Tales from the Caucasus: our impressions of Georgia and Armenia
Moon-like landscapes, tree-carpeted mountains, sacred monasteries, weather-worn farmers and little old ladies who chat behind their fruit stands: our impressions from two weeks of travel through Georgia and Armenia.
In the month since we left the potholes and dust of the Caucasus’ roads behind, we’ve tried in a million different ways, at a million different times, to finally put words to our experiences there.
Considering the publish button is only just being pressed now, it’s obviously a task that’s proven near-impossible.
This word paralysis hasn’t come about because we didn’t like the region - in fact, it’s quite the contrary! - but because, even all these weeks later, we’re still having trouble finding the right words to explain our time travelling through Georgia and Armenia (we’re saving Azerbaijan for a longer trip!).
Most travellers, ourselves included, will tell you there are many places that just immediately make sense to you.
Even halfway around the world from home, you’ll arrive through airport doors to discover places that seem so familiar, so understandable, that you instantly feel right at home.
Perhaps its a landscape that resembles the same ones you’ve wandered your whole life. The scent of an unidentifiable meal that somehow transports you back to childhood in granny’s kitchen. A new culture or history you’ve read about so many times it feels vaguely like deja vu to finally experience it.
The Caucasus was no such place for us.
As we all know, in these days of hyper-connectedness and too much information, it’s rare to land in a new place and feel, well… lost.
How could we possibly do justice to how it felt to be disoriented by all that isn’t familiar; scents and language and a culture entirely unique from those you’ve experienced before?
To feel slightly unanchored and off-axis, with a constant need to check the little blue dot on Google Maps to remind yourself where you are?
To feel the joy that comes with discovering a place and its people for yourself, without having read about both a million times prior?
How could we possibly explain the whirlwind that was our time in Georgia and Armenia?!
A JOURNEY THROUGH THE CAUCASUS: OUR IMPRESSIONS OF GEORGIA AND ARMENIA
If it wasn’t already obvious, aside from a relatively recent communist history and the delicious-looking cheesy-eggy-bread combination that is Georgia’s traditional Khachapuri, we really didn’t know a great deal about the Caucasus prior to our trip.
We know we’re not alone in this. Heck, we’d suppose that many people can barely place this region on a map - and we admit that we also couldn’t till recently!
But it was a head spin to discover that some of our earliest predecessors walked these lands en route to Europe 1.8 million years ago, and that the earliest traces of winemaking tradition can be found here, over 6,000 years old.
To travel through the Caucasus today is to literally retrace the living steps of our human experience.
love at first sail | sailing the incredible turkish coastline with medsailors
Nestled between Turkey, Iran and Russia, it’s also the crossroads of geography and culture. These mountains and rivers are where East meets West, Asian location meets European outlook, and where the hospitality and cuisine of both have become inextricably linked. A melting pot of tradition and modernity, crumbling history and fast strides forward.
It’s a strange feeling, to stray halfway across the globe to a place you know next to nought about only to land at a crossroads, and tumble through a time wrap to various points in history. A soviet occupation, a thriving Silk Road trading route, the cradle of modern European humanity.
One minute, we’d be amongst chaotic and dusty streets that reminded us of China or Nepal, only to turn a new corner and discover a charming cobblestone laneway packed with European wine bars and trendy eateries.
Ancient pagan pathways led us to Orthodox churches and 1,000-year-old monasteries built into the Vardzia caves in Georgia or Khor Virap in the foothills of Mount Ararat. These countries were amongst the first to adopt Christianity, and their sacred sites left us in awe despite neither of us being subscribers to religion.
We’d pass vintage Ladas puttering along for rugged miles through craggy mountains and chaotic cities, following the very same paths that horses once softly plodded to exotic, far-off destinations on the Silk Road.
These were the scenes of our photography dreams; raw, undeniably beautiful, and full of everyday life. Tree-carpeted mountains and sacred monasteries, weather-worn farmers and little old ladies who chat behind their fruit stands.
Somehow, it felt both ancient and only recently forged; like it was still untamed and mysterious, and even now we keep finding ourselves totally intrigued by it.
But under that beauty and charm, the scars of 70 years of Soviet rule run deep here. Poverty is rife, and we couldn’t shake the feeling that the shadow of the iron curtain is much, much closer here than in other former USSR countries. For Armenia, this is further compounded by the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire.
In many places, Soviet memorials still stand imposingly over towns desperately trying to shake off their memory. Colourful flea markets dot villages with history for sale; wrinkled old men point us to Soviet badges, flags, and cameras that have borne witness to that history alongside tapestries and silverware and carefully crafted wooden sculptures.
In this pocket of the world, visitors are considered ‘gifts from God’. We were treated with the utmost generosity, warmth, and of course, a belly-stretching amount of delicious food.
But not everyone has repaid that hospitality with kindness; the region has been (and continues to be) invaded and defeated, invaded and defeated, invaded and defeated by its neighbours countless times.
Despite that, sincere hospitality is extended to us everywhere we go, from steaming plates of fresh-cooked Khinkali and fruit pushed into our hands at markets to cups of steaming tea and warm smiles in marketplaces. It’s worn on the sleeve, and generally accompanied by a fierce patriotism.
At times this becomes confronting; one sunny afternoon in Georgia’s spa town of Borjomi, our group is taken by surprise as our wine-tasting host emotionally, and unexpectedly, diverges from the merits of each wine to lament the struggles of her people.
“Everything we do in Georgia, we do with love,” she says, “wine is for feasts and to share love with your family - this means our visitors too”
“When you open your home and your land with kindness to your guests, and they arrive and say ‘now this is ours’ (as Russia did in the currently-occupied territories in 2008) - it breaks our heart,” she wipes her tears as we blink away our own.
We’ve thought about this moment many times since our trip, probably more than the image of rolling peaks, sacred temples, and drool-worthy feasts.
To us, it represents what we enjoyed so much about the Caucasus. The rawness. The intrigue. The sheer and varied beauty and kindness that exist despite (and in spite of) very real pain. The state of confusion or awkwardness we sometimes found ourselves in, which felt so foreign to these two seasoned travellers.
Perhaps we’ll never come to really wrap our heads around this part of the world, and we may forever struggle to put our trip into the ‘right’ words. But if there’s one lesson that our travels there taught us, it’s that we don’t necessarily need to understand a place in order to fall in love with it.
In the meantime, you better believe we’ll keep trying.
This isn’t the last you’ll see of our adventures there - after all, we still have Azerbaijan to explore!
HOW TO GET TO THE CAUCASUS
We recommend starting and ending your Caucasus adventure in Tbilisi, Georgia, as flights here are generally cheaper than flying to Yerevan in Armenia, and both cities can be easily accessed by land.
We flew with Turkish Airlines, and we gotta tell you guys, they’re easily in our top 3 favourites now. This is in no way sponsored - just like to shout about good things when we see them - but their service was impeccable and friendly, planes comfy, and everything just ran smoothly from start to end.
Check flights and prices on Skyscanner here.
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Our time in the Caucasus was made possible by JayWay Travel, a boutique travel agency that specialises in Central & Eastern Europe and Caucasus travel.
As always, all musings and opinions are very much our own!