Always Listen to Your Mother – or – Adventures in Real Estate

Remember falling madly and passionately in love for the first time, seeing your new love through rose tinted glasses, overlooking every minor flaw, dreaming of warm summer days together and starry nights of ecstasy? It’s not any different with real-estate.

As we sat in the old wicker chairs on the front deck of the floating home, we could already see warm sunny days spent kayaking, swimming and fishing from our own dock.  We could imagine clear summer nights watching satellites track across the constellations. We were in love, so we called Cheryl Johnson, the real-estate agent listing the property. Remember your mother insisting you take time to really get to know your new love? Cheryl sounded like both of our mothers.

Her opening words were, “You need to do your due diligence first if you are serious about making an offer.”

“What do you mean?” we innocently asked.

It seems that buying a floating home is a lot different from purchasing a house firmly rooted on a piece of ground. The “home” in question here is not a house.  It is considered a “boat”, and is registered with the State Marine Board.

A boat requires moorage. That means docks, ramps, pilings, and access to water and power. To have a moorage in Oregon, you must also own the land adjacent to it. In our case, we were purchasing a very small bit (just a sliver actually) of muddy riverbank held tentatively in place by overgrown hydrangea bushes.  The real-estate listing promised 200’+ of river front.  Our tape measure told a different story.  The only way 200+ feet might be possible was if we measured from somewhere inside our upstream neighbor’s floating home to the front door of the neighbor on the downstream side.  We couldn’t find any boundary stakes, so Cheryl led us over to the county surveyor’s office.

Paul is a man after my own heart. “The maps are all online,” he said, “but I prefer paper.” After rifling through a filing cabinet in the corner, he produced a very large and very detailed map that clearly showed our property with just 150’ of frontage, the last and narrowest 20’ of which we apparently shared with the neighbor. He found several other survey maps showing our properties clearly overlapped, and both properties had been surveyed by the same surveyor! Paul allowed that it was all “a bit confusing.”  We both clearly “owned” the same ground. But, as he pointed out, it was only a small triangle and it would be 2’ underwater at high tide. His only advice was “Get a lawyer, or live with it.”  We decided we could live with it. A very damp 75 square feet didn’t seem worth getting worked up about.

In Oregon, you cannot own the water the home floats on.  It must be leased from the Submerged Lands office in the Department of State Lands. Nothing is done in government without copious amounts of paperwork. But Cheryl suggested we call Blake in the Submerged Lands office. He helpfully shared copies of previous leases and aerial photographs of the river showing the leased water-rights, and answered our countless questions. He also pointed out that we were going to need a sewage treatment plan and permit to be in full compliance.

Boats aren’t allowed to dump raw sewage, or even grey water, into Federal and State waters. Small boats get by with holding tanks that can be pumped out at most fuel docks.  That wasn’t going to be an option for us. The property was too close to the water and wasn’t large enough for a septic system. The only answer was an Oregon State approved sewage treatment system. That explained the small shed with the constant humming sound next to the road. Long story short, Tiffany in the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) walked us through the permitting process, the required testing process, and the operator’s licensing requirements. Then she happily took a large chunk of our dwindling cash reserves to cover the transfer fees. Without being too graphic, we pump our raw sewage into one end of the system, and draw clean drinkable water out the other end.  And no, I’m not going to try it when I’m thirsty.

When a home is being purchased, it is normal to have an inspection done. If you are buying a boat, it is called a survey. I called my old business partner and good friend Alison Mazon to do the survey. She found the house to be structurally sound, but it didn’t take long for her to discover the original 1935 wiring had more than a few places where the mice had chewed through the cloth insulation to bare wires. The previous owner had replaced all of the outlets with GFCI types (like the ones in your kitchen and bathroom) and called it a “partial re-wiring upgrade”. Alison found none of them worked because there was no grounding system. She also noted several dry rotted stringers that had allowed the house to settle about 3 inches at the downstream end.  Cheryl suggested we call Tim at Columbia Dock Works to do an inspection under the house.

This house floats on top of nine old-growth cedar logs, each is 4’ or more in diameter. They were harvested in the early 1930’s but were considered too small back then to be worth milling.  A dozen large 8”x10” creosoted stringers cross the logs every 4’. On top of these are smaller 4”x6” joists that support the flooring.  To inspect the dry-rotted stringers and the rest of the structure under the house required on of Tim’s workers to wiggle between each stringer and sound them with a hammer and ice pick to detect interior rot. It also required chasing out the family of river otters that were living happily down there. It wasn’t a fun job.

All of the above took the better part of four weeks to orchestrate. Through it all Cheryl stuck with us, always ready to help us find the right person in the right office that could answer our questions and lead us through all the hoops that needed jumping through. Finally, on the 25th of October, we closed on the property – with just one more surprise. The owner was unable to sell the second house that was moored on the property before the closing date, so it was being included in the deal at no additional cost.  The reality is there are many good reasons that he couldn’t sell it (or give it away). As it was, it took 2 ½ hours to read, initial or sign all 62 pages of closing documents.

So now the houses, the sliver of land, the docks and pilings, the sewage treatment system, and the family of river otters are all ours. The rose-colored glasses are off.  We think we know about all the flaws.  And, we are still dreaming of warm summer days and starry nights of ecstasy.  Now the fun can begin. As I type this, five rotten stringers have been pulled out and replaced, as have about 12 of the joists. The house floats level (or almost so), and I’ve been spending my days pulling and replacing all the wiring. But these are all stories for another time.

The Property

“River House” on the left, “Artist Studio” in the middle, and the “POS House” on the right

Posted in RIVER HOUSE STORIES | Tagged | 14 Comments

Up a lazy river

It’s been over a year since we returned from our grand adventure traveling around the world, so it’s high-time to bring a bit of excitement and insanity back into our lives. We’re embarking on a new adventure, one that involves slow flowing rivers, wild animals, exotic fungi, overgrown vegetation and an excess amount of bureaucracy.

Our friends all know that we rarely make very detailed plans, relying instead on serendipity to add a bit of unexpected flavor to the trip, and occasionally lead to a discovery of something we weren’t even looking for. Our latest venture has us exploring an area a bit closer to home than usual – just 54.3 miles to be precise.

It all began on Kit’s birthday last month. She wanted to spend a few days on the coast whale-watching. The birthday girl gets to make wishes. My job is to make them happen. Our intention was to spend two days near the mouth of the Columbia River before meandering south along the old coast road to Port Orford for another week or so.  We both had a hankering for some really fresh seafood. And so, this tale begins with our drive to the coast.

The road heading to the coast from our town parallels the Columbia River, weaving in and out of evergreen forests and cresting the low coast range at Nicolai Ridge. There’s a fantastic sweeping view of the river from the Bradley State Wayside pullout on the ridge – always a good place to stop for the last bit of coffee in the thermos.

bradley state wayside columbia_river_upstream_

It was a sunny blue-sky day (rare this time of year at the coast), so we decided to take our time and enjoy the ride. About 20 miles west of the wayside, the road crosses over a narrow picturesque tidal estuary. An empty field of grasslands spreads along one river bank and tree-clad hills hug the other. The water was flat calm, reflecting the colorful houseboats randomly dotting both banks. It was a spur of the moment decision as we approached a turn off, “Want to take drive along the river?”


Please re-read the first sentence of the second paragraph.

The “For Sale” sign gleamed in the sunshine like a reflective STOP sign. We stopped. A heron stalked the edge of the bank searching for its lunch. The float house was deserted. So, we peered in the windows and sat in the two creaky wicker chairs on the front deck, enjoying the view and playing the “Wouldn’t it be fun if…?” game.

the view up river from the front porch

And so our latest adventure began.

Posted in The River House | Tagged , | 13 Comments

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggitty Jig!

It was a warm evening and we were enjoying a leisurely dinner at a table set next to the main canal in Gdansk, Poland. The setting was unique, the seafood was delicious, and the people-watching interesting, but the topic of conversation was the same that we had been having for the last couple of days: making lists of everything we wanted to do when we got home – gardening, woodworking, remodeling the bathroom, etc. That’s when we realized it was probably time to go home. And so we did.

It would have been far too easy to just book a flight from one of the European hubs, Amsterdam or Berlin perhaps, but that really isn’t our style. Instead, we started searching for a trans-Atlantic re-positioning cruise. It was a bit early in the season, hurricanes were still raging across the Atlantic, but we were able to find an amazingly inexpensive fare on a Norwegian Cruise Line leaving from Copenhagen for New York in just under three weeks. We’re wise enough to know that there are usually good reasons for cheap fares, and Norwegian certainly lived up (or down?) to that expectation, but just the thought of a reasonably comfortable berth, three meals a day and no decisions to make for two weeks overcame any qualms we had. We needed a vacation from our vacation.

We had eighteen days to spend wandering through Germany and Denmark, but really didn’t want to make it a marathon of one night stands in different cities. We picked three cities we wanted to explore and found some almost reasonable hotel rates. It was Europe after all, and ‘almost reasonable’ was the best we could hope for. We decided to start in Berlin with a visit to an old friend who was a classmate and fellow ESL teacher. In this day and age of instant communications – email, Facebook, Instagram, Skype, etc. – there is still nothing that compares to the delight of seeing your friend racing across the train terminal to greet you. You really can pick up where you left off ten or eleven years ago.

I admit to having been a bit intimidated by the Berlin metro system on first glance. We’ve used the subways, trolleys, and trains in almost every country we’ve visited, but I’ve never experienced anything quite as complicated as this one. Getting from “A” to “B”, even in a straight line, always seemed to require multi-level changes in several stations along the way. But that said, it was fast, reasonably efficient, and got us where we wanted to go.
Amüsante BVG-Plan-Alternativen
With our friends in the lead, we managed to see the major tourist sites of the city, albeit from a city bus window, visit a couple of interesting and up-scale flea markets, and learn quite a bit about collectible fountain pens. And to cap off a day of sightseeing, we had the high honor of being the first dinner guests in their new apartment. We had caught them within days of taking possession, and apparently in Berlin an unfurnished apartment is just that – not only is there no furniture, but also no kitchen appliances, counters, or even a kitchen sink. I guess we were lucky that it had toilets. But candles on the small table set the mood, the food and wine were exceptionally delicious, and the conversation fascinating.
From Berlin, it was on to Bremen and another “Old Town” restored from the ashes of WWII. I think we’ve gotten burned out on seeing towns that are re-built as they were in the 19th century. To us, they feel a bit Disneyesque, as if they were restored just for the benefit of the tourists and their euros. Another symptom that it was time to come home?

It was getting on to the end of September and the weather was turning cold with occasional spits of rain and strong winds. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much relief in our AirBnB rental. The building hadn’t fired up its boilers yet, so the radiators were cold, and the rental firm wouldn’t respond to our plea for a little electric heater. After three months of temperatures in the 90’s, we weren’t prepared, either mentally or sartorially, for this weather. We spent a good deal of our time in department stores shopping for sweaters and scarves.

Hamburg was everything that Bremen wasn’t. Here we found a German city that had rebuilt itself into a modern shipping and financial center, eschewing the historic facades in favor of a style of modern architecture that defined ‘form over function.’ Office buildings ending in knife sharp edges and a concert hall built of fanciful glass walls and ceilings plunked on top of a brick warehouse are but two examples. Our days were spent wandering from the port docks to the top of the hill with its beautiful churches and old brick buildings topped with sailing ships and angels. And for the first time on this trip, we spent entire days exploring two very different museums.

For a number of years, I made a living just messing around with boats. That experience has left me with a weakness for wandering along waterfronts and visiting maritime museums wherever I can find them. Kit has always been kind enough to indulge my passion. The Internationales Maritimes Museum Hamburg is housed in the oldest remaining 10 story brick warehouse on the waterfront and is full to the brim, literally, with 40,000 ship models and artifacts. Each floor is devoted to a different era or specialty, be it marine fisheries research, merchant shipping, navies of the world, shipbuilding, navigation, historical sailing vessels, or German U-Boats. It was a fascinating five hours.

Kit’s museum of choice the next day was the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, roughly translated as the Arts and Crafts museum. It houses eclectic collections of everything from Art Nouveau furniture designed by Paul Gauguin, to an exhibit of old harpsicords, a complete Japanese tea house, and a few pieces of Expressionist artworks that survived the Nazi purge of “degenerate art”. The Islamic art wing included 13th century tile from Bukhara and a modern video display of the Pakistani TV show “The Burka Avenger.” The heroine, Jiya, is a teacher by day who dresses in Western style and doesn’t wear a veil, and is a warrior by night who fights oppression and female discrimination wearing the black burka. But perhaps the most memorable exhibition for us was an introduction to the Otto-phants of Harry Hirsch. I don’t know if anyone outside of Germany has ever heard of Harry Hirsch – an artist, musician, actor, and political cartoonist – but judging by the crowd, he must be one of the best known people in Germany.

From Hamburg, it was a quick train trip to Copenhagen – one that included a ferry across the Ostsee from Puttgarden in Germany to Rødby in Denmark. It was an interesting experience to be on a train rolling onto a ship. We spent just one night in Copenhagen, made memorable by the $75 spaghetti dinner, before boarding the Norwegian Breakaway for our voyage to New York. When you book a cheap cruise that is exactly what you get. Let’s just leave it at that.

So now we are home and feeling a bit of reverse culture shock. We had forgotten just how big and over-stocked an American supermarket could be. The lack of public transportation resulting in parking lots that take up acres of land, and the shear bulky size of so many Americans have bothered us more than ever before. In reality, little has changed here at home, but we feel that the trip has changed us, or at least opened our eyes to so many other realities.

All in all, it was a grand adventure that tested our stamina and occasionally our sense of humor. We had a chance to meet some fascinating people, see places that we had dreamed about for so long, and to explore a few culinary delights that we’ll never see on a menu here at home. Some of the experiences, like living with nomads in Kyrgyzstan, bordered on the magical. Others, like experiencing the repressive police state in Xinjiang, were depressingly eye-opening. For part of the trip, we traveled in a truck with 20 other folks representing five different countries, and never a day went by that we didn’t experience their support, humor and quite diverse opinions. I can honestly say that we couldn’t have gotten as far as we did without them.

So now, here we sit sorting through almost 1,000 photos and taking stock of the adventures and accomplishments of the last six months:
• 180 Days traveling
• 32,020 miles traveled
• 10 countries and 3 Special Administrative Regions (Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet) visited
• Highest elevation: 17,060’ (Mt. Everest Base Camp); Lowest -505’ (Turpan Depression, China)
• Traveled by freighter, cruise ship and ferry, train, truck, bus, marshrutka, car, and airplane.
• We hiked mountain trails, walked into the vast and barren Taklimakan desert from the last fortification of the Great Wall at Jiayuguan, had a chance to ride camels across sand dunes and horses across rolling grasslands, swam in mountain lakes, explored bazaars and markets little changed in the last 500 years, and learned how to order two beers and find the bathroom in eight different languages.
• Our accommodations ranged from tents under the stars, yurts in nomad camps, guest houses where the water might be shut off at any moment while in the shower, hotels with plywood mattresses, hotels with wonderful swimming pools, and even the faded glory of an old Russian consulate on the frontier of China. But perhaps the best description of what we endured comes from our fellow traveler, Katherine Price, describing the ‘facilities’ we encountered along the way: “…so many toilets where other people’s previous visits were quite literally spread out for all to see that I think we all became champion squatters and breath-holders – it became a moment of celebration when it either flushed, or had a seat, or came with paper, or the door locked. On the rare occasions that we had all of the above, it was nearly overwhelming!”

Our final takeaway is simply this – if you’ve dreamed about it, just go do it. The road to adventure awaits you. Bad backs, worn out knees, and old age are just excuses. You are going to suffer these indignities whether you are at home or in some foreign country, and while they may limit your ability to hike as far as some young kid, they aren’t going to get any better with time. We don’t regret the moments of discomfort. We treasure the adventure of it all.

Mark Twain said it best, “Years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than the ones that you did. So throw off the bow lines! Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore! Dream! Discover!”

Posted in Germany, Denmark, Re-positioning Cruise, SILK ROAD DIARY | Tagged , | 10 Comments

The Third Time Is the Charm

On every long trip there comes a time when you can’t put off the inevitable any longer. Male or female, it doesn’t matter. You need a haircut. And believe me, it is never an easy fate to face.

As mentioned before, our foreign language ability has been limited to five phrases: ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘how much’, ‘two cold beers’, and ‘where is the bathroom’. I can do it six languages now, but only the first three phrases have any use in a barber shop. In the past, I’ve tried to learn the right vocabulary. When we lived in Hungary, I tried to tell the barber, “Just a little off the top.” I obviously said something wrong because he evidently thought I had said, “Just leave a little bit on the top.”

While we were in Lhasa, the time had finally come. There was an alley around the corner from the hotel that seemed to be ‘the street of barbers’. There must have been a dozen small shops with one or two chairs. How to choose? I walked slowly down the lane, peering into each one. I finally saw one with a picture menu. I couldn’t see it clearly from the doorway, but we had had good luck ordering meals from picture menus, so I went in and sat down in the chair.

It became quickly evident that neither of us spoke the other’s language. He turned the chair to face the menu and said something that I took to mean, choose one.

The next time was a couple of months later in Bukhara. It was hot, and I was getting shaggy. I went into the only barber shop I could find. I sat down in his chair and we negotiated a price. It was going to cost me a bit over a dollar and a half. The other customer in the shop shook his head in wonder. I was obviously being over-charged. Apparently in Bukhara there are only three choices. A “Bukhara Long” (about 1/4”); a “Bukhara Medium” (about 1/8”); and a “Bukhara Short” (bald). I went for the “Long”

It was just a week ago that I succumbed for what I hoped would be the last time. It was in Gdansk, and the shop definitely looked upscale. They even had a receptionist behind the front counter. Lucky me, there was a chair available and the barber spoke pretty good English. I couldn’t imagine how things could get any better. I was joking with him about my previous experiences and as he adjusted the drape around my shoulders, I said something like, “I swore I would have a stiff drink before I had another haircut.”

As if on cue, the receptionist came over and asked if I was an American. I admitted that I was. It was terrifying to think that I was going to end up in a political discussion with a man with a sharp razor. Instead, she reappeared with two fingers of bourbon in a glass. “We keep it for our American customers.”

The haircut was the most expensive one yet… 45 zylotes ($12.45 USD). “We gave you a discount, ” she said as she took my money, “because you really don’t have much hair left to cut.”

Posted in CHINA, People, Places, Poland, SILK ROAD DIARY, Tibet, UZBEKISTAN | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Silk Road Diary – An Opportunity to Meet Some Polish Gentlemen

The last time we were in Warsaw (2015), we arrived by bus in the middle of the night from Lithuania and discovered that our “hotel” reservation was a single room in a 1950’s soviet apartment block with a mattress on the floor, a lumpy couch, a single lightbulb with a paper shade hanging from the ceiling and a console TV with rabbit ears. The TV didn’t work. Don’t ask about the bathroom. blocked my review of the place because of profanity, although those seemed to be the only words that fit the situation. We left Warsaw for Poznan on the first morning train.

This time, when we arrived in Warsaw just before noon, we had an AirBnB reservation in the old part of the city that promised everything including a washing machine – and reality more than met the website’s description. It was new, spotlessly clean, and overlooked Swietojanska pedestrian street in the center of old town, just a block from the cathedral. It didn’t matter that it was a third floor walk up. The suitcases weren’t going anywhere for at least the next four days.

Swietojanska St. Our rooms were upstairs on the left

We had and absolutely no plans while we were here, other than to give Warsaw a second chance. The old town area has been completely restored to its pre-WWII condition based on old paintings and drawings from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. In a way, it was a bit Disneyesque – everything looked and felt like it was built yesterday with the newly painted wall decorations lacking any hint of age. Of course, that was exactly the case since the entire city of Warsaw was totally demolished in WWII.

We were wandering about, trying to dodge the numerous large tour groups while admiring all of the new/old architecture and sampling some of the local brew, when we met Fryderyk Chopin. There was to be a recital that evening in the former rectory and the tickets cost far less than dinner. As our more musically inclined friends know, we really don’t know much about classical music, and even less about Chopin, but it was a good opportunity to get a bit dressed up and have a night out on the town. The concluding piece of the recital was his “Adante Spianato and Grande Polaonaise Brillante E flat major Op.22”. Listen and enjoy. We were hooked.

The next day, on a walking tour of the city, we came across a concrete park bench with a button. It was too tempting not to push, and the reward was a short piece of Chopin’s music. These benches are spread about Warsaw, the city of his birth, in places that had some meaning in the composer’s life. So it became our quest over the next couple of days to learn as much as we could about the man and to find as many of the benches as possible. The ultimate discovery was the Fryderyk Chopin Museum, a multimedia museum that claims to have the largest collection of Chopin memorabilia in the world. More important than the gold watches, and more meaningful to us than his original composition sheets, was the opportunity to listen to every piece of music he ever wrote while sitting in quiet isolation booths. It was a very pleasant afternoon. The end of our quest came inside the Holy Cross Church. He died in Paris in 1849, just 39 years old. Although he was famous, his dying request to be buried in Warsaw was denied. It seems that Chopin had run afoul of the Polish rulers who had once been his benefactors. His sister had to sneak his heart (embalmed in a small cask of whiskey) back to Warsaw where it was eventually embedded in one of the pillars of this church.

The next stop on our wanderings thru Poland was the small city of Torun and the Pensjonat Winnica, a lovely guest house on the banks of the River Vistula. Grape arbors shaded the patio where we had breakfast each morning while a swan swam lazily just below us. It was only 85 steep cobble-stone steps uphill to the tram tracks and our way into the city.

Torun is another old town that suffered greatly in the war, though this war was in 1703 when the Swedish laid siege to the city. Somehow it escaped the bombings and invasions of the second world war. The architecture here is original, the streets narrow, and the tour groups few and far between. The city wall is still standing, even if one of the guard towers has taken on quite a slant. Torun is best known as the home of gingerbread men and for its favorite son, Copernicus. We ate gingerbread. We even learned to make gingerbread. But, it was Copernicus that we wanted to meet.

His family home can be found standing on Kopernika St. in remarkably good condition some 550 years after he lived there. The interior has been reinforced and developed into an incredible interactive museum documenting both life in general in Torun in the late 1400’s and Copernicus’ life from birth to death. In the west, we think of Copernicus as the first to demonstrate that the earth revolved around the sun. But in Samarkand, we kept coming across the name Nasir al-Din al-Tusi as the first astronomer/mathematician to formulate a similar proposition 250 years before Copernicus. In Torun, several exhibits document Copernicus’ access to the Latin translations of al-Tusi’s books and their central role in developing his heliocentric theory. In a sense, although we are some 4,000 miles from Samarkand, we are still traveling on the Silk Road.

It’s just a tad over 100 miles north on good highway up to Gdansk on the edge of the North Sea. Our accommodations here were yet another fourth floor walk-up, though quite spacious once we got there. We’ve tried to convince ourselves that we need the daily exercise to counteract all the sausage and beer we’ve been consuming. The thought still doesn’t make the climb any easier, and it doesn’t seem to be working either.

Just how fattening could a little candlelit dinner possibly be?

Gdansk has always been Poland’s major trading port, has often been more populous than Warsaw, and has played a huge part shaping Poland since the first World War. We were fortunate enough to meet Marcin, a guide who damn near walked our feet off for the next two days. The old section of the city today looks just like it did at the beginning of the 19th century, but like Warsaw, it was demolished during WWII – not once or twice, but three times. The first time by the German invasion that marked the first battle of WWII, then by the Allied bombers, and finally by the Russian advance on Germany.

Marcin finally answered a question that had been nagging us since we came to Poland – why go to the expense of building an expensive re-creation of an old city rather than just building more inexpensive soviet style identical, grey, boring, boxy, six-story flats? Actually, that is exactly what happened. First, the inexpensive flats were built, and then a façade added to the front as a sop to the vocal minority who didn’t want to loose their heritage. He walked us around to the back of some of the buildings, and sure enough, they were just boring identical grey boxes. I don’t think anyone at the time understood that those facades would eventually draw a million tourists a year to the city.

After a hearty lunch (more sausage and beer), we hiked a couple of miles out of the city to the Gdansk shipyards. Marcin called Gdansk a city of historic firsts. The first shots of WWII were fired by Germany in 1939 at a military base guarding the Gdansk harbor, and the first crack in the iron fist of communist domination of eastern Europe occurred in 1989 at the Lenin Shipyard (now Gdansk Shipyard). Lech Walesa and the Solidarity Workers peacefully struck the shipyard and eventually forced the government to negotiate an “almost free” election that made Walesa the first freely elected president of Poland – ever. Within months, the governments of Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and Romania all fell. You can read history, but to stand in the place where it happened, and hear it told in the voice of a proud Pole, made it much more real for both of us.

The Gdansk Shipyard’s main gate. The wooden sign over the building lists the 21 demands that the Solidarity workers were striking for.

As we were walking back to town, Marcin mentioned one more Polish first. “Back in 1978 our Polish Cardinal Wojtyla became the first non-Italian Pope in 500 years, Pope John Paul II. He visited Poland in 1979, and the size of the crowds that gathered scared the hell out of the communist authorities. He told us, ‘The future starts today, not tomorrow.’ That became the cry of the Solidarity movement. It gave us the power to end communism.

It’s not a bad slogan to live by either.

Posted in Notes from the road, People, Places, Poland, SILK ROAD DIARY | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Silk Road Diary – Riding the Rails

According to both Paul Theroux and Rick Steves, traveling by train is an efficient and romantic way to experience Europe. I’d certainly argue against the bit about efficiency, and ‘romantic’ depends entirely on your definition of romance. But above all else, it is a great way to get to know the locals in a very intimate way.

Whenever we travel overnight by train, we try to book a first-class cabin. It isn’t because we are rich Americans who want to isolate ourselves from the local folk, but because climbing up to a top bunk on a lurching train can be a death defying act. We know this from past experience. Typically on most trains, first class cabins have only two lower berths. Our second choice is to book second class if there is a cabin with two lower bunks available. Our third choice is to book whatever is available. And that is what we had to do in Kyiv. We were fortunate enough to score the last two berths (both uppers) available on the whole train… and they were in the same compartment! Such fortune!

What we didn’t know until we boarded was that the second class compartments on a Ukrainian train were three-person compartments with seating for three people on a lower berth and two additional bunks that folded up against the wall. When a group consensus is reached about the time to go to sleep, the middle and upper bunks are folded down. Everyone has to agree because when the bunks are folded down it is no longer possible for anyone to sit on the lower berth. The choices are simple: everyone sits or everyone sleeps. We found sets of clean sheets, pillows and comforters for each bunk neatly folded on one of the luggage racks. The porter does not come around to make up the berths.

Our compartment mate on this 17 hour trip to Warsaw was a Ukrainian in his mid-40’s named Andrew. It would be hard to describe Andrew’s quite average physical appearance other than noting that he was probably 6’2” and a bit stocky. Otherwise, he was clean shaven and had a quiet demeanor. Of note though, he was probably the only person on the whole train wearing a well tailored business suit – not exactly the normal attire on an overnight long-distance train ride. It became quickly apparent that Andrew intended to get off the train as wrinkle free as when he boarded. His first action, after stowing his suitcase on an overhead rack, was to strip to his underwear while neatly hanging up his suit and crisp white shirt on a wooden clothes hanger. Judging from our fellow passengers in the hallway, this is the standard attire on overnight trains.

Yes, he asked us to vacate the cabin during this operation, but I’m not sure it was an issue of modesty. The whole compartment was only 4’ wide by about 7’ long. If you figure that the lower berth took up half the area, and the table and luggage took up another quarter, you can easily understand that there was barely room to turn around, let alone get undressed.

Ukrainian passenger trains don’t have dining cars, lounge cars, or observation cars. Everyone is expected to bring their own food and drink. Talking to your compartment-mates or reading are the only sources of entertainment. Being as how the train left Kyiv at 6:30 in the evening, it wasn’t too long before the three of us in the cabin began to unwrap the cheese, sausages, bread, pickles and fruit we had brought. There is nothing like a communal shared meal to break the ice.

Andrew’s English was actually quite good, but he lacked the confidence to speak. We did our best to change that. He was employed by the Ukrainian railroad in the freight handling division, and was a wealth of information about Ukrainian import-export commodities. This is a particularly interesting topic since Ukraine has placed an embargo on all Russian imports in retaliation for the annexing of Crimea and the ongoing war in the Donbass region of Ukraine. The acquisition of fuel, food, and domestic products has dramatically shifted to European trading partners. And of course, there was the usual sharing of family photos and tales (on both sides) of countries visited. All this kept us entertained until we mutually decided it was time to climb (an operative word here) into our bunks.

Out of the blue, Andrew announced that he’d take the top bunk. Kit was beyond pleased. I, on the other hand, saw a veiled message that perhaps I appeared to be too old and frail for the gymnastics required to mount to the top bunk. I started to protest, but Kit poked me in the ribs and told me to just say “Thank you!” and then be quiet.

We were all sound asleep at 3am when the conductor drew open the cabin door, flipped on the lights, and announced that border control was coming to collect passports. We had reached the last stop before Poland. We handed over our passports to the two armed agents who added them to their growing stack, then flipped off the lights, and wished us a good night’s sleep. It wasn’t to be.

Half an hour later, the train lurched to a stop. Suddenly our car began to groan, shriek and shake like it was being ripped apart. After about five minutes of noise and violent shaking, everything went quiet. The train moved forward just a bit and then it started all over again. Too sleepy to be terrified, I asked Andrew what the hell was going on. “They’re changing the wheels on the train,” was his sleepy reply, and then he started to snore again. This went on for almost an hour as each car in turn was lifted and the trucks (wheel carriages) were wrenched off and new ones installed. Ukrainian rail tracks are 5’ wide – the Soviet gauge. Poland, and most of Europe, operate on 4’ 8 ½” wide tracks. An hour later, when all was quiet again, we rolled on into Poland.

Just as we were falling asleep once more (it was now after 4am), the conductor came through again, opening doors, turning on lights, and sorting our passportsback to us. He left the lights on when he left. I had just struggled out of the middle berth to turn them off when a knock on the door alerted us that we had more guests. This time it was the Polish immigration team welcoming us to the European Union.

5am seemed a bit early to get up, so we all rolled over and went back to sleep. The rails on the Polish side of border were far smoother than their Ukrainian counterparts and we all slept soundly until sometime around 8:30 when nature called. There were twelve compartments in our car, each with three people. There were two bathrooms, one at either end of the car. The lines were long and this was not the Titanic – women and children did not get to go first.

Around 10:30, as we neared the outskirts of Warsaw, Andrew disappeared into the cabin and latched the door, emerging five minutes later attired in his sharp looking suit, briefcase in hand, ready to go meet with his Polish associates. Kit and I disappeared into the cabin one at a time and emerged in our wrinkled tee shirts and khakis, ready to embark on a new adventure in a new country.

Posted in Notes from the road, Poland, SILK ROAD ADVENTURES, SILK ROAD DIARY, Ukraine | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Silk Road Diary – Going Underground in Moldova

“If you insist on going to Moldova, be careful where you cross the border. As American citizens, you might find yourselves arrested!” warned our friend who worked with the State Department. Remember when you were growing up and your mother told you not to do something? What was the first thing you went out and did?

As it turned out, the warning had to do with crossing through the Transnistria area, an unrecognized state on the border between Ukraine and Moldova. The local government there had been showing their support for Moscow by detaining Americans until very expensive “fines” were paid in cash to the local police and army. With no diplomatic recognition by any country, there was no way any embassy could be contacted for help.

Fortunately we found that it was possible to get to Moldova by marshrutka from Odessa on the roads running south of the territory controlled by Transnistria. So we traveled to Moldova crammed into a microbus with 20 of our closest (literally) friends. It was only a five hour trip, with just two stops.

The first break was at the border crossing where Kit and I were singled out for additional questioning. Apparently Americans traveling third class was reason enough to be suspicious.

“Why are you coming to Moldova?” Answer: “To drink wine.”

“When are you leaving?” Answer: “In about five days, maybe.”
“Do you have plane tickets?” Answer, “No, maybe we’ll go back to Ulraine by train or marshrutka.”

Be careful of what you say to immigration officers. We got five day visas.

The second break in the trip was two hours later in the little crossroads town of Causeni. By this time, we both were getting hot and crabby from being crowded chin to elbow in the marshrutka. It was going to be a 10 minute potty-stop, just enough time to run into the little store on the corner and grab a couple of cold drinks. As I stood in line at the cashier with my bottles in hand, I realized that I didn’t have any Moldovan money.

The Moldovan leu is one of those currencies that nobody outside of the country wants. We had tried in Odessa at several money changers, and came up empty handed each time. We’d have to wait until Chisinau to find an ATM. As I was putting the drinks back in the cooler, a burly guy in rough clothes that I recognized from the bus came up to me and said, “God bless you.”

I wasn’t quite sure what to say. The best I could come up with was “God bless you too.” He reached into his pocket and handed me 20 leu for the water. He pointed at himself and said, “Russian, God bless you.” I pointed at Kit and myself and said, “American, God bless you too,” and we shook hands and clapped each other on the shoulder. From that point on, every time we passed, we would stop and say “God bless you!” to each other. I think it was the full extent of his English vocabulary, but what great words to know! Not every Russian is Putin.

Actually, we had been planning on going to Moldova ever since we first hatched this crazy notion of going around the world. Moldova was the main supplier of wine to Russia until 2006, and having just sipped our way through Georgia, we thought we ought to give Moldovan wine a chance too. Besides, we were intrigued by descriptions of their wine cellars.

For centuries, Moldovans have mined the limestone cliffs and quarries for building materials. Throughout the capital city Chisinau, many of the sidewalks and buildings are built with limestone loaded with fossilized clam shells. The majority of this material came from quarries in the wine growing regions. Above ground, every house seems to have a few vines curling up over trellises in the yard. We were told once that no Moldovan ever buys wine. Why should they? They make it themselves at home.

But tiny Moldova is still the 20th largest wine producer in the world, exporting more than 67,000,000 bottles every year. Almost every bottle was exported to Russia until Russia placed an embargo on Moldovan wine in 2006 in retaliation for Moldova’s move towards joining the European Union. To say that this embargo created a backlog of wine would be an understatement. Where do you store millions of bottles of unsold wine? Underground, into the mines!

Cricova, the second largest winery in Moldova is only 15 kilometers from Chisinau. Under the winery, a labyrinth of tunnels 300’ underground extends for more than 120 Km (75 miles!). With a constant temperature of 54 degrees, these tunnels are the perfect place to store wine. The tunnels, wide enough to drive a truck through, are named after the wines they store – “Just go down Chablis Avenue until you get to Cabernet Street and then take a left.” Since the tunnels twist and turn, it is easy to lose any sense of direction. After driving around down there for an hour, we were totally lost – and we were on a tour! According to a popular legend, the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin went missing in the cellars for almost two days in 1966. When he was finally found, he reportedly said, “It was easier to find my way back from space than to find my way out of Cricova!” And the cellars of Cricova are only the second most extensive. Milestii Mici winery has over 120 miles of tunnels.

Currently, Cricova only uses about half of the tunnels to store more than two million bottles of wine, including one million bottles of rare wine dating back to a 1909 bottle from Jerusalem. This count does not include the miles of large oak casks lining many of the tunnels, slowly aging the production from the last three years. It is said that during the German invasion in WWII, the Jewish workers of the winery were hidden in similar casks.

Our tour of the winery included a “degustation” (for just a few leu more). It was worth every bit of it. We were ushered into an elegant underground room and seated at a long table with plates of typical Moldovan snacks and an array of crystal goblets. There were five of us and a sommelier to explain what we were being offered. We “tasted” two whites, a rose, a red made from an indigenous Moldovan grape, and one sparkling sweet wine – and we managed to finish all five bottles. Wine tasting in Moldova is a bit different than in the USA.

But limestone and wine aren’t the only things found underground. About 50km north of Chisinau is a fantastic landscape where the Raut River enters a narrow dead-end valley and then doubles back on itself around a long, sharp ridge running down the center of the valley. This area, known as Orheiul Vechi, has been occupied since Neolithic times. Two thousand years ago, Turkic invaders build hammam style baths down by the river and fortifications up on the ridge. For centuries it was ruled by the Golden Horde, direct descentants of Ghengis Khan. In the 13th century, monks burrowed tunnels into the ridge to found a monastery. Finding and exploring the monastery was our next quest.

There are marshrutkas that make the trip to Orheiul Vechi, but they take hours to do it, and frankly, we were getting tired of being crammed into one. Instead, we hired the brother of the owner of our hotel to drive us out and back. It was an interesting trip. He spoke almost no English, but was convinced that if he spoke Romanian loudly with a British accent, we’d be able to understand him. We couldn’t.

On arriving at Orheiul Vechi, we toured the local small museum – one that was remarkably well laid out with carefully chosen exhibits that go back more than 3,000 years. The best part was Victoria, a local docent who spoke excellent English, had lived in the area her whole life, and offered to accompany us up to the monastery. We started in the very small village of Butuceni with its narrow dirt roads and home-made vehicles. Victoria introduced us to one home owner who allowed us to visit her very traditional home complete with a separate wine cellar where they made their wine, and the men would hang out around a mud fireplace in the winter drinking the fruits of their labors.

Cutting through the back yard of the home, we found our way to a dirt road that wound its way up the ridge to the door in the side of the hill that led to the underground monastery. One old monk still lives there, keeping the faith among the abandoned catacombs of monks cells and burial chambers. It was impossible to shake the feeling that it was 1255 and not 2018. It was quite literally breathtaking to walk out of the monastery onto the narrow ledge that overlooked the river and valley. Obviously, OSHA had never been here. It was just a 4’ wide ledge ending in a several hundred foot drop off. No rails, no yellow line, no warnings, just a long step into thin air.

On the way back to Chisinau, we passed a roadside marker pointing down a dirt road to Pivnitele Branesti (Branesti Cellars). Our motto has always been “let no wine go untasted”, so we hung a hard right down the dirt road. Outside the gates we found this old soviet tunneling machine laying abandoned. Inside the gates, the place seemed deserted. Not a soul in sight, even in the offices. What could be a better invitation to explore?

The mouth of the tunnel leading to the cellars was gapping open. The first couple of hundred feet were pitch black, but eventually a glow appeared around a bend. We passed old Soviet iron tanks (no wonder their wine tasted lousy) and then some newer stainless tanks. Eventually, we came upon the bottling room with the entire staff busy putting up this year’s production of sparkling wine. Sometimes not speaking the local language is a blessing, as we were ushered out of the tunnel and into our car.

The next day, we boarded the early morning train to Ukraine. We had purchased tickets a couple days previously, laboriously explaining that we were Americans and not permitted in Transnistria. “No problem,” we were told. As you have probably already guessed, our first stop was in Tiraspol, the capitol of the breakaway republic. Thankfully, we were encouraged not to leave our compartment, and none of the other passengers transiting to Odessa were permitted off the train – even for the much coveted cigarette break. So here we are, safe and sound, and ready to head into Poland.

Posted in MODOLVA, SILK ROAD ADVENTURES | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Silk Road Diary – Wandering Around Odessa and Kyiv

The Czarina herself along with the founders of the city

On a warm sunny day in May of 1794, Czarina Catherine the Great stood atop a knoll overlooking a small village on the Black Sea, land that had recently been “acquired” as the result of the successful Russo-Turkish war. The snows had only just melted around the Kremlin and, as she looked out on what must have seemed like a tropical paradise, she thought to herself, “This sure beats the hell out of freezing in Moscow.”

Turning to her ever present entourage, she said “Build me a port city here!” and they did, calling it Odessa. Being situated at the veritable bottom end of the empire, the problem of creating a population was solved by exiling all those pesky intellectuals from Moscow, along with Jews, Armenians, Romanians, Poles and anyone else who didn’t fit into the Imperial Russian mind-set. By the mid-1800’s, the city supported famous writers and exiles such as Alexander Pushkin and Isaac Babel, a literary society, and newspapers published in several languages. Thanks to it being Russia’s primary warm water port, just one hundred years after its founding Odessa was the fourth largest city in Russia after Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Warsaw. Blair Ruble has described the city in its early years as being a “randy mix of nationalities and cultures” that continues to define the city today.

Having largely escaped the almost total destruction suffered by the surrounding suburbs during the sieges of WWII, the architecture of the old city center is a pastel mix of Georgian, Neo-classical, and Art Deco. Originally laid out by an Italian, and then governed by an exiled Frenchman, it truly looks like a European city. The wide shady cobbled avenues simply invite strolling – which we did a lot of – through the quiet green parks, along the busy waterfront, and up to the crazy big flower market by the Privos bus station. We walked down the 200 Potemkin Steps (made famous in the film “The Battleship Potemkin” as the site of the civilian massacre), and then wisely took the funicular back to the top.

The sidewalk cafes are abundant throughout the city, and it was hard for us not to “window shop” the menu as we walked by. One in particular came highly recommended by the young desk clerk in answer to my stock question about restaurants in a city, “Where do you wish your lover would take you for a romantic dinner?” I have to tell you, the food was, indeed, very good and very traditionally Ukrainian, but I can’t remember what it was we ate. The memory of our dessert, on the other hand will stay with us forever.

Since none of the Ukrainian names made any sense, I asked the waitress for a recommendation. She looked at the menu, put her hand over her heart and with a wistful smile pointed at “shokolad salo”. Oh my god, it was to die for! Stay with me here. It was a sheet of chocolate covered with salo (lard), sprinkled with dried apricots and nuts, and then rolled, chilled and sliced into bite size pieces. There were probably 1,000 calories in every piece and enough cholesterol to clog a fire hose, but damn it was good! When we got back to the hotel and told the desk clerk what we had eaten, she got the same wistful expression on her face, obviously remembering romantic dinners of the past, and shared with us the local nickname: Ukrainian Snickers.

Our other real adventure in Odessa was a night at the Opera. The rotund stone and marble opera house sits squarely at the bottom of the avenue we lived on. Impossible to miss. The bronze exterior doors were open as we passed on our first afternoon wander, so we stuck our noses in. Although the entrance to the concert hall was locked, the ticket office was open and there was a performance of “When the Fern Blooms” scheduled for the following evening. It didn’t matter that neither of us had heard of the work, it was an excuse to get gussied up and pretend we were part of the literati.

“When the Fern Blooms” is an operatic-ballet work in three parts written in the 1970’s but banned the day before it’s premier for not celebrating the Soviet ideal. All of the sets and costumes were burned. It wasn’t until 2011 that it was finally performed for the first time. You will have to Google it to understand the story line. It made absolutely no sense to us, and even though we couldn’t understand a word of it, we both agreed that it was a superb spectacle nonetheless. The choir of 80 was on stage for the entire production. The ballet company must have numbered 50 or more, and the orchestra filled the pit. The elegance of the venue only added to the pleasure of the evening.

The Odessa opera house

On our last day in town, we took a marshrutka 130 km out to Mykolaiv to visit “L”, an old friend from graduate school days, and his Tajik wife “N” and daughter “Z”. (For political reasons, real names aren’t being used). “L” is on a fellowship from Georgetown University teaching English to future English teachers (my old gig). He met “N” while working in Tajikistan. Mykolaiv is another city that was almost completely destroyed in WWII, but was rebuilt by the Soviets into a very livable college town with wide pedestrian malls, bustling shopping areas and trees, lots of trees.

We had a wonderful lunch with the family and their Ukrainian friend who heads the local library. Somehow, the citizens were able to protect many of the old books during the war (some dating to the 16th century), and they are working with the local government and the US Embassy to slowly rebuild the inventory. It was an interesting conversation since Kit is working with our local library to build and expand it. One unique feature, hard to understand, is that no one is allowed to check out any books from the library. They can only be read in the library. It was explained as “the old Soviet system.” Change comes hard sometimes.

We left Odessa at 10pm, tucked into a cozy first class compartment, on the night train to Kyiv (Kiev). It was the roughest train ride we’ve ever taken! The tracks felt like they were corrugated. We woke up at 7am to a sunny day in Kyiv. In what can only be described as a true stroke of genius, we had pre-booked a room at the Ibis Railroad Station Hotel, literally just outside the doors of the rail station. From a hard train bunk to a soft mattress was a five minute walk.

First class all the way with only two beds and a cloth on the table.

Kyiv is a big city (2.8 million population) and is, frankly, sort of underwhelming. The city was completely evacuated and then demolished by the Soviet Army at the outbreak of WWII to deny the Germans any of the local industry. Before retreating, the Red Army planted more than 10,000 mines with wireless detonators throughout the city. After waiting for the German’s to settle into the abandoned buildings, they detonated the mines, destroying the major buildings and setting a fire that raged in the city for five days. Today, the architecture is a mix of the standard Soviet six story buildings, and newer uninspired high-rise towers. Only the historic old Orthodox churches have been lovingly restored.

We spent our first day just wandering with no real destination, as is our bent, to see what we could see. The area around the front of the train station was cluttered with little one person shops displaying their wares on tables under makeshift tents. All sales are final, and it pays to examine the goods carefully before making the purchase. We stood in wonder watching two older ‘full figured’ women trying on industrial bras over their blouses.

Further on, we discovered a large outdoor velodrome with a group of Ukranian and Georgian riders warming up. Neither of us had ever seen a race such as this with riders coming down off of the high banked ends at incredible speeds. It wasn’t a particularly long race, but it was certainly exciting.

We spent the next three days riding the underground rails, popping up at various metro stations to see whatever was in close walking distance. The St. Sophia Cathedral was hosting a small folk festival where we found this woman playing a portable carillon, and some fantastic views of the city from the bell tower. Nearby, St. Michael’s gold domes drew us down the impossible to pronounce Volodymyrs’kyi street, which in turn led us eventually to discover the old funicular descending the hill by the river, which deposited us on Sagaidachnogo St lined with sidewalk restaurants and some great people watching. Such is the way we discover a city.

By far, our most interesting discovery was Veterano Pizza and it’s owner, Leonid Ostaltsev. We were hungry, it was early, and nothing was open. As we walked downhill from St. Sophia’s, we spied a young woman putting a sign board out on the sidewalk ahead of us. Pizza for brunch sounded just fine. The pizza had a thin crispy crust with just a few well chosen unique ingredients, and the beer was cold. They were both delicious. While we waited for our meal, we read the placemat with it’s story of the business (see below). Items five thru ten really caught our attention, enough so that we went back the next day and sought out the owner.

Heavily tattooed and with the body of a weight lifter, Leonid is soft spoken but very direct. This is his story as he told it to us. He was a cook before volunteering to defend his country. After his discharge, he had only $50 to his name, no job, but a desire to open a pizza shop. Another veteran (an American-Ukrainian) challenged him to come up with a business plan and then spotted him $100 to get his idea off the ground. His first employees were fellow veterans and now with over 100, it is still a veteran run business that also includes the kids of veterans who are working their way through the university.

His unique business plan is simply to offer opportunity and support to fellow veterans, whether it’s in the form of job training, employment opportunities, psychological support, or just cheap pizza. If someone comes to him and wants work, but doesn’t have any experience, Leonid will train him. If he becomes inspired and wants to open his own restaurant, Leonid will help him build a business plan and find financing. We met one of his servers who is planning, with Leonid’s support, to open a “healthy candy” business. It seems oxymoronic, but he thinks he should be able to open in a couple of months.

Besides the five pizzerias and fourteen coffee shops, there are several other businesses operating under the “Veterano” logo – a taxi service, a security business, and a wood working shop among others. If they want to brand themselves as “Veterano” and are willing to uphold his ideals, he franchises the name for $15. If they want to be independent, he still works to support their businesses. And when we touched on the psychological and drug addiction problems so many veterans face in both our countries, he told us that he pays a psychologist to come once every week and work with both individuals and groups. He is a remarkable man doing something remarkable. It was a pleasure and an honor to get to spend some time with him. He has been written up in the NY Times and has given a TED Talk. You can find him on Facebook if you are interested in following his work.

This is Leonid’s Facebook profile picture. We got so involved talking to him that we both forgot to take a picture.

Posted in SILK ROAD ADVENTURES | 9 Comments

Silk Road Diary – The Saga of Crossing the Black Sea

About six months ago, just before we set out on this journey, Turkey quit issuing visas to Americans. This was purely a political game between the two countries, and after a few months it became an “on again, off again” situation. We didn’t want to take the chance of arriving at the border, only to be denied entry, so we changed our plans and decided to get to Europe by crossing the Black Sea. How hard could that possibly be? Let me tell you.

There is a regular ferry service from Bat’umi, Georgia to Chornomorsk, Ukraine leaving twice a week, but we had heard that it filled up quickly with trucks and their drivers. Rumors on the internet suggested a shipping agent in Tbilisi that could arrange passage. Through a bit of persistent searching, we found the name and address of the agent and set off to find them. Now in Georgia, addresses are simply a general indication of where on the block a particular office or apartment might be. An entire block might be only a single number or two. And of course, any sort of signage might be on the building on either side of the actual location, or it might be inside the building somewhere.

We started at one end of the block, asking shopkeepers if they knew which of three buildings with the same number might have a shipping agent’s office in it. Once we identified the building, we started asking anyone we met inside the building which floor it might be on. And when we reached the right floor, we had to knock each office to find the right one.

When we finally made it into the office, it became painfully obvious that unless we spoke Georgian or Russian, we weren’t going to be able to communicate with the woman inside. Ah, but no problem. A lady in an insurance office two doors down the hall spoke some English and she was brought in to help. Judging from her knowledge of the papers we had to fill out, I don’t think that this was the first time she had been “borrowed”. Together we filled out several pages of forms, had our passports photocopied, and then were whisked out of the office, down the elevator, and out the front door to a bank on the corner where we had to deposit the fare into the agent’s account.

Making a simple deposit involved more forms to be filled in and signed, more copies of our passports, copies of the agent’s paperwork, copies of the agent’s ID card, and money. The fare was quoted in dollars but had to be paid in Georgian Lari. This could only be accomplished in another part of the bank. Then it was back to the waiting area to wait for our turn at a cashier’s window where all the paperwork had to be scrutinized one more time before they would accept the money. It took so long that I was afraid the exchange rate was going to change before we got finished. Two hours after starting the process, we had a piece of paper saying that we had paid the fare for a double stateroom on a ferry leaving two weeks hence. We did not have a ticket. That would be issued in Bat’umi the day before the ferry left. All we had to do was find the correct office in Bat’umi.

As we’ve written before, we wiled away the time drinking wine and traveling through Georgia, finally arriving in Bat’umi three days before the ferry was scheduled to leave. We found rooms at The Premium Residence Hotel in the old part of town. Do not let the name fool you. We were given a small suite with a bedroom, sitting room, kitchenette and bathroom. The holes in the plaster, the shower clogged with hair tha caused water to overflow onto the floor, and the drapes that did not cover the windows at night were all compensated for by a working clothes washer in the bathroom and Nino and Alma at the front desk. They both had the ability to solve any difficulty with a smile and “No problem!”

Our biggest problem wasn’t finding the Bat’umi ticketing office, it was finding a time when it was open. Apparently 10am, 12 noon, and 2pm weren’t the correct times. I put the problem in Nino’s capable hands. She started on the internet and found the local office phone number, the name and phone number of the office manager, the phone number for the shipping agent in Tbilisi, and god knows who else. She phoned them all and left voice mail. She texted them. Then she used our phone and repeated the whole process. About an hour later, phones began to ring. Apologies were offered, new information was given, promises were made. “Come to the office at 10am tomorrow and all will be well.”

At 10am we rounded the street corner and had no trouble finding the office. It was the building with dozens of people clustered around a closed door waiting patiently with reams of paper work in their hands. As 10:30 came and went, the office door was still locked and the sun was over the top of the buildings. The temperature was reaching 90 degrees and there wasn’t a shady spot left on the street. As the crowd drifted towards some cafes with awnings over sidewalk tables, the office door suddenly opened and Kit and I darted in before they could change their minds. The rest of the pack squeezed in behind us.

I got my receipt onto the counter before anyone else. The clerk looked at it and pushed it back. “You need a confirmation number.”

I pushed it back at him and asked where I was supposed to get the confirmation number. “Somebody call you,” he said and pushed the paper back to me.

“Nobody call me,” I said, “Remember, I called you yesterday.” And I pushed the paper back at him. This could have gone on for a long time, but at this point the rest of the crowd behind me was getting pretty agitated. He grabbed my receipt in a huff and growled, “Give me your passports,” then went to his desk, consulted a list, wrote a confirmation number on a slip of paper, gave me the slip along with two tickets, and told me to present them at the port office at 6pm that evening.

At 5:45 that evening, we arrived at the port office with our bags ready to get on the ferry. “Passports and tickets please,” said the man behind the window. Lists were consulted. Copies of the passports made. Tickets validated. And then he said something in Georgian. “Huh?” Out came his phone. Tap, tap, tap into Google Translate. “The ferry leaves in 10 minutes at 6pm,” it said, and he pointed down the highway. We could see the ferry on the other side of the fence, but we weren’t going to be permitted through that gate. It would have been far too convenient.

We scrambled into our backpacks, grabbed our suitcases and started trucking down the sidewalk as fast as we could in the direction he pointed. A few minutes into our dash we heard the road construction gang working on the other side of the road yelling at us. They kept yelling, “Ferry?” and motioning us to cross to their side of the road – the opposite side from the waterfront. They seemed adamant. We ran across six lanes of traffic (thanking our lucky star we weren’t in China) to learn that the only way into the ferry port was through an underpass in the highway accessed only from these lanes. Who knew?

Of course, when we arrived at the correct gate there was a milling mob of passengers and baggage, a single narrow gate, and a single bored police officer checking tickets and passports. Finally through the turnstile, we boarded the ferry via the vehicle ramp at the stern of the vessel, past the railroad cars that had already been loaded, to a small elevator and another milling mob. The elevator went up to reception area eight decks up. It carried five people – five thin people – at a time. It was not a fast elevator.

At reception, there was another disorganized mob with all of their suitcases, backpacks and children piled on the chairs and floor to step over. When we finally made it to the desk, we gladly surrendered our tickets and passports in return for a key to the stateroom and an assignment for seating in the mess hall. It wasn’t until we closed the door to the stateroom that we began to laugh at the total disorganization of getting aboard, and thank our lucky stars that we had actually made it.

We didn’t sail at 6pm, or 7, or even 9. It was well after 11pm when we finally cast off and made our way out past the breakwater and the lights along the water front. The Black Sea was as calm as a lake and our stateroom was so high in the ship that there was no engine noise or vibration. There was no sensation of movement, and it was slow going at best. Our top speed was 10 miles an hour for almost the entire crossing.

The stateroom was small, but it had a chair and a table under the opening porthole, a bunk bed, and a private bathroom. Not exactly luxury, but it was clean and air-conditioned – better than of the guest houses we occupied in Kyrgyzstan and China. The only English announcements were the “Abandon ship drill in 10 minutes,” and “Dear passengers, the dining room is now open for first seating. Please do not be late.” – all you really need in an ocean crossing.

Meals were interesting. There were two seatings and you were allowed exactly 30 minutes to eat and depart – and not a minute more. There was no menu, no choices, and no second helpings. The plates were full and sitting on our assigned tables when the dining room doors were opened. The food was basic and sometimes the bulgur or noodles were cold, but the quantities were sized to feed burly truck drivers and we never went away hungry. To drink, there was black tea at every meal.

We were scheduled to arrive in Chornomorsk at 6am on the third morning, but of course it was several hours before we actually made it into port and tied up. Getting off the ship was the same disorganized chaos as embarking. Imagine 120 people trying to do the same thing at the same time, and to do it before anyone else. In the reception area, where we had to turn in our key to receive our passports, it was the same pile of luggage, backpacks and children as before.

Immigration control was set up in the bar area with three lines of pushy people converging from three different hallways to be admitted just one at a time into the bar. The elevator was just as slow going down as it was coming up. And when we finally stepped off the stern ramp, we were ushered into an overcrowded bus to wait in the heat and humidity of the morning for another dozen people to be crammed aboard.

The bus drove less than 100 yards to a building perfectly visible from the ferry ramp. This was the customs inspection, and yes, it was the same mob of people pushing down the narrow corridor to be admitted one at a time to have their bags x-rayed and then finally herded out another door into the parking lot. And there we stood in the parking lot at 10 in the morning with no idea how to get to Odessa from the port. There were no taxi cabs, no bus stop, no ATM machines, and no “You are here” map to consult – just a bunch of people waiting for friends or relatives to come through the exit.

Do not ever underestimate the kindness of strangers. A fellow approached us in very halting English and asked if we needed help. Instead of “help”, he used the Spanish word “ayuda”. What are the chances of finding a Ukrainian Spanish speaker, the only other language we speak semi-fluently, in a port parking lot in Chornomorsk?

All we had to do, he explained, was hike just two kilometers down a dirt road, and then along side a highway, to a gas station where there was a money changer and someone would possibly call a cab for us. As it turned out, we were not the only ones in this situation. We formed a rag-tag column dragging suitcases and children down the track as cars and trucks whizzed past. There was a money exchange at the gas station, along with a deli-counter and a freezer of ice-cream bars. Life was definitely looking better. A taxi was called, a price negotiated, and a half an hour later we were at the reception desk at our hotel in Odessa.

And so ends the simple tale of two days and three nights crossing the Black Sea. It was, all in all, a grand adventure that we don’t look forward to repeating in the near future.

Posted in GEORGIA, SILK ROAD ADVENTURES, The Black Sea, UZBEKISTAN | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

Silk Road Diary – Wandering Around Georgia, part 2

The train from Tbilisi to Kutaisi left at 0930, and thank goodness we had bought our tickets at the train station the night before. Of the ten service windows, only four were open and there was a crowd waiting in front of us. It was over a ½ hour before our number was called, and then another 15 minutes of checking passports and filling in paperwork. The old Soviet system dies hard in some places.

It was billed as a “fast train”. I’d hate to meet the slow train. We were 4 ½ hours in a crowded 6 passenger compartment, but it was an experience that I won’t soon forget.

We were:
3 men and 3 women – divided in age between 30 and 72 years old
2 Americans, 2 Azerbaijani, 1 Turk, and 1 Ukrainian
2 devout Moslems, 1 devout Greek Orthodox, 1 lapsed Episcopalian, and 2 agnostics
1 doctor, 1 mechanical engineer, 1 translator, 2 retired teachers, and 1 retired financial planner.

Everyone spoke English to one extent or another, and after the ice was broken, the conversation flowed freely. Everyone had at least one university degree, had traveled abroad, and had some degree of interest in ethno-geography, history, linguistics, education and religion. We discussed the Sufi poet Rumi, the celebration of Eid al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan, Saint Nino and whether Georgia or Armenia was the first Christian country, why Azerbaijanis identify ethnically more with Iran than Georgia, the Soviet era in the Caucus’, the economic situation in Turkey at the moment, how each of us found our professions, and most interestingly, our future ambitions. The opportunity to have an experience like this is why we travel the way we do.

Kutaisi is one of those places that has a huge place in history. It was one of Georgia’s earliest capitals, and has just recently been re-established as the legislative capital of Georgia. It was the ancient capital of the kingdom of Colchis, memorialized in the Greek epic Argonauta as the place where Jason came to find the Golden Fleece. This is one of those legends based on facts. The people of this region used to put fleece hides into the river to catch the gold flakes washing down from the mountains.

Kutaisi also boasts some of the best preserved and un-retouched frescos from the early 12th century in the Gelati monastery on a hill outside of town. This is what drew us to the city. Seeing the progression of clothing fashion from the earliest frescos to those painted in the 16th century was fascinating – sort of a sartorial time line.

The late afternoon and early evening are the perfect times for a stroll past the ornate fountain in the center of the round about in the old city, through the shady central park, and over to the chain bridge crossing the river. The temperature slides down into the comfortable zone and families are out with their kids. We liked the “vibes” of the city so much that we decided to re-arrange our plans just a bit. Instead of taking the early morning train onward to Bat’umi, we’d opted for another marshrutka adventure leaving later in the afternoon.

Kit wanted to visit the big central market again, and I wanted to hike up to Bagrati’s Cathedral. From the riverside, it looked imposing. But when I got up there, I found that it had been heavily restored (perhaps too much so) and had lost the sense of history that I was looking for. On the other hand, I had the serendipitous experience of finding four men playing traditional Georgian instruments in the alcove of the old bell tower. I have no idea who they were, or why they were there at 10 in the morning. The music was so beautiful that it wasn’t until just before the end of the last piece that I remembered I could record it.

On the way back to the hotel, I passed the backside of the big central market where people were selling wine and cheese from, literally, holes in the wall – and they were doing a big business. As you might imagine, the one that caught my eye was jovial fellow selling wine, either by the cup or by the coke bottle, out of a room about five feet square lined with plastic pop bottles filled with wine. After watching several customers step up and have a plastic cup full, I worked up my nerve and stepped up to the window. Giorgi, the proprietor, looked like a man who loved his work and had been taste-testing his wine for many years. I pointed at a bottle of rich honey colored white wine. He poured, and I tried to pay with a 5 Lari note. No dice – he wouldn’t accept it. So I tried again with a 2 Lari coin. No dice. Finally he shook a cup that had some very small coins in it, and I got the picture. The charge was 25 Tetri (about 10 cents) for a large cup. And, you know, the stuff was pretty drinkable.

While I was sipping and trying to have a multi-lingual conversation with Giorgi, Kit was having great fun inside the market. She discovered some huge orange portobello-type mushrooms that she had never seen before, mounds of flour poured out on tables ready to be weighed into small bags, and lots of new kinds of pickles. She said she had to taste them all. She bought some dried marigolds that are a popular spice in Georgian cooking, and strings of dried walnuts covered in grape juice caramel of different colors for traveling snacks. Actually, they taste better than they look.

When it finally came time for us to find a marshrutka, Kit became rather picky. We had been in at least one rattle-trap, but it got us where we wanted to go. She selected the newest and least dented, so I threw our bags into the back and we settled in to wait for it to fill up. They never leave with even one empty seat. As it turned out, it died at one of the stops and refused to restart. Fortunately, we were facing downhill and jump starting was easy. After that, the passenger sitting next to the driver had to keep his foot on the accelerator whenever the driver got out to help load or unload a passenger.

Bat’umi is a humid tropical city that stretches for miles along the seashore. Fortunately for us, the last stop for the marshrutka was right at the beginning of the seawall in the old part of the city, only a few blocks from the hotel we had booked. We walked along the promenade dragging our bags, past the fishermen sitting on the seawall, the USS Carney (one of the new fast destroyers), and the Italian Navy three-masted sail training ship Palinuro. Everyone was friendly and inviting, except the machine gun toting guards around the Carney.

Bat’umi is known for its new forward thinking architecture and art along the beach front, and some of it is pretty striking. Our favorites are the two large statues of “Ali and Nino”, named after the book by Kurban Said, that rotate so slowly on eccentric axis that it is difficult to see them move. Sometimes they are far apart or back to back, but if you wait long enough, eventually they turn and appear to be kissing. The sea was an inviting temperature and the beach was crowded with bikini clad sunbathers and swimmers. I can’t imagine a view more different than the deserts of Uzbekistan just a month ago.

If you walk just a block away from the beach, you are in old Bat’umi with its two story, balcony clad architecture, narrow cobbled streets, and out door cafes lining the sidewalk. This is where our hotel was located, and we wandered the twisting streets until we really couldn’t get lost anymore. We spent three days enjoying the city, riding the cable car to the top of the mountain, and eating more fresh seafood than we have in the last four months.

It is said that the Caucus region is where Europe meets Asia. Bat’umi seems to epitomize this theory. We saw burqa clad women walking with their husbands who were wearing Bermuda shorts, and a Jewish man wearing a yarmulka standing practically elbow-to-elbow with man from Iran taking pictures of “Ali and Nino”. Half the cars on the street are right hand drive Hondas and Toyotas while the rest are left hand Mercedes and Fiats.

Bat’umi was a wonderful place to end the Asian portion of our trip, but Europe was calling and we were getting itchy feet again. So, on the evening of the 27th we boarded the Ukrainian ferry Knaus outbound across the Black Sea for the Ukrainian port of Odessa. Just getting on the ship was an adventure, but that tale will have to wait for another blog.

Posted in GEORGIA, Notes from the road, SILK ROAD ADVENTURES | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments