Sunday, April 25, 1999

Memories of a land

Memories of a land I found disappointingly homogenous and unexotic, apart from this one mountain place called Kosovo


Years ago, before nationality had become a reason to be killed there, I travelled through Yugoslavia as a naive backpacker.

For most of the time, one was only vaguely aware of the fact of multi- ethnicity. There were those who called themselves Serbs and those who called themselves Croats, but everybody knew that such vestigial differences were preserved mainly as quaint relics of the Ottoman empire - partly to amuse tourists and partly to perpetuate the Communist myth that the Yugoslavs were a voluntary union of disparate ethnic groups.

Disparate ethnic groups? If only! Yugoslavs, as far as I could see, had turned into modern Europeans whose national language was Serbo-Croat. If anything, in fact, they looked drearily homogenous. Under the mighty walls of Diocletian's Palace in Split I found housewives buying fish wrapped in newspapers. In the cobbled backstreets of old Belgrade I saw office workers in raincoats. There was nothing "ethnic" in sight.
The irony was that, as a tourist, I could have done with a few sharp differences between the ethnic groups. Why ever would I want all those endless old Communists in trilbies when I could have had - say - a warring hotchpotch of swarthy Montenegrins, moustachioed Serbs and feuding Albanians instead?

On only one tantalising occasion did the Yugoslavia I had been hoping for show its face. In the middle of a long bus journey over the mountains between Dubrovnik and Skopje (now in the independent state of Macedonia), we stopped for a break at the local equivalent to a motorway service station.

It was the dead of night and bitterly cold. Walking into the bar, I expected to find, at best, a fat Eastern European truck driver or two on a vodka break. Instead I seemed to step through a time warp. At dozens of small tables were sitting crowds of furtive men in black hats playing cards and drinking Turkish coffee. Oriental music wailed through the cigarette smoke. Where on earth was I? The last thing I knew I had been boarding a bus in European Dubrovnik. Suddenly I had landed in an orientalist's fantasy world.
Here at last was plain evidence of Yugoslavia's multi-ethnic identity: exotic, diverse, colourful. Just what I always wanted. It was only a few days later that I discovered we had been driving through a place called Kosovo.

Just hop on the bus to Kashgar

Just hop on the bus to Kashgar

He could have flown there. But to Jeremy Atiyah, crossing the Karakoram Highway in a bus sounded like much more fun
Jeremy Atiyah 
Sunday, 25 April 1999
In the 1930s, the journalist Peter Fleming took five months traipsing overland to Kashgar from Peking, and then, once he was there, he just spent his days reading ancient copies of The Times that had been carried over the 15,400ft (4,700m) Khunjerab Pass by six-week donkey-treks from British India.
Surely these days it couldn't be that much fun getting to Kashgar? From Peking you can fly there in a day. Even the Karakoram Highway from Islamabad, Pakistan, built right across that same Khunjerab Pass, can be covered by bus in less than four days. If you agree with Sir Aurel Stein, who at the beginning of the century was already dismissing the trip across the pass as an "excursion for the ladies", the expedition to Kashgar might seem hardly worth the bother. Unless you really want to go to Kashgar, that is.
The fact that buses now ride over the pass does not however mean that the journey is entirely safe or adventure-free. The road, still the only land-route allowing public transport from China to the Indian subcontinent, suffers frequent earthquakes and landslides and is closed from November to May each year. Even when the road is open, falling rocks pose a constant danger. A soft option? I decided to try it for myself.
The first day, boarding the bus at Rawalpindi in the plains of the northern Punjab, I felt so horrifically hot at 8am that it was quite impossible to believe I was going somewhere cold. Even after we had started climbing into grassy hills, my clothes continued to engage in nuclear fusion with the plastic seat.
At first brilliant green, then progressively more barren, the scenery gradually contorted itself into the hot, gloomy Indus gorge, where we spent the entire afternoon suspended halfway up cliff-faces with the black river below and boulders menacing from above. Meandering on and on up the gorge towards Gilgit, we drove late into the night.
By the time I awoke in Gilgit the next morning, the heat of the plains had dissipated into a cool drizzle. I found myself drinking apricot milkshakes for breakfast in the company of Japanese backpackers. Mountains loomed through low mists. Horizontally, I was already halfway to Kashgar - but vertically I was barely one third of the way up to the Khunjerab Pass.
The next (vertical) 4,900ft (1,500m) required a second bus-journey through the Hunza valley to the Pakistani frontier-post at Sust. I sat with cheerful Punjabi traders riding to China. The way was lined by pot-bellied scree slopes, wobbling thousands of metres up into the clouds. Down below, grey expanses were interspersed with fertile terraces, wet fields and orchards, reminders of civilisation under the wildernesses above.
The bus filled with mustachioed men smelling of wood-smoke and wearing flat felt hats. Nobody spoke anybody else's language. Locked in by mountains, the area of Hunza has become a veritable Tower of Babel, a confusion of Wakhi, Barushaski, Shina and other ancient tongues. But these mountain people weren't going to China, they were just hopping on and off for short rides up the valley; when I arrived at Sust, the bus had emptied to a sinister extent. At over 9,800ft (3,000m), this was the end of Pakistan, the end of the subcontinent: dark, swept by freezing wet winds, a place to bunker by the hurricane-lamp and play cards with American college kids.
The next morning everything went to pot. At Pakistani emigration on the edge of town, I joined the American backpackers mingling with Chinese Muslims returning from Mecca. Under pelting rain and ominous black skies we queued up to be stamped out of Pakistan.
The scenery along the road up to the pass was like a vision of Hell. We crept under threatening cliff-faces. Shattered rock shut out the sky and stretched up to leering peaks. It was inevitable. The rain had rendered the road unsafe. Our driver kept having to slam on the brakes to avoid sliding rocks. The time had come for all of us to reflect on the fact that Khunjerab means "River of Blood".
After an hour we were practically falling off the cliff in our driver's increasingly desperate attempts to get the bus past fallen rocks. Impasse was inevitable: trapped both in front and behind by piles of rock - and in constant danger of being hit by flying debris - we were about to get stuck on the Karakoram Highway.
Rescue, several hours later, involved an ignominious walk back to Sust in a blizzard. The Pakistani traders remained good-humoured. The college kids and I discussed hot showers and plates of fried noodles. The Chinese Muslims, fresh from Saudi Arabia, plodded through the snow in their sandals.
Well, at least Peter Fleming's five- month journey was beginning to look a little more credible. For the next three days we lodged in Sust, exploring the tiny villages of the valley, before setting off for a renewed assault on the River of Blood.
Second time lucky. Riding through the rocky gorge, we made it this time to the top of the pass, where we entered a newer, brighter world. A frozen white river ran through a valley nudged by glaciers; pastureland appeared through melting ice. In silence we crossed the highest point, marked by a stone decorated with a red star. We had entered the People's Republic of China.
We inched into a vast bright plain grazed by yaks and camels and rimmed by mountains. Drowsy from altitude sickness, I seemed to be floating above the mountains. The first Chinese checkpoint soon disturbed this dream: two wild-eyed teenage soldiers, who must have done something very bad to get posted here, entered the bus counting heads. They stood awhile smoking, further depleting the oxygen in the bus.
And then it was on to the next night-stop at Tashkurgan. Here, the Pakistani traders suddenly appeared at Chinese customs dressed in ladies' fur coats, hats and gloves, presumably insisting that they were transvestite tourists rather than smugglers. Apart from the daily sprinkle of travellers, Tashkurgan must be the loneliest place on earth, a frozen crossing-place. At night, I found Tadjikis, Uigurs, Chinese and Pakistanis sitting in the dark, drinking and thinking of other worlds.
Another day, another bus - this time the bus to Kashgar. We spiralled down, past the fissured flanks of Mount Muztagata and along the banks of icy Lake Karakul surrounded by pale green pastureland. Further on, bare dunes of sand and gravel snaked in the wind, before our descent turned precipitous. Far away a warm, green valley came into view.
The mountains were receding behind us. In no time I felt the heat of old Chinese Turkestan. We were already passing men in skullcaps, poplar woods, donkey carts, rice plantations and mud-built houses.
Had it all been too easy then? Perhaps it had - except that our bus was about to fall apart, 24 long miles short of Kashgar. Another night on the road beckoned. Kashgar, it seemed, was still one of the world's most remote cities.
Return flights to Islamabad with Pakistan International Airlines (tel: 0171-499 5500) cost pounds 655, plus tax, until 14 June. Return flights to Islamabad with British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) cost from pounds 567 return, including tax.
Explore Worldwide (tel: 01252 760000) offers an 18-day guided tour for pounds 1,145, including return flights, transfers, transport, tent and b&b hotel accommodation, and a guide. Departing 8 May, the tour takes in Peshawar, the Khyber Pass, the Kalash Kafirs, Hunza, and the old caravan trail on the Karakoram Highway.
UK nationals must have a visa for travel to Pakistan and China. Embassy of Pakistan, 35 Lowndes Square, London SW1X 9NJ (tel: 0171-235 2044). Embassy of the People's Republic of China, 49-51 Portland Place, London W1N 3AH (tel: 0171-636 9375).

Sunday, April 11, 1999

Stay a while in Stalin country

Stay a while in Stalin country

Jeremy Atiyah is seduced by the beauty of Georgia, once the Tuscany of the USSR, now fallen on hard times
Jeremy Atiyah 
Sunday, 11 April 1999
The Caucasus seem to be more metaphor than mountain: The wild place on the edge of the world. The barrier between Christian Europe and Islamic Asia. The corridor to the exotic south. The oriental inspiration for two centuries of Russians - from romantic poets, bums and adventurers, to traders, imperialists and militarists. But what a place to be born.
Frequent, devastating earthquakes throughout recorded history have been bad enough, never mind the clash of empires. How can it possibly be that anything up to 100 tiny nations of people still inhabit these mountains, jammed in between the Black and Caspian Seas? Georgians, Tatars, Chechens, Ossetians, Azerbaijanis, Mingrelians, Khevsurs, Armenians, Abkhazians, Svans, Ajarans, Pshavs, Kakhetians... no wonder people have dreamt of squashing this chaos. Soviet Man and Soviet Woman would have been so much simpler.
But I found it hard to imagine a more attractive country than the former Soviet republic of Georgia, dropping from the peaks of the southern Caucasus down to the Black Sea. Along with neighbouring Armenia it had been a Christian state for longer than Rome. It still retained its unique language and alphabet, relics from the ancient world. It had been cut off from the rest of Europe by the withering away of Byzantium - and yet had miraculously survived to the modern age as a tiny independent state.
Better still, until 10 years ago, this had been the Costa del Sol and the Tuscany of the Soviet Union rolled into one. Millions of Russians came annually to enjoy the Black Sea beaches, the mountain scenery, the spicy cuisine. Georgians were known in Moscow as the Italians of the USSR: open, child-like people, good lovers, who knew how to relax, who drank good wine rather than gut-burning vodka, who painted eccentric frescoes in their churches. Never mind that this little nation of bon viveurs had also produced Stalin, the greatest killjoy of them all. In the end, Georgia was the one republic that ordinary Russians missed after the collapse of their empire.
But had it yet become a place where you or I would take a holiday? Georgia may have reminded the Russians of Italy, but when I arrived last week it reminded me more of Russia. There were the whiffs of cheap tobacco and dodgy exhaust systems; there were the leather jackets, the potholes, the beggars in headscarves, the constant power cuts. As in Russia, the only people earning real money appeared to be "businessmen" and racketeers.
I was staying with a family in Tbilisi where luxury or privacy were not on the agenda, but where good humour, deep intelligence and drunkenness probably were. My host, Merab Gogberashvili - a theoretical physicist and former chess champion - told me that he lived off a negative salary. But was he an optimist? "Of course I am," he retorted. "Only a pessimist would imagine that things could possibly be worse than this."
Had this country of music and blood feuds sunk so low? In fact Tbilisi still shows its character, even in these sad times. Walking along Rostaveli Avenue in the centre of town I found beautiful people, busy cafes, mature trees on the pavements and European 19th-century plaster facades above shop windows. Under the castle fortress overlooking the Mtkvari River, I saw village greenery, shanties, painted house fronts, rickety balconies and staircases, puffs of smoke from chimneys. Church towers and minarets pierced the skyline below the mountains. Only maintenance was lacking: around the mosque I noticed a house that had fallen in half - a chicken was strolling the exposed living room floor. "Such are the remnants of our civilisation," commented Merab gloomily.
To a degree, he exaggerated. In the Museum of Fine Arts in downtown Tbilisi I found a series of stunning icons and pieces of jewellery dating from the 4th to the 19th centuries, the repository of Georgia's nationhood in gold and silver. In 1921 Lenin had ordered this dangerous treasure to be destroyed; against all odds, a local hero, one Ekvtime Takaishvili, had managed to spirit it all away to Paris instead. In 1945, having survived the Nazi occupation of France, it was returned to Tbilisi under the supervision of General de Gaulle and that other local hero, Stalin.
Merab took me for a drive out of town to show me more evidence of Georgia's enduring spirit. As we drove west, the main Caucasus range - a land of eternal snow - soon came into view on our right: no fewer than five 5,000m peaks lie within the borders of this tiny country. On the roadside, we passed fresh grapes. Vines alternated with grassy meadows; shepherds with bear-like dogs watched over their flocks. But the fruit orchards for which this country was once famous were now overgrown and neglected: the vast Russian market, which Georgia once supplied with apples and apricots, has ceased to exist.
As I later discovered, there can be advantages to economic catastrophe. The quality of the Georgian diet, for example. At home, Merab was constantly serving me exquisite home-produced wine, honey, yoghurt, cheese, bread, tea and sausage as well as all sorts of vegetables. Why waste money on buying food when you can make it yourself? The local ecology has also benefited from the cessation of industry (except insofar as the shortage of fuel forces people to cut down trees to use as firewood).
We drove into Mtskheta, the spiritual heart of Georgia, where the country's biggest church guards the junction between the roads to Europe and to Russia. For centuries the road north over the mountains from here - the Russians call it the Georgian Military Highway - has been the sole land route linking Moscow with Persia, Arabia, India and the rest of the Trans-Caucasian world. No wonder the towering vaulted church ceilings, the suns with rays like spears, the bull-heads on the gate posts, and the curiously irregular niches and buttresses have acquired such mystic significance for the people of Georgia.
Another 30 miles to the west of Mtskheta lies another town of almost as much spiritual significance for Georgia: Gori, the birthplace of one Josef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, better known as the Man of Steel - Stalin. It was curious to drive into the only town in the whole of the former USSR where a gigantic statue of the great dictator still stands in the centre of town. We approached down Stalin Street, towards Stalin Park. A fragile spring sun shone on to streets lined by blossoming trees and low brick buildings. Suddenly a huge structure of Oxford stone loomed up, surrounded by colonnaded walkways: the Stalin Museum.
With growing incredulity I mounted a grand staircase along a red carpet to a booted statue of the man himself, in white marble. Stained glass windows added a religious dimension. This was not a museum, but a museum of a museum. There had been no reconstruction here, not even a hint of perestroika.
I walked past pictures of Stalin as a boy, and as a trainee in the seminary ("Stalin later had all his fellow trainees murdered," Merab told me). I passed poems that Stalin wrote about the moon and the mountains, from the time when his soul had not yet turned to steel. I saw Stalin as a rugged, rather handsome young man, attempting to organise the failed 1905 revolution, largely financed by Germany as a means of toppling the Tsar's empire. (Ironically for Germany, their objective was eventually achieved with all too much success. Forty years later, Stalin's armies occupied Berlin.)
As a Georgian, could Merab feel proud of Stalin? "Certainly not," he told me. "But I am not particularly ashamed of him either. Lenin, Trotsky and the rest: they were all destroyers. Only Stalin was working to build something. Of course he built it with slave labour. But he made the USSR into a great power. And the man spent nearly 50 years living in the Kremlin. You try to match that."
According to my host Merab, Georgia's excellent record in producing dictators springs from the traditional role of Toast-Maker, or tamada, which socially ambitious young Georgians are required to practise: to rule, dominate and control a table of drunk Georgians, you need to develop special skills. These were skills which Stalin later brought to bear on 200 million subjects.
Later, in the grounds of the museum, I visited Stalin's cottage (now canopied by a Greek temple-style structure) and Stalin's train carriage, a 19th-century model, made in England, with an interior of polished wood. The main compartment had Persian carpets, armchairs and heavy curtains. Was this where Stalin planned world history while eating his home-made yoghurt? "Perhaps," cautioned Merab. "But don't forget what we used to say about the USSR. This is the only country in the world with an unpredictable history."
The next day I took a bath in one of Tbilisi's famous sulphuric springs in the Islamic part of town to ponder over that history. After lounging in the sulphurous smelling water for a few minutes, I was suddenly ordered to lie face down, naked, on a slab by a masseur, who jumped up on my back and began wrenching my arms and legs, before tossing buckets of boiling water over me. Shades of Stalin?
"Cheers!" As if from nowhere, Merab suddenly whipped out a couple of large plastic bottles. We wrapped ourselves in sheets and sat perspiring in the steam room, laughing over home-made beer and eating salty, oily fish with our fingers. This, I believe, was how the Georgians were meant to live their lives.
Jeremy Atiyah flew with Swiss Air (tel: 0171-434 7300), which flies to Tbilisi from Zurich on Wednesdays and Saturdays for pounds 353.80 including taxes.
Interchange (tel: 0181-681 3612) offers three nights in Tbilisi, including flights from London Heathrow, transfers and half-board accommodation staying with families costs pounds 495. With a three-day excursion up the Georgian Military Highway the total price comes to pounds 699, based on two sharing.
Apply in writing to the Georgian Embassy, 3 Hornton Place, London W8 4LZ.