the Caucasian Republics of Georgia & Armenia
 
introduction and context

My initial plan was to visit only Armenia. I was particularly attracted to its ancient culture and its particular location as a Christian country at the doorsteps of Asia, among Islam countries such as Iran, Turkey and Azerbaijan. Also the feeling that, like in Ireland with the famine and emigration, in Armenia the people have a special relation to their troubled history, and still feel this shock deep in their stomachs.
But then, after a little research, it seemed that Georgia also was of great interest. With a much more heterogeneous ethnic landscape, this other orthodox country is fascinating by its extremely remote settlements in the heart of the upper Caucasus, and their associated local cultures. Georgia is unique, has a unique language with unclear origins, and its location on the Silk Road at the crossroads of Europe and Asia allows the emergence a rich cultural mix.
So, the initial plan was extended to include both Georgia and Armenia.

the svaneti region

The strong regional feelings in Georgia led to various secession wars. While Abkhazia is de facto independent with a situation that still is tensed, Adjaria reached a political agreement with the government and Black Sea tourists are again welcome. As for South-Ossetia, the current ceasefire holds stand and the conflict is back on the political terrain.
This political instability and regional nationalism in conjunction with the dreadful road conditions made independent travel impossible, especially to the remote regions of Svaneti and Khevsureti. So, I managed to find a sustainable tourism agency agreeing to escort me to these fantastic sites. After landing at 4.00 AM in Tbilisi, we instantly hit the road towards remote Svaneti, on board of the 4WD Lada Niva of our driver Iago Kazalikashvili. Gvantsa Turmanidze was also part of the trip, as a guide and interpreter.
Iago is a geologist operating a small family museum in the tourist town of Kazbegi, located on the military highway to Russia. In Georgia where wild economic growth is the priority, it is a rare opportunity to meet such a nice person, with a true ecologist conscience. Bernard, a Swiss alpinist whom I met on a couple of occasions in Svaneti and Tbilisi, tries to raise funding in Switzerland in order to embellish Iago's little museum. However, it seems that with different cultural perceptions of business, and considering the sometimes corrupted local authorities, achieving this is a real challenge. Alternatively, the organisation of a trek to clean up the garbage across the Caucasian mountains is a succeeded project they both have been involved in. As for Gvantsa, after completion of her studies in the USA, she worked on the US sponsored pipeline built across Georgia and Azerbaijan to reduce US's dependence on Russia for Eurasian petrol. Today, in this poor economic climate, she is surviving like most Georgians, trying to find an inexistent job.

As a result of the bad road conditions, the 200km trip from Tbilisi to Upper Svaneti took us about 16 hours. Since the recent landslides, the shorter but even worse road via South Ossetia is closed for good. The only possible way is to head towards Zugdidi, and cautiously follow the border with Abkhazia towards the Caucasian mountains. The border area is still unstable. Risks of abduction or robbery by armed groups are severe, though there is little chance for this to occur during day time. We eventually got through without any problem.
The feeling of regional nationalism within Svaneti is intense, and it is not advisable to travel around without being escorted by a local, even for Georgians. That's why we immediately went to meet Idris. Idris Khergiani is an institution in Svaneti. Together with Aphi Gigani where I stayed, he is one of the most famous alpinists in the country. Both have been awarded several times thanks to their experience in the Himalayas, Caucasus, Carpathian, and Pamirs. Idris just returned from an expedition on mount Ushba, bringing back the bodies of two Canadian alpinists deceased in an accident.

Besides their natural alpinist skills, the Svans have the reputation of having a closed attitude towards strangers. However, this is totally untrue. As soon as you spend some time with them around some self-made vodka (cha-cha) and the famous Georgian food table, they become very open and likable. In such a way that today, I consider Idris as a true friend. And yes really, what a great sense of hospitality. Dressed all day long with uncountable meals, meat and cheese pies, the table never gets empty. Nor do the glasses. The toast is still a true ritual. In turn, everyone can give its toast. Usually, this speech goes on for long minutes turning into a story about the loved ones, family and friends, or the visitor, whishing them the best in their lives. It's subsequently followed by a few seconds of deep thought about what has just been said, and then finally the relief of drinking the vodka at once, eating a piece of cheese pie, and start over again. And start over again, and again … In the end, the language problem I came across at first tended to fade as we entered the late night. One night, after having had a long evening of eating and drinking at Aphi's place, we all left to visit another friend near Mestia. Again, we went through the night around the Georgian table full of food and vodka, until sunrise. It was an amazing experience and another perfect example of social life in those remote villages.
This is not exclusive to Svaneti, nor is the unbelievable hospitality. It will be similar throughout the journey in the Caucasus, both in Georgia and Armenia.
In Svaneti though, vodka is anchored deeper into social life. At the location of fatal accidents alongside the road, a cross or small chapel will be erected in commemoration. But what's less usual is that there will always be a bottle of vodka with some glasses disposed in the chapel, or on a small platform fastened to the cross and serving as a table. People driving or walking by are expected to drink one or two glasses in remembrance of the deceased. The same tradition will be found in cemeteries. The Svans are of orthodox confession, but tinted with some Pagan customs and beliefs. The saints are also gods of war, love, hunt, etc … This is also clear when analysing the highly valuable icons locked away in the local church of Ushguli. This church is yet another illustration of the local nationalism of the Svans. The inhabitants of Ushguli refused to be deprived from their priceless treasures, at the benefit of a bigger museum in Mestia. Quite the opposite, they closed the church with a massive door, installed three locks, and distributed the keys upon inhabitants in different areas of Ushguli. Needless to say that I had to wait for a couple of hours until all keys were found, and a visit enabled.
The last day in Svaneti was an opportunity drive in a valley towards the border with the Russian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria. The bad roads and river crossings once again reminded me why it was mandatory to have a four-wheel drive car. Following yet another picnic, Idris and I agreed to walk a few hours on the track until we reached the frontier and met the border guard. He lives all alone here and of course, invited us in his wooden cabin to share a few vodkas and a cheese pie.

leaving for Khevsureti

Leaving Svaneti, Idris joined us on the trip back to Tbilisi. At first we wanted to spend a night in the dacha of Gvantsa's family on the Black Sea coast in Adjaria, but had to cancel this plan. So arriving in Tbilisi after another 16 hours drive, Idris invited me to stay with his family in law. Yet another occasion to enjoy Georgian cuisine, this time accompanied by Georgian wine rather than vodka, though ultimately it didn't make much of a difference. And then vodka it was again, with breakfast !

Together with Iago and Gvantsa, we left for another long drive towards Shatili in the Khevsureti region, near the border with Chechnya. Shatili is one of the several settlements to discover in this remote region, with its particular tower-shaped houses. The architecture of both the settlements in Svaneti and Khevsureti, reminded me of the Mani region in the south Peloponnese, or San Gimignano in Toscana. However, while the Toscan towers are more an expression of richness and wealth, both the Mani and Georgian settlements serve as defensive towers in extremely isolated regions. Like in Mani, the towers in Georgia often belong to one clan or family. In Mani though, they're build as a defence against other clans within the same community, while in Georgia they seem more to be a defence against outsiders.
Unfortunately, a growing number of the Khevsureti (and Trushuli) villages are abandoned to seek a job in town. Nonetheless, I met some very courageous people trying to stop this trend. An old woman is spending her life walking from village to village, all over the Caucasian countries, including Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. She encourages people to stay in the villages, brings comfort and education. Another example is this teacher who left the capital to settle with his family in an abandoned tower house. He provides education to children in the surrounding villages. To motivate the children, he transformed a recently crashed Chechen helicopter into a library …

Again, the evenings were great, with people from the village coming together for dinner and evening chats. Additionally, they started singing those great Russian tunes as the night went by.
At some point, ladies came down from the village to visit my host, a Sean Connery type doctor with incredible charisma. Subsequently, he started to put needles into their hands. Apparently, the doctor learned some Thai acupuncture techniques in a book. I was requested to test it, all you have to do is tell what's wrong, anything, and the needles will instantly make you feel better. I passed. Anyway, it seemed totally surreal to find a doctor performing Thai acupuncture in one of the most remote villages of the Caucasus.

back to Tbilisi

Following this escapade in Khevsureti, we headed back to Tbilisi where I booked a small hotel. Tbilisi changed a lot since the US sponsored “revolution of roses”, and the election of Saakashvili as president. The roads, the main buildings have been restored, and corruption among the police is past time. They all have new cars indirectly paid by the US after the revolution and the start of the pipeline project.
After dinner and a small walk, I was lucky to run into Idris and Bernard again. Together with Sasha and Lasha, two controversial artists, we went to the touristiest place in Tbilisi. But since having a drink here is quite expensive for Georgians, we just bought a few beers from a shop. In the morning, we wandered around in the local flea market with Bernard, Sasha and Lasha. At noon, we ate in a local restaurant with excellent Georgian specialties and vodka, started sympathising with two Austrian backpackers, and spent the remainder of the day together. After Idris joined us in the evening, we ended up on the shores of the river where Georg and Alex were camping. I can't remember much about this evening, but thanks to the contacts of Bernard, we somehow managed to organise a visit to the David Gareja monasteries by joining some German tourists the next day.
As I couldn't recover well from the late night fun, the trip to this South-Georgian desert-type area turned out to be the most difficult part of the whole journey. I even had to pass and turn back after an hour of walk.

The following day, I started looking for a way to travel to Armenia. The night train option wasn't possible anymore, so I settled for a Mazurka - a shared mini-bus. The taxi taking me from the hotel to the bus station is also worth mentioning. After being welcomed in the taxi, I was asked if it was OK to make a small bend. Actually the taxi was out of fuel, and rolled downhill for 2km until he found one of those fuel merchants. Both in Georgia and Armenia, fuel is often sold on the street side, per litre, in old bottles of Coca-Cola, or buckets.
And this is where the Georgian part of the journey comes to an end. A wonder that everyone found a little space in the mazurka, as I it was really packed.

Armenia

Erevan is really a cool town, young and animated with quite a few terraces and pubs. In the background, the snowy tops of Mounts Aragats and Ararat come into sight. Ararat is currently located in Turkish Anatolia, but still is a symbol for Armenia. It was the heart of historic Armenia around the town of Van, until the genocide. Main roads are in better condition than in Georgia, being financed by the wide Armenian Diaspora. Landscapes are dry and desert-like, but punctuated with villages established in green valleys. The uncountable churches and monasteries are always settled in amazing sites, on hill tops or rocky slopes.

At Norovank monastery, I met Thomas, an Austrian backpacker who has been travelling all over Armenia for one month. Thomas tried to convince me to join him in the visit of caves we managed to arrange. But since I had little time left, I decided to move on towards South Armenia, and the town of Goris, known for its troglodyte settlements. When asking for the way in Goris, a local agreed to join me in the car, an occasion for him to greet everyone in the village, full of pride sitting in a western 4WD car. Outside Erevan, most cars are still Lada or Traban style.

Heading towards the monastery of Tatev the following day, I had a little stress fearing to fall out of fuel. Fortunately, I could refill from a bucket of fuel sold on the street. Driving back, I was again requested to take a few guys with me, two military who guarded the border with Nakhichevan, an Azeri enclave south of Armenia. Both countries are still in a state of war, over the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia occupies part of the Azerbaijan territory around that enclave. After dropping him off in a small village, the military requested me to join him for a drink with some fruit. After a few minutes, the whole family came to greet me, and asked me to stay longer for a day or two. As I was already late on schedule, I had to reject the offer. Asking for the right directions at a crossroad, an old couple requested a lift to the next town. My small car was just about big enough for their five bags of potatoes and fruit. As I had to refuse coffee and hospitality, they still managed to thank me with a bottle of cha-cha …

Following a bend towards G'ndevank monastery settled in a rocky valley, I lost my way trying to go for a shortcut. As always, this results in the nicest discoveries. After a difficult drive through remote highlands, the path led to a spectacular canyon in Yeghegis valley. The road leading up to Smbataberd is very narrow and steep, with barely enough space for a car and a sheer cliff on one side. The visit to this ancient fortress had to be postponed until the next day

Later that day, en route for the immense Sevan lake, I was stopped by the local police asking me for a lift. Then, after dropping them off, I was again invited for vodka and food inside the office of the police head. I settled for a coffee, since there still was a long way to drive. as it was already late. So, I got back to the nearest village in search for some accommodation. Yet another opportunity to enjoy Armenian hospitality. I was welcomed in a small farm, given dinner and drinks, offered the best room and bed, served breakfast, and guided to the fortress and monasteries. All of this without my hosts accepting anything in return.

Reaching the town of Gyumri, I found a hotel established in a German hospital originally founded after the big earthquake that stroke this region back in 1988. The evening was spent with the family of the manager, who were celebrating his daughter's birthday, all singing around a piano.

In my final day, I drove up the Aragats, populated by nomad shepherds settled in large tents. Peaking at 1300m, this mountain hosts the amazingly situated monastery and fortress of Amberd. I ultimately ended my journey to Armenia by visiting the religious centre of Echmiadzin before enjoying the pleasant terraces of Erevan one last time.

michael van overstraeten, March 2005