Saturday, January 5, 2013

Elista: Desolate Disappointment

By Ben Scott

Elista, capital of the Republic of Kalmykia, world capital of the noble game of chess and largest Buddhist city in Europe (not that there are that many places vying for that accolade), ranks highly among my list of ‘Biggest Travel Disappointments.’ 

For this, I blame Daniel Kalder and his book ‘Lost Cosmonaut’ (reviewed by DT here). Having read it a few years ago, long before I had ever set foot in the Former Soviet Union, his description of the Kalymk capital conjured up images of an absurd wasteland on the sad periphery of Europe, trembling under the megalomania of a chess-loving, enemy-assassinating dictator while slowly disintegrating into the dust of the endless steppe surrounding it.  I enjoyed the book and its description of Kalymkia, and was intrigued by idea of a Buddhist enclave within Europe which was obsessed with chess and had nothing of any consequence to offer the world.  Although then an armchair desolationist as yet uninitiated to the joys of travel in the fringes of the Soviet empire, the book sparked my imagination and never faded from my memory.

Last spring, I spent a week in Southern Russia visiting a colleague.  I was staying in the small industrial city of Volzhskiy on the outskirts of Volgograd.  It was my first (and so far only) trip to Russia, and a quick glance at the map showed that the city of Elista was only a hop, skip and a jump away across the steppe.   I couldn’t conceive of any circumstance where I would only be 2cm. from Kalymkia again (although 2cm. on a map of Russia transpires to mean a five hour journey each way), and so naturally I decided to go.  On a day trip.

Ten hours of travel to spend two hours at a destination might seem absurd, and that would be because it is.   Fortunately, my friend found some others who were happy to make the trip, and so I caught a lift with them.  The scenery on the journey varied between monotonous green and brown grasslands and the back of my eyelids as I was bored into unconscious inertia.  One highlight was passing through a village populated by emigrants from the Caucasus, where signs advertised delicious Georgian, Chechen and Azeri food.  Unfortunately, I was travelling in a car full of local Russians, who were horrified by the idea of stopping at a place where ‘the people aren’t even from this country.’  This was distressing, as I love khachapuri, and having it surrounding me but being unobtainable was a form of psychological torture. Besides that one village, and a brief stop for a domestic dispute between two of the car’s passengers, there was just more grass of varying shades of brown and green.  I came to the conclusion that steppe is not among my favoured landscapes, and that the best remedy is sleep.  Which is hard to do in a car with dodgy suspension and no air-con in 40 degree heat.

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Elista itself wasn’t worth the trip, although that’s not to say that I’m not glad I didn’t go, or that I would discourage anyone else from making the journey if they just so happen to be in the area (the chances of that happening are, I suspect, slim).  It’s quite a pleasant, tidy-looking little Russian city with a couple of (obviously new) pagodas and Buddhist-themed statues/kitsch/crap, a huge (new) Buddhist temple and a few Asiatic-looking people walking around speaking Russian.  If foreign tourists were ever to descend en masse to Kalmykia, they might bemoan the lack of ‘authenticity’ without realising that this is in fact as authentic as it gets.  The Kalmyk are a Buddhist people, but they are also Russian and European.  Expecting a Soviet Shangri-La would be ridiculous.  My Russian car-cohabitants were unimpressed, walking morosely in the wrong direction around the temple to the consternation of the Kalymk praying inside.  

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The much-touted ‘Chess City,’ a ridiculous project created by the aforementioned dictator on the outskirts of Elista, was disappointingly low key.  The megalomania I had been promised wasn’t as evident as I had hoped, the place looking to me like a chess-themed industrial estate on the outskirts of any provincial town.   

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We didn’t go to the restaurant which purported to serve wolf meat, as our two hours were up and it was time for the long journey back home. 

We had seen all there was to see.

I expected desolation in a savage, absurd wasteland, and instead I found mediocrity with a few bits of Disneyfied ‘Asia’ scattered around.  Perhaps Elista was once as described in the book, but now it feels much closer to the Russian mainstream, with the addition of a Mongolian consulate and giant golden temple.  If one searches for desolation and doesn’t find it, then arguably the purpose of the trip has been accomplished.  I was searching for the Elista that Kalder described – an Elista which, if it ever existed, seems to have now moved on.  I’m glad for the Kalymk people, and I’m happy to have seen the reality for myself.  But I can’t help but think two hours in Elista is an hour too long. 

And that I really, really am not a fan of steppe.

Holiday in Abkhazia

By Ben Scott

I am disappointed with the name the people have chosen to call their country.  Apsny.  It sounds to me like some kind of gelatinous substance which might be produced by a particularly severe throat infection and then unceremoniously hacked up in a violent coughing fit.  For once, English has the good sense to use a more exciting, exotic-sounding name:  Abkhazia.  For a people blessed with a beautiful language renowned for its onslaught of consonants in unimaginably complex clusters, I can’t help but feel the Abkhaz did not reach their full potential when naming their country. 

Friends of mine have blazed the trail before me Abkhazia, while a recent warzone and an unrecognised state to which the British Foreign Office advises against all travel (under any circumstances), is not virgin territory among my cohort of intrepid friends.   Thousands of Russians and a sprinkling of westerners have preceded us.  We are not explorers, just tourists.  We are on holiday- a chance to kick back, relax, and enjoy the scenery without worrying about work, bills and other mundane matters.  While sitting in the charming Cafe Lika in central Sukhumi, Lika herself brings over the visitor’s book and proudly points at the only English-language entry.  Apparently the previous foreign visitors found Lika’s hospitality and great cooking a relief after having been detained for 18 hours by the Abkhaz police.  We hope we don’t suffer a similar fate in this lawless non-country where we have no diplomatic representation.  After all, we are tourists.  Trouble and excitement are far from our minds.  We just want a relaxing holiday.

My original intention had been a long weekend at a pleasant, rustic hostel in the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia.  A bit of walking in the pine forests, a trip on a cable car, maybe a tour of Krakow.  I ask my friend W if she would like to come along.  She suggests Georgia, trusting me to take us somewhere ‘suitably dangerous, with delicious food.’  So, my relaxing long weekend in Eastern Europe turns into a two week jaunt around the Caucasus.  Not that I’m complaining – like all sensible people, I have wanted to visit Georgia since I first discovered its existence.  And the food is certainly delicious.  It seems rude to visit but not to venture into Abkhazia, former warzone now Russian beach holiday paradise.  Getting in is now just a matter of applying for a visa and paying $20 – easy.  So it is that we emerge from an overheated, urine-scented train at Zugdidi as dawn is breaking, eager to find a taxi driver to take us to ‘the border.’  

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Ben Scott at Zugdidi

But of course, it’s not really a ‘border,’ because to call it a ‘border’ would confer legitimacy on the brutal, evil and totally illegal Abkhaz government- really just a bunch of criminals lording it over an integral part of Georgia.  In a hushed and needlessly urgent tone, I ask the taxi driver if he’s willing to take us ‘to the river; to Ingur.’  Nudge, nudge, wink wink.  ‘To the border?’ he asks, motioning for us to get in.

The ‘border’ is closed when we get there, the Georgian police officers sleeping in their hut.  I decide it probably wouldn’t go down to well to wake them up in order to ask permission to leave Georgian-Georgia and cross over the river to the part of their country which is presently and inconveniently occupied by Russian soldiers.  So we sit in the sunshine watching the pigs, and wait.  After a while, there are signs of movement, visits to the privy and shower and then, finally, signs that the working day is to begin.  The Georgian policeman on duty doesn’t look thrilled to see us there, but we are not the first westerners to have passed through, and as Abkhazia is still legally part of Georgia he can’t block our passage.  With an air of resignation, he takes our details and asks where we plan to travel.  An impassioned, frustrated speech about the unfairness of it all – how foreigners such as us can travel freely whereas he is trapped, unable to cross the river to see what lies on the other side.  We sympathise, and offer weak platitudes that maybe better times await in the future.  Then, trying not to skip with joy, we head for the border and the other side.  It begins to drizzle, as we sit in the back of a clapped-out horse-drawn cart, wending our way past puddle-filled potholes and past hunchbacked refugees cloaked in black.  

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Crossing the 'border'

Our driver sings a mournful song and salutes the young Georgian soldier guarding the free world against the Russian enemy.  We stop at a gate – Russian soldiers eyeing us on the other side while harassing ethnic Georgian refugees.  It all looks a bit forbidding and ominous.  Not like a holiday place.   Even the uniforms look scary – no smart police-style outfits now, just fatigues and what are, I suspect, Kalashnikovs.   We have crossed the edge of the known world of diplomatic protection and European human rights laws, and have entered a new space.

Our stay in Abkhazia is relatively uneventful.  There are no wars, arrests, or ethnic cleansing.  There are also no non-Russian tourists, and certainly no other Asian faces besides W’s.  The Minister of Foreign Affair’s taxi-driving brother-in-law rips us off and then drives off with our luggage in the back to pick up another fare.   We wonder if we’ll ever see our bags again, but eventually he returns.  We stay at Amra’s dilapidated apartment in the Sukhumi suburbs.  She is nice enough, but desperate to sell me a pair of fake Levis and a huge jar of honey.   Unfortunately, space is at a premium in my bags, so I decline the offer.  We only hear gunshots outside her apartment once, but she warns me that Sukhumi nights bring dangers for people like us, and insists we are home before dark.  We meet the Minister of Foreign Affair’s mother on a bus to Gagra.  She stares at W for a long time, before enquiring politely where we are from.  A man in Sukhumi approaches W while brandishing some Uzbek money, asking her to ascertain the value of ‘her people’s money’ in Roubles.   A member of the militsia stares at us and then descends into a deep bow.  ‘Welcome,’ he says.  One man speeds past us as we approach a zebra crossing, gawping out the window as he passes.  The next we hear is the slamming of the brakes and him screeching up the road in reverse.  He reverses past us and then lowers the window, graciously beckoning for us to cross the road.   We suspect that the sight of British and Malaysian tourists lugging backpacks around Sukhumi is not one he often sees.   We meet a few nice people and many nice cats. We visit the Research Centre where monkeys are kept in pitiful conditions, and buy fruit to thrust into their sad, begging hands.  

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This is a scientific institute where, during better times, monkeys were trained to be Cosmonauts of the Soviet Union.  I do not suspect that Abkhazia has any plan for simian space travel soon, given the dilapidated ruins which scatter the institute and the sorry state of their inhabitants.  

We sunbathe on the stones at Gagra beach, and I brave a swim in the surprisingly warm November sea.  A gelatinous substance coats my foot and I decide to leave the water.  

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We visit the monastery and waterfall at Novy Afon, look admiringly at the towering mountains, deep blue sea and palm trees, and feed bread to adorable kittens while ignoring the swans which glide across the impossibly scenic lake. 

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Novy Afon Monastery

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Bombed-out buildings are impressively juxtaposed against idyllic park and mountain backdrops.  For the tourist seeking new holiday horizons, all seems perfect.

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But something just doesn’t feel right about Abkhazia.  It’s not just the knowledge of what happened here, the horrific ethnic cleansing of Georgians and the atrocities committed during the war.  It’s not even the inconvenience of being unable to withdraw cash, or the inflated prices and inferior food.  The sun beats down strongly even in late Autumn, but there is little of the warmth of Georgia here.  People have been nice, and on a few memorable occasions even friendly, but there is none of the vitality and joy of the other side of the river.  There is tension and people keep their distance.  Post-Soviet service standards seem to be the norm.  No more free wine and smiles.  No more ‘where are you from and do you like my country?’  Taxi drivers quote absurd prices with a predatory gleam in their eyes.  There is sometimes laughter at my attempts at speaking Russian – and not kindly jest.  A man kicks a cat and people tease the monkeys.  Neither W nor I can shake the feeling that there is something bad in the air here.  Yes, the palm trees are beautiful, the snow-capped mountains towering, the beaches nice to look at, and the vegetation luxuriant.   And yes, we have had the pleasure of meeting some charming, friendly people like the wonderful Lika.  But, however much it markets itself as such, something tells me that Abkhazia needs to do more to make itself the holiday paradise it aspires to be.  

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The taxi driver who meets us at the Georgian side of the river-which-may-or-may-not-be-a-border gives us a fair price, and we chat in broken Russian.  As we talk property prices, work and food on the short drive to Zugdidi, I begin to relax for the first time in days.  We are back in Georgia.  Back on holiday.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Abkhazian Angst: A glimpse of the past in present day Tkvarcheli

by Ben Rich
To see the full set of photographs from Ben's trip to Abkhazia, please click here.

I'd been in Abkhazia for a week and I was getting bored. I'd come looking for an adventure but instead I had been seduced by the warm waters of the Black Sea and the excellent Abkhaz wine which I had been drinking liberally since I'd arrived. I'd always liked the idea of a traditional beach holiday, set in beautiful surroundings but with the backdrop of a war zone. The juxtaposition of leisure and horror intrigued me. However as I had soon realised after crossing the Ingur bridge into Abkhazia, this small country only lived up to half of the bargain. It was stunning, a naturalist’s paradise but the terror was over, I could sleep safely. And whilst that was a good thing for the local population who had witnessed enough horror, selfishly, I was a little disappointed. 

I was in the southern town of Ochamchire, a town that privileged Soviets had flocked to in great numbers before the fall to relax on its pebble beach and soak up the southern sun. But the days of Ochamchire's beaches being full of holidaying apparatchiks and their families were but a distant memory. Now the town was a sleepy backwater that had few visitors and a wrecked tourist infrastructure. An abandoned hotel stood at one end of the beach and looked out over a beautiful shore line that now had more cows strolling along it then holidaymakers. 


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Abandoned hotel in Ochamchire

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View from the abandoned hotel

Ochamchire is a town where every street is a reminder to the war and the ethnic cleansing that took place there. As the victorious Abkhaz fighters backed by the Russian army pushed the Georgian army out across the Ingur river back into Georgia the ethnic Georgian population who had lived in Abkhazia for generations followed them carrying what they could and leaving what they could not. They were the lucky ones. The stragglers and the brave were rounded up and herded into Ochamchire's football stadium from where women and children were systematically raped and the men were killed. Streets of empty houses the only reminder to their presence in the country and the genocide committed against them. I'd asked people in the town how they felt about the fact that the neighbours that they had grown up with sharing their vines and wells had been allowed to be so cruelly treated. Was there a sense of common shame? Few were willing to utter more than a few words on the matter. History may well be written by the victors but they seem less inclined to speak. 

My map showed a solitary road heading deep into the Caucus mountains beginning in Ochamchire and ending at the town of Tkvarcheli, in the mountains some 30 kilometers away. With no idea as to what I would find there but with no better options I flagged down a passing taxi. A battered Volga pulled up driven by a silver haired Abkhazian man. Levar, as he introduced himself, was confused by my request. "Why don't I take you to Novi Afon instead, the scenery there is more beautiful." He was reluctant to take me to Tkvarcheli insisting I'd not like the place. I increased my offer to 1500 Roubles, a foolishly high sum for such a short journey and reluctantly he asked me to get in. We left Ochamchire, passing through streets and neighbourhoods where nine tenths of the houses were abandoned and burnt out, the Georgian quarter.  As we drove on into the foothills of the Caucus mountains the more suspicious Levar became of my intentions there. "What do you want to go to Tkvarcheli for?" he pressed. I'd already explained that I just wanted to have a wander around, I was bored of the beach, but that raised his suspicions further, "They will think you are a spy and arrest you," he said looking at me without a hint of humour. "Well then they'll shoot you for collaborating with the enemy," I said teasing. We drove on in silence.


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As the road climbed out of the foothills and into the mountains the temperature dropped. We drove into a patch of fog but when we appeared through the other side we did so into a landscape of verdant hills, rushing mountain streams and the occasional abandoned building. It was a stunningly beautiful place. It was also more Soviet then the coast, the signposts, the hammer and sickle motifs on buildings, there had not been such a rush to eradicate the reminders to the past. It was also noticeably poorer. Abkhazian people had been wonderfully friendly on my trip. This trip to the Caucuses, my first, had been an epiphany for me. For years I had associated the Russian language and all who spoke it with an unsmiling solemnness. But here in the Caucuses for the first time I saw the Russian language used by races who used the language as an instrument to convey happiness. People smiled at strangers, they said dobri-den whilst passing on the street. It was nothing short of shocking to walk into a shop to be welcomed by smiling faces speaking Russian (Russian is the lingua franca of Abkhazia and the Caucus region) and not to be made to feel as though you were a nuisance. Yet here in the mountains on the road to Tkvarcheli there were no smiles. As we passed half abandoned villages people watched us pass, but seemingly with suspicion etched on their faces. It seemed outsiders didn't come this way much. The road was empty without any other vehicles on it save the occasional army truck loaded with Russian conscripts. I'd heard nothing but resentment towards the Russian military presence in Abkhazia. Shortly after crossing the border into Abkhazia a week earlier the marshrutka I had been travelling in had been stopped at an army road block manned by Russian soldiers. All the passengers and I were ordered outside for a documentation inspection. The Abkhazian passengers were seething that they were being stopped and inspected by Russians in their own country. It was plain to see where the real power lay in Abkhazia and the locals resented it. 


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We drove on in silence and passed a sign announcing our entry into the Tkvarcheli region, Lavar the driver turned to me and reminded me that I should be careful. Rounding a corner the view of Tkvarcheli opened up in front of us. It was not a pretty sight. In a mist shrouded valley lay the lower half of the town, the industrial area, the coal mine, the now abandoned railway station, some disused factories with their decaying towers and some Stalinist buildings long abandoned and beyond repair. And up higher on the upper slopes of the mountain side lay the centre of the town, the worker's quarters and all that was necessary for life. Stretched out high above the town and linking both halves, the upper and the lower, were steel cables holding a couple of now disused cable cars, stranded midway between the wheel houses, no doubt used to transfer the workers from the upper half of the town down to the mine. It was a scene unlike any I had ever seen on my FSU travels before. An ugly town, run down and decaying but paradoxically set in such lush and beautiful surroundings. 


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 I asked Levar to park up by the railway station that stood at the entrance to the lower half of the town. I switched on my camera, "Don't let anybody see you," Levar instructed tetchily. I entered the collapsing terminal building built in the classical style Soviet architects of the early period were instructed to build. It had not been used for years but once had train services to Sukhumi and beyond. I walked along the overgrown platform, nobody in sight, the lower half of the town was dead. As I walked to the end I saw Levar hiding behind a wall watching me. Did he suspect me of being a spy or was he just looking out for me? In Ochamchire I had been complacent about being in a conflict area, but up here in Tkvarcheli with Levar and his warnings about me being arrested or being seen things felt different. A strange feeling was growing inside me, one I did not recognise. We returned to the car, Levar wanted to return to Ochamchire but I insisted we drive on. 

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Abandoned railway station

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We passed derelict factory buildings until coming to a traffic circle which marked the entrance to the upper part of the town. It was surrounded on three sides by Stalinist apartment buildings, solidly built but long abandoned. The street was empty except for two guys loading a large sack into the back of a Lada. They stopped and eyed us suspiciously before dumping the sack in the trunk of the car and driving off. We parked up next to a fast flowing river and I got out. "If you see someone hide your camera and act normal," Lavar instructed. I ran across the open space in the centre of the road and into an over grown and disused park which had a dilapidated fountain and beyond that a shell of an apartment building. 


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It was rare to see housing of such quality in the former Soviet Union. These buildings were built with quality materials and built to last. They had not collapsed, but had been stripped of their wood. Window frames, roof lintels, floor joists. They'd been needed perhaps in the cold winter months of the war. I'd seen plenty of Krushevkas in states of disrepair but these were different, this was not worker's housing. I walked through the park following the cracked cement pathway. It was deserted, the only sound being that of the river running through the centre of town. I returned to the car. 

We crossed the river and climbed higher into the upper town. There was no sign of modernity, nothing to suggest we were in the new millennium. The streets were empty except for the occasional Soviet built car and glum looking pedestrian who stood and watched as we drove past. There were a few shops built into the bottom of Stalinist apartment buildings which had painted wooden signs advertising what they stocked 'Shoes', 'Products', 'Bread'. It was like a film set. We pulled up at an abandoned theatre, outside were some workmen taking a rest from painting a building on the opposite side of the road. I entered the theatre through a broken door in the lobby whilst undoing my zip, better they think I was urinating on their theatre then photographing it. Its rooms had the detritus of the towns past cultural life; a rotting cupboard of costumes, discarded celluloid film reels, a ballet shoe hanging on a nail. The auditorium was a jumble of rotting leather chairs. How had it come to this? Was the squalor in the town the result of the war, or the result of a collapsing economy that was no longer spoon fed on subsidies? 


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Abandoned Theatre

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We drove on passing more glum pedestrians shuffling along semi deserted streets. At the time of the last great Soviet census in 1989 the population of the town stood at 22,000. Twenty years on it is less than 5000. People had left the town at the first opportunity. Why? Levar turned to me as we drove, "Who are you?" he asked, my previous explanation that I was just a tourist had obviously not convinced him. "Really, who are you?" I'd never had that question put to me before and for a moment I was unsure as to what he meant, but what he meant was what was I doing up here in the mountains of Abkhazia in some hell hole photographing everything that everybody else ceased caring about 20 years ago? It was a good question, one I had no real answer to, but in his mind he knew the answer. I either really was a spy or more likely, an idiot. People wanted to escape this town yet I'd sought it out despite his best efforts to steer me away. Why was I not in Novy Afon with the other tourists? 

 Everything in the town was so imposing, hewn from grey rock, built to survive the winters. During the independence war in the early 90's Georgian forces had besieged Tkvarcheli and tried starving the town into submission. The town's population had held out for over 400 days until Abkhaz forces with Russian help had relieved the town. It was a town built to endure, physically and mentally. We took another road that led to a plateau high above the town and came to an abandoned restaurant overlooking a bend in the river. It was a beautiful setting; the town planners had chosen their spot well. The restaurant was built on a raised plinth with a glass front that opened up the view to the distant snow-capped mountains, up here with nobody watching Levar relaxed a little. He went to the trunk of his car and pulled out a bottle of sickly sweet Abkhaz wine and a dirty plastic mug. "This place was a fine restaurant, you needed connections to get a table. I heard Beria ate here". We both sat in silence and drank the sickly sweet wine gazing out at the view. Talk of Beria and the images that his name conjured up brought back the feelings of unease I'd felt since entering this town. As we finished the last of the wine Levar asked if I wanted to see anything else but I'd seen enough and did not like what I had seen.

I'd visited run down towns all over the former Soviet Union in search of reminders of the near past but this place was different. The difference was that in other towns and cities there had been small reminders to the past in a sea of steadily growing modernity, a krushevka building surrounded by glass office buildings, a crumbling Soviet bus stop mural plastered with posters for an Ace of Base concert, an abandoned fishing boat. They were subtle reminders of the late Soviet period. There were of course two Soviet Unions: Pre-Stalin's death and post. Post-1953 was Yuri Gagarin and Sputnik, it was Glasnost and the Moscow Olympics, it was Alla Pugachova pop songs and Tarkovsky films, it was Kvass dispensers and Cheburashka cartoons. It was a familiar place that on the surface at least was not too different to our own countries. I could have found a place for myself in that world. Tkvarcheli was not of that world. Tkvarcheli was built in the early 1940's,a nastier more vicious period. And it did not just offer a glimpse into that time; it seemingly still inhabited it. 


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The abandoned apartment buildings on the traffic circle overlooking the only road into the town were too well built to have been built for the workers; instead they were built for the nomenclature of the Stalinist period: party cadres and their families, securitat men, directors of the factories. And nobody achieved those positions in those dark days without having blood on their hands, without handing over a list of names, without reporting to someone. Nobody got to live in the well-built apartment overlooking the park in Tkvarcheli unless they were able to mute the voice of their conscience and do certain despicable things. Up there looking out of their apartment windows they would have seen all who came and went into the town, making mental notes. The coal mine, the life blood of the town would have been mined by the hands of prisoners, people torn from their homes and dumped here. Nobody would have come to this damp valley unless it was through force or instruction. The town was built to supply coal to the Soviet industrial machine; quotas would have to be filled with dire consequences for ones that were not met. And how did those prisoners arrive in the town? They walked along the very platform I'd walked on at the railway station earlier. The abandoned restaurant I was sitting in had not been not for the town's folk to enjoy but for the ruling elite and that meant people implicit in crimes. The cold stares, the paranoia, the constant watching as we drove past – it was too real. I'd always wondered how it would have been to have lived in the Soviet Union in the height of Stalin's paranoiac reign where nobody was to be trusted, where you were watched and spied upon by your closest neighbours and family. Where there were certain buildings you dared not walk past because of the horrors contained within. Now for the first time in my travels I felt the faint touch of its tentacles, the first sting of fear and despair. Tkvarcheli was a cruel place, sodomised by its own collusion with history. Lavar sensed it and had tried to warn me without verbalising the fact. And now I had come to sense it too. Tkvarcheli was a concrete testament of man's inhumanity to man. 


We drove back from the restaurant along the half deserted streets passing the more Stalinist buildings. A man in a suit ran out of a building towards us shouting in a language I did not know, Levar accelerated past him. I watched him in the wing mirror as he pointed at our car whilst frantically shouting at a passersby. I turned to look at Levar for an explanation but he was staring ahead,jaw tensed in the direction of the road out of town. I was glad to be heading there with him.

To see the full set of photographs from Ben's trip to Abkhazia, please click here.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

DesoLIT: Tearing up the Silk Road

Tearing up the Silk Road: A modern journey from China to Istanbul, through Central Asia, Iran, and the Caucasus was written by Tom Coote, who provided an excerpt from his book as a guest blog post on this site. His book can be purchased through Amazon by clicking here (here for Kindle) or on the image below. Tom can be reached at tom@tomcoote.net, and his website is www.tomcoote.net. The review below is by Desolation Travel's Jane Keeler. 

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Author Tom Coote had 9 weeks of freedom left before returning to the UK and the daily humdrum of working life. He was returning to the UK from East Asia, and decided to make the trip home by land along the route of the old Silk Road, taking only public transportation. As anyone who has traveled in that part of the world knows, doing something like that in nine weeks is a daunting task - especially if one wants to see something of the countries one is passing through. Coote did an admirable job of it, making it to China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Armenia, Georgia, and Turkey during his whirlwind trip. As someone who used to live in Kyrgyzstan, I was disappointed that he didn't make it to my favorite 'stan due to his arrival at the border during the time of the 2010 Kyrgyz revolution - although surely had he offered the border guard a large enough bribe he could have gotten in!

As Coote only has a short amount of time to spend in each location, he is only able to give the reader a superficial glance into the cities, towns, peoples, and cultures he encounters along the way. That being said he does give a good description of the realities facing travelers along the Silk Road, from difficulties arranging transportation or finding adequate lodging, to the lack of hygienic toilet facilities. (I will say he goes into a lot more detail about toilets and bathrooms than we perhaps needed - although when I lived over there these were often topics of conversation among my expat friends, so I definitely understand his desire to discuss such things. Coote also makes it to the main tourist attractions (some of them delightfully desolate and iffy) along his route. This book would make an excellent guide of things to do - and, perhaps, not to do - for anyone planning to attempt to follow the route of the Silk Road in our modern era.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Kitsch on US-1

by Jane K.

US-1 was the main north-south highway in the eastern US prior to the construction of the Interstate Highway System. Interstate highway I-95 roughly parallels US-1, but it is far enough away from it that the hotels, motels, bars, and restaurants along US-1 have all but faded into the underbrush. US-1 is still traveled, but typically only by people going short distances. Long haul travelers usually take the Interstates. My mom and I had popped down to Jacksonville, FL from our home in Waycross, GA the other day, and we took US-1 there and back. The stretch of US-1 between its intersection with I-10 in Jacksonville and the Florida/Georgia border is dotted with the remains of old motels.

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(The map's a tad backwards - pictures start at B and go towards A)

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At the intersection of US-1 and I-10

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At the intersection of US-1 and I-10

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US-1, between Callahan and Hilliard

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US-1, between Callahan and Hilliard

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US-1, between Callahan and Hilliard

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US-1, between Callahan and Hilliard

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US-1 in Hilliard

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US-1 between Hilliard and the GA border

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US-1 between Hilliard and the GA border