Across Continents

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Arrival in Atyrau

May 26th, 2010

We’d final made it. Kazakhstan. Atyrau in the west, at the north end of the Caspian Sea. A few formalities, another X-ray for Emma, and we were in. I’d really been looking forward to this, ever since securing my visa back in Tbilisi, Georgia. Friendly, helpful Consular staff. First impressions do count.

Emerging from the small terminal building, I met Dave, a New Zealander and engineer in the local oil industry. And fellow cyclist. I’d spotted his western mountain bike and hailed him. He led the way towards Atyrau for a while before heading off across country. Cross the Ural river that divides the small city, Dave explained, and you’d be back in Asia. A brief foray back into Europe over, just a few kilometres.

Oil is big business here, yet Atyrau seems to have avoided the worst excesses of Baku, no exorbitant prices. Not that they don’t cater for a sizeable ex pat community or visiting petroleum executives. There is the odd five star hotel. And a few bars and eateries with a familiar Western feel. But with prices comparable to those you’d find in the UK. Bit tough on my own budget, but fair.

It’s early days here, but one thing is already very clear about Kazakhstan. Bears no resemblance to the country portrayed, much to the rightful consternation of its people, in a certain film a few years ago. But that’s probably because it was shot in Romania. Where, incidentally, the people also don’t look anything like the Kazakhs. Right, time to nip down to the local ’Guns and Roses’ pub for British beer and some familiar bar food. Satisfying my curiosity about the ex pat world here.

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European question

May 9th, 2010

Not just a potential stumbling block for Nick Clegg and David Cameron, but my own curiosity. Was Azerbaijan Europe or Asia? Back in neighbouring Georgia the responses had been mixed. Early days, but here people seem to have less polarised views, suggesting instead that they have much in common with Europe, but with a strong Asian influence. What the question does is expose historically shifting borders, migrating ethnic groups, a never ending state of flux. Georgia had the breakaway region of South Ossetia to contend with, Azerbaijan has Nagorno-Karabach.

Back in the saddle, the linguistic implications of all this is very much a mixed bag. Azeri shares the same origins as Turkish, remaining sufficiently close for them to be mutually intelligible. Or so I’m told. I’ve tried Turkish here. Just get blank looks. But to be fair, it was often the same in Turkey. Russian is widely spoken, to the extent that I find myself widening my albeit limited vocabulary by blending it with Azeri in the same conversation. Seems to work.

My mastery of languages remains a definite case of enthusiasm over ability. And I’ve a long, long way to go to even equal that of Silvana and Johan and their children. I’d met them in the Azerbaijan town of Sheki, enjoying a short break from their home in the country’s Capital Baku. Between them, fluent Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, English, Russian and, I’m sure, a pretty good grasp of Azeri.

I take some comfort from the fact that whilst English is not a numerically superior first language, geographically it is widely spread across the world. And the fact that I can readily explain where I come from by mentioning the words ’Manchester United’. Usually elicits an enthusiastic response. I’m guessing this Ronaldo chap is some sort of footballer? My turn to look blank.

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Georgia on my mind

May 4th, 2010

“Other arms reach out to me
Other eyes smile tenderly
Still in peaceful dreams I see
The road leads back to you
Oh Georgia”

Ray Charles

Georgia is a unique, complex country. And a rapidly developing one. Not so many years ago you needed an escort to drive from the Turkish border along the Black Sea coast. Today there’s just potholes and cattle to contend with. In Batumi I’d seen international hotels opening up, entire new water infrastructure being installed. But it’s still a relatively poor nation, a typical monthly salary perhaps just a few hundred pounds. There’s quite a bit of unemployment, and begging does occur, although its not as commonplace as in some countries I’ve passed through.

People seem pleased that state institutions like the Police, those can have real impact on daily life, are now regarded as free of corruption. Municipal elections take place shortly, with international observers present. I’ll await their verdict with interest. After all, its not just about being able to put a cross on a ballot paper, you have to believe you can place it wherever you want.

I’d noticed parallels with the Balkans. Shifting borders, difficult, sometimes antagonistic, relationships with neighbouring countries. A varied ethnic mix. Almost unfathomable to an outsider. But if the politics seems difficult to grasp, there’s Georgian economics to contend with. Incomes for most are low, almost paltry, yet expensive cars are relatively commonplace. True, in the transition from Communism, the State has given people the houses, the apartments, they occupied. For free. In Tbilisi property values have typically risen by a thousand percent in just a few years. But, for the most part, these are paper increases, unrealisable for most.

A badly distorted free market economy, or just a gigantic property bubble? Whatever the answer, the practical, if slightly bizarre, implication is that houses in some of the Capital’s most expensive districts – quite unaffordable to most Westerners – are in need of much repair or renovation, but the owners simply lack the funds.

Europe or Asia? A question that has often evoked very passionate responses, compelling arguments on both sides. The most persuasive answer reflects the uniqueness of Georgia, a nation separated from undisputed Europe to the north and the certainty of Asia to the south, by, respectively, the Greater and Lesser Caucasus Ranges. Neither quite Europe or quite Asia, perhaps best described as simply Georgian. And of the different ethnicities, broadly split between European and Asian in appearance? Being one of the most invaded nations in history probably accounts for that.

Whatever the politics, the economics of Georgia, the people are immensely warm and hospitable, their generosity humbling. And justifiably proud of their nation. I’d met someone who’d been educated in western Europe, intelligent, very articulate, and had asked if she’d like to return there? No, she said, life here could be tough, but this was her home, where she belonged. I admired her for that.

Georgia is also a very beautiful country, the truly impressive Greater and Lesser Caucasus Ranges bordering the country to the north and south, steep wooded mountainsides contrasting with wide open plains sandwiched between them. Vast tracts of unspoiled countryside.

A unique, complex country. And one I plan to return to once my venture is complete, to explore more, intrigued to see how much it has changed politically and economically. But, much as I’ve hugely enjoyed my time in Georgia, there’s no getting away from the fact that the driving here is the most appalling I’ve ever seen. Breathtakingly terrible.

[The author would like to thank the countless individuals who have made his time in the Republic of Georgia such an enjoyable, interesting and rewarding experience. Thank you]

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Europe or Asia?

April 22nd, 2010

I’d thought it a simple question, one I’d scribbled in my notebook back in eastern Turkey. Republic of Georgia – Europe or Asia? After all, back in Istanbul, cross the Bosporus from the west and you’re in Asia Minor, no doubt about that. But Georgia? Joining my hosts Merab, Kurt and Vadja for dinner in Batumi, it was abundantly clear that Georgians firmly consider themselves to be Europeans.

I thought their reasoning pretty compelling. For one thing, they asserted, they didn’t look like their Asian neighbours, much more like Europeans. And, like much of Europe, they were a predominantly Christian country, the Georgian Orthodox Church the dominant religion. And what I’d seen so far of western Georgia reminded me quite a bit of former Eastern Bloc countries like Serbia and Bulgaria, albeit with an unexpectedly different, sub-tropical, climate. Quite a few palm trees amongst those I’d expect of a more temperate region, finding oranges, kiwis, even tea, growing along the Black Sea coast.

Persuasive cultural arguments for being European, but there was also a political dimension, Georgia keen to join the European Union, aligning itself with the west. As for the geographical dimension, do you draw the line at the Great Caucasus Range that borders the country to the north, or the Lesser Caucasus to the south? Whatever the answer is, I’d don’t remember the continents being so confusing at school. Happy days.

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