Monday, October 22, 2007

"Magnificence" + "What the Hell!" = The Caucasus

After about six weeks in the Caucasus we realised oddities had become the norm. Where to begin telling the stories! Our time in Georgia was dominated by the people and the mountains and was all at once magnificent, plenty of "What the hell is going on now!?", thrilling and ultimately too short. Armenia was an education in the cradle of Christianity where we were charmed by this remarkable ancient race and didn't want to leave.


The Georgians were to us generous, open-hearted, passionate, stunningly male chauvinistic and boastful.

They tried to kill us with kindness and we ran away to Armenia for a while leaving pillars of smoking faux pas in our path.

They express themselves regularly in emotive and heart-felt toasts that Mick had to match, and he did a good job.

They live and breathe their orthodox religion and their churches are some of the loveliest I have ever seen. Delicate stone work from centuries past; emotive icons busy being kissed. We met two boys smoking dope that were off to spend a month praying in a monastery.

The man responsible for 20 million deaths (more or less, depends who you read) has a shrine built to him and is praised in toasts: the most famous Georgian ever - Stalin. Here he still stands in some squares and hangs on walls; he may have made mistakes, but look what he achieved - the Big Man! We saw his death mask, poked around his personal train carriage and the humble home he grew up in. Creepy. However, the lovely young man showing us around invited us to tea where we met his parents.

Now, the wine. The Georgian wine reputation greatly preceded our visit from ancient Roman writings, period novels to travellers rapt guest book comments. We were looking forward to it but ended up wondering what the hell was going on as at no point did anyone admit the wine is crap.

When Georgians presented us with wine at their parties or at home with a flourish it was the vilest stuff I've ever tasted and had bits floating in it. This might explain the Georgian's juvenile attitude to alcohol - "don't enjoy it, just drink it" - as glasses of wine (and firewater homemade spirits) must be downed in one or you will be shouted down. We visited a Soviet-era wine factory (some craftily labelled plonk for the Chinese market - Stalin again!) and another winery in the famous wine district of Kakheti with an equally bemused Israeli couple. We convinced ourselves it wasn't too bad, but I ended up with a horror headache. A final effort involved sitting in the swankiest wine bar in Tbilisi and ordering the most expensive bottle. It was as good as anything mass-produced anywhere else. There, I’ve said it.

Stalin-based marketing campaign for Georgian wine to the Chinese market

The magnificent Caucasus Mountains were beyond-words beautiful and we couldn't get enough, so we climbed into them three times.

First was the Kazbegi region. We were taken there by a Georgian friend, Lasha, and his uncle. We climbed to a stunningly located church. Shared much vodka and stayed with Lasha's crazy friends who starved us as no woman was around to grow the food and cook it. Hiked gorgeous Truso Gorge inspecting the carcasses of sheep left behind by wolves who killed another 80 of their mates. Attended a Georgian christening party under the stars to experience the legendary toasting traditions and grown men rolling around drunk.

The morning after the night before: Georgian friends with Mick.

Next was the mysterious Svaneti region reached by one of the most thrilling trips of my life - in the belly of a worn Russian military helicopter passing by one of Georgia's conflict zones. Exciting stuff as it wound up to an ear splitting nudge off the ground to float into the mountains, seemingly just skimming over ridges. Words absolutely fail me on how beautiful it was up there.

The local kids had a party in our campsite all night; tire marks at the door of our tent in the morning. We checked out their concert of a guy with a camel toe in his pants inexplicably singing in English making up his own Brit Pop tunes. I got another five minutes of fame when a camera crew nearly fell over on discovering we were Australian and got us on film raving about Svaneti (but not the band).

Finally we made a dash to remote Tusheti where the trip up surprised me by making me scared. Not an unreasonable fear as we ascended up a steep single jeep track from 500m to 3000m in a Toyota that early on hit a rock and lost its high gears. Well worth it though, as the scenery again was majestic and the village life fascinating in how different it was to our own.

There was no power or running water to the now mostly empty villages as hardy shepherds drove their flocks down for the winter. We walked between pretty slate villages, accompanied by Loma the 62kg Caucasian dog whose head was the size of a bear's. Concerned about the approaching winter, we joined the Georgian Off-Road Club on their trip down even though one of them was a tool who nearly died driving his vehicle half-way off a precipice the night before. But, this time I had a thrilling time, much more confident in our Georgian 2006 Off-Road Driving Champion and his serious 4 x 4 machine. We pushed our way through flocks of sheep, one thousand strong, and herds of cattle and horses that were watched over by the shepherd's pack of ear and tail-less Caucasian dogs.

The Georgian Off-Road Club heading down from Tusheti, pushing through a flock of sheep doing the same thing.

I left Georgia with a heavy heart filled with a crowd of faces of those who eagerly went out of their way to look after us. After all the time we spent in Georgia and digging pretty deep I felt we left unsatisfied, there is so much more to the place but they had worn us out this time.


In Armenia we loved staying in private homes where we were welcomed like visiting dignitaries, especially when they found out we were Australian (rare in these parts). Armenian's would throw their whole body into frantically waving us over to join them for vodka and food. But they didn’t try to kill us with it like the Georgians.

We learnt about their long history of survival and found their quiet resilience, open-heartedness and generosity remarkable, despite all they have been through. Their longing for all they had lost over the centuries was palpable. Such as biblical Mt. Ararat - achingly sacred to all Armenians - but it is in another country. I was taken aback to see the mountain looming over Yerevan, so close, but with the border slammed shut by the Turks: you can look but not touch.

The Genocide Museum did what it was supposed to and made me sick with the images. The Turkish government only last week said it "never happened".

Armenian’s were the first Christian nation, building churches when now long-dead races were waving swords about. Our Armenian church experience started in Turkey, at the most fascinating church I have ever seen - on Akdamar Island in massive Lake Van. In Armenia we saw at least a monastery a day, each with its own ancient architectural feats. They seemed to grow out of the remote locations we found them in. I won't bore you with a list of them, but thanks to our guide / driver Gagik they came alive for us. He is a charming artist whose passion for his landscape drew the beauty of it even more into our eyes. Gagik became a friend too, especially with Mick over a homemade rocket fuel mulberry vodka session!

We giggled calling out to each other in retro bathtubs watched over by a nurse in a lurid synthetic uniform at a thermal mineral spring resort. We were confused why we had to visit a doctor first – serious medical institution, not for fun it seems!

You know when your meal is slow arriving at a restaurant you say, "Are they out the back killing it!?" Well, here they are. I discovered this wandering off to the loo at one outdoor restaurant, walking past a man busy hacking up a sheep hanging from an A-frame. Driving through villages we would be greeted by a decapitated cow - her skin on one side of the road, the butcher selling the rest of her on a sheet on the other. Fruit and veg is picked straight off the plant and put on the table. It was the freshest food of our lives, and none of it had a yuppy organic price tag.

We really didn’t want to leave, there wasn’t much left to see, but there was something about the Armenian’s that I can’t quite explain. We felt at home.

Gagik and Mick joining cheerful locals for vodka at Hayravank monastery, Lake Sevan.


We have been back in the land of mighty moes for two weeks, greatly enjoying the super friendly but not overbearing Black Sea Turks and having a quiet, relaxing end to our Walkabout. All along the way locals helped us before we even knew we needed it.

We were leapt on by traders to join in their street-side feast at the end of a Ramadan day.

Explored yet another beautiful mountain range, the Kackar, listening to the call to prayer dance amongst the brilliant autumn colours of our alpine village.

We cruised the entire length of the Black Sea coast, the best bit being on a little winding road amongst cliffs and ranges dotted with minarets and villages of tumbling Ottoman homes on the sea. Just beautiful, and not an ugly resort in sight. We thought we were in heaven, wiling away days in a charming fishing village where every bin had a cat in it. Fell in love with Istanbul - must return one day.

We are back in Melbourne on Friday, back at the desk on Monday. We'll miss meeting curious and friendly people, dogs and cats everyday. Mick won't miss the accursed money belt and bashing his head on low doors. I'm just looking forward to a decent vino.

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