Csíkszereda Musings

My life in and around Csíkszereda, also known as Miercurea Ciuc.

The big Apple

Posted by Andy Hockley on 20 June, 2008

Or more accurately, the grandfather of the apple. That’s what Alma-ata (now mostly called Almaty) means. For a few moments after discovering this fact it had me musing on the Central Asian roots of the Magyars, since Alma is also the Hungarian word for apple, and ata is close enough to grandfather to be a feasible link. However, I suspect that the real and more prosaic reason is that it’s a Turkish connection – Kazakh is a Turkic language and Hungarian has a fair few Turkish words in it from the Ottoman empire.

So, anyway, Almaty. I didn’t get to see a huge amount of it to be honest, since we were holed up in the hotel for most of the time, working, eating and sleeping, but I did get to go to a pretty cool Mongolian-barbecue restaurant (and the sword wielding Mongolian in charge of the cooking was even happy to do a veggie run for myself and a Nepali colleague), and also to take a walk through the town to the main square in which there are some big statues and a place where you put your hand in order to make a wish. I can’t really describe it any better than that, I’m afraid. It is what it is).

Finally though on my last day there, I got to have some free time, and spent it in the company of one of the participants at one of Almaty’s most famous locations (or at least that’s where we initially headed for), which is a big ice stadium above the city called Medeo. When i say ice stadium, I don’t actually mean stadium made of ice, I mean stadium which is used in the winter for ice-related events. We actually didn’t end up there though, because we got talked into a trip further up the mountain to a ski resort called Chimbulak, which was well worth it, and pretty high up. The evidence for this was the fact that it had been bloody roasting in the town (and even at Medeo which is high above the town), but up at Chimbulak a mere 20 minutes further on, it was decidedly nippy – and then when we took the ski lift up the mountain, not only did we start to find patches of snow, but we also needed the thick coats which we were advised to rent at the bottom. (I think we got to something like 3000 metres).

Anyway, I don’t really have anything to say about Almaty (it was a bit like Bishkek, only bigger and with more expensive cars and shops – and if you want to know what I thought of Bishkek, you can just read here and here and here, which will take you back to the days when this blog was actually good. Or mediocre anyway.), so in the absence of any witty and enlightening words, here are a couple of pictures:


Almaty as viewed from Chimbulak


Medeo (Not actually taken by me)


A statue of some Kazakhs. (Also not taken by me, but by an Iranian colleague – check out the Iranian datestamp on the picture)

Posted in travel | 2 Comments »

Reflections on Business Class

Posted by Andy Hockley on 4 June, 2008

The project I’ve been working on for the last year and a half is coming to an end, and so, I suspect, are my days of business class flying. I have three more legs to do to get back from Kathmandu to Bucharest, and that, I reckon, will be that.

So, what does business class offer that goes anyway to justifying the price? Well, the short answer to that is very little. This is what you get for your business class ticket:

  1. Access to the business class lounge in the airport(s). This is a nice perk as it tends to be much more peaceful and comfortable, you get free food and drink, and usually free internet access (except in bloody Germany). However, in most places you can usually pay to get into a business lounge even if you don’t have a business ticket. And the price is usually around €20. So, given that the markup on the ticket is way more than that, I’d say this doesn’t qualify as something really special.
  2. Hot towels. Now this is a perk. The attendants come round with a hot towel at the beginning and end of your journey, and it’s a very nice thing to have. (Note: Not applicable on Lufthansa)
  3. More seat room. Often this is a serious amount of room which is extremely good. However, when you fly within Europe, what it tends to be is that they block off the middle seat with a drinks/newspaper table. The seats that turn into full on beds though? Thumbs up.
  4. Better food. This is nice, but really, you don’t fly for the dining experience, so I’m questioning how much of a benefit it really is.
  5. Better service. You get more smiles and more use of your name. And probably there is a higher stewardess/passenger ratio. That’s about it.
  6. Flowers/perfume/toothpaste etc in the bathroom.
  7. Occasionally, you get a toiletry set. Not bad
  8. You get off first, and can get on whenever you like. A definite benefit.
  9. The check-in queue is shorter. Ditto.
  10. First choice of the magazines and newspapers.

That’s really it. It’s not a huge amount really. If you’re flying a long distance and you can get a reasonable deal on one of the airlines mentioned below, then go for it. But otherwise, you’re not missing a massive amount.

Rankings:

Airlines I’ve used recently that have really good business class stuff:

  • Etihad
  • Singapore
  • Thai

Pretty good, but not in the top league:

  • Emirates
  • Astana
  • Aeroflot

Rubbish:

  • Turkish
  • Uzbek
  • Tarom

Utter rubbish

  • Lufthansa

Basically, what I’m saying is that you’re not missing much, but it is a better travelling experience. For in-Europe flights it’s a joke really. No wonder it’s called business class – it just means the only way people will pay for it is if their company does for them.

Posted in travel | 3 Comments »

A muddy old river or reclining Buddha

Posted by Andy Hockley on 2 June, 2008

A couple of years ago, I took what I expected (nay hoped) would be the most ridiculously out of the way routing I’d ever taken – that was flying from Bucharest to Kiev via Amsterdam. I think though, I’ve just trumped that one (at least in terms of distance and time) by a huge amount.

I needed to fly from Almaty to Kathmandu, which on a map doesn’t look that difficult. Nowhere near as close as Bucharest to Kiev, obviously, but it just looks like a 3 hour-ish flight across Western China/Tibet. You cannot, however, do it directly (which I guess is not a massive surprise, since there probably isn’t a vast amount of regular traffic between the two countries). But when you look into it, you discover that it’s pretty hard to do it with even one connection. There are two routes. The best one in terms of flight times, is via Delhi. This one however is problematic because the Almaty – Delhi flight arrives in the evening and the onward flight is not until the next morning. This would not be a major hassle were it not for the fact that to leave the airport (to go to a hotel, say) I would have needed a visa. And I didn’t have that kind of time. So, instead I had to take the second option. Via Bangkok. To make matters worse, for reasons I’m not sure of, but which seemed to involve a need to circle the Himalayas and not cross the Gobi desert, the flight from Almaty to Bangkok starts off by going west and crosses Afghanistan, and Pakistan before flying east over India, Bangladesh and Burma. (Trust me this is not a terribly direct route). So it was a 7 hour flight. And, after a night in a very fancy hotel (Thailand allows me in with no visa, y’see) I am now in the airport waiting to fly on another 3.5 hours back to Kathmandu.

Still, it’s not quite as bad as the fact that two of the participants of the workshop in Almaty who were from Nepal took a flight that routed them through Delhi and Frankfurt. So, I should be thankful for small mercies. Those two, by the way, left their home in the Kingdom of Nepal last Monday and will have arrived home yesterday in the Republic of Nepal. It promises to be an interesting time to be visiting Nepal all round, in fact. I never imagined I would spend time in a country run by Maoists (albeit democractically elected ones)

So, one night in Bangkok. I lived in Bangkok nearly 20 years ago and it was a spectacularly overcrowded, cloyingly polluted, gridlocked mess. It has got a lot better. (It may be one of the few cities in the world where the traffic situation has improved in that 20 year time period – though to be honest it couldn’t have got much worse, without just becoming permanent gridlock). The airport is new, and very light and airy, a bunch of expressways have been built, meaning that the drive from the airport to the city centre took slightly less than 30 minutes – completely unimaginable when I was last here, and there is a overground railway system which has taken a lot of the pressure off the roads. I also noticed that on some downtown roads there is the big electronic board over the road which tells you which roads in the area are blocked/slow moving at that time. It’s all very impressive. Even this morning (a Monday, after all) I was picked up at 7.30 and whisked to the airport in a similar time. I’m sure that there are still horrible bottlenecks and the extremely slow moving journeys of all cities, but the change that I have just experienced is pretty dramatic. Even the pollution seems tons better – 20 years ago I used to gag walking out the door into the traffic, but now I didn’t even notice the fumes.

So, anyway, on to the world’s newest Republic. Sawatdee Krap and Namaste.

Posted in travel | 1 Comment »

Televisual Feast

Posted by Andy Hockley on 28 May, 2008

This blog is soon, maybe, it is possible, if the stars align correctly, going to go televisual. I have filmed a short piece for Villagunk, a show on Duna TV (that’s the BBC of Hungary). When I say “I have filmed” I mean my neighbour Denes has filmed a short piece in which I appear. There is a possibility that this will turn into a more regular thing.

Anyway, I have no idea when this will appear, and so if I hear in advance I’ll give you a heads up so you can all tune in (if you get Duna) and watch Csikszereda Musings in it’s new format.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to stop writing (I know you must both have been panicked by the thought), but right now I’m in Kazakhstan, and am too busy to write much. So, I’ll do some more when I have time.

Cheers

Posted in media | 2 Comments »

Getting an Election

Posted by Andy Hockley on 23 May, 2008

The local elections are coming up in Romania and everyone is agog with excitement. Ok, not very agog, or even agogish in any way, but there are elections and there is a bit of half-arsed mild interest. Anyone who relied on the TV to give them an insight into the upcoming elections would conclude that the only race happening was the one for mayor of Bucharest, since nothing else even gets a mention. (Though to be fair, the impression I got of the recent local elections in the UK suffered from the same capital-centric media coverage)

I am told that I am even allowed to have a vote in these elections, which surprised me, because I thought as a non-citizen it was only Eruopean elections that I could vote in, but apparently EU laws allow legally resident non-citizens to vote in local (but not national) elections. So that’s exciting. Or at least it would be were I not in Central Asia on June 1st when the elections take place. So my vote will have to be held back.

The focus here is all about the new Hungarian party which is competing this time out and which looks set to split the Hungarian vote. I wrote some time ago about how I felt the UDMR’s monopoly of the Hungarian vote was undemocratic and ultimately not that helpful, but a number of people have told me since that they disagree and that without the UDMR, however flawed they may be, Hungarians would have nothing, and the (actually very good) minority law would not exist. [I’m not sure I believe this entirely, but a lot of people do, and that’s what matters]

The new party (well, they’ve been around since 2001) is called the MPP or “Hungarian Civic Party” and they’re a more nationalist party than the UDMR. The leader, Szász Jenõ, mayor of Udvarhely (Odorheiu Secuiesc), is a bit of a prick (in my considered political opinion) and he looks like a village idiot on all the posters (not that looks count for anything, but I couldn’t help but noticing). This raises all sorts of issues – I’ve heard some Hungarians say they won’t vote at all, in protest at having to choose (which is an interesting spin on traditional democracy) – what they mean is that they don’t want the vote split and their abstention is a protest against the lack of unity. I haven’t heard of anyone who says they will vote for the MPP, but (a) Csikszereda really isn’t the party’s heartland; and (b) people in Romania are very wary – to the point of cultural taboo- about saying who they are going to vote for anyway.

Here in Harghita county, the question is just by what split the vote goes between the UDMR and MPP, since the vast majority of it will go to one of those parties, and it’s not like the split will “let in the Romanians” as the fear runs. In places like Targu Mures and Oradea where there is a very significant Hungarian minority though, presumably the split vote will make a significant difference. Everyone I’ve heard hopes that the MPP lose badly so they throw their lot in with the UDMR at the next general election – otherwise the Hungarian community might fail to get any representation at all in the next parliament. (And the anecdotal evidence of my email inbox suggests that Romanian nationalism is on the rise, a bit)

As for me – well, neither of the two Hungarian parties really represent my political views. The UDMR is soft right and in the European parliament is in the same block as the UK tory party. While the MPP is, I believe, aligned with the Hungarian Fidesz party who always seem like a complete bunch of right-wing tossers. So the new deomcracy for Hungarian Romanians is to choose between a right wing Hungarian party or a right wing slightly more nationalist Hungarian party. Woohoo – what choice! The mainstream Romanian parties don’t really appeal either, with the so-called left wing one being the corrupt old gits at the PSD. So, to break down a cultural taboo, I don’t know if the Romanian Green party is putting up a candidate in Csikszereda, but if they were, and if I were able to vote, I’d give it to them.

Posted in politics | 2 Comments »

Fitting in

Posted by Andy Hockley on 22 May, 2008

A couple of weeks ago, during the “Megye napok” (county days), Csikszereda was visited by some vaguely famous musical acts. (For more or less the first time in my memory of the place) One of these was Morandi, who are (at least by Romanian standards) just about as big as they come. Another was a band I’d never heard of called Sarmalele Reci, who, at least on the the basis of a couple of youtube videos I watched, look pretty good. (Good name too – it means “Cold Stuffed Cabbage” but sounds much better in Romanian than in English). We were going to go, but an inability to find a baby sitter put the kybosh on that plan. However, I think almost nobody went and the concert got called off, in the end – at least someone I know showed up 45 minutes after it was supposed to start and nothing was happening.

We did manage it to make it to one concert in the week, though, seeing aged Hungarian Shakin’ Stevens impersonator, Fenyő Miklós. (For Romanian readers who have never heard of him, just imagine a 65 year old Stefan Banica Jr – a horrific thought, no?) Also it is a bit unfair of me to call him a Shakin’ Stevens impersonater since he must hav been cranking out the rock n roll when Shaky was still in blue suede nappies. A better British comparison would probably be Cliff, but without the later career move into schmaltzy ballads and vomit inducing “smooth god” or whatever he calls his particular genre. Anyway, Fenyő was not as bad as I had feared, and was actually very enjoyable (apart from the venue- the sports hall, which was a rubbish place for a concert). You can’t really go wrong with straight up rock n roll though, at least for dancing and the like. The crowd was interesting – mostly people of between 35 and 55 with a few kids (like ours, for example – still no babysitter). This reflects I think the fact that (a) he brings up a lot of fond memories for the Transylvanian Hungarians of a certain age, because as with all Hungarian musicians of the time the act of listening to him was somehow illicit; and (b) that among the young he is tragically unhip (indeed I asked some teenage students about him and they’d never even heard of him).

So there you go. I get more Hungarian with every day. Next week I’ll be wearing a big felt hat riding a horse and having a bizarrely extravagant moustache.

In other fitting in news, we now own two chickens. They don’t actually live with us, since we don’t really have the space to allow them to enjoy their natural wander aimlessly and peck existence, and anyway, it would get tiring to constantly be stepping on eggshells, but they are ours all the same. They live in a friend’s garden with 15 others who all look exactly the same, so we don’t actually know which ones are ours, but these are just details.

Posted in csikszereda, music | Leave a Comment »

Comfortable missionary position

Posted by Andy Hockley on 18 May, 2008

Been slacking off on the blog a bit lately, don’t really have much of an excuse, but since I’m providing a free service (albeit one of dubious value), I reckon you can cut down on the criticism a tad.

I’m writing this on a train home from Bucharest*, where I spent yesterday and this morning partly doing a workshop and then this morning getting myself a visa for Kazakhstan. This latter process had its own little set of interests, as I eventually located the embassy which is not an embassy, and is not even a consulate, but is a “diplomatic mission”, whatever that means. The bloke who works there is though officially a consul (rather than a missionary), and has what appears to be a nice cushy life. The place is only open from 9-12 and I duly showed up this morning at 9.30 to find he hadn’t actually got to work yet. The policemen outside were friendly enough and spoke English which was a bonus. [Another positive was that I went for a stroll round the block while I waited and came across the gloriously named “Kunty Automotive Service”. It’s the first time I have ever thought that having a mobile phone with a camera in it would have some value. Sadly though, I still live in the dark ages, mobilephonewise] It seems a little bit much that Romania presumably has to pay for two policemen to sit outside what amounts to a house with a flag on it, 24 hours a day, to guard a consul (who only works a couple of hours a day) and two staff (I’d called them a few times and that experience, along with basically meeting everyone this morning, means that I have pretty much worked out the staffing levels of the place. I reckon I’d make a good spy). One thing I had to do before going there this morning was to pay for my visa – you can’t just show up at the place with cash, you have to pay at a bank, and then show them the receipt. This I had to do in the Banca Transylvania (any branch), which is convenient as we live in the same building as that bank. So on Wednesday I went along to the Csikszereda Banca Transylvania and asked if I could pay for a Kazakh visa. This, as might be imagined, caused some consternation, since I suspect they don’t get many people in there asking for such a thing. There were lots of phone calls and eventually a ledger was produced in which I managed to locate the Kazakhs and demonstrate that really this was possible. Anyway, I finally got my pieces of paper in order, and when the consul showed up, waited for half an hour reading about the glorious achievements of Kazakh government, while he stuck something in my passport. Not quite sure why it took him half an hour, but there you go. He was probably tired.

I’m off to Almaty the week after next, since you asked.

(*While I did actually write this on the train on Friday, I could not post it until today, Sunday. So, no, the Kazakh consul was not working on a Sunday. Or in the afternoons. Or before about 10. Or much at all really)

Posted in bureaucracy, travel | 2 Comments »

Sporting update

Posted by Andy Hockley on 5 May, 2008

A couple of pieces of sporting news to report today.

Most relevant to Csikszereda is the news that Steaua Bucharest ice hockey team (not to be confused with the football team of the same name – they are not linked as far as I can tell) has decided to next year play in the Hungarian league. The invitation to participate in that league has been open ever since Sport Cloub from here decided to join it two years ago, but Steaua previously decided not to go down that route. Having watched the Romanian league title be contested by the two Csikszereda teams (Sport Club and Hochei Club) this year, squeezing Steaua out of the championship game for the first time since the 50s, they have obviously realised that the only way to stay competitive is to be in Hungary as well. I think it’s good in many ways that they have decided to do this – partly because if it were just the “Hungarian” teams from Romania that took part it would all look a bit nationalistic, partly because I think the more competitive the league the better, and partly because I just don’t think it can do any harm to have what will essentially become a Hungary-Romania league in a sport (there will be 4 Romanian teams and 7 Hungarian teams in this league next year)

More intriguing from an external perspective is the ongoing saga of the football league. This is going down to the wire with the last games being played on Wednesday this week. The last time I wrote about football here, CFR Cluj were well ahead but I feared a comeback by Steaua, which duly came to pass, thanks partly to some wobbling by CFR and some very suspiciously dodgy decisions and moments in Steaua’s games (including one game against Rapid in which they were 1-0 down, but the ref called off the match gifting Steaua a 3-0 win). A good summary is here from Jonathan Wilson in the Guardian.

Anyway, last night, Dinamo beat Steaua 2-1 to leave CFR one point clear at the top. They only need to win their last game to take the title. It’s just that this last game is against city rivals U Cluj. And U Cluj’s fans hate CFR passionately. And while U are already relegated, I assume the players will do their utmost to knock CFR off so that they can give something back to the fans who’ve watched them through a very bad season. And who knows what pressures the ref will have come under.

If Becali, the most vile man in Romania, gets his way and Steaua win the league, I’m giving up on football in this country. It’s corrupt beyond belief. So come on CFR. Please.

Posted in football, ice hockey | 3 Comments »

Spelunking Today

Posted by Andy Hockley on 2 May, 2008

Well, yesterday, really. We spent our May 1st holiday underground in a cave not too far from here called Sugo Barlang (where barlang means cave) or Pestera Sugau in Romanian. Romania has loads of really interesting caves, I’m told, many of which are more dramatic than the one we went to yesterday, but this one was pretty interesting all the same. Some pictures (as ever, click on them to view full size)

This effect is apparently called “Leopard Skin”:

For some unaccountable reason back in the 70s some part of the Romanian army was billeted in this cave, so many of the stalactites and stalacmites got snapped off, which is a shame, but it does mean you get to see the cystalline stuff in the middle:

More broken bits, but still pretty cool.

A bat. A cat? No, a bat.

A pair of brave cavers

Posted in transylvania, travel | 3 Comments »

What is going on in Italy?

Posted by Andy Hockley on 1 May, 2008

Firstly the electorate returns corrupt hard-right crook Silvio Berlusconi to power, then the city of Rome elects a neo-fascist mayor (first right wing mayor since 1943, and I don’t think you need to look at Wikipedia to recall what kind of political climate there was in Italy in 1943).

From the outside it is really really hard to imagine how anyone could vote for Berlusconi since he’s seems so utterly unfit for public office as he’s so bent. But someone’s whose views I trust absolutely tells me that many people actually vote for him because he’s such a crook and yet he’s managed to beat the system so often (read: got himself elected so that he can change the system and thus not get convicted by it). And here I think Romania has corruption problems.

(There is of course a Romanian angle to this whole story, since there are half a million Romanians living in Italy and they will of course suffer greatly in such an extremist political climate)

Mind you, this is not just Italy, since it seems completely possible that today London, a city which prides itself on its multicultural character, looks set to elect a racist mayor. Boris Johnson, a man whose main claim to fame is that he behaves like a buffoon on a regular basis (but then uses that cretinous exterior to hide the fact that he’s a really hard line right wing wanker, who uses words like “piccaninny” like he’s a slave owner). As a friend memorably described him (and you should look away now if bad language offends) he is a cunt in twat’s clothing.

The world’s going to hell in a handbasket.

Posted in politics | 1 Comment »