Thursday 23 May 2013 14:39 UTC
Where have you been? What have you seen?
One of the things about travelling the Silk Route in those days was that the most beautiful, hand made Bokhara rugs were on sale at roadside stalls for pathetically small amounts of money. A rug that would cost, say, £2,000 in Bond Street (1992 money) could be had at the side of the road for about $10-20. The temptation that that raised in our passengers was just too much for them to bear, and they bought more and more. Even quite large rugs wrap up fairly small in brown paper parcels, and they were packed everywhere imaginable. We eventually got to the point where the entire walkway up the aisle of the aircraft was filled to the level of the base of the seats. Look at this picture:
and imagine these rugs making the floor flat the whole length of the cabin.
The rugs were compact but far from light. Goodness knows what weight we were really carrying. Luckily the 125-600 is a very overpowered aircraft – giving 1800fpm on one engine at MAUW – so weight was not really an issue, but I’d love to know how overloaded we actually were! Eventually we had to put our feet down and say “enough is enough” and not allow the pax to bring any more.
I mentioned in the first part about people laughing at our attempt to use a hotel lift; well it didn’t just extend to lifts. Everywhere we went we saw abandoned equipment at the side of the road. Tractors, diggers, trucks, cars, you name it, just lying broken and forgotten in ditches. It was surprising that so much was abandoned, because the philosophy seemed to be one of “make do and mend” with botched but effective repair jobs evident everywhere. But clearly some pieces of equipment just went beyond what was possible to repair, presumably through lack of spares, and then would just be left to rot. Salvage and scrap did not seem to be a thing there, and nor was environmental beauty.
As I said before, the atmosphere in Ashkhabad, the capital of Turkmenistan, was much more tense than in other places we had been to. We met quite a few ethnic Russians, and they clearly felt that they would need to leave soon. The atmosphere was very reminiscent of the last days of the Raj. The Russians would tell us that when they arrived the place was a desert, that they had built all the parks and grand buildings, put in the infrastructure and education and, the barely hidden implication was, that the natives were incapable of self-government and the place would collapse around their ears as soon as the Russians left. Unfortunately, history has tended to prove them right, as it has been governed by a blood thirsty autocracy, granting its people no rights, ever since.
The lighter side of being in Ashkhabad was a fashion show. We were more than somewhat surprised to be asked. Ashkhabad is not Paris, London or New York, it is (or was then) a fundamentalist Islamic country ruled by a despot, and somehow the thought of long, honeyed thighs, thrusting cleavages and nipple-tassels mincing their way up a glittering catwalk to the sound of heavy metal, dazzled by flashbulbs, was an image hard to reconcile with the scared and scurrying women we saw in the streets.
We needn’t have worried. The fashion was of…yes, you’ve guessed it….burkas. Admittedly brightly coloured and decorated orange and gold burkas, but nonetheless, undeniably burkas. What really surprised me was that the models still did the model thing, they marched and they twirled, but the marching and twirling was in burkas. But we couldn’t giggle. We had to look enthusiastic, and we did our bit and flew the flag.
The next destination was Baku. These days Baku is a common destination for oil workers and tourists alike, but then it was a dump. A real dump. The first thing you noticed was that everything was covered in a film of crude oil, and the place stank of the stuff.
But the real dumpiness of the place was the concrete seafront walkway. It was built of large concrete panels, each maybe 2m square, on pillars over the water of the Caspian Sea. The problem was that, despite all the oil money, the place was in a terrible state of disrepair, and quite a few of these panels were missing, just creating huge holes. Of course, this being the Wild West of the Soviet Union, there was no indication that these holes existed, no cones, barriers or hazard tape, just holes.
Falling through would have been a nasty drop of maybe three or four metres, but that would not have been the problem. No, the real issue was that the water underneath was beyond disgusting – dead fish, turds, toilet paper, every kind of waste and detritus you can imagine, all neatly topped off with a skim of crude oil. My main thought was that this was where caviar comes from.
Ah yes, the caviar! I have already said how you could get thousands of pounds worth of carpet for loose change, well the same was true of other local produce, most noticeably Caspian Sea Beluga caviar. I am not a gourmet, but I am led to believe that Beluga caviar from the Caspian Sea is the very best, and that you pay tens of pounds for a teaspoonful. Well, it was stocked in the little local shops, piled high, like baked beans, and could be had for a dollar or two a jar (the jar probably being 200g, or £1500 worth back home.) Again, the temptation was to buy loads of it, but we thought that the London market would probably be difficult to convince that it was the real thing.
But the irony of the $10 carpet and the $2 caviar was that things that we consider quite normal, like soap, were very hard to come by, not available in rouble shops, only from street traders for stupid dollar money, or in exchange for western cigarettes, Marlboro being the common currency.
The rest of Baku is a blur. I seem to remember a feel of faded elegance. It was the other place we were in a hotel, and I remember sitting drinking Chai watching old men play something like boules, but more than that I cannot say.
Yerevan was very different again. Armenia is not Islamic. Indeed it is not even Russian Orthodox, but has its own, very distinct tradition. At the time we were there, Armenia was engaged in the bitter Nagorno-Karabakh war, which was resulting in terrible rationing and shortages. The streets were filled with people begging for scraps and selling valuables, like jewellery and silverware, so that they could buy food. I dread to think what would have happened if they had realised that we had $50k in our inner pockets.
All this suffering made our experiences really quite embarrassing. We slept and ate at a government building and I ate simply the best food that has ever passed my lips. Armenian food is a synthesis of Eastern Mediterranean (Greek, Lebanese, Israeli) and Turkish and is just the best, and I guess that to have it prepared by the government's top chefs must be the best of the best. But, as I say, to be living in that opulence among a truly suffering people was pretty gross.
The other memory of Yerevan was getting back to the completely insecure airport to see a gang of ragamuffins sitting on a high wall, obviously observing us carefully. This alerted us to do a very thorough inspection, and we found that the little brats had removed the engine covers, put stones, from the size of a marble up to the size of a tomato, right into the engines, hidden behind the compressor blades, and then put the covers back on. Thank goodness for a careful Check A!
The last CIS stop of the tour was Tblisi. Although it was badly war damaged, with many blackened shells of buildings in the streets, it was the one place of all of them that I hanker to go back to. It is, or then was, one of the most beautiful, lively and energetic places I had ever been.
At one point I attended a service in what turned out to be the church in longest continuous use in the world. I think it held its first service in the first century AD and hasn’t missed a service since. Makes yer fink, innit? There were no seats, everyone just stood in the centre, and I have no idea what was being said, but I really felt like I was touching history.
I guess the highlight of the stay was meeting Eduard Shevardnadze. He had been a hero of the collapse of the Soviet Union and was leading a faction trying to govern Georgia. He was, in person, as he was on the TV, a charming, quiet, thoughtful man; not at all what you would expect of the second in command of the USSR.
The abiding memory of Georgia was not only the food (also wonderful) but the wine, which was better than anything French or Spanish. However, we found to our cost when we brought some home that the good stuff is kept back for internal consumption.
All that remains is to mention our brief tech stop in Constanta, only notable for the fact that the woman we dealt with talked non-stop about how we must get the message out to the West that Ceaușescu was not the monster he had been painted, but was a great ruler who only had the people of Romania in his thoughts. Considering that this was three years after his assassination, during which time his murder of 2 million of his countrymen had come to light, it was just remarkable that anyone should still have not only been singing his praises but wanting to evangelise.
So, a brief history of one of the best few weeks of my life. I now hand the baton on to the next storyteller. As Lyra said, we all need stories to live.
Not sent from my iPad.
Not sure how to put this without sounding wrong but judging by comments in other forums....forae here it would seem that prolific posting by newer members is frowned upon. Rather than risk causing further offence I'll call it a day.
Who is online
Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 1 guest
Login / Register