The Caucasus is a real cultural crossroad, the region where Asia meets Europe, as well as being a fascinating blend between yesterday and tomorrow. Each of the countries visited has had a chequered history, having been invaded at various stages by each of Russian, Persian and Turkish forces, but all of them have shown their resilience at fighting back to where they are today, which is with rapidly modernising capital cities but still slow-placed countryside where most families still live off their land.
Our trip concluded without incident or any disruptions, which is something that cannot always be said for tours through this part of the world. The scenery and attractions in each of the three countries visited were certainly varied and at times spectacular, all three country guides were excellent, both in terms of their country knowledge and their interpersonal skills, and our group of travellers were great company, with the exception of one whinger – why is there always one person in every group who doesn’t want to fit in? So the tour was a credit to the tour provider, East Site Travel and I’m happy to give them this free plug (http://www.east-site.com
With each of these
countries on a clear modernisation route, endeavouring to rid themselves of the old Soviet image, there was an interesting blend in each country between the old, or in many cases ancient, and the new. The degree of development was clearly greatest in Azerbaijan, especially in the capital Baku, obviously a function of its massive oil revenues, and least in Armenia. The old generally focussed on religious edifices – mosques in Islamic Azerbaijan and monasteries and churches in Christian Georgia and Armenia – many of which were situated in spectacular settings once away from the main cities.
The relatively small size of each of these countries means that the traveller can traverse the country without having to spend long periods on the road or needing to fly internally. This allowed us to maximise our time in the various locations and we were able to spend over a full day in each of the capital cities, Baku, Tbilisi and Yerevan respectively. As mentioned, each of these cities is on a modernisation route, but each has managed to retain a section as an ‘old city’ to retain memories of the past.
It is one of the great pleasures of travel when
you get a real opportunity to mix with the locals. We got such an impromptu opportunity when we were at the Zvartnots Cathedral in Armenia. Just as we were finishing our regulation tour of the site, we heard some music and followed it to investigate. There in the middle of the ruins were a school group of teenagers with a couple of crude musical instruments and a group of them dancing in a circle. They invited the foreigner oldies to join them and soon there were around 50 of us all up dancing together. No common language at all, but lots of fun had by everyone!
Equally enjoyable although without the same degree of people interaction was a sound and light show in the Republic Square in Yerevan. Each evening large crowds gather to hear a range of musical offerings accompanied by the multi-coloured fountains in front of the History Museum and the atmosphere with such a large crowd was quite amazing.
A further opportunity to mix with the locals occurred during some food preparation demonstrations and a number of wine tastings at various venues. We learnt how to prepare the local thin, flat bread, lavash
, before cooking
it on the side of a very primitive oven. We also prepared churchkhela
, a walnut-encrusted sausage, coated in caramel made from grape juice and arishta
, a local form of pasta made using cracked wheat (bulgur
) which was ground on site. On the wine side, we visited a number of vineyards in Georgia, the land of wine, and had ample opportunity to taste the local product. A particular eye-opener was the use of underground vats to store the wine at the Areni Wine Factory, with the ground level above resembling a series of mini-volcanoes.
Disappointments? These are very few and to be fair I suspect that these are influenced both by my comparisons with the 5 Stans, which I visited a couple of years ago, and the fact that we were on an organised tour. I have always enjoyed taking people photos, with a leaning towards the very old and the very young, and specifically in some kind of national costume. While these types of subjects were clearly available in all three countries, they generally seemed to be dressed in western clothing and photos of them were probably not dissimilar to people photos that I could take in many parts
of cosmopolitan Sydney.
As mentioned in the Georgia blog, we sampled many different varieties of their wine, at relatively very cheap prices, and didn’t find a bad one, and their beers were pretty good too. While there was plenty of food available, I had thought there may have been a greater variety of local dishes but perhaps that is partially a function of the establishments where we dined and also that being a tour group we tended to have set menus rather than being able to choose our own dishes. Meals generally comprised some type of yoghurt soup, barbequed chicken and lamb and a variety of salads, always accompanied by an excess of various types of local bread.
Having given you an overdose of monastery and mosque pics in the three previous country blogs, I've focussed mainly on people and food pics in this one. However, I've attached a few pics taken by Bruce that perhaps better illustrate some of the places or items mentioned in those country blogs. Enjoy!
If I were summarise the trip, I call it educational and interesting rather than exciting. I’m not sure that this is the part of the world where
you seek excitement, but travelling with a group of similar aged older people keeps everything on a fairly stable level. But for those of you who are looking for destinations a little removed from the mainstream, you could do a lot worse than visiting either the Caucasus region or the 5 Stans.
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