Caucasus Journey XVI: Back in Istanbul

Monday, May 25, 2009
I arrived back in Istanbul yesterday, flying back from Van on Sunday morning. Now that I've had a day or so to get connected again to Istanbul I've put up photos from Kars and Van. The page takes, in some cases, a few minutes to load because I've posted so many photos over the course of this year. All the same, I think a lot of the photos from Kars and Van are really beautiful and invite people to check them out--scroll down about two-thirds down the page to find them more quickly.
It's good to be back in Istanbul. Just about wherever I've left over the course of this past week, I've been sorry to leave: Tbilisi, Kutaisi, Batumi, Kars, and the Turkish southeast were all places where I felt I could have spent at least a little more time. And now that I'm back in Istanbul with less than three weeks until I'm due to return to the US, I'm feeling a proactive sense of longing and sadness that I won't be here this summer.

Caucasus Journey XV: Visiting Van

Saturday, May 23, 2009
During the course of seven years living in Istanbul in the 1990s, I traveled very little to the east of Turkey. Sure, I'd been to Adıyaman in order to visit Nemrut Dağı, but instead of venturing further east had simply turned right and gone south, down to Hatay and İskenderun.
Partly it was because of the weather--I worked during the school year and had summers off, and didn't feel like baking in the 100 degree-plus temperatures that can be typical in the southeast in July and August. And frankly I wasn't very enthusiastic about visiting the east, and the southeast in particular, at a time when the PKK was a lot more active than it is today. But mainly I think that, since I was already spending the entire year in Turkey, I liked the idea of going someplace different in the summers. So usually in the summer I'd take my backpack and travel for five or six weeks through the Balkans, Central Europe, the former USSR, the Middle East, or some other place, and then take a quick ten days or so on the Aegean coast somewhere before starting work again at the end of September.
Thus, when I started thinking about how to get back to Istanbul this year after researching in Georgia for the past six weeks, it wasn't long before I began contemplating a visit to Kars and Van. Kars was attractive because I've been reading so much about Kars, and people from Kars, in my research over the past couple of years. And Van is a city I've wanted to see since my earliest days in Turkey when, visiting a friend's house, I saw photographs of Lake Van and first heard stories of the bizarre Van Cat, a (frequently) swimmer with one eye that's blue eye and another yellow.  

Van Cat in the water (not my photo)

Caucasus Journey XIV: In Kars

Wednesday, May 20, 2009 
On Tuesday (yesterday) I took a bus from Artvin to Kars. The trip was long--about six hours--and felt even longer because so much of it was on road that is under construction. Calling the surface washboard-like would really be too diplomatic.

Caucasus Journey XIII: From Tbilisi to Artvin

Tuesday, May 19, 2009
It's been a busy few days. My own fault of course. Rather than doing the sensible thing and flying directly from Tbilisi to Istanbul, I came up with the idea of traveling overland to Van, Turkey, then flying back to Istanbul from Van next Sunday. What can I say? I'm a sucker for stretching things out. 
The road back to Istanbul begins here
It was a beautiful morning in Tbilisi when I set off Saturday morning for Kutaisi. My landlady, Lalli, who lives in the apartment next door, came by with some snacks for the road, and then I took a taxi to the bus station. The taxi driver was a guy who'd taken me to the archive a few times, and when we arrived at the station he flagged down a marshrutka that was just pulling out. They were heading to Kutaisi, and stopped to pick me up.

Caucasus Journey XII: Last days in Georgia

Friday, May 15, 2009

These are my last days in Georgia, and I can't say I'm very happy about it. As is just about always the case, it's really a bummer to leave.

On Friday I spent my last day in the archive. I have to say, the Georgian Central Archives really impressed me. The director of the reading room is an 89 year-old woman named Christina who is about four feet tall, constantly wears a little white beret, and is sharp as a tack. She's stern--one day she really tore into someone (not me) who was secretly taking photos of documents with his camera phone (digital photos of docs cost about $3 per photo, so there's an obvious incentive for people to sneak their own). But she's also very nice. As is often the case in archives in the former Soviet Union, there are dozens of rules that inhibit things--here, for example, you're only allowed to order ten documents a day and the reading room is only open from eleven to four. But I tried to make up for the order limit by balancing requests for big files with small ones, and was lucky enough to receive permission to work from 10:30 to 5, so everything worked out fine.

The physical condition of the archive leaves a lot to be desired, even though the reading room was refurbished last August. While the temperature is quite warm on the street (in the low 20s, Celsius/in the 60s Fahrenheit), it's considerably colder in the reading room--that's the magic of Soviet architecture (I'm sure it's broiling hot in the summer, hotter than it is outside). In the mornings, I'd take a taxi to the archive wearing long underwear and a thermal shirt underneath a t-shirt. I'd wrap my computer in a sweater inside my shoulder bag, then break out the sweater after an hour or so inside the reading room. By the end of the day, my fingers would be stiff from the cold, and then I'd leave the archive at 5 and I'd see what a nice, warm, sunny day I'd been missing. By the time I got home (I'd take the subway back), I'd be more than a little sweaty from all of the layers I was wearing.

Borderland Roundup: this week's news and propaganda

Sunday, May 10, 2009

  • Yesterday, May 9, was a holiday in the countries of the former Soviet Union marking the end of the Second World War. The end of the war in Europe is celebrated on May 8 in western Europe and the United States, but because of time zone differences at the time in which Germany's surrender was concluded, the event is celebrated one day later in the lands of the former USSR.  

Tatar veteran at Victory Day celebrations in Kazan

Tensions rising in Tbilisi

May 7, 2009
Six policemen and several protesters were injured in a confrontation which took place outside the headquarters of the Tbilisi police department on Wednesday evening. The protesters had gathered outside the police station to protest the detention of three individuals who had been arrested on Tuesday for having assaulted Nika Avaliani, a news reader on a morning television program. The television studios where Avaliani works is one of three places in Tbilisi--along with the parliament building and the presidential residence--where protesters have been picketing since April 9.

Up until this week, the protests were mostly low-key and uneventful. But things seem to be heating up now.

Mutiny reported at base outside Tbilisi

May 5, 2009
A mutiny reportedly took place at a Georgian military base about six miles outside of Tbilisi this morning. According to a report in the New York Times, Georgian forces surrounded a tank that was accused of being part of the plot, with Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili entering the base to personally negotiate the unit's surrender. The base commander has apparently been arrested.

I'm not sure if this is correct or not, but I heard from a number of people this morning that major roads leading into and out of Tbilisi had been closed. 

The mutiny comes just a day before NATO exercises are to begin in Georgia. The exercises will be held from May 6 to June 3, and will include troops from
Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Georgia, Greece, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Serbia, Spain, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom and the United States.

Turkish roundup: this week's news and propaganda

Sunday, May 3, 2009
  • One of the biggest news stories from Turkey this past week was the holding of May Day demonstrations on Taksim Square for the first time since 1978. In 1977, a demonstration drawing tens of thousands of people ended in pandemonium when unknown assailants opened fire on the crowd, killing thirty-six individuals.
While public events were held on May 1, 1978 to commemorate the deaths which had occurred the previous year, public demonstrations were banned in Taksim on May Day in 1979 and 1980. After the military takeover of September 12, 1980, May 1 ceased to be an official public holiday in Turkey.

Taksim Square: site of one of the most notorious crimes in modern Turkish history, the 1977 massacre of 36 May Day demonstrators