Gone With The Wi… Hold Up
At 6:00pm, I boarded the the Izmir Mavi at the Basmane train station. For the last three days, my base of operations had been a hostel just a few hundred feet from the station. Despite being so close to a major transportation hub, the hostel was situated in an older part of town where streets follow no semblance of order or intentional design and look like macaroni on a map. Having been overlooked in the modernization of the neighboring Alcaşak district, the aging Konak streets are full of street vendors, lokantas restaurants, and shops repairing and selling everything from shoes to sewing machines.
Inside the maze of decaying buildings, a lively population bustles. One can’t help but notice that this low-affluence neighborhood is likely home to more refugees than Turks. Many are refugees from the war in Syria; 3.6 million Syrian refugees are currently living in Turkey. However, even they might have difficulty claiming a majority in this neighborhood. In 2018, a report published by the UNHCR found that Turkey was harboring some 63.4% of all refugees from the Middle East, Africa, and Afghanistan. The owner of the hostel told me that many of the other hostels which used to operate in this part of Izmir have been co-opted by the government as temporary refugee housing and that many who come to Izmir seeking shelter have come all the way from the far corners of Africa.
One Italian traveler who I had met at the hostel walked into the common room and sat heavily on one of the couches, his face pale and vacant. I asked him what he’d been up to that day, and he replied that he had just returned from visiting a Syrian refugee shelter. An economist and photojournalist on the side, he only said that it had been, “Intense. Too intense.” He had found himself unable to take a single photograph of the people he found there; every one with some disability or grave injury. The only pictures he had taken were of the drawings made by the Syrian children. Every single drawing featured death and pain.
The Izmir Mavi carried me through the outskirts of the city as the sun slipped below the horizon. Towards the end of the 15 hour journey, it reappeared to display a fertile desert landscape. Fields stretch away on either side, but where there are hills, their slopes are free of vegetation except for the hardiest woody shrubs. What flow of water or snowmelt they receive carves twisting ravines through the strata, revealing the sedimentary layers below. It brought to mind the landscape of Central Oregon north of Madras. An island of malignant sprawl, Ankara rises gradually from this dusty farmland.
Today, over five million inhabitants call Ankara home, but before the founding father of modern Turkey Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his nationalist government moved the Turkish capital there from the previous Ottoman seat of power, Istanbul/Constantinople, the population was just 35,000 and the city’s influence was little more than as a trading hub between the Turkish Mediterranean coast and Crimea.
The Doğu Express
The 24 hour rail journey from Ankara to Kars in far Eastern Turkey is a route famous for its scenery, affording travelers views of the Anatolian landscapes that might be difficult or time-intensive to get to otherwise. It became so popular after being featured in a few travel publications that the TCDD added another train to the route with only modern sleeper cars. However, my ticket was for a bunk in a 4-bed berth on the original Doğu Express.
When I found my berth, one elderly gentleman was already there. He had a fine moustache and eyebrow hair at least 2.5 inches long that he combed upwards like eyelashes. Shortly, another elderly man arrived wearing a three piece suit that must have fit him well in his younger days. Now it hung from his skeleton frame like a Halloween costume. Immediately, the two men began conversing and intermittently arguing loudly in Turkish. I don’t think they paused for a break until they went to sleep. From what I could gather by trying to catch their words with the Google Translate microphone, the military action in Syria was their main topic of conversation. One of them, a Kurd, became increasingly ardent in his vocalizations so that his argument could be heard from the far end of the train car.
Though the bunk could have been several inches longer, I slept very comfortably through the night. The rocking motion of the train is nothing if not perfect for sleeping. I woke a bit before sunrise and made my way to the restaurant car to be ready with my camera. When I got to the car, I found the cook stabbing at the jammed door lock with a screw driver. Abandoning this effort, he motioned for me to stay and made a call. The train stopped so that he could hop out, come round to my car, and use the key to unlock it from my side.
When the first rays began to lighten the sky, I could see that we were in a canyon. A beautiful, otherworldly landscape. The walls of the canyons were tan with streaks and splotches of reds, greens, and purples from varying mineral contents. In places, sharp rocks jutted from the walls and small hoodoos stood, eroded from the sedimentary layers over hundreds of years. A blue-green river wound through the bottom of the canyon, bringing a ribbon of life to otherwise rocky and dry earth.
As we continued eastward, the canyons and mountains eased into a hilly landscape not unlike the area I rode through between Antelope and Condon in my first tour across Oregon. The villages were small and most of the land appeared to be used for grazing sheep and cattle. The sun leaned low in the sky and golden rays fell through holes in the clouds to illuminate swaths of autumn grass as cowherds brought their charges out of the hills for the night.
The last town the train stopped in before Kars was little more than a collection of slums surrounding a brand new mosque complex with three strangely shaped buildings unlike any mosque I had seen in Turkey. As the train slowed on its approach to the station I witnessed a disturbing sight, though probably less disturbing for people of less privileged upbringing. A full grown bay horse lay bloated on its side, several days dead. Abandoned alongside the train tracks, the upper half of its muzzle had been snapped in half and stretched backwards toward its eyes like some demonic caricature. Its asshole had been torn out by scavenging dogs. As I watched, two women dressed in burqas walked by the ex-horse, apparently unbothered by the sight and smell.
Just as we were arriving into Kars, I met a few other backpackers and got dinner at a rather dodgy kebab restaurant. The food took about a year to appear, so we weren’t worried about it being undercooked. As it turned out, all the dishes were fantastic; well worth the wait. In the icy crisp morning, I found the minibus to Hopa near the Georgian border. On the cramped and sweaty 7 hour dolmus ride, I met a couple of Australian sisters who I stuck with until we got to Batumi, another two dolmus rides and one border crossing further.
Perhaps I just came too late in the season to see its good side, but Georgia’s second largest city held very little appeal for me. The Las Vegas of the Black Sea Batumi claims little of the Georgian charm, masquerading as a shiny modern city. However like a cheaply blacked out window, scratch the surface and you might see the pimp inside.
Batumi’s main source of revenue is its attraction as one of the few places east of Europe where the temperature stays relatively comfortable and palm trees grow along the beachfront. The one part of Batumi that I found appealing was the 108 hectare Batumi Botanical Garden located a few miles out of the town which was opened in 1912 and holds 2037 taxonomic units of woody plants.
On my last night in Batumi after a clear and sunny day, a Norway level rain and lightening storm swept across the city. Drinking tea and watching the sky pour down with an Alaskan bus driver, it occurred to me that this was the first time in a long time that I had seen it rain and not felt the existential dread of knowing I might soon face a similar storm out on the road.
The Rail Way
The train to Tbilisi ran north along the coast then cut inland through the Georgian lowlands. The route followed twisting rivers and lush, green valleys. My first impression of the Georgian countryside reminded me of Romania, but greener. The birthplace of Stalin, Georgia was an integral part of the Soviet Union and relics of that age can be seen everywhere. Thankfully though, it seems the Georgian people did not favor the concrete highrise as much as other places in Eastern Europe and most towns remain attractive in a distinctly Georgian way.
One thing that struck me on that first crossing was how much worn out machinery and bits of infrastructure I saw simply abandoned all over the place. Hundreds of rusted out rail cars, old steel telephone poles stacked in someone’s yard, sheet metal, concrete rail ties, the list goes on. At first I thought this was simple neglect but after a couple of days driving through the countryside I realized that it was exactly the opposite. After being used to exhaustion, a piece of machinery, iron, steel, tin, or wood will be repurposed until it quite literally dissolves and until a suitable purpose is found for an item, it will be kept.
Arriving in Tbilisi, I stayed a night at the Fabrika Hostel; an old textile factory that has been converted into a hostel, co-working space, and large outdoor patio with cafes and vintage boutiques. It was incredibly well renovated and redesigned. A very popular place, I got the feeling that it was a little on the large side to really facilitate meeting people since it’s typically the smaller atmosphere that helps to bring strangers together in a good hostel.
The first thing I noticed when walking the streets of Tbilisi was the quiet. No street vendors hawking their wares, no neighbors arguing at the top of their lungs, no taxi drivers using their horns to an absurd degree. After Turkey, Tbilisi felt very calm. The impression that I got from the people in the city was that the Georgian culture is fairly withdrawn and outwardly dispassionate. I later found this to be far from the truth outside of Tbilisi, but perhaps the international nature of the city has encouraged a more moderate, Western European attitude.
In fact, the young culture of Tbilisi in addition to the city’s economic and political importance has pulled it further into the twenty first century than the rest of the country. Alongside crumbling apartment blocks, modern architectural works flint in the sun from the hawk’s eye view of the Narikala Fortress.
Perched on a hill overlooking the city, this old Muslim stronghold predates the Georgian legend of the city’s founding by over a century. As the Georgians tell it, the king of Ancient Iberia named Vakhtang I Gorgasali was on a hunt with his falcon. Spying a pheasant, he set the falcon upon the fowl. Both birds disappeared from view, and when the king found them, both birds had been boiled and cooked in the hot springs that would later be used to heat the royal baths of Tbilisi. Tbilisi can be translated from the Georgian language as “warm”. According to the legend, the king realized the usefulness of this place and built the new capital there forthwith.
The guide who told me this story couldn’t even keep the shit eating grin off his face when telling this story, so the truth is probably rather more mundane.
We’ve Got Company
After five months and a couple scrapped plans, Emma and I managed to be in the same place again! Coming from Manchester where she is in the middle of a study abroad program, Emma flew out to visit me and explore the Georgian capital for the better part of a week.
With a population just over 1 million, Tbilisi is one of the smallest capital cities I’ve visited and so it doesn’t have a plethora of the big destination sights to visit. Instead, its allure lies more in the ambiance of its old town district and the plethora of small, trendy bars, restaurants, and shops. One of our favorite spots was the Dry Bridge Market, an outdoor flea market of antiques, art, and Soviet memorabilia.
We found that simply exploring the streets of the oldest district in Tbilisi was the most interesting way to experience the city. While the Georgian people aren’t known for taking good care of their old buildings, they continue to use them as the structures slowly succumb to weather and time. In a fashion more typical of villages and countryside homes, the old houses and apartment buildings have been added on to, patched, shored up, and modified with methods and materials that couldn’t possibly pass a single building code no matter the country. Most of the apartment blocks are arranged such that they surround a central courtyard. It is fun to glance into these small community spaces where no two courtyards are the same; adorned with laundry lines, creeping vines, friendly cats, and cockroach habitats, these unique spaces reflect the daily lives of their occupants.
Another unique space, Bassiani is Tbilisi’s most well known club. Often ranked among Europe’s best alternative techno clubs, Bassiani is located in an old swimming pool complex below a football stadium. With beginnings as a refuge for Georgia’s LGBT community, it remains popular with Tbilisi’s youth in addition to visitors from all over the world. Emma and I met back up with Zoë and her friend Sangita on a Friday night to check out this venue. There wasn’t much of a crowd until around 3 am, probably due to the bad weather and the fact that one of the night’s headliners had cancelled. Even so, it was a neat venue and we didn’t regret going.
Traditional Georgian cuisine is similar in many ways to that of Romania and Bulgaria, though shares none of their staple dishes. Most offerings are incredibly heavy with meat and potatoes really carrying the team. Thankfully though, the Georgian dishes tend to use significantly more spices and flavoring than some other Eastern European cuisines and we did not have a meal that we didn’t enjoy.
The two most famous Georgian foods are the kachapuri and the khinkali. A sucker punch to the gut, the kachapuri is a boat-shapped bowl of bread filled with semi-liquid cheese, butter, and a raw egg on top. One of these could probably feed a small village for a week as they, like many Georgian dishes, are intended for sharing among a group. Similarly, the khinkali are a boiled dumpling that always come in a minimum of five. Eaten by hand so that the juices don’t spill out onto the plate, khinkali can contain meat, mashed potato, or mushroom. Other delicious Georgian staples include a wide variety of stews, beans in clay pot, and various combinations of meat chunks, potatoes, and cheese. Unfortunately I don’t actually have any pictures of these foods because they always seemed to disappear before I thought to take a photo.
That’s Not All, Folks
More so than other countries I’ve visited, the culture of Georgia’s Capital is a whole different beast than that of the rest of the country. But more on that later. Our week on the hipster island of Tbilisi was nothing short of wonderful and it was a dream to explore it with Emma.