I’ve made it to Baku, where it feels like summer is over as a harsh wind whips in off the Caspian Sea bringing dark clouds and rain. I arrived to the Caucasus at the end of July and have stayed for the duration of a long and hot summer, visiting all three Caucasus countries (but none of the de facto states) during my time here. Put simply, I’ve fallen in love with the place, Georgia especially. The breathtaking scenery, the generous and welcoming people and the sumptuous food have all given me great cause to stay here and mean I will undoubtedly return.
Armenia intrigued and tantalised me – I certainly want to go back and spend longer than four days there. Much dryer and more arid than its northen neighbour, the landscape feels a lot more rugged. Mount Aragats (the mountain Matt and I climbed) dominates the central and northern part of the landscape, with the capital Yerevan nestled below.
Mount Ararat – where Noah supposedly beached his ark – dominates the south, the twin peaked, dormant volcano with its permanent snow cap towering at 5,000m over the plains. Despite being the symbol of Armenia (it is on the national crest) and the focal point of Armenian folklore, Mt. Ararat lies in Turkey – much to the anguish of the Armenian people. It was traded by the Soviets to the Turks in 1921, in return for parts of the modern day Georgian coast near Batumi (a profitable Black Sea port that I visited upon my arrival there), and has remained inside the Turkish border ever since (indeed it is the highest point in Turkey itself). It is one source of animosity between the Armenians and the Turks – the other being the Armenian Genocide. A thoroughly depressing part of World War I, it is an act sometimes considered as the first modern Genocide. I won’t go into detail here, but what it means now, is that (like other persecuted peoples) a large diaspora resides outside of the country, mostly in the US and Russia.
Armenian was the first country in the world to become Christian, way back in 303 CE, so there are ancient monasteries everywhere. My favourite of these was Saghmosavank, which overlooks an impressive gorge below. To me it appeared to stand firm and proud, a visual metaphor for the unwavering resolve and faith of the early Christians in the region, standing against the competing religions of the area. This attitude carries somewhat through to the national psyche, where the stereotype of the industrious and clever Armenian, with a strong work ethic, seems to hold true. Certainly, the Armenians seem more subtle and subdued than their noisy Georgian neighbours, although a strong nationalist streak runs through (especially in respect to the Turkey, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh). It is a country I enjoyed and will return to explore more, that is if I can get in after my time here in Azerbaijan…
Of the three Caucasian countries, I feel I understand Azerbaijan the least. Culturally, to me it feels very similar to Turkey and linguistically it is undoubtedly similar – so in a sense it feels as if I’ve returned back to somewhere I know (they have the same Turkish biscuits that I adore). Politically, I am also reminded of Turkey with a proud decomocratic and secular but Muslim majority country unfortunately slipping towards authoritarianism and conservatism (see here for a depressing recent example). Power seems to be held within a closed off group of political elites, but hopefully the waning oil money will encourage diversifaction and openness both politically and economically. More knowledgable minds than me don’t hold so much hope.
Geographically, the area to the north, through which I cycled, is hillier and greener than I anticipated – ideal for when the TCT eventually extends there. The Azeris were, like their Caucasus neighbours, very friendly, offering up multiple cups of tea – although I sensed a slight feeling of wanting something in return rather than the pure alturism of the Georgians. It has, therefore, been a pleasant ride but ultimately, Azerbaijan has been a transitionary country to me, lying between my long stay in Georgia and the countries east of the Caspian, countries I am chomping at the bit to get to. Therefore I haven’t really given it the time it deserves and, like many of the Western and Central European countries, will be remembered as somewhere I just needed to get through before reaching the more interesting places.
Clearly I’m biased towards Georgia, as I spent the longest there. It is, as I’ve said before, a fantastic country with each region having its own identity and character. There are so many contrasts within the country, from the high Caucasus Mountains in the north, through the sub-tropical west coast, the rolling hills of the east where vineyards abound and the higher plains and lakes to the south. It therefore has something for everyone and the food is fantastic and the people loud and welcoming.
The country isn’t perfect, of course. Many Georgians spoke of a lack of jobs, of opportunities, and wanted to head to Western Europe to find these. Education doesn’t seem to be all that comprehensive, the 15th September was the first day back of school but I was told that, being a Friday, no one would bother go in (this includes the teachers). The church is still a dominant force in political life in Georgia, sometimes stiflingly so (and from what I’ve been told, surprisingly full of ex Georgian Mafia) and there is still political instability – the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both currently under Russian occupation, point to the potential threat in the future. But there is a strong political and societal resolve to improve things, with membership of the EU being the ultimate goal (EU flags fly (rather presumtuously) next to the Georgian ones at all the borders).
Personally, I really feel I left part of my heart in Georgia and I will, undoubtedly, be back again one day.
Choppy Waters Ahead
So that’s a wrap for the Caucasus, a region I strongly urge you to visit. I have my visas for Central Asia now and all roads lead to Beijing and China (once I can find a boat over the Caspian Sea). The first part of my trip is over, the easy summer jaunt through Europe and Anatolia, where I could drink beer and eat food and enjoy life, is finished. My remaining countries are Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan (again), Russia, Mongolia and China, plus I have a winter to get through. The 4,000m passes in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan, to be tackled in November, await, with the dry and cold steppe of Kazakhstan and the deserts of Mongolia coming after that in the new year.
In other words, play time is over.