The Caucasus, Central Asia And British Airways

caucasus and central asia

I traveled to Beirut earlier this year with bmi (British Midland International), the East Midlands-based airline partially absorbed into British Airways in the spring. My Beirut trip was meant to be the third installment in an ongoing series called “Far Europe and Beyond,” which reached a premature end in the lead-up to the airline’s sale to International Airlines Group (IAG), the parent of British Airways and Iberia.

“Far Europe and Beyond” was, as its title suggests, focused on several cities along on Europe’s margins and just beyond. I visited Tbilisi and Yerevan last year, Beirut earlier this year, and had hoped to carry on to three additional cities, one (Baku) within Europe and Almaty and Bishkek (see above), both indisputably outside of Europe.

BA has absorbed many bmi routes and withdrawn others. I did a little cursory research and discovered that two of the cities I originally proposed for the series (Bishkek and Yerevan) have been dropped – as has Tehran, where the Yerevan-London bmi flight I took last October originated.

Last week, in response to an email query, a helpful British Airways spokesperson confirmed that the above destinations have indeed not been included in BA’s winter schedule. When I asked whether or not BA had any intention to initiate new routes to the Caucasus and Central Asia, she told me that there were no immediate plans to do so, and added that she suspected that future route development would focus on destinations further east. She also pointed out that the airline has just begun to fly nonstop between London and Seoul, an exciting development in light of the ascendance of Korean popular culture and the recent debut of a Seoul-based correspondent at Gadling.

Here’s a little plea to British Airways: please bring these cities back, perhaps looped into other routes on a once-a-week basis. What about a stop in Bishkek coming back from Almaty or a stop in Yerevan en route to Tbilisi?If these routes can’t be returned to service, perhaps they could be replaced with similarly enthralling new destinations in the general neighborhood, all direct from London. What about a flight to Uralsk, gateway to the gas reserves of West Kazakhstan’s Karachaganak Field? How about seasonal flights to Georgia’s Black Sea holiday town of Batumi? What about making a big pre-Olympic fuss over Sochi? (The 2014 Winter Olympics are just 15 months away.) Why not resume a previously abandoned route to Ekaterinburg?

Pleasing me would form a terrible basis for route development decisions, granted, but there have to be profitable routes in this general region that are not served by other oneworld alliance airlines.

Do it for the love of commerce and industry in the post-Soviet space, BA.

[Image: Flickr | Thomas Depenbusch]

Introducing Far Europe and Beyond

far europe and beyond

Far Europe and Beyond, a Gadling series in partnership with bmi (British Midland International) launches today.

Europe’s eastern borders cannot be defined simply. The western, northern, and southern perimeters are easy: The Atlantic, the Arctic, and the Mediterranean provide those boundaries, respectively. It’s the eastern border that is more difficult to pinpoint. There are two basic definitions of the eastern border of Europe: the Bosphorus, which divides Istanbul; and the Ural Mountains. The problem here is that there is a gap of around 1200 miles between the point where the Ural River hits the Caspian Sea and Istanbul.

The former definition leaves most of Turkey outside of Europe and makes it difficult to draw a continental border from the Bosphorus northward. If one assumes the latter definition, then a piece of western Kazakhstan is in Europe, but the continent’s Eastern flank fails to have a fixed boundary once the Ural river empties into the Caspian Sea. Does Europe’s border then get drawn along Russia’s southern edge or does it include the former Soviet republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, along the Iranian border? Increasingly, this is the working definition of Europe, with inclusion of the Caucasian trio; it is the definition, more or less, that the BBC and the Economist endorse.However we define Europe’s eastern borders, there are a number of national capitals that are clearly in the farthest reaches of Europe or just beyond them, all of which are included on bmi’s route map: Tbilisi, Georgia; Yerevan, Armenia; Baku, Azerbaijan; Beirut, Lebanon; Almaty, Kazakhstan (not the capital, admittedly, but the country’s most important city); and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. These capital cities are naturally very interesting to veteran travelers for whom Europe is old hat, but they’re also fascinating places for less seasoned travelers. For the most part, they’re off the beaten path, teeming with local culture and opportunities for many different types of tourism.

This week and next, I’ll write a series of posts on the first two cities on the above list: Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia; and Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. I’ll look at some of these cities’ most captivating characteristics, some culinary highlights, interesting quirks, and the best easy day trips beyond city limits.

[Image: Flickr | sara~]

Buzkashi – goats and gladiators

Buzkashi

In central Asia, men play a strange game on horseback. Instead of a ball, they use a goat carcass. Instead of goals, they must ride until free of challengers. Instead of minutes, the game can be measured in days. This is Buzkashi – goat grabbing.

Long established as the national sport of Afghanistan, Buzkashi is polo’s drunken uncle. The sport is also played in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and Kazakhstan. It is a sport of the Stans – where the masters have ridden for centuries, gloriously along the steppes they call home. The game starts with the placement of a goat carcass in the center of a horse circle, and from there, the riders stare each other down while gripping tightly wound whips in their gleaming teeth.

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During the Taliban reign in Afghanistan, the sport was outlawed, but today it has seen a resurgence as the national pastime. Two variations are played, Tudabarai and Qarajai. In both versions, the field is separated into two teams. Tudabarai is the simpler more traditional form of the game. To win, a lone rider must carry the goat until free and clear of all other riders. The riders use their boots and whips to discourage any sort of advance, though horse tripping is strictly forbidden. Qarajai is the more complex version of the game, and requires players to take the goat around a marker and then place it in the team’s designated scoring circle.

The winning team receives a bevy of prizes, from televisions to fine turbans to camels. GamesBuzkashi have been known to last for days, and it is a rough demanding sport. It is said that only the masters of the sport, called “Chapandaz,” are truly adept at retrieving the carcass and absconding with it to glory. Unlike a running-back in the NFL, these masters do not hit their peak until much later in life. Most are well over 40. They have spent a lifetime training, and their horses are equally prepared. A good Buzkashi horse must train for five to ten years and can fetch over ten-thousand dollars. This amount is 25 times the average laborer’s yearly wage in Afghanistan and would be comparable to paying $1,000,000 in relative terms in the United States.

Since Afghanistan is a war zone, it is best to catch a game of Buzkashi in Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan. In Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, it is possible to catch games during the late August Independence celebrations. Community Based Tourism arranges a number of tours in the region.

flickr images via U.S Embassy Kabul Afghanistan

Photo of the Day (11.16.10)

This Sunday marked the beginning of the Hajj, the world’s largest annual pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. As the fifth pillar of Islam, the pilgrimage is a religious duty that must be carried out by every able-bodied Muslim that can do so. Saudi officials have reported that a record-breaking 3.4 million people are expected to come from all corners of the globe to perform the Hajj this year.

This astounding photo, titled “Headed to Mecca” was taken by Flickr user Theodore Kaye as a mother prepares to leave Osh, southern Kyrgyzstan for Mecca. I love that Theodore was able to be present for and capture the intimacy of this moment and took advantage of the lighting to make the image even more beautiful. The result of being in the right place at the right time, and knowing how to capture a great photograph.

If you want to see more of the Hajj, Boston.com put up an amazing series of images of this year’s processions. Also worth checking out is VBS.tv’s short documentary of an inside look at the pilgrimage. What’s your personal Mecca? Share it with us by adding photos to our Flickr group and it could be our next Photo of the Day.

One for the Road: Realities of Foreign Service Life

Jessica Hayden had been married less than 3 months when she moved half way around the world with her new husband, and soon found herself in a tent in the middle of Kyrgyzstan, heavily sedated on pain killers and hooked up to a WWII style medical contraption. It sounds like some sort of extended honeymoon trip gone horribly wrong, but in fact, it was all part of Hayden’s introduction to life as a Foreign Service representative.

Her story, along with 28 others, appears in the AAFSW’s second volume of Realities of Foreign Service Life, a collection of personal experiences from members of the U.S. diplomatic community. Focusing on the “realities” faced by diplomats and their families outside consulate walls, the authors explore topics such as schooling and housing abroad, intercultural marriage and employment for accompanying partners. Those who have already served in this capacity will surely discover tales they can relate to within the pages of this book. And it can serve as an excellent reference guide for folks contemplating a possible career in the Foreign Service.

Jessica was kind enough to share an excerpt from her story, “Your Health Abroad: What you Need to Know about Medical Evacuations”:
I generally consider myself a pretty healthy person, so when I started to experience pain in my abdomen about a year ago, I didn’t think much of it. We had only been posted in Kazakhstan for a few months and I figured my system was still getting used to the changes in my diet. I had, after all, spent the last few weeks experimenting with the local fare, eating Central Asian delicacies like kazy and kumus, otherwise known as horse sausage and camel milk.

But after a few days of increasing pain, I decided to make a late night call to our Regional Medical Officer (RMO), Dr. Kim Ottwell. It would be the beginning of my introduction to the world of medical evacuations, or what most refer to as “medevacs.”

Over the next week, I’d endure various forms of prodding (some of which I’m convinced would fall under the Geneva Convention on Torture) during my medical evacuations to Manas Air Force Base in Kyrgyzstan. I would also brave surgery in a makeshift military tent by Korean doctors who didn’t speak English, spend a week of recovery on a cot, and ultimately return home to Almaty with my appendix in a jar.

Yikes! Sounds like an overseas diplomatic duty disaster, and makes me wonder why a Foreign Service reality T.V. series has not yet surfaced?! This is the next best thing — Pick up a copy of Volume Two (2007) to learn the outcome of Jessica’s medical misadventures…and consider grabbing Volume One (2002) as well.