A Travellerspoint blog

The wolf is in the chicken house

Dropping out of the sky from Turkey into Armenia is quite a shock. They are neighbours but whereas Turkey has all the indications of a prospering, progressing nation, Armenia looks like a basket case. After the most rudimentary enquiry, one feels sad for Armenia. It used to be 10 times larger and the central influence of the region for thousands of years. Today, most of ancient Armenia is in Turkey. That doesn’t sit well with our new hosts and they are quick to tell that they have been treated badly. It’s difficult to disagree. Added to their problems with Turkey was the withdrawal of Russia in 1991. The Russians took all the money and anything else of value. Anything that couldn’t be moved was sold at token value to a ‘friend’ who is now an Oligarch. Everywhere shows sign of derelict industrial buildings and decaying commercial infrastructure. This would have been manageable if the country hadn’t been taken over by a bunch of crooks. One could argue, and I would agree with you, that this is not unusual. There are far more countries in the world ruled by tyrannical megalomaniacs or power crazed opportunists than by democratically elected benevolent representatives who genuinely want to see the best for the majority. In fact, you may struggle to think of any of the latter.

96% of the money in Armenia is in the capital Yerevan - or Swiss Banks. Most of that is in the hands of the politicians and their very close friends’ best described as the Mafia. All over town are magnificent buildings, memorials and up-market residents. (These do nothing for the average resident … but remember the rule … ‘Bling – the aphrodisiac of the poor’.) Artistic architectural flair is remarkable here. Some of the buildings and complexes are amazing. Many of the Mafia owned Casino’s and Night Clubs are spectacularly extravagant. However, drive back one street and it’s pretty obvious that the vast majority are struggling. The suburbs and rural communities are visibly unfortunate. Apart from the main thoroughfares used by the elite, the roads and other visible infrastructure is appalling. There are few countries we have visited that have poorer roads and we’ve experienced some doozies. The little effort being made to improve them is in fact making them worse. It seems that the Ministry of Roading Works is in 2 divisions. The division (a) that finds potholes and makes them neatly bigger and deeper ready for repair … and the division (b) that has the tar sealing job to fill the new big deep holes. Unfortunately there is no co-ordination between the two. The A team is totally labour and working hard. The B team is materials but without the budget to purchase – so do nothing. (Correction – they put all the tar seal on their leaders driveways.) The benefactors are the car repairers who are possibly the worlds best suspension repairers. The losers are the vehicle owners … the common people who pay high income taxes, road tax and large fines for little benefit.

The people we met are so convinced that they have no opportunity to change things that I fear it will take a long time to improve. An example was our driver / guide - possibly the nicest man in Armenia. Flypaper immediately pointed out to me that he may be Rowan Atkinson’s twin brother. He had a wonderful sense of humour and also the uncanny ‘Mr Bean’ ability to transform his face by applying different expressions. His smile was the finest reward I have ever experienced for my poor jokes. Unfortunately he proudly told us quite early that he had acquired his driving license on the 3rd attempt in Ireland. He only bothered because the Irish were aware that in Armenia you simply send the money and the licensing authority send back a document giving you the ability to both buy and drive a car. No practice or skills required. The fact he had a ‘real’ license gave him a unique status … together with a fear that the total police force were out to get him. The open road speed limit in Armenia is an unknown value. Sometimes its 60kph and sometime 70 or 80 - never more and seldom remaining static for long. The official slogan of the Armenian police force is “Keep ‘em guessing and help yourself”. As a result, our pseudo Irish chauffer never exceeded 60kph – I nicknamed him Mr Slow. Bad as the roads were, we seldom slowed further for anything. His Honda brake pads will last forever. Passing an aging smoking Lada or struggling 1950’s style Russian gas powered side valve truck (which were the only prey we could hope to capture) was painful and I often wondered if it would ever be achieved. There were times I wanted to beat him with a stick. He asked me why the automatic gearbox never changed to a lower gear. It was tragic to tell him that it was because he had never put his foot down far enough to engage the sensor that tells the transmission to go.

On the final 2 days Mr Slow bought his sister to assist with the guiding duties and she was lovely. She had also lived for a time in Ireland and had graduated University as a Psychologist and Lawyer. (She’s looking for a job if you can see potential for this nice mix of qualifications.) She and Flypaper sat in the back of the Honda and yapped away while Mr Slow focused on maintaining his clean driving reputation and I was able to ruminate on the notion that these 2 people deserve a lot better in life. Having said that, they were delightfully happy company and 100% responsible for our enjoying their almost totally unknown country.

We stayed 3 nights In a Soviet era 3 star hotel that has been purchased by local boy who made good in Russia and who is renovating the building to 5 star status. Unfortunately, to attain 5 stars it must first go down to 2 stars – which we can confirm it has achieved. Our 11th floor room had a magnificent view of Mount Ararat but no water in the bathroom for 30% of our occupation. When the water was running, it was hot only for 50% of the time. The air conditioning worked. We could tell it worked because after I used my own batteries in the remote it rattled like a tin can full of nails. The WiFi commendably worked on 7 of the 11 levels – but internet connection was only achieved in the lobby under the stern eye of the matron. (Such people are the only ones who instill fear in me.) The lift was the most vicious contraption we have ever stepped into. With room for 2 people and 2 bags, when one pushed the ‘switch’ (not a button) the doors instantly slammed shut like a bear trap. It then wobbled noisily up or down (no guarantee which way) until on arrival, the solenoid switch popped out with the sound of a pistol shot. The first time it happened I had to send Flypaper back to clean up the mess. Notwithstanding these small matters which, in the sanctuary of your lounge may be considered discomforts, we actually travel to experience them. Life in most of the world is less comfortable or even predictable, compared to that at home.

Our final night in Armenia was with a very hospitable family in a small town part way to our next country. These nights are the best. For example, our hosts had fitted a modern shower base and curtain but relied on the water to run down the plughole (as normal), out under the edge of the base, across the floor and down the central room drain hole. In addition, the shower rose expelled water in a global direction which included all over most of the bathroom. This was fine in terms of aiding our cleansing process, but a little concerning as the room also contained all of the electoral equipment for our and neighboring rooms. (We knew this because our stuff only worked when theirs didn’t.) On consideration, it was probably the flashest bathroom our hosts had ever experienced and their pride and joy was likely to have been the best in town. I’m pleased to have been their guest (and survived). The breakfast, in an overgrown garden shelter nattering with Mr Slow and Co, was also memorable. We never saw a snake but I suspect they were present and the local country food was fresh and delicious. (The honey in the Caucuses is superb!!!) I mention these things because I would like you to also visit Armenia - with the understanding that they wish to be wonderful hosts and, so long as we understand, they are.

Yerevan is filled with statues, memorials and artwork. (Many are amazing) On the main 2 lane highway into Yerevan from the North – one of the few that encourages a little more pace - is one of the hundreds of speed cameras placed to add further revenues to the ruling elite so that they can feather their nests even more comfortably. Adjacent to the camera someone has erected a tall column on top of which is a hand offering a 2 finger salute. I cannot work out if it was the motorists or the politicians’ that sponsored this.

Mr Slows sedate pace resulted in long days on the road required to see the many ancient churches, monasteries, forts and mounds of stones that filled our itinerary. Armenia was the first Christian nation in the world and every resulting church has been proudly preserved for tourists. The history is a little humbling when considered against New Zealand whose 1st inhabitants arrived around 1300AD. Armenians had been piling up stones for many thousands of years before then.

Their best pile of stones is a stupendous edifice in the centre of Yerevan known as the Cascade. It’s a huge staircase work of art covering 20 hectares. There are 5 levels connected by stairs or escalator and hundreds of artworks intermixed with a concert hall and museum all overlooking the city. There is even a giant Kiwi in the garden – but I hesitate to describe its orientation and cannot understand the reason for its existence. I am however sure that, as with everything else in Armenia, there is some symbolism involved.

Armenia and Georgia both argue as to which country grew the first grapes and who had the idea of turning them into wine and brandy. I suspect that, in those times, as the whole region was Armenia, we should give them this goal. The wines we allowed ourselves to drink in the name of cultural research were very different to those of Europe or the ‘New World’ but mostly very nice. Sometimes I even had a 4th glass. The bevy that did impress however was the Armenian Brandy. Our budget extended to their 7 year aged vintage and I do consider they should offer it in much bigger bottles. Prices are around ½ those for comparable wines and brandy’s in NZ. If you want a real budget fermentation then buy from the hundreds of roadside stalls offering homemade brews in recycled Coca Cola bottles. Mr Slow said some were nearly as good as his own annual vintage but we declined to test them on the basis that blindness is a real disadvantage for a traveling tourist.

One evening Flypaper dragged me out for a bit of fine dining and promenading around the central ‘Republic’ square (which turned out to be a circle). It was a wonderful evening. We fortunately left the restaurant just as the sound & light water fountain show was starting. This is spectacular, very entertaining and worth a visit to Yerevan. It was evidently a gift from France who was making overtures to the ‘guvmint’ when Russia slipped away with the disposable treasures. The coloured waters moving to the music was mesmerizing and continues for 2 hours. Equally mesmerizing were the young people in the streets. First – some background.

Given the state of the Armenian economy (don’t believe the ‘official’ story), many young men have left the country and work abroad. As unemployment could be as high as 40%, (official rate 10% but an independent household survey uncovered the truth) the funds they send home really keep their families and the economy alive. The outcome is similar to most of the other ‘ex-soviet’ state demographics … there are far more young ladies of prime breeding age than young men who usually offer their services at this time. The further result is a sense of desperation among the girls to secure those services. Now, my training was in Sales & Marketing and I have even spent time teaching these subjects to others. I can assure you that there is nothing I could offer by way of advice to the young ladies in Yerevan. They clearly identified their target market and promoted their product in a very businesslike manner. Their advertising was clear and communicative … although generally with a common theme. Those that had secured a lad were clinging on to him very tightly while the others made every effort to provide him with 2nd thoughts. Those single lads who wandered around in groups (as they do) were acting very blasé. I think they instinctively knew their reproductive futures were secure (if only they could slip away from their mates). It did however strike me that all of the young ladies on show were exceptionally attractive and those who were not so fortunate were in small number. It wasn’t until the next day at an historic church that I realized these less eye-catching young ladies were employing a different tactic. They went to church to pray for a nice boy. (I did feel a little sorry for them as there are not many of us nice guys around anymore.) The upside of this is the future popularity of the church is secure.

Posted by Wheelspin 03:09 Comments (0)

The National Sport is Cow Dodging

My impressions of Georgia may cause quite a stir. There is a State in the USA called Georgia. They will almost certainly think that my comments are about their world and will be unimpressed - little realizing that another Georgia has existed since long before Columbus learnt to row. When they read that Georgia has been ruled by Middle Eastern despots and even was once part of the Soviet Union, I imagine they will reach for the valium or call their congressperson.

Our tour of Georgia had the potential to be the fastest ever. Not a short tour but one covering the most kilometers in the least time. (See – it can’t be America or we would have covered miles) Our driver guide was young and keen to impress. He was in fact a gambler. He gambled on the brakes always working perfectly and all the other drivers doing as he expected. I had to tell him that the stakes were too high. Our lives were not available to put on the table. The first effort to slow him down was to tell him I had done a bit of car racing and knew how to do driving stuff. I taught him how to sit up straight so he could look over the steering wheel and how to hold that wheel so that he could provide more influence on the direction the car was traveling. After a bit more ‘training’ I told him he was actually now travelling faster than even but it just didn’t feel like it. That lasted 2 days. After that it was a stern order to stop being an idiot. He then sulked and drove too slow. These things reflected in the tip we gave him at the end of the journey that didn’t live up to his expectations or hopes. Tipping in the Caucuses is expected to be around 10% (who started this tipping culture???) Occasionally a tip was earned but seldom did I feel generous.

Even after adding the 10% prices were about half those at home. For example we could have a nice multicourse meal with wine for around NZ$40 – so long as we ate and drank local products – which was not a hardship. The food is plain, fresh, wholesome and in most instances recognizable. Some of the white pastes, creams and thick liquids reminded me of yogurts but, unlike some yogurts, were generally delicious. The people of this region have a sweet tooth and its well know that adding enough sugar will make anything edible.

Our arrival in the Capital City Tbilisi was indicated by the inevitable Soviet inspired huge theme statue – Mother Georgia. Every ‘ex’ and current Soviet State has a number of these. They are designed to create patriotism and are generally symbolic. She always holds a sword which is not very motherly unless one recasts it as a meat cleaver or perhaps a big cabbage chopper. I understand that it’s a message to their enemies’ - but as a result I am always respectful to mothers in this region. This one, Kartis Deda has a bowl of wine in her left hand. It’s generally accepted that winemaking has been around in Georgia since 7,000BC and she is offering hospitality to friends. So are the thousands of wine merchants that can be found cheek by jowl on every street and country road. Thank God for Christianity.

Evidently there are about 500 grape types in Georgia and the word ‘wine’ is derived from their word ‘ghvino (vino, vine, wein, wine). Originally the farmers stored grape juice in large clay pots coated on the inside with beeswax – they are known as ‘Kvevries’. They buried these in the ground for winter and in spring discovered that the naturally fermented beverage made their women look much more attractive and the summer months much more enjoyable. (Actually, I just made that up) The church quickly joined the game and wine became a symbol of the Christian faith. The favorite old Georgian is Saint Nino the Enlightened who roamed the country christening young Georgians with a vine cross. Originally she was just Mrs Nino but once the Georgians gained a taste for her favorite tipple they gave her the Sainthood. Most other Saints had to die a gruesome death so she was pretty smart and deserving of the status.

Since olden times Georgians had lots of drinking vessels and among them is the cows’ horn – called Kantsi. After removal from the cow they were cleaned and polished to make a handy cup. With a bung in the end you could even carry it around to extend happy hour. We saw a group of people drinking from one of these at a restaurant one evening. It seems that, if offered the horn you have to knock it back in one swig – and failure is uncontemplatable. The guys took to the idea with enthusiasm but some of the ladies tried, dribbled and became dismal failures. For me a lot would depend on the quality of the brew. There were we some we sampled that were declared by Flypaper as suitable for ‘cooking’ … this is not a high recommendation. The ‘semi-sweet’ were our favorites and some would have been welcome in a horn or even a gallon jar. Officially, Georgia exported about 13 million bottles of wine last year – and knocked back another 5 million at home – population around 4.5 million people – but that doesn’t take into consideration that most people make and drink their own. It’s a serious business.

On this subject, I was intrigued to see almost every roadside home in the suburbs of every town had a steel trellis covered in grape vine hanging out over the footpath. I questioned our guide about this and suggested that passing traffic could hit the trellis. I also offered the notion that in my country there would be a law about this practice. He was horrified. To hit the grape vine would require the poor judgments of 2 people (the trellis owner and the truck driver) and both would learn from their stupidity. This is an excellent attitude – no law required.

Surprisingly, Georgians are expected to pay only 20% income tax, 15% Corporate tax and 18% Vat. This seems very reasonable. I’m envious. (What happened to Roger Douglas?) Our driver/guide, who also owns a backpackers hostel, thought it was less. He’s self employed so possibly has a good accountant. Like all the other ‘emerging’ nations, the money he gives to the ‘guvmint’ goes first to handsomely reward the politicians’ and secondly towards building architecturally magnificent buildings that instill great pride in the communities. (Bling !!!) The politicians’ all travel very quickly in cavalcades made up of 3 black cars with dark tinted windows and flashing lights. “Why?” I ask – and you may venture an answer. They live in magnificent mansions on well paved streets … and seem to have jobs for life. The President is elected for a 5 year term with a maximum of 3 terms. After that he gets every imaginable privilege for the rest of his life. Members of Parliament are elected for 4 year terms and also seem to have a glorious future thereafter – although some are reelected over and over again, undoubtedly because they like the lifestyle. Isn’t that universally typical. The current parliament is a coalition between 6 parties who collectively have 55% of the vote. (The losers suggest it depends on who does the vote counting). The current coalition is made up of the following parties – Georgian Dream, Conservative, Industry will save Georgia, Republican, Our Georgia, National Forum. My research indicated that there was a 60% voter turnout and were no ‘blank’ or ‘invalid’ votes. Obviously a very accurate people. Our guide had another theory.

Strangely, the largest city, Tbilisi, is the ‘official’ capital – but ‘Kutaisi’ is the ‘legislative capital. It’s all very confusing as the Parliament Building was constructed in 2009/11 in Kutaisi following massive protest over the huge WWII memorial that was demolished to provide space. Critics say it is a massive waste of money. It looks nice. So does Parliament building in Tbilisi. What a surprise.

Tbilisi is a large city of 1 million people divided by the sluggish muddy Kura river. Our 18th Century hotel (www.oldmetekhi.ge) was in the heart of the historic district of Tbilisi. A little worrying was the fact that its magnificent views over the river of the ancient and ancient fort were the result of it being cantilevered out over the crumbling cliff above the river. There are many buildings like this and they survive in spite of the fact this country does have earthquakes. I enquired about the foundations and discovered that the reinforcing that provided our support was ‘very strong wood from big trees’ encased in 18th Century ‘concrete. We figured that it had at least 3 days life left. From the other side of the hotel we could see magnificent buildings in every direction. All presided majestically over crumbling walls and footpaths.

One of the bizarre things about the construction industry of Georgia is the fact that they can build fabulous looking buildings … but cannot build a footpath that will last a year. Their walls are not much better. Let me give an example. We visited the magnificently restored 8 hectare Rabati Castle in Akhaltsikhe. This is a serious project. Magnificent. The surrounding wall between the castle and the road is engineered (probably by international consultants) – but because the grass didn’t grow (I’m guessing here) they dumped many thousands of tons of large rocks on the area. It looks wonderful. I predict in 10 years it will have collapsed and base this on visible distortion after only 1 year. Never mind – restoration work is good for the economy and is likely to attract international sponsorship.

We kept very good company in Georgia. Stalin was born here. That caught me on the wrong foot and I very nearly said something that had the potential to have me locked up in a dungeon with the lady guide that sternly took us through the large memorial to his life. (Shudder) Interestingly we learnt that Stalin’s father was a cobbler and wanted him to follow in the family tradition. He wanted to be a priest. (This is true). He entered a seminary and was expelled for his ‘radical ideas’. That’s a pity. He has the reputation for being incarcerated 7 times – and escaped 5 times. (The other 2 he served his time). During one of these periods he was tortured and ended up with one arm much shorter than the other. A psychiatrist may suggest that this had an influence on his later life and philosophy. I was thrilled to wander through his personal armored train and became convinced that his psychopathic demeanor was a result of the time he spent in this form of transportation. Lets face it … trains are ‘public transport.

On the same theme, we visited the home of Napoleons sisters grandson. Forgive me for namedropping here. Actually Prince Niko Dadiani wasn’t able to greet or entertain us as he died some time ago. However, the collection of letters, pictures and other paraphernalia relating to Napoleon made me feel quite close to the family and Flypaper has been making a point of telling me to stop walking around with my hand in my shirt. It was a nice little castle type home in a large estate surrounded by properties that had enjoyed little owner pride – or perhaps they were a bit busy in servitude to the neighbour.

One of the highlights in our itinerary was a visit to a ‘National Park’. It was the size of a ‘lifestyle block’ in New Zealand. The principal feature was a fountain at which one could drink ‘Sulphur Water’. I did this with enthusiasm. The guide took a risk with this. My hazy recollections at mothers knee was that (a) sulphur is good for cleaning ones blood and (b) it unfortunately has the re result of inducing flatulence. My blood doesn’t seem unduly cleansed but it was very fortunate that the next item on our agenda arrived just before (b) became effective.

The largest employer in Georgia is the Police. Every young man with an aggression problem or power complex wants to join up and all are welcome. They are everywhere. They drive around, 2 up, in little cars with the flashing lights engaged all the time. The idea is to intimidate people by making them aware that they are being watched at all times. Often, for example, if we were having dinner at an out door restaurant, we could see 4 – 5 police cars at any given moment. That may suggest we were dining in dubious company or surroundings. Our guide was visibly conscious of the police presence and I could see that he may die young with a high blood pressure problem. This is very sad as I considered him the sort of ambitious young man that any country would benefit by encouraging.

Georgia would be paradise for those who promote free range status for chickens and are against things like dairy feed lots. The greatest hazards in Georgia are the wandering cows, pigs, chickens and other livestock. There is a saying among practical farmers … “Where there is livestock there is deadstock”. The cows wandering all over the roads are a nightmare. Often I found myself uttering an involuntary prayer. The pigs weren’t a problem as one would fit nicely in the Corolla boot. They did ruin our average speed and the sight of those that the motorists failed to dodge made me consider the wisdom of ordering the ever popular ‘barbeque’ at the restaurant each evening. I offer the opinion that the farmers turn them loose for 1 of 2 reasons … either the insurance value of a skinny cow is greater than the market meat value or they are being paid an under the table subsidy by the brake pad manufacturers.

For me, a highlight of my visit to Georgia was the journey through spectacular remote mountain gorge’s to Mestia – then 4 hour / 50km on to Ushguli. This road is mentioned in some peoples list of the ‘worlds worst roads’. It shouldn’t be as Flypaper slept for most of the journey – and I had time to complain that the ‘music’ was too loud. It does possible have a place in the records for ‘most potholes’ and does enjoy the status of leading to the highest village in Europe. (Europe? I always thought the Bosphorus in Turkey was the division between Europe and Asia. Here we were about 2,000kms East of that. We hired a 4WD with local driver for this journey and was intrigued by the fact he bought expensive bottled water for drinking (while surrounded by some of the worlds most pristine snow melt) and used most of it to clean his windscreen – hand out the window sloshing it onto he screen while the wipers were flailing at top speed. This of course meant at a considerable quantity came back through his open window each time the wipers swung to the right. Flypaper was quite damp on arrival. (She insisted that it wasn’t the quality of the road that caused that.)

Of particular amazement throughout the Caucus countries is the universal gas reticulation. Almost every home in the country has natural gas piped in from Russia. Russia is a zillion kilometers away. The ugly piping infrastructure is amazing. There must be hundreds of millions of cubic metres of gas in the pipes – and the potential for leaks is beyond my comprehension. It is charged a flat rate and although there are occasional ‘inline’ meters, no one reads them to discover the percentage that is leaking to the atmosphere. Please don’t tell those concerned about greenhouse gas emissions about this as it could offend some very powerful people who also happen to be oligarchs who send out people with nasty attitudes to deal with their problems.

The countries of the Caucasus are a bit jealous of each other and squabble over lots of things. This was evidenced by the sign above the road as we departed Georgia, it said, “Azerbaijan Boarder – Good Luck”. We were delighted that our luck held out on the roads of Georgia and I promised to send our driver a book about how to drive safely and live longer. Flypaper suggested that his smoking will get him anyway so why bother. In contrast to my own caring attitude, she’s a hard woman.

Posted by Wheelspin 11:47 Archived in Georgia Tagged travel adventure georgia Comments (0)

A sweaty cleavage curred my hay feaver

The purpose of this journey was to circumnavigate the Black Sea. The first 2 weeks were spent getting across Western and Eastern Europe to this ancient and historic body of water. The first glimpse came on the Bulgarian Coast. We could see the sea … but between it and us were enormous Bulgarian Holiday destinations – panacea for a few million people. These shores are mostly steep and rocky. There are some good beaches, but one has to be a typical callous and corrupt politician or book years in advance to inhabit a tiny patch of the golden grains which were likely imported by truck from a riverbank further inland. Once actually at the waters edge we spent over an hour gazing back inland trying to identify our hotel. The signage would have only been visible to a local fisherman on his way home to break the news to his family that they were eating Blotched Picarel and cucumber again that night. As it was a new building even the locals were unaware of it. We finally located it by driving to the map co-ordinates that I had quite by chance recorded from Google maps months earlier at home. It was no surprise to discover we were the sole occupants. This whole coast was booming during the period 2002/07. In 2008 the European economy collapsed along with hundreds of dodgy development companies. Hundreds of thousands of European ‘investors’ who had paid their deposits on a slice of well camouflaged paradise lost their money. The half finished buildings remain – crumbling only a few years earlier than they would have due to the poor quality materials and workmanship. Uh oh – that’s likely to result in a law suite.

The coastal Bulgarians obviously have no ambition to visit Turkey. We deduced this by the virtually unused track to the boarder. Most New Zealand farms would be ashamed to send their cows down a track in this condition. Our reward came at the deserted boarder. We were farewell by a couple of Customs and Immigration officials who I feared were going to break down and weep at our passing. While one rushed off to attend to the formalities (which possibly included scanning our passports to make Black Market replicas) we stood and chatted to another who had a dear friend now living in NZ - but hating the fact that it rained all the time. We found this an astonishing attitude given that, for the past 10 days we were traveling a day ahead of storms that had most of Europe submerged in muddy water - and the night before we had marveled at the a huge storm that had probably dribbled down inside our new friends leaky home.

Arriving at the Turkish side of the border was a complete transformation of attitude. We had been lulled into thinking bureaucrats were human. Following an hour of multiple applications and the handing over of hard currency for the privilege of entry, road tax and inspection we emerged onto a fabulous highway that had no traffic. This lasted until we joined the motorway towards Istanbul. The world brightened in one respect. While stretching a leg and eating a Turkish coffee together with a gelatinous square of cheesy product that we were assured was a local favorite, we noticed out the window that a lad was washing our car. It sorely needed it but we were surprised that it had offended the sensibilities of our hosts to that extent. Turns out that this is a new Turkish custom. Every highway food establishment encourages your patronage by employing boys to scrub up your transport. An excellent idea. I think there is a code to indicate if you want the service or not. It could be that you flip a wiper blade out. I never figured it out and succeeded by indicating that a generous tip would be forthcoming on our return to HeeHaw.

During the past weeks we had been aware of Renault cars (that in spite of being French I always liked) and were surprised at their popularity in Turkey. I had believed that Reno was struggling to survive – and wasn’t surprised. Their choice of model names is enough to put of the most enthusiastic buyer. If Renault Corporation is looking for a consultant to turn their fortunes around, I’m ready. One of their ‘compact’ models is called the Symbol. A symbol of what? Anxiety or perhaps desperation. Or is it symbolic of those pot lids the aggressive one whacks together in the orchestra? The model that has me most bewildered is the Fluence. I envisage a bitter disagreement at the board meeting when the decision to name this car was being made. Was it to be Influence, Affluence or perhaps Effluence. Maybe the decision is yet to be made and in the meantime the factory continued production without the first letter.

Istanbul has 18,000,000 registered inhabitants … plus a few million unregistered people and at any given moment over a million tourists. This puts a heavy demand on the infrastructure. I am amazed that the electricity and water supply, sewage system and rubbish collection works at all. Well … sometimes they don’t but they do make an excellent effort. The toilet at our hotel flushed successfully 68.4% of the time. The most obvious infrastructural stress is the roading system. There is an amazing tangle of roads everywhere and they are jammed with vehicles most of the time. Mostly by aggressive, tooting Turks late for something. Parking is almost impossible and motion is intermittent. Some drivers are quite innovative and use the emergency lanes to good effect. There are bigger and more crowded cities in the world – we’ve driven in most of them – but Istanbul is right up there in contention for the most chaotic. The worry is that this country and especially this city is forging ahead. Its one of the worlds growth regions. Visitors that venture outside the ‘old City’ that used to be called Constantinople will be astonished. However, for me, a country boy who hates crowds and especially waiting in queue’s, a ‘Turkish Delight’ is escaping from this frenetic metropolis of honking chaos. As we flew out over the city it reminded me of the times as a lad when we looked for ‘road kill’ (usually possums) to attract eels. Turning over a bloated carcass would sometimes reveal a seething mass of maggots all wriggling without apparent purpose. With apologies to my Turkish friends – who now number many – that is my personal perception of this and most other megacities. You would probably like it.

Again Flypaper dragged me on an evening cruise. This time on the Bosphorus. She used the wily tactic of flashing a brochure that featured an eye-popping dancer clad in a few strips of transparent tape. Oh dear, what with Flypaper begging for night out and my being conscious that I do need to do some research for this blog, I reluctantly agreed. Flypaper scoffs at this. She says the reluctant agreement was shouted over my shoulder as I sprinted out the door to get an early front row seat. That front row seat did eventuate and it seems I caught the eye of that dancer. It was horrific and I still lie awake at nights remembering my terror and near suffocation. First she buried my nose in a place that I think should have featured a further strip of tape – then I found myself under the canopy of her long hair. I groped around trying to find a way out and am eternally grateful that Flypaper rushed in and rescued me.

During our visit to Istanbul the international news was full of the protests that were occurring. Those that sent me emails saying they saw me wrestling with police and throwing back teargas containers were mistaken. I have learned by now that influence is better than direct action. (We were at the back pushing the more radical elements forward.) We left Istanbul and drove to stay with friends in the capital city Ankara about 5 hours inland. Again the journey was educational and With HeeHaw galloping at best pace I learnt the tactic of weaving across 4 lanes of traffic including the emergency services lane to maintain good progress. Ankara is much more civilized. There are only 4.3 million people and they all live in modern high rise apartments in 2,500 sqkm (that’s about the population of New Zealand in an area the size of Auckland & Christchurch combined). They are also much more subdued in their protest. Each night at 9pm the neighborhoods erupt with a cacophony of noise as the householders open their windows and beat pots together. Those with timid babies make do with flicking their lights on and off. It was wonderful to be among people who are making the statement that they don’t like the political environment in which they exist and want improvements. God give them strength.

As I mentioned earlier, Turkey is forging ahead economically and it’s uncharitable to criticize their efforts. However, downtown the next day we witnessed thousands of riot police being bussed into the city centre to subdue the even more thousands of protesters that had their own huge fleet of busses. There is room for improvement in terms of corruption and human rights – but I am reluctant to criticize a country that is doing many of the things I believe my own country should be doing. I will say however, that I am less than impressed with the attitudes of the ruling classes throughout the whole of this greater region. Living in the home of a successful local person provided a wonderful insight to life in a fast emerging economy – and we learned things about Turkey’s history that are not taught in our own education system.

The return to Istanbul a few days later was also educational. We found ourselves in a traffic jam that was caused by a truck overturning on the motorway. Following that, our GPS took us to the wrong address – an address where we had planned to leave HeeHaw while we flew to the Caucuses for 2 weeks. We showed a local person at random in the street the address and asked for directions. He spoke not a word of English but bought us a ‘Chi’ and telephoned our contact – then climbed into our spare passenger seat and directed us to our destination. This is the sort of hospitality that is universal in Turkey … and indeed, in many other places we have visited. It’s an example we must all embrace. With HeeHaw safely stored, another guy transported us in his private car for 2 hours through rush hour Istanbul to Ataturk Airport and found our hotel for that night. The following morning we exited Turkey by plane for The Caucasus without problem.

Our destination was Yerevan in Armenia. Unfortunately Turkey and Armenia are having a spat that goes back to the mass murder of Armenians by Turks in Eastern Armenia during World War 1. (An event most Turks regret but the politicians’ ignore). To this day there is no diplomatic recognition between the countries and in 1993 Turkey closed the common boarder. Even our imminent arrival did not motivate the parties to relax and we could not even fly from Istanbul to Yerevan. That meant a flight to Tbilisi in Georgia followed by a very rough 6 hour car journey back through the Armenian boarder. The chauffeured transport was arranged by our Caucuses tour company. The driver was a guy in his 20’s who spoke a little English but preferred silence. I analyzed him as a conservative. It wasn’t his modest clothes (plain pale blue shirt as opposed my own United Nations flag with special anti-sunstroke collar), it was the fact that he constantly drove the struggling Corolla either on the line between lanes or on the center line of the road. He seemed to either not be able to make up his mind or wanted to keep his options open. After observing a few ambitious passing maneuvers’ by other drivers he told me in a disgusted tone that Georgian drivers were all crazy … then proceeded to demonstrate that he was a fine example. Of particular interest was the fact hat he had a clear understanding that if you want a car to go faster you select a higher gear. Every car travels quicker in 5th gear than (say) 3rd. However, he had not done lesson 2 that says if you wish to accelerate briskly you select a lower gear and thrash the heart out of the beast. Consequently, when we saw a passing opportunity – usually a questionable one – he selected 5th gear followed by full throttle. Our subsequent sluggish acceleration left me with breathing problems and a strong desire to remove him from control. I suspect that his corpse would have raised questions I would find difficult to answer and the resulting incarceration would upset our travel itinerary – so I did the local thing and uttered a rapid prayer. That worked.
He did have an amazing skill. He was fluent in horn language - a virtuoso performer - to the extent that we could understand the language as well. There was a toot for excuse me, others for hello, thank you, get out of the way, goodbye and many others. The more strident one that said, “You rotten #@%&*#@% that was my piece of road” was clear, precise and glorious to hear.

Our arrival in Yerevan, a city few have heard off, culminated in an unscheduled city tour due to our driver being lost - and the eventual halt outside a hotel that appeared to be closed for renovations. It wasn’t closed – but should have been. To compensate, the staff were wonderfully obliging and gave us a modest (Soviet era) top floor room overlooking the city and featuring a view of Mount Ararat. Had we been there during Noah’s arrival we would not have noticed due to the blanket of smog that limited our view to a few kilometers.

Posted by Wheelspin 04:47 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

It may be in the water … or it may be the wine

We have passed many ‘property developments’ and even remote building sights that give encouragement to the belief that the construction industry is booming in Eastern Europe and particularly Romania. En-route I saw a builder reading a plan. This astonished me as most modern buildings in Romania look like woks of creative spontaneity while searching for new levels of constructive bizarreness. Perhaps he was reading a ‘Playboy’ magazine – indeed – it would have provided far more valuable guidance. I’m certain the Architects are all on, what we subtlety refer to as ‘hallucinatory substances’. We are puzzled as to why many of the houses reach about half way in the construction before being abandoned. It may have been result of the 2008 international financial collapse – but we prefer to think that perhaps the builder, or even the owner, sobered up one day and decided to abandon the abomination to the senses of the passing populace.

Our Bucharest guide was a lovely young ambitions lady who holds down 3 jobs and hastened to reassure us that she wasn’t a Gypsy. (Gypsy’s make up only 2% of the population but are credited with 84.73% of the countries problems.) As a University graduate she was well qualified to explain the education system – which I will, in turn, sum up for you. On top of the huge principal university building is a tall delicate tower with a large globe impaled near the top. Evidently structural experts all agree that the globe will never fall until the day virgin graduates.

Bucharest is a crumbling city. The quality of materials and workmanship used during Nicolae Ceausescu's megalomaniacal rule during the 1970/80s is very poor. Without serious maintenance, which the country cannot afford, this city, which has been compared with Europe’s finest, will be lost forever. It’s bad. Most blame the gypsy’s. The people do have a sense of humour. They are proud of their many statues and artworks and there is currently a raging debate about the latest - a tall thin pole with a large dark lump of globular ‘matter’ near the top. Even some ‘artists’ concede that it looks like an ‘Olive on a toothpick’ while the great pragmatic majority have named it the ‘potato on a stick’.

My role on our journeys is kicking HeeHaw in the ribs and making sure the beast is feed, watered and obeying the Sat Nav. That leaves the other few tasks that require attention while traveling to Flypaper. Stuff like carrying the bags upstairs, laundry, checking in and out of our hotels, pouring my nightcap, anything to do with money and of course documentation – to mention a few. In a much shorter period than usual, after sparing with Bulgarian Immigration and Customs to achieve legal entry, she had an agitated look about her. I dutifully enquired regarding the worrying deterioration in efficiency, to be told she was confused. I don’t wonder. This is the country that had bagpipes long before the Scots and invented the Cyrillic alphabet - which was then adopted by Russia and its satellites to confuse potential invaders. Believe me, if you role up at an intersection in your tank and see a Cyrillic signpost, chances are you will have a change of heart and decide to invade the British Isles where at least you will know where to find the best pubs for lunch. Flypaper has risen to these challenges before but the one that beat her was one that she hadn’t encountered since we were in India many years ago. The Bulgarians shake their head to say yes and nod for no. This can make for an interesting conversation if you are relying on sign language.

Our research on Bulgaria uncovered the fact that they have a habit of being on the loosing side and have been perfecting this skill ever since they laid claim to being the first ‘Europeans’ … about 1.1 million years ago. Being born with a genetic loosing streak is a disadvantage worse than a stutter or a nervous twitch. I suspect it is one of the principle reasons they concentrated on winemaking. Bulgaria is one of those ‘crossroad’ countries that have had people trampling all over them since antisocial behaviour became the best measure of success. If you have a big hairy person with a long spear pointing at your tender spot it is quite prudent to whip out a stone tumbler and offer him a wine. (It seems to work with waxed heterosexuals’ as well.)

The lyrics of a popular Bulgarian song explain the attitude in this country very well. - “We win, we loose … either way we get drunk, we’re Bulgarians!” - Eloquently and accurately expressed.

Bulgaria is also a rubbish orientated society. They orientate themselves upwind of where they throw it. The difference between Bulgaria and Romania is that there is a well organised army of people who look grateful for a job scurrying around picking it up again. Perhaps it’s a work creation scheme.

We departed Sofia on a glorious Saturday morning en-route for Stara-Zagora (a place with little to recommend it). The road we chose evolved into 4 hours of the finest ‘B’ road in Europe. We concluded they must have employed German consultants with big sticks. Strangely, the motorists were all driving very sedately. It was a beautiful scenic route through mountainous forest but we didn’t see any signs saying, “If you speed we will turn you into a frog that will be hunted down and gobbled by a stork” I also drove with much care and polite consideration. Flypaper became concerned and gently enquired if I was feeling well. We concluded that on Fridays the ‘orthorities’ must put something in the water. Along the way we stopped at an historic village where we absorbed some cultural history – without being bothered by the shrieking children (June 1 is children’s day and the little b#*@&%ds are allowed to do anything) and commented on the profusion of wild flowers in beautiful bloom. I then stopped at Flypapers request to steal a plant from a field crop so that she could examine in up close to determine its reason for covering most of the Bulgarian agricultural land. WOW … that medication in the water must be REALLY strong! With relief I can report that it had worn of by Sunday and I was back driving with my normal obnoxious distain for other road users.

It’s easy to tell when the Romans have been prowling around a country. They discovered the fact that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. One straight we traversed was 32km. The Romans also left a lot of stuff lying around. If you dig anywhere in Bulgaria you will discover ancient treasure. That could be the reason the current inhabitants spread their leftovers around with reckless abandon – they expect someone in the future will get a thrill when they dig it up and some visiting sucker will pay good money to look at it behind a rope barrier. It’s a smart and easy way of leaving a legacy for your children’s great grandchildren – don’t use the rubbish receptacle - leave some ‘treasure’ lying around.

I love private utilization of public resources. It’s not unusual to drive through a village to find your planned way blocked. An example was a Sunday morning when a guy decided to pave the footpath ‘tween his house and car parking space. (It’s not good to drive with muddy shoes). This required concrete. As he did not have one of those rumbling rotating machines that every young married man owned in ‘my’ day, he resorted to mixing the sand and cement with a shovel. This requires a clean, flat, hard surface. Where better than the road in front of ones house? I do admire initiative. If Flypaper hadn’t snorted in indignation I would have leapt out, shook his hand, taken a photo … and offered him some advice.

I suspect that every Eastern European is a qualified biologist I the field of Porcus disseco (or more correctly for the educated reader - Sus scrofa domesticus dissectus.) 60% of every restaurant menu is dedicated to the various cuts of Pork and the myriad ways of presenting them on a plate. I love pork … but one can be overwhelmed. I’ve now experienced it from the form of a humble sausage made from the leftovers that should have passed through the waste disposal unit – right through to a selection of cuts presented on a wicked sword described as ‘food for a King’ … and presented by a maiden who would have probably been kept by a real King as his personal serving wench. There remains a mystery. We have seen the origins of the ‘Beef Pattie”, the feathered supplier of the ‘Chicken Chests’ and even the humble vegetable garnishes … but we haven’t seen the pigs. We have finally concluded that they are so important to the collective National Wellbeing that the ‘guvmint’ have taken over the industry, secritized it … and the pigs live in high rise apartments. Certainly many look suitable.
By the way, did you know that the dental formula of adult pigs is /, giving a total of 44 teeth. Isn’t that something?

All of these countries are well pleased to have moved on from Communism. Although each has a communist party, there is little fear of them ever gaining power. However, it is still possible to be seriously hurt by communism … keep a careful eye out. One of the remaining poor quality statues could fall on you.

A comment on religion, just to offend those remaining few. Religions of various persuasions remain very popular – particularly those that generate a bit of smoke and wear tall hats. I’ve deduced that the principal reason for the popularity of the churches of Eastern Europe is that they are the greatest benefactors of the ever popular Lottery’s. Everyone goes to church to pray that they will win the next jackpot.

Sadly, ‘progress is coming to this Eastern European region. Given time they will follow headlong into the trap of Western consumerism and gross consumption - which is inevitably followed by rules to make each of us conform to someone else’s ideal. Today we saw the perfect example. A young lady with great ambitions modeling herself on an American icon. Her business was humble in the extreme but she is on the ladder. One day you just may see a McJennys in your neighbourhood.

If you are contemplating a holiday – consider Eastern Europe. Come now while it is chaotically disorganized, full of rubbish, has some of Europe’s finest driving skills and retains none of Dracula’s well known habits. Everyone we have met has been delighted that we called on them and have tried very hard to please. Their Romanglish, Hungarilish or Bulgarilish is good enough to enable communication of the essentials … and Flypaper rates their collective toilet paper as 6 out of 10. She’s not just a recipe girl – she knows about this sort of stuff too.

Posted by Wheelspin 10:37 Comments (0)

Dracula would be amazed

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

As a very young boy my parents encouraged me to read. They knew that reading was, and is, the basis of all knowledge and one is more likely to prosper if able to link up the little black marks in a coherent manner. They also instinctively knew that any reading was good, and, 50 years ahead of their time realized that comics offered the same value as Enid Blyton. My earliest vocabulary included words like Kapow, Zoink, Kerplunk and Varoom. I’m thrilled to be using them again. Given this period was about 15 years after the end of WWII, war comics were popular. One of my favorites was Spy 13. This, much better, forunner of James Bond had many personal run-ins with Adolf Hitler and always escaped by the proverbial skin of his teeth. As a result I am well aware that Hitler was born in Braunau am Inn, Austria. Following a final night in Germany at the lovely Danube town of Passau, we passed through Braunau am Inn. My own run-in was with a guy who exhibited all the traits of a Hitler descendant, but was easily dealt with. He didn’t realize he was dealing with a student of Spy 13.

On the rear of HeeHaw is a spare wheel that is fixed to a tubular frame that swings aside to allow the tailgate to open. We stopped in a carpark to overcome a squeak in the luggage area that was out of phase with the ‘Oompah’ music on the radio. The open swinging spare wheel frame caught the eye of a policeman that was far too young to shave but I feel will one day feature a toothbrush mustache. He squealed to a halt and proceeded to remonstrate in ‘Germish’ (of which we are fluent) to the effect that the frame was protruding into the path of other passing vehicles. After looking closely at the offending projection I held up my left little finger – horizontally – and cocked an eyebrow … in the manner of Spy 13 when he was planning his escape. The length of my little finger signified the distance past the defining white line and therefore the magnitude of my crime. I then solved the problem completely by closing the gate. Hitler’s probable Great Grandson was satisfied with his days work and drove off. I stood wondering and desperately trying to recall – did Spy 13 offer another finger at that stage? Probably. I made do with escaping over the boarder to Hungary.

Hungary is a misnomer. The country is mostly a large flat food bowl. There are food crops growing over the horizon in every direction. No one should be or even looks hungry at all. The remarkable thing about Hungarians is that they very normal and very nice. Given this was our first stop in Eastern Europe I had a sort of nagging idea that they would be carrying daggers in their belts, barbequing stray children, casting spells on tightwads and planning the next popular uprising. (It turns out this is the next country – my mistake) During our 2 days in Budapest only 2 things worthy of mention occurred. At the conclusion of the romantic evening Danube River dinner cruise, (this IS true) Flypaper declared that the citrus cream with a raspberry mint mouse floater was the finest soup she had ever consumed. This pronouncement from a woman who reads recipe books like novels. (We are now on a mission. Please send your citrus cream soup recipe to anneor@eol.co.nz ).The other, even better occurrence, was that our City Tour bus was involved in an accident. Some of the passengers murmured to the effect that their holiday was destroyed as they would now be late for the changing of the guard at Buck House in 4 days time, but I found it to be the highlight of our journey to date. Being witness to someone else’s disaster is much better than inadvertently arranging your own. The gnashing of teeth was only bettered by the exasperation of astonishing volumes of paperwork completed in triplicate on the crumpled bonnet of the aging Ford Focus that I have a sneaking suspicion was being hopefully sacrificed towards the owners next bet on the football results … or perhaps a few cases of Tuica (52% proof plum juice). Actually, it doesn’t surprise me there was an ‘incident’ on this tour as I had noticed the bus driver wore hair gel.

Hungary is now very European and we found it delightful. Some will find that complimentary while others will say they hoped for better. However, one kilometer over the boarder into Romania was a leap backwards in time. Much of the past 100 years has stood still. Imagine late 19th century buildings occupied by 1950’s people talking on cell phones while driving frenetically. On the Hungarian side of the boarder everyone drove in an orderly leisurely fashion. Once in Romania they instantly grew horns and careered along as if they were late for their own funerals. It’s really good. While we oppressed Westerners’ who suffer from ‘those who know what is best for us’, are shocked by these driving habits and feel sure the offenders have failed to attend their therapy appointments, the fact is, they are driving normally. They demonstrate astonishing skills of judgment and have no greater accident rate that those who obey dictatorial rules established by those who were not allowed adequate time in their peddle cars when young. Flypaper and I measure the value of the entertainment in Euro’s. It corresponds to the value of the vehicle that nearly joined the ranks of the car wreckers stock found every 25 kilometers along the highways (just as they are in our home country). Used car parts are big business here and some of the recyclers are very professional.

The police are out, often with radar, but doesn’t worry us because it seems they only take an interest in really expensive vehicles that appear worthy of the fine. On the subject of law enforcement we had occasion to witness it in action. We encountered large organized protests in some of the towns and cities we have visited. We don’t know their cause but one protest is much like another so it doesn’t matter. Hang on, Flypaper tells me that one protest was, “Stop the Gold Mining”. Whoa! Run that past me again. The one thing these people look like they could really do with is a bit of gold. Sometimes the protesters have evidently broken some law (probably verbal abuse of authority) and are taken in for due process. Add to this the knowledge that here in Romania they have a domestically manufactured car called a Dacia. These were made internationally famous by the Top Gear team who unanimously voted them among the world’s worst cars. What would they know? I think a Dacia is really just an old Renault in a Halloween costume. The smallest model is understandably used by the police as no doubt they are available at the right price. We saw a ‘Laurel & Hardy’ team of policemen crammed into their Dacia, leaving no room for the arrested offender. He had to walk along in front. By the time he arrived at the station I imagine everyone along the way would be willing to vote him for president.

Romania is a country of contrast. Ancient dilapidated buildings from which the occupants trot in old horse drawn carts alongside huge modern industrial centres with carparks’ festooned by BMWs and Range Rovers. A million dollar combine harvester will toot to shoo away an old woman carrying a few sticks or load of hay on her back. The centre strip of the motorway will be mowed by someone with a noisy weedeater contemplating his salary while the outer edge will be harvested by a man with a scythe considering his few cows. On reflection, should there be another revolution; the man with the scythe will be better able to defend his castle than he with the weedeater.

We regularly leave the main highways to sneak around the rural communities. This is the place to observe the true character of a country. Romanian secondary roads are very like rural roads throughout much of the ‘emerging’ and ‘developing’ world. Usually covered in assorted manure that is fast eating away the ‘Marmite’ spread as a token political gesture towards luxury sealed access for farmers. One doesn’t maintain a very high average speed on these roads. Here’s the bizarre juxtaposition. Almost every town and village muddy main street is gaily decorated with ornamental lights strung from the power poles. I can imagine the meeting of the town councilors considering the priorities. “Will we patch up the shocking main street or deck the place out with bright lights just like the next door town”? Just like our very own councilors, they will vote for the lights to be like ‘Jonestown’ every time. Bling … the aphrodisiac of the poor.

Another thing of interest. I suspect Romania holds the world record for rubbish bins. Rubbish bins per head of population. Rubbish bins per square kilometer, gross rubbish bins – they will get the gold medal in every class. Bins hang from every power pole, stand on the sides and corners of every street and are provided by every business. Strangely, they are all empty. Furthermore, there is rubbish all over the place – as far as the eye can see. Paper, ciggy buts, plastic containers – it’s all out there waiting to be put into those bins. It does get me wondering. Who says we have to collect our rubbish if we happen to enjoy living with it spread all around? Isn’t this just another example of those who know best for us wasting both our time and money? When Flypaper scurries around sweeping up the leaves at home I sometimes put down my drink (and comic) and call out the window … “Leave them alone. They’ll go away by themselves pretty soon”. She never listens. Another thing … I hear locals here calling to each other as they walk about. I think they are saying, “Watch where you walk”. It’s a peculiar phenomenon all over the world that poor communities have lots of dogs … and these ones are not potty trained.

We passed through the region of Transylvania. You will know of it for one reason – the place made famous by Count Dracula. He’s the guy whose story is based on the role model of Vlad the Impaler. Vlad coined the phrase, “Revenge is sweet”. It seems he lived much of his life on a sugar high. I’m not going to tell you about Vlad except to say that in a popularity pole he would probably fit snuggly down among the politicians. This makes sense because he was one – although he wasn’t democratically elected. I will say however – and you can research this yourself – he could do amazing things with a greasy stick.

There is a serious rivalry between Hungary and Romania. It extends way beyond football, the size of their buildings and the size of their gross national debt. Each has depreciating jokes about the other. The Hungarians tell about Dracula. They say that he lived on the blood of virgins … but finally died of thirst. If you don’t get it, don’t worry. It’s in poor taste anyway.

The jewel of Romanian roading infrastructure is the Transfagarasan Highway. (Closely followed by the Transalpine Highway and a couple of others) I don’t accept the Transfagarasan is the worlds finest driving road … but it is up there. (Check it out on the interweb thing - http://www.losapos.com/transfagarasan ) It’s a road best enjoyed in a high value supercar. HeeHaw is no thoroughbred and not my steed of choice for this drive. On the other hand, a thoroughbred would not have made it where our good sturdy workhouse went today. It’s still too early in the summer for the road to be transited by the hoons but a few were out having a go in the snow. HeeHaw easily saw off a gaggle of Dacia’s, a Volvo and a couple of vans of unknown parentage. The most popular Dacia model is a ‘Logan’. I knew a Logan during my National Service period in the Army. One morning in his usual haste he wore his dress boots for a 25km route march. In fairness, it was always difficult to tell Logan’s good gear from his working clobber. He was constantly on report following parade thereafter. I don’t know what happened to Logan but these things don’t look good on ones CV and I suspect he made a fortune from being a scruff ignored by the establishment. I am reminded of Logan because the Dacia of the same name was the wrong thing to take on the Transfagarasan the day we were there. Heehaw’s high ground clearance, abundant torque, diff locks, meaty tyres and 4WD made it the beast to beat. In spite of the signage, we made it through the most spectacular section almost up to the summit at 2050 meters before 2 meter snow drifts and a blocked tunnel forced us to retreat around an alternate and worthy ‘scenic route’.

To Be Continued Soon

(in the next installment that sums up our thoughts about Eastern Europe)

Posted by Wheelspin 10:32 Tagged romania hungary bulgaria Comments (0)

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