Ethiopian Journey III: Some Cultural Observations

It would be wrong to describe Ethiopia only in terms of its history or topography as my last two posts did; rather its people and its culture are what make it one of the most unique countries in the world. My two week tour did its best to introduce us to these aspects in this fascinating country.

People:

Estimates of Ethiopia’s population generally settle around the 100 million mark, but no one is really sure as no census has been done, ever. Everyone belongs to a tribe; there are about 80 in total, each with their own language, customs and territory. Our guide claimed she could identify some of the tribes by their physical features, flatter lips, higher cheekbones, height, etc. The Amhara are the largest and Amharic is the lingua franca of Ethiopia, with all government administration done in it, along with it being the second language learned in school. English is also studied at a young age and many youngsters joined me on the street, eager to practice English with a native speaker.

It is also very poor, usually ranking in the poorest 20 countries in the world. Signs of poverty were evident everywhere: beggars, lack of indoor plumbing, constant power outages, bumpy, unpaved roads and rampant petty crime in Addis Ababa.  Shanty towns are visible from the air flying into Addis Ababa and in the countryside, shops are mostly made from corrugated metal roofs and plastics siding. Houses are constructed the traditional way with mud and straw walls and thatched roofs. But every child attends daily free public school proudly wearing uniforms, no one went barefoot and little evidence of the drought or famine that plagued Ethiopian in the 1970’s was apparent.

Religion:

Mostly unreliable figures exist for the breakdown between Ethiopian Orthodox Christians and Muslims, but the best guess is 62% of the populace belong to the mainstream church, 35% Muslim and 3% others, including a dwindling Jewish population. Until recently, Muslims and Christians lived side by side, intermarried and displayed a heartening absence of enmity towards each other. Unfortunately, this has changed in the last few years, but I’ll expand later when I discuss politics.

Ethiopians are very conservative and their church is often the most important aspect of their lives. It was the first country to adopt Christianity in Africa. On our tour, we visited numerous churches dating from the 12th century, including a circular one, one of 20  churches/monasteries on Lake Tana. It contains the 3 elements common to all Ethiopian Orthodox churches – the outer chamber, an interior one where communion is done and the inner chamber or holy of holies, where a replica of the Ark of the Covenant is kept.

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12th Century Ethiopian Church

Ethiopian Orthodoxy still uses the Gregorian calendar (Ethiopia does in general, thus it is 2012 there) so X-Mas is on January 7. It is preceded by 55 days of Lent, which includes fasting (no meat or fish), no alcohol, no sex and lots of praying. Annoyingly to me, much of the praying is done at strange hours over loud speakers, so I was awoken more than once at 3:30AM to monotone chanting that went on for hours. In the morning, thousands of adherents, the women always dressed in white, would return to their home from church, making the roads impassable.

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Ladies leaving Church

Geography:

Ethiopia is the most mountainous country in Africa and much of the north is above 2500 meters, causing minor symptoms of altitude sickness and shortness of breath doing anything strenuous. The most beautiful chain is the Semien Mountains, which some people trek in up to 10 days. Being far less ambitious, I enjoyed an hour and a half hike, especially the entertainment provided by hundreds of Gelada monkeys, who climb to the streams at the top every morning and retreat to the caves down below at nightfall:

Traditionally, the source of the Blue Nile had been placed in Ethiopia, near Lake Tana, until the well known TV personality, Joanna Lumley, did a program in the UK about it and placed the source in Uganda. Fortunately, she didn’t move the Blue Nile Waterfalls, which were still a splendid sight even in the dry season:

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Equally impressive was Lake Tana, the third largest lake in Africa and home to island monasteries, pretty sunrises (except when the clouds are about as on my cruise), birds galore and hippopotamus. We saw sleeping hippos and were entertained by a large flock of pelicans jockeying for fish thrown out by a boatman sailing a traditional papyrus boat:

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Food:

Few would suggest Ethiopia is a food lover’s paradise, especially during the fasting season when vegetarian menus are the norm and chickens and cows are unavailable, being fattened up for the post-fasting feast, and thus leaving limited options for carnivores like me. Near Lake Tana, there was excellent fresh fish. Luckily, my favourite Ethiopian dish is injera, a thin pancake-like sour grain served cold with a variety of dishes atop like a spicy stew, a chickpea broth or vegetables. Made from teff which is grown only in Ethiopia, it is considered a superfood. However, the export of it is banned as the government is fearful of creating a shortage of local food if export prices increase.

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Injera, with various toppings

One thing Ethiopia is famous for is coffee; it claims to have been the first place to cultivate and brew coffee. All over the country, in even the tiniest of villages, coffee shops/stalls exist where women perform the coffee ceremony designed to get the tastiest cup of coffee. We attended a few ceremonies. After the beans are ground, the woman (always a woman in Ethiopia) spend at least an hour transferring the beans from water pot to water pot to ensure maximum potency. I watched and revelled in the scent of fresh ground roasted coffee beans, but as a non-coffee drinker, cannot tell what the taste is like:

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I should mention the wine. Wine growing is in its infancy in Ethiopia, but a few home grown labels are available, including the Rift Valley Chardonnay and Syrah, both of which I found to be perfectly acceptable.

The towns and villages:

Addis Ababa, a city of 10 million, is big, crowded and polluted. Yes, it is the capital, but as a metropolis, it is hardly representative of this country in which 85% of the population are subsistence farmers. Unlike in North America, they don’t live on their farms, but instead live in small villages and walk to their farms every day.

We drove through many small villages; the road options are limited and highways seem to have been built to connect villages, not move traffic along quickly. Life happens along the roads, where people live, work and walk. Animals have the right of way, so highly valued are the livestock, and we frequently waited while cows, goats, donkeys or camels crossed the highway. Tractors or other mechanized farm machines were never seen, but plenty of donkeys pulling carts and camels carrying large loads were visible. Everywhere seemed to have electricity and internet, however unreliable, and most towns had sewers and running water, at least those we stayed in.

The tour company I used, Explore, always tries to incorporate “a small, local town” experience and the tour in Ethiopia was no different. Our “town” was Debark, gateway to the Semien Mountains and a newish university. Its large market encompassed 4 “streets”, but 3 were of the dirt variety and nothing tempted me. Stalls sold fruits and vegetables, spices, clothes, footwear, and jerry cans used for carrying water. The goods were basic to say the least, but all the essentials were on offer.

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Politics:

I’ll end on a bit of a sad note. For centuries, the tribes and religions in Ethiopia had co-existed peacefully. In a nutshell, the emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown by the Communists in 1974 who ruled until 1991 when they were overthrown by a Tigray tribe party. It subsequently entered a coalition, the EPRDF, with parties representing the Oromo and Amhara tribes, which ruled, more of less, until 2018. During this period, the EPRDF always managed to win the elections by a landslide, causing allegations of widespread vote rigging etc. Until 2018, the government could be described as a somewhat benign dictatorship, although disappearances, censorship and imprisonment of journalists and political opponents was not uncommon.

Problems became more prominent in the last decade. Muslim rebels from Somalia and Eritrea had been launching frequent incursions into the country and encouraging religious intolerance. Long festering disputes between tribes also blew up in 2015 with the perceived better-off Tigray people of the north being the subject of violent protests in the south.

In April, 2018, Abiy Ahmed, from both the Amhara and Oromo tribes, became prime-minister, vowing to clean up Ethiopian politics. He freed thousands of political prisoners, flirted with a completely free press and generally relaxed the grip the government held on its people. The trouble is everyone took advantage of their new found freedoms to rally against the government. Militant factions, be they tribal or religious based, are stoking ancient or imaginary hatreds in an effort to gain power. The night before I left Ethiopia, 3 Muslim mosques were burned by Christian mobs, angry after a church caught fire.

Much hope accompanied Abiy’s victory. He was the first non-Tigray to hold power. But aside from entering into the peace treaty with Eritrea (for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize), he has done nothing to quell the protests and vehement expressions of hatred that have been gripping Ethiopia for the last few years. People are fearful the violence will continue, or escalate, while the prime-minister dithers as to what to do. Already, our tour was rerouted away from the Muslim city of Harar, where Muslims were marking the houses of Christians, and Tigray are fleeing the south for friendlier territories in the north.

Even to my foreign eyes, it was easy to see that Ethiopia has all the trappings of a powder keg, waiting to explode, another Rwanda or Somalia. I hope I am wrong and this wonderful country finds away to stop the unrest and live, like it has done for thousands of years, in peace.

 

Next: Oman

Ethiopian Journey II: Historical Sites

Ethiopia has a long and proud history, an ancient civilization once amongst the most powerful in the world, and a religious heritage going back to the time of Solomon. My tour of the country highlighted its historical legacy and dispelled me of any notions of Africa being a dark, savage continent. But a word of caution: Ethiopians are believers, and some of what I repeat here was learned from local guides/believers and may not necessarily be borne out by archeological or other historical data.

The Cradle of Civilization:

The bones of the first humanoid, a half man-half ape who walked upright on two feet, was discovered close to Harar in eastern Ethiopia in 1974. The anthropologists who discovered it went back to their camp that evening, where Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was playing on the loudspeaker. After determining the skeleton was female from the pelvis, she was named Lucy. She is estimated to be 3.2 million years old, about 12 at her death and possesses both human and chimpanzee features. Scientists have recreated her image, which rests in the National Museum of Ethiopia, along with replicas of her bones. The real bones are protected in a non-accessible laboratory.

The Sabeens, the Queen of Sheba and Axum:

Fast forward 3 million years, to Biblical times. Some Ethiopians believe the flood in Noah’s story destroyed the original Punt civilization and buried Atlantis, which was located in Ethiopia. Others believe the Egyptian civilization originated in Ethiopia and there are similarities between the peoples, including sun worship and pyramid building. I’m not sure if the Egyptians would agree.

More scientifically acceptable are the Punt’s successors, the Sabeens, who occupied the lands comprising Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Yemen beginning in the second millennium. Their most famous monarch was the Queen of Sheba, who ruled in the 10th century BC. Although she was born in Yemen and her main palace was there, her bathing place is said to be in Axum:

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The pool today, said to have been built for the Queen of Sheba

The Queen journeyed to Israel to meet Solomon, to acquire his wisdom and to open up trade routes between her kingdom and the Israelites. Frankincense, gold and ivory were in high demand in Israel. Once there, she and Solomon shared a romp, resulting in her becoming pregnant. She returned to Ethiopia, converted to Judaism and gave birth to a son, Menalik. At age 22, Menalik returned to Israel to visit his father. He came back to Ethiopia with the Ark of the Covenant, the tablets God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments and the box containing them. Menalik also brought 12,000 Jews with him, thus (maybe) beginning the long history of the Jews in Ethiopia. Others believe the Jews were one of the lost tribes on Israel who disappeared after the Assyrian invasion of Israel in the 7th century BC. Still others suggest most Jews arrived in the 1st to 4th century AD, as traders who settled in the area.

Meanwhile, the great Axumite or Aksumite kingdom was establishing its capital at Axum. Its emperors, like all former and subsequent emperors, claim to be descended from Solomon and Menalik. The Axumites bear similarities to the nearby Egyptian dynasties; its kings built tombs and stellae to aid in their ascension to the afterworld. They worshipped the sun and the moon and such symbols, along with doors and windows, decorate the stellae:

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Stellae with door to tomb

The Ethiopian Rosetta Stone, with text in Greek, Sabeen and Ge’ez (the local semitic language and predecessor to today’s Amharic), is on display in Axum:

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The Axumites were great travelers and traders, considered one of the 4 most powerful kingdoms in the first century, along with the Romans, Greeks and Chinese. Their most famous is King Balthasar, one of the 3 wise men who visited Israel during the birth of Christ. The King abdicated after his journey to Jerusalem, so his tomb was never used. His bones were initially buried in Constantinople, but Crusaders carried them back to Cologne, Germany in 1164, where they rest today.

In 330 AD, the Axumite king Ezana embraced Christianity. He forcibly converted everyone, but the Jews who refused to convert left for the mountain region near Gondar, where they established their own kingdoms. Meanwhile back in Axum, an estimated 70,000 people lived in the city. The empire encompassed all of today’s Eritrea, Somalia and Yemen. Remnants of a 4th century palace, built upon the Queen of Sheba’s palace foundations, are still visible near Axum:

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Ruins of an Axumite palace

All good things must come to an end. Beginning in the 7th century, Muslims from across the Red Sea started invading Africa, eventually capturing the Axumite port of Adulis, leaving the Axumite empire a landlocked country. Trade deteriorated, the plague arrived, overgrazing and deforestation weakened the kingdom. Sensing weakness, nearby kingdoms attacked and captured land; some Muslims but most significantly the northern Jewish kingdom, led by Queen Yodit Gudit. She is blamed for the destruction of many early churches, but most of the guides admitted she was a scapegoat for all the woes of the 10th century Axumites.

Lalibela:

Descendants of the Solomonic dynasty (the continued genealogy is debated) gradually moved their capital to the city of Roha, renamed it Lalibela after its king and set about creating a new Jerusalem between the 11th and 13th century, resulting in 11 rock hewn churches. The actual dating and length of time taken to build all the churches is also debated, but what is certain is the magnificence of the structures. Each was carved out of a single rock, and until UNESCO erected scaffold roofs over them in 2004, were not visible except close up. The most famous, and scaffold/ artificial roof free, is St. George:

Controversy surrounds the why and architecture of the churches. Historically, Ethiopia had not built into rocks and because some of the elements are suggestive of the Knights Templar, conjecture abounds that Crusaders on their way to Jerusalem provided the designs and techniques. In terms of why they were constructed in the rocks, some suggest it was a symbol of humility; others believe it was to hide the churches from invading Muslim armies.

Whatever the purpose, the churches are both a major tourist draw and a pilgrimage destination for the millions of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. The churches accommodate both; sermons are carried out in the morning when tourists are banned; foreigners are allowed in only between 2:00PM and 5:00 PM, following the payment of US$50. Divided into the north and south clusters, we reached the first church by walking about 20 metres down rough, rock cut steps. After taking our shoes and hats off and ensuring our shoulders and knees were covered, we entered our first church. Inside, carpets cover the uneven floors and windows in the shape of crosses or moons (the symbol of eternity) lit the interior. Most contain the three room construction common to Ethiopian Orthodox churches- the outer chamber for chanting and listening to the sermon, a second chamber with pictures from the Bible where communion is taken and the third chamber, the holy of holies, where the replica of the Ark of the Covenant is kept and only priests are permitted to enter.

After spending a few minutes inside, we proceeded to the next church. Each church contains a trench surrounding it, with tunnels or narrow passageways leading to the next church. Our guide led the way, with our shoe man (hired to watch our shoes outside each church) knowingly offering a steady hand to climb the tall steps and help us keep our balance on the rocky path. All the churches are dedicated to a particular person: St. George, St. Emmanuel, the Virgin Mary, our guide explaining the sometimes unique Ethiopian story attributable to each, all illustrated by the paintings inside.

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One of the trenches between churches

In the 14th century, Muslims continued their invasion of Ethiopia, capturing large swaths of land along the Eastern coast and the highlands. To assist in stopping their march, Ethiopia invited the Portuguese to their country. The Portuguese ended the Muslim progression, but took to converting Ethiopians, including one of its emperors, to Catholicism. This led to civil war, the Ethiopian Christian Orthodox Church eventually prevailing. They executed or expelled the Portuguese and Ethiopian Orthodoxy regained its predominant role.

Gondar: 

In 1635, Emperor Fasilides, still from the Solomonic dynasty, founded the city of Gondar and made it the capital. He and his 6 successors embarked on a building scheme, each constructing their own palace, resulting in the remains of 7 palaces being open to the public. Fasilides’ is the best preserved, and the grandest:

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The Emperors erected other buildings necessary for emperors, including loads of churches and a very ornate bath, which is used today during the Timkut ceremony:

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Church with empty pool being prepared for Timkut

Gondar is popular due to its cooler location in the mountains and near Lake Tana. So popular that the Italians, when they occupied the country between 1936 and 1941, designed buildings in what has been called the Fascist style, including a cinema and the Post Office:

Addis Ababa

Addis Ababa became the capital in 1886, following Ethiopia’s reunification after centuries of splinter. The Emperor Menalik II began the process of modernization, but is best known for defeating the Italians, who invaded in 1896 seeking to add another colony to its holdings. Italy was roundly defeated at the Battle of Adwa, enabling Ethiopia to avoid colonization. It was the only African nation to do so, as well as the only African nation to defeat an European power, facts of which the Ethiopians are very proud.

Another Solomonic descendant, Haile Selassie, was crowned emperor in 1930. In 1936 the Italians under the fascist Mussolini, still smarting from their earlier defeat, returned to occupy Ethiopia, a brutal affair lasting until 1941 when the British invaded and removed the Italians. Haile Selassie had fled to Bath, England, in 1936, but returned in 1941 and ruled until his overthrow in 1974. More about that in the next post.

Apologies for the somewhat long history recitation, but I’ll end this narrative with one final photo, that of Selassie’s bedroom in his palace in Addis Ababa:

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Next: Ethiopian Journey III: The Culture

Ethiopian Journey I: A Most Inhospitable Place

Do not get the wrong impression. Ethiopia is wonderfully hospitable, full of friendly, welcoming people. But it is also home to the most inhospitable place on this planet. Some background…

I have been twice thwarted in my attempts to visit Ethiopia, first in 2006 due to a famine and again in 2017, when violence caused by tribal tensions forced my tour company to cancel the trip. Optimistically, I signed up for another tour in December, 2019, but when an e-mail arrived from the tour company 10 days before the start date, I feared the worst. I opened the email to read that violence had broken out in the medieval Islamic town of Harar (more about that in a later post), but rather than cancel the trip, the tour would now visit the Danakil Depression and the Dallol hydrothermal field. CNN had recently broadcast a story about it, titling it the most inhospitable place on earth. I couldn’t wait to visit.

The Depression is located in Northern Ethiopia close to the Eritrean border where 3 tectonic plates collide deep beneath the earth where Asia once met Africa. Above the plates, a depression forms one of the lowest places on earth, 100 metres below sea level, and a very dry desert with the world’s hottest average temperature of 35 degrees Celsius. The plates below are still moving, still separating the earth, still playing havoc with the ground above; geology at play, Mother Nature at her best and her most frightening.

In the Dallol, volcanic activity mostly deep below causes pools of sulfuric acid to spout, congregate in multicolour pools, then disappear after a few days. The landscape is ever changing. A sulfur pool there one day is gone the next.

Our visit started early from Mekele, 3:00 AM early, in land cruisers, along with a local tour guide, for a 3 hour drive on a newly paved road (thanks to the Chinese) to arrive at the Depression for sunrise. Our goal was not so much to see the sunrise but to beat the worst of the heat when we walked into the Depression.

We also picked up a local guard, complete with a rifle. The area was relatively safe; the British foreign office had rescinded its NO GO advice about a year ago when the current Ethiopian president signed a peace treaty with Eritrea, ending a war that had been raging since 1998. Raiding parties from Eritrea, just 100 kilometers away, had been common, including the killing of 2 foreigners, but the peace has held here. The guard was mostly a make-work project, offering employment and engaging the locals in the tourist trade.

After 3 hours and the sunrise, the road petered out but none was needed. We had reached the salt flats, miles and miles of white salt perfect for driving on to our destination. Although not quite as extensive as those in Bolivia, and lacking a salt hotel, they were still impressive:

We reached the start of the Depression and began the 20 minute walk to the sulfur fields, gingerly stepping on large, craggy stones rising out of the earth, punctuated by mini-rock toadstools and rounded dried up pools of salt, all very unworldly:

The stench of sulfuric acid greeted us as we neared the first pool, followed by puffs of smoke floating in the air. Our guide showed us the safest path, reminding us not to get too near to the springs and to stay away from anything damp – an indication the earth below was not stable.

The hot springs were all around, in the most vivid colours produced by nature – bright yellows, lime greens, rusty oranges- with blue indicating the newest pool, progressing to green, yellow and orange before finally turning brown and drying up. Pictures speak louder than words:

Scientists have recently begun studying the Dallol, seeking to determine if anything lives in it. Tiny little microbes have been found, leading to examinations as to how life might form in outer space. But I saw only an occasional fly blown in by the wind, buzzing haphazardly about before dropping dead in the dry heat.

Just a few kilometers away, back on the salt flats, men laboured in the blazing sun, carving out blocks of sand and placing them on camels, 7 blocks per camel. Thus laden, camel caravans will walk for days to the market, as they’ve done for time immemorial. The Depression rightly earns its moniker The Most Inhospitable Place on Earth but life teems all around it.

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Next: Ethiopian Journey II: A trip through history

Too Many Ports of Call: Caribbean Cruising

After 9 days at sea crossing the Atlantic Ocean aboard the Britannia, I was looking forward to setting foot on land and seeing something other than water and sky. The Caribbean, with 9 ports of call, beckoned.

Antigua:

Our very handy television port guide gives an introduction to each island, so I shall begin with a brief history. Antigua was inhabited by the native Arouwat tribe who were ousted by the more fearsome Carib Indians, who harken from Columbia. The first European to set eyes on the island was good old Christopher Columbus, but it wasn’t until the mid-15th century when the British laid claim and began to settle the island, killing or exiling all the Caribs in the process.

Sugar was the new craze in Europe and the Caribbean islands were ideal for growing it, along with some tobacco and cotton. Sugar cane cultivation is labour intensive and when the Brits ran out of indentured Irish servants, they began importing African slaves in droves. They worked the plantations for centuries, enduring long work hours, horrible conditions and little opportunity for freedom. In 1838, Britain abolished slavery, causing the newly emancipated slaves to become landless labourers at the mercy of absentee plantation owners. One hundred and fifty years of reliance on sugar cane ensued, before the sugar market collapsed, destroying the economy. Since the 1970’s, tourism has become the lifeblood of the island.

Upon disembarking, I walked through the purpose built “terminal” which should be called what it is, a shopping mall for the cruise crowd filled with duty free jewelry shops, souvenir stalls and a few restaurants promising local cuisine. I escaped as quickly as possible to the centre of the capital, St. John’s. The downtown was typical Caribbean city: modern buildings mixed with colonial houses sporting wrought iron railings, a few empty shells and a cathedral that loomed over the city. Broken sidewalks lined both sides of congested streets. Stores were what I would expect: clothes, groceries, digital phone carriers, handicrafts, etc.

Not wanting to do any shopping, I boarded a public bus/, large mini-van, to Nelson Dockyard. Horatio Nelson, of Waterloo fame, was posted here when it was Britain’s major Caribbean naval base. He referred to it as an “infernal hole.” Apparently there was a view and an old fort in the Dockyard, but the cost to enter along with the need to hire a taxi to reach the view was more than I wanted to spend, so I contented myself with a walk to a nearby harbour and another min-van bus ride back to town.

My fellow passengers did not fare much better. Antigua promotes itself as the island with a beach for every day of the year, 365 of them, so many fellow cruisers had booked shore excursions to various beaches. But by noon, the skies were overcast, the shore excursions to the beaches were cancelled and the scenic tours of the island were, according to my dinner mates, a bit of a bust as a thick fog hung over the island, making scenic views impossible.

St. Kitts /Nevis:

I walked off the ship to the port shopping mall, with its duty free jewelry stores, restaurants and souvenir shops and onto the Main Street of its capital, Basseterre. It looked remarkably similar to Antigua, narrow streets jammed with vehicles, dodgy sidewalks lined by stores selling more tourist stuff and also groceries, telephone carriers and an abundance of banks. The familiar CIBC logo stood above one, but it was called the Bank of the Caribbean. A 5 minute walk took me to Independence Square, where a relic of the old British rule stood abandoned and rotting:

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Back towards the port, in the former Treasury building, the National Museum exhibits cultural and historical information about the island, with a focus on the importance of sugar to the island and the economic devastation when the last sugar mill closed 2005.

St. Kitts’ history is similar to Antigua. In 1493, Columbus stopped by and it is believed it is named after his nickname, Kitt. Britain settled it in the 16th century, as did the French so the next few centuries saw the two European powers battling each other, along with occasional forays by the Spanish and Portuguese.

It became Independent in 1983; currently has a population of 52,000 and is 100 square miles in size. I am sure a lot more could be written about it, but after walking around Basseterre for an hour, I found a bar, ordered a daiquiri and surfed the internet.

St. Lucia;

The ports and their shopping terminals were starting to look the same. As some of the stores are part of a chain, that’s not surprising. In Castries, the capital of St. Lucia, I had to walk through the Diamond International store to get out onto the street to the city centre. A pretty walk along a haphazard sidewalk brought me to the same types of stores and service shops I had seen in Antigua and St. Kitts, so I returned to the port mall, where the sidewalks were in markedly better shape than the rest of the town centre. I wandered into two clothing stores seeking a sundress, but to my chagrin, the labels said “Made in India.” I found a coffee shop, ordered a muffin and surfed the internet.

Its history is akin to the others, although its first settler, Captain Leclerk, was a pirate. In the 17th century the Dutch arrived and tried to establish a colony, whereafter battles broke out for it between the Dutch, British and French. The British prevailed, until 1979 when it became independent.

It has the usual beautiful sandy beaches, turquoise waters and lush green interior. To the north are its famous mountains, The Pitons, after which the local beer is named.

Going out of order, the Britannia visited St. Lucia twice on my tour. On my final day aboard, I signed up for the Farewell to St. Lucia tour, basically a cheaper way to get to the international airport than the $US 100 cab fare. A mini-bus drove us to on the winding road to the airport, with stops along the way at a woodworker’s shop, a craft emporium, a chocolate making store, lunch and some viewpoints before depositing me at the airport for a 5 hour wait for a late (grrrr…..) Air Canada flight to Toronto.

St. Vincent/Grenadine:

Sorry if this is starting to sound monotonous. We docked in the capital, Kingstown, at a small, purpose built port/mall with familiar looking stores. I walked into town, saw a Subway, a KFC and a Burger King, along with lots of fruit stalls. I walked back, found a coffee shop with wifi and surfed the net.

Here’s what I learned about the country. It is made up of 32 islands; St. Vincent has 90% of the land and population. Caribs aggressively prevented European settlements until the 1700s. The French first settled, planting tobacco, indigo and coffee and corn, but ceded it to England by The Treaty of Paris in 1783. The Brits took it over and the1st Carib war broke out. Britain won. Independence came in 1979. It’s economy relies on tourism.

Barbados:

Feeling guilty about my lack of sightseeing at the previous stops, I succumbed to the high-pressure sales tactics on-board the ship and signed up for a Railroad and Rum tour of Barbados. On a slightly overcast day, I marched through the now standard port mall that greeted us at each stop to the mini-bus along with 20 other fellow passengers. We drove through the main city, Bridgetown, past an abandoned Sandals hotel, through a town with every high priced merchant – Pravda, Ralph Lauren, etc. – out into the country to be met with winding roads, tropical green forests and gentle mountains before arriving at the St. Nicholas Abbey Heritage Train. I was expecting a renovated old train previously used to transport sugar cane or the like, but this was a newly built track designed only for tourists. A 15 minute ride took us to the pinnacle, where a beautiful view of a harbour below awaited. If I hadn’t seen the same view a hundred times in the last week or if the clouds had been a little less threatening, I might have been less than underwhelmed.

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A bridge in Barbados

Next stop on the tour, the St. Nicholas Abbey, which, despite its name, is not an Abbey and has no religious background. It is a large colonial house furnished in colonial couches and chairs and a chandelier. In the back was a rum distillery, where the guide explained the rum distillation process before providing us with a small tasting glass. Small turned out to be a blessing; the stuff is about 60 proof and far too strong for my taste. And that was the tour, more than enough to discourage me from signing up for any more shore excursions.

The ship was overnighting in Barbados, so I had 2 full days to explore Bridgetown, named after the numerous bridges. From the port, it was a pleasant 20 minute stroll to the main shopping area, but it was raining heavily and the shops looked all too familiar. However, the port mall offered free wifi, so I kept returning to it, along with most of the other 3,700 passengers on the Britannia eager to make contact with their family back home without paying exorbitant fees on the ship.

Curacao:

The “C” in the ABC Caribbean Islands (Aruba and Bonaire are “A” and “B”), Curaçao’s natives were Arawak and Caquetio Indians, who disappeared upon the arrival of the first Europeans, the Spanish, in 1499. The Dutch and its Dutch West Indies Company, set up shop in 1634, constructing a pretty colonial capital, WIllemstad, and the usual sugar plantations worked by slaves. The Dutch fought wars with other European powers and prevailed, putting down slave revolts along the way, but abolished slavery in 1863. The island underwent the same economic transitions as other Caribbean islands following emancipation but with some notable exceptions. Vast salt fields on both Bonaire and Curaçao provided exporting opportunities and the island’s vicinity to the oil in Venezuela caused a refinery to be constructed. It still operates today, but is leased to Venezuela. I’m not sure Venezuela pays its bills.

Curaçao self-governs in most respects, but it is still part of The Netherlands and its citizens Dutch. Daily KLM jumbo jets from Amsterdam bring Dutch sun seekers to the island, eager to sample its beaches, diving and hot Caribbean weather. The Dutch government has also poured a lot of money into the island. No broken sidewalks, potholed roads or shanty towns. Willemstad is all dolled up and neat as a Dutch town.

I had spent a week on the island a few years ago, so I passed on the obligatory island tour which takes in beautiful scenery, a pay-to-use beach and the stop at the Curaçao liqueur factory. Instead, I walked through the now familiar port shopping mall, strolled over the Queen Emma bridge and found free internet.

Bonaire:

Known as a scuba diving paradise, Bonaire shares a history with Curacao. It also boasts an estimated 15 -20,000 flamingoes, but only 18,000 residents. The largest salt flat in the Caribbean is located here, along with a pink beach which isn’t pink and a pink lake, which is:

The Britannia docked in Krelendijk, the largest town on the island. I dislodged, to the usual bevy of tourist shops, malls and touts. After locating and using free wifi for a while, I signed up for a non-Britannia sanctioned tour of the southern part of the island in a brightly coloured chicken bus. The tour took us to the salt flats, the pink lake, a pretty beach and slave houses, before driving as close as we could to 1 of 2 flamingo sanctuaries on the island.

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Flamingos in the distance

Grenada:

This cruise has gone from monotonous to a grind. Our 7th port in 10 days. Apologies to all Grenadians, but the island had the same feel, history, highlights and scenery as most of the other islands. I did the exact same thing I did in most of the other ports: walked through the terminal, strolled around downtown, climbed atop a hill for a view and photo, then returned back to port, found a bar with wifi, ordered a drink and surfed the web.

Conclusion:

I suppose if I was a diver or a sunbather or in need of rest and relaxation, I would have been more enamoured with the Caribbean ports, but I don’t dive, I sunburn too quickly to laze on a beach and, having just spent 8 of the previous 9 days at sea doing nothing, if I was anymore relaxed I would be dead. Thus, for me, the Caribbean cruise was not quite boring but not super exciting. There is only so many sandy beaches/turquoise waters, verdant green interiors I can tolerate, not to mention steel bands, rum tastings and duty free shopping. The things that usually pique my interest in new places: history, architecture, economy, admittedly unfairly, became redundant after the second port and boring by the fourth. I’m glad I visited each island, but doubt I will be racing back soon.

 

Next: ….And now for something completely different: Ethiopia.

Sailing with the British

Three weeks of constant touring in Central Asia followed by 5 days of intensive sightseeing in Lebanon and 4 days of a slightly more lighthearted visit to Liverpool had left me exhausted, and, quite frankly, “toured out.” I needed some relaxation and non-touring time. Thus, I signed up for a repositioning cruise on the Britannia, sailing across the Atlantic from Southampton to Antigua in the South Caribbean starting October 26th.

A “repositioning cruise” occurs twice yearly when the major cruise ships traverse the oceans between the Mediterranean Sea, which they ply in the summer, to the Caribbean, where they sail during the winter months. These cruises lack the nearly daily stops at different ports, given the paucity of land between Europe and the Americas, but instead hold the promise of long, lazy sea days. Thus, this post is less about the sites I saw (aside from sea, clouds and sky, there were none), and more about spending a lot of time doing nothing.  

Good-Bye England (Day 1, Departure):

After an uneventful train ride from London to Southampton, I enter the cruise port, where my photo is taken, the all-important authorization is done on my credit card, my passport is confiscated to the end of the cruise and my bags scanned for alcohol infringements. I had only 1 bottle of Prosecco, the allowable BYOB. All other alcohol must be purchased at highly inflated cruise ship prices.

I had splurged on a balcony cabin, not particularly appealing in the cool, rainy weather but as I stand outside as we depart, I pop open my Prosecco and toast England good-bye. Or so I thought…..

Hello England: (Day 2, at sea):

All the Brits have been in the bars since 9:00AM watching the world rugby matches, especially England beating Australia to make the finals. It appears I am the only non-British person, of a total passenger count of 3769 aboard unless you count the Welsh couple I met. I suspect the Brits would take offence at suggesting a Welshman is not British.

The breakfast buffet offers the full English breakfast (eggs, sausage, bacon – the proper kind, not the thin little strips we call bacon back in Canada), fried tomatoes, mushrooms and toast. Healthier dishes are available, but nothing remotely Oriental or Asian. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen any Asian tour groups on the ship.

The rain, winds and cool weather make sitting on the balcony or finding out where the promenade deck is undesirable, so I decide to learn how to play Bingo. One of my dinner mates, Catherine from Liverpool, agrees to show me how. “Huh?” you may ask, “surely you know how to play Bingo!” I do, but this is British bingo with 90 numbers and only 3 long horizontal lines. I spend 12 pounds for 5 cards, 2 pounds for a dabbler and win nothing after the half hour session ends. I console myself with 3:00PM tea in the buffet, featuring, of course, scones, clotted cream and jam.

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Me standing beside the Britannia

Hail Britannia (Day 3, at sea):

TV screens and bars are all over the ship and every single one of them is devoted to (British) football. Sunday is football day in Britain and being on vacation at sea doesn’t seem to be a reason for anyone to miss their weekly football fix. The bars are full with drunken football fans, conversation at dinner is devoted to football and the one guy I talk to at the singles mixer goes on and on about football even after I told him twice I don’t follow British football. I escape the mixer and the bars and drink copious amounts of free champagne at the captain’s welcome party. It’s about the only free thing on this ship, except for the bathrooms and the minuscule chocolate square the steward leaves on my bed each evening.

No escaping Brexit (Day 4, At sea):

Internet on board the Britannia is expensive ($40 for 24 hours) and unreliable. I know this in advance, so being cheap and anticipating being internet free for first 3 and then 5 days at sea, I had downloaded 80 videos on YouTube, 16 series on Netflix, a few Amazon Prime shows and hundreds of hours of podcasts. Not quite downtime, but definitely disconnected.

By day 4, I am itching for news so I turn on the TV and check out the 8 channels available on board: BBC News, Sky News, 2 British sports channels, a British game show channel, and 3 British drama channels. I turn to BBC. Brexit headlines the news, Parliament voted in insufficient numbers to trigger a December election. The newscasters analyze this development for 29 minutes, before devoting the final minute to other, non-Brexit news. The situation was no better on Sky News.

One of the bars features a quiz, based on a British show called Pointless. I am tempted to test my intelligence in one of the many quizzes happening on board, but they are all British based: British history, British TV, British geography, etc. so I pass.

Into Portugal (Day 5, Madeira):

I become one of those persons I hate, a member of the horde of cruise ship passengers who descends on a port for a few hours in search of an authentic local experience. In protest, I decline going on a shore excursion pretending to show off the best Madeira has to offer, but really designed to separate passengers from as much of their money as possible. Instead I leave the port, following the very helpful giant footsteps painted on the sidewalk directing people to the town center, past the stalls selling of fridge magnets and cheap t-shirts, past the taxi-drivers, the hop-on/hop off buses and the bicycle rickshaws, walking 2 kilometers to the center of town to check out, but not stopping in at, the CR7 museum devoted to football, and a statue of Renaldo, the soccer player, who was from the island. I am on a mission: the internet. No Starbucks in sight, but the park across the port offers free wifi. I log in, read my mail, reload my expired YouTube and Netflix shows and am happy.

Brits and beached whales (Day 6, at sea):

One of the things I dislike about the Britannia is, unlike other ships I’ve sailed on, the promenade is not on a lower, covered deck encircling the ship but instead occupies a small, separate place on the top, at deck 18, completely open to the elements and surrounding a dodge ball field and 2 golf swing nets, with sun beds on both sides and overlooking the pools. It takes 7 laps to make a mile, in the 27 degree heat of the tropics with the sun glaring down, wind blowing me all over and sunbathers jumping up and down as they get drinks, go to the bathroom or chase after hats the breezes sweep away. The noise from the steel band playing on the pool deck permeates my earphones and disrupts my podcast every time I walk on the side near the pool.

Needless to say it is not ideal for walking but the only other alternative is hiking along the narrow aisles between the cabins, so I try to make the best of it. It will be a perfect opportunity to people watch, with all the sunbathers about, but some generalizations soon became apparent. Apparently Brits love their tattoos, which are displayed in all their glory on bodies clothed in too skimpy bikinis and swimming trunks, all looking really bad on 80 year old droopy, wrinkly skins. Too many women who shouldn’t wear bikinis expose vast rolls of flab bouncing about with every wave and the majority of  men over 20 possess gigantic beer bellies, but at least I don’t see any in speedos. Most are sporting sunburns, only a few teenagers are what I describe as well-toned. By and large, it was a disheartening display of decades of excess sugar, alcohol and a lack of exercise.

In this another unexciting sea day,  I manage 42 laps, watch 1 movie, 3 hours of YouTube, 4 hours of podcasts, attend a lecture about British serial killers, this one about the Rillington murders, but congratulate myself for multitasking, listening to podcasts as I do my laps.

Another relaxing day (Day 7, at Sea):

I watch 2 movies, 3 hours of YouTube, listen to 3 hours of podcasts and complete 29 laps around the promenade deck. Swells were down to 2-3 meters, the breeze was light and the temperature is 27. A lecture on the validity of the insanity defence in murder cases with reference to the Yorkshire Ripper was well presented, but I pass on the Blackjack tournament and the Adele tribute show. In the only non-British reference in the hour long BBC newscast, a fleeting mention was made to baseball, where the Nationals beat the Astros to win the World Series.

On some ships, the food is one of the highlights. Not so on the Britannia. While the menu is specially created by a world renown chef, it is decidedly British: roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, steak and ale pie with mashed potatoes and mushy peas and fish and chips. Everything is slightly bland and cooked either well-done or very well-done. I long for sushi or Pad Thai.

Time stops for no man, except British rugby fans (Day 8, at sea):

Jet lag does not happen on repositioning cruises. Instead of quickly gaining or losing 6 or more hours such as would happen on a long plane ride, cruise ships take the gentler approach of turning the clock back every day or so. Thus, an extra hour is gained on Britannia on days 5 and 7. The ship is scheduled to gain an extra hour on Day 8, but the start time for the World Cup Rugby Final, with England vying for the title, would be the ungodly hour of 6:00AM. This wouldn’t stop the pubs from being full and serving alcohol but somebody high up decided to delay the time change to Day 9, to give everyone an extra hour of sleep, completely nonsensical as the game start would be 8:00PM Tokyo time regardless and people on the ship would only look at a different time on their clocks, not gain an hour of sleep. But it raises an intriguing question. If the Britannia was running parallel with a non-British ship which had moved its clocks back, what time would it be?

Britain in mourning (Day 9, At sea):

The Rugby World Cup final game began at 7:00AM on the ship. By the time I get out of bed and move about the ship 3 hours later, the UK had lost to South Africa and most of the Brits aboard, probably about 3,000 of them, were both downing their sorrows in beer and settling in for a full day of football in the bars.

I walk 42 laps, attend another what I now refer to as “Murder of the Day” lecture, watch 2 movies, listen to 4 hours of podcasts and eat 3 times.

Another day of Football (Day 10, At Sea):

Football in the UK has gone from a Saturday ritual to a near daily ordeal, with games available to watch 7 days a week. So it was no surprise most of my fellow passengers were again glued to the TVs in the bars. A few hardy souls attend the last of their daily dance class in the lounge and the Murder of the Day lecture is so well attended that a second session is added, an expose of the Evans brothers, a pair of notorious British gangsters who made the Mafia look like kindergarten kids.

Late in the evening, as I sit on my balcony, I see, for the first time in 5 days, something other than sea, sky and clouds. A jetliner flies overhead, shattering the monotonous sound of waves gently splashing against the ship. Tomorrow we make land in Antigua. I look forward to connecting on the internet after a 5 day absence.

Next: A Caribbean Port a Day

 

 

Next: Caribbean ports

Liverpool: Reliving the Sixties

After 6 weeks exploring ancient ruins, the Silk Road, civil wars and the economic consequences of the USSR’s collapse, I was in need of something a little lighter. A chance conversation with fellow tourists on my architectural walking tour of Beirut extolling  the virtues of their home town, Liverpool, England, and its promise of a Magical Mystery Tour, a ferry crossing the Mersey and a museum devoted to British music convinced me it would be a perfect antidote to all the heavy history I had just encountered.

A quick 2 hour train ride from London deposited me at Liverpool’s Lime Station, beside the heart of downtown. My hotel was just a 5 minute walk away. Nearby were pubs galore, all filled with youngsters preparing for the Liverpool versus Manchester United football match, pedestrian walkways with restaurants from all nations, typical global stores and shopping malls, both indoor and out. Just 15 minutes away were the revitalized Albert Docks, famous for its maritime heritage. I’ll get back to that later, but this trip was about music and right outside the Mersey Ferry Building was not the expected statue of Gerry and the Pacemakers, but one of the Fab Four, aka The Beatles:

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I signed up for one of a number of Magical Mystery Tours, on a bus painted like the album cover. Me and about 30 others climbed aboard. To the beat of Magical Mystery Tour, our guide gave a brief introduction to the city and The Beatles and off we drove,  past the house where Ringo Starr was born, his elementary school and the pub his mother used to sing at, before stopping at Penny Lane:

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With the music of Penny Lane playing over the speaker, our guide explained that the stores and people in the song were not really about Penny Lane (…Penny Lane, there is a barber showing photographs….) since it was mostly residential, but about its intersection with Smithdown Road, where the bus with the destination “Penny Lane” turned around and where John Lennon and RIngo Starr probably spent hours walking, just not together, as they didn’t meet until they were in their 20’s.

From there we drove past George Harrison’s birth house, a non-descript 2 bedroom, 4 room house with a toilet out back, to John Lennon’s childhood house at #12 Arnold Grove, before stopping at Strawberry Fields. It’s a green space currently used to provide training to disadvantaged youths, funded in part by John Lennon’s estate.

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Paul McCartney’s childhood house has been taken over by the National Trust and tours are offered, as they are at John Lennon’s house. Both apparently are decorated like they would have been in the late 50’s, with the exception of a lot of The Beatle’s memorabilia. McCartney’s house especially is rich as Paul and John composed many of their future hits there. We drove past other buildings significant to The Beatles; the place where Lennon had gone to art school, the church where McCartney had been rejected in his attempt to be a choirboy, some girlfriends’ working places, manager Brian Epstein’s house, the street where John and his Quarryman band had played, all the while listening to The Beatles tunes and the guide filling us in on details of their lives.

We ended at The Cavern Club, on Matthew Street. The street is devoted to The Beatles and shops named Rubber Soul and Sargent Peppers line the alley. Strange statues of The Beatles appear along the way:

A statue of Eleanor Rigby is nearby. She was a scullery maid who died long before The Beatles were born, but her grave is close to where McCartney first met Lennon and her tombstone the inspiration for the song:

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After The Beatles played in Hamburg, they returned to Liverpool and performed at the Cavern Club 292 times between 1961 and 1963. The original Cavern Club was demolished, but the current one is a reproduction using the original bricks and blueprints, located just a few hundred feet from where it once stood. Today, it has hourly acts paying homage not only to The Beatles, but other notable bands who played there including the Rolling Stones, The Who, Queen, Elton John and Eric Clapton. On the 2 occasions I visited, the audience was mostly baby boomers, humming along to golden oldies from their youth:

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Although there are a few museums devoted to The Beatles, I decided to take a ferry, cross the Mersey River, in honour of the song popularized by Gerry and the Pacemakers. The ferry operates largely for the tourists , playing the song and with a commentator giving history of the area, the river and the ferry. Today, most people drive though the tunnels but the ferry offers a good view of Liverpool’s waterfront, including its most famous buildings known as the Three Graces:

The British Music Experience is a new museum, tracing British music from the mid-1950’s to the present. Every half hour, a hologram performs on the centre stage – this is Boy George from Culture Club singing Karma Chameleon:

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I spent an enjoyable 2 hours walking though the exhibits and listening to the music, hearing everybody from Cliff Richard to The Sex Pistols to Amy Winehouse. The museum is interesting insofar as it tried to tie popular music culture to political and economic events – apparently Grunge rock was a reaction to Margaret Thatcher’s politics- which I didn’t always agree with, but I appreciated the attempt to integrate music into the wider environment.

Liverpool offers a lot more than just music. On a walking tour, the guide explained Liverpool got its city Charter originally from King John, of Magna Carta fame, who founded it as a port to launch attacks on Ireland. The newly constructed (2008) Liverpool Museum traces the history of the city, with an emphasis on life in the 1800’s in the tenements or courtyard houses. Nearby is the Maritime and Slavery Museum exhibiting Liverpool’s contribution to both. It was the main stop on the shipping triangle: loading cheap goods on ships to send to Africa, where the ships were loaded with slaves bound for the Americas before returning to Liverpool laden with sugar and cotton.

Liverpool was the first port to use a wet dock, making it one of the most important ports in Europe. In addition to earning huge amounts from slavery, it exported alcohol and passengers, and had a healthy ship construction industry. Container ships and airline freight popularized in the 1970’s sounded the death knell for the docks but ironically, its current rebirth is due to the sea; it has become a popular stop for cruise ships.

Architecturally, the city is used by the film industry as it can serve as anywhere: Moscow in The Hunt for Red October, Peaky Blinders, Captain America (New York) and Jack Ryan (New York) to name a few. There’s the standard British traditional and modern cathedrals, modern museums, and my favourites, fabulous ventilation shafts that resemble a miniature CN tower and the best in Art Deco:

Final Thoughts:

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Liverpool. Much of it was spent humming favourite songs, reliving my teenage years when I had idolized Elton John and bragged about seeing Led Zeppelin, along with 500,000 others, at Knebworth field. I was pleasantly surprised how cheap it was, especially compared to London, the museums were good and the time I spent at the Cavern Club listening to music was a nice walk down memory lane.

Next: Cruising the Atlantic

 

 

Lebanon: What a SNAFU

Lebanon, for me, had always been forbidden fruit. Living in Israel in 1971-72, Lebanon had conjured up images of territories recently conquered, UN peacekeepers, no-man’s land and the PLO’s launchpad for terrorist attacks. A disastrous civil war between 1975 and 1991 decimated Lebanon’s economy, destroyed the last vestiges of its glory days and made it a definite no-go for tourists. But the war had been over for 28 years, I no longer possessed the verboten Israeli stamp in my passport, a friend who had just visited spoke highly of its hospitality, safety and historical sites and there had not been a terrorist attack for at least 3 years. I decided it was a good time to give it a try.

I flew into Beirut in October, 2019, 2 days after Turkey bombed Syria. Istanbul’s new airport was calm and quiet, but I was still a little unsettled. Fortunately no missiles or other projectiles hit my Turkish Airlines flight and we landed safely. Immigration was a breeze – the “visa on arrival” was nothing more than a stamp in my passport proferred by the immigration officer whose only question was “where are you staying?”

My taxi transfer gave me my first introduction to the city. The airport is about 15 kilometers to my hotel in the Verdun neighborhood, reached first by a freeway followed by wide city streets. Neither had lines demarcating lanes, but no matter. Even on those rare occasions where lanes were indicated, driving in lanes is not something any Lebanese driver does. My taxi driver, and all subsequent drivers, swerved in and out of traffic, honked at every opportunity, never signaled, routinely ran red lights and slammed on their brakes with amazing regularity, only to floor their accelerator as soon as possible. Seatbelts were never used, but cellphones always were. Driving in Beirut is not for the fainthearted, being a passenger even more nerve wracking. I learned quickly to close my eyes, put in my earphones and pray every time I got into a car.

Ancient History:

Lebanon’s location at the crossroads of civilization means Lebanon has a long history, beginning with Neolithic peoples, followed by Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantium, Arabs, Crusaders, Egyptian Mamlukes, the Ottoman Empire, a French protectorate before finally becoming independent in 1943. Each successive conqueror left their mark, architecturally, linguistically, ethnically and religiously.

The country is rich with archeological sites and I visited 2. Byblos, from the Greek for book, is one of 3 continuously inhabited cities in the world going back at least 6,000 year – the others are Damascus and Jericho – and its layers brilliantly excavated to expose a little from each civilization. Phoenician Temples are in the shadow of a Crusader Castle, a Roman road with columns scattered about leads to the entrance. a Roman Ampitheatre exists as does a Royal Necropolis.

Spectacular for different reasons is Baalbeck, where the remains of three Roman temples – one each dedicated to Jupiter, Athena and Bacchus – are the main attraction. Mostly only the foundations for the Jupiter and Venus temples are visible, but Bacchus’ temple is largely intact, save for the roof. Even though it was smaller than Jupiter’s temple it is larger than the Parthenon in Athens:

The Civil War: 

During the French Protectorate and the 1950’s and 1960’s, Beirut was known as the Paris of the Middle East. The rich and glamorous flocked to its elegant high rises lining the Corniche, the coastline along the Mediterranean Sea. Two train lines operated, connecting it to Damascus and Tripoli/Istanbul. Laws were more liberal than in other Middle Eastern countries; wealthy Arabs came to gamble and drink alcohol. Movies were filmed; theatre performed and the myriad of religions: Muslims, Druze, Christians and Jews got together. It had become a haven for other displaced religions, welcoming large numbers of Armenians fleeing from Turkey in the 1920’s. Things were looking good.

Sadly, between 1975 and 1991, a brutal civil war devastated Lebanon, with an estimated 200,000 dead, an economy in shambles, religious divisions between the Christians, Muslims and a Muslim sect, the Druze and an entire generation raised in fear of bombs and sniper attacks.

Two guides from separate walking tours gave similar accounts of the reasons for the war. One must go back to 1967 and the war against Israel. Lebanon was convinced to join the Arab alliance, wholly expecting a quick and decisive victory after a surprise attack against Israel. But they were resoundly defeated and Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt all lost large tracts of land. Former residents, mostly Palestinians, fled to Lebanon and Jordan and terrorist organizations like the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) emerged representing the displaced Palestinians.

The PLO’s solution to their landless status was to try and convince Jordan to give up half of its remaining land and carve out a separate Palestinian state. After protracted negotiations, the king of Jordan refused and kicked the PLO out of Jordan. They relocated to Lebanon, urging the Lebanese to support continued warfare against, and a further invasion of, Israel. This divided the country into two factions, the right wing content with the status quo provided by the robust economy versus the left wing who favoured supporting their Arab brothers by maintaining the battle against Israel.

The spark setting off the violence was the 1975 murder of Palestinian social workers riding on a bus by Christians, but, amazingly, the next day, the country was fully armed. While ostensibly the war was between Christians and Muslims, the reality was far more complicated. Warlords emerged, each seeking to increase and consolidate their own powers, engaging private militias to terrorize whoever stood in their way. At various times, Muslims fought Muslims and Christians fought Christians.

The one clear demarcation was Beirut’s Green Line, dividing Beirut into Muslim West and Christian East. The Green Line became a no-man’s zone which no one dared cross. The lack of human contact allowed nature to take back the concrete, creating a thin forest of trees, 24 kilometers long, through the center of the city. Today, it has reverted back to a cityscape – a bland area beside an overpass with sidewalks and streetlights on either side.

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Part of where the Green-Line used to be

The downtown was battered on all sides. Strategically, the higher the building, the better to serve as both a watchtower and a perch for snipers, and there was no bigger prize than the Holiday Inn. Newly opened in 1974, the largest Holiday Inn in the world had a revolving restaurant on its roof and was opulence at its best. It operated for only a year, before being targeted in The Battle of the Hotels, in which it and the nearby Phoenician Hotel became battlegrounds. Thousands died and the hotels abandoned except by the militants. Whatever remained after the war were vandalized by scavengers.

Today, the blackened shell casts a long shadow over the city, both a momento to the war and a symbol of Lebanon’s inability to repair itself. Currently owned jointly by a Kuwaiti company who wants to demolish it and put up a new high rise and a Lebanese group who want to renovate it as a reminder of the war, the consequence is nothing gets done. The Lebanese Army now occupies it, citing its potentially strategic use in the case of another war with Israel, but do nothing with it other then prohibiting tourists from taking photos of it.

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The Holiday Inn

The aftermath of the war:

A ceasefire was signed in 1991, with terms guaranteed to lead to a chaotic future. All parties surrendered their weapons, which made sense, but the new government was split, with the Presidency reserved for a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker a Shi’ite Muslim. As one fellow tourist, an ex-pat Lebanese living in New York said, the system was inherently weak because no one faction could dominate and consensus was impossible. A further term of the ceasefire was no narratives could be spoken about the war unless everyone agreed. The result was a de facto pardon: no war crime trials, no apportionment of responsibility and no teaching about the war in schools.

Lebanon has not had an easy time since the war ended. It has been invaded by Israel twice, occupied by Syria for 15 years and has had to absorb an estimated 2.5 million Syrian refugees, who are a huge burden on the health care and education system and are accused of taking jobs from Lebanese as they are perceived to be willing to work for less. During my bus tour to Baalbeck, we drove alongside Syrian refugee camps, their tent homes made of plastic sides with rubber tires on the roofs to keep them in place. Signs of permanency were obvious, satellite dishes, electric wires and water tanks. They could not go back: Syria’s President Assad declared every Syrian who fled to be a traitor who would be shot on sight if they tried to return. But as with everything in Lebanon, nothing is clear cut. A British fellow working with the UN told me the border with Syria had always been quite porous and up to 1 million Syrians regularly crossed, working in the fields of the Bekaa Valley and, unless one had been a Syrian draft dodger, Syria had no record of who had fled.

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Syrian Refugee Camp

But the real problem, quoting from various guides and the Lebanese who I met a number of my tours, is simple. The government is as corrupt as can be, interested only in maintaining power and growing richer. Everyone has their hands out, the top 1% of the population holds 50% of the wealth and are doing their best to keep it that way.

The most glaring symbol of the corruption and bad governance is downtown Beirut. Completely destroyed in the civil war, the then Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri (assassinated in 2005), set up a privately owned, publicly listed company with government powers called Solidere, whose mandate was to redevelop downtown Beirut. Solidere acquired all of the downtown land, often at ridiculously low prices from unwilling former owners, and set about constructing modern high rises designed by world renowned architects, set along perfectly tiled, clean sidewalks with cooling fountains and street level storefronts. Journalists have described this downtown area as Disneyesque.

The problem is, it is empty. Estimates range between 50 and 70% of apartments are unsold and many more are vacant, owned by wealthy expats and Middle Eastern foreigners seeking to invest in Beirut and using real estate to launder money. Lebanese banks used to be notorious for their accommodation of illicitly gained funds, but crackdowns have moved the money from banks to buildings. When I asked how the moneys made their way to the real estate developers through the banks, the answer was that blind eyes were turned when dollars changed hands.

Equally dumbfounding are the prices for the apartments, beginning at about $1 million and going up to $10 million for a penthouse. Monthly rents in the storefronts are $5000 per square meter. The result is a ghost town, populated only by security guards and privately engaged street cleaners, with an occasional Mercedes Benz car speeding in or out of underground parking garages.

Another problem is the decaying buildings. Some of the gleaning new buildings are right beside decrepit, shot out buildings, still standing empty after nearly 25 years.

In the center of downtown, beside the 2008 built Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque, stands what is colloquially called The Egg or the remains of an unfinished cinema house:

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No census has been conducted in Lebanon since 1932, but an estimated 1.5 million people live in Beirut or the many towns surrounding it. Most must endure long commutes because the price of housing in the downtown is far beyond most people’s reach and the owners would rather keep the rent/selling prices high and the properties vacant than pollute their areas with middle class people. Better to have an empty store than fill it with a coffee shop which might attract poor people. The few shops with tenants all sell high end, luxury goods.

Equally stupid is the lack of public transit. No public bus system runs in Beirut. The two train lines had both ceased service by 1974. Trams used to run through the downtown but their lines were destroyed in the war. After the war, the government decided to demolish the remaining few tracks, forcing the people to endure daily commutes from the suburbs. The reason? Apparently the government was close to the few families who owned all the gas stations. Without public transit, everyone would be forced to buy lots of gas at higher and higher prices. Needless to say, the roads into Beirut are ill-equipped to handle this traffic and hour long jams every morning and evening are the norm.

The National Museum is a wonderful exception to the government’s incompetence. Closed when the civil war began, many of its priceless treasures were stored in its basement or encased in concrete for protection from the artillery which heavily damaged the building. Restored and reopened in the 1990’s, the museum houses artifacts from Byblos, Baalbeck, Tyre and other sites, including excellent Roman mosaics and Phoenician sarcophagus. Its basement is most intriguing; it traces burial rites from the Neolithic period all the way to those of the Ottomans, with a place of honour bestowed upon the Phoenician sarcophagi:

The government has failed its citizens in other ways as well. Services most governments usually provide like electricity, water and garbage collection have to purchased privately. While ostensibly the streets of Beirut are cleaned twice daily, large piles of rotting garbage lined the highways and polluted the Corniche or coastline. Electrical lines bore signs of theft of electricity. The electricity in my Western style hotel (a Radisson Blu) cut off frequently during my stay, sometimes 5 or 6 times a day before the generator kicked in.

Education and healthcare are free, but only the poorest use it. Private education and healthcare flourishes. Education is very good, most Lebanese are fluent in Arabic, French and English, but few jobs exist. My tour guides were architects and archeologists; the unemployment rate is high and too many Lebanese are forced to go abroad to find jobs. Over 40 million Lebanese live in other countries, with the Ottoman Empire forcing many to leave for North and South America and the civil war encouraging many more to leave.

Everyone agreed and was anxious to tell me, life in Beirut was difficult for the middle class and the government was largely to blame. 

Final Thoughts: 

Lebanon has a lot of great things going for it. The archeological sights are fantastic, there are lots of museums and galleries, food was delicious, the people warm, friendly and multilingual. I never felt concern for my safety, even grabbing non-Uber taxis or walking around by myself, with the exception of crossing the roads with their madcap drivers. The walking and bus tours I took were excellent, my hotel was up to Western standards and no one seemed to care what my religion was, despite my Jewish last name.

Yet I felt uncomfortable in Beirut. On a Sunday morning, I walked to the Corniche from my hotel, just 10 minutes away. Walking along the sidewalks was a dicey proposition. In addition to broken tiles and day old garbage hazards, I had to walk out onto the street to get around a makeshift guard booth. A few minutes away, 4 soldiers with ugly looking guns manned a barricade. I initially thought they were guarding a foreign embassy, but later learned that the barricades were a common occurrence;  politicians and wealthy people demand high security. Further on, I passed yet another hollowed out hulk of a building, its concrete black with mold and pockmarked with bullet holes.

After reaching the Corniche, I looked forward to a peaceful walk along the shore. But it was not to be. Lebanon is not quiet and Beirut even less so. Cars without mufflers raced by, honking their horns at every opportunity, motorcycles loudly screeched, even the pedestrians were all shouting, never talking, into their cellphones. I retreated to the calm of my hotel room, something I did over and over in Beirut. I found the city to be beautiful and fascinating, but oddly unsettling, for reasons I couldn’t quite put my finger on and still can’t articulate.

Postscript:

I left by taxi for the airport on Thursday, October 17th, about 4PM. It was an uneventful ride and my 8:35 PM flight on Lebanon’s national carrier was routine. But the next day, I started getting emails: “are you safely out of Lebanon” and “were you caught up in the fires or protests?” I checked the news to learn beginning late Thursday, demonstrators had rallied  against government corruption in the downtown and closed the road to the airport.

The spark was a proposed tax on WhatsApp phone calls, designed to dent the country’s huge deficit and one which would hit the middle class the hardest. The protesters, united despite religious differences, were tired of government austerity measures which impacted them but did little to tackle the underlying problems of government corruption and elitism. As I write this, 4 days later, the marches are getting bigger, the calls for significant reforms continue to grow louder and the government seems to offer band-aid solutions designed to appease the protests, not resolve the real issues.

I think I finally figured out why I felt so uneasy in Lebanon. Despite the ceasefire in 1991, at its heart, the country is still at war with itself. Maybe not this religion against that religion and not one with tanks rolling down the streets, but it’s the haves against the have-nots and a war nonetheless.

 

 

The Five Stans: Throwback to the USSR

The first half of my 3 week Five Stans tour was dominated by the blue tiled splendor of the Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan and the over-the-top marble edifices of Turkmenistan. In the latter half, visiting Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, two new themes emerged: stunning mountain scenery and an odd reverence for all things Soviet that kept me humming Back in the USSR during my time spent there.

The History:

The region shares a common history. Settled thousands of years ago, such conquerors as Alexander the Great, the Persians, the Arabs and the Mongols all left their mark. Either in the 10th or 16th century, depending on who one asks, nomadic Turkic tribes from the Altai mountains invaded, mixed with the locals and, to varying degrees, either maintained their nomadic lifestyle or settled into farming. Khans or kings emerged, all Muslim, governing over their respective tribes.

Ironically, the US civil war is usually the impetus for sparking Russian interest in the area in the mid 1800’s. One consequence of the war was a global shortage of cotton. Russia, eager to fill the void, looked toward the cotton fields adjacent to the grand rivers, the Ural, the Amu Darya (the Oxus) and Syr Daryl and began conquering the region, eventually succeeding in 1895, when it created Russia Turkestan, roughly the area between Siberia and Afghanistan.

Soviet Rule:

Nearly 100 years of Russian/Soviet rule followed. Monuments in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan and Almaty, Kazakhastan’s main city, pay tribute to the Bolshevik Revolution; others commemorate the contributions made by the Stans’ populace, where hundreds of thousands of young men were conscripted into the Soviet’s WW2 war effort.

 

Many Soviet policies had long lasting impact. Stalin, fearful of the potential danger of a large, unified Muslim republic within the USSR arbitrarily carved out 5 republics – the current Stans – and promoted nationalism in each; the ultimate divide and conquer strategy. He also moved a lot of Russian, Ukrainian and Belarus into Central Asia, many involuntarily. Quite a few gulags were situated in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, not always with negative results. A Kazakh national I sat next to on the plane decried the loss of these forced Russian emigres, saying they were some of the best doctors, engineers and scientists in the area. He claimed their deaths, mostly by natural causes, left a large hole in the region’s intelligensia.

Thanks also to the USS, the largest environmental disaster after Chernobyl is in Central Asia, the much diminished Aral Sea. Once the 4th largest sea in the world, aggressive Soviet irrigation of its feeder rivers towards the cotton fields has left the sea a shadow of its former self, with seaside ports now 20 kilometers from the water, hundreds of ships resting in sandy graveyards far from shore and a once thriving fishing industry gone. The sea keeps shrinking and no improvement in its outlook is in sight.

Not all of the USSR’s policies were negative. The Stans had been largely feudal before Russia; afterwards most of the population received free education, modern healthcare, jobs-for-life, pensions and the right to vote in largely meaningless elections. Although nomadic life ceased during the Soviet times, farms provided sufficient food and queuing for food or going hungry was not a problem. Infrastructure grew by leaps and bounds; railroads, highways and TV’s were introduced. In Tajikistan, the Soviets spent a lot on infrastructure because they never thought they’d leave. Soviet style apartments, government buildings and universities abound in its capital Dushanbe. Women are mostly equal, religions tolerated and there’s little apparent discrimination based on ethnicity.

Road to Independence:

Starting in 1989, former republics in the USSR began demanding independence, sometimes with deadly results such as in Lithuania and The Ukraine, where USSR troops were sent in to quell independence marchers, killing many protesters. Not so in the Stans, where no real move for independence had developed. To the contrary, in Kazakhstan, independence was “negotiated” between its future president and the USSR. In Kyrgyzstan, the Kyrgzs were told, not asked, by the Russians they were leaving. Russia was finding it too expensive and difficult to keep the far-off Central Asia republics in their fold. Imagine Canada deciding it had had enough of Newfoundland and said it was divorcing it in 6 months. That’s what happened in 1991 to the Stans.

Thus, between August 31 and December 1, 1991, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan were cut loose from the imploding USSR and left to flounder on their own. While each took slightly different paths, their ensuing independence led to civil war (Kazakhstan), overthrows of corrupt government (Kyrgyzstan) and total economic chaos amid hyperinflation (everywhere). People, accustomed to being told what to do since birth,  were suddenly required to think for themselves. Unemployment reared its ugly head. Suicide rates skyrocketed, as did alcoholism. It was a rough introduction to the new world and even today, there is a divide between the older generation harking a return to the communist days and the younger generation more comfortable with internet, English and capitalism.

Despite independence, each of the Stans has kept the former Soviet style of government with the head of state wielding dictatorial powers, widespread censorship and rampant corruption within the government.

Against this background, I visited Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Tajikistan:

While possessing ancient and Silk Road ruins, Tajikistan’s biggest attractions are its mountains and lakes. A nature lover’s paradise, but for me, a reluctant hiker, the country’s vistas mostly offered good photo opportunities, such as the Pamir Mountains near Pendzhikent and at Khudzhand lake:

Its capital, Dushanbe, was unremarkable save for the over-the-top gaudiness of its newest tourist attraction, the Navruz Palace, built to showcase local craftsmanship in rooms reminiscent of tasteless Las Vegas interiors. A palace in name only, its stated purpose is to  host conferences and weddings and show to gobsmacked visitors. Allegedly built by private funds, all mysteriously related to the current president, the enthusiastic guide indicated it awaits UNESCO heritage status. I suspect it will be a long time coming.

There were a few pretty parks, some newish buildings reminding me of white marble clad Ashgabat and the ubiquitous oversized portrait of the current president, watching over a children’s festival:

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Presidential Portrait

Almaty, Kazakhstan:

Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, is not the capital, but instead, the former Astana, recently renamed Nur-Sultan in honour of its long-time dictator/president Nur-Sultan Nazarbayev. In Almaty, the main tourist site was a quaint music museum with displays of local instruments and wooden goat shaped puppets that danced to the music.

Pretty yes, particularly exciting or illuminating, no.

In this majority Muslim city, the standout religious building is a Russian Orthodox Church:

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There’s the obligatory soviet realism homage to the worker/cultures:

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Of course, we visited another nearby beautiful lake, the Great Almaty Lake:

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We attended the National Museum, where photos were only allowed in the lobby and the room devoted to Kazahkstan’s achievements, where President Nazarbayez is front and center. Thankfully, his sporting, artistic and driving exploits are not as prominently displayed as those of the Turkmenistan president in Mary.

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Presidential Promotion

Almaty did inherit Russia’s preference for ornate subways. We descended deep underground to a Silk Road themed station and rode the subway to the Bikaner station, named after the location where Soviet spaceships launch. Naturally, a film played in the subway station lauding the Soviet space program.

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan:

Of all the cities I visited in the Stans, Bishkek reminded me most of the USSR. Its main square, Alo-Too, formerly known as Lenin Square, is flanked on all sides by buildings bearing typical Soviet Realism, or as one writer terms it, brutalist, architecture with lots of square lines, monotonous, thick grey limestone bricks and little if any ornamentation. Around it rests an odd assortment of buildings: the National History Museum, the Ministry of Agriculture and 2 textile factories.

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Alo-Too Square

The Soviet love of massive statues celebrating communism is evident, as a walk around and near the square revealed numerous examples. The only nod to current conditions is the relegation of Lenin to behind the National Museum rather than the front:

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Lenin
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Marx and Engels
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Another homage to the USSR

Beside the square was a charming sculpture garden containing statues of famous Kyrgzs, none of whom I would have recognized even if I could read the Cyrillic alphabet. But it was nice to see depictions of people with Turkic and Mongol features, along with a few women.

A block away is the burned out remnant of the Prosecutor’s Building, destroyed in 2010 by rioters protesting against the corruption of the then president, who eventually fled the country and found refuge in Belarus.

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The former Prosecutor’s Building

 

Such occurrences are becoming commonplace; riots against a former president accused of corruption, abuse of office and enriching himself had taken place just a few weeks before, in August, 2019.Maybe the vestiges of the USSR are, at last, slowly disappearing.

Next: Lebanon

 

Uzbekistan: In search of a tyrant

Imagine one of the worst mass murderers in history, responsible for the slaughter of 17 million people, 5% of the world’s population, without gunpowder or nuclear weapons, many dying painful, grotesque deaths involving decapitation, being burned alive, having their insides brutally ripped out and prominently displayed giant mountains of victims’ skulls as a caution to others. Most nations would be ashamed of such a legacy, relegating such villains to a past best forgotten. Not so Uzbekistan, where its national hero is Timberlane, the prolific executioner whose exploits were exceeded only in the 20th century by the estimated 70 million who died during WW2.

Timerlane (also known or spelled Emir Timer, Timurlane or Timer-Lane) was not completely evil. He promoted Islam and was responsible for Islam’s resurgence in Central Asia in the 14th century, where he established many madrases – Islamic schools – and constructed fabulous mosques. His craftsmen created some of the most gorgeous buildings, many in Samarkand, which was referred to as the most beautiful city in the world in the 15th century. He fostered education, the sciences and astronomy. He captured large swaths of land in India, the Caucasus, Iran, Turkey and, in a strange twist, his defeat of the Ottoman Turks in 1402 at Ankara so weakened the Ottoman Empire that it failed in its later endeavors to capture Christian Europe.

Uzbekistan’s embrace of Timerlane is not completely unjust. He was partly Uzbek on his mother’s side, his father a Mongol descendant by marriage of Ghengis Khan. Timerlane was born in what is now Uzbekistan, came to power in Samarkand and made it his capital. Equally important, Uzbekistan needed a national hero when it became independent from Russia in 1991. Although the region enjoys a long history going back to Neolithic times, the Uzbeks were a fairly recent arrival, likely being one of many Turkic tribes who settled in the area in the 10th century, although others claim the Uzbeks did not arrive until the 16th century. During its time as a Soviet Republic, Stalin did his best to quash the Uzbek identity, scattering Uzbek people throughout the USSR, settling other ethnicities including many Russians in Uzbek-speaking territories, and making Russian the official language. It is not surprising that the newly formed independent country desired a hero that could unite a country, conveniently sidestepping his less positive sides.

The Tour:

I visited Uzbekistan in September, 2019 as part of a 5 country tour called “The Stans” organized by the Canadian company, Adventures Abroad. Advertised as for the over-55 crowd, at 59 I was by far the youngest of our 17 strong group. I think the oldest was 83. The relative older age range was reflective of most of the other tourists in the areas. Either because of restrictive visa requirements or the expense in flying here, backpackers were rarely seen and most visitors seemed to be seniors.

The major attraction for me of the Stans is its history as the Silk Road, the name given to a variety of overland trading routes linking the Far East to Europe, Turkey and India. Used since at least the time of Alexander the Great, camels starting in China traversed the deserts of Central Asia to Byzantium, laden with silk, spices and paper and returning with horses, wool and grapes. Along the roads, great cities with names like Samarkand and Merv gave refuge to weary travellers for centuries, provided a repository for ancient literature and scientific knowledge while Europe languished in the Middle Ages, and sparked a golden age of Arab art. More sinisterly, the Silk Road also transported the bubonic plague to Europe in the 6th century. In the 15th century, the Ottomans banned trade along the routes, a move that encouraged Portuguese navigators in the 16th century to discover faster sea routes and make the overland roads obsolete.

A Short History:

Tourists have been visiting since Marco Polo in the 14th century. I joined the new wave of tourists eager to sample The Five Stans: Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgzstan. Each country shares something of a common history: early Neolithic settlements, Hellenized by Alexander the Great and his successors, the start of global trade and silk roads during the Roman times in 132 BC to satiate the Roman desire for silk and inhabited by Persian speaking Zoroastrians until the Arabs captured and converted most of the area in the 7th century. In the 13th century, Mongol tribes led by Ghenghis Khan and a century later, Timerlane, first destroyed the great trading cities, then rebuilt them. The 15th century saw the immigration and settlement of Turkic speaking tribes and a variety of Arab empires. Both Russia and Britain turned their ambitions to Central Asia in the 19th century as the Great Game played out with Russia eventually emerging victorious.

The region was artificially carved into the Five Stans by Stalin, worried that a single, Muslim republic might pose a danger to the USSR. The USSR forced its usual Sovietization on the area, nomads were required to move to collective farms, intensive cotton farming led to environmental catastrophe and ugly rectangular apartment buildings dominated newly appointed cities. It wasn’t all negative: compulsory education, modern, free healthcare, roads and telephones were introduced. Upon the collapse of the USSR in 1991, each of the Stans declared independence but their newfound rulers with parties called the People’s Democratic Party or the like were all authoritarian dictators in the Stalinist mold.

Today, Uzbekistan has mostly unshackled the chains of Soviet subjugation. Uzbek is the main language (Russian is secondary), the Cyrillic alphabet has been replaced with Latin, the currency is the Som, religion is allowed (the country is 90% Muslim) and the free market economy is thriving. One of our guides loved to tell jokes about the USSR, none of them flattering, but he had studied Russian in university and was fluent. Few in Uzbekistan want to return to the Soviet days.

Tashkent:

In a move to make traveling easier, Uzbekistan recently removed visa requirements for 120 countries, so I breezed through formalities at the Tashkent airport in less than 10 minutes, being welcomed to the country without questions, but with a smile, by the immigration officer and waved around, not through, the luggage scanning machine. A late night ride followed first along a wide, paved highway, then a broad boulevard before stopping at a modern hotel.

While this city of 3 million has a long history, much of it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1966. The result is a small old city and loads of Russian era Soviet Realism office and apartment blocks which are slowly being replaced in the center by more interesting architecture.

In search of the real Timerlane, I walked to the Timur Museum, housed in a round white building, topped with a turquoise green dome, indicative of the new, Uzbekistan architecture. The museum was disappointing, lots of portraits of famous historical rulers, none of whom I’d heard of, a few traditional costumes, some ceramics, historical Korans and a map showing Timerlane’s conquest.

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Modern Uzbek Architecture-The Timur Museum

Far more interesting was the nearby statue of Timerlane, astride a horse. The facial depiction is considered accurate. In a strange convergence of history’s nastiest dictators, Stalin was fascinated by Timerlane and his legend. In 1941, he ordered his tomb opened to determine if the body truly belonged to Timerlane and to reconstruct Timerlane’s face using the skull. An inscription on the tomb translates to “Whoever Disturbs My Tomb Will Unleash an Invader Møre Terrible Than I.” Two day after the tomb was opened, Hitler and the Nazis attacked the USSR.

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Timerlane’s statue in Tashkent

Beyond the homage paid to Timerlane, not much in Tashkent interested me. A newish Mosque, a madras, a market selling fresh produce, dried fruit and meat, with carcasses of freshly slaughtered sheep hung from metal bars. In one corner, men baked bread in giant tandoori ovens, then the ladies sold them for pennies.

 

Nukus: The Savitsky Gallery

We flew over the Zkarakul desert to Nukus, the capital city in the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan, where the majority are ethnically and linguistically different from most Uzbeks, more Mongolian in features and background. I was expecting Silk Road cities and cavernasi and camels, so I was surprised where we stopped in front of a large, modern building, the Savitsky Gallery, aka The Uzbekistan Fine Arts School. It was the pet project of Igor Savitsky, an artist from the Ukraine who lived in Nukus between 1950 and 1984. He fell in love with the area and painted numerous landscapes, but also acquired, legally and not, works of Russian artists who had run afoul of official Russian guidelines for art. Thus, many of the paintings portray communism and the struggles of the workers in a less than flattering light. The Russians left Savitsky and his growing art collection alone – Nukus was too remote for them to know, or care, about some rogue artworks. The Nukus Museum now houses one of the world’s largest and finest collections of Russian avant-garde artistry.

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Before and after USSR censorship at the Savitsky

Khiva:

Finally, we arrived at Khiva, an iconic Silk Road city of 90,000 people. We approached the ancient walls, then passed through one of 4 gates into the old city and were met with adobe houses, sandy streets and a dizzying array of decorated, dark blue tiles covering towers, domes, over doorways, everywhere we looked. Alas, there was little evidence of Timerlane’s handiwork. Although he had visited the city, he basically razed it every time he came.

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Khiva

The city has been largely reconstructed. Successive invaders, first Arabs, then Russian cannon bombardments in 1873, destroyed much of the city and whatever was left over, earthquakes and natural wind erosion finished off. Despite the constant renovations, walking through the city takes one back to its heyday as a major stop on the trade routes, selling goods and slaves in the bazaars,

It was also a religious center, first for the Khorezym Persians between 200 BC and 700 AD, when Zoroastrians dominated the city. The Palace of the Kings, fire temples, the 8 pointed star and lack of in-ground burial sites are all telltale signs of the religion that was banished when the Arabs invaded in the 8th century but symbols of Zoroastrian remain, mostly incorporated into Muslim buildings.

Khiva embraced Islam and soon boasted 64 Madras, or religious schools and 50 minarets. Today, no active madras remain and just 13 minarets, victims of the Soviet policy of atheism and modern day apathy toward religion. The majority of Uzbeks are Muslim, but it is a secular state with a very moderate form of Islam being practised by most. Liquor is available, beer is brewed locally, and the hijab, completely veiling a woman’s face, is banned.

The palaces, former madrases and mosques provide the best example of the fanciful tile work. Most of the outside tiles are limited to white, blue and green, a result of the dyes used to create the colours and the high heat needed to set them. Other colours- reds, yellows, golds – would simply burn and turn brown.

A free show is put on for the tourists at the King’s Palace every afternoon, featuring a band, dancing, singing and a re-enactment of the king welcoming envoys with visitors bowing officiously and showing proper decorum in royalty’s presence. Corny yes, but I closed my eyes and allowed myself to be transported back 500 years.

Bukhara:

Bukhara is another ancient trading center on the Silk Road. Timerlane was too late to destroy it -that feat was accomplished in the 12th century by Ghengis Khan. The city didn’t recover until the 16th century when it was made the capital of the region.

There are no walls, but plenty of domes and 3 prominent trading bazaars – one for jewellers, one for caps and the third for money changers. The domes provided ventilation in the summer in the days before air conditioning where temperatures soar over 50 degrees. The bazaars, with their unadorned walls after the Russians carted off mosaics and murals to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the heavily decorated madrases have been turned into stores selling traditional crafts: carpets, embroidered cloth and clothes, tall fur hats and carved wood.

Samarkand:

We arrived, at last, at Samarkand, Timerlane’s capital, where he lived and devoted his energies to rebuilding it after Ghengis Khan destroyed it and beautifying it into an Islamic paradise. Five separate sites, mostly reconstructed after earthquakes, try to duplicate its glory days in the 14th century. First is the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, with its soaring tower. Named after Timerlane’s favourite wife, she is also suspected of directing its construction, with Timerlane absent so often on his war campaigns.

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Part of Bibi-Khanym Mosque

Next is the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis begun to house the remains of a cousin of the prophet Muhammad. Later, Timerlane built about 15 mausoleums for his favourite wives, family members and important officials, all covered with magnificent tile work.

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 Part of the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis

The Ulugbek Observatory is the third must-see sight. Constructed atop a hill for Timerlane’s favourite astronomer/scientist, Ulugbek, nothing remains of the original observatory, but a quarter of the giant sextant was uncovered by the Soviets and can be viewed. A small museum devotes itself to Ulugbek’s many accomplishments, including calculating the calendar to within seconds of accuracy, no mean feat in the 15th century.

Timerlane and some of his family are entombed in the Gur Emir Mausoleum. Tiled with ceramics and gold leaf, it is a dazzling monument to Timerlane’s love of Islamic art. Timerlane’s simple black tomb is the one Stalin opened in 1941.

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Timerlane’s final resting place

The crowning glory is Registan Square, where 3 giant madrases, each more magnificent than the next, circle the square. Despite being damaged many times by earthquakes and neglect, the basic structure of the madrases remains and each have been restored to their imagined former glory.

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Registan Square

I couldn’t leave without one more glimpse of Timerlane, so I walked to his statue and had my photo taken there, the larger-than-life Timerlane overshadowing everything around him.

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Timerlane and me

Final Thoughts:

I came to Uzbekistan in search of the Silk Road and Timerlane and found both. Despite the cities and monuments being heavily restored, the reconstruction has been methodically completed in a manner that tries to remain true to the original. Not so Timerlane’s legacy, which has been whitewashed to such a degree as to make me wonder what else abut this country has been conveniently forgotten. I asked our university educated guide in Samarkand whether Timerlane’s massacring tendencies are taught to children in school. “No,” he replied, “but I was able to learn about him from other sources.”

I understand and appreciate the need for Uzbekistan to adopt a national hero, but to elevate a mass murderer to near sainthood without so much as a mention of his darker side is, to me, unfathomable and unfortunate.

 

Next: The Silk Road continues

 

 

Afjordable Norway? Oslo

Norway is considered the third most expensive country in the world, after Switzerland and Iceland. After spending 2 weeks here, I wholeheartedly agree. Fortunately, by the time I reached Oslo, following a few days in Bergen and and a week long Hurtigruten cruise, I had figured out some ways to make my time in Oslo financially bearable.

Walk rather than use transit:

Oslo, a city of 650,000, is great for walking. A few years ago, the city rid itself of all parking spots in the center and replaced them with bike lanes and pedestrian only streets, relegating most vehicles to the outskirts. Citizens and tourists alike embraced the car free, environmentally friendly, initiative and today, walking around Oslo is a pleasure. It is made even more so by plenty of zebra crossings, at least one at every intersection, and pedestrians always have priority, except for blue trams which get the right of way over everyone and everything. The Pedestrians First rule is strictly enforced with the result that vehicles always stop for walkers. It never failed to amaze me every time I stepped into the street, I was absolutely certain cars would stop. And they always did.

There are exceptions to the walk everywhere rule. The distance from the airport to the city centre is 45 kilometers, making walking impossible. The round trip train ticket cost 320 Norwegian Kroner’s (NOK) or about $50 Cdn.

I foolishly used a city bus to return to my hotel from the Viking Ship museum, at a cost 56 NOK or $8.00. It was an expensive bus ride, but an hour bike rental from the bike shares would have cost close to it at 49NOK and Oslo has a few too many steep hills for my liking to cycle. I am scared to think what a cab cost. After this experience, I walked everywhere, no matter the distance.

Eating cheaply:

Every Norwegian hotel I stayed at had huge breakfast buffets with a large variety of eggs, cold cut meats, fish, fruits, vegetables and bread, so I loaded up at brunch. No one seemed bothered when I took an orange or a pear for later. All the hotel lobbies came equipped with free snacks – apples, cookies – and in Oslo, tasty liquorice candies in which I also indulged.

Dinner was a different, and expensive proposition. One evening, I walked to the highly touted Mathallen Food Hall, expecting a wide variety of Norwegian foods but inside, Asian and Spanish tapas stalls outnumbered local food offerings and, no surprise, most of the diners were Asian tourists. I ate BBQ chicken with a French potato salad for the relatively inexpensive price of 130 NOK or $25.00.

A cheaper option are the fast food restaurants. A basic Burger King burger went for 33 NOK, but I am not a fan of American fast food chains. Instead I ate a Norwegian staple, a hotdog, for only $8.00.

Don’t tip:

The unwritten minimum wage in Norway is the equivalent of 17 Euros, or $25.00 Cdn per hour. Waiters are paid well enough without tips and tipping is not expected, which doesn’t explain why every restaurant Point of Sale terminals in Norway have a tip option.

Avoid Alcohol:

The state has a monopoly on liquor and its prices reflect this. Wine starts at 120 NOK a glass, beer 85 NOK and Prosecco 95 NOK. Paying $15 for a glass of alcohol was enough to induce me to limit my alcohol consumption. Besides, the water here is free, drinkable from the taps and public fountains and some of the best in the world. I survived on mostly water.

See free art: Frogner Park

Frogner Park contains one of the largest outdoor sculpture parks in the world, featuring 212 bronze and granite sculptures by Gustav Vigeland, every single one of them nude and mostly anatomically correct. Vigeland is a much loved Norwegian sculptor who also designed the Nobel Peace prize medal.

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I began on the park’s bridge, lined on both sides by human sculptures – men, women, children, men with women, men with children, men with men, etc. before walking to the fountain, where more nude statues undertook different activities. Finally, the Monolith beckoned, with its intertwined – not a surprise- nude statues doing all sorts of things. It is all rather intriguing and gives new meaning to a romp in the park.

Try and see The Scream:

The Scream is Norwegian’s Edvard Munch’s masterpiece, an iconic expressionist painting said to symbolize the anxiety of man against nature. Less philosophically, its main figure is also considered to be the prototype for ET. The figure is on a bridge on a fjord overlooking Oslo, shrieking (the proper translation from German and Norwegian is shriek, not scream) at or in reaction to nature.

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Photo of photo of The Scream

According to Wikipedia, there are 4 versions of the painting, 2 of which are in Oslo. I went to the first place, the National Gallery, only to learn that the museum was undergoing renovations and closed until 2020. Free yes, but objective unfulfilled, I walked to the second location – the Edvard Munch Museum – said to house 20,000 of his works, including the pastel version of The Scream.

I should have been suspicious when the lady in the ticket booth advised entrance was free. When I asked where I could see The Scream, I was told most of the museum was under renovation and The Scream was in storage for at least another week. Only a single room, containing a dozen paintings, was open and it was occupied by an Asian tourist group snapping selfies in front of the art. A plaque in the museum talking about the Scream indicated there were 8 versions of it, 4 more than attributed by Wikipedia, but no less illuminating as to their locations.

I had been to 2 art galleries, neither of which cost a dime, but both proved fruitless in my search of The Scream. I left feeling that, while Norway does a lot of things well (fjords, salmon, pedestrian priority), co-ordinating art gallery renovations is not one of them.

The Viking Ship Museum:

Situated in an area rich with museums (The Kon -Tiki and Holocaust museums were nearby), the Viking Ship Museum contains 3 Viking ships, the Oseberg, Gokstad and Tune built around the 9th and 10th centuries. Although each were constructed and used for sailing, they found a second life as burial graves, lying deep below mounds of dirt until 1903 when modern day archeologists dug up the ships, discovering intact ships, troves of treasures, skeletons and items buried with the deceased to accompany them on their journeys.

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The Museum displays each of the ships and many of the treasures along with films about the Vikings and their exploits.

Although entry to the museum costs 100NOK, this also includes admission to The Historical Museum. I found this museum rather mundane, but it contains a single significant item: the only existing authentic Viking helmet. Notably, it contains no horns, which were a fanciful addition by the composer Wagner, whose costume designer added horns for his opera Der Ring des Nibelungen.

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Authentic (hornless) Viking Helmet

Take a Free Walking Tour:

Free Walking Tours Oslo offers daily tours in English and Spanish. The English tour I attended was led by Tamil, a Catalan (“not Spaniard”, he said) living in Oslo. We met at the tiger statue in front of the central train station and walked around. Tamil gave us a history of the city, talked about the architecture, the food scene, why prices were so high and took us to look at some of the city’s gems: the boxy, modern opera house on the water, the classical national theatre, the royal palace, 3 city halls, etc.

For the first time in Norway, I saw some beggars, but Tamil explained they were from Romania, coming up in May and leaving in late September. The tour was informative and a good introduction to the city. The tours are never free; you tip what you think it was worth. I gave 100 NOK, an amount that seemed in line with what others were donating.

Don’t use a laundromat:

I needed clean clothes, so stupidly took a load of washing to a nearby DIY laundromat. Buying the detergent was a not unreasonable 20 NOK, but the washing machine cost 85 NOK and the dryer a ridiculous 120 NOK. Over $30 for a load of wash and the machines were not great. Next time I’ll handwash in the hotel sink.

Final Thoughts:

Oslo is a lovely city in a beautiful country. Once I found a few ways to lessen the pain caused by the ridiculous prices, I quite enjoyed it.

Next: To the Silk Road