A Travellerspoint blog

Pilsner – a real woman’s beer


View A Merry Go Around on Wheelspin's travel map.

We spent the weekend in Czech Republic feeling very superfluous. 80% of all cars had multiple mountain bikes on their roof. The owners looked at us very disdainfully as if to say, “Why are you cluttering up our road when we are on a healthy mission”. I felt like putting a big sign in our back window saying, “Our bikes are on the car in front. We’re carrying the deodorant”. There are over 38,000kms of signposted walking and biking tracks in the Czech Republic. That’s despicable. I’m sure the money could have been better spent saving staving children in Africa – or upgrading the Brno ‘Automotodrom’ Circuit to full Formula 1 standard.

After a very pleasant morning illegally parked in the heart of Brno - which may now be considered by Flypaper to be even nicer than Bratislava – we drove out to the Automotodrom which hosts MotoGP and the World Superbike Championship. There were lots of bikes whizzing around and I did think the fabulous noise some of them made was far better than nature could ever provide. Then two things happened, Flypaper complained that she couldn’t concentrate of her new book (which I tried to convince her was a good thing), then I read on a signboard that the circuit also hosted cycling and inline skating. We were gone before either of those activities had a chance of starting. The balance of the day was spent crossing the country through rural areas on ‘B’ class roads being very conscious that many of the aforementioned tracks crossed here, there and everywhere. Bikes would pop out of the undergrowth without warning and, if they were lucky, pop back into something similar on the other side of the road. We missed them all but only because Flypaper insisted we toot the horn every 30 seconds. This was probably a good thing as I am aware that the brand name BRNO is well known. This company dominates the small arms market world wide for military and police, as well as sporting and recreational rifles. It didn’t seem prudent to bump a cyclist when the next one on the scene may be carrying a few company samples, cocked and ready for such an occasion.

We spent Saturday night in Plizen. So what? Because it’s CZ’s most famous town. Plizen is the home of Pilsner – which most people wrongly think is of German origin. The first Pilsner, which is a light beer suitable for women working in the fields, was made around 990AD. What’s more, and this will stun those from the USA, Budweiser originally comes from Ceske Budejovic, a place just around the corner from Plizen. Can you see ‘Bud’ in the word Budejovic? This has resulted in the disputed statistic that Czechs are the No 1 Beer drinkers in the world. It would appear that we have been traveling from one alcohol fueled country to another during the past 3 months. It certainly seemed like it to us. That night we decided to have dinner at the brewery that first made Pils and to try their brew. This is the largest company in town and truly impressive to see. Unfortunately, either success or too much beer has addled their brains. While in a fabulous dungeon with great potential, the meal was one of the worst we’ve had since leaving home. (By that. I don’t mean that I’m served worse meals at home, although there have been some memorable ones during Flypapers ‘experimental’ phases.) The recommended main course was 4 pork cubes hiding in a goulash, surrounded by some stodgy potato dumplings. I am all in favour of traditional ethic cuisine and search for it everywhere. This poor offering couldn’t even be saved by the half litre of mediocre beer … although a second half litre may have helped. We never gave it a chance. We asked for the bill, were satisfied that it was astonishingly cheap and went home to spend the next few hours speaking badly about Plzensky Prazdroj. (Pilsner Urquell Brewery).

We discovered that the furtive people creeping around in the gloomy forests were involved in their National passion – mushroom hunting. Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it. This possibly remains a hangover from the communist times when a great deal of mothers day was spent standing in queues waiting for food purchasing opportunities. In an astonishingly short period, Czech Republic has progressed to being the second richest Eastern European country after Slovenia. The GDP per capita is now higher than the Greeks or Portuguese and Czechs have their sites set very high. Already Prague’s PPP is twice the national average and higher than any EU member state’s national average except Luxembourg. The country is now considered a ‘developed’ country – and it shows. However, I worry for them. They are making the same mistakes as most other developed countries. Currently the rural areas, villages and small towns are very attractive and productive. But, the young people don’t want to live in the rural communities. Large companies are all centralizing. This is resulting in pressure on the city infrastructure and the loss of the countries most valuable assets – the existing infrastructure that supports the rural powerhouse of the economy. Does this sound familiar? It happened in New Zealand. The smartest country I have been to that is among the most successful in the world, is incentivizing its industry to decentralize and makes it very difficult to make their largest cities bigger. That’s Norway. I predict the Eastern European Countries will continue to climb the economic ladder, but to a great extent, as a result of those currently higher up falling back. They will then discover that the social costs of large cities will halt their progress and create all the difficulties the west is experiencing.

A few years ago, if asked to give an example of a Czech product, you would have said … a Skoda. This company had its origins as a bicycle manufacturer way back in 1894. They made their 1st car in 1905. (3 years before Henry Ford made the Model T) Skoda made excellent cars until the factory was almost completely destroyed during WWII. They bounced back with a range of cars that spawned some of the most unkind automotive jokes ever. A guy goes into a garage and asks, “Do you have a windscreen wiper for my Skoda?” The man in the garage replies, “Sounds like a fair swap”. What do you call a Skoda at the top of a hill? A miracle.
Today Skoda is part of the giant Volkswagen Group. They are among the very best value for money cars on the market and certainly not to be joked about. This is a good example of the progress of the Czech Republic.

It was quite satisfying to be back in Western Europe – a part of the world we are very familiar with. It was much more relaxing galloping HeeHaw along the German Autobahns at 150 – 160kph rather than dodging potholes, cows, carts and slow produce vendors. Many of the people on the Autobahn were impressed with the speed of such an odd car and were giving us the ‘thumbs up’. Well – some of them were getting mixed up between their fingers and thumbs but they were probably new immigrants still learning the code.

The star of the journey has been HeeHaw. 14,000km of very demanding roads and some cruel punishment in heat and dust. He started instantly every morning, never missed a beat, didn’t suffer any mechanical malaise or, in spite of some very near misses, sustain a scratch. All this on top of 30,000km of similar treatment during the past 2 years. Flypaper is having to work very hard to keep ahead in my affection.

The other item that enabled this trip was the Sat Nav (GPS) – it couldn’t be done without,
especially in those countries that use the Cyrillic alphabet. Only the best GPS program is capable and very few can operate in the ex-Soviet countries. We used the latest Garmin, which together with their ‘World Maps’ covered every country we visited. The only weakness was Moldova (what a surprise) and here it did very well but wouldn’t show minor city roads. That only caused a minor hiccup once – which the assistance off a Taxi driver solved. I am now willing to accept that having a nagging woman in the car telling me where to go is acceptable under certain conditions. There are times however, when her tone annoyed me but the knowledge that there is a ‘shut up’ button only centimeters from my finger is enough to give me a psychological advantage.

Readers have been asking which the best country we visited was. There was no winner – they all have their own foibles and conviviality. There is a looser though – Russia. After costing us a considerable fortune to get visa’s and travel to their border; then to just shut their port without any consideration was really annoying. I wonder what our chances of a refund will be? It has certainly made me confident that Russia is not a serious threat in the world. It’s a bloody nuisance but hardly capable of being a world economic power – and nothing else counts these days. There are immediate reflections of each of the countries we visited. I will ignore Western Europe. However, this is a region that for travelers may have just about had its day. There are lots of interesting places nearby that can offer experiences at a much lesser price to those willing to accept cultures that differ from home. Let’s face it, visiting Rome or Paris is just the same as Sydney or Auckland with older rocks piled up all around. Even the language difficulties are just as challenging in Auckland these days.

Almost all of our journey highlights relate to interaction with people we met. Guides, hotel & restaurant employees and people who picked us up in the streets with a wish to convince us their country is the friendliest in the world.

Hungary – If they get rid of their silly alphabet (as Czech Republic did) they have a chance of joining the 21st century. It’s a country that should never be forgiven for letting that guy Rubik live – he’s the one that invented that cube that drives people nuts. Hungary is ‘nice’ and as a result isn’t the most memorable place. An excellent place for those wishing to explore a little further East than Paris and Munich.

Romania – The last remaining culture that really appreciates the horse – in traces or on the table. The streets are however, full of stray dogs which bite about 10,000 people each year. I’m surprised no-one has developed a recipe and bitten one back. Romania’s biggest asset is a fictitious character called Dracula. He could yet save the country which will long suffer the legacy of the megalomaniac Nicolae Ceausescu. Even his huge building legacy will not provide much future attraction for a tourist industry, because, like the rest of Bucharest, it’s falling apart.

Bulgaria – This was first country in which I became aware that a pigs life in Eastern Europe is neither long nor fun. We never did find out where they lived but we were certainly impressed with the variety of ways they were the star of the show in restaurants. I liked the Bulgarian villages. The occupants lived as if no-one else existed and often closed their street for personal convenience or built something obviously temporary that was never taken down again.

Turkey – Turkey is really two places. Istanbul and the ‘real’ Turkey further east. When young we used to fish in the river running beside our home. Our bait, until we became ‘sophisticated’ and silly, was mostly worms. Worms are probably the most attractive lure for any fish and I’m mystified why this fact has been forgotten. I dug worms from our garden and kept them in an old tobacco tin. Opening the lid exposed a writhing mass of slippery characters all battling away in different directions. This is exactly how I saw Istanbul. Chaos. The rest of Turkey is memorable for the infrastructural development. The whole country is being dug up and remade to suit the fast developing economy. Its progress at top speed … although I suspect the resulting dust haze can be seen from the moon.

Armenia – The country that touched my heart … like a child with a disability, one wants to give it an extra hug. The poorest and most oppressed place in this Black Sea region. It’s still fighting battles with bullies on 2 of its 3 boarders. One of our most memorable memories was struggling up to our room to discover there was no water and intermittent electricity – then to open the balcony door to the most stunning view of Mount Ararat on one of the few days its not covered in cloud. The musical fountain show in the main square was mesmerizing for hours one evening and our guide was the most likable of the journey.

Georgia – The prevailing memory is a whirlwind tour with countless near death experiences … in a Toyota Corolla. If I’m going to die I fervently pray for something better than a Corolla. Even a Romanian Dacia would be more acceptable on my tombstone. Having seen what happens to a cow when it’s hit by a car, I wonder why motorcyclists bother to wear leather. It certainly didn’t help the cow. It was weird to visit the Stalin Museum which appears to hold him in high regard, then to learn from the guide that she thought he was a bastard. She was relieved he wasn’t a cobbler like his father, because the shoes he made would certainly have hurt to wear.

Azerbaijan – I remember this as Corruption Central … and as the place that lives on little more than oil exports. The millions of polluted hectares around Baku provide a sober message and almost convinced me to become a fervent ‘Greenie’. The moment passed and I again remembered what wonderful things oil products have provided for mankind. Some sort of medicines I believe - and deodorant. Some people believe that the Garden of Eden was located in the Caucuses and both Georgia and Azerbaijan have their hands up. They both have apples – and snakes … but I never saw a fig tree in either.

Ukraine – We have crossed the substantive part of Ukraine previously. This journey concentrated on the Crimean Peninsular. It’s very different to the mainland. Ukraine as a nation has enormous potential. Its huge, has lots of natural recourses, vast agricultural land and sits on the edge of Europe. It’s puzzling to me why many Ukrainians still believe Communism has a lot going for it. While officially a democratic country it suffers 3 problems. The politicians overrule the judiciary; the media fail to hold the politicians to account and the real power in the background are immensely wealthy oligarchs who in many instances gained their riches and power through suspect means. In this environment the country will never prosper. We experienced paranoia and corruption whenever we interacted with bureaucrats. Having said that, I’ve yet to find a bureaucrat that doesn’t annoy me with their god-given belief that they know what’s best for me.
I consider the Crimea to be the best part of Ukraine. It has history, well preserved places of interest, a holiday atmosphere due to its location on the Black Sea and a more pleasant climate to the mainland.

The food throughout the journey was generally delicious and there was never a shortage. I have probably eaten more pork in the last 3 months than during the rest of my life. Flypaper favoured the fish whenever it was available. “Trout’ was offered regularly, but I considered they should have been thrown back to grow into a real feed. Potatoes featured on most menus in one form or another – sometimes in many forms at the same time. Meat and 3 veg = Pork with boiled potato, potato dumpling and fried ‘country style’ potatoes. Fresh vegetables’ and fruit were certainly available everywhere although some restaurants felt they were surplus to requirements and probably something one only ate at home. Tomatoes and cucumbers were generally presented with all meals including breakfast. At least we didn’t get scurvy. Breakfast always included eggs and cheese in one form or another. By western standards the food was fairly repetitious – I call that the McDonalds formula. Everyone knows what it is. There were notable meals. In Bratislava, Budapest and a small coastal town in Turkey we ate as well as at any fine Parisian restaurant that would have been 10 times the price. Cheap and very drinkable wine accompanied virtually every meal so we never really dehydrated.

In every country we sensed the populace has a real fear of the police. Usually this was because the police were corrupt and looking to supplement their incomes from any minor discretion. Everyone we befriended for any time felt moved to tell us about the corruption and frustrations in their life. Most would like to go somewhere else but are unable to for multiple reasons. We were conscious all of the countries leaders were paranoid about public unhappiness. Surveillance is everywhere and the politicians are all on edge waiting for a popular revolution. Right now they see this happening in many other countries and are worrying. Rather than change to make their populations happy, they are strengthening their police, armed forces and control systems. This has the potential for nasty civil unrest.

Our accommodation ranged from palatial and luxurious (both very rare) down to waterless, powerless, ovens that hadn’t seen a cleaning rag since communism failed. Most bathrooms provided challenges and over 80% of the showers drained onto the floor and often into the bedroom. This fed some very interesting mould growth and, who knows, may one day provide a cure for cancer, or a painless way to remove tattoos. Some doors locked, some windows opened and some furniture didn’t fall apart. The beds were ummmm, variable. In Eastern Europe they were sometimes prewar wire-wove with lumpy mattresses’ filled with a byproduct of the horse recycling industry, to universally hard in the countries further east. After a challenging day on the move they were all welcome. When we were pleasantly surprised we were very appreciative. Just goes to show, its only a matter of degrees. I remarked to Flypaper that it would have been tougher for Maco Polo who also cruised around these parts. She responded by saying, “He didn’t have to wash his hair every second day”.

This journey isn’t for everyone. It’s not a holiday nor is it an exercise in masochism. It is often a challenge and always rewarding when looking back. The ordinary people in every country are friendly, pleased to help if they can and are delighted westerners are interested in their existence. We never experienced a sense of danger or fear or even worried about the risk of theft. However, I admit to regular frustration and may have muttered a few unkind words on occasions. We do these journeys a lot and are conscious that the world is changing. In the not too distant future everywhere will be similar to everywhere else. If you have a wish to see the world while individual cultures remain and in many instances as others have lived for hundreds of years – get going soon. The most difficult part of this and every other journey is the decision to start.

Posted by Wheelspin 16.07.2013 06:01 Archived in Czech Republic Tagged czech republic car_travel brno pilsner eastern_europe plizen Comments (0)

Its horse manure

Ukraine continued to display paranoia when we left. Long waits for no apparent reason; although they may have been waiting for a small token of appreciation for our release. We wondered if they were just sorry to see us go, or perhaps they were checking to see if we had indeed assisted their comrades achieve a world record – in which case they may have wished to celebrate with us. It was 8.30am and the Vodka was on the desk. Our new hosts just down the road showed a lot more pleasure at our arrival. One of the ‘big hats’ actually smiled and asked if we would care to wait in their 37 degrees C airless carpark. Nice of him.

The country that staunchly carries the title ‘poorest economy in Europe’ is one that most people have never heard of. When did you last discuss the trials and tribulations of The Republic of Moldova? It’s a country about the size of Otago with 3.5 million people squeezed (in more ways than one) between Ukraine and Romania. It should be a little bit larger but a 60km strip of land next to Ukraine called Transnistria has declared itself independent and created its own president, constitution, army, currency and even a postal service. It took a few notes about this and believe the Bay of Plenty could easily do the same.

When researching this country to discover whether to include it in the program, I discovered …Moldova is well endowed with sedimentary rocks, sand and gravel. Natural hazards include landslides. That did it for me. Being proud of ones gravel and sand makes one more able to live happy at the bottom of the economic scale. Notwithstanding these treasures, there is really only 1 industry in Moldova – I’m serious, this is official – its wine making. They’ve been at it for about 5,000 years and believe me; they are really getting the hang of it. We visited the 2nd largest winemaking and storage facility – Cricova. It has a mere 120km of underground limestone caves (the biggest winemaker just down the road has 250kms). We are talking serious roads where the management drive their big Mercs to work underground and we zipped around in a surprisingly fast golf cart train. People regularly go inside and never emerge again. Astronaut Yuri Gagarin was assisted out after 2 days tasting. A well known Russian named Putin had his 50th birthday party down there. They gave him 500 bottles as a present. One bottle is rumored to be poisoned. We could see that very few have been drunk at this stage. Cricova have a ‘collection’ of wines comprising of 1.3 million bottles. In addition, their current maturing wine in storage is 4,000,000 liters. The wines are highly prized in Russia which is their biggest customer. Many affluent people purchase vintages and store them here in the ideal conditions. Some we viewed belonged to notable Germans – including Angela Merkel and Herman Goering. Goering is a bit behind with his rent. The stats on the big place down the road, Milestii Mici are even more mindboggling.

Given this, it’s easy to believe the proud Moldovan boast that they drink more Alcohol than anyone else in the world. The quality of their wines and beers are excellent – some say their Brandys’ surpass all others. The prices are astonishingly low. This provides the population with a cheap daily anesthetic making it unlikely Moldovan will ever escape their position at the bottom of the economic heap. Politics is a devilishly cunning business.

The other astounding asset – in their capital city Chisinau - is the sensation hotel we were fortunate to stay in. The Weekend Boutique Hotel is an amazing art gallery that must have been built by a hugely talented artist with an unlimited budget. I walked around gaping and pointing, totally in awe. Check it out – www.weekend-boutique-hotel.com (Actually, the web site doesn’t do it justice – there are others) It made the visit to Moldova worthy all by itself. Weekend_Bo..l_Chisineau.jpg

We couldn’t find the hotel so resorted to paying a taxi driver to lead us in. When I approached him he had no idea of its existence either. He called all his mates who were equally ignorant and started to wonder if he would ever earn the fat fee from the silly English speaking people who probably spent most of their life lost and being rescued by people like him. Finally I convinced him to call the hotel direct. I reasoned that even in a country with the world’s highest alcohol consumption, the receptionist would likely know where she shows up each morning. All this would be of little interest except for the fact that when we arrived, the doorman was a long lost best friend of the taxi driver. We saw them out the window chatting and smoking for hours. I imagine the exorbitant fare he charged us went up in smoke pretty quickly.

A country this size and one with a single industry, doesn’t have much to hold the tourists interest. We drove over a high percentage of its roads, saw most of the city twice, checked out the wine business and enjoyed the best looking hotel we have ever stayed in – all in 2 days. I did want to discuss the level of corruption which I understand is their other claim to greatness, but found no-one with any wish to talk to someone who may be a guvmint spy. I understand that this is a two class society - one class that spends its time creating and honing corrupt opportunities and procedures … and the other that spends its time hugely frustrated by the loss of a substantial portion of their meager incomes to these practices. For all that, the country looked good. The roads were far superior to both Ukraine and Romania; the people we meet were pleasant, helpful and willing to laugh at my racist and sexist jokes even if they didn’t understand them. I guess this is how they have coped with successive invaders.

Arriving back in Romania 6 weeks after leaving was like meeting an acquaintance and not remembering if they have body odour or something equally worrying. There were things we had forgotten. Spring had turned to summer. The heat had ripened the horse manure on the roads causing us to run full time on recirculating air conditioning. When a ‘greenie’ starts whining that cars cause pollution, mention that the streets of large cities used to be ‘feet’ deep in horse poo. Suggest we revert to this, but first tell them to scoot over to Romania in July for a preview. The underside of HeeHaw now has a new pungent veneer of anti-customs snooping material. The Carpathian Mountains in the North East of Romania are the most spectacular part of the country, and the poorest. Particularly the area known as northern Transylvania. The fecal road cover is created by farmers driving their horse and ancient looking carts with wonky wheels on the roads. There are thousands of them. Tractors are virtually nonexistent yet. One horsepower is usual but a contractor or perhaps someone mortgage free may show off with a 2 horsepower unit. Mum, Dad and the boy who will inherit the farm and lifestyle can be seen plodding along – usually sitting up on top of an enormous load. Interestingly we never saw a young lady on a cart. I expect they wouldn’t be seen dead near a wonky wheel. I’m afraid the farmer boys are going to have difficulty finding wives. I suggest they hang about down at the church – they may be able to help answer a desperate prayer. This also raises the question of a future for the 2nd son. Perhaps they can become a priest, or a truck driver. Both talk regularly to God. The roads are narrow, winding and very rough. There are a few cars. I’m pretty sure I saw a bumper sticker on an old cart that said, “My other car is a Dacia”. I doubt that daughter would be impressed with that either.

The loads pulled by the horses are astonishing. Fresh cut Hay, 4 meters high by 4 meters wide by 5 meters long must weigh quite a bit. Multiple tree trunks, rocks or muck from the cowsheds must also be a ton or two. Horse lovers would be indignant. However, they should consider the options … Romanians love their dark red meat.
One_Horsepower.jpg

Mid summer is haymaking time. In the poorer regions they still do it just like their forefathers did hundreds of years ago. Some still have the same wooden rakes and pitchforks. Probably family heirlooms with new handles and heads. The process starts by spending months watching the grass grow – much like farmers everywhere. Then they sharpen up the scythe and shout, “Stand Clear!” (No they don’t – but they would if they had any health and safety rules) The last time I saw someone scything in New Zealand was in the very early 1950’s. It’s a beautiful sight. The scythe is a tool that was perfected over thousands of years. It’s perfectly balanced and angled to lay down a large sweep of grass in a single stroke with minimal effort. My father had a scythe. I think I inherited it and maybe it’s in my shed. Perhaps I’ll instruct Flypaper to get rid of her lawn ‘chappie’ and she can do it herself in future. The next stage of Transylvanian haymaking is to rake the grass into wind-rows then regularly turn it over until it is sufficiently wilted and ready to stack. I mentioned the spectacular scenery of this region. It is hard to find a more atractive sight than 3 or 4 good women raking and turning hay. Their pretty shawls keeping their hair under control, their full skirts swaying to the movement of the applied tool and gaily recalling that the crop of ’94 was better but old Agripina was a bit of a burden after she lost her marbles. (Of course, they would say this in Romanian) Actually, I do recall a better sight and one that will remain with me always. (I digress –sorry) It was in 1975 in front of the Taj Mahal. There were about 120 women trimming the grass perfectly – with scissors.
Romainian_Hay_Rakes.jpg

Once the hay is properly conditioned they choose a spot to build a haystack – goodness knows how or why the reach a decision. I could see no reason for the position and, indeed, many reasons to put it somewhere else. The women and younger men start dragging the hay in while a man of experience and wisdom builds the stack in a certain time tested pattern. As it gets higher they hoist a woman up on top. This could be the highlight of the season. She follows instruction until the stack is too high to hand pitch the hay up to her. Before you ask, I don’t know how she gets down because Flypaper said I’d had enough excitement for one day and made me drive on.

Wood is split by hand and stacked just like hay. From our observation, every farming task is done by hand or with the aid of a horse. We saw dogs – but they don’t work. They were so fat and lazy they often didn’t get off the road before a truck created a feast for the 36 species of Romanian hawks, falcons and eagles. Again, this is an example of the motor vehicle being put to good use. Some of the birds are endangered and would probably be extinct if the stray dog protection group had its way.

Throughout Ukraine, Moldova, Romania and on into the other Eastern European countries, the roads are lined with fresh fruit, nut and vegetable vendors at this time of year. They are selling an astonishing variety of mouthwatering produce. From buckets of wild mushrooms to bins of capsicums to cartloads of water melons. It all looked superb and the low prices had Flypaper weeping. If I had stopped every time she demanded, I would have likely had diarrhea every day.

Having now seen many other people in many other countries recently, it was interesting to revisit some. This offered the opportunity to compare peoples and cultures back-to-back. The thing that struck me about Hungary – which you will recall was previously reported as looking much more affluent than its neighbours – was that many of the people looked overweight and poorly dressed. Chubby slobs is a phrase that comes to mind. I guess this is the ultimate proof that they are more westernized and ‘successful’. Isn’t a prospering free-market economy wonderful?

At the border between Romania and Hungry, a pleasant pimply faced young man with a lot to learn, took our passports and left us in the control of his colleague who didn’t appear so happy to see us. After one look at her I had an instant flashback. My first business as a tender 20 year old was in the ‘Red Light’ district of Wellington. This was a very educational location and era. One of my customers was an acknowledged dominatrix. I was a little bit frightened of her but one day I plucked up courage and asked if she had a whip. The following day she bought it to show me when she came to buy her lunch. The other customers were equally fascinated - but I worried through a sleepless night as to whether this display may adversely affect business. It turned out well. The next day everyone bought their friend in the hope of another lecture on the benefits of regular humiliation. The woman at the Romanian border reminded me of her and I envisaged her dressed in leather with her tools of trade. Imagine my surprise when the vision looked exactly like Helen Clark. I was glad to get out of there.

The benefit of Hungary’s early entry into the EEC was evidenced by the change from scythes to motorized weedeaters. Army’s of men (for goodness sake) on bicycles’ (for goodness sake) roamed the roadsides keeping it tidy. It soon became apparent as to how the guvmint could afford to pay them and provide good roads – Speed Camera’s. We saw them all through our journey and only by good fortune never had an opportunity to discuss them in detail with their operators. Each camera was old and set up on a tripod in or on a Dacia. Behind the camera and ready for pursuit was another Dacia. Almost certainly the Police would have had the latest model … with the 1.1 litre engine. Each time I passed one I watched my mirror and planned our escape – Flypaper saw this and said … “Don’t even think about it”. She has no sense of adventure.

It was a great surprise to discover that somehow we had transited Hungary and were serenely driving through Slovakia. What happened to the border controls? Who cares? From here on to the UK we have only one more border … at the English Channel. I wonder if they will look under HeeHaw and be disgusted? Slovakia is another invisible country in Europe. Some will recall it as the southern part of Czechoslovakia until they parted company in 1993. The national pastime in Slovakia is … ‘going for a walk’. That says everything. From what we can see so far, Slovakia is very ‘folksy’ and there are lots of ruins. The ruins are mostly forts that obviously didn’t fulfill their early promise.

I was interested to learn that a Slovak invented the ‘actively used’ parachute – patenting it in 1913. It does make one wonder … what was he doing? It’s all very well to invent ‘penicillin’ or the ‘Showerdome’ – but a parachute is a serious thing to prototype and test. It’s unlikely there has been a braver Slovak since. I wonder what happened to him? Before him was another nutter. Jan Bahyf flew a helicopter for 1500m in 1905 – less than 2 years after the Wright Bros stopped crashing in fixed wing aircraft which are much easier to keep in the air.

There is little to see and do in Slovakia apart from over 300 well maintained castles and an unbelievable number of ruined castles. The locals make up for this by saying that lots of famous people have Slovak roots. Angelina Jolie, Paul Newman, Andy Warhol and Paul Simon – their families all came from here. I was also told that some of the world’s most beautiful women and top models come from here. Like, Sklenarikova Carambeu. Who? The locals also worry that people confuse them with Slovenia. They are well justified – George W Bush and Silvio Berlusconi both had it embarrassingly mixed up. The embassies of both countries meet every month to exchange mail wrongly addressed. It doesn’t matter. I’ve been there too and it’s not a lot different. Don’t get me wrong, I like them both and wish other places were as delightful. However, I do wonder why Angelina isn’t coming home.

Flypaper insists I tell you the Capital of Slovakia, Bratislava, is the nicest of all the old European cities. I agree. This place was originally put firmly on the map by a woman called Maria Theresa during the mid 1700’s. Another woman almost lost its top spot in my eyes during mid afternoon on a Friday. We arrived a little early for our ‘city tour’ and were ‘greeted’ by a woman who appeared to have suffered from a runaway Botox gun and with the personality of Ilse Koch (who was also known as the Bitch of Buchenwald.) She snapped that we should sit down and wait to be called. Flypaper saw my response surfacing and sweetly said, “Breath deeply dear”. A few minutes later all became well again. A large tourist bus pulled into the place the B of B had reserved for her carts. She went berserk. The bus driver was easily her match. After saying, “Spicaty ktobuk je potrebne yourfangs ostrenis” (which means, “Your pointy hat is on crooked and your fangs need sharpening”), he walked away and had a smoke. He eventually drove away just as she was about to self destruct. I enjoyed that – but the show was just starting. A hippie who had obviously also had a smoke or two, crawled out from behind a seat and stood stiffly to attention. He made a faultless Nazi salute and cried, “Seig Heil” – then fell over. He repeated this 4 times then couldn’t get up. By this time the B of B herded us on the bus and screamed to the driver to take us away. It took quite a few blocks to stop laughing and I was again felling well towards Bratislava – and Slovakia generally.

Posted by Wheelspin 08:57 Comments (0)

Mother-In-Laws Tongue

I woke one morning to discover one ear lower on the side of my head than the other. “Damn!” I thought’ “Now I can’t be a Doctor because no one makes stethoscopes with uneven sides. A few minutes later Flypaper confessed that she had sat on my glasses and I should tweak the ear bits to revert to normality. I mention this because many men my age in Ukraine simply don’t wake up. The average age of expiry for men in Ukraine is 61. Women live until on average until 71. OK, that’s usually the way it is (the women get to play with the life insurance funds) – but the saddest thing about these statistics is that woman are eligible for the pension at age 56 – Men must wait until 63. That’s 2 years after the majority of them are dead. I think that says a lot about how this country is run. The reason men die so young is pretty obvious and well known. What can a man do when his children are all grown up and off his hands? They all seem to choose to build a still and indulge in some really serious Vodka consumption. Quantity takes precedence over quality so they don’t bother to separate the poisonous ‘heads’ and ‘tails’ during the distillation process. Simply doing this would probably have them standing in the pension queue. Perhaps they would have to hold hands with their wife. Maybe the still isn’t silly afterall.

It could also be one of the reasons the roading is in such poor condition. There aren’t enough old guys to fix them. The young ones don’t seem to do very much at all. I will say this for the Ukrainian Ministry of Works / Roading Division. They certainly know have to lay a patch. They can patch a patch on a patch with another patch – in four different materials. All will leave an edge that makes ones travel feel like a journey in a concrete mixer. If you are ever approached by a Ukrainian to build a road, don’t hesitate, for the sake of the motoring public beat him with a big stick until he promises to stop being ambitious and get straight onto the Vodka.

On a wall in our home we own a magnificent painting depicting the dejected retreat of the British and French Forces from their defeat in the Crimean War. It’s an incredibly poignant picture in which one discovers new misery each time it is viewed. My mothers name was Florence. She was nurse, just like Florence Nightingale who made quite an impression here. For these and a few other reasons I always fancied a visit to the area. The Crimea is the southernmost region of Ukraine. It is a diamond shaped peninsular that juts out into the Black Sea. (It also looks like a demented chicken about to attack Russia). It’s ever so close to being an island – a good woman with a shovel could make it an island pretty smartly – and I wonder they haven’t done so because they see themselves as quite separate from Ukraine.

The vast majority of the Crimea is a huge flat plain (Steppe landscape) – likely to have been formed by flood sedimentation from the huge Russian rivers – the Don & Dnieper. The southern edge of Crimea is a narrow rugged range of mountains. Our journey took us across the plain to the extreme eastern city of Kerch – because this was where we were supposed to enter this country from Russia. The transit took us back to our planned route. Kerch is quite pretty, that is to say boring. There is nothing to report until about 100km West when we arrived at ‘the beach’. This is a 5km stretch of course sand giving obvious delights to thousands of local holiday makers. Every known floatation devise that can be strapped to a child is available and in use here. I bravely entered the pleasant water without the aid of any floatation – and immediately wished I had something. The sand leads to soft seaweed which effectively conceals boulders cunningly strewn about ready to trip the virgin bather. Flypaper laughed to see such fun; as I think the old poem says.

It was here we reached agreement (noted herewith in writing) that the prevailing fashion in Crimea this summer is Dayglo colours. Vivid fluorescent garments of every shape and size sashayed along the gravel or lay in globular heaps under home made sun shades. I said to Flypaper, “I don’t think fluro would suit you”. Seven simple words creating an innocent hypothesis. She said, “The first three words are a fact – the rest are rubbish”. Fortunately we were heading into the rugged mountains. Every slope and valley was planted in grape vines. A much safer subject and one that resulted in our stopping at a small shed which I deduced may contain wholesale wine. It was even better. We had stumbled upon an indigenous wine tasting where the locals tested and pronounced judgments on the brews grown all around and converted around the corner into a fortified wine. (Think Madeira ) We could see by the fact that numbers in Ukraine are the same as in English, the offerings were incredibly cheap. The first one tasted was delicious – we’ll have one of those. The second was better – we’ll have one of those. The third was superb – whoa. The delighted maiden had started plunking 2 litre plastic jars on the counter. We still had 200kilometers of wine country to traverse that day. That 4 liters cost us almost $5 !!! Later for lunch we added $2 worth of fresh baked pastry filled with meat and cheese and had a picnic. I still don’t think either of us should buy fluro stuff.

In Yalta we teamed up with a local guide who normally takes people mountain climbing and trekking to inhospitable places that require tents and a change of socks. He staunchly showed up because the summer this year hasn’t been very busy and he needed the money. Turns out he was delightful – and we could tell he liked us too because he used his knowledge and charms to get our car close to every attraction and his official guiding ticket to jump every queue so the we didn’t have to wait. What a man. He was knowledgeable and articulate in excellent English. Yalta is a brash sort of town and not my cup o’ tea but there is one place I wanted to see. This is the location of the Yalta Conference. It was here, in February 1945, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin agreed to require Germany’s unconditional surrender and carved up German controlled Europe between them after WWII. The show was held at the magnificent summer palace of Tsar Nicholas II. Winston stayed here during the conference. Stalin & Roosevelt stayed at similarly grand palaces nearby. Interestingly, the Churchill’s were distantly related to the guy who built the place. Evidently some information existed in the family folk law which made Winnie specifically request the palace for his nocturnal activities. During the nights, people nearby could hear what sounded like demolition taking place in doors. This was a bit disconcerting but given the deal whereby the palace became a British Embassy for 8 days, nothing could be done about it. After the conference ended, large holes were found throughout the palace which exposed secret cavities. It is thought the Tsar used to hide gold and jewels in these cavities. Who knows what Winnie found? However, his wife Clementine was never again seen sniffing around Hatton Garden.

Just down the road is another city that has had its share of disharmony – Sevastopol. People have been fighting over this place for thousands of years. Honestly, if it were mine I would have done a deal to swap it for a Chateau in Tuscany. Our guide proved there are however some interesting things to glean from this area. To you, a Balaclava probably means an old sock with holes cut out so when you’re robbing banks you can check the cashier is stuffing the loot into your bag not her own. Actually, this fine piece of burglars’ kit was invented near Sevastopol at, of all places, Balaclava. During the 1854 war Florence Nightingale was operating on a guy who had lost his leg. She could tell he was a bit chilly and, given he had a spare sock, she put it over his head. Later she poked some eye holes in it so he could find his crutches. (This does sound feasible.)

To me, Balaclava means the secret Russian Submarine base that was built to withstand a nuclear attack by the US during the Cold War. The tour through this amazing underground facility is like being on a James Bond set. It was worth the hassles of the journey to see the place from which Russia believed it could recover from the USA’s best shot and emerge to conquer the world. Current history tells otherwise – but I suspect the reason the Russian ‘orthorities ruined my plans to check out their other Black Sea bases - they may be preparing for another offensive. Don’t worry too much yet. Recently Putin was seen on TV extolling the virtues of the new Lada. Unfortunately it wouldn’t start for him.

This is spooky. During the Battle of Balaclava the British forces were under the command of Lord Raglin. He was wounded in his shoulder. When he put on his tunic the shoulder seam was a bit aggravating. He called his tailor and ordered him to make the ‘Raglan’ Sleeve – which survives him to this day.

One of Raglan’s mates at Balaclava was the 7th Earl of Cardigan. His troops were wearing a garment named after him as they charged into the valley of death. This was the famous ‘Charge of the Light Brigade made immortal by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Thanks to my 3rd form English teacher I was able to stand on the hill overlooking that valley of death and say … Cannon to right of them, cannon to left of them, cannon in front of them. Volleyed and thundered, stormed at with shot & shell. Boldly they rode and well, into the jaws of death, into the mouth of hell – rode the six hundred. It made me feel quite scholarly. Flypaper simply said, I think I’ll buy a Dayglo Cardigan with Raglin sleeves.

One evening we were fortunate to sit at a table and accidently overhear a discussion between three men and their Ukrainian agent. The boys were here to find a wife. Two looked like they may have had a few wives previously but the youngest, perhaps in his mid 20’s was understandably nervous. To my great delight he wanted details of the program and protocol. He was already conscious that it had cost him many hundreds of US$’s in ‘correspondence’ fees, some thousands in registration and travel … and here he was – on the cusp of a moment he’s probably fantasized about for some time. The agent assured him the selection of girls that they would sightsee with the next day were all lovely and had ‘some’ English language skills. One of the older guys ventured the opinion that he would be surprised if those skills were more than, “Are you hungry? Would you like to dance? Where is the WC? At the end of a scintillating days sightseeing each guy would choose the girl he wished to take to the ‘Disco’ that evening. The youngest asked if he could meet the girl’s family. The agent scurried off to the toilet. The more experienced client suggested that may not be a good idea during this trip. What? How many visits does it take? The lad was hot to go … now. The other guy who until now said little, stated firmly that this protocol was a waste of time and money. He certainly didn’t wish to meet any fathers and whats more, why waste time at a disco? For a moment I feared for the chastity of the waitress.

The food and beverages we have been served in the Crimea have been excellent. Perhaps the presentation may require honing to a sharper point. Each focal feature of every meal, usually meat including veal, pork, mutton, beef, chicken, goose, etc, has been carefully sliced and stuffed with an astonishing combination of tasty gastronomical enhancements. They are then carefully rolled up and all presented nicely browned, looking exactly like those items people can be seen carefully scooping into plastic bags in the park. Sometimes the menu is accompanied by live entertainment. We choose establishments that have a sound in the lower decibel ranges and words that bring back memories of earlier times. Often I am so moved by the quality of the artists that I suggest to the holder of the purse that she part with a sum equal to a car wash to show our appreciation. Usually the entertainer(s) are moved to tears of joy that someone actually noticed their existence.

Only one meal is outstanding in its deviation from the standard. A breakfast. It was still delicious – but quite a surprise. Unusually, we were asked to choose from a written selection the night before so that the kitchen could present its best efforts on our arrival. The selection was wide and varied although some offerings were outside our range of previous experience. We decided to tick – Irish breakfast. We did discuss this at length and decided it would be a variation of an English breakfast. Perhaps served with Guinness. On arrival we were greeted as very discerning guests and given the juice of our choice followed in seconds by a small square of cold toast and 3 wedges of cheese. As soon as it was noticed we had disposed of these, the main course arrived - in a parfait glass. It looked, smelled and tasted exactly like a desert we had declined the previous evening. A mint ‘flummery’ with mixed nuts topped by strawberries and cream. Delicious and very filling. The saddest part was not being able to hang about to see the party that received an Irish Breakfast – or is this recipe well known as a hairy dog in Ireland.

Odessa is a big city with little to offer visitors. We hired a guide as usual and suffered a day in the care of a ‘mature’ lady of aristocratic fantasies who I suspect had married for love – then realized the silliness of that and moved on in the hope that at least a Count of substantial means would fall for her charms – which, sadly, are past their best. She misses the communist times during which she was better off than today. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s the local party tea maker … in which case, it’s just as well we left town early next morning. During lunch I suggested that looking north to Russia for a better future was a poor option when the opportunities for Ukraine in a western environment were much more exciting. It was fortunate for both parties that the temperature was over 40 degrees centigrade and neither could engage in a really passionate argument. That temperate wasn’t helped back at the hotel as the whole city suffered a power failure. I consider I saved flypapers life by spending the early evening with her parked up in a leafy street with HeeHaws air-conditioning working at full power.

One Odessa attraction that has caught my attention is “Mother-in-laws Bridge”. I kid you not – that’s the name. It’s a useless bridge going nowhere and serving little purpose. Rumour has it built on the order of a Communist Official to make it easier for his wife’s mother to return home in the evening thus leaving him in peace. Sounds feasible. Another kinder version records that the official, Mikhail Sinitsa loved his mother-in-laws pancakes so much that he created a shortcut to enjoyment thereof. Highly unlikely. The final version is the bridge is long and narrow. It starts rocking when exposed to a strong wind – just like mother-in-laws tongue. You choose. The bridge is festooned with engraved and painted padlocks. These are fastened to signify everlasting relationships. I couldn’t help noticing some people working on their locks with bolt cutters, hammers and an irate demeanor.
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Posted by Wheelspin 05:01 Comments (0)

Circumcised

To be reunited with HeeHaw and continue our circumnavigation of the Black Sea we flew back to Turkey. Exiting Ataturk Airport we had the good fortune to be accosted by a waiting tour operator who coincidentally specialized in tours of Turkey for Australasians. Astonishingly we have mutual acquaintances. His inborn sense of Turkish hospitality kicked in and he kindly drove us across Istanbul to HeeHaw. His hospitality did not over-ride his other inborn instinct, revenue gathering, but his price was so reasonable for the obvious costs he was incurring that we gave him a little more. OK, I know – I’ve gone soft. He had spent 13 years as a cook in a New York Italian restaurant (Italian??? He was embarrassed about that) and spent the 1 hour journey comparing Turkey with the US. He likes both but considers Turkish people friendlier and far better drivers. He believes their Prime Ministers promise that Turkey will have a bigger economy than the US in the near future – so long as he is re-elected. He also considers his daughters are safer in Turkey.

The main motorways out of Istanbul all operate a Road Toll. It’s an automated system that reads a sticker on the windscreen as one drives through the toll booths. As we hadn’t bothered about this detail or expense, every time we passed a toll reader, lights flashed and sirens blared. I looked suitably concerned, but no other motorists appeared interested or even surprised. For kilometers thereafter I scanned the mirror expecting to see red and blue flashing lights and envisaged a few days in a Turkish jail while Flypaper pleaded with you for bail funds. I had read that crime rates were relatively low in Turkey so was sure they were looking for offenders to throw in the surprisingly large number of prisons we have seen along our journey. Perhaps we naturally gravitate towards these places. Eventually, after consultation with a Turkish friend Flypaper decided to pay the tax. I reasoned that as our car number plate is New Zealand it doesn’t show up in their computer system so they wouldn’t find us. Flypaper however was certain that at every boarder post they held an ever growing list of our offenses and we would be the subjects of an international incident crashing through the barriers as we made a desperate bid for freedom. From that moment on the toll booth mayhem ceased – but I worried even more because of the considerable documentation she completed they now know all about us.

Our decision to drive along the northern Black Sea coast of Turkey was inspired. It’s a lovely place with many similarities to the Mediterranean coast – at 1/3 the price. From Istanbul, advertised as the 2nd largest city in the world (it may be), the road to the northern coast travels through sparsely populated agricultural and horticultural country. This is the breadbasket of the city. It’s very pretty and looks like many parts of rural Europe. The seaside village of Amasra may have hotels memorable for all the wrong reasons but the atmosphere and friendliness will linger long. Our fresh caught fish meal that evening was educational. I learnt never again to order the mixed fruits of the sea. They came in waves (pun intended) of various small sizes but all had bones and other parts I found difficult to swallow. The pile of remains on my plate was twice the size of those on our neighbours table. Flypaper made me feel better by saying if it was a recycling competition, I won. The meal was made possible and more enjoyable by a fellow customer at a nearby table. He worked for ‘Holiday Inn’ at Istanbul, spoke excellent English – and couldn’t help himself taking over all our decision making. He then marched into the kitchen and instructed them on hospitality towards westerners’ – then became our waiter and culinary instructor. By the end of the evening I was covered in breadcrumbs, fish oil and contentment.

The 5 hour / 200km drive along the coast to Sinop would make a rally driver wet himself with pleasure. HeeHaw performed well – especially over the sections being repaired or converted to 4 lane – but I would have loved to be in a Lotus Elise. Off the coast was a Russian navel ship being shadowed by the Turkish Coast Guard – we shadowed them both but so stealthily through the twisty forested roads that I’ll bet they never knew it. Fortunately it was Sunday with little other traffic on the roads – and zero Police presence. Motoring bliss.

Our destination for the night was the fabled city of Sinop. Reputed to be the oldest city on the Back Sea coast, founded around 700BC by the Amazon queen Sinova. Legend has it that Sinova attracted the eye of Zeus who, to gain favour, offered to grant her one wish. Sinova requested everlasting virginity – thus cunningly foiling Zeus’s amorous intentions. That’s despicable! I think there is a law against that in New Zealand. The philosopher Diogenes also hung out here. He lived in a large earthenware tub and preached a disregard of conventions. (A bit like the Christchurch Wizard). Our excellent hotel had the most amazing breakfast room. The top (6th) floor overlooked the harbour and Black Sea. Two sides were glass that slid open to cool our coffee with a gentle sea breeze on a fabulous Turkish summer morning. Sinop has very few modern buildings. The narrow streets, particularly through the old walled town are lined with buildings that are best described as having ‘ramshackle charm’.
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Each evening on this coast I took the opportunity to swim in the Black Sea. The water in this sea is unique in that it receives more fresh water from rivers and rain than is lost through evaporation. It’s complicated but the big deal is the upper level (where I swim) is only about ½ as salty as the Red Sea and 1/3 less salty than the Pacific Ocean. This sea is not tidal and there is no fluctuation of levels resulting in it being perpetually calm. At the beach clothed female friends and family of swimmers sit in their deck chairs with their toes in the water. There is no surf and no surfers in the Black Sea … but there are sharks. I was told about these after I returned from a buoy about 100m offshore. No one else had ventured that far out. I am a bit skeptical about this danger but I have been scanning the menus to see if shark shows up there.

The drive from Sinop via Samsun and Ordu to Trabzon is mostly on a 4 lane highway – max speed 110kph - but if ones car is capable they travel a bit quicker. We galloped along pretty well and managed 110kph – average. Whereas in the poorer Caucuses the roads are made dangerous by roaming cows, here in Turkey they have prospered and progressed to tractors. The farmers drive them to town and I guess they have no other roads to use. It can be a bit disconcerting if a tractor pulls out into the fast lane for some reason when you have a closing speed difference of over 100kph.

This area is the Hazelnut capital of the world. Turkey produces 75% of the worlds hazelnuts. You may not know what hazelnuts are but you will know Nutella. Nutella is an Italian brand but each jar contains about 50 hazelnuts – so there’s a pretty good chance some of those come from northern Turkey. To see this area is mind-boggling – the only plant being grown over a thousand square kilometers seems to be Hazel. Hazelnuts are promoted as having lots of health benefits – particularly with regard to cancer and heart attack prevention. I do acknowledge that we never saw anyone having a heart attack while we were driving through Turkey – Oh, perhaps a guy on a tractor but I couldn’t be sure as he was enveloped in our tyre smoke at the time. In our house the principal consumption of hazelnuts is from the use of liquor called Frangellico. Flypaper uses it to improve fish. As a result, given it becomes mixed with Omega3, I expect to be still churning this sort of information out for some time yet.

Turkey is at yet another critical and exiting point in its history. It’s one of the worlds few countries with excellent economic growth, low unemployment and few social problems like crime. The key to their surge is incredible infrastructural activity. They are building roads, communications, tunnels, railways and ports everywhere. The cost benefit ratio of this is immense. Our country did it during the ‘50’s and ‘’60’s and it made us rich. The resulting money was used to train economist – with ideological tendencies – and bicycle clips on their trousers. The activity in Turkey reminded me of a plague of mice in a cheese factory. The result is crumbs everywhere, lots of holes and droppings all over the place. It’s a vibrant ‘happening’ place. Obviously Turkey doesn’t suffer from a ‘Resource Management Act’. A large percentage of the world’s mechanical diggers must be here and they are very busy. The other thing I noticed in contrast to our western environment. The millions of tradesmen who are building everything have sensible trousers that cover their bottoms.

Our arrival at Trabzon was a bit concerning. The car ferry we were intending to catch to Sochi (Russia) 2 days later had been cancelled. Needless to say this caused a bit of consternation and running around. After a discussion with the shipping company clerk who considered things could be worse (it could have sunk while we were aboard) we called on the Russian Consul to check if we could drive through Georgia. He said that our Visa gave us entitlement to do so but he couldn’t guarantee those ratbag (not the word he used) Georgians wouldn’t be squabbling over the land Russia has recently stolen or that the mountain passes would not be closed by snow (they were a week earlier). He also confessed the Russian boarder control may be having a collective hangover as there is little traffic and nothing more to do than research the boredom prevention qualities of Vodka. Added to that, the road goes somewhere other than where we were intending. That idea was put aside as too problematical. A telephone receptionist at the shipping company head office in Sochi did suggest that another ship may be made ready to come to our rescue sometime in the future. She obviously sympathized with our having to live among Turks and drink 67 cups of tea each day. At least, that’s what I think she said because my Russian is of limited vocabulary (one can only say ‘Hi’ and ‘Vodka’ so many times before the conversation stalls). She made a valiant effort in Ruslish but my comprehension failed with the finer points. Most Russian women I have spoken to say, “If you are rich I would like to marry you and come to live in your country”. Come to think of it – perhaps that’s why she’s sending a ship.

At 9am on the 4th day we were told to get our US$’s out and hotfoot it down to the office for tickets. At 10am the agent called to say the boat was cancelled again – indefinitely. Further discussion with our Russian Consul mate confirmed that the Russian Customs had just closed the port at Sochi to enable renovations for the Winter Olympics. He suggested that would take 6 months and it would still look like a refuse collection area. That meant Russia was off the agenda. We’ve had a little bit cut off our circumnavigation of the Black Sea. You could say the journey has been circumcised.

We drove right back across Turkey to another port, Zongudak, just in time to catch a Ukrainian vehicle ferry destined to sail home. Twice the distance, half the price. Turkish customs decided the VIN number issued by the New Zealand ‘orthorities, and recorded on the various documents, wasn’t the chassis number as stated and required. That generated an hours debate in 4 languages of which I only contributed English. Being the accused and star witness made the trial a bit difficult. Eventually they concluded that I hadn’t imported 2 cars, changed the engines and sold one. However, they failed to notice that HeeHaw is actually owned by Flypaper. Of course this is a preposterous notion – ‘wimin’ don’t own 4wd cars. None of this delay mattered as the boat set sail 4 hours late. That didn’t mater either as we didn’t, at that stage, know where in the Ukraine we were headed for. It turned out to be somewhere obscure 24 hours away and on the opposite side of the Crimea to here we would have preferred.
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This was no cruse – although there were some poky machines. It was a big ship but virtually empty. Life on board is described in two words – incredibly hot. I think our basic cabin would be where they cook the bread – if we weren’t occupying it. I estimate that most of the time it was over 40 degrees with the window open. I think they only gave it to us because they had bread left over from 3 cruises previous. That night, 20 minutes out of port, we bought a large can of German beer – each. The other 20 people on board (truck drivers) bought a large bottle of Vodka – each. They bought another at breakfast next morning. Breakfast was interesting. It’s clearly written on the galley door 8am – 9am. Most people, including us, arrived a little after 9am … because during the night the ship changed to Russian time – 1 hour ahead of Turkey. When the drivers all went back to their trucks for weapons, the infuriated cook dragged the food back out of the rubbish bin and onto the servery. I also suspected he may have added bubonic plague bacteria to the food – so we ate boiled eggs. The 14 cups of black coffee used to rehydrate were excellent and, remained, as intended, slowly working through the digestive tract. I kept the door to our bathroom ajar just in case digestion ceases and the flow sped up.

During the night our ship developed a problem with an engine heat exchanger and was forced to cruise at half speed. It was never fast to begin with. That meant we were late for arrival in Ukraine and the customs / immigration were closed for the night. The 24 hour journey became 45 hours. Instead of arriving half baked we were well done. The light in our ensuite failed. By stealing a tube from another cabin I quickly deduced it was a fitting problem so informed the crew who sent the electrician to sort it out. It took him over an hour to reach the same conclusion. He changed the fitting and we enjoyed the brightest bathroom on board. This was not as good as you may imagine. Flypaper was able to examine her complexion in the mirror and declared it to be a disaster – made worse by the fact her renovation and recovery supplies were locked in the hold 3 decks below. My suggestion to simply leave the light off was not well received..

We felt very secure on board - initially. The Black Sea was, as always, mirror calm. There were no icebergs to bump into and the captain seems to know where he was headed. I constantly checked though. When he’s got it correct, going from Turkey to Ukraine the sun rises on our right and sets on our left. Second in command was the Stewardess. She was about 2.1 meters tall and weighed at least 140kg – with a smile that overcame my instinctive fear of women in powerful positions and made communication a delight. The truck drivers all lusted after her. Her name, as expected, was Natasha. I was charming to Natasha – to the extent that Flypaper was becoming concerned. However, when Natasha bought us a fan, nicked from the captain’s cabin, Flypaper accepted that sometimes sharing me with other women has advantages. There was another female on board. I think she was the captain’s wench. I doubt that anyone could tell what she looked like because she lazed around exposing meters of legs that commanded everyone’s attention. When she was around I almost forgot to check the sun position.

On the unexpected 2nd night the bar ran out of beer. While the truckies continued their vodka marathon we had to resort to VSOP Courvoisier Cognac and Sprite. That went some way to temporarily sorting out the complexion issue. Notwithstanding that excellent effect, Cognac of any quality is not a good rehydrator. However, by my 3rd glass I was beginning to understand why the truck drivers lusted after Natasha.

I should stop here … as you’ve likely had enough. However our arrival into Ukraine was too interesting not to share. The chugging along at slow speed meant we endured an unexpected second night and a potential crises – Flypaper ran out of toilet paper – she was again grateful for my charm. We arrived off the obscure little port of Shadovs’k in the early hours and hove to in the channel at idle with zero prop revolutions. The Captain probably left the bridge in the command of Natasha and went for his morning ablutions. The idling boat ship was gently pushed out of the channel by the wind … and ran aground. This caused quite a bit of consternation that included two tugboats rushing out and huffing and puffing and lots of black smoke from our funnel – not to mention making the whole harbour very muddy. Pretty soon it was all under control and they took us into port early in case something else happened. When it occurred, I scurried around and shouted through the porthole to Flypaper who was in the shower. “We’re about to be shipwrecked!” She called back, “That’s OK, I'm already wet. What should I wear?” Whaaaat !!! We are in the middle of a potential life threatening situation and on the cusp of an international environmental disaster – and she wants to consider her wardrobe options. I left her to apply her waterproof makeup and scampered back to check if our rescuers needed any advice. It’s a good thing I did because by mental telepathy I guided them right to the berth without further mishap.

Finally, I was very proud to be part of a Ukrainian world record attempt. The category is … Number of personnel, forms and stamps to process a tourist in a car. Here’s a review of the process leading to what I consider is likely to be a record. I do hope we get a mention in that book the Guinness people write. After waiting 3 hours for the team to arrive at work (9am) and get emotionally prepared for their challenge to process 24 people (10am), 16 people and 2 dogs strolled up the ramp. They took over the saloon where we ate and sent all passengers to their cabins. We never saw them again. A ships boy ran up and down the stairs requesting information in Ukrainian to which we replied in English. He continued to scurry up and down asking for various documents, most of which don’t exist in New Zealand. After an hour he proudly returned our passports and instructed us to drive HeeHaw onto the dock – where we were directed to the Customs shed. 8 people waited for us and spent quite some time mentally preparing for their challenge. Eventually 6 of them approached us and said they would like to inspect our car, if we agreed. “Ok’ I said, “Let’s get into it”. One took me down the steps to the inspection pit below and shone a light all around. As to be expected, he spied a large rubber encased parcel that I had cunningly strapped up into a chassis cavity – exactly where smugglers always stash their drugs and guns. His eyes lit up in expectation of a promotion. I had always planned to say that this rubber sack contained Flypapers unmentionables - but he looked the type that would be interested in that – so I told him the truth – spare vehicle repair parts and touched a few components under the car as examples. He looked unimpressed and moved closer to the prize. Then he saw that, after 35,000kms of international travel, it was covered in Oil, tar, camel dung and mud with a recent top coat of Bulgarian fox intestines. After suitable contemplation he raised a finger to his lips in the international sign that we shouldn’t mention this to those upstairs. I concurred. Back at ground level, No 1 big hat requested a look in our largest suitcase which is buried deep in the bowels where smugglers always hide stuff. It contains little but used clothing and emergency supplies. As I unzipped it he casually asked the big question, “Do you have any drugs or guns?” I looked suitable shocked and expressed indignation at the notion. The first thing to emerge from the bag was the bulk supply of our rather meager medications. When one travels for many moths these things are prudent to have along. Most westerners’ our age have lots more but we did carry a reasonable supply of Paracetamol in case I felt moved to perform serious emergency surgery on a pedestrian who moved too slowly. I can’t stand screaming. He also had visions of a cruiser life in Head Office and asked what this was all for. I pulled out the accompanying book of suggested uses and started at A. By the time I was up to C for Cholera he had reached the conclusion we would be better outside of his shed. The next stop was an office with 2 men who interrogated me about our journey and wondered why I had bought my own woman when Ukraine had so many available beautiful ladies. I sheepishly confessed that I had little option as she had all the money and, as a game winner, she could cook. He understood perfectly and sent me to another guy whose secretary forgot to put on her underwear that morning - but wore and unbelievably low cut item of a colour that escapes my memory at the moment. Together they produced a pile of papers, photocopied and stamped them, as everyone else had done then took me to the next team who made me sit in a dungeon while they performed similar tasks. During this ordeal, Flypaper was eating fresh bread, tomatoes and cheese delivered to her by a Turkish truck driver who was quick to spot his chance. The pile of documents finally took me right up to the exit gate, where I was led into another office where 2 guys produced, copied and stamped further document then sent me back to near the start where they had a ‘bank’. The surely woman there demanded 15 something’s – I gave her 20. She returned 1 together with 2 new documents and pointed at the gate. This time a single guy with an AK47 wanted to see Flypapers passport. I had visions of the process starting all over again – but evidently they considered they had the record. 34 people (+ 2 dogs), 32 documents and 46 stamps. All accomplished in 3 hours. New Zealand Customs & Immigration have a lot to learn if they wish to solve our unemployment problem.

Posted by Wheelspin 00:37 Comments (0)

World Corruption Champion

My research positively advised that Azerbaijan was an Islamist country with 95% of the population ticking that box. I made a mental note not to look a Burqa in the eye slot and was quite prepared to undertake a bit of fasting if the calendar called for it. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that their 4th most loved meat was pork and they could field a team in the world Vodka drinking championships with a very good chance of winning. The only evidence of Islamic practice were the thousands of Mosques all over the country (we were never out of sight of at least one) and the regular calls of Adhan by the Muezzin five times a day.
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Our first night was spent in a magnificent old Caravanserai. These are traditional large square stone fortress type buildings where the travellers on the Silk Road tied up their camels and spent their nights. The rooms surround the perimeter of a garden which in this instance was a lovely place to sit among blooming roses passing time waiting for dinner to be served. The call of the Muezzin simply added to the exotic atmosphere. Not so the next morning around 5.30am. As a lad I used to do the odd days hard labour on a nearby farm – usually weed spraying with deadly 245T or 24D – also known as ‘Agent Orange’. The horse that dragged the sledge around developed an ugly demeanour and a 3rd ear. (I’m frightened to look in a mirror) One day there was a change of task. The farmer performed a delicate procedure on his young pigs with a pocket knife. My job was to hold them steady while he ‘operated’. I only did this once. The pigs obviously felt some extreme discomfort and probable embarrassment, because they squealed with a vigour and intensity that remains with me to this day. When the Muezzin started the Adhan that morning I swear he had put on the wrong recording and was broadcasting the pigs discomfort. Visions of a robed figure with a big pocket knife caused me to leap out of bed, check the door lock and suggest to Flypaper that she be ready to expose something that would repel an Islamic invader.
Our driver guide was a delightful young man whose company we enjoyed as he told us facts, figures and some things that were probably not in the guides’ manual. He is very frustrated on two principal fronts. The first and by far most important was the fact that he had a lovely girlfriend to whom he wished to marry. Apart from natural beauty she had another wonderful quality – a wealthy father. The frustration and significant downside to the relationship was her Islamic faith. He confided that, to marry, a girl must remain a virgin. She may drink with enthusiasm and eat pork twice a day but with regard to chastity and abstinence she was staunch. Naturally, as a gentleman, I was on her side and refused to give him the benefit of my extensive wisdom. The other major issue is the fact that Azerbaijan is an extremely corrupt economy. This trait is ably lead from the very top.
In 2012 ‘Transparency International’ reported that two-thirds of the world's countries may be considered "highly corrupt." Given this, it would surely be difficult to choose the champion corrupt ‘person of the year’. However, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project has awarded the crown to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. They say, ‘’There is "well-documented evidence" that "the Aliyev family has been systematically grabbing shares of the most profitable businesses" in Azerbaijan for many years’’.
To progress in any business, our self-employed young guide has to make contributions to every government employee he meets and, in the event he does become quite successful, he will be approached and advised to accept a ‘partner’ if he wishes to continue that success. In fact approaching the right ‘partner’ early in ones career can virtually guarantee a healthy business – but not a large personal income as the first portion of the profit goes to the partner.
We watched as policemen patrolling public car parking areas extorted a small ‘donation’ for their ‘security services’ from every car including ours. It was even possible to go directly to the front of a queue at a tourist attraction if a small donation was made for the priority service. Everyone is doing it and this skims the profits or makes many businesses unviable. For this reason, many of the capable ambitious young men have left the country to make their fortunes abroad.
The country survives on huge oil revenues. This was the place that oil was first discovered. There is evidence of petroleum products being used in trade as early as the 3rd and 4th centuries. By 1901 the capital Baku produced 50% of the world’s oil products. Obviously this wasn’t used to power camel trains but did come in handy for heating, lighting and for medical conditions. Even Marco Polo mentioned Baku oil: "Near the Georgian border there is a spring from which gushes a stream of oil, in such abundance that a hundred ships may load there at once. This oil is not good to eat; but it is good for burning and as a salve for men and camels affected with itch or scab. Men come from a long distance to fetch this oil, and in all the neighbourhood no other oil is burnt but this." I was particularly taken by its ability to cure an ‘itch’ and suggested that our guide try it.
The Royal Dutch Shell Company made its fortune here – as did the Rothschild family and Alfred Nobel. With the proceeds of his dynamite patent he invested in Baku oil. 90% of the country’s wealth comes from oil and gas. Up until the early 1990’s most of the oil products were ‘taken’ by Russia. It’s a long sad story that has left enormous areas around Baku totally environmentally ruined.
Like most of these countries, the principal wealth is in the capital city with the politicians’ and their useful mates. There are some architecturally stunning buildings and large industry around Baku but the remainder of the country looks quite impoverished. The West end of the country is very poor and relies totally on agriculture. It is in these poorer regions that the police are most active to earn a little extra from motorists. The most common offence is ‘crossing the solid centre line’. Often there is no solid line but if the policeman says there was you cannot argue. They also have radar which, according to our lad, shows some extraordinary speed readings – just like the radar at home. Also, as at home, the real and insidious pressure comes from demerit points. 10 points in one year loses your licence. Crossing the line is 2 points, speeding is variable but the policeman may ask how many points you already have and accuse you of a speed that will immediately lose your licence. Our lad was once accused of 195kph in a car that would have struggled to make 160 downhill with a tailwind and an irate father chasing him. The standard response is to tell the policemen that you would rather pay an instant fine of 50 Manat (NZ$80) than receive the demerit points. No receipts are issued.
The population is 9 million – 4 million in the capital Baku. Apart from being the corruption capital of the world and having the most polluted land, it is most famous for hosting the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest. Believe me when I say the abysmal standard of their song that won the 2011 event for Azerbaijan makes one certain money changed hands. A quote from Wikipedia says enough … Azerbaijan's large investment in hosting the Eurovision contest was widely discussed in Western media as an attempt to "mitigate misgivings about its poor democracy and human rights record". Elnur Majidli, an activist imprisoned during the Arab Spring-inspired 2011 Azerbaijani protests, was released in an apparent effort to soften Azerbaijan's image ahead of the contest, but many political prisoners remained.
On our way East from Georgia we saw 2 enormous buildings on a high hill. They are the Gabala Radar Station. The radar station built and operated by Russia until recently had a range of up to 6,000 kilometres (3,728 miles), and was designed to detect missile launches as far away as the Indian Ocean. The radar's surveillance covered Iran, Turkey, India, Iraq and the entire Middle East. They don’t mention the ‘western’ countries also within range – much of Europe. Azerbaijan certainly provided some surprises. The Russian legacy will take some to disappear.
One has to admire a country that selects its ‘Miss Azerbaijan’ in a different way to most. Choosing the dopiest girl interviewed while wearing a bikini is hardly a challenge or one that is worthy of a title. Here, girls are given hooks and different coloured threads. The girls must crochet stockings and the winner is the girl who crochets the best quality stockings in the shortest time. Now that IS having fun. A couple of other things worth knowing … Do not lend money or bread at night. -Leaving scissors with opened blades brings misfortune and even death. - If you meet a person with empty buckets, you are bound for misfortune. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
At home I continue to hear bleating that it is too difficult for 1st home buyers to purchase. As if it was ever easy. Compare with an Azerbaijani. Our boy wanted a reasonable 2 bedroom apartment in a good quality block. They are not all good quality, in fact, some are an unmitigated disaster that will unlikely survive the next earthquake. It will cost him around US$150,000 (NZ$190K). The bank may lend 1/3rd at 8% for 25 years – if he has a good enough guaranteed salary from a substantial employer willing to provide good references. (As a self-employed person he can’t provide this) Plus, personal and family guarantees are required. The bank will look more favourably if a ‘patron’ of notorious repute will also put in a good word – for which he will have made a payment. The apartment will still come with the obligatory leaky pipes and suspect wiring. There will be no fixtures, fittings or furniture. I do hope you tell the bleaters about this.
We were intrigued by the fact that before a house is constructed they build the high solid boundary wall. This is to stop nosy neighbours knowing the size of your pantry or how many bathrooms you have – actually it’s probably one. Privacy is a big deal. Popular restaurants are ones that have private rooms or at least big spaces between tables. Our lads dream apartment to encourage his bride to be must consider many things. One of the factors is the privacy that includes how many apartments on the same floor and can his door be seen from another. Perhaps there is more to this than meets the eye. In a country known for corruption perhaps people are putting up subtle defences.
As with both of the other Caucus countries (and indeed, much of this whole geographical region) the administrations and the people have no concept of maintenance. I’m not talking here about the amount you pay your various ex-wives. I refer to the fact that once something is built, it ceases to be an asset of interest worthy of repair. They can build architecturally astonishing buildings – along with some equally astonishing impractical stuff – and yet cannot fix a water leak or repair anything. I have glue, sealant and tools with me and find myself repairing things in our hotel room or guides car all the time. It seems that the concept of ‘repair’ or ‘maintain’ is not in their psyche. The ‘best’ buildings are the ancient ones that were built to withstand a siege by an obnoxious enemy that threw things at you … but did not suffer water and electricity reticulation or had anything more than a carpet on the wall or floor to add to comfort. It’s very easy to find maintenance fault with everything – but that’s what travel is all about. They live differently to us. I’m starting to think we may have our priorities wrong. Each morning at home Flypaper presents me with a list of things that need attention. I would rather be sitting in a comfy chair, reading something edifying and sipping a mint chi. However, I’m not certain I can handle the wailing 5 times each day – so I’ll probably return to civilisation where my tool box creates domestic bliss. Well, maybe not bliss – but it is the most well-loved asset I have. Perhaps I should have told my new Azerbaijani friend to buy a screwdriver.

Posted by Wheelspin 04.07.2013 00:15 Archived in Azerbaijan Comments (0)

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