Across Continents

Ken's Blog

In Bishkek

June 11th, 2010

In Bishkek from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Ken describes the situation in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s Capital, a few months after the public uprising and removal of the former President.


Georgia on my mind

May 4th, 2010

“Other arms reach out to me
Other eyes smile tenderly
Still in peaceful dreams I see
The road leads back to you
Oh Georgia”

Ray Charles

Georgia is a unique, complex country. And a rapidly developing one. Not so many years ago you needed an escort to drive from the Turkish border along the Black Sea coast. Today there’s just potholes and cattle to contend with. In Batumi I’d seen international hotels opening up, entire new water infrastructure being installed. But it’s still a relatively poor nation, a typical monthly salary perhaps just a few hundred pounds. There’s quite a bit of unemployment, and begging does occur, although its not as commonplace as in some countries I’ve passed through.

People seem pleased that state institutions like the Police, those can have real impact on daily life, are now regarded as free of corruption. Municipal elections take place shortly, with international observers present. I’ll await their verdict with interest. After all, its not just about being able to put a cross on a ballot paper, you have to believe you can place it wherever you want.

I’d noticed parallels with the Balkans. Shifting borders, difficult, sometimes antagonistic, relationships with neighbouring countries. A varied ethnic mix. Almost unfathomable to an outsider. But if the politics seems difficult to grasp, there’s Georgian economics to contend with. Incomes for most are low, almost paltry, yet expensive cars are relatively commonplace. True, in the transition from Communism, the State has given people the houses, the apartments, they occupied. For free. In Tbilisi property values have typically risen by a thousand percent in just a few years. But, for the most part, these are paper increases, unrealisable for most.

A badly distorted free market economy, or just a gigantic property bubble? Whatever the answer, the practical, if slightly bizarre, implication is that houses in some of the Capital’s most expensive districts – quite unaffordable to most Westerners – are in need of much repair or renovation, but the owners simply lack the funds.

Europe or Asia? A question that has often evoked very passionate responses, compelling arguments on both sides. The most persuasive answer reflects the uniqueness of Georgia, a nation separated from undisputed Europe to the north and the certainty of Asia to the south, by, respectively, the Greater and Lesser Caucasus Ranges. Neither quite Europe or quite Asia, perhaps best described as simply Georgian. And of the different ethnicities, broadly split between European and Asian in appearance? Being one of the most invaded nations in history probably accounts for that.

Whatever the politics, the economics of Georgia, the people are immensely warm and hospitable, their generosity humbling. And justifiably proud of their nation. I’d met someone who’d been educated in western Europe, intelligent, very articulate, and had asked if she’d like to return there? No, she said, life here could be tough, but this was her home, where she belonged. I admired her for that.

Georgia is also a very beautiful country, the truly impressive Greater and Lesser Caucasus Ranges bordering the country to the north and south, steep wooded mountainsides contrasting with wide open plains sandwiched between them. Vast tracts of unspoiled countryside.

A unique, complex country. And one I plan to return to once my venture is complete, to explore more, intrigued to see how much it has changed politically and economically. But, much as I’ve hugely enjoyed my time in Georgia, there’s no getting away from the fact that the driving here is the most appalling I’ve ever seen. Breathtakingly terrible.

[The author would like to thank the countless individuals who have made his time in the Republic of Georgia such an enjoyable, interesting and rewarding experience. Thank you]


Under occupation

May 1st, 2010

"Georgia is one of the most invaded nations on earth" advises the Department of Tourism and Resorts. Most recently by Russian Federation forces in August 2008. The war was swift – just five days – before a ceasefire was agreed. Whilst the conflict no doubt helped make people more aware of Georgia, what is often not appreciated is that it remains an occupied nation, in part at least.

Russian forces control a swathe of land in central Georgia, north of the M27 east-west arterial road that links the Capital Tbilisi with Turkey and eastern Europe. South Ossetia. Travelling from Gori eastwards to the Capital, there are few clues as to the occupation, and of the recent conflict. No obvious fortifications on either side, no bomb damaged buildings, no menacing tanks. Just a European Union Monitoring Mission field office in Gori, part of the ceasefire arrangements.

Whatever the merits of the recent conflict, there is an inevitable human cost. Getting some measure of the impact on families – presumably some are split between the occupied and unoccupied territories – is difficult, my Georgian very limited at best. But what is certain is that there are quite a few people displaced by the war, obliged to live in newly built communities.

I’d found one of these settlements on the outskirts of Gori, and spotted others on my way towards Tbilisi. Hard to recognise as such, these are not tented encampments but neatly built single storey houses. Admittedly quite small, but, ironically, appearing far better than many of the other houses I’d seen.

Do I feel threatened, concerned the conflict may re-ignite, suddenly finding myself trapped? Not at all, the situation feels very stable, indeed, you have to look very carefully for clues as to the occupation. It’s certainly not a reason to not visit Georgia, and I wouldn’t hesitate to return. Far from it, plan to come back when my venture is complete.


Stalin’s birthplace

May 1st, 2010


I’d made good time to Gori, birthplace of Joseph Stalin, keen to secure Emma and the kit and visit the museum dedicated to the town’s most well-known son. Decided to opt for the best hotel in town, sixty euros online or considerably less if you turn up and pay in Georgian Lari. Took a while to find, and I’d balked at paying extra for breakfast so that got thrown in for free. Worn carpets, but friendly staff and a hot shower. I’d noticed the old Intourist hotel in the centre, but I didn’t feel up to the authentic Soviet era experience.

Reaching the Stalin Museum mid-afternoon, quite a few people were wandering around the grounds, mostly Georgians, the odd German or American tourist. But, it seemed, I was the only one to venture in. The exhibition rooms had to be unlocked so I could enter. Dark and austere, the many photographs of a smiling ’Uncle Joe’ failed to raise the sobre mood within. I was tempted to take a few photos but I’d a minder close by.

Stalin house

Emerging back into the warm afternoon sun, a brief look at the house where Stalin was supposedly born, now transported into the museum’s grounds. More a shrine than a monument.


Reflections on Turkey

April 10th, 2010

I might have tired of Istanbul, but not of Turkey and its people. Waiting at the city’s airport for my flight east, my rudimentary Turkish still a bit rusty, an elderly chap, overhearing my efforts at ordering a coffee, helpfully explained that ’thank-you’ was in fact tesekkur ederim (pronounced teshekoor ederim), not merci. I thanked him, properly this time. My plane delayed into Istanbul by bad weather, it was late when I eventually reached my hotel in Trabzon. I was greeted at reception by Sena. She’d remembered me from my earlier stay with my Dad. This was much more like it.

The journey back east had given me plenty of opportunity to reflect on Turkey, and what it was to be Turkish. A strong national identity for a start. The military given equal prominence on television with the politicians. You sensed political satire was still in its infancy, and criticism of Ataturk, founding father of the modern Turkish nation, would be ill-advised. YouTube had apparently hosted a few offending clips and, despite their prompt removal, a court order blocked access to the entire site for a couple of weeks.

Authoritarian undertones? The male predilection for dark clothes certainly adds a Kafkaesque feel, but no, just different boundaries to our own, and certainly not oppressive. In fact the military would probably argue, with some justification, that they have only ever sought to protect the constitution from wayward governments attempting to undermine or erode its tenets.

But things are changing, the balance of power gently shifting towards the democratically elected administration, as tolerance by the Armed Forces of the recent arrests of senior military officers for their alleged part in an suspected coup plot would seem to demonstrate. Either way, a strong Turkey is no bad thing, providing a buffer between Europe and more turbulent nations further east. But I doubted if much of this ever had much of an impact on the lives of ordinary people. It just flickered by in the news bulletins.

Fact is I’d been made very welcome, from the moment I’d stopped to get my bearings in Edirne, my first day in Turkey. Back then, Nadir and Beckant had approached me, keen to show me their home city. They’d been Tugba in Istanbul, Zehra and her friends along the Black Sea coast, Yaren, Ali and Sena in Trabzon. And so many people in the villages who’d so often dragged me off the road, plying me with sweet, warm Turkish tea. Couldn’t ask for more. But now it was time to see what Georgia had to offer.

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