Thursday, April 24, 2008

Chisinau or Never

Elvis pronounced it differently but I know what he meant!  Why would anyone pay their good money to travel to Moldova -- a country that's stuck behind Romania and boxed in on three sides by the Ukraine. It's even difficult to find it on the map. 

But since "I had to come here for work" I'm coping and have actually found it quite pleasant! Chisinau (Kishinev in Russian) is a pretty city if one doesn't focus too much on the ugly public tenaments built by the Soviets.  It has beautiful, tree-lined streets, some impressive old buildings and churches, a very diverse cultural offerings  and a vibrant street life with lots of pretty girls.  I must digress here briefly:

I don't know what it is about  Eastern European girls but they must all see themselves as being perpetually on the catwalk.  Gertrud and I first noticed this a couple of years ago in Riga, Latvia which we concluded had the most beautiful girls of any city we had ever been in. Everyone of them looked like they have just come from modeling school as they strolled around the city on their high heels.  Last week while having lunch in an Ashgabat restaurant, everything in the restaurant suddenly went completely silent as a blond Russian bombshell, who went up to at least 6' 4" in her high heels entered with a 6-foot guy.  She was perfectly packed into a tight fitting mini and I thought I saw real tears develop in the eyes of some of the older guys as they took it all in.  This vixen and her friend initially took a seat near the front door but then decided to move to the rear so that everyone could pick up their jaws and go back to eating!  It really isn't unusual to see such types in Eastern Europe. Many of them seem to prefer the "cheap blond" look, but others are really stunning!  One thing's for sure: none of them eat hamburgers, chips, T-bones or milkshakes!  America - wake up! 

But back to Chisinau:  Moldova is one of those little countries that has been a tragic pawn of history due to its size and unfortunate geographical location.  It is the "little guy" in the neighborhood who the bullies step on whenever they seek new territory or influence.  During its entire history, all or parts of Moldova have been under the Russians, Ottomans, Rumanians, etc. and has carried such names as Moldavia, Besarabbia, Wallachia and Transnistria.  Today the population is an ethnic melange of Rumanias, Moldovas, Lipovans, Cossacks, and Bulgarians to name a few.  In the 1890's Chisinau had a Jewish population of 50,000 out of a total of 110,000 or 46%.  and there are apparently still about 30,000 Jews in Moldova.  Between 1817 and 1940 there was also a large German community  One sees only scant evidence of them today.

Despite major disadvantages, Moldovans have been able to sustain themselves over the years by filling important niches in the Eastern European viticulture and agriculture markets.  It's rolling hills are well-suited to wine-growing and are a major source of good quality wine for Russia, the Ukraine, Romania and other countries of the area.  Moldova also boasts that its winery in Milestii Mici is the largest in the world -

My friend Bill would like the violin music here because much of it has that melancholic Eastern-European/gypsy sound.  It's what his father used to play in the Wintergarten in Berlin. - (you have to wait a little until this really gets going)

Unfortunately I didn't have a weekend to see the sights of Moldova so can't provide much in the way of a first-hand knowledge. In a couple of hours I'll fly to Istanbul for the weekend and will work in Ankara next week.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Ashgabat and Turkmenbashi

Greetings from Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, a former Soviet Republic.  (   This isolated and land-locked country shares borders with Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakstan and also has a coast on the Caspian Sea, the world's largest enclosed body of water.   Turkmenistan belongs to the Turkic family of countries that also includes Turkey, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Azerbajan.

Ashgabat was established as a Russian village in 1818 on the ruins of an old Silk Road city that had existed since at least the 2nd Century BC.  It became the capital of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic in 1925 and of Independent Turkmenistan in 1991. With the break-up of the Soviet Union, Ashgabat rapidly developed as the Turkmen capital, primarily around the personality of the country's dictator, Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov, who became known as Turkmenbashi -- Leader of the Turkmen.   Prior to his death in 2006, foreign media labeled him as one of the world's most totalitarian and repressive dictators, highlighting his reputation of imposing his personal eccentricities upon the country, which extended to renaming months after members of his family. He was known for an all-pervasive cult of personality which many say exceeded that of Stalin. It was reported that money under his control and held overseas may have exceeded US$3 billion.  Today Ashgabat is often referred to as "Marble City" due to the extensive construction of glistening white marble buildings and self-aggrandizing memorials that began during his regime and which continue to this day.  They have apparently been funded from the sales of the country' extensive holdings of natural gas. Western diplomats and visitors wonder who will occupy all of these imposing edifices and how they will be maintained. The hotel I stayed in looked fantastic from the outside but the rooms and service were very basic.  (It's the only hotel I have ever stayed in where guests can use the gym for free but have to pay $8 to use the treadmill because it draws electricity!) Despite it prosperous appearances, the country still has a cash economy with no ATMs and with credit cards only accepted for room payment at major hotels.  Internet access is extremely limited with only dial-up mode available under tight State control. 

Check out these pictures of some of Ashgabat's new buildings which are quite amazing,32

I'm off to Chisinau later today. Where's that?