Sonntag, 10. August 2014

A Year After

Personal map sketched from my old school atlas

As you can see I am not much of a blogger - at least not with the equipment I had, but I daresay if I were I would have finished publishing my posts before the third year of med school swallowed me whole. This way, however, finishing the blog only a year after having started the trip gave me the opportunity to revisit some beloved places while not having had the possibility to leave Germany this year so far or getting much of a real break.
Of course, I never know what exactly I'll learn from a trip, from every step I take and everyone I meet - that's kind of the idea of it. But I do know by now that I will learn a good deal about other people and other countries, about my country and myself. But most of all about the world as a whole and being human in it. Though I very much enjoy applying the ideas and insights I gained by leaving my home to all kinds of new and everyday situations, back home and elsewhere, they usually stay connected to the sights and smells and tastes and hot or cold air and atmosphere of the places where I first learned them and more over with the people I met there and with or from I learned a great deal.
There hasn't been a day in the past year when I didn't think of at least one place I got to know on this trip and I am happy to know that I made some very good friends, too and I am utterly grateful for having had this opportunity.
A new question that has formed over this trip is this: How do I manage to return to the places I really want to see again and to also get to see some new places?

I will be back on the road, finding more answers and more questions.

Flying Home

After some days of trying to grasp this city (but not having so much energy to take in another huge pool of information) this trip comes to a close and I think it is just the right time as I am neither terribly sorry nor did I already long for it. I guess it would have worked out the same way with a longer or in a different way also with a shorter trip, I knew how much time I had and adapted to that frame. Now I got all my stuff packed for a last time, store some food in the backpack to survive after I get back to Germany in the middle of the night and prepare my cabin bag and after the last good-bye I am in the taxi to Heyder Aliyev Airport in Baku. I don't fly often and I usually make a point to be quite early, especially since I once had my flight from Cairo cancelled and only having been there very early indeed made me able to still go home that same day. Baku airport is more or less deserted. I buy some sweets at the duty free and wait for a long while until there is some activity of desks being opened.
I am scanned with x-ray like eyes and a digital camera for a last time at emigration and board the plane. Actually the plan was to get some sleep on the flight as I will arrive in Berlin at 2 am and will have to kill the time till my train leaves after 6.

But instead I enjoy the meals (and save up nuts and biscuits for later) and then I read Dato Turashvili's Flight from the USSR, a gift from Christy. It tells the story of seven young Georgians who hijacked an Aeroflot plane in 1983 to get to Turkey. Eight people were killed when special forces stormed the plane the surviving four hijackers three men and a pregnant woman were arrested and tried, together with their priest who was thought to have been their leader. It is a very short, very powerful book, giving a clear picture of a merciless system and young people trying to do more than survive. I cannot sleep now. 

And we are descending to Istanbul, such a nice view! From this peaceful plane... I have a four hours overlay at Sabiha Gökçen Airport, tiresome. I don't dare to sleep. There is absolutely nothing to do except for buying very overpriced food. I do buy a small bottle of very overpriced water and just sit at my gate, watching people. A young German couple getting home from their summer vacation. She is talking to her Dad on the phone. Some senior citizens of Berlin, returning...where? Home? From home? Or is home only on one side for them? I don't know. I just hear how the women talk to each other in Turkish neatly fixed hijabs, middle aged couples, the men remain silent. They just met by chance, tell each other where in Berlin they live. A much older woman joins the conversation, henna colored grey curls showing at the edge of the loosely tied scarf. An old man is praying in a corner. I wonder if there's no prayer room somewhere.

When we board the plane at 11 pm I am quite determined to sleep now, but once more other things turn up, I happen to sit next to a young German art historian who specialized in Indian art and culture and so we spend the whole flight talking about my trip, her visit to Turkey and mostly about India, especially Ladakh. And after Istanbul at night we also get to catch a magnificent view of Budapest. So many more places to see!

We reach Berlin as one of the last planes and wait for ages for our luggage and part after some stops on the city train. I am really tired now and I find there is no place to stay out of the wind at Berlin main station at this time of the night (except for McDonald's probably, but I can't stand the smell, so I mostly wander around, from time eating some of the saved-up nuts. The first bakery opens at five, some decent food and a warmer place to sit. And then, after queuing some more at the first German Railway desk opening in the morning, I am on the train home. I am beyond sleeping by now, only drifting off occasionally, then again realizing both sunny and misty Northern German early autumn early morning scenes. the sun is up and the mist is gone when I reach Greifswald and after a two kilometer walk I unlock my dorm room door, I guess I'm back.

Final Stop Baku

After a good breakfast we make a trip out of town together with my friend's new colleague, so that the new arrivals from Germany get to see one of the most important nature sights of the region. Our first stop is Qobustan, a site where many elaborate stone carvings have been found which are now protected and subject to further study. It is quite impressive to see just how many scenes are scratched into the stone wherever you walk in this area. There is also a small exhibition with quite instructive explanations, even for someone like me who has no idea whatsoever about prehistorical and geological topics.

After a nice long walk we drive on to find the mud volcanoes. One has to more or less know where they are as there are no real signs. There are quite some visitors, even a bus full of tourists who found their way here anyway. The cool mud sputters up in these small volcanoes and presumably has healing powers. Some people fill big bottles with the grey fluid to take it home with them.

The last days of my trip I spend discovering Baku on my own during the day and seeing some places with my friend in the evening when she is home from work.
The first thing to strike me about this city even on the walk home from the station and then when we drove out of the city to Qobustan and continues to do so basically after every corner is how HUGE many man made things are. In many ways that is also what matters about them. Like the flag behind the bay, it was the biggest national flag, flying from the highest pole - now, sadly, surpassed by Turkmenistan. 

The bay from upstairs...

...and Crystal Palace (where the European Song Contest was held) 
and the flag seen from a boat

Also by looking at the sprouting architecture I gather that there are huge amounts of money in one hand spending it on one single building complex. How many hands, however, do have money to spend and how many don't is a different question.
Downtown Baku,including the vast promenade at the sea, has an air of a capacious living room, probably also because it's always warm, but not unbearably hot. Well tended parks and squares are decorated with fountains, colorful lights, works of art and different flowers and a lot of life takes place just there for better off people, streets and squares always lively, but never bustling, never squeezing people together. 

The duck visiting at the promenade as part of an international arts project

It also is full of Ali and Nino, the couple featured by the moving statues in Batumi. Their story set just before the dawning of Bolshevik rule over Azerbaijan, it is nearly 100 years old and some features of the plot and the circumstances seem quite archaic, but I think in other ways it is a quite timeless example of how a bi-cultural marriage may have you reflect upon your own identity and what is really indispensable to you on the one hand and what may enrich your life on the other hand way more than most couples of a common background. Bookshops, cafés and flower shops call themselves or some offer or project after these two young people whose story is recognized as one of the most important pieces of literature to this country. It is not, however, clear who really wrote it. Kurban Said was a pseudonym, probably of Kiev-born Jewish writer Lev Nussimbaum who grew up in Baku until his family fled from the Bolsheviks. He then lived in Germany where he converted to Islam and published in German, mainly on topics related to the Caucasus. Ali and Nino was first published in 1937 in Vienna - in German. Some researchers support the notion of Yusif Vazir Chamanzaminli's family who claim the Azeri writer who was killed in a Gulag in 1943 wrote at least the core plot of Ali and Nino. As a third party Austrian barronness Elfriede Ehrenfels claims at least co-authorship. It seems unlikely, though, that she contributed to the work itself. She allegedly registered as the contracting author after 1938 as a Jew, converted or not, would not have been able to receive payments for literary work under German rule.
Whoever wrote it, it's well worth reading in my opinion.

Modern buildings just made huge in order to look more impressive and in the process discarding of old living quarters are one part of the story - which isn't widely told. On the other hand big money also goes to museums and other cultural institutions like the new carpet museum. I got to see a part of the carpet exhibition in its old home, along with detailed explanation by a well informed young guide. Some buildings do tell of some imagination on part of their inventors, even though they impress me more by their uniqueness than with their beauty...

Flame Towers in action: Blazing fire...

...and waving flags

When I take the very modern funicular up to the Alley of Martyrs I see that national memory is also no matter to save money. The gleaming graves of the men and women who died fighting for Azerbaijan's independence seem to make it easier for me as an outsider to grasp the scale of that event.

The old town, however, shows that things used to be much smaller, though carefully designed. One of the biggest buildings here is the Maiden Tower, one of the city's landmarks. It is under renovation just now so I cannot visit, but I spend a long time at the Palace of the Shirvanshahs. Built by the ruling dynasty after having transferred the capital of Azerbaijan to Baku there is still some dispute if it was really the palace or mainly a burial site and spiritual center. 

Night Train Once More

The train is fully booked, but with four people per compartment that's not terribly overcrowded, especially as long as no one is expanding all their luggage all over the place to make themselves at home for the night. There are some older men, some families and, shortly before the train leaves, three young people whom I recognize as Germans as they still carry their passports in their hands after showing them to the conductor. So my compartment is complete with two older men from Georgia and Turkey (the latter with a broken foot and without knowledge of any language but Turkish and Azeri) and a German girl scout about my age. The two guys she is travelling with share the next compartment with an Azeri family: mother, daughter and toddler grand-daughter. The three scouts and I sit down in my compartment, sharing food and drink, offering some also to the Georgian (in Russian) and the Turk.

We then build our beds quite early in order not to disturb anyone later on. The very scouts are already familiar with this train as thy flew into Baku and are on their way back now after two weeks of hiking in Georgia. So the men also know that they are by far too tall for the bunks and will once more need to sleep more or less upright leaning against their backpacks. So they are not eager on going to bed early while most passengers do just that as darkness falls and we ride through idyllic landscapes - the toddler refusing to sleep, though. I am not very tired either, so we sit on the corridor an talk about Georgia. I really need to come back to finally go to the mountains, too!

View from the train...

There are only four seats on the whole corridor, so we sit on the floor, repeatedly getting shrieked at by the very short conductor in Russian as she hurries past us in her high heels. The other conductor in contrast is very tall and always smiles at us broadly. Maybe it's the good cop/bad cop concept... Another weird thing I notice about the train is that it seems to think it's travelling through Southern Russia - on October 21, 2002, my 18th birthday, how nice! Accordingly I taste some home made Chacha (Georgian liquor the scouts got from a farmer whom they helped for some days) - that's what the electric writing at the end of the wagon tells us, along with the affirmation that the railway company is ever so happy to make or journey pleasant. Now, isn't this nice?

...and inside

When we stop at the border we don't have to leave, customs (including a mirror to search for hidden goods) and border control, complete with camera and laptop board the train. It takes a while, but there are no problems so we can continue our trip.

After a few hours of sleep we finally approach the capital of Azerbaijan and I am happy to see my student exchange friend at the station!


The days in Batumi are over too soon, but I am very much looking forward to going to Tbilissi and meeting Davit and his family, too. So I get up early to take a swim in the Black Sea in spite of the still grey skies. After a rich breakfast Christy instructs the taxi driver to safely put me on the bus to Tbilissi and that is what he does. Perched in seats as close to those in front as possible I see small stands selling pottery and traditional food along the roads. As the minibus speeds along the highway I fall asleep quite soon and only wake up when we take a break at a small motorway station where you can use the toilet, buy some homemade food or just stretch a little and sit on a terrace covered in wine, full of heavy grapes. When we approach the capital Davit texts me asking where I will get off. Oh, good, I didn't know there where different options! But I manage to find out in time and soon I find myself waiting for him close to one of the main entry stations, warding off taxi drivers.

It's been ten years since Davit was an exchange student in my neighborhood and studied in  my brother's class in high school. It's so good to meet him again and to get to know his young family and friends. They all welcome me very warmly no matter if we have a common language or not. I find that hearing Georgian around me all the time (and not understanding more than maybe four words) doesn't give me a headache or has any of the exhausting effects I remember form earlier experiences of being immersed in a completely new language.

On the first night Davit takes me on a tour of especially old Tbilissi to give me a first impression of his hometown. I instantly like the city - and I instantly know that I'd never drive here myself with all the steep streets and fast paced traffic. We drive up to the fortress of Narikala and enjoy the view over the city with the river Mtkvari and a lot of old and new buildings. Like in Batumi, Misha, as they call former president Mikheil Saakashvili, made use of some opportunities to carry out some of his own ideas of creative architecture or have others decorate the capital with impressive new buildings like the Bridge of Peace by Italian architect Michele de Lucchi which was opened in 2010. Many people have mixed feelings about some parts of this modernization. For this bridge the slightly disrespectful nickname 'Always Ultra' was coined due to its resemblance to a ladies' pad...

Tbilissi seen from the Fortress Narikala

View from the other side of the river: Colorful water play close to the Bridge of Peace,
the Fortress Narikala illuminated in the background up the hill 

During my stay I take some long walks around different parts of the city on my own (and managing to find my way back home by asking many helpful Georgians in a mix of various languages), but more often very well guided by Davit's mother whom I had already met in Germany many years ago. It is so great to see her again and get both knowledgeable tours of Tbilissi and good conversations about life in general. She also takes me out of town to the open air Ethnographic Museum with her daughter in law and little grandson. We enjoy the walk between traditional houses from various regions of Georgia and after that sit by the lake. As it is a week day it's not so crowded in the otherwise very popular destination for family outings.

On another day Davit and Nino take me out to Mtskheta which used to be the Georgian capital from the 3rd century BC to the 5th century AD. The Aragvi river joins the Mtkvari here and having been a continuous settlement from as early as 1000 BC Mtskheta is one the oldest towns in the world. The old town and its churches have been included in the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1994 and it is a popular place to visit. A chapel up the hill across the river is especially popular for wedding blessings. In the big churches in the town itself some monks see to no one entering wearing improper attire. I do wear long wide pants and long sleeves and have a scarf with me to cover my head, but trousers are not ok for women. There are, of course, a lot of dotted apron-like cloths to tie around the waist waiting for the visitors, so I can go in after having put one of them on. Although quite full and not very quiet the ancient paintings give this old church a very solemn air.

After having visited the churches we have another very popular traditional Georgian dish at a restaurant close to the road back to Tbilissi: Lobio (a spicy bean stew) and mchadi (corn bread) complete with pickles, cheese and Georgian lemonade:

My walks around the city confirm what I felt right from the beginning: This place is really special to me. It is a real big city, but it is very welcoming, not overwhelming in a stressful way, but still, three days are far from enough to really get to know it, of course. I find Tbilissi to be kind of European and also kind of post-Soviet, but most of all it is very much its own breed, effortlessly mixing old, very old and new architecture. There is the old town with the oriental looking bath houses that still make use of the warm springs that gave the city its name. There are countless bigger and smaller churches, and also a mosque and a synagogue - and the gigantic new Sameba (Trinity) church that overlooks the city and since it was opened in 2007 is the third highest Orthodox church in the world. There are many streets with pure Jugendstil architecture, many others with traditional Georgian town houses with rich wood carvings - and new ones imitating a reduced forms of the wooden decoration in metal... There are quite recent excavations of parts of the old city wall integrated nicely in the renovated Pushkin Street. 
There is proud and lively Rustaveli Boulevard (once again a proof for Georgian deep affection for their language and literature, I love how the capital's most popular street is named after the nation's most important writer, medieval poet Shota Rustaveli) holding many theaters, museums, renowned cafés and many shopping opportunities. It also was the site of critical events, revolutions and demonstrations, here protesters were murdered by Soviet forces in 1956 and in the wake of Georgia's new independence and this is where the Rose revolution marched in 2003. There are many monuments, big and small, decorating the city, paying respect to and rising awareness of historical and mythological figures and personalities. There are more or less disputed new buildings like the president's residence.

Beatles on Rustaweli

Sameba from the distance...

...and close up - Taj Mahal impression

Statues small...
...and big: Deda kartlis (Mother of Georgians) in the background, 
welcoming friends with wine and enemies with the sword. 
Front: Tbilissi City Hall

Quo vadis, Misha?


View on the president's residence's cupola

Rustaveli Boulevard at night

It's comfortable to walk around as I don't have to hurry, so I stumble across some lovely book shops to spend some time at and I happen to find some more or less political street art. If I do need to go more than walking distance I find it really easy to get on the metro - that is get a ticket and find the right direction and stuff like that; it is kind of an adventure to get to the underground platforms though. These are the longest, the steepest and the fastest escalators I've ever been on. My guide book is quite right to warn people with walking disabilities against trying to get on one of these Soviet style fast lanes...

And there is the over crowded market close to the main station where you can get everything and anything if you got the nerve. This is where Nino takes me and her older grandson before I have to leave for Baku so I can buy some Churchkhela (dubbed the 'Georgian Snickers': nuts on a string covered in a kind of dried grape syrup). We then have some trouble to find the right platform, but then it is time to say good-bye and I board the mighty, but short night train to Baku. It was a great stay with lovely people and I know I definitely will come back.

Samstag, 9. August 2014

Botanical Garden - Latvians are Everywhere!

One of the things one should not miss when visiting Batumi is the Botanical Garden. While I happen to be here on the first rainy day in weeks I stick to my plan and find the minibus to go North to the gates of the garden. It was established in 1912 at the steep shore and with the slope towards the sea and the valleys and hills to the inland side it is possible to imitate different climate zones on this small area - though for a garden it is quite big. As I gather from the bilingual Georgian/English maps there are citrus groves, a bamboo forest, a rose garden, a bonsai garden and, of course, gardens dedicated to plants from specific regions of the world. It even holds a small railway station, I'm not sure if it still is active, but the coastal train does go along here and through the tunnel integrated in the garden. Early on my walk through the garden I hear two couples discussing over a tree and its trilingual (Georgian/Russian/Latin) sign what kind of fruit this actually is. They speak Latvian! I tentatively join the conversation and happily surprised they welcome me to join them for the walk. It is really great to explore this garden together, talk about Georgia, Latvia, and Germany and especially doing so in Latvian totally unexpectedly. Latvians really are everywhere. I would have enjoyed the garden on my own, too, and probably not less, but in a different way. Walking in a group of five we share the joy to be in this vast and diverse greenness and point out to each other different especially amazing trees and fruit and flowers. The Latvians get picked up by their Georgian friend at the back gate and I return - on a different path, of course - to the front gate, this time being swallowed by all the huge leaves and woods.

After I return to the city it takes some time to get used to streets and houses again as if I had been with the plants for a long time. The sky is still grey, but I walk around the old town some more and find the many minority houses of worship: An Armenian church, a synagogue and a mosque. Batumi is the capital of the Autonomous Republic of Adjara - the conflict is settled for this region - and the Adjarians used to be Muslims. Today 30% of the region's population are Sunni Muslims while more than 60% are Georgian Orthodox.
I also very much enjoy the less crazy, but probably more lasting architecture of two-story wooden town houses with carved and doors with forged decorations, flowers and wine growing in the most unlikely places around them. I get to join many people just going out to the beach for the sole purpose of watching the sun set over the Black Sea. Such a peaceful atmosphere on a beach far from empty.