Anecdotes, images, multimedia, resources, research and data giving an insight into the greater Black Sea region.

Turkish investigative journalist Ahmet Şık jailed
Zeynep Şentek /
FILED UNDER: Erdogan, Turkey, Twitter, Tweets, Ahmet Sik

“If there was a free and fair judiciary, I would give you my testimony ... The failed coup doesn't change the fact that there is a junta in power right now"
These words are from Turkish journalist Ahmet Şık to his Istanbul prosecutor following a charge of spreading 'terrorism' through Twitter.
They are from yesterday.

Georgia's phantom luxury resort
Elena Lomoră /
FILED UNDER: Georgia, Batumi, Anaklia, black sea

As Georgia aims to boost its seaside holiday offer, Elena Lomora explores the deserted resort of Anaklia and the bustling crowds of Batumi

Here you will find anecdotes, images and videos from our team of reporters and photo-journalists as they travel around the Black Sea region and record meetings, conversations and impressions that deserve a wider audience
Out of all the places we have visited on this trip which officially ends here, for me the biggest surprise was Dobruja. But the secluded Dobruja, the one avoided today even by the alternative roads advised by the police during peak summer season. What seemed a joke in the ‘90’s, when the first serious wave of emigrants was fleeing the country, shouting behind them ‘the last one out turns off the lights!’ has now become reality. The last one out has already turned off the lights. This region of Romania looks like a deserted land, vandalized and left in the dark.
That was the custom a hundred years ago. Nowadays, in the communities of Lipovan fishermen from Jurilovca and Sarichioi, the custom has remained the same, though with a slight difference: the sailboat pulling the eight-boat convoy has got an engine. Otherwise, while industrial European fishing benefits from sophisticated equipment (with a multitude of little bulbs and electronically controlled devices), seining on Lake Razelm, in October, is done with solemn pomp, as if in a performance at a village museum. Lipovan fishermen disdainfully refuse the use of glass fibre boats and anything modern in the art of fishing. They simply go on drowning the worms drilling through the wood of their old fishing tools by sinking them for days in the lake water and they also go on scarfing their nets as their parents had taught them.
The Romanian villages of Dobruja left me with a taste of dust and a feeling of human despair, with barefoot children raised by whoever can, people staring vacantly through cheap alcohol vapours in a fatalistic indifference to the poverty which came upon them like a curse. Romanian villages in Dobruja look like sick animals awaiting their death. On the same motorway, under the same ‘curse’, Lipovan villages mock poverty with their freshly whitewashed houses, whose window sills are painted in a breathtaking blue and their streets filled with flowers.
Despite being as poor as a church mouse, Dobruja seems to be the most dignified region of Romania. Poor, rough, remote, its ground full of deep ridges caused by drought, breathtakingly beautiful wilderness where pheasants, rabbits, Romanians, Bulgarians, hedgehogs, Lipovans, Italians, Greeks, does, Ruthenians, boars, Aromanians, Turks, Tatars live together in harmony, without any prejudices or conflicts whatsoever. Dobruja is an interethnic kneader of an overwhelming tolerance force.
The situation was rather embarrassing. Petruț in blue Speedos, covered in a heavy, shiny black layer of mud out of his sincere wish to become part of the motley group come for treatment; an old couple, buck naked, in a bizarre composition, as black as coal, little white summer hats on their heads, their legs sprawled on the sheet, reading the newspaper, their arms away from the body... Though reluctant at first, Petruț approached them and popped the question: ‘May I take your picture?’ The couple stared at him, two, three, four, five seconds, then one of them said grinning: ‘Given the situation...yes.’
As the project Around the Black Sea began in Romania, it will also end in Romania, but not before passing through a poverty-ridden Dobruja (though dominated by windmills), more precisely, through several Lipovan villages with flowers on the streets, confirming the saying: ‘a good farmer makes a good farm’. And an outing with the fishermen on Lake Razelm in canoes and traditional, hand-carved, worm-eaten fishing tools. And because we decided to save our opinions and impressions about the Romanian seaside for a compact series of posts dedicated exclusively to Romania, here we are, talking about the sun and the beach ‘under the auspices of the first snowflakes’. A wacky and inappropriate moment, just like the Romanian seaside.
Our first days in Turkey were marked by a strange sensation of tense expectancy. The beaches were deserted, the streets were enveloped in slumber and the breeze was blowing beautifully, filling the empty spaces around us with salty air. It seemed we had miraculously discovered the last secluded spots with a sea view and full services. A wide choice of select accommodations, small family restaurants with great food and view to the sea, that pleasant feeling that no matter where you went and on which chair you sat on, you’d feel at people’s home. And all that just for us. Wherever we entered, wherever we walked, we were virtually the only tourists there. And yet, those empty spaces, the tens of vacant tables and chairs around us, the unoccupied chaises longues on the beach, it all induced a state of permanent tension, awaiting the hordes of tourists that’d never come.
We went on every little street in Kiyiköy and looked into the people’s yards where we saw the women stripping the corn cobs of their kernels, hanging the laundry in the sun and working with the pots in the kitchen, the children playing with hand-carved wooden fishing vessels, the men sipping tea after tea while sitting at tea tables or preparing their fishing nets by lantern light…
I’ve always wondered what the poachers on the Turkish fishing vessels displaying random flags and being summoned with hundreds of gunshots by the Romanian border police look like. Judging by the news in Romania, the scenario is always the same. The Turkish poachers swaggeringly wave the Ukrainian or Romanian flag hoping to pass unnoticed, the Romanian frontier policemen ‘pick up their scent’ and summon them by machine guns until they surrender themselves, but not before throwing overboard most of the game. In the end, everybody goes home, except for the captains who get to be investigated.
From Sinemorets on we longed for the ten-kilometre coast road separating us from Turkey. Unfortunately, there’s no other customs office such as the one in Vama Veche, right in the lip of the sea, so we had to take the winding road through the mountains and, thus, drive away from the sea, along the border, until we reached the first customs office: Malko Tarnovo. And afterwards go back to the Black Sea, but this time, on Turkish territory.
The minute we entered Albena, a feeling of nostalgia bringing memories of my childhood by the seaside seized me. Carriages drawn by horses with bells and red cuffs, tandem bicycles, coloured mini trains carrying tanned children, old-fashioned music, cotton candy, miniature golf, slides and lady bug rides. The parking lots were filled with cars with Romanian tags, the hotels reminded me of Eforie, the alleys of Neptun.
Two days before the departure, Petruț was sitting absent-mindedly on the back seat of a taxi when, out of the blue, the taxi driver started to sing the praises of the Bulgarian seaside by saying that he had spent a week there, that he had stuffed himself like a pig 24/7, that the breakfast had consisted of: seven types of cheeses, eggs (boiled, omelette and sunny side up), bread: white, brown, mulatto, toast; salamis, ham and sausages; tomatoes, cucumbers, honey, milk, tea, chicken and pork Vienna sausages, etc. That hardly would he roll ‘off’ the table and get to the beach that the guys at the hotel would clear the wedding tables in a jiffy and replace the wedding dishes with: fish, minced meatballs sour soup, chicken drumsticks, eggplant and tomato salad, meat pie, vegetable soup, Wiener schnitzel and whatnot. While reciting his culinary orgy on Bulgarian lands, the taxi driver contentedly ‘caressed’ his belly and said: ‘I put on eleven pounds!’
The first time I visited Transnistria was in 2003 and even then, to Moldovan journalists, the region was a black hole, full of legends and horror stories. I usually worked incognito, because journalist accreditation has to go through the Ministry of Security and I had run a very thorough research on the situation in Transnistria a few years before. The accusations of organized crime, gunrunning and cigarette trafficking against the clan around president Smirnov’s family have never been fully investigated by international bodies which did order a thorough monitoring of the region, though they didn’t seem capable of carrying out an efficient research. Transnistrian Secret Services are constantly keeping critical press at bay, with countless journalists being retained in sensitive regions such as the vicinity of plants accused of producing ammunition subunits or that of the Cobasna ammunition depot.
Zaharia Sclifos was one of the first combatants to have crossed the Dniester on ice and attacked the separatists’ position on March 1st 1992, one day before the official date marking the beginning of the war between the Republic of Moldova and the Tiraspol separatists. The armed conflicts had been on and off ever since the end of 1989. The Dniester war cost 400 soldiers and 350 civilians their lives.
One of the consequences of Vornin and the Communist Party’s fall is a relaxation of political initiatives. In the days of the communist regime, any inconvenient political move would be punished by attacking the finances of the respective politician: his own businesses or those of the sponsors were thoroughly investigated by every state institution. Pursuant to this relaxation, a new party emerged in the Republic of Moldova: the Social Political Movement of the Roma (MSPR).
We left Ukraine via Bolhrad – Vulcănești. We decided not to pass through Transnistria on our way to Chișinău because we wanted to leave all our material in a safe place before heading towards Tiraspol. We covered the distance to Chișinău in a heartbeat because the infrastructure had visibly improved. We had a cup of coffee in an incredible construction in Komrat, the capital of Gagauzia. A two-level brand new wooden ship next to a swimming pool and a wedding salon decorated like King Arthur’s chamber.
We finally left behind us the beach of the Black Sea. But we weren’t done with the sea because we stopped for a few days in Vylkove: the Ukrainian attraction of the Danube Delta where tourism consists mainly of trips at the periphery of the Delta and through the town also known as ‘the Venice of Ukraine’. Despite its name, the town isn’t throbbing with tourists. The greatest numbers are those of foreign tourists who take one-day trips, boat and ship rides and indulge themselves in sturgeon steak and even caviar.
In Crimeea am inregistrat zece mii de kilometri de cand am iesit din Romania. Am sarbatorit prompt, dupa obiceiul localnicilor, cu icre si vodca de la congelator. A doua zi ne-am pus la drum catre extremitatea vestica a peninsulei. In loc de reclame, soselele sunt impanzite de afise cu figura proaspatului presedinte Ianucovici, care tocmai si-a serbat ziua undeva langa Yalta. Sevastopol este un oras sub administrare speciala, direct de la Kiev, cu un guvernator numit. Dar restul peninsulei Crimeea are statut de republica autonoma si este guvernata de un parlament local – pro-rus, la fel ca presedintele Ianucovici.
The shortest way to continue our journey towards Romania is via Port Kavkaz where a regular ferryboat line crosses the channel separating Russia from Ukraine and the Black Sea from the Sea of Azov. From Novorossiysk the congested road runs on until Anapa and then it becomes free of traffic. New, almost deserted roads head towards the Taman peninsula and Port Kavkaz. Tourists and trucks are scarce. The crossing point is used by tradesmen and buses linking Russia to Ukraine and Moldova. Once every two hours, two ferryboats leave almost at the same time from Port Krym and Port Kavkaz. They have a very small capacity for vehicle transport – only eighteen cars and three buses can be crammed on the deck. That is why, although there are only twenty cars ahead of us, we have to wait five hours to board the ship. Behind us a very long queue forms.
We leave the overcrowded coast of Djubga in order to take a tour about Krasnodar. We head towards Novorossiysk and then we will be on our way out of Russia via Port Kavkaz. Unfortunately, technical problems regarding the car, visa and access into the Caucasian republics won’t allow us to stick to our initial plan: to travel through the Caucasian republics via Maykop, Armavir, Nalchik, Vladikavkaz, Grozny and Makhachkala on route M29, the Caucasus Highway.
Vlad Lavrov, ukrainian journalist, traveled together with us from Tbilisi to Sevastopol. Back in the Soviet days, one of the most popular television series that had the entire country’s population glued to the TV screens was called Investigation Held by Experts (Sledstvie Vedut Znatoki) , and told about a trio of highly skilled cops, who were able to solve any crime using their brainpower alone, without resorting to any violence. One of the most memorable episodes was about a group of dishonest art dealers who sold highly overpriced and often fake items. To expose their crimes, one of the cops went undercover, posing as a potential buyer. In order to win their trust he posed as a Georgian, who came from some unnamed Black Sea resort to Moscow to start an art collection having some funds to spend.
Alexei, a tall, solid, blonde Russian young man, stands blindfolded with a black strip of cloth. A slender young Circassian woman, shorter than him, dressed in a golden traditional costume, is holding him delicately by the hand. Alexei is wearing a yellow T-shirt (bought from the bazaar on the beach) on which Lazarevsky, the name of the nearest resort, is written in capital letters. He is from Nizhny Novgorod and the young woman holding his hand was born in a Circassian village in the valley advancing from Lazarevsky towards the summits of Caucasus. The resort was named in honour of Mikhail Lazarev, the admiral of the army of Tsarist Russia, who headed the operations of annihilation of coastal Circassian villages 150 years ago.
The passage from the laid-back atmosphere in Abkhazia to the thriving and animate Russian district of Krasnodar is quite sudden. Even from the frontier point one can see the district is jam-packed: shops glued one to another, crammed cars in endless traffic jams and ongoing massive works on the infrastructure. As usual, the ubiquitous police forces keep a close watch over everything and anything. Hardly did we reach Adler when we saw on the left a huge billboard announcing extensive works to set up one of the many facilities where the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games (OG) will take place.
I think the only place in Abkhazia to have remained intact for twenty years since the collapse of the Soviet Union is one of Stalin’s chalets up in the mountains, on the bank of Lake Ritsa. This military unit and forbidden region, this complex - where Stalin came five times at most – was guarded by Russian troops until 1997 when it was handed over to the Abkhazi presidency. It has become a tourist attraction and the 40-kilometre mountain road is always flooded with tourists. Anyone can take a look at Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev’s bedrooms or the pool table and the Volga boat made especially for Stalin.
Once we reach Sukhumi, we quickly deal with the visa formalities. After presenting the invitation issued by the Abkhazi authorities and paying the visa fee at a downtown bank, we go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where in ten minutes’ time we are issued a visa printed on a separate sheet of paper, just like in Nagorno-Karabakh. As in the NKR, passing through Abkhazia leaves no trace in one’s passport, but the visa has to be shown when leaving Abkhazia.
We left the service snickering. Our car was ready in the afternoon. In Ganja we also wound up with a brand new rear view mirror, cut out from glass. Using a bit of scotch, we replaced the one which had fallen out when one of the mechanics put a little too much force into slamming the door.
We received the necessary documents in Abkhazia when promised, not one day earlier. Last week, in Zugdidi, any person who learned of our intention to pass through Abkhazia made a point of telling us we were out of our minds as the region is a highly dangerous one. In the Gali District we were informed that, after crossing the Inguri River, there are scattered troops who collect customs taxes from passing tourists. Right before our departure, this piece of news in the Georgian press somewhat worried us: several members of the Georgian police were assaulted at dawn near the boundary line by some shooters hidden in the woods.
On the roads of Karabakh, the clutch started to skid, slowly at first and then more and more violently. The roads up the mountains solved the problem. We drove on for another 1.500 km and, when we set out for Abkhazia from Baku, the clutch plate gave in for good. Those very ‘Christian’ curses laid upon us by poverty-ridden, frustrated intellectuals and zealots furious at us for not having posted anything about churches or monuments must have been effective. We briskly pulled over and ended up right in front of a car service. Well, it was actually a vulcanization workshop with a garage where the most popular car in the region, Jiguli, is usually fixed.
As a driver, I have felt the same kamikaze atmosphere of Georgia here in Azerbaijan. Only one difference though: the people’s deafening mania for elaborate honks. The first time, I was startled by an ambulance siren and I instinctively pulled over. A jeep passed me up and the driver threw me a haughty look, clearly amused by the fright I felt. The honks frequently used are ambulance, police or fire engine sirens.
A few months ago we met journalist Agil Khalil in Milan, before an ample manifestation against organized crime. We crammed into the two-door car of some FLARE volunteers - co-organizers of the event - who took us from the airport to the hotel. Agil was invited as victim of organized crime, but, on the road, I didn’t have time to learn about the terrors he was subjected to before fleeing Azerbaijan. I only knew he had taken refuge in Paris in a special location for journalists such as himself. In Baku I had the chance to find out more about this young journalist’s adventure in Azerbaijan.
I made a short trip to Baku two years ago. The changes I’ve noticed this time around now are spectacular. Baku is a town which has had an incredible evolution: it has grown five times in the past 20 years and has an urban population estimated at three million people, almost half of the country’s population. From an image perspective, the funds from oil businesses (which are in the hands of the Alyiev clan) have worked wonders. The greater part of downtown Baku has been renovated, the building façades are lit up at night and works are still underway. Baku can safely compete with any capital in the West. Unfortunately, the monotony of renovations has melted away the local colour. Everything smells like new, but in a rather artificial way. The locals downtown have been evacuated and their place has been taken by members of the government. Besides, the renovations were done according to a strategy allowing the political clientele to keep cashing in public money. Just to give an example: the balconies of each building are being renovated in an identical manner. Regardless of the architecture of the building, they have been equipped with a wood cover, the same everywhere. It’s something similar to the useless street curbs which have swarmed Romania.
The conflict over Karabakh has added mandatory routes to the Caucasian maze. We’re forced to go a long way around if we want to reach Baku. From Stepanakert, the direct road runs a bit over 350 kilometres; however, the only possible route passes through Georgia and is over 1.000-km long. We go around Lake Sevan, exit Armenia and enter Azerbaijan from Georgia through Krasny Most - the crossing point between Georgia and Azerbaijan. Two and a half days on the road, one night at a hotel and a few hours of sleep in the car somewhere on the side of the Azerbaijan main road.
On our expedition along the frontline between the NKR and Azerbaijan, passing by the ghost villages kept in ruins, what struck me was the lethargic state of those houses virtually razed to the ground and the surreal stillness surrounding them. A stillness which was twice interrupted: the first time by the radio searching in vain for any type of music until it managed to detect a station broadcasting in English: Abu Dhabi FM. The second time, not far from the frontline, an oasis of coloured roofs announced their presence through the deafening sounds of some strident music. Amidst that wilderness, we came across a sort of complex which is rented out for private parties: an L-shaped house, two covered terraces, several motel-like rooms and a swimming pool. At noon, a pack of teenagers in evening dress had just gotten the party started. They were celebrating a girl’s birthday; the birthday girl herself told us in English that wasn’t a restaurant, but we were welcome to join them. A middle-aged guy was filming the whole thing as if it were a wedding.
The NKR (Nagorno-Karabakh Republic) has two faces, just like Two-Face, the villain in the Batman comic books. The war ended sixteen years ago; nobody moved into the villages inhabited by the Azerbaijani and the houses destroyed in the war were looted for building materials. The entire buffer area with Azerbaijan is kept in a sinister dereliction. Even nowadays, there are attacks on and off. From time to time, a soldier on one side or the other loses his life.
A great part of Armenia’s international issues are connected to the conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), a de facto independent republic (which is not recognized internationally) numbering 140.000 inhabitants. The conflict between Armenians and the Azerbaijani took a violent turn in 1988 and lasted until 1994. Both sides committed many atrocities; the aftermath: 30.000 people lost their lives. Almost 600.000 Azerbaijani in Karabakh fled the region for Azerbaijan and even today they fall in the category of ‘internally displaced persons’ (IDPs). Each side claims abuse from its rival. The fact is that misinformation, challenges, conspiracy theories and the involvement of the Soviet Secret Services at first and of the newly established Azeri and Armenian ones subsequently prevailed throughout the entire conflict. Internal fights for power in the new states of Armenia and Azerbaijan at the beginning of the ‘90s also influenced the evolution of the conflict.
Sona Avagyan and Grisha Balasanyan are journalists working for Hetq, a weekly journal of the Association of Investigative Journalists of Armenia. They accompany us to the border to show us the region and help with the interpreting. Sona showed up with a big plastic bag, several tens of copies of the paper he works at. While we talk and walk the streets, Sona gives out papers left and right. Grisha falls behind to discuss his articles with the peasants gathered in front of the dilapidated community centre.
The multitude of luxury stores, crowded terraces, renovated boulevards and the monuments of Yerevan doesn’t originate from exemplary economy, but from the Diaspora. Only a third of Armenians live in the country. The rest - around six million - are spread all over the world. According to locals, the Diaspora is for Armenia what oil is for Azerbaijan.
We’re in the heart of the Caucasian maze. Geographical logic would have bore us from Kars, Turkey, right to Yerevan, Armenia. The border was closed by the Turkish government over seventeen years ago for several reasons: the war over Nagorno-Karabakh, the official requests of Armenia to recognize the 1915 Turkish genocide of Armenians and unofficial disputes regarding the present-day Armenian territory which no longer comprises Mount Ararat and the region of Kars.
These days, the Georgian press is thoroughly analyzing a smashing thrashing in the studio of an important television studio. Several leaders of a radical Orthodox Christian group gave their opponents a scrumptious Christian beating. A few journalists also cashed in a couple of blessed blasts. Not long ago, another television stirred panic throughout the country with a live broadcast of an invasion of Russian tanks, a report invented and directed through and through.
Taking photographs in Turkey seemed much easier. No matter if you were in Ankara or a small mountain village, the streets were teeming with people who sold, bought, pushed, pulled, lifted, ate, cut hair, drank tea or simply didn’t do anything. All you had to do was walk and choose whatever scene you wanted to immortalize.
Despite their poverty, their violent past and their ubiquitous police, the locals take kindly to foreigners. Our vehicle with its unknown tag and inadequate car body is a real sight. The road workers help me with directions on difficult segments. A truck driver coming against traffic starts to honk and flash his lights, just like a strobe light. In the end he takes his head out the window and yells laughing: ‘Romaniaaaa!’ At a stop-over, I leave Petruț’s side for two minutes to go ask for oil; next thing I know, I find him in a village market at a table flanked by two locals, a glass full of vodka in one hand and a snack in the other. One of the villagers, a bit heavy and full of tattoos, has his hand over Petruț’s shoulders and is insistently nudging him to knock down the vodka.
Mestia is the last settlement our car has access to. From here on we rent a Jeep for the next 45 km – and yet the ride takes about three hours. We want to reach Ushguli, one of the highest villages in Europe – and one of the oldest, most isolated ones. We gain access by means of a wider foot path, wide enough for a car to pass. On the road I gain a deeper insight on what a truly isolated region it actually is. Mestia is severed from the rest of the country by snow three months a year and from Ushguli six-seven months a year. Mestia can be reached by helicopter in case of emergency, but Ushguli, home to almost 50 families live, is unreachable. We’re at over 2000 metres altitude at the foot of the highest summit in Georgia – Shkhara (over 5.000 metres).
Driving on our last vapours of oil and blessed with the first raindrops, we enter Mestia at high speed. Mestia is a highland townlet up in the Caucasus Mountains, more precisely the Svaneti region. From the dust cloud left behind, the police jeep we saw on the road and which escorted us for a while emerges. Our car went as fast as it could on vapours, but it was already coughing when we entered Mestia. We forgot to fill her up and there are no gas stations whatsoever along the 140-km road from Zgudidi to the highlands. We actually came across one with archaic pumps – but it was closed. However, an abacus and a receipt book in the window give me an inkling that it does operate now and then.
The Lazi with whom we spent unforgettable moments in Turkey’s mountains put us in touch with their brothers in Georgia, the Mingrelians. The Mingrelians and the Lazi were part of the same people a long time ago and lived in the region comprising Sukhumi (Abkhazia) and Trabzon (Turkey). The Turks conquered part of this territory and assimilated the Lazi, while the Mingrelians remained on the Georgian territory. The Lazi are Muslims and the Mingrelians Christians. Their language shares a common root, but it was influenced by Russian in the case of the Mingrelians and by Turkish, Greek and Arabic in the case of the Lazi.
Our final destination is Batumi, the second largest Georgian harbour after Poti, but, at the same time, the most important resort for Georgians. After leaving behind Poti’s apocalyptic landscape, we hit the road, our minds imbued with all kind of scenarios. None of them positive. We drive through Kobuleti, a small Black Sea resort - with resorts on the shore - whose renovation works are in full swing. Elegant…fifty years ago. As we enter Batumi, we regain our composure – it’s a town whose architecture is distinctive of Tsarist Russia, a town in which huge investments have been made. By the sea, old one-story stone houses with long wooden terraces stand as if arranged on a string. Behind them, concrete towers heave into view, future luxury hotels glued to the sea, but pretty decent-looking in key with what seems to be a general and organized plan.
One of the town’s characteristics is that one can find accommodation with locals for about 10 Euros per bed. We experiment this type of accommodation for one night. There aren’t many locals who can afford to put up tourists and, therefore, the town centre is faced with a serious crisis of habitable space. In the days of the Soviet Union, old houses were taken possession of in a very comradely manner: everybody huddled together. Every room of former bourgeois houses would be inhabited by one family or another. Immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, every family was returned its rightful property over its living space by the new Georgian state. The privileged ones who used to wallow in several rooms have retained their status of privilege. In Georgia there haven’t been any retrocession suits.
Although two main founders of the Soviet Union were Georgian – Stalin and Beria, his never-failing aid in matters of terror – Georgia wasn’t bestowed any privileges upon. On the contrary. We cross the country until we reach Poti, the country’s main harbour spanning about 350 kilometres, giving us the chance to observe what ‘Poppa’ Stalin – son of the town of Gori – gave his native country by strategic deportation and forced industrialization.
At the weekend we relaxed ourselves a bit by trying out several local temples of the Georgian wine. Cool and rotund carafes watching one like a hawk at every turn are the only real danger breathing down one’s neck in this country. (On sale for about 3 Euros/ one litre and a half) We start the week with a systematic tour of the city. For someone used to the hustle and bustle of Turkish towns, Tbilisi seems a dead city. Lateral little streets appear utterly deserted. The communists didn’t demolish a thing here and the Old Town stretches away between rocky hills separated by what appears to be a water stream. What the communists did overlook is be slowly, but surely, coming into being in this democratic Georgian era. The Old Centre – most of it, anyway – is on the verge of collapse. You won’t find a house that isn’t this close to crumbling down. Many are halfway collapsed and the half which is still standing seems to be accommodating people. From the street, one can see local house interior segments – living-rooms, bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens – halfway crumbled. The part still standing exposes the remaining wallpaper, furniture and other objects one usually finds in a house.
Yesterday, after having finished the official visits, we went to the house of Emin and Diba’s colleagues. They are mostly young Kurds. Some of them are fine with opening a couple of beer cans. However, Emin tells us that he cannot bring girls over to his apartment, because the owner thinks he would be pointed at in Kars. The atmosphere heats up and the young men begin to dance a horă which is similar to the horon seen in the Lazi community.
Emin and Diba are two young men majoring in English at the University of Kars. They weren’t born here. Like many of their colleagues, they are Kurds and have come from other towns for their studies here. While we’re in town, they act as our interpreters. Moreover, they show us what young people do for fun in Kars and offer us their side of things on local issues; that’s how we end up playing rummy and drinking tea in a club for youngsters, among other students. They tell me it’s a great opportunity to practice their English conversational skills. They have tried to chat up tourists, but failed miserably.
After one last visit to a Lazi village (Ortacalar), we get the show on the road towards Kars. In Hopa, the road leaves the coast and runs up towards a huge reservoir on the way to Artvin. Gradually, the landscape undergoes a drastic change. The region looks much more arid. We go up and down several plateaus – the highest: somewhere around 2.600 metres. We drive through a row of ghost towns, locations used by shepherds once a year during the transhumance period. We stop in one to stretch our legs a bit. An old man tells us he is the only inhabitant and asks for a cigarette. We don’t have any so we give him a tea bag instead. He seems content and wishes us god speed.
We spend one more day in the Lazi villages. In the morning we learn that the mukhtar had forbidden the young men to surprise us in the dead of night as is the custom with guests come to visit for the first time.

Tea cultures start to ‘jostle through’ the hills of nut trees. In each town (somewhat big) there is a ÇAYKUR factory. Today we met the Lazi community from the villages between Rize and the Georgian border. The Lazi are an ethnic group stemming from a former tribe of the Colchis Kingdom. Less than100.000 Lazi still live in Turkey, spread all over the villages on the Black Sea coast and in Georgia, over the border. Former warriors who survived in an extremely violent region, settled in the area before the Greeks and Turks, the Lazi speak an endangered language: the Lazuri. It wasn’t until the ‘60s that the Lazuri started to be researched and set in a written form by a German professor, Wolfgang Feurstein. In the past, the Turkish state (and before it, the Ottoman power) did its best to prevent the Lazuri from being spoken. For Turkish nationalism, minorities represent a danger, a direct threat to the state.

We leave Ankara and head towards the coast, for Samsun. The landscape is rather arid, with a few interesting canyons where the mountains turn a reddish hue, resembling those in American westerns. After almost 500 km, we start to descend towards the seaside. From afar, the Samsun harbour seems utterly teeming with hustle and bustle – tens of ships await offshore. From here up to the Georgian border, the Turks have built a highway along the coast, a hair’s breadth from the water, spanning over 500 kilometres. There are two and even three lanes, an army of tunnels, some of them many kilometres long. The only segment where the main road leaves the coast is between Fatsa and Ordu.
We pack our bags and leave to Samsun (aproximately 450km East, on the coast). Our hotel is located in a street that used us with more special sounds. Every decent man in the area has at least one grinder, a drill press and a pickhammer that they use on a daily basis, starting at 8 o’clock in the morning and ending late in the evening. We could hear them non-stop on different keys: some low and long, other fearful and short, some others provocative and unexpected. It is a special music. The passage towards the silence of midnight is made through the ripples of the rummy and backgammon pieces. These sounds are representative for this area.
We crossed two gecekondu hills from the Altindag area. We reached to another hill, surrounded from three parts by the platforms of seemingly new residential compounds. Two of them were enclosed by a solid fence with barbed wire.
When we decided to go on this tour, we thought that we might find interesting situations to be filmed on the road, upload them on Youtube and embed them in some posts. Even if we were capable of doing it, we could not access Youtube from Turkey; the access to this site is completely blocked. This situation lasts for several years. Presently, around 3.700 other Internet sites are blocked for Turkish users.
We passed off the fortress above the old center, in order to leave the crowded area by choosing another part of the hill than the souq. We walked randomly in the streets which became even narrower and bold, followed by children who were trying to tell us that the fortress is in the opposite direction. They thought we got lost, because there was nothing of touristic value to be seen there. Every now and then, somebody was showing us by weaving their hands to return and that the road was a dead end. We arrived in the middle of some Turkish favelas, compacted boldly on the flank of the hill. Here, they are called gecekondu. In Romanian, the word means „suburb”, but it bears the meaning of „built overnight”. This is because all the houses were built illegally, some 30-40 years ago. Some say that, back then, a juridical inadvertence granted one the right not to be demolished, provided that one began to build their house after the nightfall and finish the construction before the break of dawn, without the knowledge of the authorities. This kind of buildings (considered squatters) began to gain popularity in Istanbul and Ankara, due to the massive migration from the countryside to big cities. The construction method even began to be exported – I saw it in Berlin, to a Turk from Kreuzberg, who set up illegally, in the ‘80s, a vegetable garden, in the area of the wall between the East and the West. After the fall of the Berlin wall, he built a house using reused materials. The authorities didn’t succeed in tearing down the house yet).
While I was out, Petrut wandered around the old part of Ankara. During lunch, a pitchman told him many interesting stories. In Turkish. He found some pigeon lovers who offered him a cup of tea, silently agreed to be photographed and then continued to watch the pigeons through their binoculars. He watched the unstrained relationship between the clothes salesmen and the tailor’s dummies standing in the threshold of their store. A salesman caresses the heads of his identical children, dressed as princes. Another salesman holds his tailor’s dummy dressed in a pink, downy bathrobe. After resting for a while, one by one the salesmen take a few steps towards the middle of the road and begin to praise their merchandise in a loud voice. Then they return in front of their shop windows just as determined, pour themselves a cup of tea and return to their place in the middle of their family, among the dummies.
Yesterday we entered Ankara. Although the GPS we’re using (Garmin nuvi) doesn’t have the map of Turkey, it does have a general support for the main roads. The car keeps positioning itself parallel to the road, but an approximate direction is somewhat useful outside cities. Once we enter the city, the gadget becomes useless, so the only sense of direction we get is from signalling systems. Which gets us off the track in the first five minutes. We reach a platform of blocks of flats, one of the many we have seen ever since our arrival in Turkey. Up close, nothing seems spectacular anymore: blocks of fifteen storeys and even taller ones with big spaces between them, parking lots and playgrounds. And yet, life on such a platform must be ghastly because of the distance from the city. I have read an interview about two young women who lived on a similar platform near Istanbul – they needed seven hours to go to work and return home every day.
Coffee has become an issue. The locals are avid tea drinkers, so everywhere we go, we’re offered only very weak instant coffee. Seldom does one find Turkish coffee – which comes in small quantities and is expensive. So we’ve decided to fit ourselves with a Turkish kettle. Which we’re going to put to very good use in gas stations and hotels. This morning we set out for Ankara along the coast on an embanked roadway fifteen metres from the sea. An extraordinary view for us – for the locals, a technical road for transporting cargo. Of no interest whatsoever for tourists.

We’ve left very early in the morning, because we’re planning to arrive to the Black Sea coast between Istanbul and Ankara sometime in the afternoon, and because this means crossing Istanbul on the motor highway that cuts the town into two and crosses the Bosphorus.

Those who have ever driven in Istanbul at rush hours know this is a more than challenging mission. Not to mention I had woken up with a food intoxication (with fever, headaches – everything) because of the copious dinner the previous day.

Some friends had recommended us to eat in Sinemorets and we had confounded it with Chernomorets (Thanks, Dan, we try it next time!) So, I am carrying this illness on my feet, or pedals…

The first posts are going to be as hectic as we were before the departure*. The visas for Russia and that for Azerbaijan in particular made a hash of our arrangements but, at last, over a week late, we hit the road. The following days are going to be more of a race to Ankara, where I and Petruț are going to leave in turn, for three days, for jobs planned long before we had known the exact date of the Black Sea tour. We will be returning to this area, so these first few days will be a sort of a recon. While leaving Vama, I notice a cluster of little houses for low-budget tourists set against the cemetery.