Sunday, January 28, 2018

Hellfire Pass

Since we have been in Asia we have been intending to travel to the Burma Death Railway. However, getting to Kanchanaburi from Vientiane requires some travelling time and it has never quite fitted our schedules. But I had time owing from extra work over year-end and we were able to plan a mid-week trip, avoiding weekend day-trippers.

The night before we took the train we went for a walk around the neighbourhood.  We came across 2 young boys who wanted to try out their English. They did the usual where are you from spiel. Then they asked Andrew. "How old are you?" To which he replied "how old do you think I am?" They looked at each other, conferred briefly in Thai and replied...."67". Andrew looked a bit surprised because um...he is 67...

We traveled both legs of the journey on the local train.  3rd class, windows down and wind in our hair.  While we said to people we were going to Kanchanburi, we actually didn't venture into the town itself, staying 20 minutes outside of town.

And we didn't really want to see the reconstructed bridge "over the river Kwai" Instead our destination was another 1.5 hours further north.  All the way to the end of the line, Nam Tok.

There, we eventually found the driver we had organised, and then we promptly told him we wanted to stop and have some lunch. There had been a multitude of ladies selling fruit, popcorn and meals prepared in banana leaf, but we had not felt hungry until we actually got off the train.  He took that in his stride, and soon we were sitting at the end of a long table at a place that catered for large tour groups.  The food was very good.

Then we jumped in the back of the Songtheaw and sped off toward the museum, about 15 minutes out of town.  Coming from Laos, constant fast speeds and good roads are a bit of a novelty.

The museum was opened in 1998 and was very well done. Back in the 80s a former POW returned to the area and found it totally covered with jungle regrowth.  He petitioned the Australian government and eventually it developed into the museum memorial that stands today.  There is a 2.5km walk along the path of the railway.  Most people appeared to be there as part of tour groups and as such they all walked only a short distance to the memorial and returned to their bus.  We, in the full heat of the day, walked the entire length of the available trail.  There is more, but it is currently inaccessible. While it follow as rail trail, there was plenty of up and down and my phone said we had climbed 20 flights of stairs.   The Australian Veterans Assn have a very good audio-guide, which has former prisoners talking about their experiences.  We walked for less than an hour, carrying water, wearing good shoes while hearing about prisoners working 18 hours a day, with 2 meals of boiled rice, disease, torture...and we had a lovely cool towelette & chilled water waiting for us in our pickup truck.  And we felt rather drained by the effort, poor us.

With the museum visit complete, it was off to our accommodation.  We had booked a room at the Oriental Kwai which had singularly good reviews. Having stayed there, we concur 100%. The location was tranquil, the villas spotless, the staff well trained and the food excellent.  We wished we had booked more time at the resort, with only 10 villas it was relaxed and unbelievably quiet.

Sitting by the river having lunch in the restaurant and Andrew asked me if i could hear the music, which I couldn't.  He continued to look slightly distracted for further 5 minutes until he moved his leg off his phone and I too could hear the Seekers singing at loud volume.  Of course in usual Andrew fashion, he is not quite sure how he managed to become a one-man disco.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Yerevan Nov 2017

Our final capital city in the Caucusus was Yerevan, Armenia.  It also had it’s own unique feel, not the same as the other two cities we had been in.  While the countryside had shown signs of economic challenge, the central city had been heavily renovated.  Apparently there are 11 million Armenians, but only 3 million actually live in Armenia, described as a modern diaspora.  There are large populations in both Russia and the USA and it is common for funds to be sent back to the country.  These remittances make up 17% of the country’s GDP.

Having travelled all day we looked forward to an early dinner at a nearby tavern.  Quite good food and plenty of lamb on the menu.  

We had a brief walk around streets before returning to our hotel.  Andrew purchased a couple of cans of beer which turned out to be a major disappointment as they were 0% alcohol.  Never mind 😊.  But the lady in the shop was most excited to learn we were from NZ, we obviously were a change from Russian tourists. 

One of the images we had seen before arriving in the city was the snow covered Mt Ararat appearing on the horizon.  I thought it must have photoshopped for adverting impact.  But no, the mountain looks to be just outside the city limits.  In fact it is about 80km away, and is in Turkey, not Armenia.  There are no active border posts between Armenia and Turkey, due in a large part to a long standing tensions over genocide of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman government.  This is denied by the Turks but is generally accepted to have happened, but no one acknowledges it.

When we were in the city the autumn mornings were not clear and our views of the mountain were not great.  We headed to the park at the top of the Cascades complex.  Very conveniently we could ride the escalators up, while looking at various pieces of sculpture.  The views were good, if limited by visibility.

One small museum that turned out to be a real highlight of the city was the MartirosSarian House Museum.  Established in his former house, there was an extensive collection befitting an artist who had painted for over 70 years.  And as such the change in his style over his lifetime was as interesting as the many paintings.  His studio had been maintained as an exhibit in the museum.  All the components of daily life and the art gave an interesting complete ‘picture’ of the life and works of an artist.

Across the road we indulged before and after the visit in two of our favourite vices coffee and wine and cheese.  Coffee sitting in the sun was a good way to watch the world go by.  

And for lunch we visited In Vino, a wine bar recommended for their wine selection and tastings.  So we enjoyed a plate of local cheese and took tasting recommendations from the lovely staff.  Andrew insisted on taking one of their business cards, because he was going to mention them in his blog.  He didn’t say his blog would be read by a handful of people, mainly located in distant New Zealand.  He hasn’t done something so pretentious since 2009 when he said the same to a small bistro in Paris. I note the website for that bistro is no longer active, probably due in part to Andrew's lack of internet reach?

We walked out to the renovated GUM market.  There were lots of well presented vegetable, stacked like pieces of art, but not a lot of people buying.  And we walked to the St Gregory Cathedral.  Along the way there were plenty of glimpses of Soviet style apartment buildings.

In the three countries the police had very different presences.  In Azerbaijan, it felt like every 10th passing car was a police car.  It felt very safe, but we didn’t see them doing much.  In Georgia they drove around a lot, and used their sirens constantly, and had bright beams on the top of the car.  In Yerevan there were plenty of police and they were actively chasing cars and pulling up drivers.  It was an interesting and obvious contrast between the 3 cities.

Another highlight destination was the natural history museum.  Once we worked out which direction we were REQUIRED to walk in, we saw a stunning collection.  From the oldest shoe in the world – 5,500 years old, through to iron work, roman artefacts, pots.  It was extensive and really enjoyable.  There was also a very good area on the horrors of the Armenian Genocide, it was exceptionally moving.  

Parking was rather inexpensive - an annual pass for the city centre 12,000 AMD about USD 24,

Our final meal was another highlight.  The restaurant Vinograd had constant 5 star reviews on Tripadvisor.  It was well worth the 15 minute walk from our hotel.  We were early and the only ones there, but we were treated beautifully, the wine was delicious, the food generous and tasty.  Andrew concluded his trip with a a 15 year old cognac.  It could not have been better!

The rebuilt city buildings were of pink floss stone.

We stayed at the IBIS Yerevan, which was an ideal location for us to walk everywhere.

Around the city there were plenty of drinking fountains.  We watched an older lady, who knew the trick to getting a good stream of water.  Hold you hand over one of the neighbouring spouts, and your spout will get stronger and easier to drink - local tip :-)

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Tbilisi to Yerevan

According to the map the road distance from Tbilisi to Yerevan is 301km and 5:45 driving time.  And that proved pretty accurate, as we left the city at 9:00am and we were at our hotel by 16:00pm.  In the middle we visited some UNESCO listed monasteries

We had arranged a car transfer between the two cities with a tourist agency and it worked perfectly, allowing us to see a couple sights we wanted to see along the way, that would have not been possible with public transport.

Once we had left Tbilisi we saw road-side stall, after stall, selling autumn fruit and produce.  One local oddity was that often the stalls also sold washing powder and detergents.  Time and again, it would be that classic combination: fruit and washing power.

After crossing into Armenia we headed into the mountains.  The landscape was unusual in that there were deep canyons with very flat cultivated land at the top.

We stopped at Haghpat Monastery.  It was Sunday and mass was being performed.  The colour of the church garments, the choral singing, and the local with headscarves on added to the atmosphere.  An operational church in a building that was 1st established in 976AD

From here there were clear views of a Copper mine belching out emissions.  All through this valley there were derelict factories and signs of investments abandoned.  There were plenty of people living in towns and Soviet style apartment blocks, but not huge amounts of places to actually work.  Our driver said most men in the past went to Russia to find work. 

The second monastery was Sanahin, which is of a similar style and age, but not functioning the same as Haghpat.

and here the floors had engraved floor stones

From here we got back onto the main roads for the drive down to the capital.  Along the way some of the areas seemed pretty bleak,  Looking at the map later, this was the edge of area hit by the devastating earthquake of 1988 when 25-50,000 people died and 130,000 were injured.  There were many herds of sheep/goats being moved by a lone herder.  The herders fell into two main categories - a young person simultaneously checking their phone or a stooped over, elderly person.

As we passed the highest point, with Mt Agarats in the distance, the temperature dropped significantly (in Yerevan it was warmer again)  

The only traffic incident we had on the trip was near the city where a wedding party of cars were doing strange manoeuvres while driving.  They were clumping together, surrounding the bridal car forcing other drivers (including our car) to have to do some slightly hairy moves to get past them and back to normal.

Andrew captured some great pictures of the typical ovens and the bread therein

Monday, December 4, 2017

A bit more Tbilisi

We ate very well over the time we were in the city and prices were VERY cheap, maybe $12 for two  of us for a simple dinner with a house wine or beer.  

Having an interest in wine, we tried the one highly recommended venues which specialized in Natural Georgian wines - Vino Underground.  The natural refers to the traditional wine making method

Grapes are stomped by foot and put into egg-shaped clay pots called qvevris, which are then buried in the ground or kept in cellars. As the wine ferments, the qvevri's shape promotes circulation, clarifying the wine. The clay provides natural temperature control and a little oxygen exposure, all of which makes for some truly dynamic wine unlike anything you may have tasted. There's also skin contact, which gives white wines that iconic amber color and more tannin's than conventionally made whites, where the skin is removed before fermentation.
The complete article on Georgian wines: 

Below is a qvevri, terracotta wine jar - an advertising prop outside a local wineshop

The wine industry is huge for the country and there are a lot of places trying to sell to tourists.  We tried a few wines, but really only found the best ones on our last night in the city.  A local cafe Dadi offered wine by the glass and the staff were happy to listen to what we liked and make sensible suggestions.  And the food and atmosphere were excellent.

We had another local food venue down the street from us that was in the Lonely Planet, Racha (with great street art graffiti on the wall outside. Andrew particularly liked watching the dumplings being made and the traditional fried potato and meat dish  Ojakhuri 

One of Tbilisi’s last duqani (cheap, traditional, basement eatery, literally 'shop'), Racha serves up tasty home-style staples such as khinkali (spicy dumplings), mtsvadi (shish kebabs), khachapuri and badrijani nigvzit (aubergine slices with walnut-and-garlic paste) at great prices. Perhaps not a place for beginners: the menu is a board written in Georgian and no one speaks any English.  (From Lonely Planet)
It was very good, simple food and we went back twice.

The other great eat was at Sofia Melnikova's Fantastic Douqan, which we picked up off Tripadvisor with consistently good ratings. The reviews said how hard it could be to find the location and it proved a challenge.  Finally we walked into the museum we knew was near the actual location and of course I had forgotten the actual long name of the restaurant.  Saying Sofia a couple of times resulted in blank looks.  But i remembered the name for the dumplings for which the restaurant was well known for and saying Khinkali?  resulted in a big smile, and they directed us through a door and pointed to where we needed to be.  

And the salads and dumplings were well worth the search!  No one deserves to watch the video I have of Andrew eating/slurping his dumplings, so just a photo.  The dumplings are very large and the local technique is to use your hands.  The knot at the top isn't eaten and used more as a handle.

We found some very good coffee at independent cafes around the city, but it was relatively expensive by local standards 

Andrew did cause a bit of an international incident one day when we were walking along the street.  A young man gave Andrew a fright by grabbing his arm from behind.  So startled by this, he yelled at the top of his voice "F*** Off!" The guy backed-off and started saying America, America - we weren't about to contradict him.  Then he started to follow us.  Periodically yelling 'America'.  15 minutes later we ducked into a museum to lose him.  He probably was high on something or perhaps had some mental health issues.  

The museum was actually on Andrew's list, being the National Gallery.  It was one of the most disappointing  places we visited this trip.  There was an exhibition of Italian paintings - but they were just copies.  Then one gallery of local artists which had a limited number of paintings and were of a primitive style.  A picture taken of the favourite local artist, Pirosmani 

 On the other hand the Georgian National museum was outstanding and well worth a visit - we happily spent a few hours here.  The displays archaeological items in bronze and iron ( many were thousands of years pre BC) were really interesting and the items in the treasury were stunning.  On the top floor is an exhibition on the Soviet Occupation from the 1920s until the early 1990s and covers the 2003 Russian invasion in disputed Georgian territories.  A particularly effective, yet simple exhibit, was lighting inside a rail car, so as to highlight the bullet holes.

The green building in the photo above, is a police station.  According to some reading we did, post independence Police Station were built of glass as part of the idea of transparency and moving away from corruption - how true that statement is we don't know, but we did see a number of glass police station in Tbilisi and on the drive to Armenia.

We took a trip to the large market called Deserters Bazaar.  There were no shortage of large articulated lorries distributing produce and transit vans where the vegetables had been pileed in directly and the vendor selling directly from the tailgate.  If it was grown or made, you could probably buy it here. 

We originally had a plan to head to particular lunch venue after the market but we hadn't factored in local customs.  The city didn't really get going until 11:00am and cafes weren't always open when we wanted.  The ones that were probably though we were odd, eating so 'early'.  I read somewhere some people's working day didn't start until 13:00.  Of course things were open much later in the evening, but we kept our normal routine and were asleep before the fun started.

There was a trip to the weekend flea market at the Dry Bridge.  Lots of people and some interesting items for sale.  There was no shortage of Vinyl records and vintage cameras/lenses.  One special stall that surprised us was the surgical instruments, and they had a lot of stock to sell!  Also a good collection of firearms and swords.

The people were helpful and kind to us, but they had the eastern European more reserved natures.    While we couldn't read the local script and had 3 words in Georgian, we had no problem communicating with people. The only time we got caught out was when Andrew purchased a bottle of milk.  He said it made his tea taste funny.  Turns out it was Kefir not milk.  He had missed the English words on the label, but no harm done and I'm sure his gut health was improved.  And it is similar to the time in Russia where he nearly bought horse milk rather than cow milk before a kind local pointed the label out to him :-0 

Andrew noted that a lot of the cars had 1 or both bumpers missing - probably related to the driving styles commented on earlier.  There were not the same number of expensive cars that we saw in Azerbaijan  but there were a LOT of Ladas.

Tbilisi was a great base for exploring and we had plenty to do.  At another time of year the mountains are an hour away and would be worth day-tripping to do some walking.

Georgia, the Country, not the State

For our time in Tbilisi we had rented an Airbnb apartment, in a residential street, near the centre of the city.  We took the option of paying the owner to send a driver to meet us at the airport - which was her father who made nice conversation.  Meanwhile he drove like a mad-man or in other terms, like a typical Georgian driver!  See a gap, take it, veer in and out of lanes and make sure you use horn.

From the outside the building looked interesting but inside was modern, spacious and quiet.  Our apartment was the one at the top, with the small balcony.

It was immediately obvious that there wasn't the same economic prosperity here as had been very evident in the centre of Baju, Azerbaijan.  Here things were a look more run-down and there were plenty of investment opportunities if you wanted to renovate buildings.  One obvious sign of the need for maintenance was the high number of apartment buildings that were being propped up by steel beams. And wasn't just a single building, very often it was the entire street.  Everything appeared very stable, but you wouldn't want to be here in an earthquake.

The weather for the entire trip was generally pleasant, being early autumn.  But we struggled to get entirely clear days, so when we did go up the cable car or the funicular to the hills surrounding the city, the views were not ideal, but you just have to take what you get.

The hills accessed by the cable car provided views back down over the Peace bridge, a pedestrian only zone, and the music hall.  Very modern architectural installations, in a very traditional city.

One of the other recent builds is the golden domed cathedral visible from all the hills around the city.  While is is impressive in size and style, the interior was lacking in individual character, but there were plenty of devout worshipers.  Entering Orthodox Christian churches I almost always needed to cover my head:  that was made easy because I was wearing a hooded winter jacket, so just needed to put my hood up.  But at the cathedral I was required to wear a skirt as well - large scarves and wrap around skirts at the door were the solution provided.

We visited a number of other churches, from very spartan ones dating from the 12th century to more ornate modern versions.  In the collage below, bottom right, is a symbol from inside our apartment.  It consisted of a sticker over a 'painted'cross - about 10-15 cm tall.  They were in the kitchen, living a sleeping areas.  A little google research said  they were blessings done by the priest each year with the cross painted in olive oil.  A comment in the Lonely Planet suggested the Georgians as a nation were very superstitious.

Another unique feature we saw through the region was the reverence given to uneaten bread.  Bread was considered sacred and that it should not be thrown away like rubbish or left on the ground.  Instead, it was placed on the lid of communal rubbish bins or hung off the end to keep it separate.  We are unclear what process the rubbish collectors had for it when the rubbish was actually dealt to.

Tbilisi, more than either of the two cities we visited, had bread for sale every 10 meters in bakeries or from windows directly coming from the baking room.  The ovens were the round tandoori style where the bread is placed directly onto the walls of the oven.  And it has to be said the bread was simply fantastic, unbelievably cheap, and there were so many varieties to choose from.

Most of the places we ate at were subterranean, located below street level and the bakeries were also generally below street level.  The left hand picture below shows a direct bakery window, with the black footpath and road visible.  To buy your bread you had to bend down.  

Some more food, wine and exploring to follow

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Off to the Caucasus v2

 (re-posted with pictures)

About the same time last year (November 2016) we went to Iran.  On our return, someone said you should have also gone to Georgia, it has fantastic wine.  Andrew stored this idea away and brought it out again when we were planning holidays this year.  We added in the neighbouring countries Azerbaijan and Armenia, and a 2 week trip in the Transcaucasus region was developed.

The superficial summary of a complicated geopolitical area would include a few facts such as
  • the populations in the 3 countries are Azerbaijan 8 million, Georgia 4 million and Armenia 3 million
  • Azerbaijan is classified as a Muslim country but it is extremely liberal and the other two countries are Orthodox Christian
  • All came into the Soviet Union in the early 1920’s and all achieved independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union about 1991. In between there were some pretty tense times.
  • Azerbaijan and Armenia are at still at war over disputed territories in the South, Armenia and Turkey have very strained relations going back to genocide in the early 20th century, Georgia has strained relations with Russia over 2 disputed territories, but otherwise they have good relations with the rest of the world.
  • Azerbaijan has oil revenues but Georgia and Armenia have some very good alcoholic beverages

We flew up to Dubai, overnighted, then hopped on a 3 hour flight to Baku, capital of Azerbaijan.

Leaving the airport in our purple”’London Cab” we soon realised we were no longer in Laos.  For a start we went from 0-120km/ph in quick time and stayed at that pace till we got into the urban centre maybe 10 minutes later. Along the way we got in the middle of a race between 2 Mercedes weaving in and out of lanes, dropping back and racing forward. 

We were staying in the walled Old Town, but there were plenty of modern architectural edifices everywhere, including a controversial Zaha Hadid museum/auditorium, which looked stunning (as we passed by at high speeds)

Eager to explore, we headed down to the newly developed waterfront park. With wide open spaces and great sea/cityscape views, it was well patronised by locals enjoying the warmth of a sunny autumn afternoon. 

Outside the Old Town there has been a lot of money spent on modern architecture.  The most visible are the Flame Towers which are on a hillside looking over the city.  A night there is a lightshow, with flames, water, the flag – all symbols of the country

The central pedestrianised shopping streets and other buildings certainly reflected the oil-wealth in this country.  There is so much new money, that since 2016, they host a street circuit .  The city was an interesting mix of old and new. The swirl building below, is the carpet museum.

The next day wandered and took in the various sights.  It proved difficult to find somewhere to eat lunch after walking along the foreshore to the area of town below the flame tower hill.  We saw plenty of business people, but couldn’t find any restaurants/cafes or even a mini-mart. We had a theory (based solely uneducated guessing) that maybe being ex-communist state there was a profusion of office canteens – so people ate there.  But finally we stumbled across a signboard offering a ‘business lunch’  So we walked down the stairs into the subterranean cellar. 

No menu and sitting on padded pallets as chairs, we awaited our business lunch looking at the bear skins on the walls and the hunting pictures.  And of course the lunch was exceedingly good and filling with soup and chicken and rice for the equivalent of $4 each

We wandered back to the funicular station for the small train that was supposed to whisk us up the hillside.  Sadly it was Monday, and the funicular doesn’t operate on a Monday.  So the only real option was to do some stair-walking.  Up, up, up and further up, only about 45 flights of stairs!  But once we got there and recovered our breath there were some lovely views from the top. The eternal flame and cemeteries are located at in this area.

We stayed at the Seven Rooms Boutique Hotel (sister hotel to the more famous Sultan Inn) and had two meals at the Hard Rock Cafe.  The Hard Rock was a tactical choice while we were tired as the food & beer was good, it was nearby and they had partial non-smoking areas.  Smoking in restaurants is something we had forgotten about, and having experienced it again, are pleased to not see it most countries we go to.

The airport was modern and had some really nice design features.  Here while going through security we didnt need to remove our shoes and put them through the scanner.  Instead they had a machine that scanned each foot individually when you put your booted foot into the scanning area.  If only a few more airports had this it would reduce the pain of going through the security line!
Air-side the design feature was Pods, outer structures that enclosed seating or cafes. And in one case a library-cafe


Bye-Bye Baku, Tbilisi here we come.