Ich Bin Im Ze Vaterland

Rocking on in the Fatherland! Ive been working in Darmstadt this week so I took a weekend to enjoy Frankfurt, which is the very first European city Eurotrip2006 hit last year, so theres a fair few memories. Darmstadt is a nice little university centered place about 20 minutes away and Ive been enjoying the local hostel, as well as the local scenery, local schnitzels and local beers.

So theres not a whole great to report, im back to Stockholm tomorrow evening with one eye on the future. Wish I had something funny to write. Here, lets make fun of the german language again

Using my expert German skills I can decipher this sign seen in a park in Frankfurt as "keep your dog on the leash or the Führer will smack".

ah ok everyone like to make fun of them but I like it here, they have their own ways for sure but its cute and the scenery is nice and they have big autobahns with big expensive cars you can drive as fast as you want.. and then they have a racetrack where any yobbo can have a fang. How good is that? Now if only they had more coast line…

Gerogia Gets Bomb Dropped On It, Has A Cry

News about the current Georgian / Russian incident this week has even reached to the other side of the world, but as usual our media does care so much if it happens way "over there" so heres a brief roundup of what went down this week. Heres what both sides more or less agree on

SOMEONE flew some planes into Georgia, PROBABLY from the north (direction of Russia), circled a bit, stoped for a coffee and crumpet at the local and then proceeded to drop a bomb right near the village of Tsitelubani which is KINDA near the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi. Its about 67km away which i guess is close but in this part of the world where mere meters seperate civilisations, its not THAT close.

The bomb didnt actually explode, it just kinda fell from the plane and landed in some guys field. Georgian officials then rushed to the site and inspected the undetonated device to find it was a Russian made device with lots of crazy Russian writing over it. Still doesnt prove it came from the Russians though.

Unnamed conflict provoker: "ohh yes this plan is as clever as it is ingenius! We will get a Russian made bomb, put even more stupid russian writing on it and then leave it just casually laying around in Georgia, in a slightly, but not overly important area. GENIUS!"

So now Georgia and Russia are arguing over who did what.

* Georgia of course claims Russia sent the planes. The planes came from the north, the bomb is Russian, they even claim to have radar data which shows this. None of this is conclusive.
* Russia is not having any of the sort, flatly denying it did anything. Remember as we found out, they are the peace keepers in the region right?
* In fact, Russia says that it was GEORGIA firing against itself, possibly assuming the role of the "unnamed conflict provoker" above to make it LOOK like Russia did it. Why? Georgia can claim Russia is the big bad boogie man and as they are doing now, insist on all kinda of UN conferences and resolutions, backing up their claims to independance and entry into NATO.

Getting confused?

Its weird the bomb didnt explode, it was sort of just jettisoned from the plane. Was there some fuck up or was the idea to have a Russian made bomb with Russian writing on it purposly sit in a field? Check out this small article I found which has a great angle.

The source said the pilot of the Russian aircraft jettisoned the missile after coming under fire from separatist forces on the ground in South Ossetia, a Moscow-backed breakaway region of Georgia, in an apparent mix up.

"We have the first results of the investigation, according to which (South) Ossetian forces fired a Strela (shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile) at the fighter jet which had flown from Russia to Georgia."

This shit gets better! So, the Russians flew over South Ossetia, some poor confused South Ossetian soldier gets mixed up, fires a surface to air missle at the plane. Old mate Russian pilot gets ever so awfully confused and accidently drops an unarmed bomb over a stretch of land some distance away? As I informed you before, old mate Russia RUNS South Ossetia, shit they fly the Russian flag at the border! I guess though its not a stretch to think those guys are so confused its easy to believe one bloke with a big assed gun could make such a mistake.

I have no idea whos telling the truth. I know Russia is always painted as the big bad guy but I came to realise in this situation Georgia isnt the shining white bastion of all things good in a post soviet world they claim to be. Then add in those whacky South Ossetians with a Russian hand up their ass and your guess is as good as mine. I think my favourite headline of the day comes from a New Zealand paper, about as far away from the conflict as you can get.

Neighbour claims Russian attack

Yes thats right, while every other paper in the world can say the countries name, New Zealanders wouldnt possibly know where Georgia is, better to just say "neighbours" and let everyone get back to the lattes. Mind you, half of swedes questioned thought I was taking my holiday in the United States.

Cultural Learnings Of… Booze In the Nordics, Part II

I have talked before on the subject of booze prices and restrictions in Nordic countries, namely how the Swedish system is closed tighter than Putins rear end but today I am on the err.. rear side of this equation, getting the cheaper booze down south.

So heres how it works up in these parts. Sweden and Finland have crazy high prices for alcohol and indeed for that matter, crazy high prices for everything else. So when these "real" scandos want a quick trip away, its just an overnight boat ride from Stockholm or a few hours on the fast ferry from Helsinki. Its great, come over for a day or two, gawk at how the backward people live and then use your stupidily high exchange rate to buy heaps of booze at already low rates. Now there are limits to how much you can take back but its more than a human can carry in beer and if you and your blonde little buddies all jump in mums volvo and bring it over, then you can basically fill the bastard without fear of getting anywhere near the limit.

So in these days when I am a certified cardigan wearing Swedish bloke, I decided to do as the locals do and bring back some booze with me on the party boat. Lets break it down price wise…

1 0.5L A. Le. Coq bought at the Rimi supermarket near the port in Tallinn: 0.76€
1 0.5L Lowenbrau bought from Systembolaget anywhere in Sweden: 1.4€

Since I dont know where your all coming from, ill use some good old €€€ for the comparison. However the currency doesnt matter, thats a 50% price difference. There are cheaper beers available in Sweden however they are all local and taste like dirt water so its not a fair comparison, atleast ze germans can make a decent beer. This all means you save around 70 euro cents for each can. If we extend this out a bit, my ticket from Tallinn to Stockholm cost 42€ so thats 84€ return (its more but work with me ok). That means to cover the cost of the ticket you need to buy around 110 cans which is only 5 cases of beer. Come on, 5 cases is nothing! These figures of course dont factor in the cost of a trolley which will hold 5 cases but you get where Im coming from. Now think about how much you can fit into the boot of your Saab wagon and your starting to see some serious savings.

I didnt want to start my own importing business so I just bought 2 cases back with me on my flimsy little trolley bought for 10€. it says its rated for 25kg (ie 2 cases) but i reckon it can hold more without doubt. I have already saved myself around 30€ but thats not really the point of the whole exercise really…. Buying 2 cases and a trolley at Rimi and then wheeling it clumsily down the road to the port and getting on the ferry full of other booze cruise scandos back to our socialist paradise at the top of the world? Now thats a REAL cultural learning 🙂

25kgs maximum my ass mcbain, you can easily get another case on top of that… im off to the onboard duty free!

Cultural Learnings Of… South Ossetia

So for some background, Georgians are their own independant race of people, taking influences from all those around them, Russia, Europe and the Middle East but being distinctive and different also. At the top of the land known as Georgia there are a few provinces where the people are not Georgian, however when the Soviets rolled in, Stalin gave these lands to the Georgians as a nice gift. Oh and then he gave Georgia to himself but now everyone is free again, these provinces arnt so happy that Georgia wants to keep them under their control.

South Ossetia is one of them, its in the north of Georgia and they have been fighting an armed conflict with the Georgians since about 1991, not long after they all declared indepedance from Russia, trying to claim the land as their own. The international community recongises the land as Georgian… except one… Russia. Inside of the CIS is where North Ossetia lies and its no secret they want the southern part back too. Im sure they also want all of Georgia back but one step at a time comrade, one step at a time. Fighting was quite bad until Russia stepped up in 1992 and promised to push its full force down south if Georgia didnt accept a cease-fire and Russian peace keepers in the area to which they had to comply. Things wernt too bad until 2004 when Georgia started to push back more and more, claiming the Russian peace keepers are not as impartial as they make everyone believe. Heaven forbid, Russia paying silly buggers with everyone? I never heard of such a thing!

So Ossetia is a bad place to go, its locked down hard and if you dont get taken down by Georgian snipers or mortars being lobbed into the area any foreigners are allegdly kidnapped and held for randsom / quality youtube time.

Here below is a hastily drawn map showing the breakdown of one of the main border points between Georgia and South Ossetia. So as you roll along the road you find Russians, then Georgians, then South Ossetians… then some more Russians… Please note this map is (quite obviously) very rough. The Google Earth resoultion of the region is low and its hard to make out landmarks. Ive based this off the red border line which comes from a GE overlay. I have a feeling its off slightly but you get the idea of whats happening…

Click the image to see the full size version

If you need some "credible" news on the subject, here a Russia Today report which breaks it down nicely in 3 minutes.

So why am I telling you all this? Because it sets the scene for the bestest eurotrip adventure story ever below!

What Went Down in Georgia… Getting Into South Ossetia

Its long I know but its a good story, possibly the best of eurotrip, I mean its not everyday you get shaken down by the KGB right? Do remember most conversations in this story happened in Russian and they were translated to me after the fact. Most of the time I had a fair idea of what was happening anyway, tone and body language can tell you a surprising amount when you don’t hear any of the words being yelled at you.

Georgia is a pretty safe place, we haven’t had any trouble at all but the Australia Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT), gives the country a 3 out of 5 AK47’s on its danger rating, still we know they are overly cautious, its their job. However there’s a special clause on the page, the separatist regions, including South Ossetia, get a full 5 out of 5 which puts them in the same category as say… Iraq. Remember how I said I was going to try and stay out of these areas? Well.. you know how long THAT was going to last.

In the hostel Iiris and I had 3 these 3 cool American guys. Victor, Emmett and Jacob. Victor and Emmett were mates who live in Ukraine and make it their business to go everywhere REALLY interesting, like break away regions and other such hardcore zones. They both speak very good Russian and are walking wikipedias of foreign national knowledge. Then we have Jacob, a convert to Islam who made it his job to go to every country in Europe… with that boundary being the Ural mountains meaning he’s got all this great territory to go through also. He doesn’t speak Russian but his creditentials are solid, anyone who’s been into Afghanistan for a holiday to check it out without speaking the language gets my respect. Then finally you have one blondie Estonian girl and one funny looking, loud Aussie guy. What is such a motley crew meant to do?

Iiris and I were actually just going to go to a town outside Tbilisi for the day but then we met the guys at the bus station and they told us of their plan. They want to go into South Ossetia just for the afternoon, to check it out, have a beer, meet some locals and then come back. Sure, I mean you can just stroll into a war zone and have a quick pint right? What better way to learn about a conflict than to get amongst it. Beside all those "warnings" from our government, we know they are overly cautious, how bad can it be? Come on!

So after a few minutes of deliberation Iiris and I decide to join them, its 3 hours away but how often can you say you went into DFAT 5 out of 5 territory? We now had 3 Russian speakers amongst it and by golly, we were going to need it.

So we took a minibus from Tbilisi to the Georgian side of the border. The first thing we notice is going through a check point armed by Russians flying "MC" flags, which stands for Peace Keeper. Phew, I’m glad the RUSSIANS are here to keep us safe. Who the hell asked these blokes to guard the area? Alright so the Russians don’t stop us and we keep on going up to the Georgian side.

The first thing you see is the road is blockade and heavy looking Georgian dudes with AK47s are guarding the area. They also wear the uniform of US soldiers too, no doubt provided as foreign aid in some manner.  We stroll up and say we are travelling through to the mountains and we want to go through. The head solider guy is sceptical, the sort of sceptical which transcends language boundaries and why not, he’s just been presented with 5 odd looking foreigners who want to stroll into his enemies territory. In fact I look more like I’m about to go to high tea with the Queen, we didn’t plan to come at the start of the day so I’ve got a suit jacket and an umbrella with me. Don’t worry boys, its a lead lined umbrella for sure.

So the nice solder with the big machine gun takes our passports and tells us to wait, writing down our details in the process. He says he’s got to make a few calls and clear it with his superiors. We feel a bit tense, I mean these guys are laughing and joking while armed to the teeth around us but its cool man…. eventually after about 45 minutes the soldier gets back to us, his guys called the US Embassy and they asked them not to let us in… now that sounds a bit strange… they asked the Georgians not to let us pass… we are pretty sceptical they even phoned at all and we try and plead with the guy but he’s having none of us. Dejected we start to walk back down the road, missing the line up of taxi drivers waiting like vultures for anyone who’s crossed the border.

We decide to not quite give up yet and walk the 2km back down the road to the Russian peacekeepers. The first thing you notice is these guys clearly have the best equipment in the region, there’s at least 2 tanks under wraps there and the entire base is cammoed up and you’d have a tough time seeing it from Google Earth alright. Their uniforms are also the newest, best ironed I’ve encountered before… far better than your average Russian grunt im told… do the "public" soldiers on the front lines get a better set of threads? More than likely.

Again we encounter quite the sceptical reception from them but they are nice, if not a bit short with us. "is there another way through?", "can you give us some advice?" are all met with a short and professional response. We ask if we can take photos but the guy says we have to be beyond the limits of those signs… well not before I snapped a few out of my jacket. Those trips to the motor show sure paid off Detes! We went down to the signs and I could line up a few good shots of the Russian base and even a quick video blog.

So again we walk off back to the town and after being sick of walking we hail a ride with a local, 5 of us squeezed into the back of his small Opel car. For some reason he thinks we are a sporting team, maybe because of Emmett’s Nike jacket but still, it does sound more plausible than us wanting to have a beer over in South Ossetia. Back in the town we are dropped at the main (read: only) corner and we are the object of attention of everyone there. Don’t make eye contact and don’t speak English loudly, we are going to be like 5 little fonzies and you know what fonzy is like? He’s cool, that’s what he is. We ask around a few locals again and we are told we are insane, we are mad that it is "like Iraq" in there and as soon as we cross over the border we will be kidnapped and murdered. hmmm good times. Still they WOULD say that wouldn’t they? The South Ossetians are their sworn enemies now, they probably think the eat small children too. Speaking of eating its about 6pm by now and we are hungry so we find a small shop with a table of the front with plenty of mummas hanging around who agree to provide us with a meal… and mmmm good Georgian food it was. Some goulash type stuff with potato and salad and some funky salty cheese all washed down by a good Georgian beer. By this stage though I was starting to feel a bit sick, it has been coming on in the last week and combined with my excess alcohol intake from Irena’s party the night before and the fatigue of the days events, I was feeling it… still I was determined to push on. It takes more than a tummy ache to keep me from DFAT 5 outta 5.

Sitting around eating food we are throwing around ideas on how to proceed and we realise… we haven’t contacted the embassy ourself! We were still fairly sceptical old mate had called at all and we wanted the good word so we could use it to bargain with him. A few smses and a phone call to the US government yielded the number for the US embassy in Tbilisi and a lovely young lady by the name of Lindsay answered… and GUESS WHAT? Someone HAD called earlier in the day asking if they should let in a random group of Americans… well Ill be! However the truth comes out, she never asked them to keep us out, that part was some creative interpretation on behalf of the Georgians. ALRIGHT! Armed with this knew knowledge we were going to try a second border point and the mummas called us a taxi….

However entering the taxi the drive seems rather scared and confused as to why we want to go to the other check point and in fact he wont take us there at all.. hmmmm so wanting to make the most of it we ask him to take us back via the Russians and we will go talk to our old Georgian mate with our new knowledge of US diplomatic functions.

We roll back up to the checkpoint again and Victor hits up the guy and in a very surreal moment, almost as fast as we had rocked up, they were waving us through… the guy said words to the order of "you are insane, I have warned you" but this was it" We were walking across the border! This is it! Excitement and a certain twinge of fear comes over all of us, will we be shot at in any moment? Will some bloke jump out of the bushes and try and kidnap us?

Now this doesn’t get us into South Ossetian territory just yet. There’s a no mans land of about 500 meters, a pot hole filled road lined with large relics of the soviet times, storage contains, gas cylinders and old railway carriages and on the other side was the South Ossetian checkpoint which we also had to make it through. Time for more quick talking.

As we walked up we were surprised these guys weren’t armed however their AKs were sitting just inside of their building which was merely an old shipping container.. a "building" which flew the flag of both South Ossetia and … Russia also! Well this is some interesting developments going on here. There’s a sign which says 50 rouble entry but the nice man says we don’t need to pay this… good because its not like we have Russian Roubles on us.. all we have is Georgian Lari. He takes our passports as we wait out the front, they are even nice enough to offer us a coffee, how good is that? When was the last time you had any border guard offer you a drink? I cant understand the conversations directly but I can hear tone of language and observe body language and I will say these guys are pretty relaxed and while suspicious of us, quite calm that 5 foreign retards have shown up seemingly to just have a beer with them. We ask if we can take photos and the guy says no, which is a pretty regular response, I don’t think there’s a federalie in the word who will let you take a photo but not to be put back, I kept the Nikon in my pocket, got out my mobile phone and turned it onto silent mode… where I could right in front of the soldiers, snap a few shots of the area from where I was sitting. Check it out people, these are the only pics of South Ossetian soldiers your likely to see in any online "news" department.

So the nice man comes out again and has finished asking question but he cant let us through… he’s called a member of the KGB to come and talk to us…. THE KGB? Holy shit! Now as you all know the KGB doesn’t exist anymore, its now the FSB but all they did was change the name, same shit different smell. The soldier even referred to it as "KGB" however. Maybe that’s how its still perceived or maybe he didn’t think we would know what the FSB was? Either way were sitting there, on the border of a war zone, getting a bit chilly but kinda perky from the free coffee, wondering what indeed the KGB will look like when they roll up… a big black BMW? guys in suits? drunk Russian guys in tracksuit pants? All we know is these guys are about to ask us questions and the 5 of us couldn’t be more excited about the experience, we knew we were getting somewhere.

But before the guy comes something deeper dawns on us. The South Ossetians cant make a seemingly simple decision like letting some foreigners in without consulting with the Russians… officially Russian supports and recognises South Ossetia but that’s it.. but it seems on ground level, the Russkis are running the show here, which is politically a very different thing. My mobile phone even gives away the situation, they are using Russian networks inside of the area. This adds a tremendously chaotic mix to the region, think back to the map I showed you. You start in Georgian territory, then go through the Russian peacekeepers… then pass through a Georgian checkpoint.. then reach the other side which is run by the Russians anyway… how did the Russians get on BOTH sides of this conflict? As fits with the accounts of some locals we spoke to, the Russians aren’t so much peace keepers and general rabble rousers in the region.

AHYHOO

Eventually old mate rocks up and he’s just a Russian guy dressed in a soldiers outfit, he’s calm and relaxed if not a bit young looking. Did his hardcore KGB training turn him into such a cool guy? He is just young and nervous and lucked out by getting a posting on the edge of the Russian frontier but nevertheless this guy is ok and asks us the same round of questions. We just want to see a church and stuff… what church… ahh who’s got the lonely planet? Good thing the guy cant speak read English, which is strange and lends itself to option two of our personality breakdown of this guy, surely hardcore KGB training would mean he could at least read English. Eventually we just confess and say we want to go have a beer. He’s hesitant but seems to buy our truthful but absurd premise. He ponders it for a while and wants to know if we know what we are getting ourselves in for. Did we know people will ask for our documents on every corner?

we feel we are about to face an impasse here, the sun is setting and its getting colder over the south ossetian plain. Added to that Emmett and Victor have a 9am flight so we cant spend the night here, we need to get in and out within an hour and we need to do it soon. We ask the officer if he knows someone who can take us on a tour, we would even be willing to pay… its not a bribe… oh no… its merely compensating someone for their time taken…. he thinks… behind his cool demeanour the decision is difficult.

… and eventually he knocks us back for good. He says its not about the money and I sense he’s trying to make the wisest decision, 5 westerners can only mean trouble in his land and that’s bound to get back to his superiors. We plead with him one more him but his mind is made up, the KGB has spoken, we have to turn back.

As we walk back down that road through no mans land to the Georgian border we all have mixed feelings. We didn’t get in eventually which is disappointing but we had such a good time doing it we didn’t care so much, we got so close to South Ossetian territory, we just missed that last bit. The no mans road sits on a hill looking down over the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali and we can see it clearly in the red glow of the evening, its a typical concrete soviet monster, but a monster we wished to explore. Even from our distance we can see the flag of the Republic of South Ossetia flying over the city, its unmistakable.

We take photos, as many photos as we can, its a gorgeous afternoon and there’s nothing they can do to stop us now. You can see more of these in the photo gallery, the pro Russian graffiti again gives us a timely reminder of who is on who’s side here.

Ossetia + Russia

Just as we thought we were home and hosed though, we pass back through the Georgian check point, feeling a bit happy with ourselves only to find old mate Georgian doesn’t share our feelings of good will. He starts to get very short with us, demanding Emmett go back with him to the Police station for questioning and we soon realise he means business. Emmett refuses to get into the car and things get pretty tense, he’s pissed we didn’t listen to him and indeed probably more pissed we called the embassy behind his back… eventually the real source of his questions is apparent.. "how many of them were there?" "what were they wearing?" "what sort of guns did they have?". It takes some very sweet talking from Victor and Emmett and to their credit they got us the fuck out of there in the closest taxi. As 5 of us squeezed into 4 seats for the 80km ride back to Tbilisi the driver informs us we only made it out of there because we are foreigners, a Russian or Georgian trying such shit with him would be in the lock up straight away.

So that’s the end of our adventure, as long winded as it was. Its hard to put across the real sense of the day, being in the middle of nowhere, working the plan our as it happens, having the real feeling that as we walked down that road there could indeed be dangerous territory ahead. In my head the entire time all I could think of though were the words of Henry Rollins "I wanna know therefore I go", this was far better than any text book.

Theres some more high res photos of the day in the photo gallery

Viljandi Folk Festival

Cop all the photos in the gallery

This weekend passed was the 3 day long annual Folk Festival or pärimusmuusika in Viljandi, right in the middle of Estonia. Its an awesome 3 day event where people camp out or get shelter with anyone they know who lives locally, drink lots of ciider and beer and get rained on while watching lots of funky folk music where every second band has an accordian player.

I had a great time but was still recovering from the nasty Georgian bug so I took it easy. The festival i a fantastic place to catch up with all your friends because EVERYONE goes atleast one of the days and come on, Estonia isnt that big to start with. The stages are all set amongst old castle ruins ontop of a hill looking down onto a big lake. Its festival action Estonian style and I love it.