Wednesday, 29 June 2011


Travelling in Armenia has been both fascinating and frustrating, for the country is a mix of beautiful scenery and rich history marred by staggeringly ugly towns, woeful public transport and an almost entire lack of tourist infrastructure or information. Armenia’s greatest tourist draw is its ancient churches and monasteries that lie scattered across the country in frequently stunning locations: in the midst of wooded valleys, overlooking lakes, at the foot of Mount Ararat, or carved into cliff faces. The Armenian Church became the first legal Christian Church in the world when King T’rdat converted in 301 AD and many of the monasteries date from the 500 AD or earlier, some built on the site of earlier pagan shrines. The domed cruciform Church plan that has become common across the world was also first introduced in Armenia, and remains the most common style of church in the country.

The monasteries we visited (including Haghpat, Sanahin, Sevanavank, Goshavank and Gerghard) tended to be made up of a collection of churches and chapels, usually accompanied by a refectory and library. The buildings were built of plain, unadorned stone, with floors of laid gravestones, giving them a beautiful if slightly austere appearance. Around the churches stand stone stellae known as kachkars, engraved with crosses and intricate motifs similar in appearance to Celtic knots. While some of the monasteries are no longer used for worship, where we explored alone in the damp, dark buildings and overgrown gardens, most remain in active use and the Churches we visited on Sundays were filled with worshippers.

Christianity remains the dominant religion in Armenia, with only minute Jewish and Muslim populations. Over 90% of Armenians align themselves with the Armenian Apostolic Church, which belongs to the Oriental Orthodox churches, along with the Coptic Egyptian and Ethiopian Churches, and which is distinct from the Catholic Church and from the Eastern Orthodox Church followed in Greece, Russia and Georgia. The services we observed were certainly reminiscent of those we’d witnessed in Ethiopia, with more singing than sermonising and the priests processing around the Church blessing the congregation, followed by a line of young men carrying banners, cymbals and incense.

Amongst our church visiting we also spent a couple of days at Armenia’s premier resort on the shores of Lake Sevan. There we joined holidaying Armenians, sunbathing on the stony beach and swimming in the icy water. Again we were struck both by how normal it is to drink alcohol in the morning across the Former Soviet Union (FSU), and by peoples’ generosity as vodka and food was forced repeatedly upon us. Lake Sevan also provided one of our more unusual night’s accommodation – we slept in one of the old shipping containers that line the shore and have been converted into tourist accommodation.

Yerevan, the Armenian capital, is a pleasant city where the Soviet tower blocks are intermingled with beautiful old stone houses and grand new buildings filled with expensive designer shops, where cafes and bars line the leafy pavements and the streets are full of shiny new 4X4s and people in expensive clothes. The city has an impressive collection of museums, and we spent an enjoyable few days sightseeing, and an evening at the ballet watching Prokovief’s Romeo and Juliet.

In marked contrast to the affluent and cosmopolitan capital, rural Armenia feels as poor as anywhere we’ve seen in the FSU. The buildings in most towns and villages are a mixture of dilapidated asbestos- or tin-roofed bungalows and high-rise concrete towers. Public transport is scarce, with at most one or two old buses a day, most as old as us and surely not able to last much longer, and almost the only cars on the road are Ladas that look as ancient as the buses. The shops too are dingy, poorly stocked and expensive for the region – in part a consequence of the lack of trade with neighbouring Turkey.

It was a surprise then to find, amongst the otherwise very non-descript shops, an Orange mobile phone shop in town we visited, with pretty much every street adorned with Orange advertising. The ubiquity of Orange was particularly surprising as, apart from a few designer clothing brands, the only Western retail companies that seem to have broken through in the FSU are Naf Naf, United Colours of Benetton, Debenhams and Mothercare – which all seem far more popular here than they are at home.

Travelling in Armenia we became aware of what appears to be a national preoccupation with what the Armenians describe as the “survival of the Motherland.” The red in the national flag, for example, symbolises the blood shed in defence of Armenia; the Mother of Armenia statue above Yerevan brandishes a sword and is surrounded by weaponry; and the National Museum in Yerevan made no mention of Armenia’s status as the world’s first Christian country but was instead devoted almost entirely to the various conflicts Armenia has fought with its neighbours. This stance can be explained at least in part by the loss of over 90% of the territory of historic Armenia (most of which now forms part of Turkey), and by the 1915-16 Armenian Genocide inflicted by Ottoman Turkey which occurred in 1915-16 when an estimated 1.5 million Armenians were murdered and 500,000 deported – almost the entire Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire.

While the mass killings have been recognised as the 20th Century’s first genocide by much of the world including the European Parliament and the US (although not by the UK), Turkey has however neither acknowledged nor apologised for what occurred. This, together with what Armenians consider the continued destruction of their cultural and architectural heritage in Turkey, is responsible for the continued poor relations between the countries, with the closed borders contributing to high prices in Armenia, and Armenians unable to visit ancient Armenian sites like those on Mount Ararat or at Ani, the former capital, which now lie in Turkey.

The poor relations between Armenia and Turkey are not the only area of tension within the region. Instead, travelling throughout the Caucusus we’ve been struck repeatedly by the three countries’ fractured and complex relations with each other and with their larger neighbours. These continuing disputes were brought home to us by a shrine in one of the family homes we stayed in in Armenia, dedicated to the couple’s son who had been killed in the recent war with Azerbaijan. In this region not one of the countries is on good terms with all of its neighbours: in both Georgia and Azerbaijan the borders with Russia are closed (in Georgia’s case to everyone except the Armenians who are still allowed to cross); in Georgia, the autonomous regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia remain closed to the rest of Georgia and accessible only from Russia; and in Azerbaijan and Armenia tensions are increasing over the disputed Nagorno Karabakh region (occupied by and only accessible through Armenia but recognised internationally as part of Azerbaijan), with the border between the two countries firmly closed and renewed fighting expected.

Perhaps surprisingly, the international tensions evident throughout the Caucusus are in contrast to what we’ve experienced elsewhere on our trip where local tensions have been largely limited to internal disputes, most commonly between different ethnic groups, with generally good relations existing between neighbouring countries. Again it reminded us of how unusual Britain is, with a largely peaceful recent domestic history, and with geographically fixed borders unlike much of the rest of the world where borders have always and continue to move repeatedly, reflecting shifts in power as much as of demography.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011


With fantastic mountain scenery, a fascinating history, great cuisine and a vibrant culture, we’d been long looking forward to visiting Georgia. And thanks in large part to the generosity and hospitality of our friends, Katie and Doug, who we stayed with in Tbilisi our two weeks in the country felt like a wonderful holiday.

Physically Georgia is both extremely beautiful and diverse (amazingly, although just the size of Ireland it is the 12th most bio-diverse country on Earth). The dramatic and permanently snow-capped Greater Caucasus Mountains form the country’s northern border with Russia, with the southern portion of the country dominated by the Lesser Caucasus Mountains, the semi-tropical western regions reaching the Black Sea, and semi-desert to the east along the border with Azerbaijan. And with much of the country sparsely populated we were treated to endless empty vistas out across wild flower meadows, wooded slopes and snow capped mountains.

Georgia adopted Christianity as its official religion in the early 4th Century, the second country in the world to do so (after Armenia). Religion remains an integral part of daily life, and has also had a profound impact on the landscape. Georgians seem to delight in building churches in the most beautiful but inaccessible places with endless hills across the country topped by old stone churches, and a series of underground monastic complexes. We visited one of these, Davit Gareja, on the border with Azerbaijan where scores of caves have been cut into the cliffs, containing beautiful pastel coloured frescoes dating back to the 12th and 13th Centuries, and with spectacular views out over the surrounding countryside.

The Georgian Orthodox Church appears to continue to play an important part in national identity. Since independence many old churches have been restored and new ones built, such as the magnificent gold domed Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi. Most of the churches we saw were similar architecturally but very different to English churches, with small floor plans and a high central copula. Inside there are no pews or other seats, and they are decorated with gold paintings of Jesus and various saints hung on the otherwise plain, stone walls.

Prayer seems a largely individual practice in Georgia, with few services, but in every church we visited we came across people lighting candles or engaged in private prayer. Almost all car and minibus dashboards are adorned with religious icons, and many Georgians cross themselves three times when passing a church or cemetery. We found this particularly interesting given the low profile religion seemed to have in many other post-Soviet countries.

Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city, is ten times the size of the next largest city and dominates the country’s political, economic and cultural life, yet remains a pleasantly manageable size. Set either side of the Mtkvari River and surrounded by green hills, the city’s an eclectic mix of architectural styles reflecting its complex history of Soviet, Tsarist Russia, Persian and Turkish rule and influence. Yet unlike many of the cities of the former USSR we’ve visited Tbilisi seems, thankfully, to have largely escaped the usual grey towerblocks and to have retained its own distinct character. In the Old Town narrow alleyways, ramshackle balconied houses and old caravanserais mingle with churches old and new, while wide boulevards lined with elegant neoclassical buildings and large Soviet public squares are interspersed with new and sleek modern buildings.

This mix of architectural styles is mirrored in the clothes worn by people in Tbilisi, with an individuality in dress that we’ve not seen since we left Europe last summer, and in the vibrant cultural life of the city, with independent art galleries, museums, theatres and cinemas. We spent an enjoyable few days wandering around the streets, peeking into Georgian Orthodox churches, visiting museums, going to the cinema for the first time since November, and watching a spectacular dance performance by the Sukhishvilli Georgian National Ballet.

Georgian cuisine was also a treat after the frequently greasy and bland Central Asian fare we’ve eaten for the past few weeks. Khachapuri, a calorific but addictive cheese pie, is served everywhere, as are aubergines, walnuts, beans, spinach and all kinds of salads, all washed down with delicious Georgian wines.

The Georgian Government and Georgian people seem very much orientated to the West and this is particularly evident in Tbilisi. EU flags fly outside every Government Ministry and on the top of the Parliament building and posters stating that ‘Our foreign policy objective is NATO membership’ adorn the streets. But Georgia’s economy and chances of joining NATO are undoubtedly hindered by its poor relations with Russia, its largest neighbour. Georgia’s two de facto independent regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which claimed independence with Russian support, are the major source of ongoing tensions between the two countries. These tensions flared into war as recently as 2008 and the Georgian economy continues to be stung by Russia’s ban on imports of Georgian wine and mineral water, and the largely closed borders between the two countries.

An hour or so drive from Tbilisi is Gori, where Georgia’s most infamous son, Stalin, was born. The Georgian attitude to Stalin seems curious: in Gori we visited a huge, state-funded museum dedicated to his memory and built in 1957, the year after Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin. The museum provides a fascinating, if partial, account of Stalin’s life (we had no idea that Stalin, then called Iosif Jughasvili, wrote poetry as a youth and that he had studied at a seminary to become a priest), and there’s an almost ‘local boy done good’ attitude to his life. This stands markedly at odds with Tbilisi’s Museum of Georgia, which houses an exhibition of the Soviet Occupation of Georgia and which catalogues the persecutions which occurred under Stalin.

For us one of Georgia’s greatest attractions was the opportunity to walk in the countryside and it was refreshing to find that the Government promoted and encouraged walking and camping, rather than viewing it with suspicion as has been the case in almost every other country we’ve visited. More generally tourism is being heavily pushed by the Georgian Government making it an easy and appealing place to visit. While it hasn’t been quite finessed yet there seems huge potential for this sector of the economy to grow, especially in outdoor activities, and we’re already planning a repeat trip to explore more of the mountains.

We started our forays into the countryside in the Borjomi National Park in the Lesser Caucasus Mountains (, where we walked and wild camped for four days following marked trails through beautiful, wild country of forested hills and high alpine meadows covered with a mass of yellow and blue wild flowers. Originally established as a hunting reserve set up by Tsar Nicholas II’s brother, Prince Mikhail Romanov, the Park was only opened to the public in 2001 and is now part of the PAN Parks Network which aims to create a network of Europe’s best wilderness areas from the Arctic to the Mediterranean. (The Bear’s Ring which we walked in Finland is another member of the Network). The Park was wonderfully quiet and in our four days there we saw only a couple of other walkers and a handful of cowherds grazing their animals in the high summer pastures.

Our second trip out of the city was to the Kazbegi region in the Greater Caucuses, due north of Tbilisi and very close to the border with Russia. The high mountains of Georgia have always been wild, sometimes lawless regions, and on our walks in the region we passed countless tall stone defensive towers which once stood in every hamlet to house and protect the inhabitants in case of siege. Now most of the towers have fallen into disrepair but as a reminder of the continuing hostilities with Russia we came across several groups of Georgian soldiers, camped out near the high passes that lead into Chechnya and Dagestan and through which the Georgians fear the Russians might invade again.

We did some spectacular day walks with Katie in the wild, empty valleys around Kazbegi before meeting up with Doug and friends of theirs with whom we spent a fantastic weekend climbing above the valleys to the Gergeti Glacier which snakes down from Mount Kazbeg. During the day we were rewarded with spellbinding views of the glacier and surrounding snow-covered peaks, but that night as we camped at the edge of the glacial morraine, at around 10,000 feet we were hit by an immense storm. Travelling back to Tbilisi the next day we were reminded of how fragile the few roads are which connect the mountains to the rest of the country: many mountain villages are cut off by snow for much of the winter, and after the storm the road was again blocked by several landslides while several local villages were flooded.

Our time in Georgia, staying with Katie and Doug and meeting their friends, was the first chance on this trip to experience what it must be like to live in a country rather than to just pass through as a tourist. And while we’re still continuing to really enjoy our travels, and are so glad to have had the chance to visit so many different and diverse countries, it’s convinced us that we definitely want to try living abroad at some point in the future.

Saturday, 4 June 2011


Baku was the liveliest, most cosmopolitan city we’ve seen for months. Even arriving after midnight we found the streets still filled with people out enjoying Saturday night – a complete contrast to Central Asian cities we’d visited which tended to shut down around 8 o’clock. At customs we found the border guards all glued to the Champions League Final, which possibly explained why our border checks were the most cursory we’ve faced so far!

We’d travelled to Baku on a cargo boat, the Dagestan, across the Caspian Sea from Turkmenistan. The only passengers on the boat, we were shown on board by the captain, whose breath reeked of vodka, but who was friendly and welcoming. The crossing itself was uneventful and relatively smooth, though we were pleased to have been given a cabin as the journey ended up taking 30 hours rather than 12 as we’d expected.

Exploring properly the next morning we discovered a beautiful city centre of newly restored sandstone buildings, many now housing expensive boutique hotels and designer shops. The heart of the Old Town is the walled city, a maze of narrow alley ways with small mosques and caravanserais, and the 15th Century Palace of the Shirvanshahs who ruled the area before the Russian invasion. Beyond the old city walls were smart pedestrianised shopping streets and leafy parks, surrounded by grand houses built during the first oil boom at the start of the 20th Century when Azerbaijan supplied half the world’s oil, while for miles along the sea front stretches a wide park lined with benches and ice cream vendors. Much of the architecture was European in style, and many of the buildings wouldn’t have looked out of place in Paris or Vienna.

With the expensive shops and restaurants and smartly dressed locals, Baku oozes wealth. Yet unlike Ashgabat the Turkmen capital, which also felt affluent, Baku has a life and vitality about it, which made it a much more enjoyable city to spend time in with the streets, parks, bars and cafes all filled with people out enjoying themselves.

We’d intended to walk across the mountains in Azerbaijan, from near the Caspian coast towards the Georgian border, a route which we’d heard was beautiful. The mountains were indeed stunningly beautiful, but very disappointingly we discovered when we reached Laza, a small village up in the hills, that the military had closed the region to foreigners so we were restricted to the area around the village. Even so we were able to spend a couple of days doing shorter walks, and to enjoy Azeri hospitality: we stayed with the local school teacher, whose wife fed us enormous and delicious (dairy dominated) meals of homemade bread, cheese, sour cream, butter and yoghurt, supplemented with kebabs, fried potatoes and vodka. On one of our walks we came across a group of men who invited us to join their picnic and plied us with more food and vodka. Again we were humbled by their hospitality, and reminded of the vast scale of the USSR when they told us that they’d served their military service from Eastern Europe to the Arctic all the way to the Pacific.

Unable to walk across the mountains we were forced to spend a bumpy 11 hour bus ride travelling round them. And while we’re both still really enjoying travelling we did find ourselves looking forward to leaving long bus journeys behind us, and to reaching a country where the roads are well surfaced – a luxury we’ve not experienced since Eastern China.

There seems an unofficial dress code amongst the men, at least, in Azerbaijan. Over 40 the style seems to be dark coloured suit jacket, shirt and over-sized flat cap, frequently completed with portly pot-belly, bushy moustache and mouth full of gold teeth. By contrast younger men seem to sport tight jeans, flip-flops and a fitted shirt. Amongst both Kieran felt distinctly out of place in walking trousers and t-shirt.

We spent our last couple of days in Azerbaijan in Seki, a sleepy pretty little town nestled in tree covered hills. As elsewhere in Azerbaijan we were struck by the popularity of dominoes and backgammon, with small groups of men, usually wearing flat caps, huddled round a board in every park and on benches by the side of the road. We stayed in one of the town’s historic caravanserais which has been restored and again serves as originally intended, accommodating travellers, and which was one of the most unusual and atmospheric places we’ve stayed on our travels.

Although Azerbaijan is 98% Shia Muslim we’ve seen little sign of Islam in the country, with vodka drinking seeming to play a much greater place in daily life than prayer. Instead we were reminded travelling here of the earlier religions that were once followed here: near Baku we visited a fire temple built around a natural gas vent that was sacred to Zoroastrians for centuries, that was also a site of pilgrimage for Indian Shiva devotees. In the hills above Seki we visited a beautiful and simple limestone church built in the 4th Century, apparently the oldest Christian building in the Caucuses, which was itself built on the site of a 1st Century BC pagan temple.