Stage 4: Azerbaijan, Georgia & Armenia


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Asia » Georgia
January 16th 2014
Published: January 30th 2014
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So after an amazing time in Turkmenistan I have hitched a ride on a ship crossing the Caspian Sea. The crossing takes a couple of days and I had managed to rent one of the crew members cabins for an extra $10. I spend the time on board, eating, drinking a lot of Vodka and hanging out with the crew and 40 Hong Kong Land cruiser enthusiasts. We anchor off the coast of the capital Baku around midnight and wait for clearance. Around 3am we are given the go-ahead and are quickly docked and I say goodbye to my new Azeri friends I have made.

Azerbaijan

Quick Facts



• Absorbed into the Russian Empire in 1913
• 93%!S(MISSING)hia Muslim
• 1991 Azerbaijan claims independence from the USSR
• Azerbaijan sits on approximately 7 billion barrels of crude oil
• Is in armed conflict with Armenia over the province of Nagorno-Karabakh since 1991
• Baku - Ceylon Turkey Oil pipeline completed in 2006, sending Azerbaijan Crude to the Mediterranean and the world



I quickly pass through customs and immigration. Getting the Azerbaijan VISA is renowned around these parts for being quite hard to get and as a result doesn't see a flux of tourists. Out into the dark streets it is 3.30am and I am wondering what to do next. I don't have any Azerbaijan money, there are no ATMs and this isn't an airport I cannot sleep at the port. Looking in my guidebook I see there is a cheapish hotel up the road within a few kilometres. Exhausted and slightly hung over I manage to convince a taxi driver to take 5 US dollars and send me up there. He drops me at the door and not to my surprise it is locked up tight. Banging on the door for 5-10mins, nothing happens. So I just sit on the step like a bum not having any other better ideas and sure it's pretty safe here; but you never know. Then just I get up to leave a little Azeri man sticks his head out the door. Yes I am saved, straight in, promise to pay him tomorrow and head to bed exhausted.

The next day dawns and after finding a bank I get some money out for my little friend from the hotel. Today I spend the day exploring the old city. It is one of those "new" old cities, in which everything has been restored but almost too perfectly. What does surprise me is the immense wealth that is now being spread out among the population here. Azerbaijan is sitting on immense oil and gas wealth that is making the country one of the most prosperous in the region. In its early years the soviets held the country and squeezed the oil and thus funds out of the local economy. Now it is in locals hands and the city is clearly prospering. The lanes are wide covered in big shopping complexes and very fashionable locals cruise the street decked out in designer clothing. I thought this was supposed to be a Muslim country but looking at the attire and behaviour of the locals and expats around here it doesn't really look like it. They are also devoid of too much residual Russian influence which is a good and a bad thing.

After spending the day hanging around drinking good coffee, eating fast food and perusing the shops I make the call to head out of Baku tonight. Azerbaijan is incredibly expensive for me, it is geared for expats and rich locals not for a cheap backpacker. Is a bit of a shame as it could hold some hidden gems but it doesn't agree with my bank balance or budget. So with that I head to the bus station and book a night bus to a country I have been looking forward to for a long time.

Georgia

It's been a long time coming but I am finally at the gates of Georgia. I have been deeply interested in this country for a while. For me it is a watershed area between Europe, Russia and the middle east. It has had a somewhat turbulent past that still reverberates to this day but it is a country that is on its way up. Supposedly blessed with some of the most beautiful natural beauty this world has to offer it has been on my must-see list for the past 5 years and it doesn't disappoint.

Quick Facts



• Absorbed into the Russian Empire in 18th Century
• 90%!G(MISSING)eorgian Orthodox Christians
• 1991 Georgia claims independence from the USSR
• The Rose Revolution of 2003 saw Georgia shift from Autocracy to Democracy
• 2008 War between Russia and Georgia over the disputed territory of Sth Ossetia (now in ceasefire)



The night bus pulls into immigration around 2am and we are all piled off the bus. Azerbaijan outward customs are fine but as per usual I am the main cause of a line hold on the Georgian side. They look at my passport, I know I get free VISA on entry but they actually have no idea what or where New Zealand is. As the main language is Georgian then Russian the English spoken is rudimentary and I am just confusing them with my presence. However after holding up the line for a long time, they find a list of acceptable countries and to their surprise this place called "New Zealand" is on there. Yes I am through and finally all the dirty looks the back of my backpack were getting disappear.

Arriving into Tbilisi the capital at around 4am I decide to crash at the bus station until it is light and safe outside. From what I can see already this place has a Russian underbelly. It is a strange type of undertone I have seen in Russian and ex soviet nations. All seems fairly depressed and repressed and it appears that with a flick of the switch the place would just explode in rage. For this reason I follow my gut and am always cautious in these countries (in defense most people once you get passed this tough exterior are really nice). So after a few hours at the bus station I venture outside to be greeted to what can only be described as a polar blast. I turn around and walk back into the bus station and put on all the clothing I own. Emerging again I am still cold but content and catch the bus into the city centre. I have a heap of people talking to me, helping me; there is a definite warmth to these people even amongst this underbelly. Getting off at the right stop the bus people again help me and point me to my hostel. Dodging the piles of vomit from the night before I descend under the highway into dark tunnels smelling like excrement. At one point a man scares me in the dark and I take off and emerge into the light again, lovely. At my hostel I am greeted by bodies lying all over the lounge. Not sure what to do I go back outside and pretend to knock. An older lady wakes up and opens the door, apologizes says she is the mother of the household and that they had a big party last night. Happy days! The hostel turns out to be an artist's pad where creative's just lounge around all day creating works of art, smoking and drinking. I am the opposite of creative so am looked at weirdly as I am not out there and wearing folk clothing or something but still fun to see how the other half live for a few days.

This afternoon I cruise the city with its gorgeous old town and its newly built new town. Georgia is trying to market itself to foreign investors as a safe convenient location to setup offices for business with Russia, Europe and the middle East. It is too early to say how it is going but seems to be a positive step forward if you ignore the fact that there are still thousands of poor without the basic necessities of life in the rural areas. The next day dawns and I check out the extraordinary sight of the David Gareja monastery complexes. Firstly I commission a Taxi for the day and begin the long journey to the complexes. They sit right on the border with Azerbaijan and have been the focus of disputes between the two countries for decades. It is a remote site with a real end of the world feeling to it. It hugs Georgia through fertile lands up to a major mountain range and then drops completely into the Azerbaijan desert. Upon arriving I climb a few hundred metres and am met by two armed Azerbaijan army troopers. They will let me skirt the mountain but say they will shoot if I try to descend into Azerbaijan. There is this little border rope about 5 inches off the ground that goes along the mountain side and let me tell you, I aint crossing that thing even though it crosses the path I am on! Scattered all along the mountain side are cave monasteries that are covered in frescos painted by David Gareja in the 11th Century. By some miracle these frescos are still visible today and are an amazing site as they are now exposed to the elements and look directly across the Azerbaijan desert. I spend the rest of the day exploring these masterpieces and not stepping over that border rope!

After a night of conversing back at the hostel with my artistically talented friends I again commission a taxi and head to yet another sublime site, the cave complexes of Vardzia. The cave complex looking directly at it can be described as a stone age apartment block. It is a few hundred metres high, few hundred wide and has a thousand odd monk dwellings cut into the cliff. It is an amazing site to behold and you can clamber through the whole complex. It has churches cut into the rock covered in frescoes and secret passages all through the thing. I take a few tunnels using my headlamp but a short way in I turn into what I think is a burial chamber as there are skeletons from wall to wall, yep I am outta there quick smart.

Back to Tbilisi and tonight I head to the historical Sulphur baths. The baths are situated in the Muslim quarter of town and date from around the 10th century when it was a stopping point on the Silk Road. For me the options were Royal baths, Private baths or down the road at the public baths. Knowing my personality it is straight to the public baths which cost about 50 cents. Entering into the historical underground bunker the smell of Sulphur hits you immediately. Into the locker room everyone is in their birthday suits, stripping off I am given my locker key by some big hairy Georgian guy. The baths are basically this huge underground grotto with high domed stone ceilings. It is a museum piece apart from the fact there are about 50+ Georgian gorillas washing down (many locals dont have a shower at home so use this instead). With a bit of kiwi apprehension in me I head to the spa and am promptly joined by a couple of locals. Next thing you know beers are coming out, then the vodka shots follow closely behind (are these guys Finnish??). One of my new mates asks if I want to smoke, no thanks I'm cool in here; he shrugs and is off to the smoking section which is just a corner over there. I now take my opportunity to get out of the tub and off to the sauna where a guy is lying with his head on another's lap. Weird but I'm in a different culture so will be ok with it; however my heterosexual side says run. Then another beefy Georgian guy comes in sees me and then the two lying on each other; he then switches the light off, promptly shuts the door and leaves. In total darkness I'm like NOPE time to move! Fumbling I find my jandals, run out, grab my clothes and am back on the street huffing. Dunno if that is all normal but it was fairly funny..... in hindsight, not at the time!

And that is it for the first part of my Georgian adventure.

Armenia

Quick Facts



• Armenia has been occupying the lands around Mt Ararat since 1500BC
• First country to adopt Christianity as its state religion
• In the 1800s Armenia was divided up between the Ottomans and Russia
• 1921 Russia hands over Mt Ararat (the spiritual symbol of Armenia) to Turkey in exchange for peace
• Borders Georgia, Iran, Azerbaijan and Turkey (at war with the last two)


The next day dawns and I join a tour to take me from Georgia into Armenia taking in its world heritage sites along the way. We have a full van packed with a Serbian diplomat, a Brazilian student studying in Paris, a Australian artist and a whole host of other interesting characters. We head to the Armenian border and I am able to buy my VISA for the whopping sum of $5 AND they process it within 2 minutes, now that's service.

For the next 6 hours we head through a stark desolate landscape. The land the Armenians were pushed onto pretty much constitutes the land nobody really wanted. It is high steep cliffs with very little in the way of fertile lands. Also lining the many valleys are old soviet coal and mineral digging operations, many of them have been abandoned and are now leaching toxic chemicals into the environment. Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity as its state religion in the 4th Century. In the 19th Century the Armenian homeland was sliced up into the Russian and Ottoman empires with it losing its most precious symbol of its country to the Ottomans; Mt Ararat (where Noah's ark is believed to reside). During and after world war one the Armenian people living in their ancestral homeland now part of the ottoman empire were systematically murdered as part of a mass genocide against this race. Between 1-1.5 million Armenians were rounded up and sent to the Syrian Desert to their deaths by the Ottoman regime starting around 1915. This was one of the first genocides to occur within the modern era of the world and still haunts all relations between Armenians and the now Turkish government and people. Until this day Turkey still believes that this was not a "Genocide" but a march into the desert of people they wanted removed from their new lands.

As we pass through the north of Armenia we take in the world heritage listed Monasteries of Sanahin and Haghpat. These beautiful 10th Century buildings sit high on opposite sides of a valley facing each other. The first one was created by a master builder and then the other built by his apprentice later facing his masterpiece. Lucky as we are there is a big fat Armenian wedding doing on, is like a cross between a Irish gypsy and a Jersey shore wedding. The dresses are slightly inappropriate for church, but they are welcomed with open arms. We hear them from a few kms away as they approach in a car convey of 30+ cars honking horns and then proceeding to head into this holy place to get blessed. It is a pretty cool sight considering like 5 min before all we could hear is the sweet sounds of a choir echoing into the distance.

We arrive into the capital Yerevan and it is an ultra modern place. They say that if you an Armenian in town, two Jews wouldn't have jobs and looking at the state of the capital it just might be true. They have very little here in the way of resources but there must be significant trade coming through this tiny infertile, landlocked country surrounded by enemies. Tonight our little eccentric group all head to a traditional Armenian eatery and hoe down on meat dishes, washing it down on local pomegranate wine from wooden goblets while the band fires up the patrons.

The next day dawns and we head to more monasteries, this time one built into a rock; the Geghard Monastery. Is a sublime place on top of a hill overlooking a vast valley. When we arrive there is sounds of a beautiful choir voice echoing the rock churches. They had built many rooms into this rock and the ones on top have holes built into the floor to let the sweet sounds of the singers voices envelop you wherever you are in the complex. One thing I can say about the Armenia monasteries is that they are alive with people, they are not deserted monuments from a bygone era which you see in other places. They are well used and the religion is alive and well in all sectors of the community, is very uplifting to see.

Tonight again me and my eccentric bunch of friends head out to a different traditional Armenian diner and repeat the same process of food, music, pomegranate wine and good company. The next day dawns and I head to the Mashutka (minivan) station and hop on one back to Tbilisi (I cannot cross into Turkey from here, it is a locked border so have to go back through Georgia). Again I hold up customs in Georgia and get evil looks from all my fellow Mashutka passengers. Tbilisi takes about 6 hours to get to and I am snuggled up in my old artists den hostel before dark.

Georgia

After a quick hello and then goodbye to my Georgian mum in my home stay, I decide to cross into the high mountains of Georgia to a place called Stepantsminder in the north of the country, next to the Russian border. It is a dramatic Mashutka ride up the Georgian Military highway into the high mountains, this really is a beautiful undiscovered country. Upon arriving I check into a home stay with a lovely old local lady and crank up the heat because it is freezing. I therefore put on all my clothing I own and hike up 2 hours to the Gergeti trinity church. This huge stone church was built at 2100m on the edge of a mountain plateau. It is a stunning location and testament to the tenacity of the Georgian people to build such a massive structure in such a inhospitable place. I spend half an hour admiring the structure before I am driven down to the village by sleet. Tonight I eat around the home stays fireplace trying to keep warm and then it starts snowing outside. This is when I pretty much make my mind up that I need to leave Europe in the next week as winter is coming.

The next day dawns and it is a crystal clear winters day. I again load up with all my clothes and pack a heap of food into my bag for my trek up the Gergeti glacier. The way up to the Glacier is nothing short of breathtaking, there are high mountains everywhere and the glacier meadows are beautiful. After about 3300m and 3 hours of walking I start hitting snow and ice but continue upwards. I don't see anyone on route except for two polish friends who think I'm crazy going higher, don't worry kiwis are like that. About 3500m I hit the Gergeti glacier and lucky for me the snowfall from last night has left a nice layer of snow for me to plod along. Without this layer it would be ice and as I have no crampons it would be impossible to climb. After another hour I am at the top of the glacier at about 3600m and it opens up amazing views of the 5000m+ Mt Kazbegi. After a few photos in this special place it is time to descend and fast. I have about 3 hours of daylight and 4 hours of walking, going to be tight. After running down the slopes I get back into the hostel just after darkness falls only needing the headlamp for the last half hour. Again tonight I curl up by the home stay fire eating and drinking local beer, a great experience.

Today the day awakens and the area is again covered in snow, yes it is well and truly time to get out of Europe. I head back to Tbilisi and take the first Mashutka out of town to the far West of the country to Batumi. Batumi is a border town on the coast of the black sea with Turkey. It is a bit of a tourist town for Turkey residents who want to come drink, gamble etc in a country that is a bit more liberal in regards these things. I bunk down for the night and enjoy my last drink in Georgia. I reflect on what an amazing time I have had here. All these Caucasus countries are untapped destinations with a heap of history and beauty. They are also all countries that are trying to shake off old stigmas and push into the future. The great joy of these places are actually seeing the locals overcoming the handicaps that have been placed on them and achieving. For all these countries they have new found freedom since the removal of the Soviet banner and they all are just coming to grips with this new found freedom. I do think all of them are experiencing growing pains but the people are a resolute bunch. It won't be too long before these little countries are centres of trade again and I do think tourism will play its part as well.

So with that I head into Turkey and take a quick flight across the country back to Istanbul and get ready to fly to my next destination.

Next stop, The Middle East: Jordan, Israel & Egypt

Thanks for reading

Shaun

Photo Links

Azerbaijan Photos click here

Georgia Photos click here

Armenia Photos click here


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31st January 2014

Travels
Shaun, your blogs are so inspiring to read. You take me to parts of the world I wouldn't imagine visiting and it seems like I am right there with you. Simply amazing!!!
26th May 2018

Mother Armenia and her children are still angry.
I had no idea that her sword is pointing at Turkey. It is sad that Armenians are still holding grudges against the Turks and Azerbaijanis. Thank goodness for Georgia; otherwise it would been almost impossible to visit all three countries in the Lower Caucasus followed by Turkey. Excellent blog!

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