The modern state of Georgia occupies an area of mostly lush mountain valleys in the southern slopes of the Caucasus, bounded by the Black Sea in the west and the plains of what is now Azerbaijan to the east. A unified kingdom from the ninth to thirteenth centuries, from the Mongol invasion in 1243 until Russian annexation in 1801 Georgia existed often only as fragmented kingdoms and principalities, surrounded by much larger empires. Despite this however, the Georgian people have prevailed with a strong cultural identity, resisting incorporation into the neighbouring Muslim empires of the Turks and Persians and enduring almost two hundred years of Russian colonisation.
In 2010 I made my first visit to Georgia, driving from Azerbaijan into the breakaway republic of Abkhazia and on into Russia. I found a welcoming country of good-spirited people and unparalleled natural beauty, and left wishing to see more. On this second visit of more than three weeks I would loop around the country, visiting many of Georgia’s internal regions, often made up from the once distinct ancient kingdoms and principalities. Here I would find the enduring essence of the country, in picturesque villages with graceful stone churches, and mountains dotted by ancient stone towers and fortresses: the valleys of the Greater Caucasus.
On the 10th August 2014 I enter Georgia from Turkey close to the village of Vale, and drive the short distance to the regional capital, Akhaltsikhe. The contrast in landscape with Turkey is stark; gone are the wide, open plains and denuded hillsides, replaced by thickly forested mountains, here in fact the northern slopes of the Lesser Caucasus. Turkey’s squalid highland towns and villages, still rather torpid following the ugly demographic upheavals of the twentieth century are gone, replaced by more benign and permanent-looking settlements where very little looks to have changed in recent history. I attend to a few matters in town, then drive up above Akhaltsikhe into dense pine forest towards Sapara Monastery, which lies beautifully sited on a cliff edge in a fold of the forested mountains, with the conical dome of the fourteenth century Saint Saba Church poking above the treetops; a beautifully Georgian landscape. As it’s early evening I decide to stop for the night nearby and find a tiny clearing in the dense forest where I sleep in the cab of the truck as a thunderstorm breaks in the mountains above.
In the morning I return to Akhaltsikhe, a small but pleasant town set under a large and recently restored thirteenth century castle. It’s here that I meet an old friend of mine, Marcus, a German whom I first met in Romania during the very first days of the Odyssey more than seven years ago, and with whom I stayed for a few days in Siliguri, India, in 2008. Marcus arrives in a hired Nissan 4×4 with his eleven year old daughter Tamuna, and eight year old son Samiran. We leave Akhaltsikhe just after midday, driving initially towards Batumi on the Black Sea, but soon turning north onto what is listed on my map as a secondary road. We stop in the resort town of Abastumani and have a very pleasant and welcome soak in a hot spring, then buy some supplies for the evening and head for the mountains. Soon after leaving Abastumani the road deteriorates into a rough and rocky track passable only with a high-clearance vehicle, but it’s a fun drive through thick forest and, nearing the top of the pass where the trees disappear, we’re rewarded with stunning views over the forested ridges of Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, which fall away to the south.
As we continue our climb, thick fog closes in on us, the temperature drops and darkness comes quickly. We park on the only available piece of flat ground, on the edge of the road just below the pass, and begin to strike camp and start cooking dinner. My concerns that the children will feel uncomfortable in such an environment are however unfounded; they are neither fearful nor protesting, and do not seem to mind that it is cold and dark, or that we will sleep on the side of the road. To my delight, they seem to appreciate the adventure for the new experience that it is.
In the morning we walk briefly onto the surrounding hills from where there are stunning views of emerald-green grassy hillsides, topped by a muddy summer village consisting of a few ageing farm buildings. We cross the 2180 metre Zekari Pass, starting our descent towards the Greater Cacuasus, and there is noticeable change in vegetation with the damp northern slopes filled with shrubs and wild-flowers. The road becomes extremely rough as we descend back into forests, making slow progress until returning to asphalt in the town of Sairme which, filled with upmarket resorts and expensive black SUVs and luxury cars, feels rather ostentatious after the wholesome beauty of the mountains. We follow a river dropping gently through thick forest, emerging in the lowland town of Baghdati, birthplace of troubled Russia poet Mayakovsky, from where we drive to the capital of Imereti Region, Kutaisi, ancient capital of the Kingdom of Colchis.
We stop for a late lunch in Kutaisi, enjoying good Georgian food in a family-run restaurant set on a wide road of thunderous lorry traffic. Despite its size, Kutaisi feels to be composed mostly of rambling, leafy back-streets of small houses with only a single, though rather elegant, central square. On the north side of the Rioni River we stop to visit the eleventh century Bagrati Cathedral, a masterpiece of medieval Georgian architecture with soaring white limestone walls of tall, narrow arcatures so emblematic of Georgian Church architecture. Built in the early eleventh century during the reign of King Bagrat III, the first monarch of a united Georgia, the cathedral was heavily damaged during an Ottoman invasion in the late seventeenth century, and a long and latterly controversial restoration was only completed two years ago.
We drive east out of Kutaisi in the evening and stop for the night on a patch of empty ground not far away. Judging by the number of old shoes poking out of the ground, the site seems to be a landscaped rubbish dump, though Marcus and I tell the children that it’s a mass-grave; not that this seems to faze them very much, with Samiran happily sleeping in a tent well away from the cars.
In the morning we stop at another significant building; the early twelfth century Gelati Monastery, founded by King David IV (‘The Builder’), probably the most celebrated of Georgian monarchs. Not long after the death of Bagrat III, Georgia fell to the Seljuk Turks and it was David IV who regained Georgian independence in the end of the eleventh century, promoted Christianity and ushered in a Georgian Golden Age. Gelati Monastery belongs to this Golden Age, and one can see an advancement in style from nearby Bagrati, with greater use of carved stone ornamentation, and a proportionately larger, conical dome.
Leaving Gelati we head north-east, through Tkibuli and up the Nakerala Pass from where we catch our first glimpse of the snowcapped Greater Caucasus, whose spine marks the border with Russia. We pass through Ambrolauri, the tiny capital of Racha-Lechkhumi and Kvemo Svaneti Region, then continue to climb to the even smaller town of Oni where we visit the very elegant late nineteenth century synagogue and meet a member of the tiny community of Georgian Jews, who claim direct descent from the Babylonian Migrants. Beyond Oni the road becomes very quiet as we enter real mountain scenery, then bifurcates, with the right hand track leading to the border of the breakaway Republic of South Ossetia. We take the left fork however, entering a stunningly beautiful valley surrounded to the south and north by snowcapped peaks. In the large, picturesque village of Ghebi we turn north (after stocking up on beer) onto a narrow, rough track entering the yet more beautiful Chveshura Valley and stop to camp next to a small, tree-covered stream where I have a welcome bath. I am rather amused upon finding out that Samiran has fouled his trousers but am soon the subject of laughter myself when, sitting down too quickly with a bowl of boiling noodles, I spill some on a very sensitive part of my crotch and literally scream in pain.
We leave the cars the following morning and walk up further into the valley, passing a few summer houses sitting in glorious isolation of the modern world, several of which seem to be uninhabited. After a couple of hours walk, we pass a border patrol post beyond which the track becomes a narrow footpath and we enter thick, mixed forest of birch, beech and pine, then drop down to the cold, milky grey-blue waters of the Chveshura River, looking north towards a dramatic wall of the Greater Caucasus; an ancient, pale grey granite massif with thick glaciers in each defile and sharply defined crags and towers; some of the most impressive mountain scenery I have seen in all of the Caucasus.
Returning to the cars, we decide to stay in the same spot for another night, moving on the following morning. We back-track through Oni, and beyond Ambrolauri stop at the small village of Nikortsminda, home to the early eleventh century Saint Nicholas Church, which must be one of the most beautiful buildings in the country. Externally the church is small and well proportioned, stylistically of the Georgian Golden Age but covered in an unusual richness of decorative stone carvings; on the columns of the arcatures; a carving of Christ above two rosettes on the gable of the narthex wall, but most strikingly around each of the slot windows in the twelve sided drum supporting the church’s conical roof. Inside, the six apses of the hexagonal-planned church and the interior of the drum and dome are richly covered in sixteenth and seventeenth century frescoes depicting the life of Christ, unusually bold and well-preserved.
In the coal mining town of Tkibuli, which has an elegant main street of Stalin-era city blocks with arcaded ground-floor shop-fronts, we turn south towards Zestafoni where we join the horrendous traffic of the country’s main highway, which we take eastwards towards our overnight stop in Mtskheta. The heavy traffic and wild local driving style are a change of pace from the idyllic mountains we have spent the last few days in, only easing as the road turns into a much needed divided highway near Gori, after which we pass the southern edge of South Ossetia, from where the Russian Army made a brief incursion into Georgia in 2008.
We stay at a home-stay in Mtskheta run by Gerhard, a retired German civil servant and his Russian wife Julia whose good company, home-cooked food and wonderful, shady garden on a hillside just north of the Mtkvari River make for a relaxing rest stop and a rare chance to spend a day doing almost nothing. We’re also joined here by Lia, half Slovenian, half Japanese, whom I first met in Russia four years ago.
Mtskheta is Georgia’s spiritual capital, and its most important monument is the beautifully located Jvari Monastery, built atop a steep ridge overlooking the confluence of the Mtkvari and Argavi Rivers. Jvari harks back to Georgia’s oldest history, when its territory was divided into the two kingdoms of Colchis in the west and Iberia (Kartli in Georgian) here in the east. Mtskheta was the capital of Iberia and according to legend the site of the conversion of pagan King Mirian III of Iberia by the female evangelist Saint Nino of Cappadocia, thus converting the kingdom to Christianity in circa 327. Nino is said to have planted a miracle-working cross on the site of a former pagan temple, and it is on this spot that the current church was built in 590 to 605. Jvari is an elegantly simple tetraconch church, an evolution of an earlier Byzantine design whose origin of design is a matter of dispute between Georgia and nearby Armenia. Lia and I visit on a Sunday morning when the church is busy with domestic and foreign visitors, thronging around the large cross which dominates the church’s interior, spot-lit by shafts of brilliant sunlight from small slot-windows which pierce through the smoke-filled air of the church; the very origin of Georgian Christianity.
Late in the morning the five of us set off, bypassing the northern edge of Tbilisi on the ring road and turning east into Kakheti, Georgia’s easternmost region, famed for its wine. We drive through a gently rolling agrarian landscape that looks much more like the Mediterranean than the valleys we have been in for the last week, climbing finally to the attractive town of Sighnaghi. Built on top of a hill in the eighteenth century, several hundred meters over the neat patchwork fields of the Alazani Valley, Sighnaghi is an extremely attractive walled city with cobblestone streets, galleried stone houses with terracotta-tiled roofs, small squares with street cafes and the modestly beautiful cobble-stone Saint George’s Church all giving one the feeling of being in Tuscany or Catalonia. We spend a warm, peaceful night camping on a nearby hilltop, then drive towards the Alazani River in the morning, stopping on the northern side of the river at Gremi, once the capital of the Kingdom of Kakheti and a flourishing Silk Road city, destroyed by the Persians in the early seventeenth century, leaving only the remains of a stone fortress and the slender sixteenth century All Saints Church with an almost needle-like dome.
We stop for lunch in the small town of Kvemo Alvani, then head north into the mountains, aiming for the historical region of Tusheti, across on the northern slopes of the Greater Caucasus in the far north-east of Georgia. What starts as a reasonable dirt track along the Stori River soon enters a narrow, rocky gorge filled with small waterfalls and beautiful beech forest where the track, in places hewn from the rock, becomes extremely rough and slow-going. After some time the road emerges from the forest, improves slightly and climbs along the steep, lime-green grassy hillsides, high above deep river valleys, cresting successively higher ridges in sets of tight switchbacks until, late in the afternoon, we cross the 2860 metre Abano Pass and enter Tusheti. We drop more than one thousand metres from the pass, back into a narrow forested gorge where we camp for the night.
In the morning we drive up to Omalo, close to the junction point of Tusheti’s two main valleys: the Tushetis Alazani and, further north, the Pirikitis Alazani, running under the peaks to the north which mark the Russian border. Omalo is Tusheti’s largest settlement and is overlooked by the recently restored Keselo Fortress, a series of blocky medieval towers built on a rocky outcrop, overlooking several nearby valleys. Tusheti has been settled since at least the third century BCE and was something of an outpost of paganism; though nominally Christianised in the ninth century, strong pagan influences persist in Tushetian culture. Today Tusheti is rather depopulated, with many Tushs having moved down to what historically were summer grazing grounds around Kvemo Alvani, visiting the highlands only for festivals or to serve the recently arrived tourism industry. This is not so hard to understand, given that the only access to the valley is via a rough track requiring a four-wheel drive vehicle, which was only completed in the early 1980s, and that the valley still lacks even an electricity supply.
We spend two days in Tusheti; first driving along the Tushetis Alazani Valley and stopping near the village of Alisgori where we camp next to the river and walk up into the hills the following morning, visiting a ruined watchtower and a traditional Tushetian khati, a small stone shrine made from flat blocks of shale and slate, topped by a cross; a pagan shrine which women are still forbidden to approach. The next day we back-track towards Omalo and drive along the wider Pirikitis Alazani Valley, through the large village of Dartlo with its defensive towers and wooden balconied stone guest-houses, surrounded by ruins and deforested hillsides, clearly once a far larger settlement. Further west, the valley passes the almost abandoned village of Chesho, also overlooked by a stone watchtower, then narrows and becomes even more beautiful as we near the village of Parsma and park the cars for the night next to the river, where we camp. In the morning I walk up into the village, consisting of perhaps thirty houses of stone stained orange by lichen, with rusty steel roofs and a few towers, of which all but one are ruined. Up above the village is a cemetery where graves are marked by unhewn river stones and a khati where thin, honey-coloured church candles have recently been lit. I speak to a local who tells me that in summer the population is around fifty as the Tush bring their flocks up to graze, but that the village is deserted in winter. Though this has been the way of life for many Tush for the last few centuries, it is clearly now in decline, though for once tourism may present a means for it to be sustained.
We drive back down out of the mountains, retracing our route to Kvemo Alvani and on to reach the charming capital of Kakheti, Telavi, in the evening, then continuing slowly the following day southwards, crossing another forested ridge and dropping down to the torrid lowlands of Georgia’s far south-east. Here the country’s seemingly unending greenery finally abates, leaving a dry and dusty landscape which looks more like Central Asia than anywhere else in Georgia, with beautiful rolling plains of yellowed grass, flocks of sheep and goats and occasional, rather forlorn-looking villages. Beyond the shabby town of Udabno we camp on a smooth grassy ridge, enjoying the warm, dry night air and clear skies after several cool, damp nights in the mountains.
Just south of our campsite, hard up against the Azerbaijani border is the exotic looking monastery complex of David Gareja, highly fortified with a thick stone wall closing it off against a steep ridge, giving it a real sanctuary atmosphere. David of Gareja was one of the legendary ‘Thirteen Assyrian Fathers’, missionaries from Mesopotamia which the Georgian Orthodox Church celebrates for setting up thirteen monasteries and strengthening Christianity in early medieval Georgia. The monastery is said to have been founded by David in the sixth century, and has endured attacks by the Seljuk Turks, Mongols, Tamerlane and the Persians, then neglect and partial destruction by the Soviets, only returning to active use in 1988. We walk up a steep, dusty path to the top of the ridge, which marks the Azerbaijani border. Walking ahead of the others, I drop down from the ridge into what is Azerbaijani territory (a subject of dispute between the two countries) and walk along a string of collapsed cave churches, their half-vanished ceilings now open to the elements but still bearing remains of frescoes dating from the tenth to thirteenth centuries.
We leave the monastery heading westwards on a rough track, eventually catching the edge of the irrigated farmland around the Mtkvari, driving along a distributor canal into the town of Gardabani which has a majority Azerbaijani population, but which with Georgian, Russian, Ukrainian and Armenian minorities has a curiously Soviet-cosmopolitan atmosphere. We have lunch in a nice open air restaurant, then continue north through the regional capital of Rustavi, a heavily industrialised city which looks to have changed very little since Soviet times; down at heel but with a charming centre of Art Deco influenced early twentieth century Soviet urban architecture. By-passing Tbilisi, we return to Mtskheta from where Marcus and the children spend a final day before flying back to Germany. I’ve really enjoyed their company over the last two weeks, but more than that, Marcus has shown me that children need not put an end to a traveller’s lifestyle and that, having brought his children up in multiple countries and without the awful influence of television, they look at the world without fear, and at strangers without any pre-judgement whatsoever; ideal qualities for a traveller.
Lia and I leave Mtskheta and head for the mountains again; this time due north along the first few kilometres of the Georgian Military Highway, which connects the capital to the only functioning border crossing with Russia, then turning off to pass the turquoise water of the Zhinvali Reservoir, onto a dirt track running along the Pshavi Arguni River, entering the historic region of Khevsureti. We cross the 2680 metre Datvisjvari Pass on a good dirt road, overlooking a wide, green, deforested valley punctuated only by the lone Lebaiskari Tower, which like the towers of Tusheti is built in the Vainakhish style, as seen in the Russian republics of Chechnya and Ingushetia directly to the north, and different from the more European-looking stone towers of Svaneti to the west. Khevsureti, like Tusheti, is an isolated mountain refuge of medieval traditions and architecture, and the Khevsur people have very strong pagan and animistic traditions below a veneer of Christianity. Famed as warriors, the Khevsur have traditionally fought with their Muslim neighbours to the north, and there is (perhaps mostly romantic) speculation that they are descended in part from a lost group of medieval crusaders, though this is no doubt influenced by the fact that the Khevsurs wore chain mail well into the twentieth century.
The track descends gently, passing the striking medieval complex of Shatili, composed of perhaps fifty towers and stone houses with wickerwork balconies dating from the twelfth century and recently restored. Just beyond Shatili, the track comes to within a few hundred metres of the Chechen border, then doubles back up into the Andakistskali Valley, where we drive to the end of the road below the village of Ardoti and camp for the night. In Ardoti we see the ruined shell of a twelfth century stone church, still used it seems by villagers judging by the presence of candles and icons, then drive back past a number of Khevsur graves, one of which from 1930 depicts the deceased in full chain mail with sword and shield. A little further down the valley we stop below Mutso Fortress; a large rocky knoll covered in abandoned stone houses and towers, like a ruined Tower of Babel. We walk up a steep side valley, then cross a stream and walk towards Mutso, passing five open mausoleums full of skeletons, some still with scraps of clothing and traces of flesh. Unlike Shatili, Mutso itself is totally abandoned and in need of preservation. With most Khevsurs having moved to Tbilisi in the twentieth century, the isolated culture of this mountain community seems to be highly threatened.
We spend the next two days driving up the broad Mtkvari Valley, alternating between the busy main highway and quiet backroads, stopping-off at various churches; the huge, restored Cathedral of Samtavisi with massive stone carvings on its eastern wall; Metekhi Church with an unusual tapering drum, then stopping at the cave city of Uplistsikhe. One of the oldest settlements in the Caucasus, the heavily damaged caves of Uplistsikhe show architectural influences from Anatolia and Persia, and were a cultural centre of pre-Christian ancient Iberia. We continue through the elegant city of Gori, which since my previous visit in 2010 has lost its large statue of Stalin, who was born here, then continue to more of the Mtkvari Valley’s churches; the beautiful tetraconch churches of Ateni Sioni and Samtsevrisi, both very similar to Jvari, and the large, sixth to seventh century three-aisled basilica of the walled Urbnisi Monastery, built on the site of an even earlier city.
We leave the main highway towards the coast at Khashuri, driving further up the Mtkvari Valley to the rather dull resort town of Borjomi, famed for its mineral water. Here we turn south and climb once more into the mountains, through dense pine forest to the resort of Bakuriani, filled with the Georgian nouveau riche in badly driven, black SUVs, and with children in expensive clothes; a place I take a strong and immediate disliking to. Leaving the crassness behind, an unpaved road climbs further into the beautiful forested ridges of the Lesser Caucasus, climbing up above the tree-line and into the clouds to the 2430 metre Tskhratskharo Pass where we turn east towards Lake Tabatskuri. Here the scenery becomes immediately very different; a high, rolling volcanic plateau which is physically part of the Armenian Highlands rather than the typical valleys of Georgia. We drive through a flat grassland on which farmers have made summer camps and are cutting the grass, piling it into neat ricks. Cresting a small ridge, we catch out first glimpse of the lake, with the almost Scandinavian-looking village of Tabatskuri located on a small peninsula jutting into the lake. We find a magnificent campsite on the northern edge of the lake, overlooking its steely-blue waters against a backdrop of volcanic peaks.
The next day we drive around the western edge of the lake on rough tracks, passing small, isolated and poor-looking villages up on the plateau. This highland corner of Georgia, known as Samtskhe or Meskheti, in addition to the region of Javakheti further to the south, was transferred from the Ottoman to Russian Empires in the nineteenth century, and was heavily populated by Armenians fleeing oppression under the Ottomans. When Stalin exiled the Meskhetian Turks from the area en masse in November 1944, Armenians settled the newly vacated areas. Today the region remains majority Armenian and, as we drive through rather far-flung villages such as Kochio and Baraleti, we see Armenian script used in local shops, and the characteristic pink tuff and black basalt churches; simple boxes with a pitched roof and small bell tower, usually in a state of disrepair. We rejoin the main road near the city of Akhalkalaki, then drive back to the Mtkvari Valley, following it upstream to the cave city of Vardzia.
Like Uplistsikhe, Vardzia has been inhabited since the Bronze Age, but it is famous for its connection with Queen Tamara, who reigned in Georgia from 1184 to 1213, during the height of the Georgian Golden Age which saw Tamara consolidate her Caucasian empire; it was said to be from here in Vardzia that she set off west in her campaign against the Muslims in the very early thirteenth century. Today Vardzia, once inaccessible due to its proximity to the sensitive Soviet – Turkish border, is popular with Georgian and foreign tourists, who come to see the beautiful late twelfth century mural of Queen Tamara in the rock-carved Dormition Cathedral. After visiting the caves, Lia and I go for a dip in some hot-springs just south of Vardzia, then drive up a steep and rough set of switchbacks on the cliff-face opposite the cave city, leading to the village of Apnia, set in a beautiful landscape of rolling green parkland, where we camp next to open, planted pine forest with magnificent views of the mountains of Turkey to the south-west.
Leaving this wonderful campsite the next morning, we drive back towards the capital through the highlands of Javakheti; first through more impoverished-looking villages, past the abandoned railway station outside Akhalkalaki, then turning east in Ninotsminda onto a new road. At the slate-grey highland Lake Parvani we turn off the road temporarily, passing through highly isolated communities of Doukhobors; radically pacifist Russian dissenters exiled here by Tsar Nicholas I in 1830, who here live in distinctive sod-roofed wooden houses. Rejoining the main road it’s a very brief climb to the 2170 metre Tikmatashi Pass, from where the land steadily drops. We stop for lunch in the majority Greek town of Tsalka, then leave the main road again to visit the village of Beshtasheni which has a black basalt Greek Orthodox church, whitewashed around its sky-blue doors, above which is a stone with a Greek inscription. Just near the church I meet two Pontic Greeks, whose lives are a story of exile and flight; from a background of Turkish-speaking Pontic Greeks who fled Ottoman Turkey, born here in Soviet Georgia and now living in Thessaloniki in Greece, thus speaking Turkish, Georgian, Russian and Greek; four totally unrelated languages.
As we drive further eastwards, we drop back into the typical Georgian landscape of wooded river valleys, past the rather drab town of Manglisi. It’s after midnight when I drop Lia off at Tbilisi Airport and continue alone to Mtskheta in the small hours, passing Gerhard and Julia’s place and driving to the monastery named after another of the thirteen Assyrian Fathers: Shio-Mgvime. After a brief sleep I visit the monastery before any other visitors arrive, then climb up a beautiful ridge of dwarf oak forest to a small chapel overlooking the broad Mtkvari Valley. Here I have a serene moment looking over the very heartland of Georgia, where the hills fall away into the late summer haze; green and thickly wooded on their higher slopes, parched and dry where they flatten to reach the river, with small areas of greenery marking the patchwork of villages which spread from here to the Black Sea. This, I think to myself, is the real Georgia.
I spend three days relaxing in Mtskheta with Gerhard and Julia, enjoying the late summer days in their shady garden. The sting is now starting to go out of the sun, the leaves beginning to turn and my thoughts are focused towards finally entering Armenia; the only country in the Former Soviet Union which I have not yet visited. On my last drive out of Mtskheta I choose to drive through Tbilisi, a city I have very fond memories of from my visit in 2010, then drive south through Marneuli to Bolnisi. Bolnisi was founded by German settlers in the early nineteenth century and retains a few scruffy pitch-roofed German houses, but is otherwise like any other of the nearby towns; rather shabby, impoverished-looking and inhabited mostly by Azerbaijanis whose style-less new mosques look rather out of place in the Georgian countryside. Just outside of Bolnisi however, I visit one final church; that of Bolnisi Sioni; a three-aisled basilica constructed between 478 and 493, built from beautiful blocks of green and pink tuff, the oldest extant church in Georgia. In addition to Christian symbology, the church has pagan-influenced carvings of animals and plants, as well as the oldest example of the Georgian alphabet found in Georgia; here the in the early Asomtavruli script, in which one can see clearly the similarity with the Armenian alphabet.
From Bolnisi the road turns south, passing the archaeological site of Dmanisi, home to a 1.81 million year-old Homo fossil, the oldest found outside Africa. I then climb on an empty road into beautiful beech forest and further, upwards to the edge of a plateau and the border with Armenia where I leave Georgia from the bleak village of Guguti.
On this second trip to Georgia I have gone beyond the country’s most obvious attractions, finding it to be surprisingly polyglot and decentralised for such a small country. The Georgians, with whom I have sadly had rather little contact on this trip, seem to be sitting back in their slice of paradise, enjoying new-found independence and waiting to see what the future brings, though as a pawn between Russia, the EU and the US, this is not at all certain. My strongest impression is unchanged however; that Georgia is overwhelmingly, unendingly beautiful, no matter which part one visits.
Modern Armenia is a small, mountainous country, lacking in natural resources and highly isolated both physically and politically. In the past however, successive Armenian kingdoms spread across a far greater area surrounding legendary Mount Ararat, including much of what is now called Eastern Anatolia, the far north-west of Iran, and parts of Azerbaijan and Georgia: an area known as the Armenian Highlands.
I would start my journey visiting Armenian sites along the north-western borders of Iran, a country which still has a thriving Armenian minority, before crossing the Aras River into the intriguing Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan. From here I would re-cross the Aras, this time into Turkey, where I would loop around the troubled, Kurdish south-east of the country, revisiting a few sights I had passed during my first overland trip to Asia as a backpacker in 2003. Despite the fond memories however, my overwhelming impression would be one of melancholy and tragedy from the glaring cultural decline; the impoverished Kurds, themselves victims of repression by the Turkish state, living amongst the ruins of their vanished Armenian forebears whose crumbling churches lie in neglected, silent testament to the forced movement of Christians out of Anatolia. Ninety nine years after the Armenian (and Assyrian) Genocide, the brutal demographic upheavals of the twentieth century still appear very obvious on the cultural landscape of the Armenian Highlands.
I leave Tabriz on the morning of the 26th July 2014, heading south-east towards Lake Urmia. In 2003, on my very first visit to Iran, I had crossed the gap in the then unfinished causeway across the lake in an ancient Chevrolet savari (share taxi), using a pontoon ferry. Today, the bridge is complete and the ferry lies scuppered and rusting in a briny pool, but ironically, and rather tragically, the water of the lake has almost disappeared. Due to intensive use of water for agriculture, Lake Urmia is just ten percent of its original size, and what was a large lake eleven years earlier is now a large area of parched, salt-flats which look very much like the bed of the former Aral Sea in Uzbekistan. In what used to be the centre of the lake, a few stretches of lifeless, hyper-saline water remain in a landscape of furrowed white salt mounds which stretch to the point where the lake surface seamlessly merges with the sky, looking almost like melting pack-ice. I stop on the causeway to look out over this bleak landscape, watching a man shovelling and raking salt into the back of a blue pickup truck. It’s quite disturbing to see personally such disastrous environmental change occur over so short a period of time.
I turn north on the far side of the lake, soon passing a weathered, third century Sassanian bas-relief near the village of Khan Takhti which shows a victorious King Ardeshir and Prince Shapur returning from the successful conquest of Roman Armenia. The fact that one may find such ancient artwork almost unmarked, and unprotected at the side of what must be a very ancient road, is another great joy of Iran. Continuing north, beyond Khoy I turn off the main road to the village of Bastam where I see my first Urartian site; the stone-walled remains of a small settlement, perched on a naturally defensible cliff overlooking the entrance to a green, watered valley. The Urartians were an Iron Age civilisation, contemporaries of the Hittites, centred on the Lake Van region, who flourished from the ninth to sixth centuries BCE and are thought to be the ancestors of the Armenians. As I loop across the Armenian Highlands, I will encounter several more of their intriguing ruins.
From Bastam I drive north-west on a small road, climbing onto a beautiful upland of Azerbaijani villages where women still wear colourful dresses. Here, tucked away in a small valley is the imposing Monastery of Saint Thaddeus, which legends tell was originally built in 68 AD by the Apostle Jude Thaddeus, who preached the Gospel in the area. However, much of what can be seen dates from the early nineteenth century and while it is impressive, particularly for its fine stone carvings, its black roof and heavy stone defensive walls against dark volcanic hills make it a rather dour and austere structure. More beautiful is the nearby chapel of Dzordzor, which I reach after driving through Chaldiran and into another hidden valley on a dirt track. The chapel is all that remains of a larger monastery whose ruins have been inundated by the nearby Zangmar Dam, with the chapel having been moved stone-by-stone by the Iranian authorities in the late 1980s; a touching example of the respect the revolutionary Iranian authorities have for the Christian Armenian minority in Iran, and in general for historical architecture. I camp next to the chapel in a compellingly beautiful location, passed in the evening by a local shepherd with his flock but otherwise totally alone. Dzordzor is a stunning piece of Armenian architecture, amongst the very finest I have seen; a slender, white limestone miniature cross-church with a soaring, pencil-like drum, topped by a delicate, faceted cone roof supported on zigzagging gables.
I leave Dzordzor on a beautiful morning, crossing a high pass to the north and descending to the town of Maku, very close to the Turkish frontier. Here I turn east, leaving the main highway and driving to the Aras River, which marks the boundary between Iran and the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan. I follow the river downstream, initially through flat plains, passing the Aras Reservoir, then entering a striking, steep, red-rock gorge, with the road narrow and perched immediately on the river’s right bank. It is in a steep side valley from this road that I find a third piece of preserved Armenian architecture; the elegant pink tuff Saint Stepanos Monastery, set in a walled compound with a lush garden fed by a cold spring, in stark contrast to the dry red mountains which soar all around it. Originally built in the ninth century, the current structure dates from Safavid times and is magnificent in its elegant proportions with a fine bell-tower, ornate carvings on the tambour (drum) and a bas-relief of the Stoning of Saint Stepanos on the gable of the narthex.
Back on the main road it’s a short distance to the border town of Jolfa, where a bridge connects Iran with Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic. Jolfa has been heavily redeveloped as a part of the Aras Free Trade Zone, but the border, even by Iranian standards, is utterly chaotic and totally unaccustomed to foreigners crossing with a vehicle. Nobody speaks English or Russian and I am led around by a ‘fixer’ who seems not even to speak Persian; only through a German-speaking Turkish lorry driver am I able to understand what is going on. I have to visit various offices in order to stamp my carnet, pay a spurious diesel surcharge for fuel I am taking out of Iran and eventually barter with the fixer who demands an exorbitant sum for his services. My nerves are shot by the time I finally cross the bridge into Azerbaijan where, expecting worse, I find the exact opposite; procedures are conducted in a calm and professional manner and several of the customs officers speak Russian and one even English. They are curious to see a foreigner driving across the border, but swiftly process my documents so that by mid-afternoon I’m free to drive to the capital, Nakhchivan.
This tiny exclave of Azerbaijan was once an independent khanate and today is a geographical oddity resulting from intense historical manoeuvring between Persia, Ottoman Turkey and Imperial Russia, leading the Soviets finally to cede it (and Nagorno Karabakh) to Azerbaijan. Undoubtedly once part of historical Armenia, the Azerbaijani authorities are guilty of the rather pathetic practice of destroying all Armenian churches and cemeteries in the territory in order to remove all traces of their historical inhabitants, in petty retaliation for the Armenian occupation of Armenian-majority Nagorno Karabakh, the conflict at the root of Armenia’s intense present-day political isolation.
I’m thrilled to have made it without any issue into this geopolitical oddity. However, having always been a sensitive border region of the USSR, and now an exclave separated from the ‘mainland’ by hostile Armenia, Nakhchivan has something of a reputation for official paranoia and mistrust of foreigners and as I carefully drive on the new highway to the capital, I notice that I am being followed. Reaching Nakhchivan I meet my local host Tale who speaks briefly with my tail and explains that I am his guest; the last time before the border that I have any interaction with the local authorities. I stay with Tale in a room rented out by his great aunt Sonja, a cheery seventy year-old widow who plies me with ice-cold watermelon and peaches; very welcome after the fierce afternoon heat. Tale and I head into town where, after a month in dry Iran, my most urgent wish is to drink a beer. We head down into an underground bar, where we drink the local Nakhchivan beer with small plates of chickpeas, served by an English-speaking Nigerian waiter who is a student in the local university, and tells me he is studying, of all things, French. What a perfect day.
On my first full day in Nakhchivan, Tale and I start by driving north on the main highway towards the Turkish border, turning right into the small village of Qarabağlar where I admire a stunning piece of Islamic architecture; an unnamed, round, tower-mausoleum consisting of twelve semi-circular facets, each with stylised Kufic verse in turquoise tiles. Unusually, the mausoleum has four portals, each with niches of fine stalactite moulding. It’s a highly distinctive piece of architecture, reminiscent only of a similar, taller but plainer minaret in Jarkurgan, in the far south of Uzbekistan. We return back to Nakhchivan by a circuitous route, leaving the road near Tazakand into a landscape of cowboys and dry red hills, cutting cross-country to the next green, oasis-like valley where stork’s nests sit on rooftops and telegraph poles, then return southwards to the capital.
In Nakhchivan we meet Tale’s friend Murad, who works for the country’s customs service and has an impressive knowledge of regional geopolitics, explaining the careful balance of power between Azerbaijan and Armenia as proxies respectively of Turkey and Russia; age old adversaries in the Caucasus. Nakhchivan is a small city, but one endowed with the ministries and other official buildings of a national capital, which seem quite out of place given the tiny size of the city. It is the hometown to former president of Azerbaijan Heydar Aliyev (father of the incumbent) and boasts a particularly large and centrally located Aliyev Museum. Nakhchivan is nevertheless a historical place, with its finest building, the thirteenth century Momine Khatun Mausoleum located in a central park, a ten-sided tomb-tower with finely restored geometric brickwork, a beautiful turquoise Kufic frieze and stalactite-moulding around a simple dome roof; more intricate but less architecturally exuberant than the mausoleum in Qarabağlar. Down in the backstreets in the south of town is the simpler, more common style of hexagonal-plan mausoleum of Yusuf ibn Kuseir, built by the same architect, and beyond in park still under construction a modern shrine dedicated to what is claimed to be the tomb of Noah, labelled ‘6th Millennium BC’, which is rather hard to take seriously.
On my second day in Nakhchivan Tale and I head south, leaving the main road running south back towards Julfa and heading towards the tooth-like volcanic plug known as Ilhan Dağ, which rises abruptly from the rolling plains along the Aras Valley. We drive on dirt tracks, passing sharply eroded badlands grazed by the flocks of friendly shepherds, then reconnect to the main highway and head for the far south-eastern tip of the Republic, past a seventeenth century bridge in Aza, then climbing inland to the town of Ordubad.
Ordubad is exactly the kind of place I was hoping to find here: a picturesque, largely unmodernised Azerbaijani mountain town. Backed by views of mountains on almost all sides, Ordubad has steep, winding streets of mud-brick houses with old wooden gates and walled gardens of walnut and mulberry. In one street a local points us to an opening in the ground, through which a flight of steps leads down to an old, still functioning karez, an ancient hand-dug underground water conduit used to bring water down from mountain springs to arid areas. A number of mosques dot the town; none of them spectacular but nevertheless adding to the traditional atmosphere, particularly the Shahsahar Mosque which spans adjacent streets with fine brick arches. My favourite place however is the central square, where an open-air chaikhana (tea house) is set out under large, old chinar (plane) trees, and where the older Ordubadis come to chat over endless cups of tea served in small tulip glasses.
Having only a seventy two hour customs allowance to keep the truck in Azerbaijan, I must leave the next day, and so bid a fond farewell to Tale, Sonja, Murad and the rest of Tale’s family. I drive north on the main highway, passing a succession of farming villages and small towns to reach Azerbaijan’s tiny border with Turkey. The road forks left, revealing a fine view of the twin peaks of Mount Ararat and very soon reaches the border crossing where I’m stamped out of Azerbaijan without fuss. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Nakhchivan for its architecture, unspoiled towns, for its geopolitically intriguing location, but mostly for the fantastically welcoming people who have hosted and guided me around; something I am very grateful for.
Crossing the Aras River, I am entering Turkey at its easternmost point, just east of Ararat. After three exciting days in Azerbaijan, I am altogether less thrilled to find myself in Turkey; the thought of being around groups of western tourists worries me, knowing how different one’s experiences are of a foreign country when visiting areas heavily frequented by tourists. I’m also put off somewhat by swingeing fuel prices in Turkey, higher than those in much of Western Europe. I get stuck at the border as the insurance salesman has left early for the day and end up staying overnight, though it’s a quiet spot with magnificent views of Ararat, making it no great hardship. Loosed into Turkey the next day, I drive around the northern and western edges of Ararat, crossing a pass and dropping down to the rather bleak Kurdish city of Doğubeyazıt.
Perched in the mountains south of Doğubeyazıt sits the seventeenth century İshak Paşa Palace, an extravagant melange of Ottoman, Seljuk, Armenian and Persian architectural styles overlooking the plain. Although an unsightly glass roof has been built across much of the palace since my previous visit in 2003, the view remains almost impossibly romantic with the palace’s exuberant red dome and piercing, banded minaret sitting high above a wide valley backed by hazy mountains. It’s an iconic image of Turkey and, sitting just next to the country’s busiest border crossing with Iran, an iconic stop on the Asian overland trail. I drive up to the palace and stay overnight in a campsite where a few other foreigners are breaking long overland journeys. In the morning I have a walk around the palace and the mountains behind it where there are a few traces of an Urartian city, but the views never seem quite as good as I remember from eleven years earlier. Perhaps it’s the light, but I suspect one shouldn’t revisit places which stand out so romantically in the imagination.
I drive south from Doğubeyazıt towards Lake Van, passing fields of black lava where Kurdish children play in crystal-clear mountain streams. After crossing a pass, the road descends towards the inky-blue lake, which on a sunny day is eye-catchingly beautiful. I drive up to the Urartian site known as Ayanis Castle where large, finely carved blocks of black basalt bear beautiful cuneiform inscriptions, then spend the afternoon driving around the south-eastern shore of the lake, turning off the main highway to the tiny village of Altınsaç in the early evening, beyond which I climb into a tranquil valley of fragrant junipers overlooked by the ruins of the Armenian Saint Thomas Monastery, high above the lake shore. It’s a perfectly still and silent night under a star-filled sky and I have one of the best nights of outdoor sleep that I can remember.
In the morning I climb up to look at the ruins of what once must have been a very beautiful church; structurally still largely intact, but missing some of its characteristically Armenian fine stone rendering. Signs of deliberate destruction from treasure-hunting local looters can be seen and the rather fetid, dank interior now has the unmistakable odour of cattle. It’s a rather ignominious decline for a structure which is of a far higher quality of construction than anything in the surrounding villages.
I backtrack along the shore with stunning views across the lake’s shimmering deep-blue water, and stop at a small ferry dock just off the main highway to take the boat to scrubby Akdamar Island (Ahtamar in Armenian), once the seat of an Armenian Catholicosate. Here one finds the beautiful tenth century Cathedral of the Holy Cross, built from pink tuff, with a large conical dome and tall bas-reliefs of Biblical scenes such as David fighting Goliath. Now a museum and tourist attraction, the Cathedral has been the subject of serious controversy and is emblematic of the hugely contentious issue in modern Turkey of Armenians in Anatolia; itself one of the most important political problems in the region.
The line of Ancient Armenian kingdoms in Eastern Anatolia came finally under Ottoman rule in the sixteenth century, and although facing persecution as second-class citizens, Armenians remained a significant minority. However, as the Ottoman Empire began to collapse in the early twentieth century, a policy of Anatolian de-Christianisation was applied, leading to the deliberate extermination of Armenians and other Christian groups such as Assyrians and Greeks. Massacres and forced labour of Armenian males culminated in ‘Death Marches’ of men, women and children into the Syrian Desert to the south. It is estimated that one and a half million Armenians perished, with many more fleeing to form what is today a huge diaspora.
Heavily de-populated and almost entirely Kurdish, Eastern Anatolia fell into cultural decline. Akdamar Island became a military training ground and the cathedral was subject to vandalism, even being used for target practice. Narrowly escaping demolition in the 1950s, it was eventually restored in 2006, though the question of holding a liturgy or raising a cross on the roof became the subject of protests and turned into a contentious political issue. While across the border in the Islamic Republic of Iran, roundly vilified in the western press, Armenians are free to worship and erect crosses on churches, here in Turkey, nominally a secular, democratic republic, an ugly mixture of religious intolerance and chest-pounding nationalism turned such a triviality into a national incident, and highlighted an ongoing, official agenda to eradicate Turkey’s Armenian history.
In the afternoon I stop in Van, a scruffy and rather characterless Kurdish city, but visit the fine ruins of Van Castle, site of the Urartian capital of Tushpa. From this ridge overlooking the lake, the Urartians controlled the Armenian Highlands in the ninth century BCE, their presence evident today in the form of extensive cuneiform inscriptions, including a large panel by Persian King Xerxes the Great, and a large rock-cut tomb which I am lucky to enter with some visiting archaeologists. In the evening I am hosted by Mehmet, a local Kurdish teacher with whom I talk at length about life in the area. Though not eradicated in the same way as Christians at the end of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurds have long been subject to persecution in modern Turkey and since the 1980s this region has been the centre of a smouldering conflict between Kurds and the Turkish authorities, who have historically denied the Kurds their ethnic identity in a continuation of the ‘Turkification’ of Anatolia. As beautiful as the landscape of this region appears, the underlying demographic tragedy seems to become ever more obvious as I travel. The Kurds however are undoubtedly a highlight among this. I am yet to meet people who are kinder, more generous or more welcoming.
I leave Van the following day, heading east and stopping in the village of Çavuştepe where, again on a ridge there are the ruins of an eighth century BCE Urartian palace, which according to Armenian folklore was built by Hayk, legendary founder of the Armenian nation. The quality of the 2750 year-old stonework is magnificent, setting an architectural precedent for the Armenian masters who dotted the highlands with graceful churches. Turning south the road passes a dramatic Kurdish Castle which towers above the village of Hoşap, then twists through narrow valleys between towering mountains. I turn off into the city of Hakkari, which is rather bland and shambolic but located spectacularly above the valley in which the road runs. I drive straight out of Hakkari up into the mountains, crossing a 2700 metre pass to reach the village of Konak. Depopulated of Kurds in the 1980s, the site of the forcibly abandoned village is a beautiful green upland, but I have come to see the ruins of the Mar Shalita Church. A stone box from the outside without any dome or bell tower, walls plain aside from tiny slot windows and a few intriguing geometrical bas reliefs, the interior has a fine vaulted stone ceiling and a carved stone nave wall with a large, arched opening to the sanctuary and a smaller one to the sacristy on the right. This silent ruin was, until the Assyrian Genocide of 1918, seat of the Assyrian Church of the East; ancient followers of the Nestorian Doctrine unincorporated into any other Christian denomination, and whose diasporic seat is now in Chicago.
From Hakkari the road heads south-east through dramatic mountains scenery, approaching the Iraqi border then winding down on a spectacular section of road to parallel the Little Khabur River, which here marks the border exactly. Being so close to the border, deep inside the insurgent south-east, the military presence is very pronounced with frequent roadblocks and armoured vehicles speeding through the Kurdish villages, a reminder of just how militarised a state Turkey is. Heading west along the Iraqi border I pass through a landscape of sparse oak forest similar to the Zagros Mountains of western Iran, passing through the nondescript provincial capital of Şırnak and continuing north-west past Siirt, close to the sweltering lowlands of Mesopotamia, then climbing once more north-east back towards Lake Van. In the morning I stop in the city of Bitlis, which comes as a relief after all the scruffy, forgettable cities I have so far passed through in Turkey. Bitlis winds around a steep river valley with just a couple of parallel streets and houses spreading up the valley-sides, often of high quality stone-masonry. Dotted throughout the town are examples of austere, stocky Ottoman-era mosques, medreassas (seminaries) and turbesi (shrines) whose heavy, militaristic architecture is executed in coal-black basalt. In the centre are time-worn streets of old shopfronts with groups of friendly men sitting out on the pavement, chatting and drinking tea. I like Bitlis.
Just outside Bitlis I drive up to the village of Değirmenaltı, home to a number of Armenian khachkars, ‘cross stones’; highly decorative memorial stelae which are very distinctive of Armenian culture. Değirmenaltı is a squalid village made partly of slowly crumbling Armenian stone houses, partly of rude, modern Kurdish dwellings. I find the three metre high, ornately carved khachkars near a crumbling church, just next to a recently built house. A troop of feral-looking children are throwing stones at each other in between staring at me whilst I take photographs. One boy of about twelve, sensing my interest in the historical monuments, prises a piece of masonry from the crumbling church (which is being used as a barn) and throws it at one of the khachkars. Nothing in this part of Turkey more clearly illustrates to me the cultural decay of Eastern Anatolia than these ragged urchins; children of the peasants in their impoverished modern hovels, marginalised by the central government, living in and around the finely crafted homes and monuments of their long-evicted Armenian forebears.
I reach the western edge of Lake Van once more near the city of Tatvan, turn north and climb on a newly paved road up to the volcanic crater of Mount Nemrut (Nimrod). Crossing the crater rim, I enter a small sanctuary of greenery in this otherwise arid landscape. Underfoot is an almost tundra-like growth of fragrant mosses and shrubs, overlooking a deep-blue lake contained within the steep crater walls. I descend into the crater which is partly filled with lush green forests of birch and aspen, and drive to the far edge of the lake, parking up on a scree slope above the lake’s northernmost point. As I sit in the truck reading and admiring the scenery, clouds gather over the crater and a storm breaks, a magnificent sight. In the morning the skies are clearer again, and the air incredibly fresh and fragrant, a very pleasant change after days of driving through the torrid far south-east.
I take a different route out of the crater, ending up on the highway again and soon reaching the town of Ahlat. Here one finds a huge medieval Islamic graveyard with fine, intricately carved tomb stones of pink tuff, patinated with white lichen and often leaning distinctly off-vertical. Whilst the graves are Islamic, the masons were almost certainly Armenian given the similarity of style and stonework. Several larger mausoleums may be found amid the fields of gravestones, and south of the road is the fine, deep-red Ulu Cumbet (great dome), a conical roofed round structure, where I am followed by a pack of begging children. Ahlat was once a centre of culture on the Silk Road between Constantinople and Bukhara, but the fine monuments to this past are in total disconnect to the surrounding poverty and evoke again melancholy, compelling me to leave.
The road follows the northern shore of Lake Van, passing the harbour town of Adilcevaz where white deposits on the shallow lake bed give it the appearance of a shelving tropical lagoon. Not far beyond I turn north, climbing through Patnos whose name suggests Greek heritage, but which turns out to be just another scruffy Kurdish town. I camp beyond Patnos and continue the following morning, passing through the regional capital of Ağrı (the Turkish name for Ararat) and then climbing on a dirt road into a beautiful landscape of green pastures dotted by Kurdish shepherds with white, conical tents. Cresting a pass, the road drops down through poplar-filled valleys amid eroded red and purple volcanic hills, joining the Aras River once again, then turning north, climbing continuously until reaching a beautiful high, flat grassland at around two thousand metres elevation, backed by low, flowing hills and looking far more like parts of Mongolia than any landscape I have recently encountered.
Kars is a raffishly charming place with potholed streets and the occasional gutted or collapsed buildings in the city’s central blocks, but with women rarely wearing headscarves and a handful of turn of the century Tsarist Russian architecture dating from the forty years under which the city was part of the Russian Empire, Kars feels very different from the conservative and shambolic cities of the south-east. The city’s population is mixed Turkish and Kurdish, but I see the word ‘Kafkaz‘ (Caucasus) often written in names of local businesses and imagine there are plenty of Armenian, Georgian and perhaps even Russian genes in the city’s populace. It’s a nice place to spend a day, with an excellent museum and a rambling castle overlooking the city, the subject of numerous Russian sieges in the nineteenth century.
The highlight of the region however is the ruined ancient city of Ani, capital of Bagratid Armenia between 961 and 1045 with a population that maybe have exceeded one hundred thousand; a huge city in the medieval world. Ani was sacked by the Mongols in 1236 (who had failed to capture the city ten years earlier), then devastated by an earthquake in the early fourteenth century, leading the once great city to become a half-forgotten village, and then an enigmatic ruin. I had visited Ani in 2003 and was mesmerised by the beauty of its dark red and black churches, set in wildflower-filled meadows on the very edge of the country, overlooking the Arpa River which marks the border with modern Armenia. Photography in 2003 was forbidden, much to my frustration, but with mindless state paranoia evidently somewhat diminished, I am now free to photograph the somnolent ruins and thus realise something of a frustrated ambition.
One enters the city through a gate in the towering pink tuff walls which surround it, closing it off against the steep river valley. Inside is a huge plain of long grass dotted by a few largely intact structures, the stumpy ruins of many more, and everywhere piles of broken stones. I first pass the ruined base of the huge King Gagik’s Saint Gregory Church, once a huge, arcaded rotunda but now just stumps of columns with the odd fallen capital whose almost Celtic swirls are covered in bright orange lichen. Next is the Saint Gregory Church of the Abughamrents, a pleasing pepper-pot church which is the most intact structure of in Ani. Getting close to the river there is the chimney-like minaret of a ruined mosque whose exact origin is unknown and beyond, the scant remains of a citadel on a piece of high ground. From here, one can look down something of a salient of Turkish territory to the farthest-most structure of Ani, the Virgin’s Castle, a monastery which was the last part of the city to be inhabited until the monks finally left in the eighteenth century.
Other noteworthy ruins are the Ani Cathedral, a huge structure whose tambour has vanished, but which retains soaring walls and pillars of pink tuff and black basalt; the bisected shell of the Church of the Redeemer, and the Church of Saint Gregory of Tigran Honents with beautiful exterior stonework and relatively well preserved frescoes on its interior walls. My favourite monument however is the poignantly beautiful Chapel of the Hripsimian Virgins, part of a heavily ruined monastery on a cliff-top overlooking the Arpa River, near a long-collapsed stone bridge. It’s a beautifully slender structure with a delicate faceted roof, covered in damaged pink tuff rendering which glows a warm orange in the evening light. I find these monuments overlooking the river particularly tragic; forgotten at the far end of a country which seems set on total cultural cleansing of its Armenian heritage, overlooking the isolated modern state of Armenia.
I camp for the night just outside of Ani, in the fields to the north of the city from where I have a clear view of the scale of the imposing, red-orange city walls. In the morning I set off through the quiet nearby villages, stopping at the beautiful Karmir Vank (Red Church) which is being used as a barn in the village of Bekler and has dung patties stacked against its wall, then cutting north across the fields to reach the Kars – Gyumri Highway, which would be a busy international border crossing if the border with Armenia had not been sealed since 1993. Further north I pass beautiful Lake Çıldır, close to the point where the borders of Turkey, Armenia and Georgia meet, and stop briefly at the spectacularly located Şeytan (Devil’s) Castle, poised above a vertiginous incised meander of the Kara River. The road turns north again just short of the provincial capital of Ardahan, through very attractive countryside of rolling green hills dotted with stands of pine forest, then crosses a pass and drops into the neat farmland of the Karaman Valley, where I leave Turkey to enter Georgia.
I leave the Armenian Highlands with mixed feelings. At once very beautiful and rich with history, I find it personally rather tragic how the world’s historic legacy can be erased for the sake of vein, puerile nationalism. The painful human history of ethnic cleansing and of the ongoing oppression of minorities weighs heavily on the land, and on me. I look forward to the coming weeks of uncomplicatedly beautiful scenery in the valleys of Georgia.
Much of the Iranian Plateau is defined by mountains, which have historically separated Persia from the deserts which surround it to the west, north and east. Arriving in Iran in the height of summer, when much of the country is uncomfortably hot, and having seen nearly all of the country’s main historical sites on three previous, lengthy visits, I planned to spend much of my time in Iran’s two major mountain ranges: the Alborz and Zagros. In the far north of Iran, running along the south coast of the Caspian Sea are the thickly forested ridges of the Alborz, which create a sharp physical divide between the humid coast and the near desert of the interior, crowned by Mt Damavand, the country’s highest peak and the highest volcano in Eurasia. The Zagros are quite different; far less sharply defined, lower, and occupying much of the west of the country, but historically very significant; home to the forebears of modern Iranians and still inhabited by Luri nomads whose lifestyle cannot be far removed from the very first Iranians who had migrated from Central Asia around three thousand years ago. Driving roughly along the axes of these two mountain ranges, my journey would take me across much of northern and western Iran, ending in the caravan city of Tabriz.
It’s the 28th June 2014 and after a comfortable overnight stay at the border, I am quickly passed through customs in the morning by the friendly customs officers. Driving away from the border, the landscape is initially similar to the barren, hard-baked mud of western Turkmenistan, but soon the signs of irrigation appear, then beyond the Turkmen town of Aq Qala, the Alborz Mountains; rolling green in their upper reaches and a patchwork of fields and settlements on their lower slopes. This is the fertile Gorgan Plain, an almost Mediterranean looking landscape of olive trees, golden fields of wheat and even the odd rice paddy. Pickups are parked at the roadside selling a wide range of fruit and vegetables. Men stand selling fresh fish, dangling them on lines hung from the ends of long sticks. Farmers in straw hats work the paddies and rest on their tools, watching the heavy traffic pass. Shepherds graze sheep on the grassy roadside, squatting in the shade of the old plane trees which grow aside this ancient artery of the Silk Road. All this comes from the presence of the mountains, which channel rainwater down onto the coastal plain. The difference between this and the dry, barren wastes of western Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan show acutely the contrast between the nomadic and settled worlds.
I reach Sari early in the afternoon and set about looking for my old friend Kiavash. I go to what used to be his clothing boutique, which is closed, but one of the staff from a nearby fast food restaurant knows him and takes me a few blocks to the location of Kiavash’s new business, a coffee shop. I call Kiavash from the coffee shop and soon we’re happily re-united after more than four years. I stay with Kiavash for five days, reliving somewhat the slightly debauched weeks I spent with him in 2010; smoking, partying and meeting his friends. I meet Khazar, who helps me recover photos deleted by the Turkmenistani security services from my memory card, and other friends Shahin, Bahar and Shiva with whom we drive up into the lush foothills of the Alborz, walking into beautiful, thick, atmospheric primeval beech forest whose trees are in vivid lime green leaf, the ground thickly covered in crisp, brown, fallen leaves.
Sadly I don’t have the same open-ended itinerary that I did in 2010, and must pull myself away from old and new friends, and start my journey across the country. I double back to the city of Gorgan, a city of great antiquity, once capital of the region known to the ancient Greeks as Hyrcania, famed even then for its fruit. Surviving through Achaemenid, Parthian, Sassanian and Arab eras, Gorgan was razed by the Mongols in 1220 and rebuilt in its current location, and remains today the provincial capital. From this rich history however, almost nothing stands out in modern Gorgan, and apart from a very small centre of traditional Caspian-style buildings, with overhanging terracotta-tiled, pitched roofs, the city is a rather ugly sprawl of unplanned modern development.
I leave Gorgan after one night, turning south the city’s eastern edge, driving initially through irrigated farmland and bright green rice paddies, then climbing steeply into the densely forested mountains on relentless switchbacks, passing through cloud and across a 2270 metre pass. Beyond the pass the cloud soon clears, revealing a rocky upland dotted with juniper trees, from where the road descends slightly to the small town of Chahar Bagh. Here the landscape has changed again and I find myself in the familiar high mountain valleys of Asia, in surroundings that bring to mind Pakistan’s Hunza Valley, or the Bamyan Valley in central Afghanistan. Small villages of mud and stone houses are surrounded by patchwork fields of wheat and barley, sometimes stone-walled and terraced above rocky streams lined by tall brush-like poplars. The people are extremely friendly, the sky is a clear, deep blue and the air crisp and fresh making for a slow and very enjoyable drive on empty dirt tracks, heading west along a valley high in the Alborz. I camp amongst some poplar trees and enjoy a cool night, with temperatures dropping down to 8º C, most welcome after weeks of sweltering heat since leaving Ukraine. In the morning I stop to admire the thousand year old Radkan Tower, a brick tomb-tower with a well-preserved Kufic script running below a sharp conical roof; architecturally impressive in itself, but all the more so given its beautifully remote location.
Beyond the tower, the road climbs over steep ridges of dry oak forest, passing occasional ramshackle villages, then descending to the rice-growing town of Sefid Chah which has an unusually large and old graveyard with hundreds of carved gravestones. The road then climbs to the south once again, crossing a 2400 metre pass towards Dibaj and entering the high, dry plains of Semnan Province, which typify much of the country; the contrast between these dusty plains and the lush, humid forests of the northern slopes of the mountains, less than twenty kilometres away, is quite staggering. High in these barren southern slopes of the Alborz a little further to the west, I drive up a rough track to reach the striking travertine formations of Badab-e Surt, which have built up naturally into stacked white terraces of turquoise and red-tinged water below a hot mineral spring, and are particularly beautiful in the late afternoon light.
Returning to the main road, I turn north and cross another pass, beyond which the air becomes humid once again and hazy in the early evening. I drop down further on the following morning, through steamy small towns set amidst fluorescent green rice paddies, winding over successive ridges thick with unspoiled forest, dropping eventually onto the Firouzkuh Road which leads over the southern edge of the Alborz, rolling down into the endless sprawl of western Tehran.
Tehran’s traffic is infamous, but the city’s infrastructure is impressive, particularly the system of expressways, often consisting of elevated or fenced-in highways which allow one to drive at full speed through the heart of the city; for me, a peculiar attraction in a city which is otherwise almost singularly charmless. Coming in from the Firouzkuh Road, I’m swept onto the expressways; Babayi which becomes Sadr, turning onto Niayesh and plunging into a new tunnel which bifurcates underground, emerging in the district of Sa’adat Abad in the affluent north of the city where I will stay with another old friend of mine, Pouria.
I first met Pouria when he was a student in Mashhad in 2007, where I stayed with him for ten days. Then a thoughtful, slightly unsure young man, Pouria now lives with his wife Sepideh in a new apartment overlooking the north of the city, works for a large multinational company and as a photographer, and it’s wonderful to see his confidence and success in life. We spend evenings catching up and discussing future plans, or driving around the humming night-time streets of North Tehran, eating ice cream and visiting parks.
Whilst in Tehran I make a side trip west to the Alamut Valley, driving out of Tehran in the early hours of the morning, winding up into the mountains north of Qazvin to enter the valley at dawn, and stopping in the village of Gazorkhan. Here, on a near-vertical rock outcrop, a huge natural tower, are the scant remains of Hassan Sabbah Castle. It was here that the Persian polymath Hassan Sabbah, an adherent to a breakaway Islamic sect known as the Nizari Ismailis, after capturing the castle by subterfuge in the late eleventh century, made it the headquarters of a state of unconnected fortresses spread across Iran and Syria, known as the Nizari Ismaili State. The basis for Hassan Sabbah’s campaign appears to have been rebellion against the Seljuks, who controlled much of the region at the time, but his small, highly trained army who carried out propaganda, psychological warfare and assassination of both contemporary Islamic rulers and invading Christian Crusaders have endowed his state with a romanticised and semi-mythical history both in the Middle East and the in the West. It’s a steep climb up to the castle, which is surrounded by dramatic, misty mountain scenery, but little remains of the legendary fortress, and nothing of the libraries or luxuriant gardens for which the castle was famed, all destroyed by the Mongols in the mid thirteenth century when, with considerable difficulty, they finally subdued the Nizari Ismaili State, the last outpost of resistance in Persia.
I drive further west along the valley where red-rock mountains and mud-brick villages contrast against bright green rice paddies, to Lambsar Castle, the other major stronghold of Alamut. Like that at Gazorkhan, Lambsar Castle towers over its surrounding from a very strong natural position, but very little remains apart from some stretches of perimeter wall which are slowly crumbling away, and by mid afternoon I’m back on the road to Tehran.
After four nights staying with Pouria in Tehran I head back into the mountains. My aim is to relieve a frustrated ambition dating back to my very first visit to Iran, as a backpacker in 2003: to get an unobstructed view of Mount Damavand, which at 5610 metres is, by a considerable margin the highest peak in the country. I leave Tehran on the Haraz Road, turning off in the small town of Polour and winding up first towards the Lar Dam, then right at a camp of bee-keepers onto a dirt track which climbs past sparse clumps of beautiful wild vermilion poppies which sway in the summer breeze, up onto the Lar Plains. The road bumps and winds up through 3000 metres elevation, then splits again. I continue climbing, now past the summer camps of shepherds who dot the mountain-sides with stone corrals and khaki tents, and whose herds fill the air with the unmistakable scent of sheep. The track eventually reaches an altitude of 3700 metres from where there is a magnificent and totally unobstructed view of the symmetrical cone of Damavand, snowcapped and fluted with hardened ancient lava floes which retain streaks of winter snow cover. It’s a spectacular sight; one I have been wanting to see for eleven years.
I camp for the night at a spot which local shepherds tell me is named Vararu; at 3000 metres, an idyllic grassy meadow surrounded by mountains which reminds me of certain spots in Central Asia. Descending back through Rineh, where I caught just a distant glimpse of Damavand in 2003, I rejoin the Haraz Road, turning east onto a far quieter road running through the Nur Valley, which eventually descends onto the infamous Chalus Road; one of the busiest, and therefore most dangerous roads in the country. Until midnight all the traffic flows southward on the road, and it is not until around 02:00 that I dare to face the endless rush of oncoming traffic, cautiously descending and turning off at the first junction, driving up again into the hills, where I stay with an extremely friendly Kurdish family in the beautifully situated town of Kelardasht. My host here is Fahime; a very engaging, confident and ambitious young woman, who lives with her mother, father and brother in a large wooden-roofed house. Her father, an active eighty year-old with hands like the paws of a bear, still hunts for wild pigs (for food) in the nearby hills and has surrounded the house with beautiful potted plants which he sells in the local bazaar. I’d love to stay longer with the family but I have a tight schedule and so in the late afternoon I’m following Fahime and her cousin down a beautiful winding forest road to Abbas Abad on the steamy Caspian shore, where we say farewell.
The Caspian coastline of Iran is quite dramatic in places with tiers of misty, forested mountains plunging down into bright green rice paddies in a scene quite reminiscent of lowland Kashmir. However, choking traffic on the narrow coastal road, combined with totally unregulated building make for an ugly, polluted sprawl along much of its length, with only glimpses of what would otherwise be a breathtaking mountainous coastline.
It’s dark when I reach my next destination, the small Gilani city of Lahijan, famous for its tea production. Here I meet my host Hojjat, a fast-talking Gilani student in his early twenties. Despite having only just met, we get on like old friends and I’m soon sitting with an intellectual group of his friends, smoking and drinking glasses of local tea in a small chaikhana (tea-house). Just a few metres up the road from the chaikhana, illuminated in the thick night air, is the highly distinctive shrine of Sheikh Zahed Gilani, a thirteenth century Sufi grandmaster (of Kurdish origin), teacher of Sheikh Safi-ad Din Ardabili, ancestor of Iran’s Safavid Empire which lasted from the sixteenth until the eighteenth century. Though far removed from it, there’s something in the close night air, the flitting pilgrims and the good company that put me in mind of the Sufi shrine culture of southern Pakistan which is so dear to me.
In the morning I leave Lahijan, heading west into a wide coastal plain filled with rice and tea plantations. I stop in the town of Fuman, another spot I had visited on my first trip to Iran, purchase some of the sweet walnut-paste cookies for which the town is famed, then head north towards the Azerbaijan border. Here the coastal plain narrows once more, overlooked by the emerald-green Talysh Mountains, a north-western sub-range of the Alborz. In the town of Asalem I turn off the coastal highway and start to climb through beautiful, thick forest, passing damp villages in a narrow valley. Rain soon starts to fall and as I climb I quickly enter the clouds, driving through fog so thick that I cannot see anything beyond the front of the truck; even sticking to the asphalt road is difficult at times. A pass tops-out at around 2400 metres, but the cloud obscures all views and I decide to camp for the night in a deserted side road on the edge of the mountain.
The fog soon disappears on the western side of the mountains as I drop into the small town of Khalkhal the following day, and the landscape becomes quite dull. I stop in the afternoon in Ardabil, one of very few large Iranian cities which I have not previously visited. I visit the beautiful shrine complex of Sheikh Safi-ad Din Ardabili, disciple of Lahijan’s Sheikh Zahed Gilani. Safi-ad Din was a thirteenth century Sufi who founded the Safaviyya Sufi Order here in Ardabil. His descendants would go on to found the Safavid Empire in 1501, a pivotal point in Iranian history in that it was the first native dynasty since the Arab overthrow of the Sassanids in the seventh century to create a unified Iranian state. The Safavids built an empire which stretched beyond Persia into much of Central Asia to the edges of Europe and the Indian Subcontinent, spread Shi’a Islam across the Persian heartland and left a fantastic legacy of architecture and arts; all things which are very much the cultural backbone of contemporary Iran. The ensemble of buildings includes the Sheikh’s shrine and a khanaqah (meeting place of a Sufi brotherhood) with numerous attendant buildings, today a museum. The architecture is magnificent, if restrained in scale, and shows strong influences from earlier Timurid architecture of Central Asia, most recognisably in the beautiful, stubby, turquoise-tiled tower which houses the sheikh’s grave and could have been taken straight from Samarkand.
There is little else of interest in Ardabil, aside from the novelty of having to wear a coat on a July evening, and so the following morning I return to the mountains, now clear of clouds, and pick a descent towards the coast on a steep and twisting unpaved road. After a short, steep climb on a rocky track from the village of Andabil, a wide, grassy amphitheatre of rolling hills opens up, backed in the north by a steep mountainside, itself a mottled patchwork of bare brown earth and lush grass. Below me a muddy track descends into green grassy meadows, peppered with shepherd’s summer huts. Beyond the meadows I drop into a twisting river valley and the hillsides become forested with oak, ash, alder and lower down, old, scraggly, moss-covered elms growing next to the braiding river. I pass through the village of Nav which is one of the least modernised settlements I can remember seeing in Iran: picturesque whitewashed houses with wooden or corrugated iron roofs and wooden shutters over the windows. The track is rough in places, but the glorious, peaceful forest and is a joy to drive through until, after several hours I emerge onto the paved road back down to Asalem.
Having traversed much of the Alborz, I now take myself down into the Zagros Mountains, driving from Asalem through the night via Qazvin and Isfahan almost eleven hundred kilometres south into the sweltering heart of Iran, arriving in the afternoon in the city of Yasuj, nestled at around nineteen hundred metres in the central Zagros, capital of Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad Province. I am hosted here by Mehran, who is a Lur, an ancient Iranian people who make up much of the population of this region, and whose language is close to archaic Old Persian. Mehran takes me out of Yasuj in his car, driving through mountains with beautiful oak forests growing on dark earthy hillsides which look as if they have been raked, up into the slopes of the Dena Range which reaches an altitude of 4409 metres, making it the highest section of the Zagros. We leave the car and walk up rocky hillsides, eventually coming upon a beautiful alpine meadow where Luri nomads have made their summer camp in traditional black tents, and who give us tea with bread and butter to eat.
Mehran studies in Yasuj, but as the weekend is arriving, he invites me to meet his family in his home town of Dogonbadan, one of Iran’s original oil boom towns. We drive together in his car, dropping quickly down from the mountains through the Dasht-e Rum, the Rome Plains, where Mehran tells me that Alexander the Great forced his way (with the help of local treachery) through the ‘Gates of Persia’, and into the Persian heartland and the capital at Persepolis. It’s a real pleasure to be hosted by an Iranian family, being fed lavishly with delicious home-cooked food, but lying on the edge of the lowlands just seventy kilometres from the Persian Gulf, Dogonbadan’s mid-summer heat is ferocious, with days above forty-five degrees and enough humidity to deter any of us from leaving the air-conditioned house.
I leave Mehran and his family the next day, taking a shared taxi back to the relative cool of Yasuj, then driving through Sisakht and up into the Dena Range on Iran’s highest road, crossing a 3150 metre pass. The views are far less dramatic than the green ridges of the Alborz, but these dry, craggy slopes teem with nomads who here, on the north-eastern side of the pass, are not Luri but Qashqai; a Turkic nation originating more recently in Central Asia who are renowned for their ‘Shirazi’ carpets. I stop on these north-eastern slopes of Dena to admire the view, and meet a Qashqai man who points out his family’s siah chador (black tent); the archetypal boxy nomad’s dwelling moored to the rocky ground by guy ropes. The hills are dotted with such tents and flocks of grazing sheep, and I imagine that, save for the motorcycles and pickups, I am seeing the area much as it looked when the ancestral Iranians were freshly arrived here from Central Asia.
It’s very enjoyable driving slowly down through small mountain villages in the afternoon, and I stop to camp in a field of golden wheat, still overlooked by the jagged peaks of Dena. In the morning I start a long drive back north, staying as closely as possible in the mountains, passing through Shahr-e Kord and then Chelgerd where the banks of the Kurang River are full of the tent-camps of Bakhtiaris, a sub-group of the Lurs whose men wear distinctive baggy trousers similar to those traditionally worn by Kurds. Leaving the river, I start climbing again through mud-brick mountain villages, over a 2700 metres pass to Fereydun Shahr, then join the main highway to the city of Khorramabad, capital of Lorestan Province.
Khorramabad is an attractive city, surrounded by dry hills but with ample greenery thanks to water which is channelled in from nearby springs. Centred around the Falak-ol Aflak Castle, the city radiates out in fairly neat blocks along a small river, and the disorganised urban sprawl which marrs many of Iran’s cities seems thankfully to have been averted in Khorramabad. I spend a full day with my host Ashkan, and also meet with my old friend Reza who drives up from 50º C Shush with his father just to visit me. A student when I first met him in 2007, Reza is now a successful musician (and has become quite chubby), while his wiry and energetic father has not changed visibly at all.
From Khorramabad I head away from the mountains to Arak, the capital of Markazi Province. Though a modern, heavily industrialised city, Arak surprises me by having a beautiful two hundred year old Qajar-era bazaar, a showcase of classical Persian urban architecture with lofty vaulted passageways, a beautifully domed central hall and an old, central caravanserai; a central, watered plaza with an old mulberry tree, surrounded by two tiers of small shops and artisan’s workshops where men are busy repairing dusty old carpets by hand.
The quality of the Iranian road network is such that even small country roads are of excellent quality, and I make use of this fact heading north from Arak through watered valleys where swaying poplars, fields of melons and orchards of apples, peaches and cherries are set against barren brown and reddish mountains. I stop in the village of Delijan in Hamadan Province to admire the Ilkhanid-era Imamzadeh Hod, out amid the fields, with traces of antique faïence in its blind arches. To find ancient shrines like this sitting peacefully in the middle of nowhere is another of Iran’s great pleasures. Continuing on backroads, I enter Qazvin Province to stop at the more impressive Karraqan Towers; damaged by a nearby earthquake in 2002, with one of the two squat, octagonal towers supported by crude wooden buttresses, but whose elaborate, thousand year-old geometric brickwork is notable for having survived the ravages of the Mongols, as well as of time. I then move west into Zanjan Province, driving through striking banded red-rock hills, back into the Zagros, camping for the night near the town of Bijar in Kurdistan Province, then north again into West Azerbaijan Province and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Takht-e Soleyman (Solomon’s Throne).
Takht-e Soleyman is notable as the site of one of the holiest fire temples of the Zoroastrian religion during the Sassanian era (third to seventh centuries). Destroyed at the end of the Sassanian era, it was presumably the Arabs who bestowed upon the ruins their current Semitic name. The site was partially rebuilt in the thirteenth century, though never regained its importance and today remains heavily ruined. Perhaps more interesting however than the ruins themselves is the intriguing location of the site on a high plain: built on the oval-shaped rim of an ancient volcanic crater, around a brim-full crater lake of deep blue, mineral rich, but lifeless water. Behind the ruins off to the west is another volcanic remnant; a far steeper crater known as Zendan-e Soleyman (Solomon’s Prison) where legends tell that King Solomon imprisoned monsters. It’s nice to return to the site, which was one of the places I had visited on my first trip across Asia in 2003, but the real historical significance of Takht-e Soleyman is somehow lost to me amid the jumble of rather indistinct ruins.
I set off on a long, winding drive through Iranian Azerbaijan in the afternoon, passing villages of squat mud houses, sometimes with ricks of drying grass and hay atop their flat roofs, similar to those seen in some of the remotest parts of Afghanistan. By late afternoon I’m getting close to what used to be the eastern shore of Lake Urmia, and make a stop in the friendly county town of Maragheh. Though now a small and unimportant place, Maragheh was made capital of the Ilkhanid Empire in the mid thirteenth century by Hulagu Khan, grandson of Chinggis Khan. I spend a couple of hours in town seeking out the Mongols’ architectural legacy in the form of four funerary monuments; the Ghaffariyeh Dome, a squat, cubic mausoleum with a simple corbelled entrance portal covered in turquoise tiles; the twelfth century Gonbad-e Kabud (Blue Dome), an exquisite hexagonal tomb tower covered in mesmerising geometric brick reliefs which is the finest of the four; the adjacent and slightly older Borj-e Modavar (Round Tower), indeed round in section and plainer, but still with a fine entrance portal; and finally the Gonbad-e Sorkh (Red Dome), rather less graceful and adorned only with brick relief work, but located on the southern edge of town in its own small park which must also be of considerable age.
Not far from Maragheh, on the northern side of Mount Sahand lies Tabriz, where I stop for three days. Backed by red mountains to the north, Tabriz is the most important city in north-western Iran, and was on numerous occasions in the past the capital of the country. A city with a majority population of Iranian Azerbaijanis (who are simply called ‘Turks’ in Iran), Tabriz feels very slightly European, lacking the exotic urban architecture of Isfahan or Shiraz, but is instead notable as a centre of commerce, one of the principal cities on the Silk Road, visited by Marco Polo in 1275. The highlight of Tabriz is undoubtedly its bazaar, said to be the world’s longest, and which is in my opinion the finest in Asia. Tabriz’s bazaar is a place of sensual delights; with its beautiful, long vaulted passageways, spot-lit and ventilated by holes in the ceiling, thronging with shoppers and merchants. The air is thick with the hubbub of commercial transactions, lengthy, animated conversations between shopkeepers and the shouts of trolley-pushing porters who part the crowds to deliver goods into the small, cave-like shops. The nose is greeted by various smells; spices and dried fruits, delicate Middle Eastern perfumes and the bitter scent of dyed wool. The eye is caught by the endless procession of oncoming faces as one walks through the crowds; by paintings, by sacks of colourful foodstuffs, confectionery, lingerie, brass ware, but most of all by the sumptuous deep reds and blacks of the carpets, the sellers of which sit in their own large section of the bazaar atop huge, expensive rugs, patiently waiting for customers, talking amongst one another over endless cups of sweet red-brown tea brought to them on silver trays by errand boys from a nearby chaikhana.
The bazaar is so much more than a shopping centre, and its interconnected passageways and open spaces have historically been important not just for commerce, but as centres of social, educational and religious practices. It seems to me the architectural embodiment of the very essence of contemporary Iranian culture; drawing heavily on a great historical legacy of empires and trade, deeply human, steadfastly clinging to its own identity, oblivious to the characterless face of globalised modernity.
Tabriz feels like a good place to conclude my trip through the Alborz and Zagros Mountains, poised as it is at the edge of both ranges. From here I will continue in a north-westerly direction, towards and then across the Aras River into the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan, and on into eastern Anatolia, all lands once part of ancient Armenia.
After almost two weeks in Kazakhstan’s Mangystau Region, exploring necropoles and ancient Sufi pilgrimage sites and taking in the spectacularly remote sights of the Ustyurt Plateau, I am at the far-flung Kazakhstan – Turkmenistan border. Ahead of me lies my third transit of this secretive and recalcitrant dictatorship, once more on a five-day transit visa, which restricts me to a fixed route (from which I will deviate), but is the only means of independently exploring the country. In this short time I hoped to glimpse something of the culture and traditions of the seemingly timid Turkmen people, and explore some of the myriad of historically important ruins which fill this country, poised historically on the frontier between nomadic and settled civilisations.
It’s the morning of the 23rd June 2014 and I’m first in front of the gates of the Garabogaz border crossing. I watch a teenage soldier open the first of the double gates, carefully inspect the raked dust for footprints, then sweep it into a pan and open the second gate. Getting into one of the word’s most closed countries is a lengthy and expensive process, as I have learned from my two previous visits, and it is not until 12:20 that I am free to leave, on more terrible, muddy tracks, passing a crashed MiG 15 jet at the roadside soon after leaving the border crossing. As I climb a gentle ridge, passing an abandoned police check-post, a sweeping curve of the turquoise Caspian comes into view once more, looking more like the Pacific Coast with its breaking waves bringing ashore a little mist and with it a beautifully cool, damp breeze, reducing the air temperature to just 28º C as if a giant air-conditioner had been switched on. The first point of civilisation is the bleak sodium sulphate mining town of Garabogaz, an almost apocalyptic scene of derelict-looking Soviet-era industry, rotting pipelines and partly occupied apartment buildings amid pink and brown evaporation pools. After Garabogaz, the road becomes paved once more as it passes through scrubbier territory, past the inlet of Garabogazkol, a large, hyper-saline lagoon intermittently connected to the Caspian sea. After hours of bleakness, the narrow, lumpy road suddenly transforms into a six-lane highway and leads into the port city of Türkmenbaşy, where I stop for the night.
Türkmenbaşy (named after the first president of Turkmenistan), formerly Krasnovodsk, was Imperial Russia’s point of entry into the Trans-Caspian region, railhead of the Trans-Caspian railway which ran to Bukhara, Samarkand, and later Tashkent and the Fergana Valley. It was a key staging post for Russian expansion into Central Asia, and a base in campaigns against the Khanates of Khiva and Bukhara, and against the Turkmen tribes. Today, it remains a busy port, and the freight wagons of the Trans-Caspian railway are still transported by ferry across the Caspian Sea from Baku. I’m hosted in Türkmenbaşy by Dowlet, a young Turkmen who lives with his wife in a single-storey house perched in hills overlooking the city centre. From the outside his house is plain, but inside are large rooms with little furniture, and rugs, some hand-made and very fine, covering the floor, as in Persian homes. Dowlet and I sit at a tablecloth set on the floor, his wife waiting on us and bringing us large quantities of food. After eating, as it is getting dark, Dowlet takes me out in his car for a drive to the coast, where the government has spent around a billion dollars developing the glitzy seaside resort of Awaza which is practically deserted, another example of the Turkmenistani government spending vast quantities of the country’s oil revenues on projects of no real value to the populace.
I have a quick look around Türkmenbaşy with Dowlet in the morning; the city is attractively sited on the northern edge of a rocky bay, and with the activities of a port, does not have the eerie, comatose atmosphere of most of the country’s cities. However, aside from a few old Tasrist and Soviet-era buildings, there is little to see, and so I head east into the desert, peeling off my mandated transit route on the M37 at a lonely junction, onto an empty single-track road. After around 120 kilometres I reach the village of Goshaoba, after which the road deteriorates as it enters starkly barren desert. As I begin to climb for a final time onto the Ustyurt Plateau, I see once again the familiar banded reds and greys of the plateau’s edge, until I reach an unmarked side-track which climbs to a stunning viewpoint looking back over the terrain I have just driven through, adjacent to which is a wide badland area known as Yangykala Canyon. The view over the canyon is mesmerising, with endless erosional incisions made into two long, parallel escarpments of white and brown rock, separated by a dry, meandering riverbed in older, bright red rock, giving a quite other-worldly appearance.
Sadly, the tight time constraints on my visa mean I have to tear my self away from the viewpoint and return to the main Türkmenbaşy – Ashgabat highway, though on my return journey I stop at the nearby shrine of Gozli-Ata, where the grave of the twelfth century Sufi mystic and student of Khoja Akhmet Yassawi sits in a beautifully remote desert location, surrounded by scraps of the multicoloured desert escarpments which I had just looked over at Yangykala. Around the twin-domed, modern mausoleum of Gozli-Ata himself are an array of gravestones, some familiar koytases, presumably of Kazakh origin, but also more distinctly Turkmen types, simple, carved headstones of different shapes according to different Turkmen tribes, with crude inscriptions in Arabic and later Cyrillic. Some have large stylised heads, looking very similar to the pre-Islamic balbal; others have large, stylised rams horns, but most common is the cross-like cloverleaf, belonging to the dominant Yomud Tribe. Amongst the graves are some highly esoteric offerings which hint at strong pagan influences: hairpins (an offering for an ailment of the head), stacked stones left by those giving prayers (which are turned if the prayer is answered), a profusion of teapots and even a samovar at selected graves, small baby cradles (for fertility), and an odd wooden trellis of long-dead tree trunks elevated on stones, heavily tied with votive prayer scarves, under which women squeeze themselves for good health or fertility. It’s a deeply intriguing spot and a thought-provoking glimpse into the fascinating and seemingly very private Turkmen faith.
The return journey takes me first to the junction near Goshaoba, then south through initially very desolate terrain, passing oddly lifeless villages amongst encroaching sand dunes. At one point, dunes inundate the road for several kilometres and I find myself engaging four-wheel-drive, passing a row of pylons whose power lines have been ripped off and lie flailing on the dunes. This is a pretty accurate picture of the acute and absolute neglect of rural communities by the Turkmen government. Later, passing the forlorn town of Oglanly, the road climbs to the western slopes of Great Balkan mountain, whose summit is wooded and whipped by clouds, an odd sight when compared to the absolute desolation I have driven through for much of the day. Descending a long, gentle gradient, I rejoin the M37 at Jebel, back on my transit route, stopping for the night in the next town of Balkanabat.
I’m hosted in Balkanabat by Ejesh, who lives with her husband in a modern apartment. Ejesh is very confident and communicable, and in contrast to my previous night’s stay with Dowlet in Türkmenbaşy, I find myself speaking almost exclusively to her, while her husband remains largely quiet. She gives me many insights into the shadowy spirituality of Turkmen culture, explaining what I have seen earlier in the day at Gozli-Ata’s shrine. Despite being outwardly very modern, Ejesh explains to me that there are still strong tribal customs, meaning for instance that her father-in-law may never see her face, something which I find very surprising in such an outwardly modern, post-Soviet society. Ejesh explains that she personally disapproves of such customs, but is bound by them as a Turkmen, a people who she describes as the most traditional in the Central Asian republic of the Former USSR.
After a quick look around Balkanabat in the morning I get back on the road, turning off the M37 at Gumdag, still on my dictated transit route south to the Iranian border. The road enters desert once more with low, pale-yellow sand dunes on either side, and various infrastructure and rusting detritus from the local oil industry. I stop in the village of Bugdayly for a late lunch at a cafe run by young Uzbek women, popular with friendly Turkish lorry drivers, which I soon realise doubles as a brothel. A few kilometres beyond the village, again using waypoints built up from satellite maps, I sneak off the road and onto tracks across the takir (mudflats) which seem to head for nowhere at all. Historically, this area was the Dekhistan Oasis, inhabited since the late third millennium BCE, and at the peak of its power between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. At this time, Dekhistan was part of Hyrcania, an outer satrapy of the Persian Empire, a caravan stop on the branch of the Silk Road connecting Persia to the Khorezm Oasis on the Amu Darya. Dekhistan was abandoned in the early fifteenth century for reasons that are not clear; perhaps a collapse of irrigation systems, or deforestation, and the area remains unpopulated to this day.
As I get further from the road, in the hazy distance I’m delighted to see the sentinel remains of Misrian, the long-abandoned capital of Dekhistan, around twenty kilometres away. I make my first stop at Mashat, a medieval graveyard of a few lone Turkmen graves and older, crumbling mausolea centred upon the Shir-Kebir Mosque which, dating from the ninth or tenth centuries, is the oldest extant mosque in Turkmenistan, and one of the oldest in Central Asia. After stopping to admire the beautiful floral stucco of the mosque’s triple-arched mihrab, I drive over to the ruins of Misrian, entering via a breach in the ruined city’s double defensive walls and carefully driving past pile after pile of scattered bricks towards the city’s only standing monuments. Around a central courtyard is the thirteenth century mosque of Khorezmshah Mohammed, with a collapsed outer portal still bearing beautiful turquoise Kufic lettering and, nearby, the truncated remains of a minaret. A little further away is the similarly truncated eleventh century Abu-Jafar Ahmed minaret with three beautiful bands of Arabic and striking geometric designs, and which may still be climbed for a fantastic view over the ruined city, which is a sea of collapsed masonry.
Aside from a timidly-friendly Turkmen family who briefly visit, I have Dekhistan all to myself and in the late afternoon, drive the truck into the city’s inner courtyard. Whilst not as impressive as nearby contemporaries Merv or Balkh, Misrian is somehow more atmospheric for being utterly ruined and forgotten to the outside world, and I feel deeply privileged to be here alone. As I cook and eat, and later sleep under the stars in this ancient Silk Road city, imagining the camel trains and mystics who for centuries passed through, I am once again fulfilling my dreams as a traveller.
I make my way back to the road in the morning and spend the day driving through more bleak desert, past oil pipelines and wasteland often scarred by oil production. I stop for lunch in the coastal village of Ekerem, which has a beautiful sweeping beach of grey sand and shells, leading up to a tanker terminal. From Ekerem the road runs close to the coast, though wide mud flats mean the sea is rarely in sight. Near a group of oilfields, nodding donkeys and gas flares, I pull off the road and follow dusty tracks which climb up to the flanks of the Ak Patlawuk mud volcano, a curious geological phenomenon where sediments underlying the edge of the Caspian Sea are liquefied and forced to the surface in what looks like (but is not) a fumarole. Over the years, this mud has built up into a large expanse of dessicated mud flats, centred around a small cone out of which mud gently bubbles and erupts into a pool of rather foul-looking brine.
In the evening I reach the district capital of Esenguly, the southernmost settlement along Turkmenistan’s coastline, just twelve kilometres from the Iranian border. After two travelling days in the heat and dust I am keen to have a shower, and so stop in town to find a hotel; a decision I will come to regret. Esenguly, like nearby Çekişler is a coastal settlement made up of rather attractive wooden houses, surrounded on all sides by wide shaded verandas with colourfully painted beams and window frames. I find a small and very basic local hotel in which to stay, and after the owner arrives, I am told that I am his first foreign guest. I need to register with the police, who arrive at the hotel and are very friendly, casually asking to look over my photographs. I then go our for a walk around the town, escorted by the owner. Local people are friendly but seem reserved and even suspicious of me, the product, I imagine of having perhaps never seen a foreigner in town, and having grown up in a very sensitive outer border zone of the USSR, and now of Turkmenistan, a country even more closed and fearful of the outside world. I return to the hotel contented, having seen everything I have wished to see on this brief transit of the country. I drink what will be my last beer for some time (I will enter Iran tomorrow), and am invited to dinner by the other guests of the hotel, a party headed by an ebullient Turkmen businessman who talks to me at length about his life; in short he was once a powerful figure in the Soviet and later Turkmen armies, but for reasons that he does not make clear, he has fallen from grace.
The trouble starts at around 23:00 when the police return, this time with agents from Turkmenistan’s KGB who are brutish and ill-mannered. What initially seems like a casual questioning becomes an interrogation, and my laptop, cameras and mobile phone are taken and searched; something I regard as a gross invasion of my privacy. All through the experience the officers wield their absolute power over me, and make no attempt to hide the joy it brings them. My ‘crime’ is having deviated from my transit route, and I am made to write a letter of confession. What excites them further is the fact that I have stayed with Turkmen citizens, and to my horror their numbers are taken from my phone, each receiving a call from the police. For Dowlet this amounts to nothing more than some questions, but Ejesh, whom the police imagine I have had some illicit relations with (also a crime in Turkmenistan) is harassed for days after. My photographs of Turkmenistan are copied and erased from my camera, seemingly more by their bumbling incompetence than on purpose (I later recover them from my memory card), the officers lying and telling me that they will be returned at the border the next day.
In the morning another protracted questioning begins, becoming quite ludicrous at times, though every banal and fictional answer is dutifully noted in a worn notepad. The car is searched and all my documents again examined in minute detail; at this point I realise that these small-town guys are simply wasting my time to ensure I will drive straight to the border. One dim junior is sent off to photocopy my Turkmenistan visa, but comes back having copied the Iranian visa. After tedious hours of intimidation from these incompetents, I am finally allowed to leave, and waste no time getting to the border. The road is an atrocious unsurfaced mess of hard-baked mud passing utterly bleak settlements, and I’m very happy to reach the border station in the sweltering afternoon heat. After being made to write another letter of confession (by a customs officer, whom I had run into two days earlier in the cafe-come-brothel in Bugdayly), I am finally stamped out of the country and join the line of lorries heading into Iran.
I leave Turkmenistan feeling greatly relieved not to have suffered worse from the authorities, though also must admit to myself that it is my fault for having deviated from my transit route, and not hidden the evidence of it. The police run-in has left a bitter taste after what were four wonderful days in Turkmenistan, a country I am very fond of. What is really sad however is the plight of the Turkmen people who live under the absolute power of the regime, one which squanders the country’s wealth on mindless building projects and uses it to enrich a select few, whilst the country’s infrastructure outside of the main cities simply rots away from neglect. To this day, I long to have free access to Turkmenistan’s many natural and historical attractions, but these thoughts are far in the back of my mind as I cross the small, currently dry bed of the Etrek River and enter Iran, which comparatively, feels like a free country.
The Caspian Sea is a remnant of the ancient Paratethys Ocean, from which it was isolated around five and a half million years ago. Though not technically a lake, the Caspian is the largest enclosed body of water on Earth, draining a large swathe of European Russia by means of the Volga, Europe’s largest river. On the western shore of the Caspian, the Caucasus Mountains come down to the coast, creating an area of verdant and fertile foothills. On the eastern edge of the Caspian however, lie desolate lowland areas of barren desert, today very sparsely populated. My journey through the Caspian Lowlands would take me firstly through the Kazakhstani region of Mangystau, a starkly beautiful land filled with highly venerated medieval shrines and necropoles of magnificently carved stone, testament to millennia of nomadic civilisations. Across the border to the south, in Turkmenistan, I would traverse the western edges of the Karakum Desert; today a blighted land of sand and takir (dried mud flats), but once the Persian satrapy of Dekhistan with its ancient capital Misrian, a Silk Road staging post, now a hauntingly abandoned ruin in the midst of nothingness.
Late in the afternoon of the 11th June 2014 I leave Atyrau after two days spent relaxing, registering myself with the police and stocking up on supplies for the coming weeks of desert travel. I cross the Ural River and enter Asia, where I will remain for the next five months until crossing the Bosphorous in Istanbul. It’s a relaxing drive as the sun’s rays lengthen, colouring the barren plains either side of the road. Not long after leaving the city and sprawl of industry which surrounds it, I’m disturbed when the truck’s charge warning light suddenly comes on. The cause is merely a loose connection which has lead to arcing, burning away a little insulation on the connector. After tightening the connection however, the light is still on and I initially turn around, back towards the city, but stop again and fix the problem after a little thought by replacing the voltage regulator; one of very few spare parts which I am carrying.
Continuing my journey east, I drive blissfully into the cool desert night on a perfect asphalt road, crossing into Mangystau Region, stopping after midnight around twenty-five kilometres short of Beyneu, using my GPS to find the exact same spot near the railway line where I had camped in August 2011. In the morning I pass Beyneu then turn south, climbing almost imperceptibly onto the Ustyurt Plateau, a barren upland which stretches east to the Aral Sea and south into Turkmenistan. The road alternates between perfect new asphalt and sections of horrendously rough, compressed mud where one is forced onto parallel tracks in the steppe which have been milled into very fine dust by passing lorries and which billows in great clouds across the landscape. In the early afternoon I drop off the edge of the plateau through a spectacular escarpment in the cliffs of white and chocolate-brown rock, dropping onto the Mangyshlak Peninsula. In the town of Shetpe I leave the main road and head north on tracks across the semi-desert, stopping at the beautiful, lone mountain known as Sherkala, whose banded flanks of yellow and white limestone have been eroded into deep flutes, picked out in the warm, soft glow of the afternoon sun.
After the starkly barren desert around Atyrau, the land of the Mangyshlak Peninsula is subtly greener and lightly covered with fragrant wormwood. The successive generations of nomadic tribes who have grazed these steppes have used the soft native rock to carve elaborate funerary monuments such as highly stylised steles, slab-sided sarcophagi, and large mausolea. These beautiful necropoles can be found stranded in magnificent isolation out on the steppe at places whose significance must be lost to time; the only traces of long departed nobles, warriors and sages from a culture which left no other mark on the land. Here, not far from the foot of Sherkala, I come across my first necropolis, with dozens of graves, some with a carved tombstone known as a koytas and others simply piles of lichen-covered stones. Among these are also several examples of a stele known as a kulpytas; with a rounded upper portion thought to represent a head, or perhaps the cosmos, a beautifully carved middle section, and a rectangular base carved with floral designs still found on contemporary Kazakh felt carpets, these are theorised to be more recent, Islamicised versions of the ancient Turkic balbal, the anthropomorphic stone found all across the steppes of Eurasia.
I drive into the early evening following tracks in the steppe, hugging a gentle ridge dividing two wide valleys dotted with camels and horses, backed by the spectacularly eroded edge of the Ustyurt Plateau, a truly beautiful, calm environment in which I stop to camp for the night. This is exactly the freedom I have been craving throughout the last two and a half years of living in Western Europe.
In the morning the track descends westwards into Torysh, the ‘Valley of Balls’ which is littered with large, spherical and ovoidal concretions of limestone formed in the bed of a shallow ancient sea, now cascading down the hillsides as if used in some giant’s game. As I near the shore of the Caspian, the overcast sky breaks into wet sea squalls which seem rather incongruous in this usually waterless environment, and turn the tracks into mud. Descending onto the coastal plain, I reach a small, sacred valley whose limestone walls have been eroded into honeycomb. The valley is filled with graves, some decorated with ram’s horns and a ritual fire stone known as a shirktas. As I sit in the truck waiting for a particularly strong squall to pass, I see pilgrims filing from a minibus into a modern mosque. Across this region, the age-old steppe traditions of ancestor-worship and paganism fuse with more recently introduced Islam into a culture of shrine worshipping. I walk down into the canyon and enter the centre of veneration here; a cruciform cave-mosque carved out of the native rock, with swirling reliefs of columns, walls etched with pictures of animals and Arabic script and wall-niches for candles. Dating to somewhere between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, the mosque is said to have been the residence of a healer known as Shakpak-Ata, and devoted Kazakh pilgrims come here to be in his presence, and to offer prayers asking for good health or fortune.
The following day, after spending a rainy night out on the steppe I make my way to the coast, passing the beautiful walled necropolis of Beysenbay which is particularly rich in ornately carved kulpytases and etchings of horses, hunters, camels and open hand designs on the walls of a fine, domed stone mausoleum. Then, as I drive on dusty steppe tracks I come across something quite amazing. Here, the vast grassland ecosystem of dry, powdery earth, fragrant with the scent of wormwood and animal musk, dotted with the settlements of herders and nomads, scoured with the time-worn tracks of livestock and occasional monuments of past inhabitants; this steppe which so defines the landscape and culture of Central Asia abruptly, without more than a couple of kilometres warning, drops away into the gleaming azure of the Caspian Sea, which here looks and feels very much like the ocean. I try to imagine the Mongols coming here on horseback in the thirteenth century; smelling the salt air and then seeing the land fall away into oblivion, and wonder if they thought, momentarily, that they had reached the very edge of the world.
I drop down an escarpment in the steep coastal cliffs to a local beauty spot known as Tamshaly, where water drips gently from within the layers of rock making up the plateau, forming a verdant oasis of hanging greenery and a reed-fringed pool. The beauty is however rather marred by a group of local Kazakh day-trippers who blast out music and distribute litter, so I drive down onto a beach of coarse sand, chat briefly with a local fisherman, then have a refreshing wash at the water’s edge. It’s not far from here to the westernmost tip of the Mangyshlak Peninsula, and I pass through the small port of Bautino, which has a couple of preserved examples of Tsarist-era houses, before stopping for lunch in the adjacent town of Fort Shevchenko. It was here that Russians first established a presence on the peninsula with construction of the naval stronghold of Novopetrovskoye in 1846. This remote outpost naturally became a centre of exile, and was home as such between 1850 and 1857 to Ukrainian poet and political figure Taras Shevchenko, who was imprisoned here after offending Tsar Nicholas I with a poem. His image was rehabilitated in Soviet times as that of an anti-Tsarist activist, leading to the town’s renaming to Fort Shevchenko in 1939. There’s a large bronze statue of the Ukrainian poet in a leafy park in the centre of town, and a striking realist monument to its history of incarceration, but otherwise, Fort Shevchenko still has the air of a far-flung outpost.
I drive south-east on a paved road out of Fort Shevchenko, riding roughly parallel to the barren coast towards the regional capital Aktau. As I approach the city, the traffic starts to increase and for the first time since leaving Atyrau I have the impression of entering an urban area. I stop short of the city to visit a final necropolis known as Koshkar-Ata, by far the largest I have seen. In its northern section, I see koytases and kulpytases similar to those I have seen on the steppe, as well as a distinctive tombstone carved into the shape of a ram, known as a koshkaratas, complete with carvings of a sword and axe, indicating that the interred may have been a warrior. In its southern reaches the tightly-packed graves are contrastingly modern, boxy structures which continue to spread ever further south as modern, settled Kazakhs continue the funerary tradition of their nomadic forbears.
Aktau is a modern city, founded in 1958 on this absolutely barren and waterless coastline in order to exploit nearby uranium reserves, supplied with water and electricity by a combined nuclear reactor and desalinator. With the development of Mangystau’s oil reserves, Aktau increasingly became an oil-town, and today shares in Kazakhstan’s post-independence oil boom. Compared with Atyrau, Aktau feels rather less modernised, with fewer glass-fronted oil company offices, but the streets feel friendlier and the warm, blue waters and sandy beaches of the Caspian are far nicer than Atyrau’s desolate surroundings. Indeed, the city’s centre remains very Soviet in layout, divided into micro-districts with each slightly shabby prefabricated apartment building (one of which bears a lighthouse on its roof) numbered individually and accessed by unnamed roads. I spend three full days in Aktau meeting my host Evgenia and a number of her friends, walking among the concrete monuments and mildly cosmopolitan population of a Soviet planned city, and watching Kazakh and Russian families enjoying the beach, swimming in the turquoise waters while tankers and cargo ships manoeuvre around each other a few kilometres offshore.
The time comes however to leave these urban comforts and head back into the scorching desert. I drive east out of town, through the Karagiye Depression, which reaches 134 metres below sea-level, making it the lowest point in the Former USSR, arriving in the oil town of Zhanaozen in the fearsome afternoon heat. Here I am hosted by Asset, a Kazakh environmental consultant who lives in the city with his wife and two young children. Asset and I immediately seem to bond, despite knowing limited amounts of each other’s languages. With his two sons, Asset and I pick up his friend Ghaziz and head for the coast, to a beautiful secluded bay known as Kendirli. Many families have come here to cool off after the stifling heat of the day, and as the sun slowly sinks behind the long natural headland which protects the bay, filled with young Kazakh families, I feel I am seeing a vision of the future of this prosperous young country which I have enjoyed visiting over the past seven years.
On returning, Asset’s wife has prepared a traditional meal of beshbarmak, consisting of chunks of beef and kazy (horse sausage), with potatoes, onions and hand made pasta squares which is delicious, though I am thankfully not obliged to eat any of the boiled sheep’s head, a traditional Kazakh delicacy reserved for a guest. After dinner, Asset and I head out into the warm evening and round off the evening drinking a few beers with Ghaziz. Despite having known each other only a few hours, I feel as if I’ve come upon an old friend; hospitality experiences such as these are truly one of the great joys of travelling.
I head off into the desert proper the next morning on dusty tracks, joining what is perhaps the most revered pilgrimage route in the country. I first stop at the desert shrine of Shopan-Ata, who was a disciple of the great twelfth century Turkic mystic and scholar Khoja Akhmet Yassawi, and who legend says, founded a mosque here when he came across his masters staff stuck into the desert. The shrine is centred around a simple cave-mosque, behind which lies a ritual desert trail passing various graves, ending at a large stone phallus rubbed smooth by visiting female pilgrims, blackened by the burning of rags soaked in mutton fat which are placed on its tip. Next to this is a curving branch of a long-dead tree under which women stoop, heavily tied with votive scarves. It’s quite a fascinating glimpse of what must be very ancient, and to me very esoteric traditions of the steppe, only very slightly influenced by any Islamic tradition.
Beyond the shrine complex, I join a graded track east, deeper into the desert, climbing eventually onto a large, natural ramp which gently brings me once more onto the Ustyurt Plateau, with beautiful views to the south of bright white limestone escarpments carved into the grey-brown desert plain. The track ends at the shrine complex of Beket-Ata, where numerous minibuses are parked outside a modern pilgrim centre. Beket-Ata was an eighteenth century Sufi hermit; educated in Bukhara, a veteran and hero of Kazakh battles with the Kalmyks of southern Russia, later to become a saint, soothsayer and healer. Perhaps because of his fame as a healer, Beket-Ata’s shrine is an especially popular destination of pilgrimage, and I am in the company of dozens of local visitors. The temperature is well above 40º C when I arrive and so I rest for a couple of hours in the air-conditioned pilgrim centre, located on the edge of the plateau, mustering the energy to begin my own walk to the shrine at around 16:30.
From the visitor centre, a path drops down towards the desert floor, passing a brackish holy spring which waters a small grove of saxauls in which a urial ewe is grazing. Groups of red-faced pilgrims pass me on their return journey from the shrine, often asking for water, some of them elderly and overweight women who must be at the very limits of their endurance in the terrific heat. At the cave-mausoleum itself, I join a group of Kazakhs, and together we sit in the whitewashed, almost conical main chamber. Dozens of urial horns are stuffed into an alcove in the ceiling, which has a large hole in to allow light and a little fresh air to enter. A custodian in a taqiyah (white skull-cap) gives an explanation in Kazakh, then recites a prayer in heavily accented Arabic. We then file into a second chamber, which Beket-Ata is said to have used for healing, where a time-worn stick is propped against a wall. We all circulate the chamber three times, ducking under the stick each time, then exit the mausoleum backwards, ending the ritual visit.
After walking back up to the visitor centre I rest with some of the pilgrims in the male wing of the visitor centre, and at around 19:00 we all sit down to share a communal, celebratory meal. Small plastic tablecloths are spread onto the floor, around which groups of men sit. Huge enamel bowls of broth are brought out and place on the floor between groups. A boy walks around with a ewer of water and a trough like an inverted hexagonal top-hat, and we rinse our hands. Then come enamel bowls full of rice and mutton pieces; for our group of six, a sheep’s head, some ribs, a thigh and a large lump of off-white fat. The meat and rice are fresh and excellent, and after eating we slurp at bowls of salty bullion, most welcome after the sweaty slog down to the shrine and back. When the meal is finished we wipe our greasy fingers on a rather musty rag, then listen to an extended prayer by the custodian. Although the mausoleum itself is rather plain, and the ceremony brief, the reverence of the Kazakh pilgrims, the spectacularly remote location and the ceremonial evening meal make for quite an unforgettable experience. I feel that I have witnessed, and partaken in a very ancient ritual of nomadic spiritualism, laced with paganism, ancestor worship and Islam, which has been passed through the generations within a rich oral history of memory and legends. After watching a spectacular red sunset across the desert, I retire for the night, leaving the cramped visitor centre and spending a warm night sleeping on the back of the truck, though I’m often woken by the near-continuous coming and going of pilgrim-filled minibuses throughout the night.
I leave early in the morning, backtracking a few kilometres from the shrine, then striking off the well-used pilgrim track southwards, deep into the desert. I spend the day weaving a path on rarely-used tracks which I have studied on satellite maps, orienteering between fixed waypoints, making my way towards the Ustyurt Nature Reserve. It’s a distance of around 165 kilometres to the park entrance through utterly barren terrain, throughout which I see no signs of human life apart from the desert tracks and a single, abandoned shepherd’s hut. By mid-afternoon I reach a track which seems to be regularly used, and plunge into thick, billowing bull-dust and sandy tracks as I climb onto the Ustyurt Plateau near the park entrance. The park is a restricted area, and I take a route as far as possible from the ranger’s hut in order to avoid detection, though manage to take a wrong turn which takes me further from my intended destination on very rough tracks. The outdoor temperature is around 45º C, almost 50º C in the truck, which makes getting lost on these broken-up tracks extremely frustrating. After stopping, cooling my head and back-tracking, I find my mistake at a junction at which I took the wrong fork, and rejoin the correct track, passing what looks to be a recently abandoned lorry. When the track is just a few hundred metres from my destination I take off on a bearing across the rough desert floor, climbing a gentle rise onto a promontory, then descending a steep gradient to come to a stop for the night on a small patch of almost-flat ground, overlooking the Karyn Zharyk Depression.
The view across the depression is simply awesome; one of the most impressive sights I can remember seeing for many years. Perched on the cliff-tops 180 metres above the depression, I have an expansive view of Lake Kendirlisor, which now in mid-summer is a stunning expanse of white salt, grading at its edges into brown silt. On this salt pan are a number of islands looming in the heat haze like floating icebergs but in fact remnant chunks of the Ustyurt Plateau, eroded into beautifully fluted, conical forms of multicoloured banded rock. The heat is fierce, and so I lay my Sindhi ralli (a multicoloured quilt), given to me by a holy man in southern Pakistan six years ago on the shady ground, lying half under the truck, waiting for the sun to lower towards the horizon. The location is utterly remote, and after a tough drive of 216 kilometres from Beket-Ata, during which I have not seen a single person or moving vehicle, it’s both thrilling and slightly terrifying to be here. As the evening cools slightly, there is a spectacular sunset across the depression and I lie in nothing but my underpants on the back of the truck, listening to music under a sky filled with stars, in glorious, perfect solitude. With the experiences of the last few days; staying with Asset and his family, joining the pilgrimage to Beket-Ata, and now having this truly awesome natural wonder at my feet, all to myself, I can say that I’m really living my dreams, living life as I want it to be.
In the morning, after a perfect night’s sleep, I watch the light change over the depression as the sun rises, though leave before the heat and haze become too much; whilst the evenings and nights here are spectacular, the daytime must be miserably hot and totally shadeless. It’s 161 km of desert tracks to reach Zhanaozen, much of the time in deep bull-dust, where I must either close the windows and watch the temperatures rise above fifty degrees, or allow a constant stream of dust to enter the truck. I’m very relieved to reach civilisation in the afternoon in Zhanaozen, and spend the night with Asset and his family once more.
In the morning I head south, to what feels like the utter end of Kazakhstan. Soon after passing the beach at Kendirli, the asphalt ends and the track becomes an atrocious mess of hard, pounded mud, perhaps the worst road I can remember driving on. After an easy exit from Kazakhstan at the Temir Baba border, I spend the night in no-man’s land waiting for my five-day transit visa for Turkmenistan to begin, parking the truck in the long line of Iranian trucks waiting to enter Kazakhstan. The Kazakhstani border guards here are very kind, bringing me out cold water and a meal of grilled chicken and bread. I’ve often wondered which of the five Central Asian republics of the Former USSR is my favourite, but after this latest visit, I can firmly say it is Kazakhstan.
Two and a half years have elapsed since I returned to the UK on the 1st December 2011, after my initial trip of four and a half years, and my life has changed considerably in this time. My return was rather painful, arriving at the onset of a dismal British winter, and living once again in one place; going from a life filled with adventure and new experiences, to one with seemingly none. By February 2012 however, I had secured a place on a Masters degree programme studying geophysics at Imperial College, including a full industrial scholarship. In April, in between teaching myself basic university-level mathematics, I lead a brief tour to the North Caucasus for a UK-based adventure travel company and by June 2013, returning from a month-long field trip in the mountains of Colorado, I found myself in The Hague, Netherlands making my own research project as an intern at the head office of one of the world’s largest oil companies.
As unexpected and exciting as all this was, nothing could ever really compare to the thrill and deep, spiritual fulfilment of travelling, and I ached to be back in my old lifestyle; to be free, to meet new people in faraway places and explore yet more parts of Eurasia where I had never before set foot. I was offered a job in October 2013 and gladly accepted, but deferred my start date to December 2014. The first seven months of this period were spent completely restoring the truck on a a nut-and-bolt level, emerging in June 2014 in like-new condition. Now was my chance to fill-in a few blanks which had been omitted, usually for lack of time, from the initial four and a half year Odyssey; the eastern shore of the Caspian, the mountains of Iran, the entire countries of Turkey and Armenia, the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan and the Kurdish administered regions of northern Iraq. Thus I set off on the 2nd June 2014, the very day I finished rebuilding the truck, taking the ferry from Dover, spending a couple of days with friends and family in Germany, and then heading east through Poland towards the Ukrainian border. For the next five and a half months I would be back in my old traveller’s lifestyle, though rather than having an indefinite amount of time and an uncertain future, I now had a fixed time period and a potentially long-term career to follow.
It’s late in the night on the 5th June 2014 as I cross the Bug River, leaving Poland and the EU and re-entering Ukraine at the Yahodyn border crossing where two and a half years earlier I had ended my initial trip on a cold November night. I clear Ukrainian customs in the early hours of the next morning and stop for the night after a few kilometres, glad to be on the road again and back in the Former USSR. Later, I drive east on a good, quiet road running roughly parallel to the Belarussian border, passing through the southern edge of Polesia, which presents a gently beautiful landscape of rolling arable land and patches of undisturbed forest, between villages of quaint and sometimes decorated single-storey houses and telegraph poles crowned by storks nests. The road remains tranquil until it turns south-east towards the Dnieper River and the capital, with traffic building as I approach the satellite city of Irpin’. Once I am within the city limits of Kyiv, I join the recklessly speeding local traffic along the rough but wide avenues heading directly for the centre, amongst high-end late model SUVs; matching my experience seven years ago to the day, when Kyiv was the first city which I would visit in the Former USSR.
My host in Kyiv is Peter, a New Yorker who last year was my mentor whilst working as an intern in The Hague, who has since been transferred to Kyiv where he lives with his Ukrainian wife in a luxurious top-floor apartment in the very heart of the city. Just as my own life has changed in the three years since I was last in Kyiv, so has the world around me. In February of this year Ukraine witnessed a revolution in the heart of the capital, a European-backed revolution against long-standing government corruption, which saw dozens lose their lives and the Ukrainian president flee to Russia. Peter and I walk a few blocks from his apartment to the central Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti), after which the ‘Euromaidan’ revolution was named. Although now calm and peaceful, the once beautiful square and surrounding streets are filled with tents, piles of tyres, rubble and sandbags, with much of the paving having been ripped up by protestors. Men mill around in fatigues and there is an atmosphere both of protest, celebration and tragedy, with colourful political posters and sombre, candlelit shrines with boards of photos of the deceased and disappeared.
Peter and his wife run a small art gallery in the city centre where we take in a classical music concert, before going for a short walk around town. Away from the recently troubled streets of the very centre, Kyiv is exactly as I remember it from my very first impressions of 2007; a beautiful, exuberant, hedonistic city of wealthy young men recklessly driving expensive vehicles, and of startlingly attractive women. It’s a city which likes to show its beauty and wealth without restraint, though which has just enough sophistication to prevent it feeling outrightly vulgar.
Kyiv is merely a stopping point however on my journey to the Caspian Sea, and so I must leave Peter’s good company (and comfortable apartment) and continue east. My initial plan had been to enter Russia from Luhansk, the easternmost region of Ukraine; however the events following Euromaidan have forced me to alter my itinerary. I therefore set off towards the north-east of the country, driving on a road which deteriorates soon after leaving Kyiv to the point of being thoroughly appalling as it passes through occasional, tumbledown villages and fields gone to seed. By mid-afternoon I am close to the city of Sumy, and turn south-east towards the Russian border on more terrible roads, through villages which look to be heavily depopulated. Given the state of the countryside, and the ever-growing conflict between Ukraine and Russia, I begin to wonder whether the border crossing will be open. When I arrive at the redbrick customs building in the fields beyond the village of Velyka Pysarivka, I am the only vehicle, but find the border to be fully operational and cross into Russia without issue.
In addition to a very friendly welcome by the Russian customs officers, I have an immediately positive impression of Russia whose smooth roads, neat villages and large-scale mechanised agriculture seem decades ahead of what I had driven through earlier in the day. I stop in Belgorod just long enough to find an ATM and fill the truck up with fuel, and after a side trip to buy car insurance at a larger nearby border crossing, I leave the city’s busy Saturday-night streets and head east into the night. I drive into the small hours on moonlit provincial roads which cross the gently undulating, softly carved limestone river valleys of southern Russia. After a few hours of rest I continue through the seemingly endless rolling fields of the country’s agricultural heartland, detouring around Donbas in the very east of Ukraine where, following the Russian annexation of Crimea, a nascent civil war has broken out with tacit Russian support, little more than a hundred kilometres south of the tranquil fields and small farming towns through which I am passing. By late morning I reach the M4 Highway, which connects the central cities of Russia with the Black Sea Coast and is busy with holiday traffic, then turn east on the M21 towards Volgograd. Here the landscape slowly changes, becoming drier and scrubbier, and the climate hotter. I cross the wide Don River on a high bridge near the town of Kalach on Don, and before long reach the rough suburbs of Volgograd.
I choose to pass through Volgograd and cross the Volga Dam, which feeds Europe’s largest hydroelectric station in the north of the city, then drive east and south along the Akhtuba River, a left distributary of the Volga which flows roughly parallel to it, all the way down to the Caspian Sea. Very quickly the landscape becomes the barren, dry steppe of Central Asia, but the proximity of the damp, fruit-growing strip of land between the Volga and Akhtuba gives rise to terrible swarms of biting black-fly, which aim straight for ones ears, eyes and nostrils, and make getting out of the truck a chore, spoiling what would otherwise be a very pleasant night of camping. So bad are the blackfly that I must brush my teeth in the truck, then drive for a period at full speed with the windows slightly open in order to blow them all out, then seal the windows before coming to a halt and spending an uncomfortable night in the airless and sweltering cab of the truck. The road along the Akhtuba passes several points of interest; Kapustin Yar, where the Soviets first tested rocket technology before the construction of Baikonur Cosmodrome, and the proposed sites of both Old and New Sarai, successive capitals of the Golden Horde who subjugated Russia from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries; both great cities of the medieval world, but both long-destroyed and rather enigmatically vanished, almost without trace.
After following the Akhtuba for more than four hundred kilometres, I touch the very outskirts of Astrakhan and turn east, crossing a number of minor Volga distributaries, with the very last of these, the Kigach, forming the border with Kazakhstan. The border crossing is straightforward though tedious in the sweltering heat and amid swarms of blackfly, though by early afternoon I’m on the appallingly potholed road east towards the city of Atyrau. Outside the small town of Ganyushkino I stop to watch some cows wading in a pond next to the road, lazily grazing at the thick layer of water lilies on the surface, only to attract the attention of two young Kazakh men lying on the grass nearby. One starts to shout in a way which seems somewhat aggressive, though it is clear he is extremely drunk and, as he fumbles to put on his trousers, collapses into a deep muddy puddle, much to my amusement.
Very soon after Ganyushkino the last traces of greenery disappear and I enter a true wasteland of lifeless, parched, salty plains along which a row of electricity pylons march into infinity. Nothing else breaks the monotony aside from a group of scraggly Bactrian camels, and a weather-beaten nineteenth century pyramidal border marker, but the road steadily improves and by the late afternoon I reach the unlovable city of Atyrau, poised on the Ural River on what is notionally the very edge of Europe. Four days and almost 2900 kilometres after leaving the Poland-Ukraine border, and almost 5400 kilometres from my start point in the UK one week earlier, the truck satisfyingly plastered with the crushed bodies of hundreds of blackfly, I stop with my old friend Akmaral, with whom I stayed twice in 2011.
I’ve reached my entry point into Asia; from here I will slow my pace considerably and begin to explore in detail the western shore of the Caspian, crossing the remote deserts of Mangystau and western Turkmenistan, both areas which I have long-wished to visit.
The very final stage of my four-and-a-half year Odyssey would take me across the far west of Ukraine, to the Polish border. Historically, this region has been dominated by the former powers of Lithuania, Poland and Austria, with much of the region only coming under Russian influence following the Second World War when it was formally ceded to the Soviet Union. Once a set of independent kingdoms and princely states, western Ukraine represents something of a transition zone between the steppes of Eastern Europe and the medieval cities of Central Europe. Here I would see yet another side of Ukraine; one far more westward-looking and assertive in its cultural distinction from Russia, one where Ukrainian is commonly spoken and where links with Central Europe are strong. Amid the region’s attractive old cities I would also witness the traces of a departed people; the Jews, who before the events of the twentieth century made up a sizeable proportion of the population. For me however, this final stage of less than three weeks was a farewell to the Former USSR, to my journey, and to my life as traveller, and as I passed through the regions of Podolia, Bukovina, Transcarpathia, Galicia and Volhynia I was ever conscious that this western extremity of Ukraine has historically been frontier territory, and very much a gateway to the West.
It’s a cool, damp morning on the 31st October 2011 as I drive across the Dniester River into Ukraine and the historical region of Podolia. From the border town of Mohyliv-Podilskyi I drive slowly north through backwater towns on winding and sometimes rough backroads, later turning east and reaching in the evening the attractive city of Kamianets-Podilskyi, where I am hosted by Gennadiy, a local sign-writer and his family. Kamianets-Podilskyi was first mentioned as part of Kievan Rus’, the pre-cursor state of modern Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, and was capital of Podolia from the fifteenth to twentieth centuries. Gennadiy’s apartment lies in the new city, which bears the ubiquitous architectural hallmarks of the Soviet Union, but it is in the ancient centre just a few hundred metres to the west that I realise I am somewhere quite different from the eastern and central regions of Ukraine through which I have recently passed. The old city of Kamianets-Podilskyi is situated on a bluff almost totally enclosed by a sweeping meander of the Smotrych River, which here has carved a deep, leafy gorge out of the native limestone. Here, life unfolds slowly on winding cobbled streets of pastel-coloured buildings, dotted with churches of both Orthodox and Catholic denominations, reflecting the long, historical influence of Lithuania and Poland in Podolia and indeed much of western Ukraine.
Aside from a modern bridge, the only connection between the old city and surrounding countryside is a neck of raised land, and immediately beyond this lies Kamianets-Podilskyi’s striking castle, which for centuries marked the border of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and withstood attacks from the Tatars and Ottomans, until being ceded to the Russian Empire in the eighteenth century following the second partition of Poland. Amidst the low cloud and damp, muddy Podolian countryside which lies beyond, the spectacularly sited castle paints a highly atmospheric picture of medieval Europe.
West of Kamianets-Podilskyi I meet the Dniester once more and cross briefly back into Bessarabia in the town of Khotyn which hosts another magnificent medieval castle, the last and most spectacular of a series of fortifications which have marked my journey up-river from its estuary below the windswept castle of Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi on the Black Sea. From Khotyn, the road takes me south-west, crossing the Prut River into the historical region of Bukovina and the charming provincial capital of Chernivtsi.
Like Bessarabia, Bukovina was historically part of Moldavia, but whereas Bessarabia was annexed by the Russian Empire in the eighteenth century, Bukovina became part of the Habsburg and successor Austrian empires, and only came under Russian influence after the 1940 occupation of Northern Bukovina by the Red Army. Just across the Prut River, Chernivtsi is the principal city of Northern (i.e. Ukrainian) Bukovina, and with less than fifty years of Russian domination, feels a great deal less Russified than any other part of Ukraine I have yet visited. Here I have finally entered Western Ukraine, and begin to appreciate the stark divide between the west and east of the country. Not only is the architecture of the city decidedly different, but also the people, with bloodlines mixed with Romanians or Poles. The language is also different, with the softer tones of Ukrainian being spoken on the street; a far cry from Kharkiv or Dontesk. At once Chernivtsi feels more worldly and sophisticated, more European than the cities of the east, but it is also noticeably less smart and prosperous, for while the east of Ukraine has historically been an industrial powerhouse, these western regions are by comparison an agrarian hinterland.
Known as a regional cultural and educational capital and sometimes referred to as ‘Little Vienna’ due to its Habsburg heritage, Chernivtsi lies amidst the eastern foothills of the Carpathians and is immediately attractive with its mixture of Neoclassical, Baroque and Gothic architecture. Elegant streets of nineteenth century pastel buildings with stucco facades, and numerous churches, parks and squares make for a very pleasant city to stroll in, but the city’s unexpected centrepiece is undoubtedly the huge, nineteenth century red-brick Residence of the Bukovinian and Dalmatian Metropolitans. Set on three sides of a grassy courtyard filled with box bushes and tall cypress trees, the residence building showcases a multitude of styles and architectural flourishes, such as the banded motifs of Ukrainian folk art which run across the roofs, Byzantine proportions of its integral church, and tall, stepped Romanesque entrance facades to what are now various faculty buildings of the city’s university.
What strikes me most about Chernivtsi however is its Jewish connection. In the early twentieth century, the population of the city was almost fifty percent Jewish and alongside Lviv, was one of the main Jewish cultural centres in the Pale of Settlement, a shtot (city) known as ‘Jerusalem on the Prut’. Today, scant traces of this past remain, with the Jewish population decimated by pogroms, the Holocaust and emigration following the collapse of the USSR. However, on a hill overlooking the city centre I find Chernivtsi’s Jewish cemetery, where row upon row of gravestones have recently been uncovered from the choking undergrowth in an ongoing operation. Many stones are elaborately carved works of art, testament to the former richness of Jewish culture, but aside from the caretakers wielding chainsaws and strimmers, this graveyard containing some fifty thousand interred is beautifully tranquil and almost deserted. Interestingly, many of the gravestones date from the 1970s and 80s, demonstrating that the Holocaust was not the end of Chernivtsi’s Jewish community, but rather the wane of Soviet control and rise of nationalism and anti-Semitism. Outside the cemetery stands a doleful synagogue, victim to the ravages of time with a rusted dome, peeling, damp walls and broken windows; a fitting monument to a lost and now almost enigmatic people in this surprising Habsburg city.
I leave Chernivtsi and drive north-east through open farmland to Ivano-Frankivsk, where I meet with Karolina once again. Founded in 1662 as Stanisławów, a private fortress of the Polish Potocki Family, Ivano-Frankivsk shares the Habsburg and Austrian history of Chernivtsi, though between the World Wars was part of Poland rather than Romania. With a heavier Soviet influence, Ivano-Frankivsk is a little less charming than Chernivtsi and with cold foggy weather descending upon the city, we head west into Europe’s second longest mountain chain, the Carpathians.
Shortly after turning south from the main road, we begin to climb and thankfully leave behind the fog and grey skies to emerge into radiant autumnal sunshine and gorgeous views of rolling hills, covered in primeval forests of green pines mixed with now-brown beech trees. On grassy hillsides between the stands of forest lie idyllic villages of colourful wooden houses, wicker fences and tall ricks of drying hay; a delightfully bucolic vista of pre-modern Europe. Our climb tops out at a little under one thousand metres at the Vyshkiv Pass, beyond which we descend into Transcarpathia, Ukraine’s most far-flung region.
The Outer Eastern Carpathians which we have just crossed have defined the border of the Hungarian Empire since the ninth century and Transcarpathia, or Carpathian Ruthenia, has since passed to the Habsburgs and Austria, then to Czechoslovakia between the World Wars, before incorporation into the USSR. Though Ukrainians today constitute a majority in Transcarpathia, there are sizeable minorities of Hungarians along the region’s southern border with Romania, and a number of Ukrainian ‘highlanders’; Hutsuls, Boykos and Lemkos, who are often collectively known as Rusyns, descendants of the Ruthenians.
In Mizhhirya we turn off the north-south road and climb east into the Gorgany Range and Synevyr National Park, one of the least populated areas of the Carpathians. We descend gently through very rustic villages such as Synevyr and Nehrovets, the latter of which has the fine early nineteenth century Archangel Michael Church built entirely out of wood in an architectural style characteristic of the region. We stop for the night in the large village of Kolochava, where we surprise the owners of a guesthouse by arriving so far out of season, and where we seem to be the only patrons.
The weather the following day is still perfectly clear, with crisp air and deep blue skies, and we set off early, following a stream north from the centre of the village, climbing up the curving spine of the Pyshkonya Ridge, first through dormant fields set with haystacks, then forests of spruce and beech, emerging high on the boulder-strewn ridge and spending several hours walking north, and then north-west on bare slopes of yellowing grass and occasional debris fields, reaching the 1707 metre high Nehrovets, the highest peak on the ridge. From here we have magnificent views of the rolling Carpathians which fall away into the distant haze in all directions on this beautiful day; a final glimpse of autumnal colour before the impending winter snows, and for myself a final indulgence in beautiful natural surroundings before returning to Western Europe.
It’s after dark by the time we descend from the ridge into the village of Nehrovets, and we’re grateful to hitch a lift for much of the ten kilometre walk back to the guesthouse in Kolochava, where we enjoy a good fireside meal. The following day we drive south down the Tereblya Valley, turning east at the end of the road and tracking the Tisza River which marks the Romanian border on a winding and at times quite scenic highway, looking south into the EU. Leaving the river valley, the road begins to climb, but the skies become dismal and grey once more and despite stopping for two nights in the small town of Kvasy, we decide against making any further walks in the mountains and leave the Carpathians without glimpsing Hoverla, Ukraine’s highest peak.
Descending back to the edge of Ivano-Frankivsk, we head into Galicia, a region named after the medieval city of Halych which once was its capital. Galicia (initially united with more northerly Volhynia) was the westernmost of the states to emerge from the twelfth century collapse of Kievan Rus’ and subsequently passed to the Hungarians, Poles, Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Habsburgs, Austria and, following heavy fighting in the First World War, was made part of the Second Polish Republic until the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland in 1939. Traditionally an agricultural and rather poor part of Europe, Galicia was populated mostly by Poles and Ukrainians, though like much of what was historically Poland was also a centre for European Jewry. During the twentieth century the borders and demographics of the region were brutally manipulated by vying powers, yet Galicia’s capital Lviv has somehow survived these ordeals physically unscathed and is Ukraine’s most attractive city; the cultural centre of the west of the country and a base of resurgent Ukrainian nationalism. We arrive after dark in the city, finding our way through the city’s winding old streets to our host Andriy, a native of Khust in Transcarpathia, who lives in an apartment in a nineteenth century town house rather than a typical Soviet housing block.
Lviv was founded in the twelfth century by King Daniel of Galicia and Volhynia, and was named for his son Lev who, following the destruction wrought by the Mongols in the thirteenth century, rebuilt Lviv and transferred the capital here from Halych. Under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth Lviv became a large urban centre, and despite numerous attacks by Swedes, Hungarians, Turks, Russians, Tatars and Cossacks (the latter of which were paid off to avoid capture of the city centre), the city prevailed. Under the Habsburgs and subsequent Austrian Empires, Lviv prospered and much of the city centre dates from this period, which latterly saw a flourishing of Polish, Ukrainian and Jewish culture until the Polish takeover in 1918, when Poles and Ukrainians engaged in a brief war.
The morning after our arrival, Karolina and I begin to explore Lviv, which immediately impresses me with its elegant, harmonious urban architecture. Unlike Odessa, Lviv appears to live up to its beguiling reputation and whilst Chernivtsi and Ivano-Frankivsk are rather sleepy provincial capitals, Lviv bustles with activity. While by no means overlooked by tourists, the city remains dignified and seems at present not to have submitted to the full force of mass tourism as one would find in similarly beautiful cities in Central Europe. Crossing Freedom Avenue, we lose ourselves in the streets and alleys of the old city which is centred upon the central Market Square. In the middle of this stands the Viennese Classical Ratusha or city hall, whose nineteenth century clock tower is open to visitors.
From the top of the sixty-five metre clock tower one has a spectacular view of the old city from its very heart, revealing grandiose Habsburg residences amid rows of three and four storey town houses in pale shades of peach, buff or pink and with sloping red terracotta or grey lead roofs, clustered somewhat haphazardly around small yards. For once, the Soviet urban planners have had the sensitivity to locate their comparatively graceless concrete buildings mostly in the suburbs, preserving the visual character of the city. What is perhaps most delightful are the roofs, belfries and clock towers of the various churches, cathedrals and monasteries which protrude above the roofs in all directions, giving Lviv the feel of a European Samarkand, or a miniature Jerusalem.
To the north is the distinctive white tambour and conical roof of the Armenian Cathedral, used by the Polish-Armenian community until their expulsion from Ukraine following the Soviet takeover in 1945. To the east lie several churches; the beautiful Baroque sandstone of the Dominican Church, now belonging to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church; the Dormition Church, the city’s largest Orthodox Church with its huge, square-plan Gothic Korniakt Tower; the Baroque facade of the seventeenth century Carmelite Church, sitting on an ancient mound a little beyond the centre; the distinctive Church of Poor Clares with its almost Art-Deco features and which is now a sculpture gallery, and the patinated green dome of the seventeenth century Bernadine Church and Monastery. Immediately to the south-west is the imposing Baroque of the fourteenth century Latin Cathedral belonging to the Roman Catholics, next to which is the unusual Boim Family Chapel, built in the seventeenth century by a Lviv merchant in the Italian Renaissance style, but with an unusual two-tiered carving of religious figures in blackened sandstone, rather reminiscent of an Indian temple. Due west of the square is the newly restored Jesuit Church, dating to the seventeenth century and once one of the largest churches of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and finally to the north-west the Church of the Transfiguration, neatly slotted into a city street and also now also belonging to the Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church.
After two days enjoying Lviv’s attractive streets, Karolina must return to Warsaw, and I start to look beyond Lviv’s centre and consider a rather less attractive side of the city’s history. The Polish takeover of Galicia in 1918 following the collapse of Austria-Hungary upset the balance of power in a region claimed by both Poles and Ukrainians, leading to the repression of the Ukrainian language and of Ukrainian institutions, and an increase in anti-Jewish sentiment. The Soviet occupation in 1939 saw the Poles lose their hegemonic position once again, and the move was highly unpopular in a region with no history of Russian influence, particularly given the fresh memory of Holodomor, the Soviet engineered famine which killed millions across Ukraine and southern Russia. It is perhaps not surprising then that when, as part of Operation Barbarossa, the Nazis and their Axis allies occupied Galicia in 1941, local Ukrainian nationalist militia were quick to ally themselves with the Nazis, hoping ultimately to gain an independent state, and happy to assist in the implementation of Nazi policies, taking revenge on Poles, Jews (blamed for collaborating with former Polish landlords and for Soviet mass-murders of local prisoners) and Bolsheviks. Many Jews who had recently fled the Nazis as they advanced east through Poland, into Soviet occupied Galicia now found themselves concentrated in the Lviv Ghetto.
I walk east, away from the city centre, passing Klepariv Station and walking down a wide ring-road through the city’s outer western suburbs, passing a rather grim looking modern prison compound on my right. Just beyond here lies a neglected patch of land with a lone monument consisting of a large boulder, inscribed in Ukrainian, Hebrew and English, commemorating the (up to) 200,000 Jews who perished here; for this is the site of the infamous Janowska concentration camp. As Operation Reinhard, the Nazi’s ‘final solution’ for Polish Jews was carried out, Lviv’s ghetto was dissolved, with those fit to work being incarcerated at Janowska, and those deemed unfit deported to via Klepariv Station to nearby Belzec death camp in what is now Poland. Apart from this modest rock memorial and a few bunches of plastic flowers, there is nothing to commemorate this spot, and indeed on a nearby whitewashed wall there is some crude graffiti consisting of a crossed-out Star of David and a Nazi Swastika, a worrying sign of contemporary local sentiment. Closer to the centre one finds a larger monument to the exterminated Jewish population, albeit in a small, fenced-off square next to a busy road, though it too is an occasional target for vandalism.
When the Soviets ‘liberated’ Galicia in 1945, the population was again ethnically cleansed, with over 100,000 Poles expelled to Poland and anyone whom the authorities had any suspicion of having collaborated with the Nazis shipped off to join the millions in Stalin’s Gulag system. Nevertheless, Lviv remained a major centre of the dissident movement throughout Soviet times, and today is, alongside Kyiv, the centre of the Ukrainian nationalist movement, playing a key role in modern Ukrainian politics.
Despite the grisly history, I leave Lviv after four full days of exploration with very positive impressions; perhaps a little surprised that what is just about the last city in the Former Soviet Union which I will visit on this four-and-a-half year journey, is also one of the very nicest.
From Lviv I drive east on a good, recently surfaced road which leads eventually to the capital, and encounter my first real snow of the year; beautiful in the fresh white covering which it gives to the muddy autumnal landscape, but a harbinger of a long, cold winter I am keen to escape. I pass the ancient castle of Olesko, sitting on a small hill surrounded by a snow-dusted marsh of reeds and wild grasses. A little beyond I enter a corner of Ternopil Region, part of the medieval state of Volhynia which shares much the same history as Galicia up until its incorporation into the Russian Empire in 1795. I make a stop in the small town of Pochayiv, where the muddy fields and horsecarts of rural western Ukraine are overshadowed by the huge, walled lavra (Orthodox monastic complex).
Pochayiv Lavra was first mentioned in the sixteenth century, famed for its miracle-working icon. Despite an interregnum of Greek-Catholicism before Volhynia’s transfer to the Russian Empire, the lavra has long been a spiritual centre of Orthodox Christianity in the region, and since the nineteenth century has been the western outpost of Russian Orthodoxy, resisting Soviet religious persecution to remain functioning throughout the Soviet period, and now resisting takeover claims from the Ukrainian Orthodox Patriarchate and Ukrainian Greek Catholics. In contrast to Lviv’s strongly European influenced architecture, Pochayiv is immediately recognisable as Russian Orthodox with its gleaming golden domes and distinctive three-beamed crosses, and teems with pilgrims from across the Former USSR and the Balkans, though its impressive external appearance gives way to a rather ordinary interior.
Continuing north from Pochayiv I’m taken by surprise in the nearby town of Kremenets when muddy, rural Ukraine again gives way to the beautiful, ornate Baroque Franciscan Abbey, overlooked by the remains of a medieval fortress on a craggy ridge. A little later, I make a brief stop to see Dubno’s riverside castle, then continue to my very final destination, the city of Lutsk, once capital of Volhynia. Though host to the beautiful fourteenth century Lubart’s Castle, built by a Lithuanian king, the town is otherwise rather ordinary. Damaged and heavily and depopulated by the events of the twentieth century, with its former Jewish population murdered by Nazis and Ukrainian nationalist extremists, and its Polish population either deported or expelled by the Soviets, Lutsk’s rather spread out and nondescript city streets gives one the impression that the city has never recovered. Lutsk’s Grand Synagogue, built in restrained, blocky Renaissance style has somehow managed to survive the Nazis and Soviets, a rather sorry reminder of a departed past with peeling plaster walls, now used as a sports club.
I leave Lutsk after dark, making the final journey via Kovel to the border crossing at Yahodin where, after waiting in long queues of Polish cars, I cross the Bug River in the early hours of the 18th November, entering the European Union and thus essentially ending the journey rather uneventfully, in the middle of the night, surrounded by small time traders and fuel smugglers.
I stay with Karolina for just over a week in Warsaw, after which we say a final goodbye and I continue west. I stop with family in Jena, just as I did on the outward leg of the journey, and spend a day in Brussels with Koen, a Dutchman I had met in Iran in early 2010, before catching the ferry from Dunkirk back to Dover. Here I am greeted back to the UK by wretched skies and torrential rain on the M20, but after getting slightly lost on narrow Kentish backroads, I arrive back where I started 1671 days and 155,681 kilometres earlier, at my childhood home in Hawkhurst, late in the morning of the 1st December 2011.