, both geographic and natural that leave me speechless; I have eaten food, in rather generous portions it has to be added, that bring desensitised taste buds roaring back to life, and had the rare privilege of sharing a flake of a completely different life.

And so time to go home; I write this as I sit in the Istanbul waiting for my flight to Chicago and home to Winnipeg. It is a treat, today, I think as I am the only passenger booked in the First Class cabin, or so they tell me, and I am looking forward to a rather decadent day

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Baku, Azerbaijan: One day in Baku

Twenty-four hours in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku really isn't enough, but as the morning dawned grey and drizzly, and with the whole of the city to see and a day in which to do it, I ignored the elements and waited for Aydin.

Aydin co-owns, among other enterprises, a travel company in Baku and our mutual friend Ia in Tbilisi thought that we should get together while I was in town. Aidyn generously offered to come and show me a couple of things and would be at my hotel by 9.00.

By about 9.45 he arrived, having been gridlocked in Baku’s traffic; and what traffic it is! I have never, ever in my life seen such traffic; not in Mumbai, not Aleppo and not even Rome during a rainstorm in the rush hour. Baku’s traffic is awesome; traffic jams without apparent end, Ladas stuck alongside top-of-the-line Beamers, angry motorists neck and neck with those taking it calmly; I am so glad that I didn’t rent a car!

And off we went; to drive around the city and then to head out to the Abseron Peninsular to the north and east; we saw a temple on land sacred to Zoroastrians but built in the 18th century; the everlasting flame, so mystical to the Zoros, actually burned out some years ago, and today’s flame comes courtesy of the gas company, but the principle remains sound. We did, however see a real everlasting flame at Yanar Dag, as noted by Marco Polo himself. Ablaze for a thousand years is the story, although another has it that a local shepherd in the 1950s carelessly tossed away a cigarette and ignited a gas vent that has been blazing ever since.

In either case, it doesn’t matter; the principle of endless energy is synonymous with Baku’s astonishing growth, and it is a country that seems to be coming to grips with its new wealth in dramatic ways.

It is under construction; the city itself lies in complete contrast to the acres of oil derricks, some modern, some dating from the first oil-boom in the 1900s, that festoon the landscape as one drives out to the peninsular. In Baku however, all is new, becoming new, will be new and is absolutely Under Construction.

It is amazing; the turn of the century buildings sand-blasted to a uniform cleanliness offer a curiously movie-set veneer to the city; without the variable patina of age, it is not easy to detect the old from the faux-old; it is, however, really quite splendid.

A vast cornice runs for three kilometres along the Caspian shoreline, planned to expand to cover at least eight kilometres; substantial, gorgeous buildings inhabited by the worlds’ most expensive and recognisable brands lie adjacent to the old and rutted side streets that maze through Baku.

And in the centre, an Old Town that is breathtaking, and fortunately preserved. Town planners in the past fifty years have been less moved by historical culture that we would have hoped for, and much of Baku’s heritage has been usurped by modern Soviet Blocks; the Old Town, however is delightful and a most welcome diversion from The Traffic.

And so we continued our tour and walked through the new business district to a hotel whose 19th Floor Sky Bar offered a spectacular view of the city.

If I sound overly impressed, I am. All is not perfect, however, and one wonders about the division of wealth among the populous as whole, and the long-term consequences of the massive population shifts that they are undergoing. Such thoughts from a one-day visitor are churlish and require considerably more study. Which I will gladly undergo.

So why should one visit Baku? Well, firstly to see it, and realise that this great Middle Eastern city is no figment of a cartographer’s imagination, but a vibrant, exciting and important centre of commerce, culture and energy; it is an important and tolerant Islamic centre with none of the trappings of radicalism so devastating in other countries of the region. It is important to understand Azerbaijan; very important.

One can visit as side trip to a trip to Istanbul to admire and observe the differences and similarities of these two great Turkic cities; to complete an exploration of the Caucuses, one of the great cultural and crucial ethnic melting-pots in the world today or simply visit to have a look.

I am grateful to Aydin for his most generous hospitality on today’s frenetic tour; we saw a lot, talked about a thousand subjects and thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company; well, I certainly enjoyed his. We agreed to look at a number of exciting business opportunities and looked forward to our next meeting.

Which will be a lot sooner than either of us thought when we realised that we will be together in Australia in June at a trade show in Adelaide.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Baku !

I actually made it, and I think I’m going to like Baku, once I get it figured out.

Arriving at the Heydar Aliev International airport in Baku is a really interesting experience. The terminal is wonderful, with no expense spared, the immigration lines efficient and quite friendly, baggage retrieval speedy and a couple of ATM machines to help one on one’s way.

Then the irritants start.

In a clearly well-off country, I am not sure why the police officers who hang around outside the arrivals really need to stoop to hustling taxis; fortunately having ascertained that the correct price is about 20 Manat (about $25) from a French, Old Baku Hand, their opening gambit was 50; I spurned their advances and offered 10, they countered with 40 and I wandered off to clear customs. Outside customs there was the usual murder of taxi-drivers, annoyed at the police spoiling their pitch, no doubt, so I settled on 30 and in to town we went. Why this absurd pantomime? I have no idea.

When I arrived in Warsaw last week, there were large signs in the arrivals area telling you how much to expect a cab ride to town should cost; sensible, easy and extremely helpful. It is an idea that should spread around the world and save travellers arriving in a city the angst of “The Arriving Traveller Taxi Rip Off Blues”.

But away I went, and what a drive! A ten-lane highway, whizzing past gated communities of upper middle-class housing on either side on the 35 kilometre highway; served, I have to add by tar-driven buses of a debatable vintage. One went the super highway only to collide with a ring of post-Soviet concrete buildings and thence into the city. Part Monaco, part Dubai, part provincial Russian town; part European, part Istanbul on steroids and all Baku.

I think I’m going to like this place.

It is, I have to say, a study in the difference between wealth and riches. The world’s finest brands are represented; lights, camera, action! Fabulous, and gloriously idiosyncratic. I love paradox; the clash of cultures; old and new, sweet and sour, your shout or mine, and Baku seems from first glance to epitomise these feelings. Extraordinary public buildings, lit with no expense spared adjacent to the medieval wall of the old town; fine shopping boulevards with ancient cross streets in a different socio-economic century; a stunning sea side corniche, fine cars, old Ladas and yet more ancient buses propelled by burning chicken-feathers.

They have a metro system here, and tomorrow I will take it to the end of the line and have a look; I like other peoples’ suburbs. Ridership apparently dropped by 10% when they increased the fares recently from $0.15 to 0.30, a major public policy issue. It does make you wonder how that get to work for less.

I am looking forward to tomorrow.

And, do you know, they have ferries that go from here to Turkembashi, across the Caspian Sea in Turkmenistan; very, very tempting.