Sunday, August 29, 1999

Is a holiday in Turkey after the earthquake such an appalling idea?

Is a holiday in Turkey after the earthquake such an appalling idea?

Some people have asked me whether it can possibly be a good idea to go on holiday to Turkey at the moment. Will it not be in the most appalling bad taste to go in search of sun and fun to a country where hundreds of thousands of people are in a state of mourning for their dead ones, and camping out in the rain beside the ruins of their homes?

I suppose the answer has to be yes. Before leaping in to snap up the latest bargain break to Turkey I would ask myself whether there wasn't something deeply unpleasant about capitalising on a drop in demand for Turkish holidays caused by an earthquake which had killed thousands of people. It would look as though my gain were the result of other people's pain.

Except, of course, that it wouldn't be. My gain would be the result of other holiday-makers choosing to visit, say, the Canaries instead of Turkey this autumn. And whose fault would that be? If nobody took holidays in countries which had problems, I doubt anyone would ever visit anywhere in the world, except for possibly Switzerland or New Zealand.

The people who are deserting Turkey out of respect for the dead may be causing far more pain for a country which relies so heavily on revenue from international tourism. The Turkish government itself is keen to point out that the popular coastal resort areas were not affected by the quake, so there can be no self-interested excuse for cancelling your holiday.

I think that wraps up the taste question - as long as you behave yourself while you are there. But perhaps that is the crux of the matter. It is a drag having to look respectful and sombre while on holiday. And it is difficult to guess the mood in the bars of Bodrum and Kusadasi. Perhaps the English are still getting drunk and the Dutch are still doing funny dances and the Germans are still taking their clothes off. But perhaps not. Perhaps the local people are in trauma. Perhaps the ambience is too depressing for northern Europeans who have just worked for 48 weeks in order to spend a fortnight living in total carefree freedom.

No. I fear that if you want to insulate yourself from other people's worries, then even the Canaries won't do the job. Tenerife has CNN as well. Perhaps you need to take a holiday from the world itself. And I am not thinking of a fortnight in the Mir space station.

Sunday, August 15, 1999


The TV presenter takes the tough with the luxurious, from cobras' hearts to bath tub panoramas


The most exotic stamp in my passport is from Papua New Guinea. I went up to a village in the highlands of the interior. It was a place where we look just as exotic to the locals as they do to us - and they are wearing wigs made out of their own hair entwined with bird of paradise feathers. They look quite fiercesome but they treated me well. I was the first white woman to stay there - they dressed me in a grass skirt and painted my face and asked me to join in a local celebration. I regarded that as a privilege.

There is a huge difference between local people suggesting I join some activity and a TV director pushing me into something. I am conscious of the fine line between sampling the local culture and dressing up in silly costumes. I will not do anything that my director and producer are not willing to do themselves.

One of the less pleasant things I did for TV was to dine in a snake restaurant in Vietnam. You had to choose your own snake from a tank - I went for a cobra. The difficult part was being presented with the drained blood of the creature decanted into a glass with alcohol. I was then served the snake's heart, still warm and beating. I had to pick it up with my chop-sticks, drop into the glass of blood and alcohol, and down it in one. My director got the gall-bladder. I was in no position to complain or protest - after all, we were being treated to great luxury.

On filming trips I do everything, from the ridiculously opulent to the extremely tough. My favourite hotel was probably in Vancouver, where one wall of my 20th-floor room was made of glass. I took a bath in the window overlooking the city.

Some people assume that when filming in less comfortable circumstances (a tent in the Andes for example), we get air-lifted off to five-star hotels every night. In fact, it's very important that we do stay in those places, so we know what we are talking about. And so I can be filmed waking up at dawn on some freezing hillside.

I've never lost my passport but a while ago I made the mistake of having my married name put into my passport and forgetting to tell my office about it. They bought all my tickets for a filming trip across America and the Pacific in the wrong name. Travelling with your tickets and passport in different names is no joke: there was a huge panic to get all the tickets changed at the last minute.

Other than that, the only mistake I've made was to travel to Germany on an expired passport. I was in a panic about how I was going to get home, but in the end they didn't even bother to look inside my passport. Strange, because I must have had such a guilty look on my face. I'd never make a criminal.

Having said that, I did once inadvertently carry some coca leaves back into the UK, which could theoretically have been used to make cocaine. We had been shooting in Peru, where I had brewed coca leaves before a trek, in the local custom. It never occurred to me that there would be any harm in bringing a few leaves back with me.

Anna Walker is presenting `Holidaymaker' today at 7pm on ITV.

Sunday, August 8, 1999

All the repose of 1,000 miles in a city square

All the repose of 1,000 miles in a city square

The passage across India is a journey everyone must make, writes Jeremy Atiyah
Jeremy Atiyah 
Sunday, 8 August 1999
It was something that every sane and rational human being had to do once in their lifetime: cross the Indian subcontinent, from Lahore to Kathmandu. That was what a guru told me in 1983. He had long hair and spoke more slowly than weeds grow. But he lived in a coffee shop in Freak Street, and I was inclined to agree with him.
I was only 20 at the time and had completed the journey in question, which helped. I had also just had a meal of muesli, chocolate cake, spaghetti bolognese, lemon meringue pie, red wine, lamb chops and cappuccino. Mogul monuments were all very well but, when it came to home cooking, Kathmandu was tops.
My pilgrimage had begun two months earlier in the rain in Lahore, a city containing Aurangzeb's Bedshahi Mosque, as well as the tombs of Jehangir and Nur Jehan, but not the barest whiff of lemon meringue pie. Instead I ate biryanis in the railway station, plotting routes to Delhi.
Lahore and Amritsar were barely 60 miles apart, but the journey took hours. The border into India was marked by gangs of uniformed men on either side of a road, spitting at the thought of each other. My passport was stamped so viciously by one official that a table leg cracked. I arrived in Amritsar and walked all day amid mud and flies before arriving, bewildered, at a hotel guarded by a man with a scimitar.
At night I slept with frogs croaking under the bed. When the fan stopped turning, I stopped sleeping. For breakfast I drank tea so sweet that it made me retch; only by telling myself I was drinking a form of hot chocolate did I learn to swallow it. But then there were the cool marble and still waters of the Golden Temple of the Sikhs: the repose of a thousand miles confined to a city square.
If Amritsar was hot, what would Delhi be like? I spent a night queuing for a ticket on the daytime train and then fell unconscious with tiredness. On arrival I found Delhi railway station so full of rigid sleeping bodies, I could not avoid them. It didn't matter. The city was asleep. Outside, only the deranged and the all-night barbers stayed on two feet.
In the morning I took a tour of Delhi, which cost pounds 1, including lunch. I didn't know where they were taking me, because I didn't understand the commentary. The Red Fort. The Mahatma's Memorial. The Qutb Minaret. And all of India in between. The lunch was good though.
Back then, New Delhi was a quiet place. Connaught Place was empty and losing its paint. Old Delhi, with its teeming millions and rickshaw traffic jams, was the centre of life. But it was monsoon season. With black storms beating on the trees, I lay by an open window, reading train timetables and histories of the Moguls. I understood neither.
From Delhi I travelled east along the Ganges plain. The land was all aflood. Palm trees were knee-deep in the rice paddies. On the train I was drip-fed sweet tea in small clay cups passed through the window bars. The city of Patna, when I got there, resembled a leprosy camp. I spent a day roaming the bandit territory of northern Bihar, asking people for the bus to Kathmandu.
The border post to Nepal was lit by candles. The official conducted his business in Y-fronts; he asked if I would promise to send him a letter. I spent a night on the border, under a mosquito net that prevented the mosquitoes inside from getting out. Who cared? The next night, if all went well, I would feast on lemon meringue pie and buffalo steak.

A nation of survivors

A nation of survivors

Armenians suffered centuries of massacres and oppression, but now their land is their own, reports Jeremy Atiyah
Jeremy Atiyah 
Sunday, 8 August 1999
What bad luck! To have been born between two such big and unfriendly powers and in a chronic earthquake zone to boot! I'm talking about the peoples of Mount Ararat. All but exterminated by Turks and suppressed by Russians, the Armenians surprise me today by having a country at all.
I fly to Yerevan, the Armenian capital, to find out what they are doing with that country. My Swiss Air flight from Zurich is nearly empty; when I arrive it is 4am local time and Soviet-looking military men are standing on the tarmac. I'm met by a representative of a local tour firm: a dark, glamorous woman called Shakih with big hair and nasal voice. One of those admirable Soviet people who has learnt English without ever having met a native English speaker. "Welcome to our improving country," she declares in a proud voice.
I'm back in the former USSR all right. By most people's standards, Yerevan is a dump, though I find this an attraction. The air is yellow. Probably these are what toxic chemicals smell like. The town rises and falls - mostly falls - across brown hills and valleys. Pretentious police Ladas career about with loud-hailers and flashing lights. Some local storm in a tea cup, I suppose.
Around my hotel I notice the ruins of mud huts with feral cats picking over them; it is as though nobody has bothered to remove the wreckage of previous civilisations before building the new ones. Does this mean, I wonder, that Soviet civilisation will never disappear?
The vast and gloomy Hotel Dvin is a perfect example of an unreconstructed Soviet hotel. It is attended by a somnambulant Russian staff who cannot grasp why there are no guests any more. The pillow on my bed is so heavy and bulky I can hardly lift it. The toilet has a plastic seat that falls off when touched. The television breaks into a loud humming noise just as I am getting to sleep. I nominate floor attendant in the Hotel Dvin as the saddest job in the world. Was there ever a time when these bedside lights, sofas and curtains seemed new? When the sculptured totem poles, tile murals, wooden ceiling panels, dark maroon table cloths and plastic flowers in the dining room looked funky? When the two Russians drinking vodka for breakfast looked out of place? Come to think of it, did the designers of the great square fountains and pools (now defunct and rubble filled) in the city centre ever feel good about themselves or their work?
In the morning I drop by the office of my tour firm to meet Shakih and her boss; they seem to be squatting at a desk in someone else's office. Either that or they combine their tourism business with trade in agricultural machine spare parts and fishing rods. But more endearingly honest people you could not hope to meet. What might a tourist want, they ask me? What does a tourist do? What in fact is a tourist? I tell them everything is lovely. They look pleased. Perhaps too pleased. Outside, the city looks like nothing has been repaired or painted since the death of Stalin. Tomorrow we will drive round half of Armenia and it will cost me only $55.
Later I am watching TV in my room. It's Euronews, in English. Suddenly the channels start to change by themselves. Polish TV, then Romanian TV, then BBC World. Then a sexy woman taking her bra off. Then TV Espana. Then back to the sexy woman. Finally I get it. The channel controller is trying to decide what to transmit next.
I go out for my first meal in Armenia, tiptoeing out into the scary Yerevan night. There is a smell of smoke and there are no street lights. I keep falling into invisible holes. I hope, very fervently, not to get lost here. But not to worry: the smoke merely represents a generation of New World entrepreneurs cooking shashliks on open-air grills. I enter one restaurant and am served excellent grilled mutton in flat bread at a table in the front room. Other people eat aubergines in the bedrooms. The washing-up is done in the bathroom, and the cooking in the porch. The waitress looks like a sad tart.
The guests all wear black coats, black jackets, black waistcoats, and black polo-neck sweaters, as though they have entered a fancy dress competition as mafia thugs. "Normally drunk is half-litre vodka, really drunk is one litre!" one of them shouts. "How much blood is there in your alcohol?" shouts another.
The next day I'm in the car with Shakih. She's wearing her regal expression. "You see how much better we live now. Before it was really bad." We pass burned out tractors and other agricultural wreckage, rusting under walnut trees. But first things first: when the clouds retreat I want to see Mount Ararat. And there it is! Like a stray planet, an interstellar object that has floated near to earth by cosmic error, filling half the sky. It is not the same as worldly objects. Down below I see green fields with smoking chimneys in them. But up there, hanging like an ancient god, are vast crevasses and snow-filled fissures.
Suddenly we're sliding in mud. The roads are so pot-holed that they are half way to becoming raw earth and gravel. We need a Toyota Landcruiser and we've got a Lada. All the old women of Armenia are selling vegetables and toffee apples by the roadside. In the shadow of Mount Ararat, I see picket fences, apricot trees, marshes, nuclear power stations, country houses, electricity pylons and grassy orchards.
Whoa! Just bombed in and out of the biggest pothole I've ever seen. But how's this for odd: a relic from the ancient world, miraculously marooned in the former USSR! I can see it on high, like an eagle's nest. Wild cliffs and mountains loom all around, distant waterfalls roar. But the 2,000- year-old temple of Garni looks like, and indeed is, a Greek temple.
If that isn't odd enough, a group of college kids from Los Angeles suddenly rolls up in a tour bus. Out they step, tanned youths with backward baseball caps and smiles wide as Caucasian republics. It turns out they are all Armenian by origin, exiled first to Lebanon, then to the US. And now they are coming home at last. I look down and there's a mosaic floor depicting fish and ancient sea gods; I look up and there's a luscious Californian girl rewinding her camera.
The sun's coming out and I'm feeling hot. We drive past apple orchards to another eagle's nest: this time it is the Monastery of Geghard, lurking in the mountains. Ornate crosses have been carved by hand into cliff-faces. I scuttle into a small church building to avoid the hot sun, only to find that the entrance leads into a series of hidden chambers, hewn out of solid rock.
Deep within the monastery, the Californian kids are piously burning candles and praying. The walls are wet and streaked. Lurking high above my head I see inset carved columns, ancient reliefs of lions and eagles seizing goats by their talons. The innermost spirit of Armenia? Later I meet a priest in black, one of only two remaining, who has been living up here close to God for the past 22 years. "This is a holy place," he tells me, gently. "Not an Armenian national place." Shakih is a little contemptuous: she tells me he loves God more than his own mother.
Back in Yerevan we intensify the search for Armenia. We eat lahmajun, thin flat breads with meat toppings, washed down with a yoghurt drink just as in Turkey. "Armenian food," insists Shakih, between mouthfuls. She drives me up to Madenataran, a shrine to Armenian letters, where the entire canon of Armenian literature is held safe even from nuclear attack. She marches me through the national museum to examine the 8th-century- BC cuneiform inscriptions of King Argistis, the ancestor of the Armenian people.
Finally, on a bleak hill overlooking the town, she takes me up to the Memorial to the Victims of the Genocide of 1915. A wall records the names of long vanished Armenian communities: Trabzon, Zeitoun, Adana, Erzurum, Beyazit, Bitlis... Shoddy recordings of funereal music waft ceaselessly from between the blocks where an eternal flame burns. "Yes, we have a lot of difficulties here," says Shakih. "Everything gets destroyed here in the end." Well, I wanted to point out, at least you have a country now. But her hair is looking dishevelled. She blows her nose and trudges back to the car.
Jeremy Atiyah flew to Yerevan as a guest of Swiss Air (tel: 0171-434 7300), which flies on Thursdays and Mondays via Zurich. Fares from pounds 356. Access to Yerevan is also possible by train from Tbilisi in Georgia, or by bus from Turkey.
The author's hotel booking in Yerevan was made through Interchange (tel: 0181-681 3612). They can put together a package including five nights' b&b accommodation in the Hotel Dvin, plus return British Airways flights, for pounds 599 per person, based on two sharing. The writer booked tours locally with a company called Avarayr (tel: 00 374 2 56 36 81, or via e-mail at One day outings to Garni and Geghard, including car and English-speaking guide, cost less than US$100 for a complete day.
Visas can be obtained in advance or on arrival in the airport at Yerevan. Either way they are expensive, up to US$100, depending on where you get it. Contact the Armenian embassy in London (tel: 0171-938 5435). There are still relatively few guide books to the Caucasus region, though Bradt's Georgia guide (pounds 13.99) contains a chapter on Armenia, as does Trailblazer's Asia Overland Guide (pounds 13.95). Good travel literature includes The Crossing Place by Philip Marsden