How I realised, by a sunny afternoon in Tbilisi, that I may be a travel snob

It was a tough and rewarding day travelling, and I was over the moon. So proud of myself – this was exactly what travel is to me:

  • A journey out of the beaten track
  • Where experience is as important than the destination itself
  • Travelling by my own means
  • And suffering a little bit on the way, real travel shouldn’t be too easy

After breakfast that morning, I had only a vague idea of what the day would bring to me: my goal was to wander around, into the non touristic Northern neighbourhoods of the Georgian capital, to potentially check out a few landmarks I found about in Google, and see what else I would find on the way.

I love these days spent walking, with a broad objective in mind, and letting encounters distract me and my plans. I spend the whole day observing, experiencing, analysing; getting to new insights about the place and its people. It really makes me high.

Serendipity and using my flair brought me to this cemetery, Didube Pantheon, and I am so glad I got to make this picture.

That day, I walked during 8 hours, including a 45-minute detour just to check a building that looked interesting at the other side of the river.

This bizarre building was the Ministry of Highways in Soviet times. Later abandoned, it’s been recently renovated and is now the HQ of the Bank of Georgia. It was worth the detour, wasn’t it?

That day, I also took a bushrutka – OK that’s a word I made up, because it was a vehicle of a size between a proper bus and a marshrutka (a van in Russia). And guess what: the journey was horrific.

The bushrutka was 45 minutes late. It was so incredibly crowded that it felt it was going to explode. It was too heavy to go uphill, and incredibly slow. It was incredibly hot inside. I was feeling privileged but cheating because I had a seat.

When we reached a bus stop and I saw a man stand with 2 children, I didn’t believe my eyes: they did actually try and get in. I sensed the trap, and immediately grabbed someone’s bag to put it on my lap; good choice, as just a second later my neighbour had a child on his. Tap on my own shoulder: oh yes I’m an experienced traveller.

There’s no tourist landmark in the Northern suburbs of Tbilisi, but if you’re a travel snob like me 😉 you are likely to find it interesting to explore them anyway!

At the top of the hill, I gave the man by the door a heads up that I was planning to get off at the next stop, so he would let me pass. His severe face expression confused me and I jabbered and didn’t express me really well. He said no and looked away.

That day, I learned the difference between hospitable and friendly. Georgians are incredibly friendly with tourists because they are incredibly hospitable – they love having you there in their country and want you to experience all what’s great about it. But that doesn’t mean they are particularly friendly outside the beaten track, especially if they don’t know you’re a tourist.

I had to fight a little, but I did eventually manage to extract myself from the overcrowded van.

I was starving, as it was Easter Monday and Georgians are serious about Christian holidays: all shops and restaurants were closed and I didn’t find a single thing to eat or drink the whole day.

I was happy and proud: it was a real day travelling, outside the beaten track, experiencing the real life and its daily struggles, just for the sake of it. A bit of a painful process at times, hence even more rewarding.

And the next day, I came across this article posted by a fellow traveller in a Facebook community I belong to: 22 Reasons You Are A Travel Snob.

Reason 1, tick. Reason 2, tick. Reason 11 obviously, and 13, and 17 perhaps, 20 possibly, and certainly, oh yes, reason 5:

You equate pain, suffering, long and arduous journeys and doing without as more authentic than traveling without pain, suffering, long and arduous journeys and doing with.

My heart skipped a bit: I may actually really be a travel snob!

What it’s like to live in the most isolated town of remote Russia

48 hours stranded in a hole, somewhere in the middle of a Soviet nowhere – this happened to me last summer when bad weather conditions caused my flight out of the remoteness to be severely delayed.

I was in Ust-Nera, in the Russian permafrost, ending a visit of the most remote, isolated and abandoned areas of Soviet Russia.

Try googling Ust-Nera. You will probably have to zoom out a few times before you can relate to anything familiar on the map.

There is very little to do in Ust-Nera; the place is totally desolated, it was raining, and you had to wait until 2 pm to buy booze – an old Gorbachev-time law that has long disappeared in Russia, but the decree of cancellation may not have reached this part of the world.

So until I could intoxicate myself to make the reality shinier, I used my mornings to walk around and figure out: what can it be like to live in such a hole of the Russian permafrost?

Imagine that you live in Ust-Nera, a previous base for the gulag labour camps, 9.000 km East of Moscow, with 6.000 other inhabitants.

There are 8 to 10 months of winter, when it typically gets as low as minus 50.

When the summer is finally there, mosquitoes proliferate and bite you mercilessly.

Summers are also humid, and because it’s permafrost, the rain stays on the surface instead of being absorbed by the earth. Hence the whole place is a swamp, and a paradise for mosquitoes.

A street in Ust-Nera

Interestingly, the frozen earth means that all houses are on pillars; houses are all Brejnev-time apartment buildings here, as most of the town was created at a time when the Soviets did not build anything else.

Typical housing building in Ust-Nera

No matter how remote, the propaganda has always made its way to you. OK, your local Lenin statue might be of a cheaper material, but there is one – and you did receive Putin’s posters for the latest anniversary of the Great Patriotic War.

Stained Lenin statue in Artyk

The next town is an 8-hour drive and it’s the exact same town. For a change of scenery, you should take a 2-hour flight in an old Antonov or Tupolev aircraft.

Your apartment is the same as everyone’s apartment in Russia, as illustrated so well in Russia’s cult film The Irony of Fate. You may have the model with 1 or 2 bedroom, it’s not too bad actually, you can hear the neighbours but you have central heating, and it costs 45.000 rubles per square metre (730 euro), 3 times less than in Moscow.

Someone is trying to sell an apartment in Ust-Nera, but it doesn’t look like many people are interested.

There are 3 or 4 shops in town and they all sell the same basic stuff. Everything is brought by truck from Yakutsk where it is brought by flight from Moscow, so it’s not fresh and costs 3 times more.

Your supplies depend on the town’s supplies. I have heard people in the shops not ask “What have you got today?” but “What has arrived today?”.

Ust-Nera’s municipal park

In continental Russia, kids often play in parks on real tanks from the war. No tank actually made it all the way here, but Moscow has thought of everything and provided the local kids this wonder of a toy to play with in the municipal park.

Entertainment is scarce, but serious. The town has one restaurant and one cafe, and there is still some activity every now and then at the House of Metallurgists.

Ust Nera’s House of Metallurgists

There is probably a reason why you’re here. There is a mine nearby and you’re a skilled worker and got incentivised to move here a long time ago. Or your family’s history is that of former gulag convicts who never returned to mainland Russia. And now you’re stuck here. It would be too expensive to move elsewhere – and to go where anyway?

Ust-Nera is pretty remote, but has a really nice WWII memorial

Russians tend to be fatalist. In the small town of Artyk, I asked an old lady who has been living there all her life, how she liked it. Instead of answering the question, she shrugged and said “Artyk is just a transport hub you know, there’s not much going on”. Make up your mind what she actually meant.

In the permafrost regions, all pipes are kept above the ground. This has a huge impact on the street layout.

Nature reasserting itself in Soviet Russia

This week, Ailsa‘s photo challenge theme is Leaves.

Nature grows slowly in the permafrost. And yet, time passes, and surely; the whole territory in Russia still bears the scars of the Soviet Union but they become less visible every year.

Spotted in the small mining town of Mirny, in Yakutia: an old Soviet sign that is struggling to exist in an environment that wants to get the upper hand.

dsc00747

Photo taken in July 2016.

 

5 things you should really know about Kazakhstan

In a few days, Kazakhstan, where I am travelling right now, is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its independence.

Kazakhstan, the country of Borat? No! The real Kazakhstan, a huge and fascinating country that none seems to know anything about in the world.

First, it’s as large as Western Europe. It shares borders with 5 countries: will you be able to name them all?

map.jpg

Kazakhstan is associated to mythical concepts. The Silk Road was going through what is now Southern Kazakhstan – there’s not much but ruins left of that, but in Turkistan you can still admire the incredible Yasuai Mausoleum from the 14th century. Also, the Kazakhs are supposedly descendents of Genghis Khan: warriors on horse back throughout the steppes, how legendary!

turkistan

There is a very own specificity of Kazakhstan that unfortunately disappeared but has marked the culture profoundly: nomadism. Until Stalin albeit, as a cultural genocide that forced the Kazakh people to abandon their ancestral way of life and settle in collective farms put an end to it in 1929-1933.

Another thing that surprised me when I learned it: apples are from Kazakhstan. I’ve read all details about it in Christopher Robbins’ book In search of Kazakhstan: a brilliant Soviet botanist named Vavilov discovered and demonstrated that apples originated from wild orchards not far from Almaty! OK, that botanist ended up in gulag too, but it was hard to avoid that in Stalin times…

Nursultan Nazarbaev has been the president since independence, and is re-elected every time with over 90% of votes (the constitution of Kazakhstan says you cannot be run more than twice, unless you are the first President! Nazarbaev did not come down with the last snow!).

OK, Kazakhstan occupies the 160th place (out of 180 countries) on Reporters without Borders press fredoom index; but Nazarbaev has succeeded in bringing a lot of economical wealth as well as stability to a post-USSR, multi-ethnic country, a sign that his alternative model might not be the wrong one for young independent Kazakhstan.

A last thing about Kazakhstan? Well, the national drink is fermented horse milk; there is also fermented camel milk. Would you try it?

milk.jpg

Lenin statues covered with snow

If you read my blog, I’m sure you know about my passion for Lenin statues.

This week, Ailsa‘s photo challenge theme is Snowy, so time for a session of Lenin statues covered with snow!

I’ve always wondered if anyone removes the snow from statues – in the deep of winter you rarely see Lenin covered, but it could be because the snow falls or is pushed by the wind. What is sure is that in the morning after a very heavy snow fall, Lenin statues can look hilarious! Here are a few (from me but also found elsewhere):

Brest
Lenin in Brest (Belarus). This one is already on my blog – and it comes as result number 20 in a Google Images search about “Lenin snow”. I think I can claim I’m a global expert! 😉
15032067_1137400629660299_6703011276013774401_n
Shared by a friend on social media (I don’t know the original author)
15036708_1154939107874493_2151086738898949454_n
Shared by a friend on social media (I don’t know the original author)

 

A frozen monument to Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin is seen as the temperature is below -30 degrees Celsius (-22 degrees Fahrenheit).in downtown Yakutsk, about 4,800 kilometers (3,000 miles) east of Moscow, Monday, Dec. 28, 2009. (AP Photo/Yakutsk Vecherny, Aexander Li)
A frozen monument to Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin is seen as the temperature is below -30 degrees Celsius (-22 degrees Fahrenheit).in downtown Yakutsk, about 4,800 kilometers (3,000 miles) east of Moscow, Monday, Dec. 28, 2009. (AP Photo/Yakutsk Vecherny, Aexander Li) (found here)
10143341bbd63a1529f1a709e0dfccc1
Found on Pinterest

Want to have more fun with Lenin statues? Read here the principles to create a Soviet propaganda-compliant Lenin statue, have a laugh with Lenin’s giant head in Ulan-Ude, and check how fun Ukrainians turned a Lenin statue into Darth Vader in Odessa!