This is the story of my 5-month eastern journey through Turkey, Georgia, Abkhazia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Nagorno Karabakh and Iran.
Go to: “Part 2: 13 Cups of Tea”
After 40 days travelling around Turkey – a long-distance trek and numerous castles and ancient cities, I crossed over to Georgia. Although a part of the Westerners think that Bulgaria had been one of the 15 republics, I stepped on the territory of the former USSR for the first time in my life.
Going so soon to Georgia was a surprise even for me, but I definitely needed a change because my enthusiasm had started to dwindle. And the difference was drastic – the landscape, the culture, the state of the roads (much worse), let’s not forget the language. Although Georgian is a completely different and in its own language family, I could have more meaningful conversations with local people. It took me two days to start speaking broken Bulgarian which sounded like Russian. And there were castles here, too – even the border city of Akhaltsikhe greeted me with one.
Dima and Katya were the first of three Ukrainian couples with who I happened to hitchhike around the country. My skepticism that someone will take so many passengers together proved groundless – It worked surprisingly well.
The cut-rock monastery complex of Vardzia was an interesting maze of caves, terraces, rock churches, chambers and tunnels. Something like a combination between Cappadocia and the underground cities of Derinkuyu and Kaymaklı. The nearby Vanis Kvabebi was an older and not so preserved rock monastery, but without any tourists. I’m not a claustrophobic, but some tunnels and the stairs in them made me feel uncomfortable.
Since the beginning of the journey rain seemed to haunt me. And during my first stay in Georgia rarely a day (or a night) passed by without a downpour. That’s probably why it is one of the greenest countries I have ever seen.
The Khertvisi fortress is one of the oldest in the country. Khertvisi was founded around the IV century BC and according to legend, the first fortifications here were destroyed by the armies of Alexander the Great. The castle controlled two trade roads – to Turkey and to Armenia. It’s considered to be one of the most significant monuments of medieval Georgia and it is proposed for the UNESCO World Heritage List. It was unattended and one could freely roam around as long as they wish, in my case – half an hour until the next rain.
My initial plan was from Akhaltsikhe to go directly to Batumi and start the procedure for my Azerbaijani visa. I stood in the mud at the end of the town and waited. The Polish pastor of the local small Catholic community disabused me:
- Yes, the road is mapped, but the authorities have forgotten to build it. Nobody uses it with their own cars, especially at this time. There’s only one shuttle a day early in the morning.
No wonder that outside the big cities and the main roads the fleet consisted mostly of old Russian automobiles.
Thanks to this, I hitched a ride with Irakli and Goga who invited me to spend the weekend in their village Khidistavi. We went fishing in a local stream, lounged on a hammock and in the evening visited Goga’s uncle. There was a sumptuous dinner, at regular intervals the host proposed toasts – for: “our parents”, “our brothers and sisters”, “our children – present and future”, “the people who are no longer among us”, “St. George – the country’s patron”, “the Georgian Patriarch”, “God” – and we drank our glasses of wine bottoms up. I joined with:
- For you, for the Georgian people and for all the good people I meet along the road. The world is still a nice place and I hope it remains such!
… And so on to 2 a.m. and 6-7 liters of wine when Georgi ended with a toast:
- For those like you who roam the world – may your mile always be green (i.e. without problems)!
The Gonio fortress, previously called Apsaros, is considered one of the best examples of Roman-Byzantine military architecture. The castle wall with its 18 towers is fully preserved and surrounds a large area with an ancient theater and a Roman bath. It is believed that on its territory is buried St. Matthew, one of the 12 apostles.
The Georgians often asked me: “Did you go to Batumi?”. Well, I did: a crowded city with bars, pubs, discos and tourists of all East European nationalities – Russians, Armenians, Romanians … Pretty much like our Primorsko only the beach here was pebbly. I chose to settle in neighboring Gonio – still no sand, but no crowds either.
These “youngsters” were celebrating 55 years since their acquaintance at school. They invited me to their table and before going home the ethnic Turk Temuri (I was only 5 km. away from the border) proposed:
- Come spend the night in my hotel for free. You need a shower and a good sleep.
After five days of waiting for Azerbaijani visa I started to consider reading again Bogomil Raynov’s “The Big Boredom”, but at least I got my first respite for the past two months. I definitely needed it. But the moment I got the visa, I went back on the road.
It will hardly surprise anyone that after the first day under the hot summer sun I got a bad sunburn and the next days I didn’t dare to undress so much.
Mtskheta is one of the oldest cities in Georgia, its first capital and spiritual center. Because of its historical significance and numerous cultural monuments the city is part of the UNESCO World Heritage List, and in 2014 the Georgian Orthodox Church declared it a “Holy City”. According to the Georgian hagiography Christ’s mantle is buried in the foundations of the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral.
For many, the Jvari Monastery is the holiest place not only in the country but in the whole of Caucasus. This is due to a complex tradition associated with St. Nino – the saint who baptized Georgia in 327 A.D. She erected a wooden cross here, hence the name of the largest church – “Church of the Holy Cross”.
Christian mythology aside, the place fascinated with authenticity and atmosphere.
According to Lonely Planet Davit Gareja was “the most remarkable of all Georgia’s ancient sites, comprising about 15 monasteries spread over a large, remote area in a lunar, semidesert landscape which turns green and blooms with flowers in early summer”. They were right about the landscape. Under a carpet of green grass and blooms soil layers in orange, yellow, pink and red colors were visible. But otherwise it seemed overrated. I would regret coming to this remote and inaccessible place near the border with Azerbaijan, if it wasn’t for the lucky ride.
Levan was working with his German friend Peter in Munich. He had returned to his homeland for three weeks to see his son Luka, who was living with his grandparents in Tbilisi. The conversation in the car was a real babel: the driver was speaking with his son in Georgian, with me in Russian, with Peter in German, and I with the German – in English.
The guidebook described Sighnaghi as town with a distinctly Italianate feel. I do not know about that, I’ve never been to Italy, but the town definitely had a charm.
With that my first short stay in this green country ended. Many sights remained unvisited, but I had to use my Azeri visa that costed me 35 euros and that had already started.