Moldovan Impressions: The Breakaway Territories, Part 3

Tiraspol - Lenin StreetOur mock tourist guide of Transnistria continues! After the history and travel logistics sections, let’s talk about the attractions, the gastronomy, and the souvenirs.

I have to warn you: “pretty” isn’t the first adjective that comes to mind when thinking of Transnistria and its capital city, Tiraspol. And I dare anyone to name a Transnistrian national dish. Don’t expect to find much Soviet memorabilia for sale, either. There aren’t enough tourists for that. So, why visit?

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Moldovan Impressions: The Breakaway Territories, Part 2

9 November 1989: the Berlin Wall falls, marking the end of the division between the East and the West. Within a year, the Eastern Bloc ceases to exist.
27 August 1991: following the failed Soviet August Coup, Moldova, like most other republics in the USSR that haven’t done so yet, declares its independence.
8 December 1991: the presidents of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus secretly meet to declare the Soviet Union dissolved.
25 December 1991: Mikhail Gorbachev publicly resigns as the President of the USSR, and that office ceases to exist.

The communist dream is over. Everywhere across the Empire, the red flag is taken down, statues of Lenin dismantled, the Hammer and Sickle emblems on buildings and monuments desecrated.

Well, almost everywhere.Transnistria - Entering Tiraspol

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Moldovan Impressions: The Breakaway Territories, Part 1

Welcome to Gagauzia

With only three and a half million inhabitants and a territory smaller than the New York metropolitan area, one might think that Moldova doesn’t have any ethnic conflicts. The composition of the population seems pretty straightforward: 70% Moldovans, followed essentially by ethnicities from neighboring countries, such as Ukrainians, Romanians, and Russians. Ah yes, Russia… Sure enough, this last bunch, concentrated in the border region of Transnistria, didn’t really welcome Moldova’s independence when the Soviet Union collapsed. If you check on a map, Russia’s not even a neighbor of the new state.

But Transnistria is a story for another day. In this post, I’m looking at a much lesser-known dissension, and the fate of a handful of irreducible freedom-loving, eastward-looking people of mysterious decent, who once declared themselves independent even one month before Transnistria. The Gagauz!

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Azerbaijan Adventures, Part 2

Reading about the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic in a travel book leaves you under the impression that the place suffers from acute spying paranoia. Here’s what the Traiblazer Azerbaijan Guide (now in its 4th edition) has to say:

“while local people are very friendly and hospitable, the same can’t be said for the police and officials in smaller Nakhchivani towns where your presence is liable to cause confusion, suspicion, and thinly veiled accusations of spying”

“wandering around town [in Ordubad] without local contacts might cause considerable suspicion”

Traveling by train sounds particularly memorable:

“Foreigners are liable to be under intense scrutiny from both staff and police who can only conceive of one reason that you’d take the ultra-slow train instead of a vastly faster taxi or minibus: you’re a spy. Try if you dare. The experience should add handsomely to your KGB-encounter tales. Don’t take photos without a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

But then, taking a taxi doesn’t seem to be much different:

“The taxi driver will report your movement to the authorities before departing so won’t [sic] want to deviate from the plan”

Nakhchivan, nest of spies? Read on to find out!

Getting there is not all that easy. A landlocked exclave, Nakhchivan can only be reached from the rest of Azerbaijan by air. Azal, the Azerbaijan airline, lets you book your flight online for any destination — except Nakhchivan. The tickets only go on sale approximately 15 days in advance, and you have to buy them at an Azal office in person, or through a travel agency with a commission.

Things started getting interesting when we landed at the airport, which sees only a handful of flights per day. As passengers entered the terminal, a police officer checked their passports, letting the Azerbaijan citizens through and putting aside the foreign passports. As one could expect, we were the only foreigners. After some vague attempts at interrogating us (he spoke only Azeri), he finally took us straight to a taxi and told the driver to bring us to our hotel, leaving us wondering if we got a local kind of VIP treatment or our first taste of Nakhchivani suspicion.

Tabriz Hotel. Don’t bother making a reservation. As far as I can tell, the staff counts only one English speaker and one Russian speaker, and the chances that either of them happens to be near the reception desk when you make your call are pretty slim. Anyway, if you do get lucky, they’ll just tell you to call back a couple days in advance of your arrival. And indeed there’s no shortage of rooms. The building is 13 stories tall, but if it hadn’t been for a group attending a conference we would have been the only guests.

At this point you may ask yourself what there is to see in Nakhchivan. The Mausoleum of Momine Khatun is nice enough, but it certainly doesn’t justify all this trouble. Then of course, Nakhchivan is the birth place of Heydar Aliyev, and the museum dedicated to him reaches Vladimir-Illich-like proportions:

But it’s really the semi-desert and mountainous landscapes that make the region so impressive. The Zangezur Mountains follow the entire northern border with Armenia:

The road from Nakhchivan City to Ordubad is particularly spectacular:

While you contemplate the pictures, let me tell you a little bit more about the exciting life of Heydar Aliyev, a man who dominated the political life of Azerbaijan with an iron hand for over 30 years. Two-time Hero of Socialist Labor, four-time holder of the Order of Lenin, he “started” his career as Deputy Chairman of the Azerbaijani KGB in 1964, and became Chairman in 1967. He was then appointed First Secretary of the Central Committee of Azerbaijan Communist Party by Brezhnev in 1969, fighting against corruption (i.e., purging his opponents) and increasing economic growth (particularly his own, with the mafia’s help). His ascension continued with the post of Candidate member of the Politburo in 1976, and full member in 1982.

Gorbachev and his perestroika caused an abrupt turn of fate. Aliyev was forced to resign from the Politburo in 1987 because of his alleged corruption and ties with the mafia. He returned to his native Nakhchivan in 1990, and took the reins of the autonomous republic without any subordination to the official government in Baku. He returned to the capital in the middle of the political turmoil of 1993 and was elected President of Azerbaijan shortly after. Not only did he keep this post until his death in 2003, he also secured his son’s succession. Ilham Aliyev still holds the presidency to this day.

Anyhow, the road to Ordubad also passes right next to the Iranian border, which can be crossed at Julfa.

I already mentioned Ordubad in a previous post, when I wrote about the typical Azerbaijan outdoors restaurant experience. The town, an hour and a half away from Nakhchivan City,  is worth visiting for its charming sleepy atmosphere:

… and its abandoned Soviet factory, located right in the center:

You can roam freely in the office buildings and the production plant, although as usual, nearly everything’s been looted.

Here’s an old newspaper, dating from April 3, 1990, probably around the time the factory was abandoned. Back then, Azeri was still written in Cyrillic.

The cafeteria.

The kitchen. I find it hard to believe, but there was just a single stove to prepare all the meals!

Now, here’s an interesting encounter. As we were walking the streets, we were approached by a guy in his twenties who told us he studied French and offered to take us out for lunch and visit the town with us. He even drove us back to Nakhchivan City in his Lada, with a lengthy stop at the castle of Alinja. As he had to go home to see his wife and sick child, he arranged for us to meet one of his French-speaking friends to spend the rest of the evening with us until our return flight to Baku.

Much food and many beverages were had, and my recollections of the end of the day are a blurry mix of kebabs eaten at an outdoors restaurant in the middle of a rainstorm and attempts to smuggle bottles of vodka in carry-on luggage past airport security.

Some of the details of this story still puzzle me. What was this “student” doing on an empty street in a sleepy town, on a week day, alone, without his family, nearly two hours from his house? Why didn’t he want us to take pictures of him? Was he… a spy???

Azerbaijan Adventures, Part 1

It’s been a long time since I last posted about my adventures in the Caucasus, and the Azerbaijan stories promise to be plentiful. I’d like to start this series with a quintessential Azerbaijan experience: the outdoor restaurant. This humble place, which always follows the same principles whether you’re in the mountains, arid plains, or shady forests, will indeed occupy a particular place in any visitor’s journey. This is most likely where you will eat most of the time when outside of the capital (and even in the suburbs of Baku, you can find similar garden restaurants).

The restaurant I’ve chosen to illustrate my point is located in Ordubad, in the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic. I must concede, however, that this particular place is an unlikely and quite remote lunch destination. Nakhchivan is a landlocked exclave of Azerbaijan that can practically only be reached by air. The Armenian border is closed, and most travelers are unlikely to enter from Iran or the single, very-remote crossing from Turkey. After alighting in Nakhchivan City, you must travel another hour and a half by car to reach Ordubad, the Republic’s second largest town with a whopping population of 10,000. You will then find the restaurant slightly outside of town, on a road that leads to the not-so-friendly triple point between Azerbaijan, Iran, and Armenia. The restaurant is called Şora Çeşme:

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Armenian Adventures, Part 5

The last part of our Armenian Adventures takes us to Nagorno-Karabakh, a de facto independent but unrecognized state within Azerbaijan (I’m sticking to the Wikipedia entry to avoid debates).

Before heading to Karabakh, we made one last stop at the Goris market, where the usual Armenian produce (peppers, eggplant, zucchini, beans, radishes, tomatoes, watermelon and apricots) share room with some freshwater fish — not refrigerated, of course!

So let me now start with some practical information for the prospective tourists. All foreign visitors (except the ones from some of the former Soviet Republics) need to obtain a visa just for Nagorno-Karabakh. You can find detailed information here, although unlike what is said on this site and in travel guides, I was able to get my visa by mail from the Nagorno-Karabakh permanent representation in Washington, DC. Things may have changed, but it’s definitely worth giving these guys a call. Here’s what my visa looked like, back in summer 2009:

The only way into Karabakh is from Armenia. Coming from Azerbaijan is completely out of question. I do see a bridge on the map at the Iranian border, near the Khoda Afarin reservoir, but this is not an official crossing point and I couldn’t find any information about it. This bridge is so remote, sandwiched between destroyed Azerbaijani villages and the Alborz moutain range, that I’d be very curious to hear from someone who’s been there!

The most usual road (but not the only one, as we’ll see later) goes from Goris through the infamous Lachin corridor. At the border, you will have to stop briefly at a police check, where they will write down your information into a book that I bet nobody will ever read. As you will find out pretty soon, Karabakh feels like a part of Armenia more than an independent country. There may be a puppet president, but the people, language, currency, police and army are all Armenian. The picturesque road to the capital Stepanakert was rebuilt thanks to donations from the Armenian diaspora and is in excellent condition (like most roads in Armenia, really):

Upon your arrival in Stepanakert, you will have to register at the NKR Foreign Ministry. This can be slightly more complicated than it seems. When we got there, the whole town center was experiencing a blackout, and we only miraculously managed to get the paperwork done much later in the evening.

If Stepanakert is trying hard to rebuild, to turn the page of the conflict with Azerbaijan, there is still a lot to do in the rest of the region. Here’s an appartment building in the center of Shushi, a town that used to have a predominantly Azerbaijani population and changed hands several times during the war:

All the mosques in Shushi have been destroyed or heavily damaged, like the Upper Govhar Agha Mosque:

But the systematic destruction of former Azerbaijani communities is nowhere as obvious as in Agdam, a city that once had a population of 40,000 people and has become a ghost town:

All of the buildings have been gutted, and sometimes completely razed, to prevent the Azerbaijani population from coming back — something you see on a smaller scale throughout Karabakh and even Armenia.

The ruins remain a buffer zone for the Armenian army and are technically banned for sightseeing. Getting there isn’t too hard though: the access road is simply blocked by a small chain and everybody drives around it. This is the paradox about Agdam — the whole town is supposed to be off limits, but you certainly see a lot of cars crossing it, and there’s even a gas station!

I would have liked to push to the town center to see what’s left of the mosque, one of the last buildings still standing, which offers a nice panorama of the area. Unfortunately, as I was discretely taking pictures with my telephoto on the side of the road, we were reprimanded by a man in camo pants who threatened to call the KGB if we didn’t turn around immediately. We didn’t have the presence of mind to tell him that the KGB stopped existing 20 years ago. We simply drove back — something that I slightly regret to this day.

You can see more of Agdam in this video or on this blog.

Luckily, there are enough sights that are well worth a visit in the rest of Karabakh, such as monasteries and fortresses. I won’t cover these attractions in this post, as they’re off-topic and your favorite travel sites and books will certainly do a much better job than me, anyway. I’ll just say Karabakh is no Abkhazia, where there’s little to see except for Soviet relics and equally Soviet beaches, and where your life might me threatened more than once (see my Georgian Adventures, parts 7 and 8).

The best way to leave the region without spending several hours driving back the way you came is to take the road from Dadivank over the Zod Pass, at 2,400 meters. You may read in travel guides that the road is impassable, but in summer it never gets worse than what you see on the pictures below. Compared to Georgia, this is a top-notch road that hardly justifies driving a four-wheel drive!

The very scenic road follows the valleys of the Tartar and Lev rivers, sometimes between impressive cliffs, before reaching the Zod gold mines in Armenia.

As you can see, besides the cultural visits, the geographical configuration of the region as a montainous plateau makes for spendid landscapes.

Expect a recipe for zhingalov khats, a specialty from Karabakh, in the near future. Then I’ll cross the enemy lines (figuratively!) and start a new series on my adventures in Azerbaijan.

Georgian Adventures, Part 8

In our previous adventures, we entered Abkhazia, an almost-country that already has a language with a funky Cyrillic alphabet, a flag worthy of a banana republic, a dead president (Vladislav Ardzinba, below), and authoritarian-looking billboards:

Not to mention some of the most accomplished Soviet bus stop artwork:

Except for the Russians who don’t need a visa — after all, there would be no Republic of Abkhazia without them — and spend their vacations on the beaches in the Western part of the country, almost all foreign tourists need to stop at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the capital, Sukhum. The town has a nice seashore promenade, a couple buildings packing all the government personnel necessary to masquerade as a nation, and some unexpected attractions such as a monkey nursery with a statue of a baboon and plans to send apes to Mars. In October 2011, Sukhum will host the little known but illustrious World Domino Championship. Beware, domino players of the world: the Abkhaz people sometimes have a propensity for belligerence. On the first day of our stay, we were threatened several times with having our throats slit or being shot in the head.

Gagra constitutes a far more touristy destination, a famous stretch along the seashore hosting dozens of hotels, former Soviet sanatoriums, restaurants and cafés. Here is a vendor offering chebureks (Tatar deep-fried turnovers with a meat filling) at the terrace of a café on the beach:

The Gagra market is definitely worth a visit to get an idea of the flavors used in the local cuisine. Here are the spices. At the bottom left, khmeli-suneli is a traditional Georgian blend of basil, red pepper, dill, coriander, marjoram and saffron, plus sometimes parsley, mint, savory, celery, bay leaf and fenugreek. This one must be slightly different, as it is more yellow than the usual greenish color.

And here’s an assortment of honeys, teas, sauces, juices (mandarin and pomegranate), wines and spirits.

Mandarins and tea are specific to Abkhazia and you don’t really find them in Georgia, except maybe near the border, in Mingrelia. Be wary of the alcoholic beverages, though: Abkhaz wine is vile. I had no problem drinking plain homemade Georgian wine at every meal for two weeks, but this is completely undrinkable. And it gets worse: some of that bad grape juice is distilled into “cognac”, and bottled with heavy-handedly added natural flavors — imagine a cheap brandy mixed with a whole bottle of almond extract.

The cheese department is more in line with the Georgian offering: think sulguni, either plain or smoked.

Lake Ritsa is another popular destination. Since car rentals are non-existent and taxis can be pretty expensive, your best option is to join one of the day excursions advertised everywhere. For a very modest fee, discover tourism à la Russe! A Russian-speaking guide and a one-armed driver in a minibus will show you every notable feature of the Abkhaz hinterland, from the Maiden Tears to the “Farewell, Motherland!” road shoelace, and give you the opportunity to participate in various degustations. Below are honey and cold mead available for tasting. Adding nuts to honey is a traditional local recipe.

The whole journey is quite entertaining, peppered with Abkhaz legends about the places visited and anecdotes about the virile Abkhaz traditions. Here’s the place where we had lunch: now this is what I call a serious shashlyk grill!

Expect a couple Abkhaz recipes in my upcoming posts!

Georgian Adventures, Part 7

The last leg of our Georgian Adventures took us to the controversial Republic of Abkhazia, the self-proclaimed independent region at the Northeast tip of the country.

Let me start with some practical information (dating from July 2010) for prospective travelers. Getting there isn’t trivial. The airport is closed, and its reconstruction is being delayed both for political and economic reasons. The seaports are deserted. The train stations are in ruins, although service has now been restored between Sukhum, the capital, and the Russian city of Sochi. Riding this train on tracks that have been abandoned for nearly 20 years is probably quite an interesting experience, but I haven’t tried it. The most common point of entry is the Psou crossing point on the Russian border. With a double-entry Russian visa, you can enter Abkhazia by car or by foot here without any problem.

Things become a lot more complicated if you’re on the Georgian side, like we were. There are no flights connecting Georgia and Russia. There is a boat connecting Batumi in Georgia and Sochi in Russia, but they don’t take foreigners — I was never able to clarify if foreigner means non-Georgian, non-Russian or non-Soviet, but it doesn’t matter.  The only way into Abkhazia, then, is via the Ingur crossing point. Though rather than “crossing point”, I should really call it a “cease-fire line”, since Abkhazia and Georgia are still at war.

Unlike what you may have read elsewhere, this is doable, with a little bit of patience. Start by applying for an Abkhazian Entry Permit here. If you’re lucky, you should get the permit in about 5 days. It is however fully possible that the lazy staff at the ministry of foreign affairs is too busy checking their Facebook pages (literally!) or chatting over a glass of orange juice to answer you, and this no matter how many times you re-send your application. With that eventuality, it helps to have a hotel in Sukhum deal with the paperwork in person on your behalf— you’ll have to stay in Sukhum for some time anyway, to get a visa.

If you choose to stay in Zugdidi, a taxi will take you to the Ingur crossing point in about 15 minutes, for a very small fee. Here is the Georgian border:

The Georgian “customs officers”, a group of plainclothes cops in a black Mercedes, are actually friendly enough. They were a bit perplexed to see a group of guys from New York, Paris and Moscow, respectively, trying to enter enemy territory together, but after telling our story 3 times and waiting for over an hour, they finally let us cross the bridge and even asked us to send them pictures — some of them grew up in Sukhum and haven’t been there for 20 years.

You can only cross the bridge over the Ingur River by foot, or in this lovely carriage:

The bridge is pretty long, with only a handful of Georgian soldiers on one side, and whole barracks of Russian soldiers on the other (no pictures allowed, sorry).

The people you will see are mostly locals, going to work or shopping on the other side of the border, and the occasional UN truck with rocket impact marks on its trailer.

Arriving on the other side, an armed Abkhaz custom officers verifies you entry permit, shakes you hand and welcomes you to Abkhazia. You can arrange for a pickup with your hotel in advance, or you should be able to find a taxi to take you to Sukhum. If you choose the former, just be aware that cell phones don’t work at the border and hotel drivers won’t wait for you forever, so make your plans well ahead of time. Taxis can be pretty expensive, especially in a spot like this one where you may not really have a choice. To complicate matters a bit more, come prepared to pay in rubles (or maybe dollars, or euros), as Abkhazia doesn’t use the Georgian Lari and the (literally!) only ATM in the country probably won’t take your card.

The trip from the border to the capital takes about an hour and a half. Abkhazia will satisfy your cravings for Soviet relics even more than Georgia. You’ll see abandoned buildings of questionable purpose:

Little kiosks in the middle of nowhere:

Gas trucks of another age selling fuel on the roadside:

Imposing mosaics promoting improbable achievements; mandatory “Houses of Culture”:

Forgotten communist mottos on the streets… It’s all there!

The new powers in place have added their own contributions,  and throughout the country you can see billboards singing the praise of free independent Abkhazia:

Coming next: visiting the markets and restaurants of Abkhazia! And if you can’t wait, why not try my achma recipe in the meantime?