Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The OTHER side of the Caspian

The ferry to Kazakhstan turned out to be a failure. On Friday, I got fed up and just bought a place ticket to Aktau, Kazakhstan for only $30 more than the ferry. I'm ok with it for two reasons: first, I didn't really miss much - it was just water and I've been on a boat before; Second, I just didn't feel comfortable giving such a shady company so much of my money. And I just thought of a third reason - now I know what a third world airport is like. I suppose Baku's isn't exactly a third world airport, but you could see the differences. For one, there were two security checkpoints before I even got to the ticket counter but none of the guards really seemed to care.

So now I'm in Aktau -  Kazakhstan's main/only Caspian port. It's a strange city, in a cute, quirky kind of way. It didn't really exist until the 1970s when the Soviets decided to build a port here. Since then, it's basically survived off of Caspian drilling projects and oil. For this reason, there are a lot of ex-pats here. My host works in the oil business and is Kazakh, but from the middle of the country - over 1000 miles away. (Since Aktau is so young, there really aren't any "locals" here). He carries the title of the biggest Liverpool Football Club supporter in Kazakhstan and has a love affair with London. Besides not looking like an ex-pat, he sure shares a lot of similarities with them!

As I waited outside the Aktau aiport terminal late Saturday night, constantly harrased by taxi drivers (one actually changed the time on his cell phone in an attempt to convince me that I'd missed my ride and so should pay him to take me to a hotel) I was extremely grateful when he yelled my name across the parking lot. He's been a great guide the whole time through and I'd definitely be in a fix here in western Kazakhstan without him.

For example, my next plan of action was to hop on a train and ride it 48 hours across the steppes to Shymkent, on the border with Uzbekistan. Well, that's not going to happen. After talking to a few travel agencies, he determined that there are no available train tickets out of Aktau until August 10th. That's two weeks from now. My choices were either to hang out in Aktau for two weeks, or break my oath again and fly. Aktau really isn't a bad place -it's actually got a really nice beach just outside of town - but I think I'd be missing more by staying here so long than flying the 1200 miles of Kazakh steppe to Shymkent and having more time to explore the rest of Kazakhstan. It's a tough decision and I don't like it, but I already bought the plane ticket. I fly out first thing Thursday morning.

This is one of those scenarios that I honesty did not anticipate. I faced a similar dilemma in Istanbul, where train tickets east were sold out for the next two weeks, but there I had the alternative of taking a bus. Aktau is much more isolated from the rest of the world than Istanbul. There are no roads that connect Aktau with the rest of Kazakhstan, which also make it the most expensive city in the country. MAYBE if I had a 4x4 jeep and 100 gallons of fuel I could make it across the steppe, but I'm afraid I'm just not ready for that level of adventure. Perhaps I could rent a camel instead?

P.S. Sorry I haven't loaded any pictures recently. I am taking them, I promise, but I just haven't found a computer recently that has the ability to do so.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Caspian Sea

Yesterday afternoon I made it to Baku, Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea, the last major body of water before the Pacific Ocean. I plan to catch a ferry across the Caspian to Aqtau, Kazakhstan, but after spending 4 hours today looking for the ferry office, I'm interested to see how that turns out.

I've got enough material from my attempts to find the ferry office last night and this morning to write a novel. I don't want to get too deep into the particulars, but I've probably talked to about 50 different people, all of whom have given me different answers. My favorite was the guy who told me it was on the floor above his office. When I confronted him with the fact that he was in a one story building, he changed his mind an waved his hand in a seemingly random direction.

So far, nobody has admitted that they don't know where this elusive ferry office. I can't decide whether their unwillingness to admit this comes from a effort to be helpful or from their own pride. I'm pretty sure that the only reason that I'm getting any response at all is because I'm a goofy American looking for a boat to Kazakhstan. People here like novelty and I'm like the newest joke amongst a circle of friends: it's entertaining for about 5 minutes but then you drop it and resume drinking your 12th cup of tea for the day.

One especially helpful group of men grabbed a youth off the street and made him find an English speaker to help me. He led me into what looked like a school, past a gymnasium into a locker room full of sweaty, half-clothed, stinky boys. Awkward situation. But you have to have faith in these people. Sure enough, one of the boys spoke English and was even fully dressed so he walked out with me, listened to the old men for a minute, made a phone call and then pointed me towards the office that sold tickets to Turkmenbashi, Turkistan. Close, but not quite.

I'm exploiting the fact that I'm a novelty, but it hasn't gotten me very far. One police officer actually gave me a place name, but google translate says that it's the "Limanu Dry Cargo Plant". I am cargo, and mostly dry (although the Baku heat has drenched my back in sweat) but it still seems more logical to me that the ferry should leave from the "Ferry Terminal". But this building, the guard has told me twice now, is a office building and there are no ferries there.

I knew this was going to be challenging when I set out to find this ferry. The company has no web presence that I can find. The only mention of it is on travel blogs and message boards like lonely planet and most of those berate the ferry for being inconsistent, overpriced and, surprise, very difficult to arrange. But, I've got another 25 days on my Azerbaijani visa and my Kazakh visa isn't valid until July 22nd, so I'm not in any hurry yet. I think I'm going to switch up my strategy though. Instead of wandering around in the heat saying "Billet Ferry Aqtau Kazkhstan?", I'm going to recruit a local to figure this out for me and then report back. If I could just find a phone number, this search would be a whole lot easier.

Interesting fact about Baku: men here don't wear shorts. They let it slide with foreign men, but in my effort to fit in today, I wore pants. It was a terrible idea. Not only is it overly hot here, it's really dirty, too, so that the ankles of your pants are covered in dirt and junk. I suppose it's better that your pants are dirty instead of your ankles, but when you're working with three pairs of pants, I tend to want to presever them more than my ankle hygiene.

I'm sure that finding this ferry will provide plenty more entertaining stories. I'll keep you all posted. 

Friday, July 15, 2011

Going to the country, gonna eat a lot of peaches

For those of you who would like a 2 minutes synopsis of how I spent last Tuesday, click here.

If, however, you want the full, ninja-free version of how I spent my Tuesday, read below.

On Monday, I left the big city of Tbilisi on a mini-bus headed for Gurjaani, in eastern Georgia's agricultural region. I was told that it was most famous for its wine, but I quickly learned that the orchards were the place to be.

In Gurjaani, I couchsurfed with Alex, a fellow Texan from Dallas who had taken a semester off from the University of Texas with his girlfriend to go teach English in rural Georgia. Alex and his girlfriend were staying with a host family in Gurjaani, a situation that at once proved its superiority to living alone.

I got there in the dead heat of the afternoon. The whole family had gone out to the orchards to pick peaches and nectarines - only Alex had stayed behind waiting for me to arrive. I got swindled out of 60 cents by the taxi driver who took me to his village and dropped me off at the wrong place. But I was able to find Alex simply by going up to people and saying "American" in a questioning tone. They ALL knew who Alex the American was.

Alex gave me the tour of Gurjaani (it didn't take long) and then we dug into a watermelon from the garden. Later that night, after everyone got home from the orchards, we grilled pork over a fire in the backyard and the ladies made grilled eggplant with walnut sauce. Delicious.

Within minutes of arriving in Gurjaani, I felt more at ease. The country life has such a good feel to it. Plenty of space to wander around, the people are nicer and, I believe, the country life exposes more of a nation's true character than the cosmopolitan cities. Plus, where there is agriculture, there is work to do. After four months of travelling, I needed some good, hard work to cleanse my soul. And that's exactly what I got.
Riding to the orchard early in the morning

Tuesday morning, the household woke up at 430 am to load banana boxes from Ecuador and Panama into the mini-bus and grab a hunk of bread for breakfast. The banana boxes were a cheap solution to packing peaches and nectarines. Alex and I fashioned benches out of the boxes loaded in the back and rode out with the family for about an hour to their orchard. As the sun came up over the valley, it was rush hour on the little half paved soviet-era road that led to the orchard. Lines of old ladas and military trucks rumbled down the road. Just about everyone stopped at a little spring to fill their water bottles.

We were out in the orchard picking peaches by 6am and worked pretty much non-stop until 11am. Alex and I, the newbies, spent most of our time lugging buckets of peaches from the orchard to the little shack that covered them in shade. Alex's host dad, Sandro, owned the orchard and was in charge of the operation. In addition to his father, mother, Alex and I working in the orchard, he hired five other orchard owners whose crop had been destroyed this year for whatever reason. They were mostly women and their experienced hands acted like locusts when they all descended on a tree for picking. I spent some time picking, but it was obvious that they were far more efficient than me, so I spent most of my time hauling buckets of fruit.

At 11am, everybody came in from the orchard and started packing the peaches into the banana boxes mentioned above: smallest and greenest peaches went on the bottom while the big, juicy, red peaches went front and center for marketing purposes. After packing about 20 boxes of peaches (about 1,500 pounds) we took a lunch break: sausage, bread, beer, more of that delicious eggplant concoction, and boiled tripe. I stayed away from the tripe and nobody seemed to mind that.

Packing the peaches - pretty ones on top!
As the heat of the day approached, we moved over to the nectarine orchard, where our jobs were pretty much identical. I picked even less though, as it was harder for me to pick out the ripe nectarines through the trees' denser branches. When I did pick, though, I found it easiest to perch in the middle of the tree and pick the nectarines from the inside. This situation also ensured maximum shade. The old women continued mobbing the trees with terrifying accuracy. By 5 pm, we had picked and packed 2,500 pounds of nectarines.

The Orchard Crew
While we were picking nectarines, Sandro (Alex's host dad and boss-man) drove the half-full minibus to the bazaar and sold the peaches off for about 30 cents a pound. Later that evening, after the nectarine picking, he sold off the nectarines for a similar price. By Alex and my calculations, Sandro and the family were making about $1,200 dollars a day. They started doing this in May and will continue working in the orchards (they own five, so they work a different one every day) until the end of August. It's a lot of work and I really have a lot of respect for those people who can get up day after day and put in 12 hours in the orchards the whole summer. Granted, they get the rest of the eight months a year off, but that still takes some endurance.

Sandro is a very wealthy man by Gurjaani standards. He's got an annual income approaching $150,000 and Alex says that costs for maintaing the orchards is about $40,000. That leaves about $100,000 profit every year - decent for a family of  5 by American standards but in Gurjaani, where a loaf of bread is something like 20 US cents, astounding. They don't put the money in the bank though. They have been conditioned to avoid that after their bank failed a few years ago and they lost tens of thousands. Instead, they either invest the money into their house (they had just finished a $50,000 up-stairs addition) or giving it to family members. Alex was amazed that Sandro was perfectly ok with the fact that he drove an old Soviet era Lada while his unemployed brother in law drives a Mercedes thanks to a gift from Sandro. Capital here seems to be stored in personal relationships, even ones that don't appear to have much promise of paying off, rather than in banks. The consequences of this situation means that it's just that much harder for others to get access to credit from private banks and have to rely on politically motivated government lending.

Wow. Ok, so as you can see, a day in the peach orchard has taught me a lot. Hard work is good for the soul and I went home exhausted after that day in the orchards. But it was also fascinating to get a glimpse into the Georgian agricultural economy.

Perhaps the Perfect Nectarine

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Southern Caucasus

After spending a few days in Kars, Turkey, I hopped back on the bus (two, actually) and crossed into Georgia, my debut in the Southern Caucasus.

Georgia carries the connotation of war since most people heard about Georgia for the first time when it was invaded by Russia back in 2008. It's difficult to see any evidence of this though. Georgia is a very developed country and is practically begging westerners to come visit it. The country's tourism board is pumping out glossy pamphlets by the millions and renovating buildings all over the old town in an effort to match European standards - at least in the capital, Tbilisi.

After spending three days in Tbilisi I was ready to get out and see some countryside. So, this morning, I hopped in a minibus and drove three hours up to the border with Russia - the REAL Caucasus mountain range with peaks like Mt. Kazbegi reaching over 15,000 feet. Physically, the mountains are amazing, but sitting up on a monastery wall overlooking the green valleys below me and the lines of tourists making their way up the mountain, it was hard to believe that I was in the Caucasus Mountains. Less than 20 miles away was the the town of Vladikavkaz - where the remainder of the North Caucasus (think Chechens) resistance to Russia is hanging out. A few more miles to the west and nearly three years ago, Russian tanks were filing their way through the mountains "liberating" South Ossetia.

Mt. Kazbegi and Gerge Trinity Monastery just to the left
Sitting in those peaceful mountains, I was struck (as I have been so many times on this trip) by the difference that a few miles and few years make. It's amazing to think that one valley can be made up of Georgian nationals who drink wine and cross themselves three times every time they pass a church (my bus driver went hands free for a few terrifying seconds on a mountain road as he crossed himself and talked on the cell phone at the same time) but just a few miles to the north, the inhabitants are Muslim and are part of a nation (Chechnya) that has been vilified throughout the history of the Russian empire as bandits and savages.

Walking up through the villages at the foot of Mt. Kazbegi, watching pigs slop around in mud holes in the middle of the road and buses full of tourists pass me, I couldn't imagine that there could possibly be violence here. Yet I know that at some point in history, there was most certainly violence in this little valley, and that only a few years or a few miles separate it from past and current military struggles. It warps my mind to think about and I find it hard to get across here in words. My journal entry today was full of frustrated attempts to try to explain my inability to comprehend how parallel mountain valleys could be so dramatically different. I hope one day it makes better sense to me.

Maybe I'd be able to understand it a little better if I could go to South Ossetia or Abkhazia, the two Georgian districts that saw most of the Russian attention in 2008. It is extremely difficult to get in to those place though as they are still under de facto Russian control. I met another American teaching English here who finally got all his paperwork together and is going to Abkhazia next week just to check it out. He's been living here for 6 months though and has spent a great deal of time figuring out how to get the visa, enter and exit without getting arrested. I'm opting to just skip those two provinces for now.

Pig mentioned above
My visa to Azerbaijan proved hard enough to get. I found out that the country had changed its visa requirements and that I now needed a letter of invitation to get in so that required a trip to a tour agency and about $145 to take care of. Still, I won't get my Azerbaijan visa until Friday (July 15) because, apparently, the Azerbaijani embassy here in Tbilisi has run out of stickers for the visa. I've also been told by several people that even WITH the visa, I may find it necessary to slip a $20 in my passport to make sure it gets processed efficiently at the border. To be honest, I've never paid a real bribe, so I'm kind of excited by that prospect, but I'm also pissed enough that I'm paying $145 to go through tiny Azerbaijan. It's stunts like these that make me lose sympathy for countries when they end up getting invaded years down the line.

While I'm waiting for the stickers to be delivered to the Azerbaijani embassy, I'm heading out of town to visit some villages east of Tbilisi in my quest to see both the rural and urban side of life in each country. I'll actually be staying with American guys who are teaching English here but staying with host families. It'll be nice to get the Georgian experience while having a compatriot to guide me through it all.

Hope you all had a happy 4th - I spent the day sick in bed in Kars, Turkey. I didn't hear one firework. I had meant to at least hum Star Spangled Banner, but my bowels were doing plenty of their own "bursting in air".

Me and Gerge Trinity Monastery

Friday, July 1, 2011

120 Hours Later

My last blog post was from Sımferopol, Ukraıne. You may remember that I had mıssed my boat back to Turkey due to some ''mıscommunıcatıons'' wıth some Ukraınıan saılor-man. I am happy to report that I have sınce put three countrıes (Moldova, Romanıa, Bulgarıa and Turkey) between myself and that wretched country and am now safe and sound ın Diyarbakir, Turkey. I spent about 80 of the last 120 hours on a bus or train though, so I am takıng the day off from motorızed transportation.

Bulgarian Countryside from my train
The backtrackıng wasn't all that terrıble. I dıd get to cover some new ground by visiting Chısnau, Moldova whıch, even ın the raıny streets unprotected by storm draıns, was preferable to the Ukraıne. I got to chat wıth a Moldovan secret servıce agent guardıng the door at the UN offıces. The event inside featured the Moldovan president and the US ambassador. I contemplated makıng an offıcıal complaınt about the Ukraıne and encouragıng Moldova to just annex ıt and kıck out the Russians, but the secret servıce guy, affable as he was, didn't seem wıllıng to let me and my wet, stınky backpack ınto the building.

After about 8 hours ın Chısnau, I bıd farewell to Bryn agaın and got on the nıght traın to Bucharest. My Moldovan traın ımpressed me quıte a bıt, and I got a great show of transnatıonal mıstrust watchıng the Moldovan AND Romanian customs offıcıals lıterally take apart my cabın lookıng for counterfeıt goods. At one poınt, fıve burly guys wıth tool chests were stuffed ınsıde my 4 berth cabin (luckıly, I didn't have to share it with anyone) taking off the panels and seats lookıng for loot. It made me wonder why they don:t just skıp the pretensıons and leave all the panelıng off ın the fırst place. It'd save a lot of tıme for sure. It took us about 4 hours to cross the border.

I arrıved in Bucharest Tuesday morning with a 4 hour layover, so I didn't have much tıme to revisit Bucharest before my train left for Istanbul. But it was ın Bucharest that I was finally able to let my guard down. I remembered that Romanians weren't ass holes and actually did want to help me - a foreıgner ın their midst. This was a great relief as I felt like just about everyone ın Ukraine was lookiıng at me like I was a sucker. This sounds naive, but here's my example: ın the Ukraıne, ıf you asked someone on the street how to get somewhere, they would ıgnore you - unless they were a taxi drıver lookıng to charge you double price to go where you needed to go. In Bucharest, I found so many people on the street who were happy to point me ın the directıon of a money exchange offıce or wifi spot - even though they had nothing to gain from it.

The Engıne that pulled me back to Istanbul
I was further comforted on the train to Istanbul when the train steward invıted me ınto hıs cabin to have some chicken wings, soup and salad. I was shocked to see such friendliness untıl we talked and I found out he was from Turkey. It was then that I breathed a sıgh of relief because I knew that I was back ın the land of hospıtality.

And the Turks haven't let me down yet. I arrived ın Diyarbakir yesterday basically wıth no place to stay. My schedule had gotten so messed up from missing the ferry that my couchsurfers could no longer host me. But one of the hosts hooked me up with an army friend of hıs who I am now stayıng with for two nights. Amazing. Thıs guy talked to me for about 10 minutes over a tea before inviting me to hıs home. I was all ready to find a hotel, but thıs guy saved me. Man, I love Turkey.

My coach to Diyarbakir at a rest stop somewhere ın Anatolia
I actually haven't seen much of Dyarbakir yet as I've been workıng on logistics for the trip all morning. Diyarbakir ıs on the Tıgrıs rıver, which means that I'm basıcally ın Mesopotamia now. It feels very different from Istanbul, too. Many more of the women are ın headscarves and the landscape ıs much more like a desert compared to the more Medıterranean Istanbul clımate. Thıs ıs also the capıtal of the Kurdısh are, meanıng ıt's the bıggest Kurdısh cıty. So far I only know that Kurds are some of the nıcest people I've met ın Turkey, and that's sayıng a lot. But they are nice to me because I am a foreigner. They don't get along with the Turks as well.

There have been protests here over the Turkısh election results for the past few days and you can tell. I've seen a number of rıot control vehıcles drıvıng down the street and groups of polıce offıcers congregatıng at corners. Also, I hear F-16s flyıng overhead constantly. I think that's a normal part of lıfe here though. My army host says that they are just doıng trainıng from a nearby aırfıeld. 

I'm going to go explore the city more this afternoon and see the Tigrıs. Wıll post pictures later.