Tag Archive for 'Russia'

Blog posts on Liako.Biz for 2005

A series of posts that summarises content created on Liako.Biz

You can also read 2008 and 2007 summaries.

Like a good host should, I welcomed you to my new blog which was to document my travel experience. Writing in April 2005, I then proceeded to say how I landed in America (Ohio) and then Boston (with a cheeky review of Harvard ). I also managed to visit New York, before I made my way to Europe to Gallipoli for the 90th ANZAC Dawn services and one of my favourite cities Istanbul.

Similarly, May 2005 was a fairly lame month of blogging as I was still getting into the groove. I spent a month literally sleeping, and trying to create some sort of travel plans. I stayed with my cousins in Athens and managed a side-trip to Mykonos.

I finally got into the groove in June of being a blogger that engaged an audience. It started with my trip to Albania, which then progressed to Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia.

My Balkan bash had to end there as the sisters in London called, so off I went to see them and the new baby. However I then had to go back to Greece, and what better way to do it than over land. Unfortunately, it meant I had go through the Nagging wife countries but it’s okay because I partied all the way.

I partied a little too hard and developed pneumonia, which was a bummer for my trip, but by late September I had enough and headed to Athens (from Athens via Moscow) starting with Bulgaria, then onto the long road to Iran via Turkey until I finally got to…Iran. Iran was cool to see but hot at the same time, so I opted for some cold in Russia. Seeing as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were just down the road from Russia, I also visited those countries. Oh and heck, since I was there, I went to Poland, Prague and Budapest until time ran out and my nine months away ended with a finale.

Poland, Prague and Budapest

When it comes to my blog, I love using regions. Updating it, whilst is valuable in retrospect, is an absolute pain in the arse when I have to write them. For that reason, I have created a new region of the last three countries on my trip. Poland, Czech Republic, and Hungary – I dub thee the "Visegr?ɬ°d Three" (Slovakia, you be quiet now). Thinking back on those nearly three weeks, the memory is a bit scant, as it was just one big drinking binge. But it turns out I have an audience on this blog, so I’ll pretend I learnt something. I spent about 11 days in Poland ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú although I regard three of those days as ‘bad hangover’ days so I don’t think they should count. Of those 11 days, four were in the capital Warsaw, four in Krakow (with a day trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau), and another three days in Wroclaw (pronounced VROTZ-wahf). In the Czech Republic, I spent four days in Prague, and in Hungary about three days in Budapest.

All three of these countries are very different from each other: the Hungarians are descendants of the Magyar tribes that swept across Europe terrorising the continent until they settled there, and later ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú the Hapsburg Empire (which became the Austro-Hungarian Empire), a dominant force in central Europe during the late Middle Ages that lasted until WWI. The Poles are Western Slavs, and together with the Lithuanians after a Royal marriage that sealed the deal, had an empire that stretched from the Baltic and Black seas. The people of the Czech Republic, inhabiting the ancient lands of Bohemia and Moravia, are linguistically and to a lesser extent ethnically related to the Poles. The Czech people have been invaded by Hapsburg’s, Nazis, Soviets and tour groups. They may not have dominated Europe like Hungary or Poland, but they have always been valuable territory for the empires that held them.

P1050132

Corner of a building in Prague

What makes these three very different countries so similar however, is their location. The Czech Republic is smack-bang in the middle of Europe, and together with Hungary and Poland, are a large component of Central Europe. The significance of this is that Europe has a very rich history, and heck, if you are in the middle, it means you’ve been involved in almost everything that has touched the continent. For example, their locations has meant that none of the local problems have remained local: when Czechs rejection of the Roman Catholic Church in 1418 resulted in the Hussite Wars; the revolt against the Hapsburg’s in 1618 started the horrible Thirty Years’ War; the annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938 was the opening scene to WWII; the reforms of the 1968 Prague Spring, led to tanks and soldiers from all over the Eastern Bloc to suppress it; and the peaceful overthrow of the government during the Velvet revolution stands as a model for freedom-seekers, such as the recent revolutions of Georgia, Ukraine, and Armenia. Lets also not forget that before Franz Ferdinand was the name of a band, it was also the name of the Hungarian prince that was assassinated by a Bosnian-Serb in Sarajevo – and is what sparked World War I; whilst Poland experienced the brunt of one of the greatest and most horrific wars of our history (WWII) – evident to the modern traveller by visiting Warsaw and Auschwitz-Birkenau . These three countries play no small role in the European story.

P1040860

"The one who does not remember history is bound to live it through again" – George Santayana

Something that striked me about Poland was the law enforcement, and the observance of the law. A simple example is the pedestrian crossings ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú in most cities I have visited, you get either one of three types of driver attitude towards them: the type that will stop once you have started crossing (Sydney); the type that won’t stop, but swerve around you as you cross (Tehran) and the type that make you wet your pants, as you run across like a headless chicken to avoid being hit (Athens ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú with the complimentary verbal abuse whilst you run). In Poland however, I merely had to look at a crossing, and a car would slam on the breaks! Another example was when I visited the Russian markets in Warsaw, and my friends and I were going through some pirated CD’s to buy (which may I add, looked more professional than a CD in a record store). As we were looking, the men and women quickly hustled us, and in two seconds, had the CD’s completely out of view. A few seconds later, a police officer strolled by. When he was out of sight, we were able to resume our commerce. Turns out, as they showed us later, they have a sophisticated monitoring network, where they know the exact movements of police near them so they won’t get in trouble. Whilst the funky headsets and organisational skills impressed my two companion friends, I was more stunned by the event itself: copyright enforcement to me is a sign that a country is very well developed. For these guys to sweat when the police officer walked by, tells me you’ve got a very well functioning government enforcing the law. That is the basis for a strong economy ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú especially for something as abstract as intellectual property, which is the basis of a certain buzz word that will solve all our problems like your paycheck and grandpa’s erectile problems.

On the right bank, the Red army stood there, as the Nazis demolished Warsaw

On the right bank, the Soviet army sat there at they watched the Nazi’s burn Warsaw to the ground – the Soviet’s were meant to be on the same side as the Poles. People speculate that Stalin let the Nazi’s do all the hard work, and crush any resistance, so that he would have a clean slate when he occupied the city.

Unfortunately the only "New Economy" thing about Poland, is that they actual have a free market now. And it’s not going down to well: unemployment is high. One of the most talked about backpacker stories, is the Krakow-Prague overnight train ride, where you get gassed while you sleep, only to find all your valuables missing in the morning. A Polish guy in Wroclaw, told me that the worst line of them all, was the Wroclaw-Prague line I was about to get on in one hour (needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep that night). The theft of course, is because of the high unemployment ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú estimated at 18 percent by this guy I talked to.

P1040817

Right next to the Warsaw train station: a funky new building

I found Polish people to be one of the highlights of my trip there. Watching the people in a Polish nightclub became one of my favourite pastimes, as the way Poles dance amused me. I am not saying they are bad dancers, but simply, different from other places. Women for example, seem to have an inbuilt hip-shaking movement which is incredibly sexy, but also seems just a natural as someone breathing. The men on the other hand, are so enthusiastic ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äúwith a big cheesy grin, and they dance like they are skiing a ski-slope. Very amusing.
Without resorting to specific examples, the general vibe of the place was very positive. When you travel, you create a lot of theories, my most recent one was that countries that were formally oppressed, have very grumpy locals. But the Poles shut that theory down in flames, as I found everyone to be smiling, laughing, and generally happy. Possibly also a little smart-alec ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú in Warsaw, all the strip clubs are located on (Pope) John Paul II Street.

Despite the positive feeling I had from the place, at the back of my mind, I could not forget the atrocities these people had to face. Warsaw is a city that was razed to the ground by the Nazis (as the Soviet’s sat watching) ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú travellers visiting the city moan how ordinary it is, but when you think of its history, you see things differently, and appreciate the Polish spirit. For example, they painstakingly rebuilt their Old Town, with only pre-war pictures and paintings to guide them. The city felt eerie for me. Krakow is a much more beautiful and vibrant city than Warsaw, for obvious reasons (it wasn’t bombed). But everyone visits Krakow, so you probably knew that already. I had a friend that I used to work with in Sydney, that lives in Wroclaw, and I really liked that city as well. Both cities have amazing Market Squares (Krakow’s is the largest in Europe ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú Wroclaw not far behind) and they both have an atmosphere in their old towns which I really liked (locals strolling by, entertainers, tacky shops and restaurants). I arrived in Wroclaw at 11pm, and my friend dumped my bags at the local hostel so we could party: Wroclaw and Krakow, like any other university town, is a bit of fun as well. All the Poles I met in Wroclaw, had come from other cities in Poland, and would tell me how much they loved the city and how it is the best one in Poland (Krakow comes close, according to them).

P1040911

Krakow during Independence Day, also known to us as Remembrance day (November 11)

Auschwitz and Birkenau are something else ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú where it is estimated estimated that between 1,100,000 and 1,500,000 people were murdered by the Nazi’s. I ended up touring the sites on my own, missing my friend’s group tour, but which instead turning into a more powerful experience for me as I did it on my own. I was surprised I didn’t get as emotionally affected as I thought I would, but then again, I consider wanting to punch a wall on two separate occasions as minor outbursts. What made be sick was the evidence of children being killed ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú as 12 years old children were treated just like the adults. What really got to me, was seeing a presentation of children shoes. That is, children aged no more than five years old. Walking around Birkenau, which was where most of the exterminations took place, was chilling (and it was a lot of walking ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú the site is 171 hectares large). It became very dark when I was touring the huge site, and visiting the compounds of the prisoners and seeing their living conditions, was something that made it hard for me to swallow. Seeing the ruins of the furnaces and gas chambers on Birkenau, as the Nazi’s attempted to cover their crimes on their retreat, just reminds you how recent all of this was.

P1040868

The Nazi’s tried to cover up evidence of the killings that occured, by blowing up the gas chambers and furnaces

When I met up with my friends later that night and shared our experiences, they told me how angry they were to see the Jewish children fly the Israeli flag around ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú their point being, it is that nationalism that created conflicts like this. That is usually something I would say, but I don’t really share that sentiment. Sitting in on a Jewish memorial service where the furnaces were in the dark as I wound up my tour on Birkenau, was definitely an experience I am glad I had.

Half the reason I went to Prague was to visit Veronika and Pete ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú two old friends and workmates. The rest of the reason was because I just had to see what the fuss was about. Just as I suspected, not much ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú a great city, but way too much hype. It has one of the best integrated transport systems I have been on, and the buildings are very pretty. But that’s exactly the problem with Prague: it’s pretty. It’s a place you visit with your girlfriend, on a weekend away. Having said that though, as my friend Petr showed me, it’s way too much fun for the single (and not single) man.

P1050127

Prague’s city centre – the big building is the national library, me thinks

Veronika and Pete miss Australia because of the friendliness of ordinary people. As a contrast, Veronika would complain how clique and rude Czech people were. She reckons, and she is by no means an ugly girl, how hard it is to meet people at a club ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú everyone goes out with their groups of people, and refuse to socialise with other people, because you just don’t do that. Foreigners provide a breath of fresh air to Czech people, because they can break out of that clique.

P1050046

Prague: pretty.

Pete also reckons the emphasis on looks here has created a bulimic culture amongst women. He puts the figure at every second or third girl – and a quick look around the club proved him right, as all the girls looked unrealistically thin. On a related conversation I had with this American I met at the hostel who was about to start teaching English, he says how back in the States, everyone raves on about how beautiful Czech women are. However he says they are not beautiful but just skinny! "Everyone is so fat in America", he was saying, "that they see a skinny girl and they go gaga here".

The Soviet museum in Prague deserves a mention. Seeing the communist posters to inspire workers, made me realise how similar communism is to capitalism, with slogans talking about ‘efficiency’ and ‘output’. It was funny to see words I had always associated with capitalism, on a communist poster.
Watching a video about the failed 1968 revolution left me feeling mellow. A pop group mentioned in the video called the Plastic Group of the universe (I am sure it sounds better in Czech) used these lyrics: "Throw away your brains, throw away your hearts. Throw away everything that makes you human, and become pigs". For me, those words really help sum up the things I have learnt about communism and Nazism in the last month. Having just read Stalin’s biography, a quote on the wall helped sum up what took me 500 pages to find out as to how he could do what he did: "One death is a tragedy; one million a statistic". Like a spoilt seven year old with divorced parents, the Stalin’s of the world can get away with murder, because they don’t feel the consequences of their actions as no one will reprimand or tell them. And yet even Stalin was capable of breaking down, when his son was captured by the Nazis ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú because the suffering of the war then became personified with a familiar face. There is no such thing as monsters in history ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú only people detached from reality. It’s not hard to smack them back, it’s just that some need to be smacked harder than others.

P1050104

Budapest’s House of Horrors on the other hand, annoyed me. Of all the museums I have seen detailing atrocities of the Nazis and communists, this was the most extravagant of them all, but also the worst. It was too fabricated, and too glossy. When you are talking about horror, take the gloss out.And while we are on it – Budapest as well, was very different from Prague, and as a city I much preferred it as it had more character. Although a girl that helped me at the train station, said she hated it: good for a few days, bad for living here.

My experience with Hungarian people was something else as well. Whenever I was with a group of friends/travel companions, I always saw the rudeness of Hungarians. But in the few times I was alone, I found Hungarian people to be very nice and friendly. Even though I regard Hungarians as friendly, the incidents of rudeness really stuck in my mind ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú like for example, a guy at the ice-rink, literally shooing this woman away, like she was some intruder to a military base, when she inquired when it re-opened.

P1050174

Budapest’s parliament

Hungarian’s also just look different. Maybe it’s my historical knowledge that helps colour my perceptions, but if there was one word to describe them it would be "warriors". The men looked very different, very rough and tough. They were also weird: when I went to the baths with some of my female friends, there were incidents when men would just stare. Sure, my friends were pretty, but no one stares like that unless you are a psychotic.
Budapest definitely ranks as one of the most memorable cities I’ve been to, and one which I would put top on the list to visit again. The city has a character which I think all the former Ottoman Empire lands have, like Belgrade and Sarajevo. The baths are an amazing experience, and I really wished I had more time to do the rock-climbing tour underneath the city. It is hard to talk about cities as to why you like them, and it can be done, but this blog posting is getting way to long.

P1050236

Budapest’s Heroes square

Something I didn’t mention at the beginning of this posting, was one other similarity the three before-mentioned cities have in common: the are all new members of the European Union. And rising stars whilst they are at it. According to a study published by The Economist Intelligence Unit, the Czech Republic ranks as the third most attractive country in the world for off-shoring, after China and India. Whilst cheap labour has something to do with it, the location of the country and its relatively well developed telecommunications and educated workforce help contribute to this.

But notice I said location was an important factor. Like before, the location of these three countries at the centre of Europe’s next big empire (the EU) means that they are again in the spotlight. Expect to hear about these three countries a lot more in the future, as the Visegr?ɬ°d group play catch up to the rest of the developed world.

Russia

My first experience with a Russian, was on the flight from Dubai to Moscow (connection from Tehran). She was my flight neighbour – a twenty-something singer-musician. She didn?Ǭ¥t say much, although she was taking a swig of her bottle of vodka every five minutes. I presumed she had a serious flight phobia.

Turns out there was no phobia. And that bottle of Vodka was three-quarters finished by the time the plane took off. Apparently, she drinks a bottle a day (I always thought it was an apple a day that kept the doctor away?). And what I thought was a quiet neighbour scared of flying, turned out to be a sarcastic alcoholic who started getting a little too friendly.
Half-way into the flight I decided to put her in her place and end the advances, which made the rest of the flight fairly awkward. But nevertheless, I had just had my first Russian experience: alcoholic, sexual, and incredibly sarcastic. Was this a premonition of the days to come?

A bear. Near the river in St Petersburg

Walking across, I saw this fuzzy bit of hair. I thought to myself “that’s a damn big dog”. I walk to the other side of the wall, and it turns out it was a bear.

I had an awesome time in Russia. I spent about ten days there, however to say Moscow and St Petersburg are Russia, is like saying London and Paris are Europe. Needless to say though, alcohol, sexuality, and every type of Russian stereotype you can think of, did feature prominently on my trip.

Russia and alcohol
The contrast between Iran and Russia with regards to alcohol is as startling as say, Osama being elected as the new Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. You can get a bottle of Vodka for practically the same price as a bottle of water. But it is not the cost of alcohol that left me shocked – it was the amount of alcohol Russians drink that shocked me.
An example was on my last day in Moscow, I was on the metro coming from the suburbs with my two buddies from the hostel. On the train, we started talking to some girls next to us – because they looked like they were not a day over 14, and drinking what looked like alcohol (one was also a dead-set ringer for Avril Lavinge). Turns out they were 18, but even so, the legal drinking age is a few years more. It was about 2pm on a Sunday afternoon, and these girls were drinking a 12 per cent alcoholic energy drink. They were also a bit pissed. And no one on the train found this unusual at all.
The streets are filled with people drinking in the middle of the day, like a woman causally having lunch with a beer. It’s not just excessive alcohol, but just a lot of alcohol! Kiosks in Moscow that dot the streets with food and beverages, are also stocked up with alcohol. Alcohol is literally everywhere. Even a seasoned Aussie drinker like me couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable at the drinking culture.

P1040635

St Petersburg is architectually awesome

Russia and sexuality and beauty
When someone would ask me what my ideal woman looked like, I never knew how to answer that question. In the 30 minute metro ride I had when I first arrived from Moscow airport to the hostel, I saw 28 versions of my ideal woman. Enough said!

I met this dip shit Australian at a nightclub, who been working in the security business for the last eight months. I felt like hitting him because it was such an imbecile, but he did say something that sums it up pretty well (when asked why he likes it so much here): “Because the women are beautiful and the men are ugly”. A little harsh, but so true. Women go out of way to display their femininity – which I suppose is something all European women do, but Russians definitely are a cut above the rest. In boiling hot Iran, all women have to cover themselves completely. In barely five degrees Russia, women are wearing skirts that you see on a beach party. And apparently they even do it in the middle of winter at minus twenty degrees weather.

As for sex: how many times do you go to a nightclub and there are professional strippers on the bar? This one club in St Petersburg, I would be dancing, and then there would be an announcement every hour or so. Everyone would gather around an elevated stage with a pole, and watch the five minute routine – men and women alike watching a strip tease dance that repeatedly left my tongue on the ground. When finished, the disco music would start again, and everyone would resume to dancing as if nothing had just happened.

Women in Russia - freezing, and yet they still wear short skirts

I asked a member of the female species why do they wear such short skirts, in such cold weather. Answer: “Because it looks good”.

Russia and stereotypes
Forget the stereotypes, this is what I experienced: Russians are educated, cultured, and will go out of their way to help a stranger. My shock of this last fact was exacerbated by how I was not expecting people in large cities like Moscow and St Petersburg to be friendly – which are the largest and fourth-largest cities in Europe respectively. A typical example, was when I caught the train to the city centre from the airport. Moscow’s metro is the best in the world – which also means it is bloody complicated, especially for someone still learning the Cyrillic alphabet. I got off the wrong metro station, and asked a man where the hell was I. In his limited English he told me to follow him and walked me to the next station where I was meant to be connecting at – a five minute walk completely out of his way. This is but one example where people went out of their way to help me.

They say that when in Rome, you do as the Romans do. And it?Ǭ¥s not just for experiencing the culture, but for safety reasons as well – you don’t want to stand out as a tourist. But stand out I did. My drunk neighbour on the flight had also made the comment that I looked different. Apparently “American”. Still trying to work that one out.
Fortunately, I didn’t have any problems even though I had foreigner written on my forehead and I did have a bit of fun with it. But the homogeneity of the population is amazing, and people that look different like the people from southern Russia, are constantly pulled up by police on the street for passport and bag checks.

P1040571

Can you see it, on my forehead? It says “I am a foreigner”

Actually, a slight tangent: in St Petersburg, a university professor from Cambridge university, tried to pick me up. To cut a long story short, I had coffee with him, whilst he attempted to impress me, and invite me back to his apartment for drinks and to see his jacuzzi. The reason I am mentioning this story, is not because of how disgusted I was that a lonely gay man twice my age tried to pick me up, but rather to vent my anger with him because this is my blog and I’ll cry if I want to.
During our discussion, he complained how the Russian academic staff at the university were all straight, which was a weird thing as everyone back in England in his architecture department is gay. And how it bothered him, how they treated him differently. I completely agreed with him, and how bad it is homophobia is so strong here – ever since I got over my schoolboy homophobia, I have always supported gay rights. But then he said two things that made me angry.
The first thing was how he likes St Petersburg because everyone here is white. He doesn’t like the coloured people he has to mix with in London.
The second thing, was how impressive the architecture is in the city. What makes it so impressive, is that the Tsars had millions of slaves dying to make this grand buildings – something a western European ruler would never be able to get away with. And that is what makes them even more special.
So here I am with one of Europe’s leading academics (apparently), sympathising with his inequality, and yet he goes on in the same breath to say how good it is to be in a city full of white people which was built by generations of rulers who had no regards for human life. I felt like getting up and yelling at this maggot to go shove a communist sickle up his arse.
However gay rights are something Russians are not exactly supportive. I had a few conversations with some girls on several issues, and it is interesting to see how traditional minded they are. Point being, how socially conservative the youth are ( just imagine what the adults are like!).

P1040562

This church in Moscow took 44 years to build, and was later knocked down by Stalin. They recently rebuilt it, using modern technology, in just four years. The interior is amazing.

Then again, the gay thing might have something to do with the fact that there are ten million more women than men in Russia! Settle down though boys – some statistics a friend of mine dug up show that the numbers don?Ǭ¥t actually skew until after age 33 – there are actually slightly more men than women before that. Yet the numbers do imply the affects of three of Russia’s biggest problems: AIDS, Booze, and Chechnya.

There were an estimated 860,000 people living with HIV at the end of 2003 in Russia, and this figure looks set to increase. It has the highest HIV epidemic in all of Europe, although numbers do appear to be falling. The affects of such a disease, especially with an aging population though – is bad.
Alcohol is a serious problem. When Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign was launched in 1985, within two years life expectancy for men increased 3.2 years for women and 1.4 for women. Those improvements have since been lost, but it does tell a sad story. Russia, with a population of 143.2 million, has 2.37 million registered alcoholics. The average quantity of pure alcohol per person is 8.7 litres. That’s like everyone in Russia drinking 53 ml of Vodka a day.

P1040578

Moscows metro: deep, man.

Chechnya is a topic sensitive to Russians. Especially given the terrorist attacks on ordinary Russians by Chechnya’s militants wanting independence. Vladimir Putin recently said he wishes all Chechnyans are flushed down the toilet “We?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢re going to chase terrorists everywhere. If we track them down in a loo, we will rub them out in the loo, too.” This is the head of the government saying this. The fact he can get away with it – and also the reason why he said it – shows how much the war has affected the Russian psyche.
However the wars no doubt have had an impact on population numbers, especially with men who are the ones sent to war. Between 150,000 and 160,000 people have died in the two wars in Chechnya, according to Taus Djabrailov, the head of Chechnya’s interim parliament. The toll includes federal troops, rebel fighters, and civilians who died or went missing during both the first conflict (1994 to 1996) and the second, which began in 1999 and continues today. (Source). And lets not forget Afghanistan, which was Russia’s ‘Vietnam’ in the 1980s.

Mr Putin is also busy putting together the third Russian empire. People don?Ǭ¥t know who it is that controls their country, but as my friend Vera said, one more step backwards and she is out of there. Russia is a country in transformation. A strong man is needed to reorganise a country of its size, seeing as its democratic institutions have grown organically from a sick Soviet Empire (or rather, they have been re-branded as democratic). But a dictator is a dictator. The English-press in Russia seem to buzz with theories on how Putin will hold onto power, as he is legally restricted to two presidential terms. Given the nature of power, it is fairly obvious he will not let go the reigns of the government. However his decision on how he does this, will have huge ramifications on a country struggling to recreate itself.

P1040497

The double-headed imperial eagle, and the communist star – symbols of two former Russian empires. Wonder what Vladimir is cooking up for his new empire

Economically, the country is not healthy, reliant on oil and arms sales. Apparently 80 per cent of the country’s wealth flows into Moscow – which really makes me wonder what life must be like in the rest of Russia. One set of figures about wages I heard were as such: the average monthly salary is 9000 rubles. A doctor is payed about 3000 by the State (however his secretary probably gets 5000, because she is privately employed). Nine-thousand rubles is about 415 Australian dollars, 315 US dollars, or 260 Euros.

Those numbers are low, but it doesn?Ǭ¥t shock me that much, because I have been to a lot of poor countries where the wages are very similar. But what shocked me was that these are figures for people in Moscow. And in Moscow, I found the prices to be comparable to Sydney and New York. In Australia, the average monthly salary is $4,300 – ten times more than what I was told as the average salary in Russia/Moscow.

P1040499

You throw money over your shoulder for luck, and the babushkas behind you desperately catch the money. There are more billionaires in Moscow than in any other city in the world, and as you can see, plenty of poverty as well

Russia has one of the worlds richest histories, although a very brutal one as well. A visit to European St Petersburg makes you stagger at the cultural richness of the country, and Moscow’s fast paced, hedonistic consumer lifestyle, makes your head spin to think this was once the communist nerve centre of the world (communism? where?!)

If Russia’s leading two cities have transformed that much in 15 years, I am looking forward to see what it will become in another 15.

The long road to Iran via Turkey

Turkey. Was meant to be a transit destination, and this is now my 8th day! Three days in Istanbul, a day of travel to get to Trabzon where I spent two days, another day to get to Dogubayazit via Enzurum, and when I finish this post – a full day getting out of the country (even though l am right near the border – I was been roped into helping a local Kurd). The bus trips have been as fun as an adult circumcision, but despite being totally disengaged as a traveler, it still has been an interesting trip.

I arrived in Istanbul early Saturday morning, groaning that the ticket office I needed wouldn’t open until Monday. The hostel was literally a match box (how they fit the beds is beyond my comprehension) that had not been cleaned since, well, never. But despite this there was a hot but stupid Brazilian girl, and a German dude that I become friends with as we were entertained by the Brazilians stupidity, so that made it more bearable.

?Ѭ?stanbul

Istanbul. Damn big.

The German guy had just spent a year working for an NGO in Bangladesh. Yes he is also asking "why" as well now – He’s turned into an avowed capitalist after seeing what he saw. It turns out both our fathers have had former lifetimes as ladies men, but I think his dad takes the cake. His Romanian father is a musician that travels the world bonking women. My friend is son number 12. No one knows but the father how many sons he truly has. "Are you really son number 12?" I would ask for the fifth time. "You very amused by zis, eh?". God yeah.

I picked the hostel because it is in the heart of modern Istanbul near Taksim square, which was a good idea because it is totally different from Sultanahmet, the tourist area. The street is a pedestrian area, filled with shops and consulates dating back from the Ottoman Empire when these grand buildings where once embassies. Apart from walking up-down Istiklal street like a million times, I also got a taste of Istanbul nightlife with the German. Worst hangover ever.

Fishing in the Golden Horn

Having seen what travels on Istanbul’s waters, I don’t suggest seafood in the city.

Istanbul is grubby, congested, and disorderly. But I love it. I don’t know what it is, but it just stands out as one of the most amazing cities I have ever visited, a class I put alongside New York and London. There was a Turkish law that said that if you could build your house in 24 hours, you could claim the land. This resulted in a mass migration from heartland Anatolia, and today no one really knows how many people live in the city. To say 10 million is an understatement. Try 15-20 million.

Trabzon is a cool city as well, founded by Greeks thousands of years ago – the name is derived from the Greek word for "table", because the city sits on the mountain…like on a table. It has always been a historically important city as it lay on the Silk Road, as well as its impressive positioning protecting it from invaders. Today the focus has shifted from East to North, as it trades with Russia and the caucus region. You only need a glimpse of the port to know it is an important one.

P1040157

Along the Black Sea coast of Turkey, a mountain range follows it. This picture is on the far west of Trabzon – no wonder it resisted so many invaders.

Both cities are distinctively European in appearance, and spirit. It was only once I got lost in the suburbs of Trabzon that I saw women covering themselves head to toe and even then it was rare – only a few really old ladies. In Istanbul and in the centre of Trabzon it is very rare to see women cover themselves. People look European as well. It was not uncommon to see blue eyes. Actually I was shocked to see how European Turkish people looked. Coastal Anatolia is as European as they get.

Sumela Monastry

Sumela Monastry, which stands at the foot of a steep cliff, about 45 kms outside of Trabzon. Despite undergoing many changes since its founding, they say it first began during the reign of Theodosius I (AD 375-395). It took an hour to walk up the cliff. Monks are crazy people.

Heading inland, things are a bit different. The head to toe covering of women is a tad bit more common, but again, it mostly seems like the older generation. The head scarf is a lot more common, but it looks more like a fashion statement than a statement of fervent religious belief. The people look a bit more Arab as well, but as I found out last night, the Arab-Turkish look is because of the Kurds. One Kurd I met reckons there are 30-35 million of them, in a country with a population of 70 million. No wonder the Kurdish issue is so sensitive in Turkey.

On the bus from Trabzon to Enzurum, I was confirmed you don’t screw around in Turkey. Going on mountains so high up that there were cloud formations next to us, the bus suddenly made a sound like the bonnet had just been scrapped badly. I never found out what exactly happened apart from seeing some scrapings on the side, but what amused me was what happened after the scraping. First of all, all the men were outside, talking and looking very knowledgeable about what to do. Then, a passenger smacked the bus driver, and they got into a brawl. Then, the traffic police came. And another police car. And then a military van with five guys with big guns, four of which guarded the road. Another police car drove past but he was told to move on because they had enough support. Then, a shitty car with what appeared to be a high-ranking military officer, turned up. He poked around, walked around like he was important, and then had his door opened by one of his soldiers. He gave me a look as he was leaving that resembled like a "respect my authority!". I just gave him the kiss my arse look.

And the bus one and a half hours later left. All that for a traffic report? It reminded me of when I was in Trabzon, walking in the suburbs whereby a good 10-15 police cars one after the other came out of their car lot, presumably to deal with some important crime like a bank robbery or fetching a cat from a tree. Point being: Turkey has a lot of military and paramilitary with nothing to do not far from you – don’t test them! The amount of military bases in Eastern Turkey further proves this.

P1040187

Turkey has such a diverse and stunning geography, which bears similarities to all the countries I have seen so far combined.

Last night, tired like all buggery, I arrived in Dogubayazit. Some guy called Gerkum led me to a cheap hotel, and I was then passed on to Martin the hotel attendant. Martin than took me to a restaurant, and the staff there entertained themselves as I burnt my mouth with Kurdish food. Apparently, it’s called Kurdish viagra. I haven’t got a female companion to test it but God am I paying for it today – I don’t think a virus has the chance to exist in my body right now because of how strong the curry was (it was like packed curry with some flavouring).

Uploading my photos and writing this entry, Martin found out I had some basic internet knowledge. Two long hours later, we created a site with pictures. Wasted my day meaning I will get to Iran later rather than earlier, but if he gets at least one new customer I suppose it was worth it. Kurdish people are the friendliest people I have ever come cross as well. Maybe a bit too friendly – the 19 year old owner of this Internet cafe likes to talk and it is taking forever to write this entry.

P1040189

A proud nation, even though the issues of secularism and the Kurds, seem to challenge and bring conflicting views of what it means to be "Turkish"

Back in Trabzon, I was chatting with the hotel dude whilst eating breakfast. I don’t know whether it is the international male language, or if guys I meet are repeatedly testing my sexuality – because people always bring up the subject of women with me. He was telling me how Russian women are very beautiful. I said Turkish women were very beautiful as well, but he replied "Yes pretty, but only for marriage, not fun". Trying to make the conversation a little more meaningful I asked if people were religious in Turkey. He said they were, but not like how they were in Iran. "In Iran…make changes….like Christianity…you will see when you go". He then left the room with me trying to understanding what he meant by that. I didn’t have the chance to find out, but whatever his negative view of Iran is, I hope I can prove it wrong.

PS. On the toilet issue debate, the Muslim way is so much cleaner. Having said that though, I have completely redefined the relationship I have with my left hand.

Bulgaria

Having checked the map, I’ve realised that my trip-to-be isn’t really Eastern Europe in as much as it is Central Europe. And the term ex-Eastern Bloc is so passe. So let me start again: Greetings from the ex-commie bastard countries, before they turn into capitalist prick countries! Oh, I am excited!
The doctor ordered I stay in Greece another 10 days to recover, since my last blog posting. She could feel my anger, and did not charge for the session. The next visit, although better, she said I needed another month to fully recover – on top of the previous 25 days I had, locked up in Athens with rare glimpses with the outside world. Fearing for her life, she said it should be okay for me to leave. The next day, I was on a train north.

St Alexander Nevskis cathedral

Orthodox Christian iconography, at the big mother of a church in Sofia. Love them. And so does the Vatican, which sells them – the churches may disagree on doctrine, but they both know what sells well

So what to say about Bulgaria? The women are ridiculously hot (even the store mannequins looked good); the country is ridiculously cheap (and apparently, those two facts are not mutually exclusive, as I explain below). And I have never said the word “ridiculous” so many times, to describe a country.
I spent two days in Bulgaria’s capital – Sofia – and four in a former capital – Veliko Tarnovo. Sofia was pleasant; VT was great but could have been 10 times better if it wasn’t raining. We spent two nights hoping it would clear up, and I had to spend another night there because my bus to my next country broke down on the way. Unfortunately the day I left was also when it started clearing up, but I figure I will explore the country another time.

P1030883

Managed to get some pictures on my last day. The castle at Veliko is built on one of the three hills that the city sits on.

I enjoyed Sofia because it was bustling with people, had chic areas to hang out, and I had trouble trying to spend my money – always a good sign! In VT, despite the rain, I had some good company. I had met two British kids – Lydia and James – in Sofia, and said to meet them in VT. Although they left the day before me, they arrived at the same time and found me as I was walking to the hostel in VT, with a taxi driver that had no idea where they wanted to go. ?Ѭ? was wondering why it took them an entire day to get here, and they explained. In Bulgaria, like in Albania, they shake their heads sideways for ‘yes’ and up-down for ‘no’. Put simpler, the opposite to the rest of the world. So when on the bus the previous day, they asked the bus driver if the current stop was VT. He shook his head sideways, to indicate yes. The kids read it as a no. And so they spent the night on the Black Sea resort of Varna, a few hours from where they had originally planned to be.

Although it was raining, Lydia and James – who had met one week earlier but looked like a married couple together (something I think a lot of travelers can relate to when traveling alone) helped pass the rainy days with me. Lydia with her slapstick humour and James with his political incorrectness, wit, and political incorrectness. We found this amazing restaurant and we would eat there all day whilst laughing. On more serious discussions, James and I would reminisce the good old days of the British Empire, and how good the times were with slavery. James and I realised we are also a compatible writing team, as we discovered when writing an entry in the guest-book, and we are currently brainstorming a book we promise to write for the growing travel market. The book is called “Islamic Jihad on a shoe-string” or how to blow shit up on the cheap, for the budget traveler. I think we may have cornered a niche market here.

P1030826

The food was unbelievable. And ridiculously cheap: this dish cost about Five Lev or Three Euros. Also, they iron the tables with table-cloths when re-setting. Maybe that is what Sydney restaurants are missing?

Bulgarians look different from the rest of the people that inhabit the Balkan peninsula. Like the Serbs, there is a hint of Slavonic blood in them, but their unique look is obviously more dominated by other tribes. There is obviously some Thracian blood in them, but there is also a Turkic central-Asian look, from the Bulgar tribes that migrated in the 7th century AD. They have this characteristic round look, as in round face – like a teddy bear face. Having said that, there is also the sharp nose, sharp face look. Either way, they look different. And on the highly charged issue of Macedonia, I have to say the Macedonians do look a little different.

Sofia is located near the Republic of Macedonia’s border. It was picked as capital, because of the wishful thinking that one day Bulgaria would be reunited with “Western Bulgaria”, with Sofia as the capital in the middle of the country. Bulgarians claim the neighbouring Macedonians are actually Bulgarians, that speak a dialect of Bulgarian. I personaly find the Macedonians to be a little more Slavic in appearance. Either way, it’s a hotly contested issue. Maybe if the Bulgarians learnt how to move their heads for yes and no like the rest of the world, there wouldn’t be such a communication problem when discussing senstive issues like these? I was very confused when talking about the subject.

P1030850

Veliko is bu?Ѭ±lt on these hills. It was a strategic city, as it lay on the Rome-Constantinople road.

Bulgarians are very pro-Russia. In fact, when most of the commie bloc countries in the north where trying to get out of the Warshaw Pact, the Bulgarians voluntarily asked to be a part of the USSR in 1973. Whilst cheap Vodka may have something to do with it, the “we love Mother Russia” view is probably also due to the historic relationship with the Russians, where the Russians liberated the Bulgarians from the Ottoman Empire in 1878.

Russian church St Nikolay

Russian Church, built by the Russian Ambassador in the 1800s. They reckon he thought the Bulgarian Orthodox Churches spooked him, so he needed some Real McCoy Russian spritual protection

Squashed by the Byzantine Empire, supressed by the Ottoman Empire, and ‘liberated’ by the Russians – the Bulgarians are slated for joining the European Union in 2007. People don’t seem to understand why, nor care. The owner of the hostel at Sofia that I stayed at, reckons Bulgarians don’t have a deeply rooted culture of democracy. The concept of being an independent state isn’t a concept they understand. Whilst they are very proud of their culture, they are not so proud about their country. He reckons Bulgaria needs to be ruled by someone, because they don’t know better themselves.

P1030772

Sofia city centre.

Turbo folk music seems to be popular, music that has swept the Balkan states. I was told in Serbia, everyone hates it but it seems to be popular in Bulgaria. The girl at the VT hostel hates it as well, saying it is a bit like American R’n’B music with cars, naked girls, and sex. My Serbian friends claim it is nationalistic propaganda music. With short skirts and girls, I think I now understand how propaganda works.

And finally, a funny story. Was taking pictures.

St Alexander Nevskis cathedral

Actually, this picture to be exact

And a young man in a business suit asked me for the time. Then, he gave me his business card. It was too funny to refuse the card.

Medical control!

"non stop"

The card he gave me. Notice “non-stop”, ” medical control” and the generous discount.

Unfortunately, that is all I have to say. Blame the rain. Currently in Turkey and lovin’ it.

Gallipoli

Humanity. Identity. And youth. Those were the three unspoken themes that permeated the atmosphere at Gallipoli, the site at which 90 years earlier, soldiers from Australia, New Zealand, France, Britain and Turkey fought in a battle that lasted nine months but would forever haunt the site. Militarily, this battle brought bloodshed on all sides. Culturally, however, it would come to define the modern Australian and Turkish states ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú creating a legend that would affect us to this day.

Background

Even in ancient times, Byzantium was a very influential city. It controlled trade and shipping that would pass from the Black Sea and Anatolia, to the Mediterranean ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú the junction that connected Europe to the Silk Road. So strategically important was its position, that the Roman emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire there in 325 AD ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú where it ruled the world supreme for a thousand years. In 1453, the Ottoman?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s finally invaded the impregnable city with a new technology ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú canon fire ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú and made the since renamed city ?¢‚ǨÀúConstantinople?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ the capital of her vast empire.

In 1914, the Ottoman Empire ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú now on its last legs ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú had joined the Germans in the First World War. Constantinople, like it has always been, was a strategically important city. To capture it meant that the Allied armies could eliminate the Ottoman?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s from the war, as well as control the key black sea trading route ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú ensuring a starved Russia could get supplies and support, as the Western side of her belly was cut off by the Germans. The Gallipoli peninsula led into Constantinople, and if the Allies could capture the Peninsula, they could make their way up to Constantinople and achieve their objective. The outcome of this battle had huge ramifications for all the sides fighting, as it could have broken the stalemate on the western front.

Kamal Attaturk was the commander in charge of the Ottoman army at the Gallipoli peninsula. His success in defending his homeland, made him a national hero, and no doubt played an important factor in him becoming Turkey?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s first President in 1927 ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú whereby he oversaw the remnants of the Ottoman Empire in Anatolia modernised and completely revitalised into the powerful country we see today.

Of the Australian and New Zealand forces fighting there, the battle has became a symbol that defined two young nations, as up until then, their colonial past was the only identity that they had. They were known as the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, and the acronym to those words has come to represent a commemoration for fallen heroes; and for Australia, the uniqueness of her culture and people.

Ninety years later ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú the memorial ceremonies
The memorial consisted of three parts. The first part was the Dawn Service, which started at 4am. Later in the morning, the Lone Pine Service was held, to commemorate the Australian troops ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú as five of the seven Victorian crosses awarded were due to acts performed at this site. And afterwards, the New Zealander?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s held their service at Chanuuk Bar, which was the highest ground reached by the Anzac?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s.

The Dawn Service was held in an area called North Beach, which was just above Anzac cove. The area was held in a space the equivalent of a football field. The crude estimate that 14,000 people were there was based on the assumption two people could fit in each square metre. A lady who was handing out programmes, said that of the 19,000 printed, 17,000 had already been handed out at 12am ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú when not even three-quarters of the attendants had arrived. Add to the fact that there were literally thousands of young Turkish people swarming in the masses – it would not be unreasonable to say that 20-25,000 attended this year?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s service.

A local Turkish girl teased me, because she had one layer of clothing and was fine. I on the other hand had three layers, and was numb, shaking and could only concentrate on breathing and keeping warm from the winds, which made the five-degree Celsius climate feel like minus five. As someone who had only recently come from Australia?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s March climate, to experience Turkey?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s April chill, I stood perplexed at how men my age and younger – a military historian claims to have discovered a soldier aged 14 and nine-months – had to jump out of boats into the water and onto these fields. And then dig a hole, where they had to eat, shit and fight out of for the nine-months that followed.

The ceremony itself was nice. It probably would have been more enjoyable had we not been in the cold for so long. Nevertheless the light show, which was to simulate the sun-rise as the Anzac?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s landed on the shore, was quite spectacular. The rugged and steep hill behind us and which was 100 metres from the shore – simultaneously lit up in portions, as a flashing multi-coloured light projected from a corner near the water on our front left. It was dark, but there was also a full-moon which gave the shore an eerie feel. The lightshow against a backdrop of darkness was surreal; and the deathly quiet during the show, with the speaker system booming the voice of the narrator, definitely made an impression to those there.

After the Dawn Service, most people climbed the hills to Lone Pine. It was here that everyone who attended would agree was the highlight of the experience. Sitting in what was like a mini stadium ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú the 4,000 seats were full, and the ground was covered with people. John Howard, the Prime Minister, made an early arrival and did his rounds through the crowds. He was greeted with a standing ovation and cheering ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú which he lapped up every moment off. However when the same treatment was bestowed on Kim Beazley ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú the opposition leader ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú he may had realised that it was more larrikinism than respect when he heard those cheers.

After five false starts, a Mexican wave did a complete loop, including the armed service band, whom dropped there instruments to give a very precise and uniform wave. However what had me startled was that it would not stop. Every few minutes, I would notice the stand directly opposite me stand up, again, and after the wave had passed me six times, I started to wonder if it would ever end. It did, but that?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s only because we were busy asking all the dignitaries to give us a wave, which would have a stand erupt in cheering and laughter when they did

Dignitaries were plenty. From Australia, we had the Prime Minister, Opposition leader and quite a few members of the Federal Cabinet. Victoria?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s and Tasmania?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s premiers were present, and Prince ?¢‚Ǩ?ìChucky?¢‚Ǩ? Charles was in attendance (but no Camilla). Top military brass from Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the UK, Turkey, France and I am sure a few more filled the official chairs. In fact, some many ?¢‚ǨÀúdignitaries?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ came, that they ran out of official chairs ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú much like how the entire day panned out ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú a gross underestimation of the amount of people that would come.

An interesting observation was how Australian democracy was being represented overseas. When the Prime Minister gave the speech at the Dawn Service, it was the opposition leader that was to lay the wreath for Australia. Our ?¢‚ǨÀúhead of state?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢, represented by chucky, had no role of importance other than a token prayer (and only at the Dawn Service). The Australian head of state ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú the Governor-General, with the current holder of the office also a former military officer ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú was nowhere to be seen.

It became evident that the things Howard spoke about, and by the way the ceremony was organised, that he was doing more than just a memorial service ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú but was trying to shape an Australian psyche. He laboured to have us acknowledge sacrifice, mateship and courage as Australian virtues?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú but he had no trouble having us understand larrikinism, as was evident with the master of ceremonies repeatedly having trouble controlling the crowd.

The Service at Chanuuk Bar was a long walk up, which was a sobering experience to see how the New Zealand troops were able to get so far. Whilst I did not attend the service, people reflected that it was not as good. The noise generated by the Turkish children passing by to their buses, as nearby they were celebrating their own ?¢‚Ǩ?ìVictory?¢‚Ǩ? of the battle, made it apparently difficult to enjoy the moment

Overall Observations
The thing that struck everyone who attended, were the amount of young people present. Most of the crowds were Australians based in London on working holidays or GAP-year students working somewhere in Europe. An older contingent of retirees made their presence felt, and it seemed that for all except the tour-guides, it was a first-time experience. Nearly all that I spoke to wouldn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t have come to Turkey had it not been for the 90th celebration. Although everyone also said, they would definitely be back again.

Another thing that struck us as strange were the amount of Turkish people there. In recent years, the battle has raised in national importance in Turkey ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú and questions are being raised by the younger generation as to the amount that died (there is no Turkish burial site). There were boys and girls there from all over Turkey. Some where there just to see what the fuss was about. Pretty much all of the young Turkish men there, came because they think Australian women are easy to pick up. Whilst it annoyed me and I am sure other people how the Turks in attendance didn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t show much respect by keeping quiet and stationary during the Dawn Service, it was startling to see so many other young Turkish children on the walk up to Chanuuk Bar. Even nicer was the warmth both nations showed each other in their interactions, a thing confirmed to me in Istanbul where all the shopkeepers who realised I was Australian, would tell me how much they liked Australians. Sure they were trying to sell me something, but they seemed genuinely respectful.

Australian poets and songwriters have long lamented that when the last ANZAC would die, the importance of the day would be lost in history. The last Australian ANZAC has died, however I wish that some of those artists could have been there, as they would realise a fresh generation of young Australians would carry the tradition on ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú although for different reasons. Being surrounded by so many Australians, in a foreign continent where some had not heard an Aussie accent since they were in Australia, gave everyone a warmth. However being in a crowd of Aussies, laughing and cheering together, and nodding our heads at things that the Turkish tour guides didn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t understand, did something else. It made you feel like an Australian. And it made you feel glad you were one.