Being back

Sunday, June 18, 2017

I'm back in London, back on the boat, back home. It's great.


I spent a few days just settling in. My flight arrived in London late-ish at night, which made it tricky getting back onto the boat. While #boatlife is largely pleasant and normal, coming back after a long time away is not as simple as arriving back at a terrestrial home. I can't just switch on the light, toss my keys on the table and settle in. For one thing, getting two large suitcases and a heavy carry-on down the long metre-wide gangway that leads to my boat is not something you necessarily want to attempt in the dark after a long international flight. Also, I left the water tank empty in January (to lessen the chances of green stuff growing in it while I as away) and filling the water tank takes about two hours at this mooring. And I'd left the batteries disconnected as well (which I forgot about, and which would have meant a LOT of consternation, since the lights are all powered by the batteries). Knowing all this I decided to book a cheap B&B nearby, which made the landing a bit softer and meant I started the next day like this:

Bacon! Sausage! Beans!

I got a taxi back to the marina after breakfast and spent the day happily unpacking and clearing out the cobwebs. (Literally. I don't know why it is, but spiders and boats go together.) It was really really good. There was nothing on the agenda other than just being home. I found a proper place for (almost) everything I brought back, and I went through the cupboards and evicted anything that had been hanging around too long in damp conditions, and I stocked the fridge. Then I went for a run on the towpath. It was great.

The boat seems to be basically fine. I had a bunch of mechanical work done on it while I was away, performed by the long-suffering Kevin. Every once in a while when I was up to my elbows in 700 hexagons or trying to figure out how to repair a giant broken pinwheel in Baku, I'd get an email from Kevin saying something like, "I've realigned the grappler flanges and reset your torque modulator, but then I found a leak in the starboard dash-pan. Shall I fix that?" And I'd write back and say, "Yes, please." And then some time later there would be another email from Kevin saying, "I've fixed the leak but in doing so discovered that the cover for the forward Frinkle-lever is cracked, shall I fix that?" And I'll write back and say, "Yes, please." And on it went for months. I guess this is the way it goes with these old diesel engines. I've more or less accepted that I will be replacing this engine one part at a time for as long as I own the boat, but at least I'm starting back from a better place than I was in.

And while I was away I picked up this stowaway - a small tree that took root in one of my fenders... Impressive rate of growth!

I left the boat at a pleasant if far-flung marina near Heathrow, which is great for getting home from the airport, but absolutely rubbish for getting in to central London. The other day the trip to Brixton took almost two hours. So while the marina itself is nice, and allows me to plug into mains power and refill the water tank as often as I want, it's just not sustainable long-term. Maybe I'm being snobbish, but how do people manage when the commute is that long? One of my fellow boaters, Bob, commutes and hour and a half each way every day, all the way the Southwark. I'm not even working and I can't hack it.

On the other hand, being in a marina means you can get to know your neighbours a lot better, as evidenced by Bob's invitation to a BBQ on the weekend when I got back.

It was great to meet a few other people on this pontoon

My plan is to cruise slowly back towards central London, hitting all my favourite mooring spots along the way. Summer is a great time to be on the boat, and I'm especially looking forward to having Karen here for a nice long visit in the coming weeks. We've got a lot of highly blog-worthy stuff planned, so standby for that. In the mean time my main activity is reminding myself that the nagging feeling that I should be doing something is one that must be resisted.

Saturday I went into central London. I had a bunch of life admin stuff to do which involved starting at Tottenham Court Road, walking through Soho to Oxford Circus, and then going from there down Regent Street to Covent Garden. It was about as central as central London gets, on a Saturday afternoon. Tourist hotspot. Zillions of people. Normally I'd think nothing of that. Now, coming back to London after two different terrorist incidents, it was all a bit different. You can't help but think about it. There are noticeablely more police on the streets now - especially in busy areas like Covent Garden. And they're not your regular bobby-on-the-beat either. These ones have big automatic weapons prominently displayed. It's jarring, but also reassuring. (Thank you Sadiq Khan, screw you Trump)

On Monday I found myself on the south side of the Thames at Westminster, needing to get to the north side, across Westminster Bridge. It's a bit different now. Before I left town nothing separated the wide pedestrian walkways from the traffic. Now it's like this:

Welcome home.

You can't argue with this kind of thing. Even in a world without whacko nut jobs I suppose it kind of makes sense for there to be a nice heavy chunk of steel or concrete between people and vehicle traffic. And I can't deny I felt more comfortable walking across the bridge because those barriers are there. On the one hand it was reassuring. On the other it was sad. (And also makes life tricker for London's already beleaguered cyclists, because it reduces the width of the bike lane.)

I kept walking, and was immediately cheered by the sound of bagpipes. There's ALWAYS a bagpiper on Westminster Bridge. And there he was. Score one for Normal London. Also reassuring was the fact that there were tourists everywhere, taking pictures of Big Ben. Another point for Normal London. But the tourists were also taking picture of the dried brown flowers and little tributes dotted along the bridge. Hmmm...

Lacking anything else to do I kept walking, past Westminster Abbey and through St. James' Park and past Horse Guards Parade, until came across this at Admiralty Arch at Trafalgar Square.

I'm pretty sure those barriers weren't there the least time I looked.

However, balancing that are the LGBT traffic signals at Trafalgar Square installed last summer ahead of Pride Week. They were only supposed to be there for the festival, but a year later they're still installed, with no plans to remove them.

IMG_4175 (2)
If you look closely you can see two of the seven different designs of traffic lights

Sort of unbelievably, I'm coming up to my seven year anniversary in London. I arrived in August of 2010. That seems utterly bizarre. It's true that I've also spent close to three years away from London on international jobs, but that's still a significant amount of time. Enough that I think I can somewhat credibly call myself a Londoner. Enough to know that I'll never really know the city. And enough to know that probably no one ever does. But it's also enough time to know that London is not defined by barriers on bridges or policemen with machine guns. London is about the bagpiper at Westminster, and the tourists at Big Ben. But it's also me straining my ear on the tube to eavesdrop on a conversation in Russian a few seats away to see if I can pick up any meaning, and it's a BBQ on a narrowboat dock with a few English people and a lovely couple from Holland, and one rogue Canadian. And it's those crossing signals at Trafalgar Square.

I struggled a lot with how to close off this blog, because it's hard to avoid clichés. ("If I don't stop for a Shake Shack Sticky Toffee Flavoured Concrete at Covent Garden then the terrorists will have won!") So I guess I'll just keep on doing what I'm doing. Living in London, loving London, and appreciating that I can continue to do both those things. And also definitely trying one of those Shake Shacks things because dammit people, I'm only human!

Tourist Stuff: Mud Volcanoes!

Sunday, June 4, 2017

I survived! Opening Ceremony on May 12 (link here) and the Closing Ceremony on May 22 (link here). Both went reasonably smoothly, though Closing in particular was somewhat miraculous given that they were still building the stage on the afternoon of the ceremony, when we started rehearsing. Though I hasten to add that this is no reflection on my colleagues who were in charge of the staging. Mostly it’s just that these sort of events invariably have a tedious period of sport that happens between the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, which means you have set up the Closing Ceremony in about 36 hours. So the fact that we had a stage at all is amazing. If you do click through on those links I think you’ll find that these were two quite prop-heavy ceremonies, so I’m greatly relieved that we actually pulled it off.

Now we’re even finished the packing up and moving out of the Props Tent, leaving a week or so of sorting out files and reconciling budgets and going in late and going home early. And the weather is sunny and warm now so I suspect there may also be a measure of sitting on terraces with a cold beer. In other words, a bit of hard-earned down-time.

Last day at the stadium. And not a minute too soon.

However, with the clock running on my time in Baku, I still had a few things to tick off the list. So in preparation for my first two-day weekend in months I decided to enlist the help of the Intrepid Raul for another wacky adventure, this time to see the famous mud volcanoes near Gobustan, about an hour’s drive out of Baku.

I say world famous though really, who outside of Azerbaijan even knows what a mud volcano is? This is probably partly because about half of the world’s thousand-ish mud volcanoes are in Azerbaijan. Mostly they’re quite small and relatively docile protrusions caused by more of Azerbaijan’s famous stores of underground petrochemicals bubbling up to the surface. Astute GSWPL Readers will recall another instance of leaky flammables near Baku, though that one was a bit more dramatic. Unfortunately, mud volcanoes are decidedly petite and mostly don’t erupt dramatically or spew giant globs of earth miles into the air or disrupt the flight path of incoming aircraft (errr.. except sometimes… see below). 

Tourists usually combine a trip to the mud volcanoes with a viewing of the much more famous petroglyphs at Gobustan, which I visited on my first sojourn in Baku. On that trip there wasn’t the time to tack on the Mud Volcanoes, and it felt like something that really needed to be seen. So trusting to Raul’s extensive experience of the local Baku buses, we set off on a sunny Saturday.

Despite Raul's encyclopaedic knowledge of Azerbaijan public transit, we were stymied partway there and had to resort to a taxi. This was, for me, a happy occurrence, because the last few months have been long and hard and I’m now generally inclined to grant myself whatever little indulgence comes along. So while I’m sure the hour on the local mashrutka would have been a culturally much more authentic, I was secretly quite happy to fork over the cash and be conveyed in relative luxury right to the target destination.

And how was the destination? It was kind of... other-wordly. 

It really is an odd landscape. Apparently NASA scientists have concluded that Mars is a lot like this, geologically speaking. But with fewer Ladas parked nearby.

The mud volcanoes ranged size from really tiny - a few inches across - to about 15’ high. Not huge at all. And some are more active than others. Generally though, they look exactly like the picture that appears in your head when you hear the phrase “mud volcano”.

See? It’s got the bubbly bit in the middle, and the slow flow of stuff on the outside, and the characteristic slope-sided shape of something that’s been building up for ages. 

The only thing that was lacking is the explosive eruption part though even that’s not strictly true. Azerbaijan's mud volcanoes appear small from the surface, but they sit on large reserves of gas and (according to Wikipedia):
"About 200 eruptions have occurred in 50 volcanoes in the territory of Azerbaijani Republic since 1810. Eruption of mud volcanoes is accompanied by strong explosions and underground rumbling. Gasses come out from the deepest layers of the earth and immediately ignite. A height of a flame over volcano reaches 1000 meters (Garasu volcano). Toragay volcano erupted 6 times from 1841 to 1950."
Apparently a huge eruption occurred in 2001, spewing mud and flaming gas into the air in an explosion that could be seen from 15 kilometres away. The fire was still burning three days later. And whole new islands have been formed in the Caspian when undersea mud volcanoes have erupted. Luckily, nothing quite that exciting happened when Raul and I visited. Though I did get a sort of fuzzy slo-mo video which, despite the lack of focus, is slightly mesmerising.

And I took atmosphere shots of the cracked earth

And our cab driver took a shot of me and Raul on top of the biggest of the not-very-big mud volcanoes

And then of course we had to take a selfie of me and Raul and the cab driver, whose name was Elvin. Or possibly Elman. But definitely not Elvis, despite the sunglasses.

And then there was not much left to do but get back in the cab and drive back to Baku. Because as interesting as the mud volcanoes were, there's only so much time you can spend staring at mud. Plus it was windy, and I was a bit tired. It always takes a while to get over the "what-the-hell-just-happened-why-doesn't-my-brain-work-anymore" feeling that comes from completing a big job, so I'm just taking it easy and counting down the days until I get home.

Soon.  So soon!

Kyiv, Part Two (Finally, the perogies!)

Sunday, March 19, 2017

When last we left our hero, she was standing in a frozen bell tower marvelling at the view and slowly turning into a Pamsicle. But that’s not the whole story.

I actually skipped telling you about a remarkable little museum that’s also on the grounds of the Kievo-Pecherska Lavra. And when I say little I am truly not kidding. The Mykola Syadristy Museum of Micro-miniatures is all about being very very very little. Housed in one of the the many buildings on the monastery grounds, it seemed like an odd place for such a secular sort of thing. But with the entry fee set at a mere £1.18 and the Lonely Planet recommending a visit, there seemed no reason not to check it out.

And I'm glad I did. Because apparently you CAN put a camel through the eye of a needle. 
Or even four camels and pyramid.

Mykola Syadristy’s artworks are so tiny they can only be viewed under a microscope, which does not make for great blog photo ops (these are from his website). The work is so delicate that practitioners have to enter a sort of meditative state and work only between heartbeats. Apparently it’s also important to hold one’s breath while working to avoid inhaling a masterpiece. (Note: I did not make that up. Apparently it’s happened to a well known UK micro-miniaturist.)

This ship is 3.5 mm long with rigging 0.003mm thick. 
That’s 400 times thinner than a human hair.

There are fewer than twenty works on display in the museum, so it didn’t take long to see them all, which meant that even after monk mummies, the bell tower, microminatures and lunch, I still had time to wander further along the river towards the enormous statue known as Rodina Mat.

“Nation’s Mother” is a 62m tall behemoth that towers over the banks of the Dneiper. In fact, she towered slightly too much for communist authorities, who truncated her sword so it didn’t rise higher than the tops of the monastery churches.

The Rodina Mat sits atop a very large plinth which sits atop the Museum of the Great Patriotic War which sits atop a dimly lit and mostly empty coat-check facility. I suppose I should say a few words about the museum, but really I mostly enjoyed it because it gave me the chance to thaw out for a bit while wandering the seemingly endless and mostly Ukrainian-only display cases about Ukraine’s part in WWII. Also the coat-check was completely adequate.

I will, though, say many words about the dinner I had on Friday night, because it was splendid. I went to a traditional Ukrainian restaurant called Pervak. It was huge and warm and friendly, with an extensive menu of Ukrainian treats. Here, finally, I had my first perogies in Ukraine. (Though they’re know there as varenyky. I think perogy is actually from Polish.)

For those who’ve never had the pleasure, varenyky/perogies fall into that very very broad category of dumpling-ish things that involves stuffing a bit of dough with something yummy and then boiling it. Where I grew up varenyky are almost always filled with a cheese and potato mix, though sometimes I’ve seen cabbage or even blueberry, at a stretch. The variety of fillings available in Ukraine is truly impressive. The ones I had that night were filled with rabbit. Rabbit perogies!  Other stuffings I saw on menus included kolbassa, chicken, mushrooms, liver, spinach, feta cheese, green peas, poppy seeds, cherries and apple. Not all at once.

Here are my bunny perogies, served with a lovey array of toppings: crisp crackling, salo (see below), grated cheese and sour cream.

Of course I also had Chicken Kiev. Because you’re not allowed to leave the country if you don't. It was unremarkable, but it had to be done. The meal was accompanied by the aforementioned flight of beer that cost 78 pence, and I finished things off with a dessert of bandareky, which were crepes wrapped up in a triangle shape filled with tvorog and baked with cream. So all in all it was a not exactly a light dinner. It’s good thing I skipped ordering from the Lard Menu.

The lard they refer to is known in Ukraine as salo. It’s basically raw pig fat and is unaccountably hugely popular and iconically Ukrainian. I tried a tiny bit in the bacon market. And while you might think I’m about to say it was surprisingly tasty, in fact it tastes EXACTLY like you are imagining cold pig fat would taste. I doubt that even smoking it on fruit branches would help. Sorry, Ukraine, but no thank you.

Saturday morning I lounged around the flat a bit more and then kicked off the day’s tourism with some more perogies and an uplifting visit to the Chornobyl Museum. The Chornobyl disaster, which occurred on April 26, 1986 was the worst nuclear power plant accident in history. (Actually, if you don’t know enough about world history to be aware of the Chernobyl disaster then you’re not allowed to read my blog. Please leave now.) Interestingly, it’s now possible to take a day trip to the actual exclusion zone around Chernobyl, a mere 110km from Kyiv. Apparently it’s very safe as long as you don’t eat or drink anything from the area or pocket any souvenirs. I elected to skip this because it would have taken up precious perogy-eating time. (Also, it's CHERNOBYL and I'm not crazy.)

The Chernobyl Museum was a bit overwhelming. Like the museum of the day before, all the displays were in Ukrainian, but this time I had an English audioguide that was - and this is putting it mildly - exhaustive. The main displays of the museum really only take up two large rooms, but the audioguide was particularly poorly signposted so I had a lot of trouble keeping track of what I should be looking at to match what I was listening to. It turned out the problem was that the guide was so extensive that while I was already wandering through the second room I was listening to commentary about a displays that were within about 8 feet of the entrance. I sort of gave up at that point.

Happily, there was another tiny museum not far away that turned out to be totally charming. The Museum of One Street focuses on the history of each building on Andreyevsky Spusk (Andrew’s descent), a steeply descending road that goes from Old Kyiv and St. Andrew’s Church to the lower city called Podil, which is at the level of the Dneiper River. The street is one of Kyiv’s most popular tourist attractions, and the museum is one small room crammed with display cases that chronicle the cultural history of the street by telling the stories of the buildings and their inhabitants.

Full of glass cases - there are thousands of articles on display. The street's most famous resident was the famous writer Mikhail Bulgakov, who lived at number 13. But mostly it was just fun to peruse the overstuffed cases. And, happily, the museum provided printed English guides to the cases, so I could sort of tell what was going on.

By the time I was finished with two museums and the walk all the way up and back down Andreyevsky Spusk, and a cup of coffee, and a very gooey chocolate brownie, the sun had set and I started the walk to the metro. I was heading towards the Poshtova Square metro station when I happened on this:

It’s the Kyiv Funicular! (For those not familiar with the term, a funicular is a railway that goes up and down a hill. There’s actually one here in Baku and though I’ve run up and down that hill on countless hashes, I’ve never actually taken the funicular. Another item for the To Do list before I leave town...)

I found the discovery of the Kyiv funicular an utterly charming addition to my day and was unaccountably pleased to pay the ridulously low fare (about 5 pence) and take a seat in a car with a lot of other people and one young dog with muddy paws. In fact, I was so happy with the whole business that it didn’t even bother me when the muddy paws ended up all over my light coloured jeans. Once we got to the top I wandered home to the flat, and repeated my excellent habit of glass-of-wine-and-lounging before going out for dinner.

On my last day in Kyiv I finally did a guided walking tour, which is a bit backwards from my usual habit. I normally find it’s a good introduction to a new place to find a walking tour on the first day. (GSWPL Top Tip!) In this case, it was a grey and chilly Sunday morning when I made my way to the Maydan Nezalezhnosti (the famous Independence Square). I was aiming for one of the “free” walking tours where the guide is usually a young person who survives on tips, and was half expecting that I’d get there and the whole thing would be cancelled because no one would show up because it was early and cold and Sunday and February. It turned out I was partly right, because I was the only person who showed up was the guide, Vlad, a very pleasant young man who spoke excellent English.

Despite the low turnout, Vlad carried on. The tour itself was mostly unremarkable, maybe because I’d already been in town for a few days and maybe because I was getting slightly touristed-out. We hit the usual mix of monuments and churches and local landmarks like St. Michael’s Monastery and the Golden Gate (not Golden or a Gate) and Vlad kept up the running commentary. But because it was just the two of us, it was also a bit more personal so I got to hear some about his life, and the revolution, and he even taught me a new Russian word (Скользкий - Slippery!).

One of my favourite stops was a small sculpture in a tiny bit of urban park. Apparently, this little guy is an favourite character from a 1970’s soviet cartoon called Ёжик в тумане - Hedgehog in the Fog. It’s the story of a tiny hedgehog (the Ёжик “YO-zheek”) on a scary journey through the fog to see his friend the bear for tea. (It’s on Youtube, and worth a look.)

Here’s me and the Ёжик.

He’s made with a shaped wooden base covered in wire mesh, and his spikes are all long wood screws poking out of the mesh. He’s carrying a little bundle of jam, as a gift for the bear.

By the time I finished with the Ёжик and Vlad, and had given him a nice tip (Vlad, that is, not the Ёжик) it was about lunchtime. And what does that mean? More perogies, of course! After lunch I managed a quick visit to St. Sophia’s Cathedral, but by that time I was definitely weary and dreading the late flight back to Baku and the inadequate night’s sleep I knew would follow, and the foggy, tired day of work that would come after that. It was nice to have the flat to go back to where I could finish out the day with a quiet bit of packing and one last glass of wine. It seems that three and half days is long enough in Kyiv in February, though I suspect that in the sunny springtime I might have felt different.

Still, Kyiv definitely gets two thumbs up from GSWPL. It’s cheap, friendly, relatively untouristed and with a good mix of attractions. And of course there’s the bacon and perogies. What more could you want?

And finally, you may have noticed there was a slight delay in service last week. Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will of course recognise that I have been admirably consistent in posting bi-weekly in the last year, barring occasional hiccups. But as I write this we’ve just finished the second week of rehearsals. This means that the time has come to allow myself a break from the blog so I can concentrate on the last two and a half months of this job with the fewest distractions possible. Normal service will resume in June. Or when I get around to it. Or not. Basically, you'll get what you get. Which, when I come to think of it, is actually really what GSWPL normal service is. 

It's not all chicken in Kiev

Sunday, February 26, 2017

I don't think Ukraine is the first place most people would decide to go when presented with a surfeit of vacation days and a dwindling window of time in which to take them. Especially not in February. But as Astute Go Stay Work Play Readers know by now, we here at GSWPL are not Most People. What we are is unwilling to spend half of a long weekend on planes and in airports trying to go somewhere too far away. We are also interested in going places we have not been before. And sometimes we can also be a bit cheap. (Oh, and we're still casually studying Russian, which is a lot like Ukrainian.) It turns out that when presented with those parameters Ukraine is the perfect destination, as long as one has a warm hat and long underwear. Kiev is a direct flight from Baku, and the flight times are very well-scheduled. And Airbnb places are ridiculously cheap. I got an entire 1 bedroom apartment to myself for the grand sum of £106 total for three nights. And the day-to-day costs of hanging out in Kiev are so low that I often second-guessed my calculations by a factor of ten when converting the currency in my head. (Example: the Uber I got from the apartment to dinner on the first night was £1.88. And a taster set of four different beers at dinner the second night was £0.78.)

So - Kiev! First of all it turns out that you're now supposed to spell it Kyiv. Kiev is the aglisized version of the Russian spelling, whereas Kyiv is the anglicised version of the Ukrainian spelling. In Ukraine it's now officially Kyiv, and even the Lonely Planet spells it that way so I suppose I should get with the times. I know this about the Lonely Planet, by the way, because the Intrepid Raul had already blazed the trail to Kyiv and loaned me his LP, which was my constant companion during the four days I had in the city.

Я также люблю Украину!

This trip was less about being a tourist and more about having a break from work, even though work is busy enough that I almost bailed out completely. Instead, I took my computer and spent most mornings catching up on bits and pieces of work and hanging around the apartment. Then I headed out to be a tourist for the afternoon before going back home to put my feet up with a glass of wine and then finally venturing forth to stuff my face with stodge and pork products. This turned out to be an inspired and humane approach and one I might just to in all future trips, though hopefully with less working-in-the-morning and more louning-in-the-morning. Freeing oneself from the touristy need to fill every minute of the day is liberating.

But what about Kyiv itself? It felt comfy. Perhaps it's my increasing familiarity with former Soviet states, but I felt like I recognised it. It's got its share of Stalinist architecture and wide Soviet style streets. And there's Cyrillic everywhere, and the stick-to-your ribs food and the hopeful sense of a young country that's shaking off its subjugated past. And as a Canadian prairie kid, I grew up with friends and neighbours called Misanchuk and Shevchuk and Boyko, ate my share of perogies and cabbage rolls and sat though more than enough Ukrainian dance performances. About 1.2 million people in Canada identify as at least partly Ukrainian, giving Canada the third largest population of Ukrainians in the world (after Ukraine itself and Russia). So like I said, I was in familiar territory.

I had the best part of four days in Kyiv, which was plenty of time to hit the high points. And it turns out that Kyiv has, literally, got a lot of high points. Something I noticed right away is that its very hilly. The Dneiper river dominates the city, part of which sits on a high hilly ridge along the river, and part - the older bit - lower down along the river itself.

Here’s the climb from the downtown area towards my apartment.

I spent my first afternoon doing the Lonely Planet walking tour of the city, which was a chilly but pleasant introduction. I started at the Arsenalna Metro station, which has the distinction of being the deepest metro station IN THE WORLD. And while the station itself was nothing special, it was two very very long escalator rides down. And for the bargain price of 8 hryvini, I got two metro tokens. (Hryvina is the currency in Ukraine. About 300 hryvni equal one pound sterling. So 8 hryvni is roughly 24 pence.)

The outside of the metro station

This is just one of the escalators. The station is 105 metres deep!

The metro dropped me on the main drag, Kreshchatyk, where I tried unsuccessfully to find the famous Independence Square (you probably know this as "The Maidan"). Undaunted, I followed the tour as best I could, consulting the LP and Google Maps with freezing fingers and wandering in the bright cold through Marinsky Park and along the Dneiper, which truly is quite impressive.

View over the river

Eventually, I grew too tired and cold to continue, and wisely found a warm café where I had a bowl of borscht. Then I made a quick pit stop for groceries, including a very nice chunk of unsliced side bacon and some kolbassa. What can I say? I live in an Islamic country these days - good bacon is a real treat. I also picked up a very nice bit of tvorog, which is a very Eastern European type of fresh cheese. It’s made in the same way as cottage cheese or quark, and is ubiquitous in these parts - it comes in a myriad of varieties in the supermarket. The bit I got at the market in downtown Kyiv was baked into what ended up very much like dense and slightly grainy cheesecake. It was really yummy for breakfast, along with the bacon, of course. (You may now be sensing this was not a particularly low-cal vacation. As it should be.)

After my bacon and cheesecake breakfast and a suitable loll about in the apartment on Friday I set out to visit the Kievo-Pecherska Lavra, one of Kyiv's not-to-be missed sites. "Lavra" is the word for a senior monastery, and Pecherska means "of the caves", so it's a monastery of caves. Sitting up on the high banks of the Dneiper, it's been the site of a monastic settlement since the 11th century, when a reclusive group of monks set themselves up in some existing caves and gradually enlarged them over time. The monastery grew, including more caves and buildings above ground as well, until the site now covers about 28 hectares. It was a 30 minutes walk from the apartment, though on the way I stumbled across another spot that really deserves mentioning.

This is the monument to the Holodomor. (Pronounced Huh-luh-duh-MORE)

I’m ashamed to say I’d never heard of this event before. Holodomor is a Ukrainian word that roughly translates as “death by hunger” or more specifically “murder by starvation” and refers to a man-made famine in 1932-33 caused by Soviet policies under Stalin that killed somewhere between 2 and 7 million Ukrainians. The events in Ukraine were part of a larger famine in the wider Soviet Union that happened partly as a result of poor grain harvests, but in Ukraine was hugely exacerbated by government policies such as the collectivisation of farms, the ever-increasing quotas required from them, and the brutal punishments exacted when enforcing those quotas. There are reports that taking even a few grains of wheat from the fields for oneself could result in arrest and execution. At its height starvation was killing 13,000 Ukrainians every day.

It seems astonishing that I can not have known about this, but until the fall of the Soviet Union little was known about the event in the West. The Soviet government vehemently denied the scale and causes of the famine, and it only began to become widely recognised in the 1980s. Interestingly, the first Holodomor memorial in the world was erected in Edmonton, Alberta in 1983. And Saskatchewan was the first jurisdiction in North America to recognise the Holodomor as genocide (a topic that is still widely debated). In Ukraine, public denial of the Holodomor was declared illegal in 2006.

The museum under the memorial is small and mostly in Ukrainian so I didn’t spend a lot of time there. But as I was leaving the women at the front desk asked me to stop and sign the visitor book, and then when they found out I was from Canada they gestured me into a side room where they played a short video in English. As I was watching, I couldn’t help but think the accent of the narrator sounded familiar, and at the end I was surprised and proud to see that the film had been produced by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. Oh, and there’s a memorial statue near the Kyiv Holodomor museum called “Bitter Memory of Childhood”, a copy of which stands on the grounds of the provincial legislature in Winnipeg. It was all very full-circle-y.

After that poignant detour, I continued on my way to the aforementioned monastery. There are six churches and numerous other buildings at the site, but really everyone comes for the caves. And it's not even really the caves that they come for. They come for the ancient mummified monks IN the caves. Of course. Over the centuries when monks of the monastery died their bodies were kept in the caves, where the unique combination of cool temperatures and dry atmosphere caused the bodies to be naturally mummified. They’re now revered as saints and holy relics and the caves are open to worshippers at no charge. If a heathen like me wants to see the whole complex they need to buy a guided tour for 250 UAH (about £7.50). This got me a personal guide who who showed me through the entire Near Caves complex. (There’s also another set of caves down the hill called, unsurprisingly, the Far Caves.)

Entrance was through a church where I picked up a loaner wraparound skirt, because even if your female limbs are all covered with long trousers it’s still not modest enough for entry. I also got a long skinny candle to carry for light, because though I could see the caves have been wired for electricity, the lights weren’t on and the whole place was lit with candles. "Caves" makes one expect damp drippiness and (hopefully) some good stalagmites, but this was not like that at all. I suppose it’s been centuries since they were so primitive. Now the walls are smooth and white and the whole thing was pleasantly warm and dry. (For Astute Saskatoon-Savvy GSWPL readers: It reminded me of nothing so much as The Cave restaurant on 8th street, but with less lasagna and more mummies.)

I didn't take any photos, so these are provided by Google.

The smooth white corridors are lined with niches and small rooms off to the sides, all of which house tiny glass-windowed coffins holding the earthly remains of the monastery’s most devout and revered inhabitants. They’re all covered in ornate gold-embroidered cloths, though in one or two places you can see and shrivelled toe or hand poking out. As we walked through the low corridors, my guide mumbled a seemingly endless and slightly monotonous litany about each saint we passed. “Here is the holy relic of St. Nestor, the chronicler…” and so on. It was interesting, but also weird. It was also fairly busy, and most of the people there were clearly worshippers - they’d stop at each coffin and cross themselves, often bending to kiss the coffin. It felt really intrusive to be there, but it was also fascinating.

There are tiny churches in some of the side rooms

I think the whole tour took about half an hour, and by the end I was very ready for a bit of fresh air and some lunch. Luckily, there was a small cafeteria on site that was obviously there to serve not just the tourists but also the staff and the monks who live at the site - it’s still an active working monastery. The cafeteria was warm and cheap and was serving hot food and strong tea. I got a really nice plate of pelmeni with smetana and a cup of sweet black tea and a very tasty cake of tvorog for the grand sum of £1.12.

It was really really really good. Plus the cake was shaped like an igloo. Or possibly a turtle. 
Or probably some kind of igloo-turtle hybrid.

Thus fortified, I wandered out to see what else there was to see in the Lavra complex, and ended up finding the Great Bell Tower. This turned out to be the utterly excellent. The bell tower was constructed in the mid-eighteenth century and was recently renovated. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but figured I’d at least get a nice view and the chance for a few photos take with frozen fingers. When I got to the top of the slightly treacherous frost-covered stairs I was so delighted I laughed out loud. The top opens out to amazing views across Kyiv in all directions, and since the renovation, all the bells have been re-hung with the ropes that control them strung across the room. And I had the whole place to myself.

It was fantastic. Yes, it was drafty and freezing, but there were big beams and ropes and pulleys and giant bells and so how could you NOT love it?

And the view was not bad either

I lingered for as long as I could stand, with my fingers getting more and more numb and my nose getter more and more sniffly. Then another group of tourists arrived, which I took as my cue to leave. I picked my way down the slippery stairs feeling very very satisfied with the day’s efforts. Bacon, Holodomor, caves, mummies, pelmeni, bells… and there was still more to come.

However, this blog is already a bit long, so I think I’ll pick up Part 2 later. Rest assured there will be more sites and more bacon and, finally, perogies and Chicken Kiev!

Tourist Stuff: Fire Mountain

Sunday, February 12, 2017

From ice to fire - Azerbaijan is truly a land of contrasts.

But enough of the touristic platitudes! (That one was for you, PW.) Though in this case it's actually true. My last day out was all about the ice, and just two weeks later I went on another of what I’ve come to think of as Raul’s Wacky Adventures, but this time it was a visit to the famous Fire Mountain, known in Azeri as Yanar Dag.

While the “mountain” part of the title may be generous to the point of hyperbole, there can be no doubt that there is definitely fire. Yanar Dag is a natural gas fire that burns constantly at the rocky base of a hillside a bit north of Baku. The gas seeps through the porous sandstone of the area and is striking evidence of how Azerbaijan is generally absolutely soaking in hydrocarbons. I don't think I've mentioned it here before, but the oil and gas industry is the lifeblood of this country. A striking graphic from 2009 shows that 81% of the state’s exports at the time were in crude oil, and the Wikipedia article states that "Azerbaijan is considered one of the most important spots in the world for oil exploration and development.”

However, we weren’t thinking about that the Saturday morning that my colleague Leigh-Anne and I met the intrepid Raul at the main metro station for a quick tip out to Fire Mountain. A less hardy bunch might have simply hopped in a taxi, but that’s not how we roll on Raul’s Wacky Adventures. Instead, we took the metro to Azadliq station and then got out to find a small local bus to take us the rest of the way. Baku recently acquired a fleet of big modern red buses that look just like buses in modern cities everywhere. They take electronic payment cards and are efficient and boring. We did not take one of these buses. We took a small white(ish) jobbie run by an independent driver/owner. Apparently the routes are auctioned off and you pay for the license to operate on a given route, then it’s up to you to maintain your bus and drive the route.

Here’s a few buses at Azadliq. We took the #274, which, helpfully, had a scrolling sign in the window saying “Yanar Dag”, so I was pretty confident we’d end up in the right place.

You don’t pay when you get on but rather when you leave. And if you get off the back you have to walk around to the front door to give your fare to the driver. Fares are about 20-40 qepik, depending on how far you go. (At the current exchange rates that’s less that 10-20 pence.)

The ride was long, and the snowy/rainy weather made the streets muddy and floody. They are not masters of drainage here. (You should hear Gerald, who is Dutch, go on about how they don’t know how to handle water.) Though in fairness, it’s largely because there’s just not much support of infrastructure, which is obvious pretty much everywhere. We did get to ride past some of the oldest commercial oil fields in the world, which we glimpsed through muddy, steamed up windows. It’s a bit of an otherworldly landscape - tall bits of scaffolding dotted everywhere, supporting pumpjacks that were, in some cases, still nodding slowly and pulling oil out of the ground.

When we finally made it to Fire Mountain we disembarked, walked across the road, and proceeded to the ticket booth, which is a recent addition. The Intrepid Raul reported that the last time he was there about a year ago, there was no booth and no supervision at all. You simply walked in and poked around on your own. This time we each paid 2 manat entry fee, which none of us begrudged. In a place like this I think it’s simple decency to put money back into the economy wherever you can.

And then we walked down and there it was… a mountain on fire.

It really does look like the rock itself is burning.

And here’s a look at Raul and Leigh-Anne, which gives an idea of the scale of the flames

There was a lone security guard hanging around, and a group of tourists from Bahrain. But no barriers, no health and safety notices, no anything between you and what was really quite an intensely hot wall of flame. It’s not a massive area. Perhaps twenty feet across, with the flames getting up to six or eight feet high. But on a cold and overcast day it was still undeniably impressive and a bit eerie.

We took photos and commented about how we should have brought marshmallows, and how someone was really missing a trick not having a tea house where you could sit with the comforting warmth of a samovar on one side and a burning rock on the other.

And Leigh-Anne introduced my to the Slo-Mo Video function of the iPhone which is super cool!

Here’s a long shot of the area, which shows the scale well. You can also see the lovey rock art at the top of the hillside, though the stairs were closed off.

The whole site was… odd. First there was the fundamental strangeness of watching rock burn. But there was also an inexplicable circle of stones near the road that is obviously a new addition. At the centre were a few large flat pieces of stone and some smaller, harder rocks. It seems the intention was to pound the big flat rocks with the smaller rocks, which produced a nice resounding percussive note. This was briefly diverting.

Leigh-Anne on the bass rock

And there was this cool rock that looks a bit like it belongs on a mini Easter Island or possibly something in the inevitably forthcoming Flintstones vs. Transformers movie.

And it was interesting to look closely at the rock because it is literally just a compressed mix of dead prehistoric sea creatures. Azerbaijan is basically made of this rock. The ground is like this, and then they quarry it into big rectangular blocks and build everything from them - houses, office buildings, fences - everything. At first I thought it was a man-made composite in which they use shells as the aggregate but it seems that Azerbaijan is simply a porous, ancient seabed soaked in oil.

So there are the burning rocks, and the stone circle. But really the whole place had a generally neglected and run-down feeling. Mostly it all looked abandoned.

Like this place, which was a sort of stone gazebo at the top of the site which should have made a brilliant tea house, but instead was just filled with rubbish and rubble. Maybe it's livelier in the summer?

There was also this large building. It also seemed to be mostly abandoned, though you could see there was a small room where some of the workers were warming up and having tea. But truly, with a lick of paint and some patio furniture you could have a lovely little tea shop and a captive audience!

There was one bright spot, which was a tiny souvenir shop featuring the usual mix of keychains, fridge magnets and postcards. There I found the best running cap EVER, which is made of wide stripes of the blue, red and green of the flag of Azerbaijan, with Azerbaijan written across the top, and AZ on the brim and an Azerbaijan flag embroidered on the front. And, just in case there was any doubt, it’s also got “Azerbaijan” embroidered on the sizing strap at the back.

Best. Hat. Ever.
Best. Hat. Ever.  Leigh-Anne just got a boring coffee mug and some postcards!

And then there was truly nothing left to do. We’d managed to spend an hour at the site, which, judging by the others we saw who came and went while we were there, is about 50 minutes longer than most. Then we found another little bus and spent another 45 minutes bumping through the muddy suburban streets of Baku by a different route before getting back on the metro and finally returning to the familiar, relatively unchallenging centre of Baku. It was a good little jaunt, and while I enjoyed having the experience of the local bus, by that time of the afternoon I also would not have objected to a warm and speedy taxi home.

By the time we emerged from the metro station it was snowing in earnest, and I had that kind of tiredness that comes from being outside for most of the day in chilly weather. So I decided that the planned long-ish run along the Bulvar in the dark would perhaps be better reimagined as a quick 5k on the hotel treadmill followed by a glass of wine and a night of Netflix.

I have no regrets.

A Day Out: The frozen waterfall

Sunday, January 29, 2017

It had to happen sooner or later. Eventually, if I kept at it, there had to be a day when a Bag Baku expedition would end up falling in the tiny, magical intersection on the Tourism Venn Diagram where Spectacular Scenery, Perfect Weather, Interesting Activities, Delicious Food and Good Scheduling all meet. On my first weekend back from the Christmas break I finally hit that sweet spot on a trip to the frozen waterfall at Giriz.

Giriz is a vanishingly tiny village in the north of Baku, not far from the Russian border and well into the southern tip of the Greater Caucasus Mountains. It’s home to just 32 families.

The heart of downtown Giriz. Also the suburbs. And the Business District. And… well you get the idea. The wall in the foreground is constructed partly from rough stone and partly from bricks made with animal dung and straw.

But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit. Back to the beginning, which was at Nizami metro station at 7:30am on my first Sunday back. Unsurprisingly we got a late start because our driver overslept. This turned out to be fine though, because there was a brightly lit café nearby where our small group could sit and have tea and little pastries and warm up while we were waiting. It was a civilised way to start. Once we were underway it was a two hour drive in the minivan to Quba, the small capital city of the northern Quba region of Azerbaijan. And that’s when the real adventure started. Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will recall my friend and fellow adventurer Raul from the rainy trudge up to Chirag Gala (an outing that, while worthwhile, definitely was not an ideal Venn diagram of tourism bliss). Raul came along for this trip too, and had warned that the road between Quba and Giriz was, er, challenging. And he’d warned that in Quba we’d have to leave our comfy minivan and transfer to a much sturdier 4x4 for the trip up the winding mountain track.

Here’s our ride. A 1986 UAZ. The UAZ is a legendary Soviet-designed off-road military vehicle now available to the public. UAZ (pronounced like a word: YOU-az) are renowned for their ruggedness, go-anywhere abilities and ease of repair. And apparently some are still made in Azerbaijan!

Eight of us crammed into the car - two facing towards each other in the far back, four squeezed into the  back seat, and one in the front with the driver. I’ll admit I was nervous about the drive. I’ve heard tales of these mountain drives from others and I had uncomfortable visions of tipping slowly over the side of an unguarded edge or ending up under a sudden rock slide. Obviously that didn’t happen, but I don’t mind saying I now truly understand, deep in my bones, the origin on the phrase “white-knuckle ride”. Luckily it gradually emerged that our driver, who was celebrating his 63rd birthday that very day, grew up in Giriz, moved to Quba thirty years ago, and has been driving this same road, possibly even in the same UAZ, ever since. It was very reassuring. It was also simultaneously reassuring and alarming that he stopped to put on tire chains after we lurched off the main road and onto the track for the last stretch up to Giriz.

Stopping for the tire chains. As you might be able to tell from the photos so far, the weather was stunning. Perfectly clear blue sky with temperatures hovering just above freezing, but feeling much warmer in the strong sunshine. The only thing missing was the sunglasses forgotten on my desk back at the hotel, which is why most photos of me on the trip are decidedly squinty-looking.

As we finally rolled into Giriz, we saw an old gentleman waking up the road who turned out to be our driver’s 83 year old father, who still lives in the village with his mother. We also saw and waved to his mom in the distance who was busy with some outdoor chore near the family home. We, on the other hand, proceeded to a different family home where our guide Sabina had arranged for us to have lunch before we started the hike to the waterfall.

Here’s a not-great shot of the house - the two-story job on the left. With no plumbing inside, the family’s water source is the constantly trickling, icy flow of mountain run-off from the pipe in the foreground, dropping into a battered, flat metal basin, then overflowing and draining away. There was a bar of soap on the big rock.

The houses are constructed with thick walls from the same blocks of porous yellow stone that is the basic building material in Azerbaijan. And though the house had several rooms and a whole upstairs, all the activity was in the room with the stove. There was no furniture, but the floor was covered in layers of carpets and pillows. (“Where is my carpet, there is my home”) The walls were hung with coloured fabrics, and it was warm and welcoming. And there was a feast laid out on a big plastic tablecloth on the floor

There’s so much in this photo. The mom, wearing a traditional head covering that she’s probably worn every day of her adult life. Behind her is a high table with a two burner hotplate and an old electric counter-top oven, though all the cooking that day was done on the woodstove. Two of the men of the house, also very traditionally dressed. And the little boy, who never budged from his warm cushions, but often played with the remote control for the tv that was on constantly in the back corner. And the food! Homemade salty sheep milk cheese, plates of pink salt-pickled cabbage, and bread for days. Of course we also had a plov made with rice, lamb and dried fruit. And tea. Endless tea, with ample cubes of sugar.

And here’s the heart of the room - the stove and samovar. Strong black tea is stewing in the red pot on the stove and the samovar holds hot water to thin out the potent brew. 

Fuel for the stove was dried animal dung. And the flat dish behind the teapots held the most delicious potatoes I’ve eaten in some time. I think they were approximately equal parts potato and homemade butter, with perhaps a touch of turmeric for colour, slow cooked into a soft and utterly irresistible dream. We had the potatoes when we returned to the house after the waterfall hike, so I’m getting ahead of myself a bit, but whatever. Also, weirdly, when I was commenting about the deliciousness of the potatoes that afternoon it came out as “Belicious topatoes”. I plead tiredness and extreme butter poisoning, but now whenever I think of that dish now I think “Damn, those really were some belicious topatoes.” When we came back for the topatoes, there were also tiny dishes of powdery, dirty coloured salt. This was another homemade treat where salt is ground with a blend of herbs and spices into a special mixture that complemented the topatoes perfectly.

Fortified with tea and plov, we set out for the walk to the waterfall, and it was lovely. A bit steep but not at all unmanageable. And the pace was pleasant, and the group was small, and the scenery was, to put it mildly, not bad.

Me squinting in the sun with the mighty Caucasus behind me.

Vivek's Photo
And here’s a fun shot of the group at our designated stopping point, where the rule seemed to be that you were supposed to stand on the very edge and have your picture taken posing like Leonardo di Caprio in “Titanic”. So we did.

The hike was less than an hour long, though it didn’t feel hurried and it did feel like a proper effort. And I’m embarrassed to report I don’t even know the name of the watercourse that tumbles through the rocks and freezes into a fantastic, ever-changing sculpture every year.

But we found it just inside here

And I’d say it was worth the trip.

It’s not big, but it is impressive, and we had it all to ourselves.

Mandatory shot of me at frozen waterfall

You could hear the water running behind the ice, and see it dripping slowly down the face of the sculpture. We hung around taking photos, slipping on the ice, goofing around, and having a warming shot of tea-and-vodka thoughtfully provided by Julie, who’d done the hike three times before and clearly had things sorted out. (A fellow Canadian, naturally)  And then it was time for the hike back to the village for tea and belicious topatoes.

I think we’d all have preferred to curl up for a quick nap after the food, but we soon had to pile back into the trusty UAZ for the trip back down because it was VERY IMPORTANT that we not end up on the difficult part of the road after sunset. However, this didn’t prevent us from stopping the car on the way out of the village to greet the driver’s dad in person, who was once again spotted trudging through a field alongside the road. He was on the other side of a low stone wall, and came over when we stopped. A few of us went to help him over the wall but he brushed us off and nimbly stepped over like a man half his age.

Version 3
I think you’ll agree this guy is totally excellent. And has the best moustache EVER.

Finally there was nothing to do but confront the road. It was another white-knuckle job, perhaps worse because this time we were at least partially giving ourselves over to gravity. (I took a video of a short section of hairpin turn. It’s here.) Unbelievably, Sabina actually FELL ASLEEP for part of the descent, which I suppose I should find reassuring. And then were were back in Quba and saying good bye to our lovely driver, whose name I never learned but who got a deeply heartfelt thank you and happy birthday from me before we parted.

The drive from Quba to Baku was dark and quiet and sleepy. Raul and I chatted and contemplated what a completely different place Azerbaijan is when you get out of Baku. I’m glad I’m taking the opportunity to see some more of the country this time. As Raul often reminds me, about ten percent of the population of Azerbaijan are still subsistence farmers like the family we visited. They live off what they grow, the animals they raise, and a heartbreakingly tiny state pension. I’m also glad that some of the 50 manat we each paid for the day’s tour went to that driver and his trusty UAZ, and that family and their belicious topatoes.

At some point on the hike I managed to get this panoramic shot that caught Raul being offered a bag of Lay’s from someone just off camera. I like to call it: 
“Behold the Grandeur of the Mighty Caucasus Mountai… Oooooh! Crisps!"

P.S. There are a lot more photos in a Flickr album, which I'd recommend having a look at, because they include a shot of... you guessed it... some truly belicious topatoes.