Good Luck, Goodbye

Thanks, all of you, for being part of my travels this year.  I still have a few trips left, but competing demands on my time are going to keep me from telling you all about them.

I just wrapped up a trip to the far east of Russia.  After a few days in Vladivostok, I rode the fabled Trans-Siberian train west to Khabarovsk and came full-circle, where the name of this blog is concerned.  The telling of those adventures and the stories from my follow-on trips to Mongolia and Kazakhstan will have to await a future venue – preferably a cabana on some Carribean island, local beverage in-hand.

Take care, and good luck chasing your own horizons.

Leftovers but No Lunch

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I have to say, I am impressed with eastern Turkey.  This is not because private benefactors or the government have done such a bang-up job preserving their cultural sites out here; quite the opposite is true in that regard.  There are crumbling, tumbling castle walls and fort-ruins all over the place.  Huge Hittite base-blocks have Seljuk stones heaped on them, with Ottoman crenellation at the very tops of these ancient, collapsing structures.  No; preservation is not it.  It is the fact that so many of these places exist to begin with – and in such close proximity to one another – which so impresses me.  What was out here at one point impresses me.  But then, you know what they say about someone who can play with a rubber-band for hours…

Hoşap Castle

I drove out to Hoşap Castle, south of Van in Güzelsu, Turkey.  The castle here is a great example of what I am talking about.  Okay, it’s not “Hittite” old, but still.  A little TLC would go a long way toward making this place enjoyable for future generations.  You know what would also be helpful?  The guy with the key to let visitors like us inside of the locked main gate would be helpful.  At the behest of the “Chai Guy” (some vendor with a dirty white van of some European make parked at the gate) who said he called Key-Guy on his cell-phone, I waited around for 30 minutes.  Along with me, there waited a group of four middle-aged, Middle Eastern men and a much older fellow they kept referring to in Arabic as “Abu” (“Father”).

Note the contrast between the very old (the remnants of castle outer-walls on either side) and very new (the new buildings in the background). Even the squat two-room home in the foreground – modeled after old mud-huts that were similarly constructed but of different materials in ancient times – has a satellite dish atop it.

After a solid 30 minutes of snapping pictures of the hamlet at the base of the castle, I thought, “Tammom,” (“Okay” in Turkish) and left.  So be it.  Here’s the thing: around here, you have no way of knowing in advance, whether a place like this will be open or not.  You don’t actually find out until you have arrived and Chai-Guy (who in instances like these ought to also double as “Assistant Key-Guy”) gives you the shoulder-shrug.

Far from disenchanted, I went to where the grass really was greener, figuratively and literally.  There is an Armenian church on Akdamar Island out on Van Lake, to which I took a $2.00 ferry.  The island served for several centuries as a type of Armenian boarding school for children.  Obviously, the Armenians were “disinvited” from further religious and academic activities out there, but the place still looks great, and smells strongly of sweet cherry blossom this time of year besides.  The travel book I read clearly states that the café on the island serves Kurdish dishes – something I was curious to try.  The kid behind the register laughed at that, and told me that my choices were tea or bottled water.  If you’re headed that way, my recommendation is to pack a lunch, lift a blanket from the hotel for the day and enjoy the idyllic setting looking out at captivating Van Lake.

In the Shadow of the Mountain

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Enjoy a few street scenes from the town of Iğdır (my terrible Turkish pronunciation makes the name sound like “Eyedurr”), the town which sits at the base of Mt Ararat.  According to the story, Noah marched his folks and fauna off of the 17,000 foot peak, let the wildlife loose and turned to the business of repopulating the earth. 

Iğdır is the Turkish name for the town which Noah and his offspring started up.  Most of the signs seem to indicate that Iğdır is the agricultural center of the eastern Turkish province bearing the same name.  Famous mountain or not, tourists were nowhere to be seen, and I casually pretended not to notice the many stares I received out on the street.  Nobody speaks any English out here, so pack a little extra confidence if you head out this way.

Checkpoints and Chuckles

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I stepped out onto my balcony early this morning and watered various senses with refreshing air, lake-views and a potent cup of Turkish coffee.  The sun started early by throwing near-horizontal rays out over Van Lake, and I just had a feeling that today was going to be a rewarding day.  The first order of business was to get a rental car. 

Yesterday evening, I chased a weak lead on a potential rental car to its fruitless conclusion at a travel-agency in the heart of town.  The car looked like an employee’s private, aging chariot, replete with dings, rusts blotches and an overall unwholesome appearance.  For kicks, I actually wanted to hear what the thing sounded like, fired up and pretending to be a working automobile.  Things never progressed to that point, and our increasingly-hokey negotiations turned from amicable to distrustful when the daily rental price I was quoted began to fluctuate under increasingly more conditions.  The older gentleman at the agency began to sense the lost rental and started back-pedaling on the sliding-scale rates, but my confidence in the operation was blown and I was out the door.  So, alternative sources it was, then.  Unless you’re willing to take a chance by renting from someone’s brother’s friend’s cousin’s acquaintance, the Van airport car rental becomes your last real chance at your own set of wheels.

I was provided with a neglected, white little diesel Ford Fiesta, which I mentally christened first one unkind name, then another.  My relief at finally acquiring independent transportation was neutralized within minutes, thanks to the little flea-like machine’s wishy-washy performance.  Not much later, I had a good five-minute laugh at both the goofy thing on four tires and my peevishness.  I thought to myself, “How good things must truly be, if the lowest rung on my ladder right now is a wobbly, misfiring 4-cylinder “wonder-wheels.”  With Mt Ararat some 175 miles to the north and expected periodic “Jandarma” (one of the Turkish military branches) checkpoints interspersed throughout the remote countryside, my mind went into that particular gear into which it goes when things get weird and I start ad-libbing my plans.  Vast stretches of the road to Eğdir (the town nearest to Mt Ararat) are abandoned except for the aforementioned Jandarma checkpoints.  These checkpoints pop up randomly for the purpose of detecting and apprehending Kurdish separatists, the search for whom is relentless in this part of the country.  The checkpoint business usually goes something like this:

First, you come to a big red stop-sign placed to the side of the road.  Heed this red-and-white difference between life and death.  These Jandarma guys are way too well-armed (we’re talking APCs, a Vietnam-era M60 tank, light-artillery in the neighborhood of 75-mm or so, and there’s probably an attack-helicopter stashed just out of sight somewhere) for you to even think of doing otherwise.  At some point, a really young guy (helmet-size either fits or doesn’t, rusty AK-47 either works or won’t) will wave you over.  Brakes.  Exit vehicle with passport visible.  Car gets tossed (I mean, a gear-orgy commences inside of the cabin, where everything in your backpack is shaken out like a dusty rug all over the backseat; the contents of the glove-compartment are scattered hither-thither once the searcher gets bored with them; anything zipped up gets unzipped; seat cushions are punched and kneed with Guantanamo-like vengeance.).  Absolutely nothing escapes these gents.

On the way to Eğdir

Up at elevation, I moved into worsening weather, and visibility dropped some.  I began to fret that Mt Ararat would elude me yet again.  I drove through passes among impressive hills and mountains, and as I started to round the base of an improbably massive one, was beginning to wonder when I would get a glimpse of the mountain for which I was searching.  Rain staccato-tapped the windshield all the way into Eğdir, and then suddenly large pockets of blue in the sky began to let corresponding lakes of gold shine into the wide valley I had entered.  “Where is this elusive mountain?” I thought, as the road continued to wind around the base of this monstrosity to my right.

Volcanic plateau south of Mt Ararat

Iranian border control and observation point along Turkey's eastern border.

Clearly, I cannot have brought you this far without adding one more comical mental image, of the first person to point out Mt Ararat to me with naked incredulity.  I’m not sure what the Turkish word for “dummy” is, but there is no doubt in my mind that one of those sounds coming from him contained the term in one of its variants, verbalized as the white-bearded gentleman pointed a gnarled finger behind us at the now-visible, towering, snow-capped giant.  “Well, of course that is Mt Ararat!” I replied with conviction.  “Of course it is.”  All is well.  Mt Ararat exists.  Turkish adventures continue.

Mt Ararat

Tea in the East

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The occasion of this post is to share with you some of my discoveries about the city of Van, a city on the eastern fringes of Turkey.  Often referred to as a “border outpost” town by both foreigners and their own countrymen to the west, this city is indeed an interesting one from several perspectives: Van is overwhelmingly Kurdish, a factor in Turkish politics; the geographic location of the city makes it a crossroads for several countries with decidedly different regional and global political aims, and lastly (as far as this short-list is concerned, anyway); Turkey’s eastern region – of which Van is the centerpiece – seeks a national economic relevance which appears to elude it at present.

The first point I bring up, concerning Van’s ethnic landscape, is very important to present-day Turkish internal affairs.  The bane of just about every historical empire ever to have flung its borders outward, modern Turkey suffers from a separatist element within its population.  In their case, Kurdish separatism has a violent aspect which frequently employs terror-tactics not unlike those in, say, Iraq or Afghanistan.  I’m an outsider, so don’t necessarily take my word for this, but from what I can gather, the average Kurd is not interested in breaking free from Turkey.  On the other hand, there is a militant political party which claims to represent the Kurdish interest; they are very much interested in their own autonomous homeland.

"Our Country is Indivisible" (Special Operations Military Police)

Van has a sort of border-outpost flavor due to another factor: its peak position in the pyramid between Syria, Iraq and Iran.  Major routes from each of these countries lead north, eventually into Van.  Nowhere is this more evident than in my hotel’s parking lot or the hotel lobby.  Iranian license plates intermingle with Iraqi ones, and Arabic-speaking businessmen occupy every square-inch of couch space next to the revolving entrance door.  Clairvoyant that I surely must be, I had already deduced in advance that there was no way I would be doing any heavy “blending-in” during my stay.  I was surprised, and more than a little caught off-guard by the complete lack of English knowledge out here, though.  Hotel employees, workers in the restaurants and even in the airport have so far been very patient with me, but take a guess at how far you can get when you’re five minutes into repeating the same set of questions, over and over again.  And to my Turkish counterpart’s credit during one such episode, it sounded like he was doing the same thing in his language.  The patience on their part is astounding, and fits squarely with the Turkish reputation for exceeding hospitality.  I am sure I will return to this theme of Turkish hospitality, because it is consistent.

The hospitality and service industry is frankly a good segue to the last observation I have regarding this area so far.  Van is a fairly big place – too big for the muted economic activity in evidence.  I am trying to guard from making any broad-brush statements about the place, and there has certainly been a deleterious effect on local infrastructure from the October 2011 earthquake out here, but even prior to that calamity the Turkish government had been casting about for ways to better-integrate this region into the greater Turkish economy.  In part, binding Van province more tightly to Ankara would serve both an economic and a political purpose; money inflow might even help to take some of the steam out of calls for regional separatism, although economic considerations usually tend to hold little weight among separatists the world over.

One of many temporary housing areas for families displaced by the October 2011 earthquake.

The earthquake has wreaked considerable havoc throughout the city.  Whole blocks of apartment buildings in a formerly attractive city have been rendered unusable, and are currently in various stages of the knock-down/rebuild process.  Everywhere you look, buildings stand vacant with ominous vertical cracks running top to bottom.  Conservative estimates place the total lost living space at 10%, leaving 60,000 of a roughly 600,000 in makeshift shelter camps such as the ubiquitous metal shed compounds on the outskirts of town.  It must be underscored, though, that the Turkish government is working around the clock to create new apartment buildings and suitable residences for these displaced people.  The massive effort stands in brilliant contrast to what I saw in Georgia a few months ago, which even today is warehousing its IDPs (internally displaced as a result of the 2008 Russo-Georgia War) in similar compounds with scant relief in sight.  Where in Georgia the IDP relocation issue is to a great extent an election campaign item, here in Turkey there is a sense of urgency altogether divorced from politics.

Cracks from the October 2011 earthquake are apparent on many of the buildings left standing.

Well, I hope that gives you at least an initial snapshot of what this place is about.  I’m looking at the calendar with no small trepidation, because – like always – there is more to do than time in which to do it.  I’ll tell you this with zero reservation, though: eastern Turkey is absolutely beautiful, rugged, wild… fun.  Get out here, if you can make it.

Terrain along the northern shore of Van Lake

Turkey, From East to West

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Some of you may recall that a major earthquake struck eastern Turkey late last year.  The epicenter of this 7.3 magnitude quake was just outside of Van, a city of over half a million primarily Kurdish population.  The earthquake appears to have occurred so close to the surface that the strong tremors were spread over an extremely wide territory.  I’m interested in this place, so I set aside a few days of travel in order to get to know a little about this city and region.

A few days ago, my plane made its low, arcing approach into Van airport over the wintergreen waters of Lake Van and a farmhouse-shaped island I had previously read about.  After a completely unremarkable (hence great) landing, the airplane hatch eventually pushed open with a hydraulic hiss, and cool eastern Turkish air pushed its way into a dank passenger area amply seasoned with the smells of lax personal hygiene.

“Sixteen Lira,” the cabby indicated, pointing at his meter as he read off my end of the financial transaction about to take place in front of the hotel at which he delivered me.  Too tired to form any kilometer/lira ratio decisions, I handed him an “Atatürk” (all bills have an image of Turkey’s modern founding father on them), got some coins back, and my Turkish adventure got underway.

My few days here encompass a pretty ambitious agenda.  For starters, I have decided to see Mt Ararat from as close a vantage point as I am able; my half-glimpses of the fabled mountain from over on the Armenian side of the border have left me rather unfulfilled in this department.  In the near-term, expect a few jaunts to surrounding castles, a boat-ride to an island monastery, and reports on the spiciest foods that this part of the country has to offer.  Before this trip is over, I will have stories for you of the far western side of Turkey as well, because – once I’ve made my way through Ankara, Konya and Istanbul – I plan to visit Gallipoli, site of the ill-fated 1915 Allied landing.

The Itch I Love to Scratch

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I’ve got the pre-trip ants in the pants again.  They seem to time their assaults to coincide with the phase where I have concluded travel planning for my next adventure.  Now is a case in point.  Plane tickets are all purchased.  Likely places to visit are all under the most serious of consideration.  Everything seems to be in its haphazard-yet-sequential place on my travel itinerary.  I think the bugle-call for the pants-ants must be blared out, right as I transition from wondering about a place to thinking, “Yeah, this is happening.”  The little hoard comes out of its colony, and goes right to work.

Well, I’ve got one last post to share with you about Lithuania, and then pack my bags for Tajikistan.  You’re coming along, because I’ll bet you’re just as curious about Dushanbe and beyond, as I am.  We’ll go out east, eat things, learn new phrases, do Tajik things for a little bit.  Then we’ll dart back to Turkey, and see what some of those places are all about.  How does that sound?

Baltic Sea Gold

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    Amber is something that periodically washes up on the Baltic coastline.  If the professionals are to believe, the most likely source of amber is the resins of age-old Scandinavian pine trees.  Petrified resin is as good an explanation as any, as far as I’m concerned.  Like a good conch shell on a Caribbean beach – amber is one of those things that people scrape the Baltic Sea coastline in search of, after a solid off-shore storm.

There are many different kinds of amber, including green amber.

    The amber transition from resin to gem occurs over a long time-period.  The resin hardens, and whatever is captured within the resin gives itself over to the hardening process.  As a result, many amber jewels have within them insects trapped from bygone eras.  People “in the know” seem to be crazy about bugs in their amber, but the craze has not extended to me.  I looked at all manner of jewels and baubles with mosquitoes, fleas and the like in them.  Had shopkeepers not pointed them out to me, I wonder whether I would’ve actually noticed the little legs and antennae within the some of the formations.  Knowing what they in fact were took a lot of the attraction out of these gems for me at first, to be honest.  The color and warmth that these things radiate put the attraction right back in, though.  It was no simple challenge to find something for Sandy that did not include some ancient bug inside of it.  I am considering what good could come of even saying anything after already having given her the jewelry I got her as a present.  It is difficult to talk up “pest-free petrified resin” to someone who hides under the blankets if a daddy-longlegs spider struts across the bedroom ceiling.

Next time, I’ll share my last stories about Lithuania with you, and then it is time to shift gears for my upcoming trip this month to Central Asia.  Thanks for reading!

Wandering the Bloodlands

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I ducked into Kaunas for the night.  This is a fairly large city by Lithuanian standards, and architecturally the place comes down rather firmly on the Soviet side of things.  I wasn’t there to pull any aesthetic inspiration off of those dirty brick buildings, although there is a nice little old town part of this otherwise depressing city.  Mainly, I wanted to wake up in Kaunas, so that I could go out to IX Fort in the morning.

My hotel was on this street in old town Kaunas

My hotel stay was unusual.  Normally I don’t care to single out a particular place because experiences differ from guest to guest and mine is but one

The Apple Economy Hotel

of any number of impressions.  But this place, the “Apple Economy Lodge” is one of those worth mentioning.  It is a training-hotel, and all the employees there are students who are looking to enter the hotel and restaurant industry.  It was a cheap stay, around $35.00 for the night, so already in advance I was not expecting anything other than a bed and maybe a functioning light-switch.  While I didn’t in fact get a whole lot more than that (the shower was cold-water only, and I wasn’t feeling all that grimy), the people there were exceedingly friendly and helpful.  This bodes well for Lithuania’s service industry, this purposeful training of staffs to an industry standard.  Many of Lithuania’s neighbors and former Soviet peers are as yet unfamiliar with the concept.

The Kaunas IX Fort rightfully takes its place alongside of the more famous extermination camps as the site of some of the worst atrocities that people have perpetrated on other people.  It is a miserable place, a prison, a mass-execution site; it is a place of despair.  The museum is a much newer facility, and is located below the fort on the hill.  I was the only visitor to the place during my stop.  The cashier’s window was staffed by a wilted pair of ancient women.  A gaunt old woman followed me around the lower museum at a distance, whispering furiously.  Periodic sibilant sounds would echo and bounce their way over to me from my fervently whispering shadow.  My initial thought was to just stay out of her way to the best of my ability.  Suddenly, it dawned on me that she must be praying.  I then glanced over at her a few times, and it occurred to me that she must have some sort of more direct, personal connection to the place than does the casual museum employee.  With that realization, her intermittent hissing noises transformed in my ears from bewildering to somehow comforting, appropriate.

Assorted prison objects exhibited at the lower museum

Here is the official link to the museum.  It offers a far better explanation of IX Fort than I could manage for you.  My synopsis is that it was used by the Soviets, the Nazis and then again the Soviets.  Hitler’s crowd was far more immediately brutal and murderous during their brief tenure at IX Fort, but they certainly do not have exclusive claim on all the pain and heartbreak slathered onto the walls around here, or for the blood that trickled away among the angry stones and horrified soil.

Often the first view that prisoners had of Kaunas IX Fort after being offloaded from buses and cattle-cars. In most instances, this view would commence their last, agonizing hours.

Guard tower overlooking the courtyard, which was the execution area

Courtyard

The "Wet Room", intentionally kept that way in order to deprive prisoners of even the smallest comfort.

If you have the stomach for it, I recommend the book “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin”, written by Yale University Professor of History, Timothy Snyder.  He carefully details the waves of devastation that both of those fellows wreaked in an area spanning Poland, the Baltic States, Belarus, Ukraine and western Russia.  He calls this area the “Bloodlands”, and it is revolting the atrocities that were inflicted on the hapless residents in this wide expanse of death.  The Kaunas IX Fort is but one of many sad locations featured in Snyder’s account.

Unexpected Moment of Solitude

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Someone I met in Vilnius suggested I take a drive down to the Belarus border.  To hear him tell it, people can be seen just across the other side, and a lot of them apparently ride around in horse-drawn carts with hangdog expressions on their faces.  It seemed a shame to get so close to Belarus and not at least take a peek over.  I’m not sure what seeing mopey people riding on hay-carts would have done for me, but I was interested all the same.

A tree, some fog and 2000 meters are all that stand between me and Belarus.

On the way down, I had to contend with a fog so thick that I had flashbacks to when I stared into the mist for hours in Khor Virap, Armenia, trying in vain to catch a glimpse of Mt Ararat over on the Turkish side.  Straight south from Trakai, the bumpy road steadily worsened, and for a while was entirely unpaved gravel.  I wasn’t exactly flying along, and when I got to a bridge near Verseka I chanced to pull over at one of the most peaceful spots I have ever experienced.

Several years ago, during a brief visit to the west coast, I was driving along Highway 1 south of Monterey when I saw the Big Sur mountain range for the first time.  This was in May, a time when the hills out there are still an Irishman’s dream of lush green, the day was sun-warmed and the view somehow made continued driving seem utterly pointless.  I got out, shut the car off and sat in the cool breeze.  It was early in the day during the work-week, so the road maintained a respectful silence behind me as I sat staring out at the amazing vista.

California coastline looking north, about 15 miles south of Monterey.

The Verseka bridge in the southern Lithuanian forest had an eerily similar effect on me as I was cruising along in the gloom.  I had spent the previous 45 minutes or so passing battalions upon battalions of gray alder trees on either side of the road, when suddenly a bridge came into view, with an opening on either side of it.  I don’t know exactly why, but the last thing I wanted to do was to continue on driving past.  Some call it ‘gut instinct’, others some type of sense, and I am certain there are a variety of other names for the little voice in one’s ear.  I heeded mine and pulled over.

Natural synchronicity

I walked to the rusty bridge, climbed up to a perch and sat looking out over the peaceful river for some length of time.  I remember clearly thinking about how tranquil the setting was.  For a while I snapped pictures which I chased with murmured wishes that at least some of them would turn out presentable.  Once I put the camera down is when the confusing part happened.  I sat there for quite a stretch, as my watch and the vehicle’s clock would later confirm.  Somehow, although it was a chilly day, the stillness around me settled into me as well.  Not a single vehicle or pedestrian came through.  Not one.  My mind just seemed to have switched off, and I just was.

At some point, something – probably the damp chill – brought me out of my reverie and pulled everything back into focus.  I clambered off of the bridge and shivered my way back to the car.  I couldn’t tell you what happened back at the bridge, and I have no great revelations to put out here for your reading consumption.  But I drove on with the thought (no, with the conviction) that something important had occurred, all the same.  I wonder when this episode will make sense, although I am certain that at some point it will.