To the Caucasus (and Back)
Last Summer I traveled with a friend to the Central Asian countries of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, of the famed Silk Road, the ancient trading route stretching from China to Europe and the Middle East.
For thousands of years it was the path of commerce and a swirl of clashing titans including Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great and Tamerlane.
We went back this summer, with another friend, to see the Caucasus, the area roughly bordered by the Black sea to the west and the Caspian to the east, a “pinch point” for the Silk Road between Russia, Iran and Turkey.
Over twenty days I was in Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey; each with its own culture, geography and political relations. The first three countries were historically part of greater Iran and Turkey, of course, was the center of the Ottoman Empire.
The route from Armenia, which borders Iran, north to Russia is studded with castles and fortresses, built hundreds of years ago to protect the trading routes from invaders and usurpers; many lie in ruins but some, like the Georgian castle called Rabati, have been fully restored.
The area is sporadically defined by its religion, being it Zoroastrian, Christian, Muslim, etc., or some combination thereof. Some countries, such as Christian Georgia are demonstrably religious while others, such as Azerbaijan, wear their Islamic heritage quite lightly.
On this trip you get seaside vistas, high plateaus, stunning mountains and everything in between; I want to go back and climb Mount Ararat, for sure.
I indulged my love of dogs as strays are numerous but with a hitch: they are generally tagged, inoculated and “fixed” and are cared for though they be on the loose.
Political relations are dominated by Russia and Turkey, a bit like the U.S. regarding Central America and the Caribbean, generally mucking about to its own advantage.
Russia occupies 20% of Georgia and the Georgians (predictably) hate it.
The former Soviet Union gave part of Azerbaijan (then a Soviet Republic) to Armenia, thus poisoning relations between those two countries.
The Armenians hate the Turks because of their refusal to atone for the Genocide.
Nationalism is rife and my list of regional grievances is woefully incomplete.
People are friendly, polite and very helpful. While in rural Georgia I escaped from the obligatory wine-tasting to go for a long walk on a country road. As I waited for my travel mates, I stopped at a tiny roadside shop and whiled away the hours with a lovely older couple who ran the operation. It quickly became clear that it was the nerve center of the neighborhood, folks stopping to catch-up and buy necessities.
The language barrier was total yet I was treated with kindness and even concern. The owner gave me two of the best peaches I have ever tasted and when my ride arrived and I tried to pay him, he refused the money and kissed me on the cheek.
As for the weather, sunny is the word, though it was clouds and storms when high in the Caucasus mountains near the Russian border.
I visited Istanbul in Turkey, Tbilisi in Georgia, Yerevan in Armenia and Baku in Azerbaijan; Baku wins the prize for the coolest place, by far. It was very walkable with beautiful parks and the seaside close at hand.
There were some humorous moments along the way:
- A travel mate asking the Georgian guide if she had a Russian passport. (Not a good idea.)
- Noticing the “defensive” driving of Georgian drivers: honk with left hand, raise right hand palm up as in the “what the f**k, over?” gesture.
- Me beginning to argue with a Yerevan cop when he said he didn’t know where Republic Square was. (I caught myself.)
- Asking guides anything other than relatively straight forward questions which then result in in-decipherable answers to unasked questions.
Our Armenian guide was a dead ringer for Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle, the cold war cartoon; she was a fervent Armenian nationalist who would begin the answer to any question with a version of “No, no, you silly boy” complete with a come-hither smile and then set you straight on the wonderfulness of all things Armenian.
Another guide, also a woman, hated men — she picked fights with every male in sight including an Armenian gas station attendant who got the “what for” because he spoke Armenian and not English or Russian. (We were, after all, in Armenia.) It took about two days to figure out what was going on, she pissed off a gruff old innkeeper who sent us packing after one sharp encounter. I counseled one poor fellow to not take it personally, her disdain was gender-wide.
(Thank god I don’t share her affliction when I guide: I hate everyone equally.)
The third guide, a fellow, was knowledgeable to a fault, at one stop, while beginning to explain an old tower, he said, “There are four versions to the story.” I wanted to say, “I’ll take door number one.” Honestly, though, does anyone care about four versions of anything?
We stayed in every type of accommodation from a four-room guest house with a shared toilet to a five-star hotel. Fancy hotels lack personality and character, but I’m not actually complaining.
One guest house in an Azerbaijani village called Lahic was the perfect example; it’s at about 3,000 feet above sea level without air-conditioning and you eat whatever they serve you for dinner and breakfast. Dinner was stuffed peppers, dolmas, rice with fresh saffron and more vegetables than I can remember. Breakfast? Rice porridge, fried eggs, fruit, fresh bread, coffee, etc. I awoke to the mooing of cows and a crystal blue sky.
Restaurant-wise, in most places, a very nice lunch or dinner for four is $35, tops and the food is all fresh and healthy.
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and European agencies are helping these countries with programs to develop tourism and trade; they sing our praises, a fact which foreign aid haters would do well to remember.
One evening when we stopped at the Georgia-Russia friendship memorial I stayed back to hang with the local vendors selling roasted corn. One fellow was quite savvy, having traveled to the Netherlands car shopping multiple times as part of his business. He was both inquisitive and friendly as the corn roasted. When he found out I was from America, he said, “Sir, you were born under the lucky star.”
Indeed I was, a fact which he helped me to remember.