georgia & armenia
Travelling the Lands Where Eastern Europe Ends & Western Asia Begins
Where: Tbilisi & Gori, Georgia. Yerevan, Aragatson, Sanahin & Haghpat, Armenia. Eurasia.
When: August 2012
What: Stalin Museum, Stalin’s Death Mask, Freedom Bridge, Kura River Cable Car, Hiking the rugged Kasakh Gorge, Visiting Armenian Nomads, Mount Aragats - the highest mountain in Armenia, Tbilisi Clock Tower, Bank of Georgia 'Chips' building, Hilltop monasteries of Armenia, Cascades Monument, Yerevan Opera House, Armenian Alphabet Monument, Lake Kari, Mather Armenia statue, Stalin Palace architecture.
How: International flights, Hostel transfer, Walking, Taxi, Cable Car, Marashutka.
Country counter: +2 countries
Illnesses or mishaps: Being taken prisoner by a Georgian street child who took to linking her arms around my legs and refused to let go; struggling to arrange any form of transport for our return journey from Armenia back to Georgia - we were very nearly stranded in the Armenian capital and close to missing our flight.
Georgia and Armenia reside on the border of Western Asia and Eastern Europe and are two of the three countries making up the Caucasus along with Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan's visa requirements proved to be too complex and expensive for us meaning that Azerbaijan was relegated to, perhaps, a visit in the future. This is somewhat ironic considering our flight from London to Tbilisi stopped in the Azeri capital Baku. We were not allowed to disembark the plane at Baku but, on the return leg of the journey, I did have the very lucky experience of seeing Baku's city skyline with its Flame skyscrapers and Television Tower. I can't claim to have been to Azerbaijan, and it's a shame we couldn't include it in our trip, but I did get to see a rather spectacular sight - albeit from seat 16E of the aircraft.
The Caucasus is a region bedevilled with in-fighting and squabbling over scraps of land. If we were able to travel to Azerbaijan, we would have had to visit countries in a certain order because Azerbaijan and Armenia are still 'at war'. The border between Armenia and Azerbaijan is closed and often plays scene to regular violent skirmishes. This means that Georgia acts as the nexus country. We would have had to travel from Georgia to Azerbaijan, then back through Georgia to get into Armenia. This situation would effectively double our travel time. At time of travel, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office was advising travellers against visiting such areas. Rumours abound that we may also have faced refusal of entry in to Azerbaijan with an Armenian stamp in our passport. Georgia is stuck in the middle of a very troubled region, with tensions further stoked by Russia which borders the northern edge of Georgia. Russia has recognised the break-away regions of South Ossettia and Ngorno-Karabakh. South Ossettia declared independence from Georgia - and Georgia wants the region back. Ngorno-Karabakh is full of Armenians but is slap bang in the middle of Azerbaijan. The frozen nature of this conflict means that the Caucasus is an unstable and fractious region with tensions gently simmering beneath the surface. Each country has chosen a larger country to back it: Georgia with America; Azerbaijan is supported by Turkey; Armenia by Russia. So, to keep life simple, we opted for just Georgia and Armenia. Of course, this tense backdrop makes the region a fascinating place to visit. The frozen nature of the tensions in this region mean it is a relatively safe place for travellers providing you steer clear from disputed areas. Crime is virtually non-existent in these countries and both have made impressive strides to move beyond their Soviet days. Georgia and Armenia are interesting to visit in themselves, but are even more so when taken together as part of the same trip such is their contrasting character.
The assumption of a foolish outsider would be that, as neighbours, these countries would have a lot in common. Culturally (in music and diet) they probably do. You will notice, for instance, sunflower seed shells on the ground wherever you go. Both Georgians and Armenians eat these by the bucket load, chewing and spitting out the shells as they saunter their respective cities. Our Armenian guide provided insights as to the origins of this noteworthy habit: it dates back to the collapse of the Soviet Union when people lost their jobs and resorted to sitting around in their fields eating seeds to pass the time. Similarly, both countries reveal a penchant for precariously-perched, but dramatically-situated, churches and monasteries. However, away from religious buildings and outside of the capitals expect to see half-built and abandoned single storey dwellings, and rusted and twisted metal - in all its forms, everywhere. There is, indeed, true poverty in both countries; many live a subsistence life surviving only on what they can grow. A common sight along roadsides and highways, therefore, was that of ramshackle stalls selling fruit, vegetables and, in particular, melons. I even spotted horses with carts on several occasions. This may appear quaint and wonderfully agrarian to the outsider but, behind these images of supposed idyllic rural life, lies real poverty and a struggle to survive.
The Land Where Europe Ends
Georgia has made great strides since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. It is a small country constantly under threat and intimidation by Russia which dominates its northern border. Georgia is firmly looking West-ward to help realise its dreams. The current President, Mikhail Saakashvili, ousted Eduard Shevaardnadze (Gorbachev's old Foreign Minister) in the Rose Revolution of 2003 - so named because it was a peaceful revolution where people stormed the Parliament building in Tbilisi waving red roses. Saakashvili sacked the entire police force in Georgia soon after taking power, replacing it with young, newly-appointed officers. In 2008, when I was in Russia, Georgia and Russia went to war over South Ossetia, with the Russians coming to within just a few kilometres of the capital Tbilisi. Indeed, on my trip out to Gori, bullet holes in buildings were still very much in evidence. This potted recent history tells you something about the predicament Georgia finds itself in: it is caught between Russia and the West, between its past and its dreams for the future. Indeed, Georgia is a crossroads kind of place where European, Asian and Soviet influences combine in a heady, sometimes explosive mix.
A local delicacy in Georgia comes in the form of giant cheese breads. In fact, they are such a staple that whole shops are dedicated to them. After a few days in Georgia we eventually began to discern that different shapes and sizes denoted different cheeses or other fillings. We ate these rather happily - tasty and inexpensive sustenance as we traversed the sights. Another local delicacy in Georgia is, well, the language. Unique to Georgia, the letters are a world away from anything I have seen before. I can only describe the script as looking like worms twisting and curling themselves on lines. Despite what this less-than-flattering description may suggest I have to say that I loved this script; when rendered in different colours or font styles it was even more fantastical. I loved it because it was completely unique to Georgia and spoke so much of the weird and wonderful place I now found myself in. For those readers perplexed as to whether Georgia is in Europe or in Asia, a mere glance at the Georgian script points firmly towards Asia and not Europe. Indeed, "thank you", pronounced "Mad-lo-ba", looks something like this: მადლობა.
Georgia is certainly off the beaten track as a tourist destination. Indeed, tourists do not come here - travellers come here instead. Georgia knows that its economic success in the proceeding years will be heavily dependent on tourism. Some of the investment in its capital has resulted in rather impressive achievements like the Bridge of Peace, which cuts a remarkable sight across the River Kura as it twinkles its lights at night. Then there is the cable car which, for a nominal fee, lifts you from the banks of the River up to the hillside and old fortifications overlooking the city. When I arrived in the post-Soviet nation the last thing I anticipated experiencing was a ride in a gleaming new cable car but this, I think, captures something of the exuberance of the Georgian character: excess, hyperbole and passion. Unfortunately, all of this development has an unpalatable flip-side: the extensive and feverish building works across the city were both a menace and a danger during my time here. The road leading towards our hotel had a giant gorge cut up its middle, a positive disembowelling of the street which was, no doubt, the reason why our hotel was noticeably waterless on our final night. Another new addition to the Tbilisi city experience is Rike Park featuring modern ergonomically-shaped seating, synchronised fountains and landscaped gardens. It's the spot Tbilisians go of an early evening, their children splashing about in the fountains and screaming with delight. It was also the spot for young couples in love to sit and share a few romantic moments. Indeed, Georgians are known for their unrestrained outward display of emotion - the complete opposite of the British stiff upper lip.
Tbilisi is a pastel-coloured place where old buildings crumble gracefully in pinks, blues and greens in a kind of fairy-tale poverty. Wooden verandas and balconies draped with ivy defy the laws of gravity as the walls supporting them crack, split and tumble in a kind of slow-motion waltz. The city's magic is furthered by the distinctly Georgian Orthodox churches and cathedrals sprinkled across the capital, their conical golden domes punctuating the skyline of the city and sparkling in the sun. Tbilisi is completely beautiful. My only hope is that such beauty and heritage is retained in Georgia's quest for a modern capital city. Indeed, one aspect of the city's history is being zealously erased and, unfortunately for me, it was one of the principal reasons for me travelling there...
Tbilisi is home to some of the best and weirdest cosmic architecture from the days when Georgia was absorbed within the Soviet yoke. I deliberately look out for these architectural marvels on my travels through the former Eastern Bloc; they are the artistic expression of a completely different world and, for this reason, I find them utterly compelling. We approached the receptionist of our hotel, proffering pictures on my phone of the buildings I wanted to see. These were relayed, rather bemusedly, to the taxi driver on the phone who took to driving us round this collection of Soviet-inspired architectural curios. The highlight of this foray into Soviet Tbilisi was the old communist Ministry of Transport building, now repurposed (and repainted) as the Bank of Georgia. Few Soviet states escaped the bestowing of a Stalin Palace and Georgia was certainly not immune. These buildings are incredible and, on my travels across the former Soviet Union, I have photographed the best, including those in Poland, Ukraine and the awesome Seven Sisters in Moscow. Whilst marvelling at Tbilisi's Stalin Palace, the Academy of Sciences building, I suddenly felt something attach itself to my ankles. It was a little girl who'd decided to link her arms around my legs and then, despite my protestations, refused to let go. Clearly this was a well-rehearsed performance to theatricalise that she was a desperate orphan in need of instant dispensing of cash. It was a weird experience which left me wondering how to handle the situation. My only option was to walk away gently - taking her with me. After two metres' worth of free local transportation the little girl let go and I was able to resume my appreciation of Tbilisi's architectural marvels. However, it's a harsh reality that such constructions are sometimes an unpalatable symbol of a society that ultimately failed in spectacular fashion decades ago. It is therefore unsurprising that many examples of Soviet architecture are being erased from Georgia's landscape and the minds of its people. For enthusiasts of this kind of thing, such as me, the race is on to see them before they vanish into the annals of architectural history and become viewable only in giant tomes dedicated to the Soviet architectural aesthetic.
The wavy shapes of Tbilisi's Bridge of Peace with the Television Tower in the background.
The view over the Kura River as seen from our hotel's breakfast room. In this shot you can make out the TV tower on the hill to the right, Old Metekhi Church and the Old Fort to the left.
A characteristically Georgian church.
The wonderful Sioni Cathedral.
Soviet Tbilisi: the awesome Soviet criss-cross concrete structure of the old Ministry of Transport, now home to the Bank of Georgia
Setting off on the Enlinking Caucasus tour bus from Tbilisi to Yerevan.
Gori, a frontier town in eastern Georgia some 85 kilometres from the capital, is a ramshackle place of dilapidated beige buildings, shops selling unidentifiable cheap plastic goods and heat-baked treeless boulevards. We made our way here amid chaotic and disorganised scenes at a poor excuse for a bus station somewhere on the outskirts of Tbilisi. We were bundled into the back of a marashrutka, a minibus used by locals to get from A to B for a nominal fee and operated by locals themselves, to get to this most unsavoury of destinations. I wanted to travel like a local for an authentic experience of Georgia and so opted for this method of transportation. But it wasn't easy.
The heat on the day we visited merely added to Gori's oppressive atmosphere. It is quite possibly the most depressing place I have ever stepped foot in; a mournfulness hangs heavy in the air. Such a contrast, then, with the frivolous fun of Tbilisi's fountains and cable car rides. For one, I couldn't help but notice the bullet holes and scars of mortar strikes on buildings all around, architectural wounds of Georgia's 2008 war with Russia. Very few travel to Gori - except those travellers in search of a bit dark tourism, for this is the town which gave birth to one of history's most notorious dictators: Stalin. Despite the millions who died because of his policies, ultimately driven by a toxic combination of power plus paranoia, the Stalin Museum, just off of Stalin Avenue, has a distinct whiff of reverence about it. You won't find any mention of Stalin's victims in this place - a place whose impressive arches, Corinthian columns and deferential-looking Stalin statues, appears almost to worship this devilish deity of a dictator. It is a truly unsettling museum and one whose 'climax' is reached when you enter the red carpeted area in which Stalin's death mask, taken from an imprint of his face after his death in 1953, is displayed. This probably ranks as one of my weirder travel experiences.
Gori street scene: a characterful shop selling bottles of fizzy drinks.
Stalin's death mask, taken from an imprint of his face after his death in 1953. A really grim sight and deemed by some to be the 'centrepiece' of a trip to the museum.
Entering Western Asia
Our first impressions of Armenia were not entirely positive. Having exited the Georgian border, walked through about two hundred metres of no-man's land and arrived at the official Armenian border, organised chaos greeted us. There were lots of army-style uniformed men who didn't seem to be doing anything in particular, except smoking and patting each other on the back. Queues were backing up and, in the blistering heat, it was rather an unpleasant experience. What a contrast with the air conditioned professionalism of the Georgian border. After receiving another two stamps on my passport (one for exiting Georgia and another for entering Armenia) we were on our way, zooming into the Armenian countryside and towards the next leg of our Caucasus adventure. I wasn't quite sure what we were heading in to...
Despite its respectable capital, Armenia is very poor. There are two Armenias. There is the capital city of Yerevan with its café culture and shopping boulevards. Then there is the large chunk of the population which lives in poverty out in rural areas. Many Armenians consider themselves to be more Asian than European, although street culture in the capital gestures firmly towards a more Western mindset. Having said this, Armenia evidently hankers after the Soviet yesteryear. Many in Armenia will tell you, as our tour guide did on our trip out to the mountains, that Armenians miss the security and employment which the Soviet Union brought with it. It has been replaced by an unreliable market economy which has brought unemployment and uncertainty for the majority of Armenians. Indeed, the Stalin Palace in central Yerevan flies both the Armenian and Russian flag. Twenty years after declaring her independence, Armenia still looks to Russia for a guiding hand. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why Soviet symbolism remains reverently in place on important public buildings in Yerevan's Republic Square. Unlike back in Georgia, here there has been no attempt to airbrush history, no desire to remove reminders of what once was. A further reminder of Armenia's Soviet past comes in the form of the prevalence of Lada motor cars. These are positively ubiquitous in the country. Famous for being the Soviet car of choice during the Soviet era, it appears many in Armenia are keen to hold on to theirs - whether through a misplaced nostalgia for the past or just brute economic necessity. I suspect it is a little of both.
Satisfyingly the Armenian language is even more incomprehensible than Georgian and, once again, firmly gestures towards Asia, not Europe. Indeed, "Thank You" in Armenian, pronounced as "Shnorhakalootyoon", looks like this: շնորհակալ եմ.
Yerevan goes by the epithet "The Rose City" because so many of its buildings have been constructed using locally-sourced red stone. Many of the city's newest buildings have also imitated the rouged appearance of more historic ones. It is at once both consistent and overbearing, uniform and monotonous. Fittingly the symbol of Armenia is the apricot, with much of the buildings rendered, in the capital at least, in this colour. The blistering heat of an August day (which reached 37° during our trip) seemed to add to the orangey haze of the place. Or perhaps that was my delirium brought about by a mixture of sun stroke and travel fatigue?
Huge boulevards, a hallmark of Soviet town planning, were mostly deserted during the oppressive heat of the day, but came to life once the heat's intensity had subsided, revealing a Western-style street culture characterised by ice-cream eating, coffee drinking in parks and luxury boutique shopping. The unique experience of the fountain light display in Republic Square, perhaps absurdly synchronised to classical music, and which we'd learned about following a tip from a local restaurateur, was an uplifting and novel way to spend our first night in the Armenian capital - but not before we had been given a lesson in how to pronounce "Shnorhakalootyoon" by a local waitress who took to laughing at my efforts.
Yerevan is a special place for travellers wishing to experience the very best, and very weirdest, of the Soviets' cosmic concrete architecture. A walk around the city, assisted by trips on the incomprehensible Metro and other smaller taxi rides, feels like a journey through an open air Soviet museum. As noted above in my Georgia section, I am drawn to this style of architecture. The old Soviet cinema building, constructed out of concrete and fashioned into the shape of the two peaked Ararat Mountains, is especially dramatic. And this building helps to tell an important tale: Armenians are seemingly obsessed by the Ararat Mountains, with the name being positively ubiquitous in the country: the "Ararat Restaurant", "Araratabank", "Ararat Café" to name a few. This Armenian preoccupation with the legendary mountain is somewhat ironic considering it is actually located in Turkey. It was, however, once part of Armenia. I digress. It is not uncommon to see Armenia's apartment blocks and closed underground shop units still displaying Armenia's unique take on the hammer and sickle motif - the same symbol as everywhere else but with wings added! Aside from these more obvious signs of its communist past, Armenia's history is all around, in every brick and every pavement, in every face and every statue. The place reeks of Soviet and, if just for this reason alone, Yerevan is a fascinating city in which to be a traveller.
The Christian monument at the top of the Cascades surveys downtown Yerevan.
The wonderful sight of viewing the Yerevan skyline behind some of the statues and installations of the Cascades.
Yerevan's circular Opera House. Austere and impressive in equal measure.
Concrete, concrete everywhere - did no one stop to think? Much of the outskirts of Yerevan is characterised by drab and truly awful Soviet era buildings.
The old Soviet cinema concreted into the two peaks of the Ararat Mountains in Turkey (which used to be in Armenia). I love this building because of its sheer ugliness.
haghpat & sanahin
Our whistle-stop tour of northern Armenia was a clever combination of the need to travel from Tbilisi to Yerevan and the desire to marry it with a bit of sightseeing, too. It was a deal we'd struck with a hostel back in Yerevan and was a chance to see a couple of important Monastic sights in a part of the country we would have just whizzed through in a van.
Haghpat and Sanahin are two monasteries in the Lori province of northern Armenia. Armenians are very proud of their monasteries, often perched high on hillsides for reasons of isolation and protection, with many built around a thousand years ago. As part of our trip from Tbilisi to Yerevan, we stopped off at Haghpat Monastery, which dates back to the tenth century and which overlooks the Debed River. Sanahin Monastery is a further six kilometres away on an opposite hillside and slightly older. Indeed, the name "Sanahin" translates as "older than the other one", referring to the other monastery at Haghpat. The buildings, when set amid their respective mountainous landscapes, are both dramatic and startling. Haghpat, in particular seems to have almost organically grown out of the ground.
Haghpat Monastery literally built into the hillside. These monasteries all have remote locations because they were intended to be humble, solitary places for quiet reflection. Many religious buildings are brash and highly conspicuous. These monasteries were deliberately intended to blend in to the landscape. Their high positioning on mountaintops were also about quiet seclusion.
It's always nice to find that you have a spare day on your travel itinerary to do with whatever you fancy. We opted to do something a little bit different feeling driven, as we were, out of Yerevan by the heat. We opted for the Embracing Armenia tour run by the Envoy Hostel in central Yerevan. For 13,000AMD (£20), we were taken to the top of Mount Aragats. This is tallest mountain in Armenia and, as if to prove it, still had snow in evidence on its four peaks. Just how high we were above sea level (3200 metres) was felt in how cold it was on the mountain. My ears were also rather keen to let me know that there had been a noticeable rise in altitude by incessantly popping. We took in the cool blues of Lake Kari nestled in amongst the peaks before being introduced to the Yezdies, a nomadic family living on the slopes of the mountain. We were also introduced to a one-day-old goat which bleated constantly during our brief stay, as well as Nashi the puppy (Nashi meaning "decorated" in Armenian owing to his patterned coat). The family were really kind and had smiling, characterful faces.
Throwing caution to the wind we also opted, despite the heat, to do the hike from Amberd to Byurakan village via the gorge at Kasakh. Indeed, when we'd boarded the coach I had no idea that hiking was even a remote possibility and, as a result, neither of us were dressed for the experience. Nevertheless, sometimes in travel it's best just to go with the flow and see where it takes you. Well, in this instance, it took me across rugged Armenian grasslands with sightings of rare flowers and awesome gorge views. Embarking on this spontaneous experience means that I can now declare that I've been hiking in Armenia.
The trip around Aragatsotn concluded with lunch with a local family in their home - all made from local produce. I couldn't help but notice that the cutlery we ate with during the meal wasmade in the USSR, stamped with the letters "CCCP" on the underside of the handles. As part of the experience we also got to meet an internationally-renowned musician who hand crafts traditional Armenian instruments like the Duduk, an ancient Armenian double reed woodwind instrument made of apricot wood and indigenous to Armenia. At one point he took to playing this marvellous instrument much to the delight of all of us. Such rural, real-life experiences were a world away from the red-hot, rose-coloured capital. We travelled with a wonderful Armenian guide called Maria and a couple now living in Italy (Cindy and Ricardo). Our journey back down the mountain came with a wonderful surprise: the Armenian Alphabet Monument in Byurakan commemorating 1600 years of the language. In commemoration, it was given a gift of 39 giant, carved Armenian letters, strategically placed near the final resting place of the man who created the alphabet, Mesrop Mashtots. Armenia doesn't get more Armenian than seeing the Armenian alphabet in the rural heart of Armenia.
The view of Lake Kari nestled in the middle of the peaks of Mount Aragats, 3200 metres above sea level.
Overlooking the gorge with spectacular views.
The Armenian Alphabet Monument in the Byurakan area commemorating 1600 years of the language. In commemoration, it was given a gift of 39 giant, carved Armenian letters, strategically placed near the final resting place of the man who created the alphabet, Mesrop Mashtots.
travel tips, links & resources
- Consider your route carefully if you are wanting to travel to all three countries. Georgia is the transit country for both Azerbaijan and Armenia because, technically, both of these countries are at war. You can get into Armenia with an Azeri stamp, but not the other way round. Plan out the order of your trip carefully.
- Be mindful when wearing shorts - some in Georgia find these too informal for public spaces.
- You simply must try one the the huge Georgian cheese pasties. They are delicious and cheap.
- The Envoy Hostel in Yerevan offers the opportunity of mixing transfers between Armenia and Georgia with the chance to stop-off and do a bit of sightseeing along the way - a great way of maximising your journey and a chance to see things you would otherwise miss. Prices are reasonable.
- A point to note when travelling to the Caucasus - cash machines work the other way round. They dispense the cash and then there is a long delay before your card is released. In many other countries the norm is to release your card first. Countless people, me included, walk away without their cards.
- Expect lots of glum-looking and cold faces on your travels in this region, but this is deeply rooted in the culture. Don't take it personally if the smiles you see are few and far between.
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