Ukrainian Snapshot: 10 hours in Kiev, August 2012

Ah, the good old days of Aerosvit! New York-Kiev non-stop in a mere 10 hours, on a plane with nearly non-existent entertainment but at a reasonable price. I’ve used Kiev as a stopover on many trips, spending anywhere from a few hours to a few days there before heading on to Azerbaijan, Georgia, Uzbekistan, or just some other part of Ukraine. Back in August 2012, I was there for about 10 hours, on my way to Tashkent…

Being roughly 4 times less busy than Moscow’s Sheremetyovo and 6 times less busy than New York’s JFK, Borispol was a reasonably efficient airport. A mere 30 minutes after landing, I had already cleared security and picked up my suitcase. Once I’d stashed said suitcase in the baggage room, I hopped in a taxi. Another 30 minutes and I was in central Kiev, cool as a cucumber and ready for lunch.

Kiev - Lesya Ukrainka Boulevard - Mafia Restaurant Continue reading


Ukrainian Snapshot: Vylkove, July 2013

Last summer, after touring Moldova, we crossed the border with Ukraine and headed towards Odessa. The goal wasn’t really Odessa itself, which I had already visited, but a remote village called Vylkove (Vilkovo, in Russian).

Vylkove takes its name from vilka, which means fork, on account of its location in the Danube Delta. Although the town is nicknamed “The Venice of Ukraine”, you’d have to be blind or seriously drunk to confuse the two. Don’t expect any sumptuous palace, carnival, or herds of tourists; Vylkove is just a little fishing village.

Entering Vylkove Continue reading

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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Azerbaijan Adventures, Part 5

In today’s installment, we’re leaving Baku and heading to the mountainous region of Quba. But before we get there, we’ll have a look at the quintessential post-Soviet landscape on the road outside the capital, near Sumqayit. Here’s how the Traiblazer Azerbaijan Guide describes Sumqayit:

“Until 1940 Sumqayit was a village of 4,000 souls set on an idyllic curve of white sandy beach. It might have been developed into the coutnry’s foremost resort. But Soviet planners had a better idea: a concrete tower city of 250,000 people and as many rusty pipes. By the 1980’s it was home to 80% of Azerbaijan’s heavy industry, a brave new world of chemical factories that belched colourful fumes so acrid that locals passing through by train found their white clothes stained yellow!” [There might be a bit of Caucasian exaggeration here.]

Now that most if not all factories have closed, there remains a photogenic dilapidated mess of funky buildings and equipment. I’m no specialist of factory design, but where else do you see such massive group installations like this one, outside of the post-Soviet space?

And what’s the story of this funny building? Why are there windows only on the top floors, and a gap in the middle? Is it supposed to look like it’s collapsing by design? Someone must have noticed that those vertical white lines weren’t all that vertical when they were making them, no?

A truck cemetery nearby completes this picture of desolation:

The same factories, shot by William Oger in black-and-white:

A little bit further on the road, we hit a small derrick field. The old oil derrick is such a fixture in Azerbaijan’s landscape that it deserves a separate post (coming soon).

There are many other abandoned factories in the country, especially in the South and the central region, but they’re further away from the touristy track — insofar as you can talk of tourism when the only other foreigners I’ve seen were there on business trips.

There are also, however, other Soviet relics that a trained eye will notice. Such as this residential gate sporting the logo of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow:

And of course, the bus stops. As per usual in the Caucasus (and everywhere else, really), the locals are pictured living a simple life. In Georgia, people indulged in music, wine, and food. In Azerbaijan, proud men in traditional costumes ride their horses and and hunt game with recurve bows:

Others watch their flocks or harvest their fields. Makes it seem a bit like Azeris are hard-working, while Georgians just like to feast and party!

Of course, the “new” regime, led first by the same former communist boss who used to be the head of the KGB and the country, and then by his son, added its own marks to the landscape, in the form of various billboards in every town and on every road. One classic version represents the patriarch Heydar Aliyev alone (see my Azerbaijan Adventures, Part 2 for a short bio), and the other shows father and son Ilham in deep discussion, the son absorbing the lessons of a man who ruled Azerbaijan in various functions over 30 years. Note to sonny: when daddy’s billboards start fading, they should be refreshed to keep inspiring respect in the populace.

Finally, we’re now entering the region of Quba, whose singular location between the mountains and the sea is, as we’ll see next time, well-suited for growing produce.

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???

Vodkas from the Vanished Empire

During my recent trip to France, I spent some time unearthing forgotten vodka bottles scattered across my parents’ apartment in every possible cabinet and closet. Most of these bottles, acquired in the late 80’s and early 90’s, have been gathering dust ever since, quite often because of the dubious nature of the spirits they contained. Here’s a selection…

Let’s start with the most venerable member of today’s collection: a bottle of Russkaya vodka, purchased in the Soviet Union circa 1985 by my late great-aunt. Despite the level having dropped somewhere behind the neck label, this vodka was still surprisingly drinkable. It’s possible that at the time, the actual proof of alcoholic beverages matched the 40% announced on the label (by 1990, you were getting something closer to 35%). For a little history, the Russkaya brand was created in the 60’s, and by the early 80’s the production and sales rose to an impressive 1.68 billion liters, apparently making it the highest-selling hard liquor in the world.

Next up, here’s a pretty rare vodka that was one of my favorites, Krepkaya, which means “strong”. It contained 56% alcohol, and the bottle suffered some severe evaporation. In my opinion, 60% alcohol is about the limit that separates liquors that provide a pleasant, warming sensation from booze that burns your throat. The Krepkaya brand doesn’t seem to exist anymore, but bottles of unknown provenance can still be purchased from U.K. websites like this one or this one. Notice the Beriozka store price tag on the bottle cap, which seems to have been changed multiple times, maybe to cope with inflation. Depending on the year it was bought, the 6.50 price could have been in rubles or in dollars.

We’ll now enter the world of flavored vodkas — and serious food coloring. Zubrovka was (and still is) flavored with bison grass, and is famous for giving wicked headaches (granted, it’s not the only one). To be precise, the flavoring comes from an alcoholic extract of Hierochloe odorata. While the better-known Polish version is much lighter in color, the Russian one is a suspicious yellow. You can see on the picture the label’s transition from USSR to Russia. Both were still very drinkable.

As far as coloring goes, Limonnaya vodka is certainly the worst offender. The laughably yellow beverage is a complex mix of alcohol, lemon oil, lemon peel, lime alcoholic extract, sugar syrup, and water. I’ve never found that the result met the expectations of the recipe (regardless of whether the current recipe is the same as 20 years ago), so I preferred pouring the bottle down the drain. Notice that at the time the label was printed, inflation was already galloping, and the price exceeded 15 rubles.

I also found a couple of faux aged spirits. Starka is a curious blend of alcohol, water, sugar, port, and “cognac” (i.e. Soviet brandy), infused with apple and pear leaves. Not bad but not really worth the trouble. The Streletskaya was a sweeter beverage whose exact composition I couldn’t tell. This was a rather obscure brand, and although the name is still in use, I’m not sure the recipe’s the same.

And now for something completely different! Here’s a bottle of balsam. If you think chartreuse is vile / brilliant, try balsam, and imagine shooting the whole bottle with one or two friends. One old friend of mine probably still has cocktail recipes mixing balsam and brake fluid. There are so many wicked plants in this abomination that the resulting spirit is nearly pitch black. The most famous kind is Riga Black Balsam from Latvia, but various other regions also produce their own. This ones comes from Karelia, and the label represents the Church of the Transfiguration at Kizhi Pogost.

Finally, not quite from the Soviet Union but nearby, Orzechowka was an interesting Polish walnut cordial. Unlike many other Polish brands of the time, it is longer produced. The occasional bottles turn up, once again on U.K. websites like this one. But fear not! Former top-secret government courier Jack King has a recipe!

That’s all for now. If you’re looking for more Soviet paraphanelia of all kinds, check out this site, which has a very impressive collection of pictures!

Armenian Adventures, Part 2

After Part 1‘s visit to the Central Market, here are some more food-related pictures from the Armenian capital.

Armenia has its fair share of Soviet relics, like this abandoned Soviet café in Victory Park. Apparently this remote café — located on a hill with not-so-breathtaking views of Yerevan, surrounded with war monuments, and featuring only a handful of tables — didn’t survive the laws of supply and demand. By contrast, the numerous restaurants of Barbecue Street in the city center can seat hundreds of people.

Yerevan also offers some examples of food-themed Soviet friezes, a subject dear to my heart. Reliefs can be found in the most unexpected places, such as the post office on Republic Square:

Grapes and pomegranates are recurring motives, together with various animals. The bird on the right side below is probably the mythical Simurgh.

Here’s the ornamental band on the facade of the opera house, this time with grapes and a wild ram or goat.

The Ministry of Finance displays a mini-manual of winemaking, from the harvest to the barrel, which makes the whole process look like a no-brainer: pick, crush, store, done. With such an obsession with vines, it’s really a shame that Armenian wine isn’t all that good!

Well, while I’d be perfectly happy never drinking Armenian wine ever again, Armenia does make cognac-like brandy that can actually be quite good. I find that the bottlings around 10 years of age are the most interesting.

The Yerevan Brandy Company, which produces the famous Ararat brandy (and is now owned by the French Pernod-Ricard group), stands on a plateau high above Victory Bridge. It offers tours of the premises followed by generous tastings that will  make you forget most of the explanations your guide gave you.

Sadly, this is the only distillery I’ve ever visited where the actual production isn’t shown! The only parts you can see are the storage facility (pictured below), which has a rather hypocritical barrel dedicated to peace in Nagorno-Karabakh, and a museum of uninteresting brandy memorabilia. Disappointing.

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?