Azerbaijan 08/20/2010Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: azerbaijan, baku, nagorno karabakh, oil, war
Azerbaijan is dust and sand. It gets in your hair, under your skin, makes your eyes water when they shouldn’t. But the tighter you squeeze, the more it slips away.
I’ve never understood a country less. It fascinates me.
Hitting the books for a week has given me the basics:
The region was controlled by the Persians until Russia staked its claim in 1813.
After the fall of the Czar, the Azeris surprised everyone by declaring their sovereignty and establishing a secular and democratic republic – the first in the Muslim world.
It lasted two years before collapsing under the weight of the Red Army. Along with Georgia and Armenia, it was swallowed up by the Soviets and remained so until the U.S.S.R. dissolved.
With nationalism running high, independence was again declared in 1990. Then things got very ugly.
In the winter of 1991, Russian troops marched on Baku and left more than 130 civilians lying dead in the streets of the capital. Black January.
This in the midst of a brutal six-year war with Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory.
Nearly 30,000 Azeris were cut down before a shaky ceasefire stopped the killing. The conflict simmers to this day.
Beneath it all was oil.
Azerbaijan has it and foreign powers want it. They incited rape, riots and war to get it, and when the storm finally cleared, an ex-KGB general with local mafia ties was firmly in power.
Contracts were hastily signed. Old oil flowed in new directions and the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan was assured. Very slick indeed.
That’s the history, but it’s not the point.
I’ve tried to understand Azerbaijan in terms of politics and power grabs, religion, language, money and even geography. All of it slides between my fingers.
The only thing that sticks, the one thing I can swear by, are the people I’ve met. They have been wonderful without exception.
In Ganja I asked a man where to buy bicycle grease. He shrugged and then returned five minutes later with a new tube – a present, he said shyly.
In a small village a boy gave me a bag of pears after I let him play with my helmet. In another a woman grinned her row of golden teeth and asked if she could write, “I love you, Canada” on my pannier.
And in Baku, where I was supposed to be careful, people put their arms around me and ask if I need money (I politely decline).
I’m no stranger to the generosity of others, but in Azerbaijan that kindness melds beautifully with an energy, honesty and insatiable curiosity that makes my heart ache in all the right places.
They are who I hope to be, and all I want from them is to be closer.
The Balkans 06/24/2010Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: balkans, border, bosnia, heat, repairs, sarajevo, serbia, war
I am ready to hit the road again after spending a full week resting in western Serbia. I needed time to make sense of the things I’ve seen in the Balkans, to line them up in my head before I commit them to words.
I don’t think I’m any closer, but for the sake of folks who read this, I’ll try to say something.
Bosnia was nothing like I expected, though I wonder now what it was I thought I’d find.
In the north I cycled past fields of golden straw, watching hunched farmers shape the land with nothing more than pitchforks and shovels.
At dusk they loaded themselves into horse-drawn wagons and clopped down the highway to old stone houses. They always smiled, always waved, and after they’d gone I wondered just what it is we’re growing in the rows of mechanized perfection back home.
The heat didn’t burn but choke as I approached Sarajevo. In two-street villages I began to find memorials for dozens, all killed the same way, the same day. It was nothing like the markers I saw in Belgium and France. I couldn’t walk away from these. For the first time in my life I shared the dates on the stones, and it hurt to swallow.
Sarajevo. The Bosnian capital lies in a valley, guarded by towering green mountains that seem to keep the outside world at bay. There you find mosques, synagogues and cathedrals erected almost side-by-side, and yet the only tension on the ground is between tourists jostling for a photograph. Sun or stars, the streets were all the same – clean, quiet, safe.
It was inspiring, but I don’t pretend to understand it. How can the best in us survive amid the poison of recent history? Where do people find the will to grow, to rise up and deliver themselves to something better? Maybe there is no answer. That these things are happening is enough for me.
Climbing east to Serbia was brutal under the blazing summer sun. For a week the temperature hovered around 40°C, and I had to drink six or seven litres of water each day just to stay on my feet. Even then it was tough. At the top of one mountain pass I was doubled over my bike, shaking and trying not to retch. From then on I biked only in the morning and evening, letting the heat of the day pass while I lounged in the shade.
After getting my passport stamped at the border, I made for Užice, where I hoped to find a bicycle shop to fix my wobbling rear tire.
In my search I met a teenage boy who asked in broken English where I was going and what I was doing in Serbia. He grinned and disappeared with my answers. Thinking nothing of it, I returned to my bike, stuffing the panniers with supplies.
When I turned to leave, I stopped short and gaped. There, standing before me, was a group of 20 or more kids, all staring at my bike as though it had come from the moon. They wanted to see everything, touch everything, and again and again they asked if I’d really cycled all the way from Canada. We took photographs. One boy proudly wrote “Serbia” in Cyrillic on my waterproof bag. And when I said, after 45 minutes, that I had to leave, a kid reached into his pocket and gave me two bent cigarettes.
I sometimes think it’s stupid when people make a fuss over my trip. Not this time.
Those kids knew, and I soon realized, that they will probably never get a chance to do something like this. Most Serbians don’t have a lot, and they have to work themselves raw to even get that much. The truth is that they can’t see the world.
I don’t pity them. The shame is us. So many Canadians have the freedom to spin the globe, to visit any spot we wish. On a few month’s wages we can see the pyramids, the rain forest, the most modern cities in the world. We have the opportunity, every single day, to meet new people and learn from them as they learn from us. But too often we don’t.
Instead we get diplomas, pay our bills and go to work, nagged by a vague sensation that something is missing from our world. Something is missing.
A latitude adjustment 12/07/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: belgium, france, rain, vimy, war, winter
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Although this is my first update in a long time, it’s pretty easy to describe the past few weeks. Mud. Lots and lots of mud.
Everything about Belgium was spectacular except the weather. At one point I had nine consecutive days of rain, and with soggy feet and a runny nose, the novelty of biking in a new country quickly disappeared.
Still, I was able to visit all the spots I wanted – Antwerp, Brussels, Gent and especially Ypres. The latter was a vital point in the Great War and it was fascinating to tour the battlefields and cemetaries.
After getting soaked for the last time in Belgium, I happily crossed the border to France and explored the city of Lille. By explore I mean I got lost in Lille for an entire afternoon – very educational.
Then, purely by accident, I happened upon Vimy and ended up camping just below the famous ridge. Sleeping on the top would have been a poor choice indeed, because to this day there are still undetonated explosives littering the plateau, and the battlefield itself is guarded with an electric fence.
But what a place! The monument, a few kilometres from the trenches, is overpowering in its size and significance. Canada has a reputation for being modest, for never celebrating our heroes, but in this case we artfully (and rightly) honoured the memory of our soldiers. Visiting the site was sobering, but also reason to look at our flag with pride.
Tomorrow is Paris, and then it’s south to Spain as fast as my little legs can pedal. It’s getting cold!