Across Continents

Ken's Blog

The Great Dictator

June 6th, 2012

Interesting piece in today’s Independent. Suggestions that plans to revamp the Stalin museum in Gori, his Georgian birthplace, amount to revisionism. Some might say that’d be rather in keeping with the Soviet era and its fondness for brushing over the inconvenient, not that it’d be alone in doing so, far from it. I doubt if French text books major on Agincourt and we don’t exactly bang on about Amritsar. To be fair to the country’s President, to whom this initiative is attributed, the place could do with something of a revision. I’ve been there. Couple of years back, an afternoon stop en route through the Caucasus, heading for the capital Tbilisi and onwards to the Caspian.

My ticket purchased in the dark, cavernous Kafkaesque lobby, locked doors had greeted me at the top of the long marble staircase. Eventually finding an attendant to admit me, she’d followed me through the various dimly lit rooms, past the endless faded photographs, as might a shadow. I’d hoped she might open the curtains but she didn’t, perhaps a window for the air tasted stale. Stalin the favourite uncle, the family man, a likeable rogue maybe. No Gulags, no suggestions of his murderous paranoia.

Outside once more in the warm spring sunshine, I’d sat sipping coffee admiring the surprising neatness of the cottage where the dictator was supposedly born, conveniently reassembled in the museum’s grounds. Perhaps he was born there, I remember thinking, but in a dwelling that seemed no less authentic than Marie Antoinette’s model village at Versailles? I’m backing the President.

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Georgia on my mind..

January 27th, 2012

Ken crosses an unpronounceable river into Eastern Standard Time. Very close to the border with Georgia. State not the Republic…

obpostlogo

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A little bit of Italy?

May 9th, 2010

Balcony in Sighankhi from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

 

Ken describes the Italian styled Georgian town of Sighnakhi, close to the Azerbaijan border.

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The Prisoner (Swansong in Sighnaghi)

May 5th, 2010

Just a question of time before they caught up with me. You had to admire their tenacity. “Watchtower?” she asked. I declined, politely. Besides I’d plenty of other English language reading material to be getting on with. I’d been interrupted chatting with Ruby and Mike, a couple of serious Canadian motorcycle tourers. They too were off to Azerbaijan, but first were going to enjoy a bit of luxury, a change from their normal staple of budget stays. An admirer of fluffy duvets and warm towels, I couldn’t fault their logic. And Ruby had a helmet camera to capture footage for their website. I wanted one.

Fountain

I’d arrived in the small Georgian town of Sighnaghi the previous night, a lofty vantage point offering a distance glimpse of Azerbaijan forty or so miles away across the plains below. Much of the centre has been renovated in an Italian style, and although quite tasteful, it does give the place a slightly surreal feel. Not quite Portmerion, but large opaque spheres bouncing along the streets wouldn’t exactly look out of place. And you have to cross the ’Happy line’ to enter – conveniently painted in English in large letters across the road.

Signs

The town has been deliberately re-developed with tourists in mind. There were the usual clues. No-one comes up to offer help when you pull up in the town square looking lost. Street lights along the road in. Plentiful signs in English. And what seemed like a demand for money from a man with a large stick. But I liked it no less for all this.

Guesthouse

And I really appreciated Sighnaghi that seemed, so far at least, to have resisted the temptation to exploit visitors. Prices seemed very reasonable, about ten pounds a night for a superb home stay (bed & breakfast), and the same amount in a local restaurant buys you a very decent meal. Funny though that prices in shops all seem to add up to whole Lari (about forty pence), a convenience you don’t see in the small villages.

Wall

A few people had suggested I stop in Sighnaghi, ten miles or so off my intended route towards the Azerbaijan border, and deep into wine making territory. I’d ridden from Tbilisi, about eighty miles, frequent downpours and some lengthy climbs, but worth it all the same. Spectacular views they said. Imposing fortified boundary wall too.

Must have been pretty tired by the time I eventually arrived, precious little daylight remaining. I’d not left Tbilisi until around noon, largely the result of a few last minute good ideas, but still leaving a good seven or so hours solid riding. I’d found a room in a home stay, had quickly showered and then gone in search of a decent meal. Found a place close by, even had a menu in English. Went for the ’Chicken live cooked in crockery’. Seemed a bit cruel but I was famished, and was curious how exactly they got the reluctant bird into the chicken brick. Still, it would be fresh. And best not to think about the feathers.

[The author stayed at Nana Kokiashvili’s guesthouse – Tel 899795093 or kkshvl@yahoo.com or http://nanahouse.ge.iatp.net (not checked) – 25 GEL (Georgian Lari) about £10 at the time of writing – head up the hill along the left hand road from the town centre fountain, then take the left fork up the no-entry street and you’ll find it on the corner – great value, very homely, and they speak pretty good English. Oh yes, the ’chicken live’ was in fact ’chicken liver’. Nice all the same. And you can catch up with Ruby and Mike’s motorcycle adventure at www.unusvita.com. And no men with large sticks were harmed in the making of this blog post. Tempting though, he was pretty menacing]

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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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All in a (couple) of days work..

May 3rd, 2010

Visa montage

Ever wondered what it’s like to delve into the Byzantine world of visa collection in foreign countries? Probably not. Ever tried it yourself? Even less likely I think. Before you do, maybe sit back and enjoy a bit of armchair adventure as I wander around Tbilisi in the rain. And if you are doing this for real here in Georgia, suggest you read my notes at the end. Here goes…

First stop the Azerbaijan Embassy. About half an hour’s walk away. Opens at 1000 for a couple of hours, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I think. Have my Letter of Introduction, inviting me into the country, completed visa application form, couple of passport photos, and my passport. And I’ve a map. Latin script, whereas the street signs are mostly in the Georgian alphabet. This delays me a little, but the small queue outside the Embassy appears to confirm the Consular section is open for business.

A police officer ensures only one person at a time is admitted into the Consular section – actually it’s a doorway with a heavy steel grill through which you pass your paperwork. Raining. Should have borrowed an umbrella. I queue for about twenty minutes. Bit fraught – everyone else seems to be Turkish and waiting in an orderly line doesn’t come naturally to them – need to be assertive. Then it’s my turn.

I hand my documentation to the Consular official. Visa will be ready in three days. I explain I need to press on to Azerbaijan as soon as possible. Return tomorrow afternoon at four he advises, and gives me a slip to pay the visa fee at a local bank.

Bank - web version

So far so good. Sort of. The bank is nowhere near the Embassy. Probably. There are three streets in Tbilisi that share the branch address on the payment slip. I make a bit of a guess and, it turns, out, get the right one first time. I don’t realise this straightaway, as it takes a while to find the bank. Not exactly a High Street name in Georgia, the place is barely recognisable as a bank. Forms to be signed in triplicate. Twice.

Next stop should be the Kazakhstan Embassy. Searching the web for an address yields at least three possibilities. All of which, it turns out, are wrong. After a while I begin to wonder if they really do have a Diplomatic Mission here. The Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website’s list of overseas representations in Tbilisi makes no mention of it, suggesting this to be the case. But I remain convinced I’m right.

You’d think a half decent taxi driver would know where the Embassy is, but they also seem to be new in town. Still raining. I hit on a plan to visit a local travel company, guessing that they might have dealings with the Consular staff. They don’t, but Nino and her team does quite a bit of phoning around and comes up with an address.

I head off up a steep, muddy road, climbing up above the city. Seems an unlikely location for an Embassy, but I’ve confidence in Nino and her team. I spot a Police post. Success. Or at least, I’ve found the right place. Turns out to be less than a kilometre from where I’m staying. The Consul is unfortunately absent, explains his very helpful assistant, so I should return at eleven the next morning. I leave with an application form to fill in. And a few leaflets about Kazakhstan to read.

Eleven the next day. Back at the Kazakhstan Embassy. Still raining, but there’s a canopy to stand under. I wait a while, soon joined by a surly woman who fiddles constantly with her umbrella. The door opens. My turn to enter. But no. Would I mind letting the woman go first? She is with child apparently. I doubt this very much, but concede because the Consular official has asked politely. I wait a little while longer, then its my turn. I explain my endeavour, the need to make several entries into the country, and, in turn, he helpfully explains the visa options. I pay the fee and leave.

Next, back to the Azerbaijan Embassy. I arrive a little before four. Still raining. A few people, Turkish I think, are hanging around outside the locked gate into the Embassy compound. There’s no recognisable queue as such, so I make my own. By the gate. A policeman opens it up at four precisely and, after a bit of jostling, I’m admitted. I hand over my passport and the visa fee receipt from the bank. Bit nervous – whilst waiting outside I’d noticed the fee shown on the noticeboard was over a hundred dollars. I’d paid considerably less. Would I have to repeat the whole process? No, I’m given a visa, its validity a bit more generous than I’d expected. Success. Think I’ve earned a coffee, a respite from the rain, before I contemplate collection of my Kazakhstan visa. But that’s for another day…

[Whilst the process of visa collection can be time-consuming, sometimes a bit fraught, a little bureaucratic, the author found the Consular staff to be very understanding and helpful. And they all spoke very good English.

For anyone coming to Tbilisi in search of visas for the ’Stans, the Azerbaijan Embassy can be found in Kipshidzis Street in the Vake district of Tbilisi. Look for the main Chavchavadzis I. Gamziri thoroughfare on any half-decent map, the street is a little to the north of the western end of the road.

English Tea House

The bank where you should pay the visa fee is on Marjanishvilis Street, almost directly opposite the English Tea House, close to the bridge across the River Mtkvari that runs through the city. The correct street has a Metro station on it with the same name. Incidentally, the Tea House offers Whittards teas in rather quaint teapots, but you do need to ask for milk. I mention this because at this point in the visa hunt you’ll be in need of some refreshment.

The Kazakhstan Embassy can be found at 23 Shatberashvilil Street 0179 Tbilisi. I’m very confident of this because I’ve been there. And I’ve copied the address off the very helpful Assistant to the Charge d’Affaires’ business card. So ignore anything else you read on the web. Or in supposedly very reputable guide books that advise there’s no Diplomatic Mission here. Funny, because it looks like it’s been here a while… For more information please feel free to get in touch via the Contact page]

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Pancakes and maple syrup

May 1st, 2010

We’d agreed to meet at a familiar US fast food outlet on Rustaveli, Tbilisi’s main thoroughfare. Easily recognisable. Sort of. My efforts getting directions to it by drawing a large ’M’ in the air caused a great deal of confusion. A case of mistaken identity. They seem to think I wanted the Metro, although how they thought I’d be able to get a fully laden touring bike on it I’m not sure.

M signs

Eventually finding the right place, coincidentally next to a Metro station, I caught up with my host. It all seemed rather apt, Austin being a US citizen, but from Iowa rather than Georgia. Fortunately the outlet wasn’t a drive-through. Dreaded to think what the Georgians would make of that sort of thing. Carnage probably.

P1010836

The next morning breakfast was traditional American homemade pancakes and maple syrup. Seemed only fair to continue the theme and grab lunch in the nearby ’Donut Stop’ cafe.

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Under occupation

May 1st, 2010

"Georgia is one of the most invaded nations on earth" advises the Department of Tourism and Resorts. Most recently by Russian Federation forces in August 2008. The war was swift – just five days – before a ceasefire was agreed. Whilst the conflict no doubt helped make people more aware of Georgia, what is often not appreciated is that it remains an occupied nation, in part at least.

Russian forces control a swathe of land in central Georgia, north of the M27 east-west arterial road that links the Capital Tbilisi with Turkey and eastern Europe. South Ossetia. Travelling from Gori eastwards to the Capital, there are few clues as to the occupation, and of the recent conflict. No obvious fortifications on either side, no bomb damaged buildings, no menacing tanks. Just a European Union Monitoring Mission field office in Gori, part of the ceasefire arrangements.

Whatever the merits of the recent conflict, there is an inevitable human cost. Getting some measure of the impact on families – presumably some are split between the occupied and unoccupied territories – is difficult, my Georgian very limited at best. But what is certain is that there are quite a few people displaced by the war, obliged to live in newly built communities.

I’d found one of these settlements on the outskirts of Gori, and spotted others on my way towards Tbilisi. Hard to recognise as such, these are not tented encampments but neatly built single storey houses. Admittedly quite small, but, ironically, appearing far better than many of the other houses I’d seen.

Do I feel threatened, concerned the conflict may re-ignite, suddenly finding myself trapped? Not at all, the situation feels very stable, indeed, you have to look very carefully for clues as to the occupation. It’s certainly not a reason to not visit Georgia, and I wouldn’t hesitate to return. Far from it, plan to come back when my venture is complete.

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Stalin’s birthplace

May 1st, 2010

Stalin

I’d made good time to Gori, birthplace of Joseph Stalin, keen to secure Emma and the kit and visit the museum dedicated to the town’s most well-known son. Decided to opt for the best hotel in town, sixty euros online or considerably less if you turn up and pay in Georgian Lari. Took a while to find, and I’d balked at paying extra for breakfast so that got thrown in for free. Worn carpets, but friendly staff and a hot shower. I’d noticed the old Intourist hotel in the centre, but I didn’t feel up to the authentic Soviet era experience.

Reaching the Stalin Museum mid-afternoon, quite a few people were wandering around the grounds, mostly Georgians, the odd German or American tourist. But, it seemed, I was the only one to venture in. The exhibition rooms had to be unlocked so I could enter. Dark and austere, the many photographs of a smiling ’Uncle Joe’ failed to raise the sobre mood within. I was tempted to take a few photos but I’d a minder close by.

Stalin house

Emerging back into the warm afternoon sun, a brief look at the house where Stalin was supposedly born, now transported into the museum’s grounds. More a shrine than a monument.

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“Who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf?”

May 1st, 2010

An apt end to the day. Sat in the dining room of a small hotel, the tables far outnumbering the rooms, listening to “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?” playing on a radio in the kitchen. Still in my damp cycling clothing, they’d quickly prepared khachpuri – cheese bread – sensing food a more pressing need than a shower. I’d spotted the small establishment – it had just two rooms – a few kilometres south of the top of the pass through the Surami mountains that divide east and west Georgia. Pretty basic, but, after such a cold, wet and tough day, my needs were pretty simple.

Surami hotel

It’d been raining pretty much continuously since I’d left the small hotel above the casino, some hundred and ten kilometres back near the town of Kutaisi. Not as heavy as the previous day, but it wasn’t the sunshine I’d expected. I’d stopped briefly in the town to draw some cash out, the bank’s security guard watching over Emma. He’d spotted my nervousness, came over, tapping his holster to reassure me all would be safe.

A brief stop in the small town of Zestaponi, forty or so kilometres beyond Kutaisi, then up into the mountains, heading for the Rikoti Pass. Over four thousand feet, mostly a steady climb along a steep sided wooded valley. Just the traffic for distraction. A good many Ladas and Mercedes, darkened glass, and plenty of Turkish lorries. Roadside shacks selling oil, something the older vehicles seemed to use in copious amounts.

The final pull to the top of the pass, and the two kilometre tunnel, had been hard going. I’d reached the apex about six thirty, just an hour or so of light left, with another ten or so kilometres to be covered on the other side. All the advice I’d received had been clear. Do not cycle through the tunnel – potholes, poor lighting and dangerous driving to contend with – instead follow the detour that winds over the top. But I was tired, the traffic light and it didn’t look too bad. So I’d gone for it.

The next day was bright, sunny, the temperature quickly rising to the mid twenties, the road to Gori, Stalin’s birthplace, flat and fast. Just a stiff headache to contend with, probably the result of the small woodstove in my room the previous night. Would need to be more careful in the future.

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