Following a largely restive week in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, it required a little will-power to get back on the road, and continue this first visit of mine to the country. While I had enjoyed Armenia so far, I was beginning to tire of the numerous fine, medieval stone churches, and had no appetite to be among coachloads of European tourists. I wanted something a little more unconventional and adventurous.
I would find these qualities in the more rugged south of Armenia where (after a final clutch of magnificent churches), I would visit lonely Bronze Age petroglyphs and stunning lakes high in the mountains. More interesting still however, would be my two visits to the de facto independent Nagorno Karabakh Republic, de jure an occupied swathe of south-western Azerbaijan but with a once intricate ethnic make-up more complex than I had imagined prior to visiting. Here I would see both clear evidence of long-standing Armenian occupation (in yet more striking monasteries), but also sneak into areas which historically were clearly Azerbaijani; areas never part of the Soviet-era Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Region, and whose towns and villages have been occupied and systematically destroyed by Armenian forces.
This rather sobering encounter with the long-standing conflict in the Lesser Caucasus was a clear demonstration of the deep-seated antagonism between the two communities, and would form one of my strongest impressions of the small country of Armenia, before making a final drive to the country’s southernmost tip, and crossing the Aras River back into Iran.
On the 22nd September 2014 I leave Yerevan after a very pleasant, week-long stay, and with somewhat limited enthusiasm drive east out of the city to the thirteenth century monastery of Geghard. Unlike any other Armenian monastery I have visited, Geghard is partly hewn out of the native cliff-face, and the quality of interior carving is breathtaking and to me hints at the pagan influence in Armenian Christianity. This however is tour-bus country, with elderly European tour groups, English-speaking hawkers and Russian tourists photographing each other. Armenian guides dole out their time-worn spiel, full of national pride, entrancing the diaspora Armenian tourists who relentlessly consume the culture of their ancestors. I’m just waiting for one of the guides to explain that Armenians invented fire.
Very nearby, and part of the same tourist trap is the similarly impressive Garni Temple; wholly Greco-Roman in design, though given an Armenian touch in being constructed from distinctive grey basalt. Garni, thought to date from the first century CE is the only intact Greco-Roman colonnaded structure in the Former USSR, though it was destroyed by an earthquake in the seventeenth century; what one sees today is a fine reconstruction completed during the Soviet-era. I like Garni for being different though, a refreshing encounter with a pre-Christian structure in Armenia.
It’s late afternoon when I leave Garni and I make the mistake of taking the old Yerevan ring-road, which leads through a foul, sprawling, informal rubbish dump covering a hillside beyond the eastern edge of the capital. Shortly beyond, the land has subsided so dramatically that the asphalt has broken up like pack ice; in places, islands of asphalt have totally detached from the road, and skeletons of old houses lean at impossible angles. I finally emerge somewhere near Masis onto the main Yerevan – Meghri Highway, which is being reconstructed and is heavily policed, despite the absence of any road signs. The area is heavily polluted with factories spewing smoke into the air (conveniently close to the Turkish border) and I am glad to turn off the highway after dark and stop for the night in a field just a few hundred metres short of the Aras River, which here marks the Turkish border. I enjoy a cold Kilikia beer in the truck as lightning flashes in the clouds above me. I am just below the seventeenth century monastery of Khor Virap, at the point which is as close as one can get to Mount Ararat – the national symbol of Armenia now – without leaving present-day Armenian soil.
In the morning the view is disappointing; clouds, haze and smog (from the Armenian side) mean that the huge mass of Mount Ararat sits almost invisibly across the frontier. I can’t bring myself to visit the monastery, and so resume my journey, almost as far as the border with Nakhchivan where I had been six weeks earlier. The road then leaves the Aras Valley and climbs towards the mountainous south of Armenia. Dropping into the Arpa Valley, I take a side road and climb up to Noravank Monastery. Despite having had my fill of churches I am genuinely impressed by those of Noravank which have perhaps the most dramatic location of any I have seen in Armenia, sitting below a sheer cliff of flaming red rock. The churches which make up the monastery are also highly notable, with the beautiful, fourteenth century Surb Astvatsatsin Church having an an unusual and intricate colonnaded tambour (drum) and the thirteenth century Surb Karapet Church having carvings of the Holy Mother with Child, and of God the Father, whose beard contains a small bird, and who holds the head of John the Baptist in hand, with a dove (the Holy Spirit) above it.
I proceed briefly further along the Yerevan – Meghri Highway, soon turning north towards Lake Sevan. I make another side trip to the village of Yeghegis, where there is an intriguing Jewish cemetery. Dating from the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries, very little is known of this Jewish community, and the thirty-odd gravestones, some covered in Hebrew or Aramaic script, were only uncovered in the last century.
By late afternoon I am on top of the Varedenats Pass, where the landscape once again becomes beautiful, rolling steppe of yellow grass, and where one finds the beautiful black basalt Orbelian Caravanserai, a wonderful and complete relic of the Silk Road. Inside the highly atmospheric interior are two arcades of thick stone arches where one can imagine ancient merchants bedding down with their goods, the scene dimly lit by piercing ocular skylights with decorative stone carvings.
Not far from the crest of the pass, the beautiful sapphire-blue of Lake Sevan comes into view again, perhaps my favourite sight in Armenia, and I find a nice place to camp at the lake shore with beautiful views, only slightly spoiled by the great quantities of litter left by local tourists. I look forward to the day when people who regard themselves as highly civilised can refrain from fouling their own surroundings.
The following morning I drive around the southern edge of Lake Sevan, amid wide, open farmland, backed to the south and east by mountains. I stop on a pebbly beach on the eastern edge of the lake and watch a squall come in from the now steely-blue waters, blowing leaves off the poplar trees growing on the lake shore, a sure sign of the approach of autumn. After stocking up on food and fuel in the town of Vardenis, which has something of a frontier atmosphere, I climb eastwards on a surprisingly good road towards the Sotk Pass, which marks the border of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic. When applying for my visa back in Yerevan, I had been told that it was forbidden to enter ‘The Republic’ (which is internationally unrecognised, even by Armenia) via the Sotk Pass, but I wish to try regardless. After crossing the pass, which overlooks a huge slope of rubble generated by the Sotk Gold Mine, I descend into the forested hills of Nagorno Karabakh, a dramatic change in environment from the treeless, volcanic steppe around Lake Sevan. At a check post in the Levonaget Valley I’m waved straight through and soon after turn off the road and begin climbing up the Tartar Valley, towards the town of Karvachar (Kalbajar in Azerbaijani).
Nagorno Karabakh has a convoluted and contentious history of control between Armenians (who were undoubtedly first on the scene) and Muslims, the latter becoming vassals of the Persian Empire and progenitors of modern Azerbaijan. Control switched from Persian to Russian Empires in 1820, but a century later, as the Russian Empire descended into civil war, Armenians and the newly formed Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic were at war over control of Nagorno Karabakh. With Soviet control, the conflict froze, and Stalin’s vile gerrymandering of national borders within the USSR saw the creation of the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Region as an enclave within Azerbaijan. With glasnost in the late 1980s came a softening of the iron fist of the Soviet State and the re-emergence of suppressed nationalism, and as the Soviet Union collapsed, the Nagorno Karabakh War broke out, raging on until a cease fire in 1994. The current status quo sees most of the Soviet-era Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Region under Armenian control, together with a roughly similarly-sized area of Azerbaijan which adjoins the Armenian and Iranian borders, linking much of the former enclave to Armenia as the de facto Nagorno Karabakh Republic.
This north-western part of Nagorno Karabakh is one such area of occupied Azerbaijan, and after passing the half-abandoned town of Karvachar and climbing further up the valley, I frequently see the remains of houses and small villages; the population of the area has clearly been drastically and deliberately reduced. I camp for the night near some abandoned buildings, sticking to existing vehicle tracks and not straying far from the truck in fear of landmines, though some local cows come plodding through the area in the morning, indicating that the area is most likely not mined. Climbing further, past a sulphurous fumarole, I pass a dramatic cliff of basalt columns covered in striking orange lichen, then climb on steep, narrow switchbacks to the cliff-top village of Tsar. Dozens of destroyed buildings are spread across the hillside – this must once have been a sizeable place – but today just a few buildings remain inhabited. When I ask, locals confirm that Azerbaijanis used to live here. There’s a barrier at the end of the village, but after speaking with some locals, my passport details are recorded and I’m free to proceed. My aim is to follow faint paths which I have seen on satellite maps, to the high altitude Al Lakes, then drive over the mountains back into Armenia.
As I leave the village, I see an old Azerbaijani cemetery on the grassy hills; tall stones beautifully carved with Arabic script against a stunning mountainous backdrop, which although wonderfully tranquil is equally tragic given that the community has long since fled. The track I’m on is very seldom used – little more that flattened grass – and the only vehicles I see are a group of Soviet ZiL trucks which men are filling with cut grass, in preparation for the impeding winter. After some steep climbing I reach a wide, rolling plateau at an altitude of around 2700 metres, and just over two hours after leaving Tsar I catch the first glimpse of the magnificent Al Lakes; first Little Al then Big Al Lake, with a backdrop of the volcanic highlands on the Armenian border, below which is a dark, hardened lava flow reaching to the far shore of the lakes. It’s a magnificent spot, with just a few shepherds in Soviet UAZ vans and a camp of grass-cutters in an otherwise untouched wilderness. There are no signs of any tourists or their litter, and I have the satisfaction to have visited a truly remote area which I have never read anything about, but which has merely caught my eye when perusing satellite imagery of the region.
Surveying the landscape, I see a likely-looking route over the mountains back into Armenia. Initially, I follow some very faint tracks, then must drive cautiously over the soft hills of yellow grass, crossing a small but deep and rocky stream (in which I bash the front axle of the truck) and descending on rough tracks strewn with volcanic boulders until I run into some shepherds on the Armenian side. After confirming that I am on a good path, I descend to the resort town of Jermuk, set amidst beautiful deciduous forest pocked by the first brilliant yellow and orange flashes of autumn but marred by an ugly concrete monstrosity of a Soviet hotel.
Next day, from further east along the main highway, I climb into the mountains once again, back towards the border with Nagorno Karabakh. I take a wrong turn early on, and spend a couple of hours driving aimlessly across steep hillsides, but after considerable frustration retrace my steps and find the correct path, climbing steeply towards the prominent Ughtasar Mountains. After one unnervingly steep ascent on a loose gravelly track, with hair-raising drop-offs on either side, I reach the Ughtasar Petroglyphs at 3300 metres above sea level, which once again I can savour in complete, glorious solitude. The petroglyphs are well worth the trouble taken to reach them; over a wide area, on large, smooth, naturally varnished volcanic rocks are hundreds of pictograms thought to span thousands of years. Many are of long-horned goats, but there also human figures hunting on horseback with bow and arrow, and a beautiful twin ox-plough. There are also more esoteric geometrical patterns and what may be shamanistic symbols, once again impressing me what seems to be a running theme in Bronze Age rock art spanning much of Eurasia.
I spend the night back down near the main road and the following day take in another Bronze Age site known as Zorats Karer. This however is a large complex of standing stones; some arranged in a circle, some extending in linear arms, and some toppled or seemingly randomly located. There are speculations (spurred perhaps by Armenian national pride) that this is a very ancient observatory, which don’t believe in; to me the site resembles a large burial complex, particularly given the presence of numerous cists (slab-sided burial chambers) which can be found across Eurasia, through Kazakhstan and the Altai Mountains to Mongolia. Nevertheless, it’s an impressive and thought-provoking site and I wonder if its proximity to the nearby petroglyphs of Ughtasar is pure chance, or whether there was some ritual significance connecting the two sites.
After a side trip to the impressively located, fortified Tatev Monastery, which overlooks the yawning Vorotan Valley, I return to Nagorno Karabakh, using the ‘official’ border crossing at Aghavno. The road is in near perfect condition, far better than any other I have seen in Armenia, and leads through the Lachin Corridor, another swathe of occupied Azerbaijan, crossing successive ridges and pleasant small towns and villages, before climbing into Nagorno Karabakh proper. Just after sunset I reach the capital, Stepanakert, and I meet my local contact Marut, who helps me find a homestay run by a very kind Armenian family who ply guests with excellent food and endless coffee and sweets.
I walk around Stepanakert with Marut the following day, and find it to be a likeable place; while there are still the odd signs of war, such as bullet-holed apartment buildings and fresh war cemeteries, it is largely unremarkable, with a peaceful, pleasant and safe small-town atmosphere. The town is not unlike others across the border in Armenia, if a touch more Russified, perhaps from having had a large Soviet Army presence, or for once having had a mixed Armenian and Azerbaijani population with Russian as the lingua franca. I very much enjoy the homestay, where I am joined by Will, a British photographer and Ace, the Filipino nurse with whom I had made friends back in Yerevan. One night I am awoken by an odd shaking of my bed, which I initially assume to be from a passing lorry, but soon realise is an earthquake, which turns out to be of magnitude 5.3, located 190 kilometres away in Azerbaijan proper.
Close to Stepanakert is Shushi, which in contrast feels quite tragic. Clearly once an elegant city and cultural centre, Shushi calls to mind war, dereliction, ethnic cleansing and poverty. Among many abandoned and bombarded buildings, two once beautiful mosques, the Upper and Lower Govhar Agha, stand with sentinel minarets of beautiful, red and buff brickwork, poking above the straggling ruins of various other civic and civilian buildings. Neither are of course active, and the balconies of the minarets of the latter seem now to be used only by idle teenagers. There can be almost no prospect for employment in Shushi, and it seems that much of the population is elderly and penniless. Clearly once a beautiful place, I wonder what these old folk think of the age-old conflict, and whether they were really part of it, or just swept-up in the politics of inter-ethnic hatred. One moustachioed old lady rants madly at me as I take pictures of the minarets. Two roguish old drinkers cheerfully ask me for some money for a bottle. Sitting in a pavement bar a little later on, an old man confirms that this was once a beautiful city, then draws my attention to an Arabic inscription outside one of the mosques, and tries to convince me that it is French.
The church of course, has plenty of cash, and Shushi’s Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, recently restored, is one of the largest Armenian churches in the world, here totally at odds with the city’s appearance. On the street outside, a very well turned-out, perfumed priest steps out of a brand-new, black Landcruiser. How he, a man of faith supposedly living a pious life can do so seems to embody the parasitic decadence of organised religion, and the false legitimacy of the clergy. It’s ironic that while Lenin and Stalin helped set up the tragedy which befell Nagorno Karabakh upon the collapse of the USSR, they were never actually able to rid people of the clergy.
It once again takes some effort to leave the homestay and new friends in Stepanakert, but I am excited to break away from the capital region and head east towards the front line, to areas of the republic which I had been told by the lady who issued my visa in Yerevan were ‘not open to tourists’. I drive out of Stepanakert on what would once have been the road to Baku, soon reaching the town of Askeran where the road passes straight through the breached walls of the Askeran Fortress, built by the Muslim rulers of the Karabakh Khanate during the Russo-Persian Wars of the early nineteenth century. Backtracking very briefly, I pass through the small town of Ivanyan, better known by its Azerbaijani name of Khojali and infamous for the massacre of two hundred or more Azerbaijani civilians by Armenian (and CIS) forces in 1992. Today it’s a sleepy place, but a Muslim cemetery on the edge of town (next to what seems to be an army artillery range) stands in testament to its former inhabitants.
I wind north through muddy but picturesque countryside and slowly make my way to Gandzasar Monastery, whose thirteenth century Cathedral of St John the Baptist is the finest church I see in Nagorno Karabakh and the seat of the Archbishop of the republic. With a large, beautifully carved gavit (narthex) and faceted dome on zigzagging gables, located on top of a hill, it is unmistakably Armenian and a clear demonstration of the long-standing Armenian presence in this fractious mountain land.
I cross another range of mountains north of Gandzasar, descending to the edge of the inky-blue Sarsang Reservoir, in the Tartar Valley which I had climbed out of days earlier towards Tsar and the Armenian border. I drive on the rough valley road west to see Dadivank Monastery, nestled picturesquely in deciduous forest on the mountainside. Thought to date from the ninth century, Dadivank is more Byzantine in style than other Armenian churches I have seen, with large stone walls, a terracotta-roofed chapel and thirteenth century frescoes, and is in the process of being restored following apparent damage from now-departed Azerbaijanis.
I spend the night in the hills above Sarsang Reservoir, listening to the howling of wolves, then drive in the morning through tranquil beech forest towards the front line. Martakert, the regional capital is a town which bears the scars of heavy warfare, with destroyed buildings and chewed-up roads, and is a rather ramshackle, unattractive place. From this point onwards, I suspect myself to be in a restricted area without permission, and imagine I will be ejected from the republic or arrested for being here, so I intend to keep as low a profile as possible (which in a foreign-plated, military-beige coloured vehicle is probably not very low).
I have to ask directions to find the only road heading south out of Martakert, such is the state of the city, but very soon I’m rolling down onto the plains on a road which parallels the front line at a distance of a few kilometres. Off to the east, the land recedes from the hills of Nagorno Karabakh into Azerbaijan proper, spreading in a hazy flatness towards the Caspian Sea. There’s a swathe of cultivated land along the roadside, out of range of Azerbaijani snipers, and then the trenches of the front line, looking not unlike the Somme, where soldiers have faced each other in a twenty year-old cease-fire, occasionally picking each other off. Beyond that, out of the reach of Armenian bullets, the land reverts to the rich, irrigated fields of southern Azerbaijan and, on the horizon, I can see neat, whitewashed Azerbaijani villages. It’s something of an illicit thrill to drive here.
Heading steadily south, I pass a few ruins; a collapsing memorial to the Great Patriotic War (there seems some rather idiotic irony to a memorial dedicated to an earlier war damaged and neglected due to a subsequent war), an octagonal Muslim tomb and wrecked vehicles, and then Shahbulag Castle, an eighteenth century stronghold also built by the Khans of Karabakh. The road then reaches an intersection; the asphalt veers to the right, back towards Askeran and Stepanakert, but I continue straight to the destroyed city of Ağdam. I am worried to pass a rambling army base just north of the former city, but all I get is friendly waves from bored-looking conscripts and so I continue, bearing for the twin minarets of Ağdam’s nineteenth century mosque, built by the same architect as the two Govhar Agha Mosques in Shushi. I climb the eastern minaret to the upper balcony where once the muezzin would have called the azan. I’m surrounded by quite a moving scene; an entire city systematically destroyed, building-by-building, leaving only piles of rubble, disconnected patches of asphalt and mature trees gradually taking over the old city layout. All the colour of life has left the city – aside from the red, buff and blue of the minaret’s tilework – leaving a doleful monochrome. A plaque outside the mosque simply names it a ‘Persian Mosque’.
Two gruffly friendly men join me at the top of the minaret and ask me what I’m doing, perhaps checking if I’m a journalist, but their suspicions seem soon to be allayed and conversation switches to the truck, and how much it’s worth, and if I fancy selling it. A few of the soldiers are milling around the ruins, but none approaches me. Nevertheless, I don’t stay too long. I find the road south out of town, which passes under a disused bridge for the old Stepanakert – Yevlakh railway, now devoid of rails or sleepers, and a number of other destroyed, presumably Azerbaijani villages. The road turns south east, still tracking the front line, but here there are no ploughed fields to my west, just a wasteland of tracks and destruction. Life returns at the Armenian town of Martuni, which is slightly less shabby than Martakert, but worried that I’ll be apprehended, I push on. I take a turn off the road, west into the foothills, passing through the picturesquely situated mountain town of Chartar which has an excellent new road, and is the liveliest place I have seen since leaving Stepanakert. It reminds me of an Iranian mountain town and makes me think how wonderful a place Nagorno Karabakh might have been, but for the war. I don’t stay long on the main road, but turn south again through villages to reach Amaras Monastery, located on the edge of the hills, overlooking the troubled plains.
Amaras is unprepossessing to look at, but has quite some history; said to have been founded originally in the fourth century by St Gregory the Illuminator, patron saint of the Armenian Apostolic Church. It is also said that Mesrop Mashtots established the first school to use his Armenian alphabet in Amaras. The monastery came to be abandoned and by the early eighteenth century was used as a Russian frontier post, and I assume that the formidable stone defensive walls date from this period. The monastery was reclaimed by the Church in the middle of the nineteenth century and the monastery’s sole church dates from this period, its walls now pocked with bullet marks from the recent war. I speak to a gentleman living in a home atop the monastery walls, who offers me lunch and points the way to what used to be the town of Füzuli, across the rolling fields, which he reassures me are free of land mines. It’s a nice drive across the fields, aside from the sight of yet more destroyed villages, but Füzuli has suffered the same fate as Ağdam; scorched earth and rubble, with even the cemetery appearing vandalised, the city unpopulated apart from the odd squatter or shepherd. On the southern edge of town I find a rusted gantry across the road with Soviet-era road signs, which I find highly poignant, for the destinations – Baku, Yevlakh, Ağdam, Füzuli – are either in unreachable Azerbaijan, or literally wiped off the map.
South of Füzuli, I reach an intersection where two traffic police sit in a Russian UAZ, but they pay no attention to me as I continue south towards the Iranian border. The road becomes rough as I start to climb gently into barren rolling khaki hills, and rain starts to fall gently. From Füzuli onwards, all is destroyed; systematically, house-by-house, save for the remains of old bus stops with their bright Soviet-era mosaics showing Azerbaijani folk dancers, and the occasional crumbling and pock-marked war memorial. This was very clearly part of Azerbaijan. Reaching the ruined town of Cäbrayıl, the road becomes an abandoned dual-carriageway partly overgrown with grass, and runs down to the Aras Valley and the ruined junction town of Şükürbäyli. From here, the road parallels the Aras Valley and the hills of Iran are visible to the south, shrouded in low, grey cloud. It’s getting late, and so I pull off the highway, drive through a muddy field where some farmers are just heading for home in a tractor, and camp in a clearing, hidden from the road and just a few hundred metres from the river. Even for someone who enjoys solitude and a sense of distance from crowds and cities, I feel extremely isolated and as I cook dinner and write down my impressions for the day, I watch the lights of the border posts and cars driving on the far side of the river, in Iran, where life goes on as normal.
In the morning, after some difficulty in getting the truck out of my muddy camping spot, I continue westwards and reach the destroyed town of Soltanlı; again, razed completely to the ground. I spot a crude, concrete Armenian chapel on the road out of town, with icons and candles for passing Christians, which I find almost vulgar for its false piety in this land of vicious destruction, coming from a most unchristian, visceral hatred of another race.
In the dull autumn rain, the bleakness of the landscape and utter desolation make for an almost eerie drive along the Aras Valley, as there is absolutely nobody around; not a single car on the road, no shepherd or soldier. This land has simply been taken from Azerbaijan as a buffer zone, and left to decay. But as much as I find the circumstances utterly repellent, at the same time I must admit to getting a certain thrill from being the only person in an entire landscape, effectively driving along my own road. The Akari River, a tributary of the Aras, marks a suddenly lush, green swathe of land, and here I must take a slight diversion northwards owing to a broken bridge, driving on a smaller road which weaves through the rubble and detritus of more razed villages. One such village is Mämmädbayli with the octagonal, conical-roofed, fourteenth century Mausoleum of Yahya ibn Muhammad al-Haj finally drawing the eye to something other than destruction, and harking back to a more civilised time when this was braid of the Silk Road.
Across the Akari, an Armenian population begins to slowly reappear and the land comes falteringly back to life. It’s late morning by the time I reach the town of Mijnavan (Minjavan), with a beautiful main street of mature plane trees masking the squalor and dereliction of the buildings behind. I could return to Armenia along the Aras Valley, heading straight towards Meghri and the Iranian border crossing, but chose to head north, through the ruins of Kovsakan (Zangilan) and along a valley of misty limestone cliffs. I cross back into Armenia at a point near a rubbish dump which is wholly undemarcated, and without any official presence, and slip back onto the Yerevan – Meghri Highway in the town of Syunik, as if I had never been nosing around in the forbidden frontier of Nagorno Karabakh. I stop in the damp and rather dour mountain town of Kapan to eat and change some money, then continue south through filthy mining towns and on through the beautifully forested Zangezur Mountains, which are just starting to turn to autumn colour. The road is slow, choked with Iranian trucks bringing goods into this isolated mountain country and badly driven Iranian cars weaving in and out amongst them, but it’s also highly scenic and I’m content at having seen a good swathe of Nagorno Karabakh without getting into trouble.
Meghri is the final Armenian town and is more attractive than Kapan, and the following morning I make a visit to one final Armenian church, the fifteenth century Mother of God Church which is highly distinctive, if slightly graceless from the exterior. Inside are beautiful nineteenth century murals, including a magnificent scene of the Last Judgement, with vivid depictions of the demons of hell; unlike anything else I have seen in Armenia, though not unlike those of Vank Cathedral in the Armenian district of Esfahan, Iran.
Just beyond Meghri, I’m back in the Aras Valley, directly above the river on a road running along the old Soviet border, which still has an impressive amount of barbed wire separating it from the rocky riverbank. After rather lengthy customs procedures at the Agarak crossing, involving paying yet more fees to the Armenian Customs Office, I cross the Aras and am ready to begin the next stage of the Odyssey, to Kurdistan and Northern Iraq.
I’ve greatly enjoyed my time in Armenia, exploring the modern-day heartland of an ancient people with a breathtaking richness of culture; a people whose history has often been tragic, and who have been chased into an isolated and poor mountain heartland. It has also given me a chance to see for myself the reality of Nagorno Karabakh, one which has slightly changed my opinions. Previously, I had imagined that Nagorno Karabakh was ethnically Armenian, and wrongly ceded by Stalin to Azerbaijan (with the likely intention of fomenting ethnic rivalries). The reality however is more complex; there is clear history of a long-standing Muslim presence in the region; not just on the plains, but in amongst the church-dotted highlands. I can also sympathise more with the Azerbaijani cause, for areas which seem to me to have been undeniably part of Azerbaijan have been occupied, their inhabitants chased out or worse, and all their settlements deliberately destroyed to complicate any possible return. It’s all rather tragic for, in my imagination, Nagorno Karabakh could be a fascinating cultural melting pot and an enthralling destination to freely visit. But such is the reality in the Caucasus; this complex, feuding patchwork of nations and religions, where ethnic strife is far from a modern introduction.
In this second lengthy visit to the region, I feel a sense of completion, having visited every republic both north and south of the great mountain divide. At the same time, I am sure that I will return again.
Through no deliberate design, the small, mountainous country of Armenia was the only of the Soviet Union’s fifteen component republics which I had not visited on my initial four and a half year journey. I had occasionally come across Armenian culture, usually in the form of distinctive stone churches in Iran or Turkey (and also in Syria and Israel on an earlier trip in 2006) and had even peered over into Armenia (then a wholly unknown country to me) from the ruined city of Ani in 2003, on my first trip across Asia. The country itself however remained a small blank in the map which I was keen to fill.
It was therefore with considerable anticipation that I approached Armenia, which would be the first time on this second part of the Odyssey that I would visit a country which was wholly new to me. As I drove around both Armenia and the de facto independent state of Nagorno Karabakh, I would find a landscape of mostly severe volcanic plains, quite different from the lush, bountiful, exotically beautiful valleys of Georgia, but rich with the distinctively beautiful forms of Armenian medieval church architecture. The Armenian people would also stand out, proud of their long though recently rather tragic history, dignified and deeply welcoming despite the obvious poverty which their isolated republic has fallen into since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
This first half of my journey through the Lesser Caucasus would take me on a meandering route through the north of Armenia, crossing the church-dotted centre of the Armenian Highlands, through the valleys of the far north-east and down to beautiful Lake Sevan, then across the volcanic Geghama Mountains and up Mount Aragats, modern Armenia’s highest peak. Heading south from here I would enter the real heartland of the country, the Ararat Plain, stretching along the Aras River where distant Mount Ararat hangs beyond the border in the haze above both the city of Vagharshapat, seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and the nearby modern capital Yerevan where I would break my journey.
I enter Armenia on the 4th September 2014, crossing from Georgia at the village of Gogavan late in the afternoon and soon pulling off the road to camp in a field, watching a storm descend from the mountains off to the east. After at least eight years of having the intention to visit Armenia, I am here, and the view in front of me is much as I had imagined to country to look, based mostly upon my first glimpse from across the Turkish border more than eleven years ago; attractive, rolling steppe and soft, low mountains which now fade into the dark, back-lit storm clouds.
In the morning, after a few errands in the small town of Tashir, I head east across the rolling upland which I had looked out upon last night, crossing a low pass and slowly descending past isolated villages of pink tuff houses, crossing the main road to Gyumri and joining the Akhurian River which here runs parallel to the Turkish border. Driving south on rough, decayed Soviet-era roads I eventually reach the beautiful Marmashen Monastery, on a grassy riverbank of the Akhurian, surrounded by fruit trees. Built of orange tuff, the monastery is centred on the beautiful eleventh century Katoghike (Holy Mother of God) Church, with a characteristically Armenian faceted umbrella roof, and tall niches on its external walls; contemporaneous with the churches of Ani but in far better condition; particularly pleasing to see given the neglected state of Ani’s buildings.
From the monastery it’s a very short drive south to reach the rubble-strewn northern suburbs of Gyumri, Armenia’s second city, where I pass a mixture of bulldozed city blocks, abandoned, half-built apartment buildings and various barracks making up a large Russian military presence, with each of these being symbolic of Armenia’s turbulent recent history.
The 1988 Spitak Earthquake had its epicentre just thirty five kilometres from Gyumri, killed between twenty five and fifty thousand people and came at a time when Gorbachev’s reform in the Soviet Union had lead to a greater expression of nationalism. This freedom however also allowed simmering ethnic conflicts to erupt, which in the South Caucasus republics lead to an outburst of repressed tension and conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in both republics. Internally displaced people had arrived in Armenia at the time of the earthquake, which in addition to the low-quality Brezhnev-era apartment blocks caused a huge death toll from the magnitude seven earthquake.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 spelled economic chaos for Armenia (and indeed every part of the Former USSR), but was accompanied by the outbreak of full-blown conflict in the Nagorno Karabakh War, which raged until 1993 and saw Armenia and Azerbaijan fighting over the historically Armenian region of Nagorno Karabakh, which was ceded by Stalin to Azerbaijan in 1928. The conflict, in a wider sense, can be seen as part of Russia’s age-old antagonism with the Turks and, with Russia siding with Armenia, gave ample opportunity for Russia to retain a large military presence in this lost territory, strengthening its very sensitive former border with NATO and retaining a toe-hold in the South Caucasus, an area always coveted by the Turks.
Gyumri’s name may be of Urartian origin, but the city is relatively modern and reminds me very strongly of Kars in neighbouring Turkey, with turn-of-the-century houses of black tuff, a feeling of decline and shabbiness, but a pleasant atmosphere nevertheless. Gyumri must once have been a very attractive city, in its former incarnations as Alexandropol in the nineteenth century and Leninakan in the twentieth, but the earthquake and general poverty and decline have all clearly taken their toll.
I leave Gyumri in the early evening through scruffy suburbs of rusting industry, joining the Akhurian River which now marks the sealed border with Turkey. Once out of the city, I am back in the familiar rolling steppes on which the ancient Armenian capital of Ani is located, just across the river. The border region itself has the unmistakable signs of having been one of the sensitive outer borders of the USSR, with T-shaped barbed wire fences, multiple power and telegraph lines, an anomalously wide road which could double as a runway and watchtowers overlooking the gorge of the Akhurian. Ironically, the point on the border exactly opposite Ani is still occupied by the Russian Army and off limits to casual visitors.
There is however a beautiful monument of the Silk Road, a branch of which would have passed through Ani and into modern Armenia, in the form of the eleventh to twelfth century Jrapi Caravanserai; a long, low building missing much of its roof, revealing attractive, heavy arches of pink and black tuff. A little further south, in the pumice-mining village of Anipemza one finds the remains of the huge, fourth to sixth century Yererouk Basilica, one of the earliest extant examples of Armenian architecture. Yererouk is of importance not just for its great age and size, but also for the Greco-Roman influence which can be seen in the five-stepped plinth on which it sits, and the columns and pediments of its entrance portals, giving an insight into the form of early eastern Christian architecture.
I leave the Turkish border area, heading east from the main road, passing through the village of Sarakap on a rough track into the hills, then through Karaberd which appears to be a semi-deserted farming village, dropping into the small town of Maralik on whose eastern edge is a huge, Soviet-era cotton-spinning plant, located improbably far from the source of cotton in Central Asia and operating at a fraction of capacity. In the next small town of Artik, I stop to visit the small, almost pencil-like seventh century Lmbatavank Monastery, which sits overlooking the town on a hillside strewn with broken carved tuff coffins. A simple cross-church, Lmbatavank nevertheless shows the distinctively Armenian dome and slender form, marking a departure from the earliest Greco-Roman and Byzantine influenced churches.
In the nearby village of Harich, I drive up between simple farmhouses to the striking Harichavank Monastery whose main building is an amalgamation of seventh and thirteenth century churches, the latter having a very fine sixteen-sided tambour and faceted umbrella dome, representative of a golden age of monastery building in Armenia. The monastery has a nice, lively atmosphere with a large family group celebrating a baptism service, picnicking in the monastery’s grassy grounds. Walking inside, I catch the end of the service, which seems to be a joyful event with none of the stiffness I had noticed in Georgian church services.
My route then takes me east along the northern slopes of Mount Aragats, Armenia’s highest peak, turning north again and crossing a low mountain range. I stop for a late lunch in the completely rebuilt town of Spitak, close to the epicentre of the 1988 earthquake, before continuing east towards Vanadzor. The road enters the Pambak Valley which is filled with a concentration of moribund, rusting, Soviet-era industry which seems totally at odds with the rugged mountains and small villages which typify the area. Before reaching the city proper I turn north, climbing and entering a tunnel under the Pushkin Pass, so named as it was here that Pushkin encountered the body of Griboyedov, killed in Persia in 1829, being transported back to Russia. Turning east again I drive through more small farming villages, and camp for the night on a grassy hillside overlooking the village of Kurtan, which sits on black cliffs overlooking the Dzoraget Valley.
In the morning I enter the Dzoraget Valley, passing the partially restored Monastery of Hnevank which is picturesquely sited on a forested hill, and descending on a rough, washed-out road to meet the Debed River. The Canyon of the Debed is a major transport artery northwards towards Tbilisi, and is also the site of some of the country’s finest monasteries. The valley’s largest town is Alaverdi, attractively set in a sweeping curve of the canyon and filled with neat rows of Soviet-era pink tuff apartment buildings, but centred around a large copper smelting plant which emits a continuous haze of pollution into the hills above the town. The town centre is like a living scene from an old Soviet photograph, with rows of tatty PAZ buses, rusting cable cars to bring workers down from the in the hills above, and a univermag; or state-run department store; all seemingly unchanged since the 1980s. Overlooking Alaverdi from the south side of the river one finds Sanahin Monastery, centred upon the tenth century Mother of God Church with a large, beautiful, conical dome and a gavit (Armenian form of narthex) containing fine stone carvings and distinctive khachkars (intricately carved memorial stele).
Equally interesting are the lives of two brothers who hail from the small village of Sanahin; Anastas and Artem Mikoyan. Anastas, the older of the two was a Bolshevik who survived the purges of the pre-war years, outlasting Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev to become the longest serving member of the Politburo. Artem was behind some of the Soviet Union’s most successful early jet fighters, and a mothballed MiG-21 sits as monument outside the Mikoyan Museum.
Beyond Alaverdi, heading once more east, I make two side trips; first to Haghpat Monastery, set on a grassy hillside and similar in age and style to Sanahin with very finely carved khachkars but also with a distinctive thirteenth century bell tower. The second is Akhtala Monastery, situated within the ruins of a tenth century fortress overlooking the road as it begins to loop northwards towards the Georgian border. Akhtala’s Mother of God Church, which has lost its dome, is a thirteenth century basilica and was in fact built as a Georgian church. I speak to a nearby shopkeeper who is also the key-holder to the church, and he admits me into the interior where magnificent frescoes cover many of the interior walls; most impressively in the apse where a defaced Virgin Mary sits enthroned above rows of saints.
Beyond Akhtala the Debed Valley opens up as it drops towards the lowest point in Armenia, and when the river swings westwards to demarcate the Georgian border, I continue eastwards towards the border with Azerbaijan. The road turns south once more, crossing successive ridges until it pulls exactly level with the de jure border. Although the border here is not technically disputed, since the Nagorno Karabakh War, its various exclaves and salients have been smoothed somewhat, with each country (though more so Armenia) occupying territory formally belonging to the other.
I stop on the edge of the village of Voskepar where the beautiful seventh century Church of Saint Sarkis sits exactly on the border line. Immediately beyond, in Azerbaijani territory are the ruins of the village of Aşağı Askipara, destroyed by Armenian forces in 1989 and occupied since 1992. It’s a sobering sight, with the ruins of civilian homes dotted on a scorched hillside beyond the intact church; a graphic reminder of the intensity of hatred between ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Shortly after there are glimpses of views into Azerbaijani territory, where Mount Göyazan, a striking rock monolith, sits beyond the blue waters of a reservoir, before the road passes the occupied Azerbaijani exclave of Barkhudarly. I leave the main road here, winding into the hills above the village of Achajur, entering beautiful forest and camping under a full moon in a field next to the Monastery of Makaravank, which seems somehow remote from the horrors of the front-line.
In addition to its beautifully serene location, the tenth-to-thirteenth buildings which make up Makaravank Monastery have some of the finest stonework in Armenia, and are all executed in pink tuff or andesite. The main, early thirteenth century Mother of God Church has an altar carved with geometrical and floral patterns very similar to those seen in Persian mosques and mausoleums, and an exterior whose smooth pink stone is delicately carved into window niches, blind arches around a circular tambour, and fine decorative pieces such as the sundial on the southern wall.
Rejoining the main road heading southwards and turning off at the edge of the town of Ijevan, I climb into the hills and park the truck at the edge of a holiday resort which marks the end of the track. I walk into thick, beautiful woodland of oak and hornbeam, dropping after some time into the gorge of the Sarnajur River, which has been carved out of the native limestone. Here one finds a series of natural caves, said to have been inhabited in ancient times and a place of refuge during the Mongol invasions. One of these, known as the Anapat Cave, is richly carved; most strikingly with a large mask-like face which looks almost pre-Columbian American in style, with six human figures standing next to it. Crosses are found carved elsewhere in the cave, but the mysterious portraits are allegedly pre-Christian.
Some distance south of Ijevan, I leave the main highway, which leads to the capital, and turn eastwards, climbing steadily along the beautiful Getik Valley, then south across rolling, treeless grassy hills, finally dropping down in the beautiful late afternoon light to the shores of Lake Sevan. At 1900 metres elevation, Sevan is the highest of three large alpine lakes in the region (Van and Urmia being the others) and its dark blue waters, ringed by mountains, are spectacularly beautiful. I drive a little down the coast, looking for a campsite until I spot a distant promontory. After driving down a dusty track, I have to negotiate a ploughed field, then tractor up a steep grassy hillside in low-gear, but the truck reaches the top without hesitation and I am rewarded with a glorious, solitary campsite above the lake, with panoramic, 270 degree views across its shimmering cerulean waters towards the ridges of the Geghama Mountains to the west. Cooking dinner whilst watching the sun set, I am once again living my dream, using the capabilities of the truck which I have recently spent so much time and effort in restoring.
After a beautiful night sleeping under the stars, I drop back down to the lake, and after a refreshing dip in the water, drive north along the attractive north-eastern shore, which is lined by rows of pines on sandy beaches from where fishermen launch small boats. Rounding the northern tip of the lake, the road leads to the town of Sevan where I stop at the Monastery of Sevanavank. In contrast to my tranquil overnight stop, the monastery is crawling with tourists, trinket sellers, hawkers and beggars. The smell of greasy food hangs in the air and cheap Russian pop music can be heard over the sounds of jet skis on the lake below. It’s rather far removed from the dignified monasteries hidden out in the villages; all the more ironic given that Sevanavank is one of Armenia’s few still active monasteries.
Escaping the tourist circus, I continue down the western shore of the lake which is far less attractive than the east coast with a scrubby, low-lying littoral. I stop at the Monastery of Hayravank, whose interior of orange and black tuff stones is dimly lit by a skylight in the dome of the main twelfth century church, and where I witness a family sacrificing a chicken just outside. Further south I stop at the medieval cemetery of Noratus, where dozens of beautifully carved khachkars and tombstones, some engraved with the objects and activities of the deceased who are interred below, lie in glorious isolation and mostly coloured bright orange by the growth of lichen.
I wish to make my way westwards via the Geghama Mountains which separate Lake Sevan from the central part of the country, and so drive from Noratus up into the foothills, to the village of Tsaghkashen. I stop to ask directions from a house in the village, and as well as pointing out the path ahead, the family fill my bottles with drinking water and hand me a sheaf of fresh lavash; paper-thin Armenian bread, fresh from the oven. A track leads up and out of the village, into grassy hills filled with the summer camps of cow and sheep herders. I stop frequently to ask directions, at one point being invited for a cup of sweet black coffee from by a mother and son who are staying in a wagon high in the hills. The track as such soon disappears however, and I am left crawling through deep ruts and over rocks, and it’s after sunset by the time I finally find a track which heads high into the mountains. I follow the track carefully in the dark until it levels out at just over three thousand metres, then stop and camp for the night.
I wake after a cold but pleasant night on a beautiful, grassy, volcanic plateau, with several soft, ancient cinder cones to the west, whose dark red rocks are in places delicately shaded by green grass. The track ahead soon disappears again, so I climb a ridge on foot and plan my way forward through fields of boulders to the blue waters of nearby Lake Akna, where I hope to find another track running south-westwards to the village of Geghard. Despite crossing trackless terrain, the drive is straightforward but after considerable searching in the vicinity of the lake, I see that there is only one track, leading westwards towards the provincial capital of Abovyan. Descending the rough, rocky track, I pass a string of villages, then drive through Abovyan, by-passing the northern edges of Yerevan. The road runs along the southern edge of Mount Aragats, through a landscape which reminds me of southern Crete, with orchards and fields of parched yellow grass overlooked by volcanic peaks. In the city of Ashtarak I turn north, then take a side road which joins another road winding up the slopes of Aragats, built to service the Aragats Cosmic Ray Research Station, which sits at 3200 metres under the mountain’s southern summit. Reaching the end of the road, I turn and drive a little further beyond the buildings onto a steep hillside and find a place to stop for the night.
In the morning I leave the truck on the mountainside and walk up to the southern summit which at 3888 metres altitude is the lowest and also most accessible of the mountain’s four summits. Ever visible, off to the south are the two peaks of Greater and Lesser Ararat, respectively eighty eight and ninety six kilometres away, in Turkey. The two peaks of this highly prominent, dormant volcano are deeply ingrained in the Armenian soul. For much of history they were the symbol of Armenia (they are even pictured in profile on the entry stamp to Armenia made in my passport), yet for generations they have hovered in the Armenian consciousness as a painful reminder of their tragic history, just as they now hover mirage-like in the haze, tantalisingly out of reach across a sealed border. In less than two hours I am on top of the south summit, looking across a yawning caldera of craggy, beige and chocolate-brown rock, which I have all to myself until the arrival of a somewhat elderly German tour group.
After a lengthy descent, the road from Aragats leads directly to the main Yerevan – Gyumri Highway where I turn west, driving around the southern edge of the volcano towards the Turkish border. I drive as far as Mastara to see the seventh century Church of Saint Hovanes, which has never been significantly renovated and whose bulky, squat dimensions remind me of later Mongol and Seljuk architecture in Persia and Turkey. Grass grows over its broad octagonal dome, echoing its slightly forlorn location in a quiet village, set well back from the highway. I double back for a short way from Mastara, turning south and passing through Talin and the stone fortress village of Dashtadem, leaving the main road and stopping for the night on a rock-strewn volcanic terrace. In this very picturesque spot, I am overlooking the small, restored but unused seventh century Saint Christopher Church which sits on the edge of the ancient lava flows of Aragats. Beyond, to the south, the glacier on the peak of Mount Ararat is just visible through the interminable haze, gleaming in the last of the evening light.
Leaving my campsite after a relatively warm but windy night, I descend the volcanic hills and reach the fertile Ararat Plain, which constitutes something of a heartland of Armenia. I drive on almost empty roads to the Turkish border, climbing a ridge overlooking the red-orange landscape where the Aras and the Akhurian meet. I have a good view up the Aras Valley into Turkey, looking at a road I had hitch-hiked along more than eleven years ago. My reason to come here is that the two small villages on the border, Yervandashat and nearby Bagaran have historically both been capitals of Armenia, and I intend to have a look for any interesting remains. Dropping into Yervandashat, I get the impression that it’s unusual for a foreigner to be seen here and I am soon stopped by a young man in an official-looking car. My fears that I have strayed into a restricted border zone soon evaporate however as I am invited into the home of the mayor, whose nephew and very attractive niece both speak English, and explain to me whilst plying me with coffee and sweet slices of watermelon that nothing survives from this history, though they obviously flattered that I take an interest in it. Whilst Armenians may in some ways be regarded as European, their deep, intrinsic hospitality is undoubtedly Asian in its frankness.
I drive west out of Yervandashat passing the abandoned spur of a highway which in better times would lead to a border crossing with Turkey. Soon villages start to appear more frequently as I enter the irrigated lowlands which spread all the way to the capital. I stop at the Sardarapat Memorial, a striking fusion of Armenian red tuff and Soviet brutalist styles with winged oxen and a thirty-five metre bell tower inspired by medieval Armenian memorial stelae. The monument was constructed in 1968 on the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Sardarapat, which saw scant Armenian forces fight off the Ottomans, who in May 1918 were sweeping towards Yerevan following the withdrawal of Bolshevik forces from the region. Given that this was just three years after the Armenian Genocide, when Armenians had been effectively exterminated from many of their ancestral lands, a victory here for the Turks could have put an end to the Armenian state altogether, and thus the victorious battle is commemorated as having saved Armenia from being relegated to history books.
From the monument I drive through the shabby regional capital Armavir, continuing east past Metsamor with its elderly Soviet nuclear power station, and stop in the city of Vagharshapat. Here I am hosted by Karine, who lives in a terraced house with a garden on the northern edge of the city, with her father, sister and niece. Vagharshapat is colloquially known as Etchmiadzin as it is home to the Mother Sea of Holy Etchmiadzin, seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The Church is very much central to the Armenian identity; marking Armenians out as one of the oldest Christian communities. It also marks Armenia as the oldest Christian country, with Christianity having been proclaimed the state religion in the fourth century, with roots claimed to go back to first century apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus (Jude).
Karine, who works in the city as a tour guide, takes me to see the Etchmiadzin Cathedral, allegedly dating from the early fourth century, which would make it the world’s oldest cathedral. Having often been damaged and rebuilt however, the earliest parts of the structure now date from the fifth century, and from the exterior the undeniably beautiful stonework represents a fusion of Armenian styles from throughout the ages. Inside, the cathedral is beautifully decorated with seventeenth and eighteenth century frescoes and houses a museum, though I must admit to being more impressed by the stunningly beautiful girls staffing it, rather than by any of the aged trinkets or robes which Armenian visitors regard with great veneration.
More interesting to me is the nearby seventh century Saint Hripsime Church, an elegant cross church which vies with Georgia’s Jvari Monastery as the archetype for this uniquely Caucasian evolution of Byzantine design. Karine and I enter whilst a service is going on; a robed priest is giving a sermon whilst an acolyte swings a thurible, filling the air of the church’s brooding stone interior with fragrant incense. Once again I notice a rather light-hearted air in the church, with the priest and congregation laughing as a particularly dense billow of smoke engulfs the priest, momentarily interrupting him.
In the evening Karine and I drive out to the ruins of the seventh century Cathedral of Zvartnots, whose original form is unknown, beyond the ground floor of a tetraconch surrounded by a thirty-two sided gallery, which would have looked circular. Some historians reconstruct it with three concentric tiers, like a miniature Tower of Babel, though this would have made it one of the most technologically advanced structures of its day, and might be aggrandised by the Armenian’s great pride in their own history. Whatever the reality, the rotunda of partially intact arcades on Greco-Roman pillars are quite a doleful sight as they catch the last rays of red sunlight lancing through the stormy grey sky.
After two nights in Vagharshapat I say goodbye to Karine, thankful both for her hospitality and her kindness in showing me around Armenia’s holiest city. It’s just fifteen kilometres to the outskirts of Yerevan, the capital, and I drive immediately to the northern edge of the city to visit the Iranian Embassy and the nearby ‘Permanent Representation’ of the internationally unrecognised Nagorno Karabakh Republic. With visa application forms collected, I drive down into the city centre and reach a backpacker hostel where I will base myself for the next week, taking the first real rest since leaving the UK more than three months ago.
My first impressions of Yerevan are of a being a strongly Soviet city, but with distinctively Armenian architectural flourishes such as the use of pink and black tuff as in the provinces. Indeed, Yerevan expanded very rapidly in Soviet times from a provincial town of the Russian Empire to the capital of a republic. Since independence the capital has seen a small decline in population due mostly to economic migration, but also the outflow of ethnic minorities such as Russians and Azerbaijanis. Nevertheless, the city remains home to just over a third of the country’s population and with an influx of remittances from the large and often wealthy Armenian diaspora, the city contrasts starkly with the shabby provincial towns and impoverished villages. Yerevan lacks the raffish charm of Tbilisi and is rarely particularly scenic, but is feels suave, confident, prosperous and happy.
I start my exploration in the city centre, in Republic Square, which is a large, elegant, yellow tuff piece of Soviet Neoclassicism. Here one sees the usual post-Soviet nouveau riche in blacked-out SUVs; senior civil servants and businessmen milling around the central government offices. Walking generally south, I pass through some streets of terraced, late nineteenth century stone houses, then come to a large junction where the architecture is decidedly Soviet. Crossing the road, I enter the pleasant ‘Green Belt’, a strip of urban park which surrounds the eastern half of the circular city centre. Along its pathways of slightly crooked concrete slabs, mostly elderly people are packed on benches sitting, talking and reading newspapers under tall plane trees in what remains an unspoiled piece of Soviet urban planning. I walk much of the length of the park, before descending into the city’s metro system. The Soviet-era metro has a distinct feeling of under-use, with trains far shorter than those which the stations were designed for. Some of the stations are quite elaborately decorated however, particularly the Sasuntsi Davit Station, which has wall sculptures of orange tuff from Armenian folklore. I ride the metro to its southerly terminus, then walk out of the station to find scruffy, sprawling suburbs and plenty of derelict industry, but by chance happen to catch a pair of Russian MiG 29s from the nearby military airbase making manoeuvres directly overhead; a reminder that I am less than fifteen kilometres from the Turkish border, one Russia regards as its own border with NATO.
On another day, I start in the north of the centre at Freedom Square, walking north and climbing up the Yerevan Cascade; a giant stairway with intermediate tiers of carved stonework, an unusual fusion of Soviet Socio-realism and traditional Armenian styles. The top of the Cascade appears unfinished, but after a slight diversion around a derelict building site, one reaches a viewing gallery overlooking the city centre, though Ararat remains illusive in the late-summer haze of dust and pollution. Here a lonely concrete obelisk commemorates fifty years of Soviet Armenia, and steps lead further up to Victory Park and a statue of ‘Mother Armenia’ on a towering concrete plinth housing a museum of the Great Patriotic War; all very much Soviet monuments to a past which I imagine is becoming ever less important in independent Armenia.
The city has a number of museums; sadly the Museum of the Armenian Genocide is closed in preparation for next year’s centenary, but I spend a good few hours in the National Gallery which houses a mixture of Russian, European and Armenian paintings. More interesting however is the Urartian site of Erebuni in the far south of the city. Founded in 728 BCE, Erebuni Fortress, the namesake of modern Yerevan, was an important Urartian city and today houses an excellent museum of Armenian history. The Urartians, a regional civilisation who traded with the Elamites and Ancient Greeks, are regarded by Armenians as being their cultural forebears, with many Armenian legends having apparently Urartian origins. Certainly, the Urartians’ great mastery of stonework seems to have been inherited by the Armenians. Climbing the hill behind the museum are the modest remains of Erebuni, with a few ruined column bases and some Urartian cuneiform inscriptions which an Italian archaeologist points out to me. One last museum I visit is the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts at Matenadaran; a repository of beautiful illuminated manuscripts and a celebration of the Armenian alphabet, the latter of which has been pivotal in the survival of the cultural identity of a people who usually lived as a minority, yet who resisted complete assimilation into the empires of the Persians, Turks or Russians.
Aside from the city’s obvious attractions, I enjoy my time in the hostel meeting various travellers who pass through, one of the highlights of extended overland travel. Armenia is the nearest ‘free’ country which Iranians can visit visa free, and there are a remarkable number of young Iranian men indulging in alcohol and other delights which the city has to offer, often to excess. I meet Sebastian, a Swedish engineer whom I met in Samarkand in July 2011 and who is by chance spending a weekend in the city. I also befriend Ace, a young Filipino nurse living in the UAE who I will later meet again in Karabakh. Thus I spend a week in Yerevan exploring, relaxing, drinking beer and enjoying the company of fellow travellers.
This first part of my journey through Armenia has shown me many of the country’s highlights; its greatest pieces of architecture, largest cities, highest mountain and its natural jewel, Lake Sevan. The second half of my journey through the Lesser Caucasus would take me to the more rugged south, with two separate journeys into the de facto independent Nagorno Karabakh Republic, and a final drive down the spine of the country to the Iranian frontier.
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 may 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.