Thursday, 24 November 2016

Transnistria - The Other Side of Moldova

When Moldova split during the fall of the Soviet Union, its eyes flicked west. Lurching through independence, linguistically & geographically, Romania was its closest neighbour & Russia represented the bad old days; authoritarian rule & queues for food.

But not everyone agreed.

A slither of industrial land & communities dissected by the Dniester River still felt the comfort of the Motherland & resisted the westward pull. A short & bloody war secured a breakaway; creating a country within a country. With its own borders & local currency, Transnistria has the tools of a nation, just without international recognition. Only those in the same boat have formal relations; Abkhazia, Kosovo, Palestine, all pseudo-nations screaming for identity.

Until recently, access for those of us in the decadent west was difficult; all impenetrable bureaucracy & bribes at the border. But in the last couple of years, a kind of tolerated tourism has developed. Now there’s an anti-corruption phone line at the border. If an old-school guard starts thumbing your passport, suggesting registration issues you get your mobile out.


Angry Lenin
With its Soviet iconography & tank-wide boulevards, the capital, Tiraspol, is a freeze-frame of the old Soviet Union. Lenin hasn’t been toppled from his plinths & the war memorial features both an onion-topped spire & a tank. It begs to be photographed in sepia.
I walked the main street, named after the 1917 Russian Revolution, from the towering statue of Lenin at one end to the angry bust of Lenin at the other. On the way, I passed Gagarin, Frunze & other Soviet icons. I chanced a croissant at a bakery, but found a frankfurter inside. Luckily, the tiramisu was sausage-free. It may thumb its nose at the decadent west, but Transnistria loves English football, with several channels dedicated to the Premier League. The reason for this is Sheriff; a private company that has stamped its brand across the republic; a huge hypermarket sits next to the FC Sheriff stadium & sponsored billboards are commonplace. Setup by ex-KGB & heavily involved in national politics, Sheriff is the corporate face of Transnistria.

In truth, Transmistria is no different to many other former Soviet republics in dealing with 70 years of Communist legacy. Some, The Baltics for instance, have smashed Lenin & Marx to pieces. The Central Asian Stans have quietly relocated them to less prominent positions (in case the wind changes), whereas Transnistria, like Belarus, seems to dismiss the whole fall of Soviet Russia as western propaganda.
I Love Tiraspol
On the day I returned home, the UK press carried an article about Moldovan politics. A new President with pro-Russian sympathies was promising to review the status of Transnistria, bring it back into the national fold perhaps? A reminder that politics, territory & nationhood are ever-changing. I took three things away with me back to the west; how eerily quiet it was at night, a bottle of local Kvint brandy (now in a million pieces thanks to my drunken butter-fingered sister) & a clever hotel toothbrush which could separate in two & slide into a protective case.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Odessa

I first travelled to Ukraine in 2008. The Orange Revolution had just rebooted national identity towards Europe & it felt like a new path had been forged. Eight years on, Maidan power had forced another Government overthrow, brutal & monochrome this time with snipers on the roof & thousands dead. I returned to a trimmer country, its Eastern border still blurred by violence & the exotic southern peninsula of Crimea cut & pasted onto Russia.

Odessa port
It took me two days & three flights to get to Odessa; the city of Battleship Potemkin, the wild-haired Eisenstein & a pram bouncing down the stairs. Odessa is a Slavic Trieste with the thrust & polyglot babble of a port city. Even the gypsies were multilingual, pleading “money mister,” flashing silver teeth & flirty smiles. Creamy 19th century architecture stood among right-angled Soviet blocs & onion domes but the staircase was a crushing disappointment, under renovation; Cossack troops replaced by hard hats, guns with drills.

Potemkin Steps
Odessa was a city of small parks & bronze statues, surrounded by swaying wheat fields & flanked by the Black Sea. A strong Jewish heritage had been reduced to plaques & grim memorials. I stamped the streets & peered into courtyards, plaster peeling under taut lines of drying clothes, looking for vegetarian cafes & Turkish coffee. I stayed at the Londonskaya Hotel, a Victorian-era classic still living on the radiance of glamour from a century ago.

From Odessa I travelled by minibus, fuzzily hungover from Odessa Champanska, through fields of vines to Chisinau in Moldova. I sat at the back, a seat with a view, plugged into music & the stories of Isaac Babel. It was a beautiful journey across rural Bessarabia, sharply lit by winter sunshine & the trace of village wood smoke in the air.

Monday, 11 July 2016

Kyrgyzstan June 2016

Bishkek
My journey to Uzbekistan the previous spring was perhaps my best ever solo trip; I was captivated by the overlaying Soviet & Islamic worlds, the context of the Great Game & the sheer depth of Central Asian history. The research alone required a new bookshelf. The Uzbek cities formed the backbone of the Silk Road as the caravans of trade followed the paths of least resistance & left Kyrgyzstan isolated. Local Kyrgyz travel literature is scarce & the country is even difficult to pronounce, let alone spell. Kyrgyzstan is a Silk Road bypass; a country of yurts rather than caravanserai. Mountainous & mysterious. Yet, visas were free & flights were cheap. They just landed at ungodly hours.


Historically, Kyrgyzstan is still looking over its shoulder. This is the post-Soviet world which isn’t sure where to turn next. The traditionally nomadic Kyrgyz along with streams of forcibly displaced ethnic minorities created a new Central Asian society which after years of struggle & hunger bore fruit in the Brezhnev era as the Soviets turned the region’s isolation to their advantage. They built armament factories & secret submarine bases, all away from prying western eyes. Benefit for the locals? Full employment. In the capital, Bishkek, Lenin & Marx still stand tall on park-side plinths, pointing to the future, to a scrapped world.

MiG, Bishkek
My hotel was a concrete beauty with all the trappings of the Soviet era; smoked glass, a vast marble reception area & juddering lifts. High up on my balcony, I looked across to the Circus & the Palace of Sports. Still standing & still open.

Bishkek felt provincial, particularly around the suburban fringes, but in the centre it was pure Soviet. Tank-sized boulevards that took an age to cross, huge squares with piped music & dancing fountains & parked downtown among the marshrutkas & battered taxis; a MiG.


A squashed three hour shared-taxi ride from Bishkek took me to Lake Issyk Kul. The lake is the heart of Kyrgyzstan, an alpine bowl, a mile above sea level with sandy beaches ringed by mountains. I stayed in a quiet village at a newly built hotel. Only, Igor, the owner, spoke some scattered English & the sole thing I could transliterate from the Cyrillic menu was an omelette, which I ate three nights in a row. Every time I needed something (Wifi password, another omelette); the staff summoned Igor by radio.


Lake Issyk Kul
The lake has a mirco-climate & the weather changed quickly & dramatically. In the mornings, blue skies backdropped snow-tipped mountains & the lake glittered. Then dark clouds rolled over the mountains & marched to the lake’s edge, surrounding the water but unable to push further. You could swim in the lake & feel the warmth of the sun & then return to the beach to find your clothes rainsoaked & the air full of static.


Burana tower
I trekked to a petroglyph site up in the hills above Cholpon Ata. Rainclouds were closing in & I was unsure of the way, even after a kind local drew a map in the mud with a lolly stick. In the end I retraced my steps & took a taxi, only to find I had walked to within thirty metres of the entrance. Sigh. A pound wasted. The stones depict deer & goats, dating back to the 5th century BC. Despite their longevity, modern chemical restoration could erode images which have survived 2,500 years of battering Kyrgyz weather. The effect is akin to a photoshopped image, the colours saturated & the contrast sharpened. I trekked back to town along an old runway & joined holidaying Russians on the beach, eating Samarkand non bread the size of dinner plates, & apples from Kazakhstan.

In the post-Soviet world, every car is a taxi & I caught a lift with a family to the Silk Road city of Balsagun & the Burana Tower. The city is long-gone, just grassy mounds, grave markers & a single minaret which in a country with few Silk Road survivors creates a visual brand for Kyrgyz tourism. Samarkand this isn’t, but the tower’s setting in a summer meadow full of flowers, backlit by sun filtering onto green hills was an accurate microcosm of Kyrgyzstan.


Aral Sea
Flying home, I lucked an emergency row & window seat. From 40,000 feet the view was sharp & cloud-free.

Through Kazakhstan, over the smudged outline of the Aral Sea, where Soviet irrigation has shrivelled the coast & then across the Caspian before the view changed from blue sea to white caps as we followed the Northern Caucasus to the Black Sea.

In transit at Ataturk, I was four days ahead of a terrorist attack that killed 42 in the arrivals hall. Two weeks later there was an attempted military coup. A sobering return to reality.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Along the Silk Road in Uzbekistan

Asia at last! On the overnight flight from London my luck was in; a full row to relax and watch sleepily as we flew through dawn skies over sea & desert tUzbekistanI spent my first morning in Tashkent but the capital didn’t have the sights & experiences I’d come for and the airport taxi I took crashed into another car. An earthquake in the 60’s gave Soviet planners carte blanche to carve out marble-lined boulevards and create towerblocked suburbia. Only the metro gave respite; beautifully tiled, slightly kitsch and out of the sun.


    Hotel Uzbekistan, Tashkent


I reached Samarkand an hour before sunset and settled into a guesthouse run by a lovely lady who mothered me a little. I spent the evenings sat around a quiet courtyard with local beers & china bowls of tempura. Amid the one-upmanship conversations of Dutch backpackers & Latvian journalistsWhen I was mountain trekking in Bhutan…” I tried my usual trick of hinting that I was a spy, spinning intrigues in my own personal update of the Great Game. As ever, no-one bought it.


The Registan is the tourist-friendly face of Samarkand, both rich in detail and more dazzling now than at any point in historyA viewing platform even frames the scene; making it almost impossible to take a bad photo. The issue of architectural restoration is a contentious topic in all the Uzbek Silk Road cities & it gives a homogenous shine which is both camera-friendly & historically distorted. 


I spent two days in Samarkand, in & out of mosques & mausoleumsall glittering with rainbows of mosaics and honeycomb recesses. In the Gur-i-Emir, Tamerlane’s tomb was represented by a single jet-black slate in a chamber of high arches overhung by waves of lilac tiles. I changed currency in a dim antechamber, counting out notes on tomb & spent my cash on the same thick rings of bread that traders on the medieval Silk Road ate, tearing off chunks and sweetening with soft cheese. 


    Tomb of Tamerlane, Samarkand


From Samarkand to Bukhara; two fabled cities connected by a slow & stifling afternoon train. Where Samarkand’s impact was visual, Bukhara’s is historical. In the 19th century the Great Game kicked off in earnest when two British spies were dragged from a tick-ridden prison pit & beheaded in the town’s square. After posing on a Bactrian camel so I could send a selfie to my parents [who had no idea I was in Uzbekistan], I walked round the sun-baked mud walls to the prison, peering down into the pit where the spies, Connoly & Stoddart, spent their final days. The Ark fortress, where the evil Emirs ruled, was now stripped of character & had none of the stunning impact of the town’s other Maidan where turquoise-domed madrasah & imposing mosque offset a slender brick minaret.


bought a dusky-red Bukhara carpet from Sabina who was familiar from an old edition of Globe Trekker. She made me tea & asked my budget. “$200.” She looked offended and pointed to a stack of tiny rugs in the corner. The wily Sabina had the only working ATM in the country in her shop & my ineffectual haggling was no match for her business acumen.


    Bukhara

flew from Bukhara to Khiva and, swerving the taxi drivers, took a trolley-bus into the ancient walled city. A mother dropped her swaddled baby as I sat down, astonished at the sight of a foreigner on the bus. The crying child rolled down the aisle. My hotel was the Orient Star, a restored Madrasahstudent cells made over with modern plumbing and set around a courtyardUnder cobalt-noon skies, birds swooped & dived, relieved at sunset by bats, lapping in the thickening dusk. Fronting the hotel a stumpy green-tiled minaret gave Khiva its postcard image, as if a giant copper burrowing machine was stuck fast and had rusted in the earth.

    Orient Star Hotel, Khiva


All the Silk Road cities had been restored but Kihva’s was the most meticulous and it felt as if real life had been neatly brushed away at times. On Sunday, it was heaving with local touristsThroughout this trip I was approached by Uzbeks from all walks of life who wanted to practice their English & take photos. Some barely spoke hello, while others were more fluent than I was. In Khiva, it reached its zenith and I became a tourist attraction for teenagers, schoolteachers, businessmen, and weirdly, grandmothers; all clicking camera phones at my middle-aged ruggednessThere are hundreds of photos of me in Khiva, but I didn’t take any of them.


Uzbekistan felt like old-school backpacking at times; no atms [unless you want to buy a carpet], Wi-Fi that floated on the breeze and a plug socket in Samarkand that almost blew my arm off. Worries about bureaucracy were unfounded. My only brush with authority was a single shrill whistle as I photographed a memorial to Soviet astronauts in Tashkent, followed by a wagging finger. The very names of these Silk Road cities are evocative; Samarkand, Bukhara, KhivaStanding in their perfect squares and gazing at the madrasahs & minarets & mosques, it was often impossible to see where original decoration ended & restoration began and although that detracts from authenticity, it looks absolutely stunning.


    Registan, Samarkand

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Baku, Azerbaijan

There’s a cheap back door into Azerbaijan unlocked by Wizz Air. Flights are via Budapest where I stopped off to bathe at the Gellert & rode the Children’s Railway through the Buda hills in rain which never relented.

My time in Baku started with a grilling in passport control.
“I see you were in Armenia. Why?”
"Tourism,” I answered, which was met with a raised eyebrow before I was reluctantly waved through. At least it prepared me for the verbal barrage from the waiting taxi drivers who shamelessly lied about bus connections.

My first impression of the city was cats. They were everywhere; strolling through the airport arrivals hall or sleeping in the metro. The old town even had a cat sculpture embedded in a honey-stoned alcove


Caspian Sea
Baku is an ancient & isolated city, ringed once by walls, then by desert and partially moated by the oil-rich Caspian Sea. The old town sits in the shadow of an architectural playground funded by the oil that once lapped against the walls. Zaha Hadid’s cultural centre is the most beautiful, sculptured angles draped in a silk throw. Elsewhere are gigantic towers, a Freudian flagpole & Eurovision glitter. And you can’t miss the Carpet Museum, a vast carpet rolled tightly on the promenade. Baku may not be the prettiest place to visit but it was certainly the windiest. Walking along the Caspian shore, my glasses were blown from my face. I hastily employed two boys walking past to find them as I staggered around in a blurred frenzy. They turned up further down the boardwalk, sheltering under a bench & nursing a slight lens chip.


Baku Flame Towers
The suburbs are dustier with oil derricks crammed into back yards; each tiny plot a potential money-pot. The near horizon is a constant blur of nodding donkeys soundtracked by the putting of home-made generators. I spent a day on buses and subway trains, mopping up sites outside the centre; A mountain on fire, a Zorastrian temple and inbetween, car repairs and roadside markets, all the untidy businesses of suburbia.


Zaha Hadid's architecture
Soviet Baku has been mostly swept away with oil money but nestling in the new town is a beautiful old USSR football stadium built from tufa stone & formerly named after Lenin. Lenin, of course, is long gone and the statue outside now honours a local; Tofiq Bahramov, fondly remembered in England as “the Russian Linesman” after his assist to Geoff Hurst during the 1966 World Cup final. Baku had many faces; conservative Islam & boomtown economics, cobbled old town & Soviet drab, but at its heart was the romantic city of Ali & Nino, still just identifiable amidst the glass & steel of oil wealth.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Romania & Moldova

Bucovina Monastery
The Bucovina Monasteries are a cluster of churches in the Eastern Carpathians, decorated inside & out with bright frescos. Overhanging roofs shelter the pigment against the Romanian weather. In the medieval era when literacy wasn’t widespread, the frescos acted as stark pictorial warnings for those who wavered from orthodoxy. I hired Gigi, a local guide, and we visited Humor, Voronet, Moldovita & Sucevita; each with its own biblical themes, & all beautiful.

I asked Gigi, about the Communist era. He was a teenager in the late eighties and the Ceaucescus were executed days before his enforced conscription. Widespread resentment was already in the air & he told me he would have been lining up against his friends, rifle in hand. He described his mother queuing endlessly for bread while he flicked between the two state televisions channels, hopping between propaganda, praying for an end to the old order.

Chisinau, Moldova
From Suceava in Romanian Bucovina, I headed to Chisinau in Moldova. The only bus of the week left Suceava at 6am. I walked through the dark to the small bus station only to find the minibus full-up. “But I’ve come all the way from England!” I said. Some shrugging was the only response. Hiding at the back of the bus station was another bus which went part of the way, leaving at 7. At 7.45 it broke down in a forest. At 8.30 another bus picked us up from the forest and drove to the next town. A further bus took me to Iasi near the border and from there I could connect to Chisinau.

As soon as we entered Moldova, everyone began bouncing up & down. We had now left the EU with its infrastructure grants & road maintenance. Moldova’s highways are domestically funded, bumpy & unsealed. As we approached Chisinau, the fertile fields were planted with rows of grapes, wrapping the capital in vines. We juddered into the bus station in late afternoon sunshine. One simple journey had become four and yet we arrived an hour ahead of the rammed 6am bus from Suceava!

Coffee & cake in Moldova
I checked into a Junior Suite at the Hotel Tourist, a centrally-planned slab of downtown accommodation. After the colour-rush of the Bucovina monasteries, it was a return to communist brown; all the shades from beige to taupe. On the surface, Chisinau was crumbling; all rain-stained estates & wrecked pavements. Anti-fascist memorials rose proudly from intersections. The familiar clenched fists & red stars of Eastern Bloc progress. There was a cheek-by-jowl clash of post-war brutalism and neon-strip casinos; a complete absence of architectural harmony. But secreted inside was a brighter story. Bleak facades hid cosy cafes, modern enotecas & amusingly, Malldova. Here lived the capital’s young, flash with iphones & tablets, served by waitresses in traditional dress, everyone fluent in Russian & English.

Timisoara
From Chisinau, I flew to Timisoara in Romania, where the revolution to overthrow the Ceaucescus begun. The light was fading as I arrived, but the city appeared tidy & prosperous and proud of its role in igniting the revolution. From Timisoara the dissent spread to Bucharest and gained enough momentum to topple one of the worst of the Soviet-endorsed regimes. Way up in Bucovina in the remote north, a teenager called Gigi, with a love of the local monasteries, was just relieved it all happened before he was called up to shoot his mates.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Minsk - Soviet Timewarp

Hotel Planeta
Belarus was a difficult country to visit. I was on nodding terms with the Embassy in London before they finally granted me a visa. Direct flights are expensive but there’s a cheap backdoor entrance via budget airlines & a bus trip over the border from Lithuania. Minsk was the grey city at Belarus’s heart, frozen in a Soviet timewarp & a fascinating experience. I stayed at the Hotel Planeta, a town-edge monolith. Prowling the lobby were ladies in short skirts & heavy make-up, eager for eye contact. I slalomed through, head-down and ran for the lift. Later my room-phone rang and a female voice whispered unknown Russian. “Sorry?” I said, at which point she switched to English and suggested a “private relaxing massage”. She was one of the few people in Minsk who spoke good English. I declined her offer.

Belarus was almost completely destroyed in the second-world war, the whole country transformed into a vast battlefield. Minsk’s large Jewish population was squeezed into ghettos and then annihilated. City monuments reflect the horror and sadness; a straggling Auschwitz-bound line clinging to small suitcases & maternal tears for those who fell later in Afghanistan.
Trinity Suburb
The post-war city was rebuilt from scratch on Stalin’s watch, with wide boulevards & blockend murals of muscle-honed patriots. Everywhere there is concrete, grey & stained. Functional architecture drains the place of colour & I never saw a blue sky in Minsk. Only Trinity Suburb was different, a 1980s rebuild of the medieval old town where pastel shutters and decorated brickwork added an organic respite to the monochrome of Soviet Minsk. The tight string of streets looked more like the Belarus of Marc Chagall with gabled roofs and uneven cobbles and Trinity looked across the river to ribbons of green parkland.

I found Minsk oppressive at first, but then began to notice the welcome intrusion of human nature; traditional dancers harmonising folk ballads by the theatre, quirky sculptures decked with flowers and a wedding party spilling onto the streets drinking straight from bottles of Champanska.

Metro artwork
Belarus is one of the last dictatorships in Europe; ruled by a president elected with improbable majorities. Lenin still stood proudly outside Parliament and the KGB HQ was on the main shopping street. Even Lee Harvey Oswald made Minsk his home. The KGB bugged his apartment but couldn’t work out his motives & were as surprised as anyone when he changed the course of history. Belarus still leans towards Russia and turns subsidized gas imports into lucrative export capital. Iconic skyline vanity projects litter the suburbs creating construction jobs. No real freedom, no dissent, but work & a monthly paycheque. By day I walked the city until my calves ached but in the evenings, I rode the rattling metro lines in & out of Minsk with their spacerace tiling and starlit stations, picking up bread, cheese & fruit from local supermarkets at the end of the line. Wine was cheap & I stocked up on chewy reds from Georgia and crispy whites from Moldova.

New Library
Re-entering Lithuania, itself a former Soviet republic, was like discovering a new world of colour; Baroque churches; golden spires and the return of blue skies. The border crossing was a test of patience. Long waits in no-mans-land are common along the EU frontier but decontamination channels are solely the legacy of Chernobyl. The Soviet reactor was just inside the Ukrainian republic but Minsk lay directly upwind. Another legacy of Belarus’s unfortunate geography; stomped over by fighting armies and then poisoned by radiation from within.