Monday, July 28, 2008

Ukraine: From Wildness to Wilderness

After a couple of weeks flicking from country to country, it was nice to spend some solid time in the Ukraine, which really gave James and I a chance to explore some of the regions of this wonderful (if somewhat bizarre- see family dressed as bikers posing for family portrait on the left) country.

Due to our complicated travel arrangements to leave Armenia (don’t get me started on that again), we needed to do a 12hr stopover in Odessa en route to Kiev. Fortunately for us, it was a Saturday night, so we threw our bags in a plywood box, had a delightful meal in Odessa’s pretty centre, and hit Arkadia Beach. As I had found before, Odessa is a wild party town, and my thoughts and photos from my previous visit can be found here.

After having headed straight from Arkadia to the airport, James & I were a little perturbed to find our hotel in Kiev didn’t actually exist. Some frantic calls and explorations later, we were sorted in a lovely apartment with a jello ceiling.

It was great to visit Kiev again, a city that has to be one of the most beautiful and compact cities in the former USSR. Interesting sights, great food, fun nightlife and Khreshatik sum to make it a fantastic place to spend a few days and pick up a few visas. For something new, however, (I’m blaming James), we were attempted to be shaken down by the Kiev police twice while we were there. The first encounter was jovial and cost us $20, but by the time the cops accosted Cam for a second time I gave them so much Moscow attitude the guy saluted me and apologised.
For my thoughts on Kiev and some photos from my last visit, see here.

After a few days in Kiev, a Ukrainian friend Yulia joined us to head to Lviv, an historic and strongly nationalistic city in far Western Ukraine. Although Lviv is indeed beautiful and historic, it was also very soggy, since it didn’t stop raining the whole time we were there.

We found the time (between downpours) to visit an authentic “partisan bar” - complete with entry password, drunk ancient soldier at the door, and incomprehensible menu - before heading to an S&M-themed fondue place, and of course endless vareniki till it was time to return to Kiev.

Kiev (Take 2)
Once back in Kiev and back on the visa trail for Central Asia (We LOVE the Kyrgyz consulate, issuing us on-the-spot visas at 6pm), we were excited to be joined by another Ukrainian and b-school friend Lena, and her friend Dima, who showed us how to really eat & drink Ukrainian-style (although I’m sad to report she can’t drink like she used to)! Once again, I was amused by Ukranian girls' passion for dressing identically.

To celebrate Ariel’s birthday, he, Guri, John, Leo, James & I headed to a famous music festival called Kazantip (famous in CEE/Russia, I mean, since we were the only non-Russians there).
Kazantip is held in a specially constructed complex next to a tiny village in NW Crimea, where the most exciting thing to occur other than this festival is perhaps a fresh supply of meat once every 3-4 months. We found that our crew, which included a black guy, an Indian, and Leo looking (as always) like something out of a GQ spread in a town where wearing a shirt is considered formal, were an instant oddity.

The other reason that everyone was staring at us is that we’d arrived a day or so early for the festival, so we were treated to the tiny village of Popovka au naturel. No ATM’s, no restaurants, our “luxury” accommodations periodically lacking water pressure & electricity (although with a surfeit of manically quacking ducks) posed a slight challenge to our crew, but we overcame these logistical quibbles (after a 30km taxi ride to the nearest ATM) and soon found ourselves lying on the beach watching the spectacular Kazantip republic get constructed around us.

Unable to sit still on a beach for more than a few seconds, I went kitesurfing for the afternoon (photo shown for illustrative purposes only, since I was a little out of practice and spent most of the afternoon getting dragged around swallowing half the Black Sea).

The opening of KZ Republic was that evening, and our high-spirited group was ready to party. Unfortunately, KZ wasn’t quite ready for us, as still no ATMs, inedible food, intermittent squalls, and worst of all- NO VODKA! -forced us to drink warm Sovetskoe Shampanskoe. Fortunately, once the DJ’s got going & James located some vodka, things were looking up until we had to walk home after dawn in the pouring rain to an incessant lullaby from those f**king ducks, until thankfully the rain got so heavy I think they drowned.

Sevastopol & Yalta
As the rest of the crew headed back to Moscow, James & I rented a car (after another cash fiasco) and headed south to Sevastopol, home of the infamous Soviet Fleet. We happened to arrive on Fleet Day, and were greeted with the curious sight of a Ukrainian city waving Soviet and Russian flags.

A few kilometres south, the unexpectedly delightful town of Balaclava (yes, that one) had a positively Mediterranean air about it with a ruined Genovese fort, fishing boats, and quayside cafes. The only thing slightly out of place was the secret nuclear submarine factory built into the hill facing the bay, which we toured in a very James-Bond like fashion.

Pushing on to Yalta, we drove past a stunning landscape and discovered this Soviet beach town of old was still very popular, with thousands of Russian & Ukrainian holidaymakers flooding the attractive seaside esplanade, and frolicking on the pebble beaches. One of the strangest sights, however, were entire families dressing up in either period costumes or hardcore biker gear to get their photos taken, which I imagine must add spice to a family photo album!

The next morning, James & I learned how to really handle the Ukrainian roads, as were tore back from Yalta to Simferopol’s practically unmarked airport to make our flight to Uzbekistan. Our only notable stop was the massive Soviet Komsomol camp “Artec” where a 15-year old James once spent a delightful communist summer.

Photos are here.

Worldguide is here.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Armenia: Don't Try This at Home

Finally boarding the plane to escape Armenia (which is, once again, hot as @&$#!), I breathe a sigh of relief. While a delightful country with warm and friendly people, I can’t quite claim that our time in the country has been exactly easy-going. I elbow James, who’s nursing a serious hangover caused by our new Armenian friends drowning us with vodka (although he blames me), and we restrain ourselves from clapping as the plane pulls away from the terminal, like hostages freed from captivity.

The nexus of our Armenian issues had been a nagging problem that had plagued us since Georgia. While many of my dear readers may not be too familiar with Armenia (yes, it is its own country), it appears that the rest of the world isn’t too aware of its existence either. For a country with a diaspora of over 12 million people (not bad for a country of only 3.5 million), our flight options for the 4-day window with which we wanted to get out of the country were mainly limited to Tehran, Vienna, or 12 choices of Russia, none of which really helped. Matters were complicated by the fact that every time we managed to graduate off the waitlist of the one flight to Ukraine, the airline demanded payment in cash within several hours in their offices in Yerevan- slightly difficult while we were in Georgia.

Not to be daunted by petty logistical issues, our trip from Tbilisi to Yerevan was a fascinating drive through the Northern part of the country, visiting ancient historical sights and monasteries such as Haghpat, stopping for roadside shashlik with our newest best friend (our Armenian/Georgian taxi driver), observing the usual Soviet blight such as abandoned factories or belching smelters, and admiring as the countryside changed from craggy mountains to rolling green valleys, circumnavigating Armenia's highest snow-covered peak of Mt Aragats.

We also stopped to admire a mix of beautiful, sad and quirky sights, such as the beekeepers making delicious local honey from fields of brilliantly coloured flowers, the enormous Venetian-style palace being built by a wealthy local businessman in the middle of nowhere, and at the other extreme, tragic graves for whole families killed by the devastating 1988 earthquake.

One of the more random sights en route was a monument to the Armenian alphabet, which happened to be being visited by a busload of Iranian tourists as we arrived. The combination was pretty special, as James attempted rapprochement with the Iranians on behalf of the US Government, I attempted to decipher the strange swirls of these blocks of stone scattered around the landscape.

Eventually Yerevan came into view, framed by the looming background of the revered Mt Ararat (inconveniently located across the border in Turkey). Yerevan itself was a pleasant town, bustling with activity and with delightful hidden gems like the restaurants down in the river valley, but with little that made it a truly unique or unforgettable destination.

Our communications with our hosts were at times strained, since they insisted on communicating in English: "Yes you will leave yesterday morning for 6pm" apparently translates to "Will you be checking out tomorrow?".

With much of our time in Yerevan absorbed by a friendly travel agent and our logistics into and through Ukraine, I must admit we may not have given poor Yerevan entirely the attention it deserved, although we did befriend a group of locals who offered us their "protection" (seems this worldwide Armenian trait is also taken to heart at home), poured a bottle of vodka down our throats, shared their dinner with us (apparently Armenian cuisine is a combination of Russian Georgian, and Azeri, but don't tell them that), and generally enlivened our evening.

After a morning's sightseeing with plenty of stops for water, we toured a mix of Soviet monuments and seemingly purpose-built tourist attractions, and hunted for kebabs, and then it was time to escape. Our trip to the airport also gave us the opportunity to hear the sales pitch of our taxi driver-cum-entrepreneurial sheep farmer seeking investment or advice on how to emigrate to Australia.

On to Odessa (we never did get the flight to Simferopol we wanted), for a 12-hour stopover, then to Kiev!

Photos are here.

Worldguide is here.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Gastronomic Georgia

From my first bite of Khachapuri in a Georgian restaurant within weeks of moving to Moscow, I knew Georgia was a place I had to visit. From there on, the tales of this Caucasian paradise only grew, of snowy mountains, remote monasteries, fascinating Tbilisi, the cultural mélange, and of course the extraordinarily delicious Georgian food.

Even after such a buildup, we were still blown away by this fascinating little country. Especially after the barren wasteland of Eastern Azerbaijan, the lush greenery and rivers carved deep impressions, and we marveled at the cultural crossroads of ancient Tbilisi, settled since ancient times, but conquered and counter-invaded by the Persians, Georgians, Mongols, and Russians no less than 6-7 times since the 4th century.

As a result, this fascinating city, nestled in a picturesque valley retains touches of all these cultures in a delightfully eclectic mix on the banks of the Mktvari river. Mosques are down the road from synagogues, churches are nestled in Persian ruins, and the amazing cuisine takes elements from all of these cultures and more combined with the local fresh ingredients to generate sublime feasts!

Despite an impenetrable language and script, James & I took Tbilisi by storm, hiking up to old Persian forts, fearing statues of giant Soviet women with swords, dodging insane drivers, and consuming more Khachapuri than previously considered possible.

Admittedly, our first experiences with both Georgian accommodation (“hot as @&$#!”), and Georgian wine (“tangy, with a hint of formaldehyde”), weren’t promising, but once those were sorted (actually, the wine can be pretty good), our primary frustration involved finding a single viable method to escape Yerevan, other than smuggling ourselves over the Ukranian border inside a live goat.

One morning, we hired one of these insane drivers to take us to the north of Georgia, deep in the Caucasus mountains on the Chechen border, so we could climb a mountain and admire an ancient monastery in the shadow of a 5,000m volcano. As we emulated Grand Theft Auto, weaving around errant cows, children, and gaps in the road at 140km/hr, our speed and tenuous grip on life wasn’t the only thing making us gasp. The Caucasus mountains provided a breathtaking backdrop to our adventure, as we passed ancient forts, churches perched on cliffs, travertine waterfalls, icy blue lakes, plunging valleys and snowy peaks.

Upon arrival in the middle of nowhere, we hiked enthusiastically (well, some more than others) to the summit, and were rewarded with panoramic views from the mountain summit, surrounded by snow-covered peaks. Pilgrims had hiked, driven or come on horseback to this most sacred of Georgian Christian sites. From there we could also see views of the highest church in the world.

More Georgian food, beautifully located bars, and an intriguing vodka-redbull hookah later, and we hijacked a passing taxi to take us 300km to Yerevan...

Photos are here.

Worldguide is here.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Azerbaijani Adventures

In its first few pages, Lonely Planet describes Eastern Azerbaijan using such terms as “mesmerising ugliness”, “dystopian industrialist nightmare”, “intriguingly decrepit”, “leaky oil detritus”, and “spirit-crushing soviet townships”. I’m happy to report that once again, Lonely Planet is accurate in its reporting, but thankfully also goes to great pains to highlight the quirky attractions that make this a fascinating place to (briefly) visit.

En route from Romania, I met my close friend James, with whom I’ll be travelling for the next month.

Driving in from Baku airport on the newly constructed highway with no apparent speed limit, our beat-up Volga passes fields of ancient oil equipment baking in the semi-desert, as we are passed by brand-new European cars going over 200km+.

This is Baku, an oil-driven boomtown that’s been providing oil to the world since the 10th century, but has gone into hyperdrive since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It is a country that refreshingly has no tourist infrastructure, but a drive along the highway takes you past massive Schlumberger & Halliburton complexes, as fields of massive derricks work onshore and offshore oil & gas deposits. Thousands of rusty pumps work tirelessly in a spaghetti of leaky pipes criscrossing pools of oil-encrusted saltpans in every direction.

As Lonely Planet points out, some of the most fascinating sights of this region are the examples of the environmental and aesthetic nightmare that such indiscriminate resource pillaging creates, but in addition, the unique geology provides some quirky attractions.

We visited sites where walls of flame leap from burning natural gas vents, where black pools seep from underground to form rivers of crude oil, and bubbling mud volcanoes spurt forth in an example of “geological flatulence”.

Given the region’s long human history, we visited ancient temples where Zoroastrians worshipped the flames shooting from the ground, and saw ancient petroglyphs carved by the region’s residents 12,000 years ago.

The "nascent" tourism industry was both a blessing and frustrating, because although we were the only visitors anywhere we went and nothing was fenced, signposted, or restricted, local cartels had decided anyone stupid enough to want to see this stuff needed to pay hundreds of dollars to do so, resulting in tortuous workarounds to achieve seemingly simple objectives.

Central Baku was surprisingly pretty, the old city walls were surrounded by landscaped parks and creatively lit period buildings. The compact centre had dozens of good restaurants with cuisines reflecting Baku’s mixed ethnic and religious heritage, as well as its more recent expat populations. James & I were unable to find anything resembling nightlife, but that may have been a function more of the days of the week than any fault of Baku.

On this brief trip we didn’t have the chance to visit a legendary village of Mountain Jews, who apparently hang out near the Dagestani border several hundred kilometres away, but I think we were able to knock over most of what Baku & its surroundings have to offer. A delightfully random and always surprising location, I’d recommend it for those with time and money to spend getting way off the beaten path in non-luxurious surroundings.

Next stop- Georgia!

Photos are here.

Worldguide is here.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Romania: Transylvanian Awakenings

True to form, I was not content to merely chill out in Istanbul for a week. Memories from a recent conversation on vampires (yes, I think we had had a couple of drinks) drifted up from my consciousness, and next thing I knew, I'd found a cheap ticket to Bucharest, rented a car, and driven deep into the Carpathian mountain region of Transylvania, home to the legendary Count Dracula. Truth be told, I was probably also killing a bit of time before meeting James in Baku on Sunday, but this seemed like a great way to do it!

Avoiding fanatical police and their speed cameras (who seemed even more intent on extorting cash from unwary drivers than even the Moscow militsii), and the insane Romanian drivers, I was immersed in a fairytale fantasyland. Sheer mountainsides (some still dotted with patches of snow) towered over narrow passes, and each ridge seemed to be home to a Disney-like castle, clinging improbably to the sheer face. Local warnings in every village warned of bears (Romania has 60% of Europe's bears, apparently), although the vicious stray dogs seemed to be more of an issue for me, as I was pursued through backstreets of remote villages. The steep mountain passes with their iridescent shades of every type of green gave way to rolling hills and fields of golden wheat, the villages morphed into local fortified hilltops, and it gave me a sense of how Bavaria and the Austrian Danube Valley must have looked a century ago.

In the towns I passed through, horses and carts waited patiently at traffic lights next to Audi's and Skoda's, and everywhere, roads were being dug up for new EU-funded roadworks. The roadsides to these verdant pastures and the banks of bubbling brooks were sadly clogged with every type of garbage imaginable, but it thankfully didn't do much to dim the beauty of this gorgeous landscape.

Alone with my thoughts, my camera, and my mighty blue Toyota Yaris, I spent a few days driving where the whim took me, through historical towns such as Brasov, Sinaia, Sighisoara (where Dracula was born), Bran, and Sibiu, veering off to explore smaller villages which seemingly hadn't seen a motorised vehicle for some time, and battling wills with the Romanian truck drivers, seemingly determined to blot my little Yaris out of existence.

I was rewarded with quaint medieval towns, delicious meals in obscure places, some interesting new acquaintances, and some great ice-cream- not to mention of course, plenty of castles! Strangely enough, I didn't find any bats, nor were there damsels being terrorized by anything other than Romanian men, so it appears any vampiric tendencies may has disappeared with EU membership.

After the idyllic countryside, I found myself back in Bucharest. It’s difficult to know quite what to make of Bucharest. On one hand it houses the 2nd largest building in the world (after the Pentagon)- a monument to autocratic excess, and on the other it was a city that never quite succumbed to the ugliness of Soviet architecture.

It’s relatively recent embrace of the West and rapid integration into the EU has made it both a construction zone, yet relatively devoid of the gleaming new buildings nor fancy modern shopping districts that adorn cities like Kiev, Budapest, or even Baku.

As a result, a wander through it’s city centre is both fascinating, yet curiously deflating, despite interesting sights, and the best efforts of a wonderful local friend who played tour guide.

It does, however, have good restaurants and interesting nightlife. Those inclined can even glimpse flashes of Moscow in one nightclub, complete with a swimming pool, go-go dancers, short bald guys and bored Barbie Dolls!

Ultimately, Bucharest’s charms cannot quite compete with the fascinating and beautiful countryside which awaits just a short drive away, but it's a nice place to spend a few days.

Photos are here.

Worldguide is here.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Istanbul: Turkish Delight

Forget all the cliches about East meets West, about how it’s a melting pot of cultures, styles, cuisines, and architecture. It’s all of these and more. But the bottom line is that Istanbul in summer ROCKS!

The last time I was here was ~5 years ago, and while I’ve always loved this city, this time the sights, nightlife, food and people formed a combination that was out of this world!

I must give thanks to my Turkish mates Nic & Cengiz for giving me an Istanbul primer, but it was my new friend Zeynep (thanks Amanda!) who showed me what this city is capable of! This organisational powerhouse and nightlife doyenne planned my time here to the second. All the hottest places were booked and prepped to give us their best. She had everything: venues, phones, people, accommodation, and seemed to be intent on marrying me off before I left, as she had at least five different delightful women take me to dinner each night I was here. The venues were stunning: amazing views, great food, and fantastic design. Unlike Moscow, Istanbul knows how to party every night of the week!

Oh yes, there are also fabulous tourist & historical sights here, enough to keep even a museum, church, and mosque skeptic like me busy for a week. It’s not a cheap city though, partying here is likely to raise a bar tab that rivals a night in Moscow.

Stay tuned Istanbul, I’ll be back real soon!

Photos are here.

Worldguide entry is here.

Cam's Worldguide

Avid readers of my blog may have noticed a new link called "Worldguide". I've created it as a (hopefully helpful) response to the many questions I receive about the places I've visited, for recommendations of hotels, guides, bars, nightclubs, etc, especially for out-of-the-way places.

As I travel the world, places that I find that are particularly noteworthy and/or unlikely to be easily identified through other means will be included in my Worldguide, so friends and future travellers can hopefully have easier and more entertaining travels!

A word of caution: I'm NOT Lonely Planet, so these will only be updated when I'm visiting a city again. Therefore please note the dates of my entries and don't be surprised if a particular place has closed, or is no longer what it was. However, if you find this is the case or have something to add, please post a comment on the entry to help others!

Happy travels!