Avoiding Natasha

I always know how to sniff out classy venues. Indeed, for my Turkish debut, I was determined to locate a real bona fide hotel, with running water, lockable doors and walls made of more than papier mache. The barbaric lands were behind me, I thought, and having crossed yet another border – marking the end of the old Soviet Union –¬† it was time to celebrate with a victorious doner kebab.

Here, Russki nyet – we’re back into the Turkic lands of long verb-endings and bizarre concepts of vowel harmony.

One of the gadzillion mini-buses lurking around the bus station ferried me to the main square where the driver eventually motioned for me to get out. Plenty of hotels by the mosque, the tout at the bus station had told me. You can’t miss them.

He wasn’t wrong. A blistering array of cheap-looking hotels assaulted me as I rounded the corner, withering under the weight of my pack. Some dry wafers had accompanied me from Batumi but I was ravenous – the sight of glorious hunks of lamb and chicken whirring around in front of a log fire looked devine. Tonight, gentlemen, we feast.

Almost by accident, I wandered into Hotel Evri. The poor boy on the desk looked astonished to see me in my big-haired, unshaven glory, and dashed out the back to summon assistance.

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Now the Easy Part…?

Sarpi: At the border looking into Turkey

Sarpi: At the border looking into Turkey

It may have been the inevitable downer after the sugar-high of an overdose on ice cream and frighteningly addictive Georgian cakes. It might have been the effects of dehydration after lugging my battered rucksack in a nightmare of perspiration from one end of Batumi to the other in search of the correct bus station. It just might have been the generous farewell vodkas I shared with Francesco and Romina as we bobbed our heads to the rhythm of unconvincing Russian pop on the beach the night before.

Whatever it was, my final morning in Georgia was tough going. The humidity was robbing my body of any chance of rehydration, and in my desperation I even downed a small bottle of the dreaded Borjomi, hoping its toted medicinal properties might kick in quick-smart. Sadly, no.

Although there are still a good few thousand miles to go, it’ll be good to get back to a Muslim country to dry out for a few days.

So then, Turkey. So strangely familiar, but still so, erm, deliciously exotic. Still the pleasing pear-shaped tea glasses I first encountered in Azerbaijan. Still the studied fixation with well-crafted moustaches. Still hundreds of dazzling silk headscarves. Still the hauntingly beautiful call to prayer ringing out over the city. And, before you asked, it’s still a mutton-based party here in Anatolia. Good job I indulged in a few pork shashlyk before hot-footing it to the avtovagzal and piling it across the border.

I’m not entirely sure what to expect from this stage of the journey. When I set off from Beijing, anything past the Caucasus seemed impossibly far away and comparatively so utterly convenient that it seemed foolish to start worrying about what to see, where to stay and what culinary delights to look out for. Suddenly, here I stand blinking at the bright lights of the periphery of Europe proper (despite what those Georgians claim – geography isn’t decided by the Eurovision Song Contest, chaps), drooling at the prospect of what I might find the other side of the Bosphorus.

I am also sans guidebook – Lonely Planet no longer has me in its warm- if slightly suffocating – embrace. Quite aside from lugging too many heavy guidebooks for thousands of miles, the reasoning was that once I’d made it this far, most of the hard work was already done – so once I arrive in Trabzon in a few hours I’ll be at the mercy of sharking taxi drivers looking to lodge me in a fiendishly expensive pensiyon.

I’m also rapidly running out of time – rhubarb waits for no man – and need to be in Istanbul in a few days.

Still, it’s a glorious run west from the Georgian border, with the Black Sea twinkling to my right, and mosques looming out of the sub-tropical vegetation on the hills to my left. Absolutely gorgeous.

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Stay out of the Rhubarb!

So, we know by now that China is the ‘barb’s home patch, and that it became a prized trade commodity on account of its incredible ability to maim, poison and prompt a thorough evacuation.

It passed through Russia, Central Asia and Europe, eventually landing in the US.

But was it afforded the respect it was due, having traveled all those thousands of miles?

I think not, dear reader.

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On the Black Sea at Batumi

Batumi: before the roadworks

Batumi: before the roadworks

Ah, I do like to be beside the seaside.

I’ve traveled thousands of miles through deserts, mountains and innumerable disgusting bus stations, and finally I find myself face to face with this charming east-west trending elliptical depression, perhaps more commonly known as the Black Sea.

Not quite the sandy paradise about which I had fantasised – the beach is a mass of huge black rocks on which hundreds of speedo-clad Georgians balance precariously, but at least all the rest of the paraphenalia is present.

That’s right. We’re talking overpriced cafes on the boulevard, ancient volleyball nets, curiously artistic sculptures and dog mess. As an extra added bonus, James Blunt blares out on the speakers wired up and down the ‘beach’, albeit a more chilled-out acoustic version, his heavier stuff clearly risked offending the more sensitive listeners.

So, this is last stop for Georgia, and it appears, last stop for Russian-speaking territory. Shame really – I have managed to acquire a fearsome restaurant vocabulary (thus breaking the stranglehold of shashlik on my diet – hah!) and my idle bus chit chat was becoming first class. How many children do YOU have, sir?

One final reason to press on: this part of Georgia – Adjara – is home to the most ridiculously greasy khachapuri of the lot. It tastes amazing – but you effectively age five years with every one of them you consume.

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borjomi“So what do you think of Georgia?”, I asked the pint-sized hirsute Armenian Lada driver we picked up on the border, who offered to drive us to Tbilisi for a sum so ludicrously small, that even the other taxi drivers laughed at him.
“Hmmmmm” he dithered over the wheezing engine, waving his hands around in a non-commital gesture to indicate that he was pretty non-plussed about the place. “The food is good” was his consolation.

This is true. This we know. This I have learnt, once again, as I sit here nursing an engorged belly stuffed with khachapuri, aubergine with walnut paste and the ubiquitous tomato and cucumber salad (sadly infiltrated once again with a fragrant parsley which makes the whole dish taste remarkably like soap).

However, the Georgians have certainly missed a trick when it comes to water.

Those of you up to date with the ins and outs of Georgia’s economy would know that the country’s number one export is mineral water, principally the Borjomi brand. (Their cheesy website has a fairly amusing flash intro whizzing you through the mountains of Samtskhe-Javakheti – check it out if you fancy a giggle).

They are fiercely proud of this product. It is the fabled mineral water that achieved legendary status throughout the Russian Empire (and its subsequent reincarnations) that is said to heal the sick, allow the blind to see, the lame to walk etc etc. Lenin was so keen on the stuff that he had it shipped all over the Soviet Union so that a glass of naturally carbonated mineral water from artesian springs was never too far away.

Lenin was clearly a very, very sick man, judging by his taste in beverages.

Regardless of its medicinal properties, Borjomi has a downright offensive taste. Salt, chlorine, silt and general fustiness battle it out among the bubbles, culminating in a taste so foul that it is actually remarkably challenging to keep a straight face.

When served straight out of the fridge it is atrocious, but at room temperature it is unequivocally vile.

Imagine a small basin of tap water that has remained untouched since the Soviet days; a rusty pipe from the soiled sanatorium upstairs has been allowed to drip its dubious contents into the basin for the last decade whilst the whole premises around it decayed. Next, Sergei piled in with a hundredweight of salt, and ran the whole basinful through a 1980s swimming pool filtration device. Throw some bubbles through it, slap it in a bottle and boom!

This is Borjomi. Get stuck in.

Yerevan: The Holy Grail?

Beating intense competition from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikstan, Afghanistan...

Beating intense competition from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikstan, Afghanistan...

I recall a conversation I had a a month or so ago with a few fellow hardy travellers, back in the bleak deserts of Uzbekistan. We had been talking for several hours in the searing heat, chomping on fresh bread with lashings  of local cherry and apricot jams, and putting away gallons and gallons of black tea served in the traditional Uzbek blue and white pots.

The topics of politics, religion, economics and language had all been exhausted – fine debates had taken place in the shade of the pomegranite trees, leading to a general triumph of self-discovery and securing those snippets of knowledge that are so hard to unearth without a meeting of uncommonly sage minds.

All intellectually challenging discussion thus dispensed with, one particularly base character proposed the next point for discussion:

“Where on this trip are we likely to find the best-looking women?”

We exchanged furtive glances and at once relaxed: lone, easily-offended female travellers were rare on the Rhubarb Rhoute, after all. For want for far more rewarding conversation, we elapsed into carefully considered opinions.

“I must say, the monobrow fascination among many Uzbek women is not really doing it for me”, proferred one hardy Scot.

“Surely it’s the Russians?”, one young German suggested – a suggestion which was rapidly shot down; general consensus was that they were not ‘native’, and were indeed as transient as we were with out Karrimor backpacks.

“Some of the women in Ashgabad had that forbidden Iranian look”, commented one Australian, whose general malnourished demeanour made it far too clear that he had been travelling for far too long.

“The girls in Istanbul. Beautiful!” added one Swiss-German, “And there are no veils or headscarves there.”

“I have to admit, whilst I’ve not yet made it to all these places”, began one silver-tongued Scandinavian, “there is no doubt in my mind that the women of Yerevan will not be beaten”.

Most of us sat around dumbfounded: Where was Yerevan again?, some asked. Why Armenians? others wondered.

I had no option but to test this hypothesis for myself. So it was off to the border for yet another visa, another long-distance mashrutka, and some serious field work – from a firmly intellectual standpoint, obviously – upon arrival.

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The Genius of Georgian Gluttony

Just oozing cheesy goodness

Just oozing cheesy goodness

Who came up with these things?

What a fantastic idea. Culinary genuis on a different scale – forget about your rice, pasta, bread, potatoes. If you’re searching for the carb-laden staple food of kings, the Georgians have it hands-down.

The humble khachapuri. Leavened bread stuffed with cheese, eggs and butter, served as slices of a steaming hot pie in one artery-busting cholesterol party.

These things are everywhere, served either as a standalone set-piece of a cheese feast or more generally as an accompaniment to other rich, gluttonous offerings.

Tremendous, but how on earth do Georgians ever finish their meals when even the smallest salad appears to be paired with a deep-pan cheese pizza?

Even my breakfast of succulent peach and melon slices suddenly found itself alongside a steaming plate of cheesy pancake slices – not exactly what I was looking for when still suffering from the effects of the deadly Chacha – but certainly enough to fill you up before squeezing yourself into the back of the next mashrutka.

And the more khachapuri you have, the harder the squeezing becomes.

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The Rhubarb Triangle

No doubt at some point over the past few weeks, as you have been feverishly awaiting the latest news from my trek across Eurasia in search of evidence of the marvellous rhubarb, it will have occurred to you just how tasty rhubarb actually is.

I’d imagine it has been a good few months, nay, years since your last slice of rhubarb and apple tart, but hey – doesn’t all this reading about the red stuff make your juices flow? Doesn’t it??

Well, dear reader, you may be motivated to pile down to Tesco and pick up a bunch of petioles, or maybe even mosey on over to your nearest farmers’ market and get your hands on the organic-tastic variety.

But for those looking to pimp their veggie patch, you’ll need to travel a little further. Introducing the Kobe Beef of the rheum world, the Rhubarb Triangle is where the sweetest and most succulent ‘champagne rhubarb’ is reputed to be found:

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Sampling the local produce

Vineyards, churches and tiled rooves: beautiful Sighnaghi

Vineyards, churches and tiled rooves: beautiful Sighnaghi

Crossing from Azerbaijan, the first stop is the Kakheti region, Georgia’s wine country.

I wasn’t expecting great things. My experiences with Azeri wine had been less than enjoyable – a sole bottle of Qiz Qalasi was slightly shy of being quaffable when accompanied with a vast local stew in Baku, but generally speaking, the wines I had managed to get hold of in this nominally Muslim country were positively undrinkable. Incredibly sweet, young wines, raping the palate and dishing out vicious hangovers before you’d even drained your glass.

So I was a little sceptical when Gamra, the owner of the fantastic homestay in Sighnaghi, presented two large carafes of home-made white wine as we sat down to a feast of khachapuri, endless varieties of Russians salads, stews, meats, and a hundredweight of bread.

Fiercely proud of his home brew, Gamra poured gallons of the stuff down our throats with an endless succession of carafes finding their way to our table. The evening was warm, and the wine tremendously cold and fruity. Plate after plate of aubergine, walnut paste and olives appeared, and we soon elapsed into a collective food and wine coma. Gamra was not content on leaving things there, however, and he ‘encouraged’ us to bring the evening to a close with the Georgian rocket fuel Chacha.

By the evening’s conclusion, my tasting notes I had so earnestly filled in hours before were soon lost under a splodges of mayonnaise, khachapuri grease and tea stains.

I sadly cannot provide any faithful report on the quality of Gamra’s home-made plonk: but it’s certainly pretty punchy.

What a cliche. I celebrate my return to the Christian world by partaking in an almighty drinking session with Georgian winemakers.

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