I headed for Armenia where, in the capital Yerevan, I stayed with some Dutch and Armenian friends working for an NGO there (www.bem.am). They are doing some good work and have just set up Indymedia Armenia (http://armenia.indymedia.org). One friend took me to see the statue of Lenin which is now rusting in the courtyard of a museum, but once stood in the main square. He explained to me that when the statue was taken down a large cross was erected in its place. Now the cross has gone too and has been replaced by a huge TV screen which beams out adverts 24/7.
In the north of the country I spent time exploring the ancient monasteries and enjoying the forests. In Dillijan I stayed in a wonderful old Soviet sanatorium which was still operational. As the summer was over the place was almost empty, only 5 guests with a capacity for 150. The price for staying there included a very vigorous massage from a muscular, stony-faced wife and use of the various therapy machines. These were like something from a 1950's sci-fi film- large, grey, metal boxes with switches and dials, rusty around the edges and plugged into broken wall sockets. I opted for the herbal steam inhalation and the electro-magnetic therapy which is supposed to calm one's nervous system. Well my nervous system can always do with a bit of calming so allowed myself to be strapped into the head gear which was wired to the machine. When switched on I felt a tingling sensation all over my head which slowly spread down my body as my therapist twiddled with the knob (oo'er Mrs!, phernah phernah, snigger snigger,etc). I felt quite euphoric when the morning session was over. In the south, near Sissian, I paid a visit to the 'Armenian Stonehenge', a stone circle with astronomical alinements. In the town I spent an evening in the company of Ashot who described himself as the last of the Soviet hippies. He had been on the hippy trail in Afghanistan in the 70's, seen Pink Floyd in concert in Moscow, and, as he got more drunk, claimed to have been the lover of my ancestors 8000 years ago. Ashot has been organising small festivals at the stone circle over the last few years. I told him what happened to Wally Hope, the founder of the festivals at the English Stonehenge but he didn't seem too bothered (Wally was arrested for possession of LSD, a judge sent him to a psychiatric hospital because in court he said he worshiped the sun, then he had his brain fried by suspiciously high doses of psychiatric drugs).Unfortunately there is also a lot of sadness in Armenia. The earthquake in '88, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the war with Azerbaijan have all contributed to the poverty here. Along the pot-holed roads travel vehicles with no suspension, broken windscreens,doors held on with bits of string. On the road sides are long abandoned-trucks and machinery. In Dillijan I discovered a whole fair ground overgrown with weeds. So much rust and decay. Back in Yerevan it is so sad to see so many old people begging on the streets and on a visit to the 'Armenian Vatican' I saw a woman outside a church, dressed in an army uniform and walking with crutches because she only had one leg. She was a veteran from the war with Azerbaijan (over the territory of Nagorno-Karabagh). Somebody told me that she not only lost a limb in the fighting but also her husband and 15 year-old daughter. I saw her again a couple of times and tried to imagine how she must be feeling inside but such sorrow is completely beyond the imagination of someone who's lead such a pampered existence. Does my head in.
A few days later I went to visit the land all the fighting has been about. The Republic of Nargorno-Karabagh has declared itself an independent country although it has not been recognized by the rest of the world. It has it's own government, police force, and army, and I had to get a visa to go there. It is a beautiful, mountainous country with lush forests, but here the debris of economic collapse sits side-by-side with the debris of war. As well as all the abandoned machinery, there are burnt out tanks, bombed villages, mangled metal, and roadside signs warning of unexploded ordnance. With another Englishman that I met en route, I took a taxi to the destroyed city of Agdam. This place used to have a population of 100,000 but is now deserted, having been completely destroyed in the war. The entire city has been reduced to rubble with only a handful of buildings remaining. The only signs of life were small groups of soldiers and a few men from a nearby village who were using the former Azeri mosque as a stable for their pigs and cows. The place was strictly off limits to foreigners and when we returned to the nearest inhabited town we were picked up by the police. After inspecting our documents and discussing our case for half an hour they let us go. I think we got off lightly because later we heard of a Russian who had wandered into Agdam the same day and had been arrested and handed over to the KGB (they still call them by the old Soviet name).
Anyway I seem to be painting a very negative image of this region but I haven't told you yet about the wonderful people here, so friendly and hospitable. I was forever being invited to people's houses, to share food, or having my bus tickets paid for. As is often the case the have-nots are so much more generous than the haves. An example of this hospitality came from Julie, an 18 year-old English student that I met on the bus. She invited me to stay with her family in the village of Matakert. After dropping off my luggage at her house she gave me a guided tour of the village, which was mostly in the past tense. This used to be our cinema, this used to be our restaurant, so many buildings destroyed by bombs.
Then it was back to the house for food and drink. One of the disagreeable aspects of the culture in this part of the world is the insistence on drinking alcohol. I can refuse cigarettes and meat, an English man is allowed his eccentricities, but vodka is compulsory and you are their prisoner until the party is over. It's a man thing. And so it was that as I sat down to eat with Julie's family, the women busied themselves with making sure our plates were full while the menfolk got down to serious business of alcohol consumption. After 5 shots of neat, 65%, home-brew, mulberry vodka my cerebral circuitry was severely disrupted but my glass was being refilled and I realised that the party was far from over. So my coping mechanism was to imagine myself as one of my heroes, Richard Harris in A Man called Horse. I knew that I must participate in this savage ritual in order to earn the respect of my captors and win my eventual release and I must not let them see any signs of weakness. With this in mind I stood up to go to the loo and with my spinning head held high I assessed the obstacles between me and the corrugated-iron shack in the corner of the yard. By my feet a kitten was chasing a beetle, to my left the family pig was asleep in the shade, and after that, also asleep, was a dog on a chain which had earlier taken an instant dislike to me. To my right, on a stool, sat grandma, without teeth, trying to eat a piece of water melon. Miraculously I managed to navigate my way between these creatures without disturbing any of them and lock myself in the lav. Inside, out of view from my tormentors, I muffled the noise of my vomiting, took a few moments to compose myself, and swaggered back to the table, all cocky and macho. I made a toast to the people of Karabagh and knocked back another glass of the vile fire-water. A few more glasses later and my next attempt at reaching the toilet is not nearly so successful. I tread on the cat which lets out an unholy screech, terrifies the pig, triggers fits of laughter in the toothless babushka, and sends the dog so completely apeshit that I think he will break his chains and tear my throat out! Anyway, I survived the day, slept the booze off in the spare room, and the following morning said goodbye to my hosts. So long and thanks for all the pish!. The north road back to Armenia provided spectacular forest scenery which would be perfect for trekking in if it weren't for all the land mines."
Georgia was very different from Armenia despite being neighbours. The scenery was wilder and so were the people. I spent a week in the capital Tblisi and made some interesting day trips from there. One of these trips was to the Stalin museum in the town where he was born. Despite the bloody history, Georgians, especially the older generations, are still very proud of their Stalin and it is not uncommon to see pictures of him on living room walls or in taxis.
After Tblisi I made some journeys up into the mountains. One of the best places I've visited during my time away was the region of Svaneti but it was a long, arduous journey to get there. First I spent a night on a train to Zugdidi then from there I was squashed onto the back seat of a mini-bus between a grinning old man and a giant wearing sun glasses, a miserable expression on his face, and a pistol in a holster around his waist. I said hello to both of them but the giant ignored me. I offered him a biscuit but took the barely perceptible shake of his head as a no. Just my luck, a five hour bus ride sitting next to a big mean bastard with a gun. We set off and I tried to stay awake to enjoy the scenery but I was overcome with tiredness and fell asleep. Some time later I was jolted awake as the bus hit a pothole and I realised that not only had I been leaning against Big Mean Bastard but I had also dribbled down his arm leaving a small wet patch on his shirt sleeve. I thought about taking a tissue and trying to wipe away the remainder of the visible saliva but then think better of it and spend the rest of the journey staring past the old man and out of the window.
And what a view! The forests were on fire with the colours of autumn, infinite shades of orange, yellow, red, pink, purple. The snow-capped peaks of the Caucasian mountains would appear then disappear as we wound around the mountain road and we drove through villages dotted with the medieval defense towers for which the Svans are famous.
Svaneti has traditionally been a lawless area, or to be more precise it is so remote that the tribes here, out of sight of the authorities have lived by their own laws based on family honour, vendettas, and, in recent times, local mafias. Over the last couple of years the government has been trying to tame the Svans and clamp down on these mafias. Arrests have been made and Mr Big and his son were killed in a notorious gunfight when army helicopters opened fire on his compound.
So the area has been cleaned up but there are still a lot of guns around. In the bars Kalashnikovs lean against walls while their owners get pissed on moonshine. While I was there the weather turned nasty so my plans for hiking and camping were scraped. In the afternoon at my guesthouse, stuck inside due to the rain, I'm in yet another drinking session and my host and I are getting through a bottle of raki. I'm in a mischievous mood so I ask him "Is it true that many men in this region still have guns?"
"Oh so you have a gun?"
It's not long before I'm feeling like Hunter Thompson as we sit on the porch, drunk as Yeltsins, taking pot-shots with his rifle. Great fun but the weather wasn't going to improve so I left the next day.
The mini bus back down to the lowlands was full so I ended up the 7th person squeezed into a jeep. On the way down we stop for lunch and I'm invited to join my traveling companions for food. It is 11.30 in the morning but still two bottles of vodka appear on the table. There is a complicated etiquette when drinking in this part of the world and I've made many a faux pas - raising my glass with the wrong hand, clinking glasses with the person to my left and not right,drinking before all the toasting is finished, etc. Honestly they are worse than the hippies in India with their joint passing rituals. On this occasion the toasting seems to turn into a kind contest, with the men trying to out toast each other like rappers. Plates clean and bottles empty and we're back on our way. I realise I've met the Georgian version of the Merry Pranksters as more booze is loaded on board the jeep. The driver has drunk as much as the rest of us and I should be terrified as we pelt back down the road in the poring rain, with huge drops down to the valley below. However I've got another problem to contend with. Georgians don't have kidneys, the booze just stays in their blood so they don't need to pee. Unlike me. After an hour back on the road my bladder is burning. I'm cross-legged, teeth clenched, fingernails digging into the door handle as my companions sing and laugh around me, oblivious to my suffering. Eventually I get the chance to jump out and shortly after we arrived in Zugdidi.
My drinking buddies had people waiting for them or at least knew their next move and suddenly I found myself alone and very drunk in the bus station of a reputedly dangerous city. I started to look for a hotel but in a city whose population is quoted as 50,000 plus 72,000 internally displaced citizens, finding accommodation isn't easy. All the hotels were full with refugees from the war over Abkazia. Defeated, I trudge back to the bus station and jump on another bus.
In Poti I have better luck and manage to find the only free room in a rundown hotel. The other rooms were occupied by yet more refugees and I got to see the conditions they were living in. Needless to say there was no mini-bar or TV with porn channels. The corridors were littered with plaster fallen from the walls, the bannister was missing from the stairs, light bulbs were bare, wiring exposed, wall paper peeled off the walls, windows were broken, and water dripped through the ceiling. Now I think of it it was just like my student house in Brighton.
Perhaps I shouldn't joke about such things but if I didn't laugh I would cry. It is a tragedy to see families living in such conditions. There was no running water, the electricity was intermittent, and when I asked the caretaker about a bathroom she shook her head and pointed to a pile of rubble in the corner and some broken pipes sticking out of the wall.
Anyway, after several days of waiting and misinformation I managed to organise a place on a cargo ship across the Black Sea to Ukraine. However it was a desperate city and the thieves were closing in on me. The day before I left I had been hassled and followed but had avoided trouble. Then, on my last day in the country, when I arrive at the port, I realise one of my bags has been stolen off the mini-bus. I was told that the other passengers had seen the thief but had been too frightened to say anything. The strange thing was that when the mini-bus returned half an hour later my bag was back on it, minus a few valuables (Swiss Army knife, head torch, first aid kit, and a calculator). I should have known this city would be a toilet with name like Poti. Well, worse things happen at sea I told myself as I boarded the ship.
The ship across the Black Sea took a route similar to that made by Jason and the Argonauts and would have been a very relaxing journey if I hadn't been so ill. Not sea-sickness as I had been worrying about but what I think was a case of food poisoning. I spent the day coping with stomach cramps and at night I had feverish nightmares about being chased by Freemasons. The other passengers were sympathetic and offered me plenty of 'medicine' i.e. vodka, but this time I refused despite their persistence. I didn't care anymore if I caused offence, I just wanted to feel better.
The best thing about the voyage was befriending Christof from Poland, the only other non-Georgian on the ship. He was an archaeologist (an expert on late Roman tableware) and had been at a conference in Georgia. In Odessa we went to meet some of his colleagues at the archaeology museum and were invited into the back rooms of the museum where we got drunk on vodka amongst piles of paperwork and bits of Grecian pottery.
I'm sorry about all these tales of boozing but vodka is such an intrinsic part of the culture in these countries that it is hard not to mention it. Actually it is much easier to avoid to Ukraine as people are not so insistent that you drink it. Nevertheless my apartment in Odessa was behind a vodka factory so I saw how much of the stuff was being produced and I read that 35 million litres are drunk every year in Ukraine.
In general I found that the countries I visited had a very unhealthy culture. Too much alcohol, every man and many of the women smoke, and the food is fatty. These factors must contribute to the fact that life expectancy is roughly 10 years lower than in Western Europe.
Anyway, my next stop was Crimea, using Yalta as a base. This is a attractive and relaxed town used as a holiday resort by wealthy Ukrainians/Russians. The place is spoilt slightly by tacky night clubs, strip joints, and arcade games but is still a good place to unwind for a few days. In the centre of town there is a statue of Lenin staring proudly across the square at the golden arches of Macdonalds. I made a day trip to Sevastopol and Balaclava. In the former I had hoped to see the famous Black Sea Fleet but when I got there I couldn't see it anywhere. How can 500 warships not be visible? Built into the harbour's cliffside in Balaclava there is an abandoned, secret, Soviet nuclear submarine factory. I was given a guided tour of the canals the submarines used to enter/exit the factory and of the bunkers where the nuclear missiles were once stored. Although Yalta appeared much wealthier than many of the other places I visited things didn't always run smoothly there. I came out of my hotel one morning and saw a man lying dead in the street. The police were already at the scene by when I returned 2 hours later the body was still lying there although the police had left. A woman, who I assumed was the dead man's wife, sat on a chair next to the corpse, patiently waiting for the authorities to get their act together to remove it.
In an earlier email I mentioned that I had been camping near the border of the country Transniestr. At the time I had intended to visit but then plans changed and I ended up going in the other direction. When I returned to Odessa I was only a 1.5 hour bus ride away from the Transniestrian border and I decided to try to visit the country. I was given conflicting information about requirements for entering so decided to just go to border to find out for myself. The problem is that it is another one of these countries that has declared independence but doesn't officially exist so there are no embassies to ring to get visa info. I had been told that the place was a dump but I was curious because it is apparently like entering a time warp, back to the days of the USSR, as the government there is still clinging on to the old Soviet system.
Unfortunately my curiosity was not to be satisfied. When I arrived at the border I was informed by a very stern looking guard, who spoke perfect english, that if I wanted to enter I needed either an invitation or a visa for Moldova. This didn't make sense to me. The Transniestrians had fought a war with Moldova in which 2000 people died, they've gone to all the trouble of establishing their own government, army, police force, and border controls, printed their own money, own postage stamps, and designed there own flag, and yet in order to visit I needed a visa for the enemy country next door. I was then told that I had entered their territory illegally and that I had to pay a $40 fine. I had been half expecting to pay a bribe in order to be allowed into the place but to pay one for being refused entry was out of the question. For the next half an hour there was a stand off as I refused to pay while feeling very intimidated, surrounded as I was by big men, in big overcoats, with big silly hats with hammer and sickle badges, demanding money off me. After a while the 'fine' was reduced to $20 at which point I said I wanted to call my embassy. "You don't have an embassy in our country" I was told. OK wise guy. Eventually they let me go without paying and my small victory over corrupt officialdom was a little compensation for the disappointment I felt over not getting where I wanted to go. Why is it that the less desirable the country the harder it is to get in? The only thing Transniestr really has to offer the world is Europe's largest ammunitions depot (supposedly very neglected in terms of safety) and a reputation for money-laundering, arms smuggling, and people trafficking.
I re-entered Romania from the north of the country. On the bus journey to the border I was recruited as a mule by a gang of geriatric cigarettes smugglers. I was persuaded to carry 400 cigarettes through customs by an old man who had boxes selotaped around his waist and stuffed down his trousers. Me and the old guy got through without trouble but his partner, an old woman, was caught with too many fags and taken off the bus by the guards. The last week was less eventful but no less enjoyable. I spent some time walking in the mountains of Transylvania and only got lost once (I was with some Romanians who knew a "shortcut" which resulted in walking in the dark through a forest for 2 hours). I was reunited with a friend that I had made back in August and she was a great guide for Bucharest where I spent a few days before flying home.
Now I'm back and in good health (except for the liver damage, lung damage from passive smoking, and raised cholesterol from the crappy food). I'm homeless and jobless but that's ok.