Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The Wonderful Caucasus!

 Bullet points:
 - We continued in Georgia for another week, enjoying riding the diverse landscapes of the south.
 - We crossed into Armenia, and rode for 9 days there, covering the whole length of this small country.
- We are crossing into Iran now.

 The Longer Version - definitely go and make a cup of tea before settling into this!

Our winding route from east to west has brought us now to an ancient crossroads of East and West, the Caucasus. These three small countries, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, sit sandwiched in between great and greatly contrasting empires: Russia, Europe, Persia, Arabia, Asia, Turkey. And they have felt it. Their history is a story of weathering invasion from one direction then the next, and their identity is in holding their distinctiveness through their storms, and each blossoming into a brief golden age in a rare time of peace.

Towards the Armenian border

We have been cycling in the Caucasus for the last three weeks, through Georgia and Armenia. We will not go to Azerbaijan, in fact we now could not, as with tensions between the countries being so high our Armenian passport stamp means entry to Azerbaijan is a no.

As we have found and written of numerous times before in our travels, whatever the reputation of a country and a people, kindness and generosity seem to abound, and be by far the dominant flavor. But it does come in different forms. As we rode on a grey overcast day into the forest clad Caucasus mountains of Svaneti, the muddy road through the villages bordered by dark wooden houses and the odd snuffling pig, we were missing the bright friendliness of the ‘Stans. Ten minutes later we were receiving armloads of apples from a group of men, and only narrowly avoiding accepting the whole 10kg being added to our panniers! Apparently the Svan people do have a reputation for quiet reserve, as many hardy mountain folk may do, but they still cared for us travellers! The Svans are one of many ethnic groups in the Caucasus area that have their own identity and varyingly strong desires for independence.

What a spot for lunch and a swim!! Gorgeous! This ancient bridge-building technique was typical of Adjara

A few days later we were by the Black Sea, and entering another distinctive area of Georgia, this one with its own regional autonomy. It is called Adjara, and was ruled for three centuries by Turkey, until Stalin reclaimed it for Georgia. Here we were greeted with a more open cheeriness, with bright calls from the children, and thunderous toots from passing trucks. Pink featured a lot more in the buildings, definitely a favourite colour for the bus shelters, contrasting beautifully with the rich green forest and clear turquoise river. We had some stunning fresh water swims here!

Rolling through Georgia, after the dry barreness of much of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, it definitely struck us as a land of plenty. Grapevines draping huge bunches of purple fruit off many trellises, verandahs and fences, offered for the hungry cycle tourist to feast on! Georgia prides itself on its wine, and our spontaneous guide in southern Georgia, Zaza, told us proudly there were 500 different grape types in the world, with 300 of them developed in Georgia! Maybe! Some do consider it a possible location of the Garden of Eden.

A great thunder storm brewing in this humid land!

Alcohol did feature highly in Georgian life, and with handles of cold beer going for 90c a piece, few people (including us) could resist making a refreshment stop under the trademark yellow Natakhari beer umbrellas in the heat of the afternoon! However, we were relieved to escape Georgia with only one round of “cha-cha” (vodka) shots, as spirits featured at all times of day, and dominated the shelves of the local dairies. A comment from a local surprised me only in its open frankness, not in its content: “It is our Georgian culture to get our guests drunk.” We are learning that hospitality comes in many different forms!

When two people drink cha-cha together, it is the custom to link arms like this.

In terms of more wholesome foods for cycle tourists, we became No. 1 fans of the “hajapuri,” a delicious bread stuffed with strong cheese, always eaten hot off the grill. I think we have already described in on the last blog, so I won’t repeat the mouth-watering details…! Fruit and vegetables also thrived in the mild and relatively humid climate, and we feasted on sweet peaches, nectarines, apples, blackberries, corn, tomatoes, capsicum and aubergines.

Blackberry feasts!

Buying some mega-tomatoes in the Adjara region

Armenia was a little different. As I pedaled along, I puzzled about the hay. In the northern three-quarters of our route through Armenia, we were most commonly riding through expansive landscapes of golden hay fields. In the villages, every house was dwarfed by a towering hay stack beside it. Classic blue (Bedford?) trucks were constantly passing us, piled high with, you guessed it, hay! Going both ways. Who wanted the hay I could never work out, because everyone had hay. Hay coming out their ears! What was all this hay-moving about? Obviously it was important business, and we even watched a bus, past its heyday(!) now also being pulled into this noble service, stuffed in all its length with this golden gold, bursting its prickly stems out the cracks in the windows!

The hay trucks!

Part of “the question of the hay” was answered for us by David, an American Peace Corps volunteer who spontaneously hosted us in the southern Armenian border town of Meghri. For many, hay is their primary heat source in the cold winter months. This is why they need such mountains of the stuff!

Ready for winter

Pushing the limits of safe driving I think!

We did find some people producing something other than hay, high on another golden Armenian pass. As we ducked off the road on sundown, trying to find some hidden camping, we stumbled across some others with maybe a similar aim. An extended family group of women and teenage children were camped in three large ex-Soviet tents, and they welcomed us in for chai. We discovered they are Yezdi people, not Armenian, and that the Yezdi live scattered through Armenia, Georgia and Iraq. We had a lovely evening with them sharing food, laughs and learning a little about their way of life. In summer they tend their herd of 20 cows in the high pastures, which produce 50 litres of milk a day. In the winter months they return to their home town in western Armenia, where their husbands are currently continuing to work.

With Cheena and her mother at their camp

We found plenty of passion amongst the people of the Caucasus. In at Armenian bazaar where we ate our lunch, an Armenian apple seller cum composer talked with us for a while, and between complimenting us on our “very romantic culture” in New Zealand, of which he was more convinced than I, his favourite topic was that the Armenians are Europeans. Of this I needed little convincing, but I think that for them, situated on the border between Asia and Europe, and more geographically Asian or Middle Eastern really, they feel the need to reiterate this point. Their language, their culture, their religion, their music is European, we were told numerous times. Again David (Peace Corps) helped to fill in the gaps, telling us that in the recent weeks the Armenian government had applied to join the Eurasian Union with Russia and some of the ‘Stans, and the population were devastated, seeing it as a decided step back from their desire to be fully accepted in Europe and the European Union.

Komitas passionately elaborates on a point, Vanadzor bazaar, Armenia

Along with their positive passions for wine, hay and European-ness, some also had passionate grievances against their neighboring countries. Again, I mulled as I pedaled along, and really realized how fortunate we are to have such little grounds for prejudice and grievances against another people group, how relatively easy it is for us in our peaceful isles to be open minded about such things. Georgia’s major grievance is with Russia, who as late as 2008 was invading their northern border, as they helped and indeed formed the bulk of the military forces trying to establish the independence of two of Georgia’s breakaway regions in the Caucasus Mountains, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In the Adjara region of Georgia, there was also some bad feeling towards the Turks, and generally to Islamic nations, from the 300 year occupation of their region, the bloodshed and churches destroyed in efforts to squash their faith.

Khertvisi Castle (11th Century) stands in a prominent position on the southern Georgian trade routes

However Georgia, having three major borders open with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey, is on relatively easy neighbourly terms compared to Armenia, and is the linking country for all Caucasus travel. Armenia has strong positive ties with Russia but it’s two longest borders, with Azerbaijan and Turkey, are firmly closed, leaving it a ‘corridor nation’ open only to Georgia in the north and Iran in the south. It has disputes with Azerbaijan over a contested region where about 90% of the population are Armenian, but it is currently Azerbaijan territory. Armenia also has disputes with Turkey over what they claim was a genocide of Armenians early in the 20th century that has gone unacknowledged by the Turks. I realize I have not experienced military invasion of my homeland, destruction of our sacred places or violence against my people group within my or my parents history and I don’t know how differently I would see the world if I had.

Churches and fortresses stand on the hills around the southern Armenian border town of Meghri

Their passion is also for their rich history, of which their Orthodox Christian faith plays a central part. We visited Vardzia, an ancient cave city in Southern Georgia, built first as defence, then later used as a monastery and university. The small rooms cut into the rock, poised high above a bluffy valley, looked perfect for all these purposes and I loved thinking of all those who over the centuries had also watched the golden shafts of afternoon light glow on the pale conglomerate stone of the rounded doorways and windows.

Vardzia cave city, southern Georgia

Tatev monastery was a similarly special place of history and faith for the Armenian people. Approaching it on another golden evening, this time squashed into a cable car with our bikes and ten other passengers, we appreciated it’s location perched on cliff tops above a beautifully forested and craggy valley. We took a day to rest here in the quiet mountain village and monastery, enjoying trying to instate some kind of Sabbath rest into our cycling rhythms! A site sacred for Armenian Christians since the first century, and a working monastery since the ninth century, it was also rich in wonderful vibes of ancient faith tradition, which we soaked up as we sat in it’s huge stone windows dangling our feet over the atmospheric valley below.

Tatev Monastery stands in an atmospheric and well-defended position

A very peaceful vibe inside the high, ancient church at Tatev.

In Tatev

Riding in the Caucasus has been for us a fascinating and rich time, but also with its definitely European vibe, it has been a pretty easy place to be. With logistics here being that much easier, we have been able to get into good riding and camp out routines, clocking up 1600km in our three weeks riding, and rolling over the long awaited 5000km mark! Again, as we have said numerous times before, but is the absolute truth, we feel so privileged to be here. To travel slowly through, seeing, tasting and sharing the specialness of these diverse places and people, is something very rich, and formative for us both individually and together. 

Celebration time!!


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