Stage 19 – Azerbaijan, Georgia & Abkhazia: The South Caucasus
The Caucasus Mountains stretch from the Caspian Sea in the east to the Black Sea in the west, and mark the notional geographical border between Asia to the south and Europe to the the north. The term ‘east meets west’ is used far too often, but in the string of republics which lie on either side of this divide, the largely Muslim cultures of the east and Christian cultures of the west lie (often uneasily) side-by-side. The Caucasus are a patchwork of nationalities with a long history of feuds, internecine fighting and politically charged inter-ethnic hatred. For much of the twentieth century, the Caucasus lay almost entirely within the borders of the USSR, but as the huge empire began to topple in the late 1980s, numerous long-standing tensions resurfaced in a series of bloody wars, leaving wounds which remain fresh today. In this relatively small region are dozens of nations, and a complex jigsaw of borders, enclaves, exclaves, autonomous republics and no less than three de facto independent breakaway states.
It’s the 31st March 2010, and I enter Azerbaijan on a rainy afternoon, at the small cross-border town of Astara. I have a five-day transit visa, but strict vehicle import rules mean that the truck may only remain in the country for 72 hours. There’s a steady rain as I leave the border crossing and head north towards the capital. The low-lying ground along the shore of the Caspian is verdantly green and alive with croaking frogs, whilst my surroundings bear all the familiar touches of the former USSR; small houses with rustic gardens, shops with hand-painted signs, old Kamaz trucks, Ikarus buses, Soviet road-signs, patchy asphalt roads and plenty of nasty traffic police. Whilst being reassuringly Soviet, it does not appear on first impression to be as Russified as most parts of the former USSR.
The history of Azerbaijan is tied very much to that of Persia, though by the eighteenth century self-ruling khanates (tribal chiefdoms) had emerged, and in the nineteenth century the area formally switched from the Persian to the Russian Empire. Although the Azerbaijanis speak a language quite similar to modern Turkish, they are a mixture of Caucasian and Iranian people, further mixed with later Turkic migrants from the time of the Mongol Empire. While culturally strongly Turkic, the centuries of Persian rule persists in their adherence to Shi’ite Islam. Azerbaijan gained brief independence in the turmoil which followed the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, but in less than two years was absorbed into the USSR. Lasting independence came once more in 1991, and the country (or rather a small elite of the country) has since quietly prospered with the revenue of its considerable hydrocarbon wealth. A father-to-son dictatorship, Azerbaijan has done noticeably less than neighbours Georgia and Armenia open up to foreign visitors, and the country is deemed to be highly corrupt, even by regional standards.
It’s dark and pouring with rain by the time I reach the capital Baku, where I am hosted by Kyle, an American Peace Corps volunteer who has opted to stay on in the country. Baku is the world’s lowest capital city, located on the oil-rich Absheron Peninsula 21 metres below sea level, and is probably Eurasia’s oldest oil boom-town. Even during Soviet times, Baku was known as a prosperous city, something which becomes apparent as I explore the following day. The city ‘centre’ is located on the damp Caspian seafront, with a long, curving promenade of grandiose 19th and 20th Century buildings, all constructed from fine, buff-coloured sandstone. With the gaping inequality and corruption; late-model black SUVs screeching down streets where old widows rifle through litter bins, the grandeur is somehow lost however, and what might be an elegant and chic city reeks more of the vulgarity of the nouveau riche. The streets are filled with posturing youth attempting to look wealthy and urbane in cheap Chinese copies of western fashions, and the traffic police are out in force with their glowing orange batons, shaking down passing motorists who don’t appear rich enough to have connections in the police. I fail to warm to the place.
Behind this ostentation lies the Old City, which in corners is pleasantly rustic but seems just a little too restored and manicured to have any real historical atmosphere. It’s a pleasant place to walk though, down narrow streets of two-storey sandstone buildings with overhanging balconies of wooden canopies or wrought-iron railings in the midst of which is the occasional blocky sandstone mosque with elegant Persian-style portals. Further Behind this lie the large, newer suburbs of the city which grew up during Soviet times, and are presently being added-to with luxury apartment complexes. Here I catch a glimpse of real life as I sit in a small café full of jolly daytime drinkers, staffed by plump middle-aged women in pinafores who stir large pots of Soviet stolovaya (canteen) food. I could be just about anywhere in the former USSR, but there is a noticeable absence of Russians, even when compared to Central Asian cities such as Tashkent or Bishkek. It’s a reminder of the inter-ethnic wars which followed the collapse of the USSR, part of Russia’s long standing troubles in the region.
I leave Baku the following day, heading north-west, closing in upon the mountains. The road climbs immediately when leaving the capital, and winds up onto a plateau of fresh green grass, undulating over the ripples of outliers which are divided by wide, muddy, boulder-strewn river beds. From one of these ridges I catch my first glimpse of the crestline of the Greater Caucasus range; a sharply-defined, distant ridge of snowcapped rock which marks the border with Russia and Europe. I pass through delightfully bucolic farming villages with trees that are just erupting into full spring bloom and bushes of fresh white blossoms. After so long in Asia’s deserts and mountains, it’s a pleasure to see a real spring, and I realise that even Azerbaijan feels very European with its pretty villages, tree-lined avenues and European flora and fauna such as brambles and blackbirds.
It’s a pleasure to drive through such beautiful vernal countryside, through small villages of single-storey stone houses and whitewashed walls, and provincial towns such as Qabala and Ismayilli which have a strongly Caucasian, rather than Soviet character, and are a world away from the brashness of Baku. I stop for the night in the town of Shaki, which nestles in a fold of mountains marking the border with Dagestan, and was an important city in the ancient kingdom of Caucasian Albania. The steep and winding streets are lined with smart, brick and stone buildings, with flourishes of Persian influence evident in the highly decorated Khan’s Palace and an elegant, restored old caravanserai. The place feels quite Turkish, with men sitting in cafés and on doorsteps playing nard (backgammon), smoking and drinking tea. Walking up a nearby hill one sees perhaps the best view of the town; a sea of terracotta-tiled rooftops pierced only by the occasional minaret.
I have to leave Azerbaijan the following day, and so leave Shaki in the morning, continuing through Zaqatala to the border town of Balakan, which seems a popular spot for begging gypsies. A few kilometres north of town I slip out of Azerbaijan, 71 hours after entering, and enter Georgia.
I can’t remember the last time I entered a country for the first time and was so immediately impressed with it as I am when I enter Georgia at the small border crossing at Lagodekhi. Georgia is one of the oldest Christian states, and has largely resisted the Persian and Turkic empires which have long surrounded it, even driving out the Mongols in the thirteenth century after a short occupation. Georgia corresponds roughly to the kingdoms of Colchis and Iberia in antiquity, and is thought to be home to the Golden Fleece which Jason and the Argonauts sought. Christian since at least 337 CE, Georgia has existed through time as a series of kingdoms which were ultimately incorporated into the Russian Empire in the eighteenth century. Georgia has had a shaky start to independence, with wars, refugees, economic chaos and rampant corruption and crime, but has recently staged a striking renaissance with transit revenue from the Caspian – Black Sea pipeline (exporting oil from the Caspian to Europe without crossing Iran), and the eponymous and sometimes controversial pro-Western president Mikheil Saakashvili, who is widely lauded for cleaning up the country and inviting massive foreign investment.
I’m slightly puzzled by the EU flag which flies at the Georgian border post, but soon realise that it is merely aspirational, or perhaps a provocation to the Russians. Georgia is the first country in almost three years for which I don’t require a visa, and entry procedures are brief and friendly. I’m soon driving through the damp countryside of Georgia’s Kakheti Region, whose rolling landscapes are dotted with old stone forts and churches, and lined by vineyards and muddy villages of wooden homes. Everything around me is at once familiar, friendly and un-ostentatious, and lacks Azerbaijan’s air of corruption; I’m immediately impressed by the country.
I reach the Georgian capital Tbilisi in the afternoon, where I am hosted by Murdoch, a Kiwi writer whom I had met in Pakistan last year, who lives with his girlfriend Sarah in an apartment in the upmarket district of Vake. Tbilisi is immediately endearing with its ramshackle Old City of decrepit town houses and charmingly faded streets. The central bazaar is alive with commerce, and there is a positive and upbeat air. The city lacks any real pretentious atmosphere, but manages to be suave and even sophisticated. It’s not given over to soulless commercialisation, though is neither squalid nor seedy. As a capital, it’s one of the most charming cities I can remember being in, and I soon feel that it is a place in which I would be happy to live.
Walking up a hill in the west of town, one sees a wide panorama of the city; a sea of low red rooftops amongst labyrinthine old streets. The centre is mostly devoid of ugly new buildings, and the Soviet concrete monsters are relegated to the city’s edge, leaving a largely intact ancient historic centre. To the south, remnants of the city’s medieval walls are draped over long, green hills, and everywhere the city’s roof-scape is dotted by the low, fluted conical spires of Georgian churches, which seem to have survived the repression of Soviet times in great number. Beyond the city limits the Greater Caucasus begin, giving a dramatic mountainous backdrop to this homely and pleasant city.
Tbilisi’s clean atmosphere is helped by the reforms which have been made to the police force. Strong anti-corruption measures have led to a paradigm-shift in the country’s police. Unlike most post-Soviet countries, the Georgian police force is changing from a militia, that is, a force designed to harass and keep watch of the public, to a police force which exists to serve and protect the public. I almost feel sorry for the police, who seem like toothless old dogs compared to their bribe-hungry regional counterparts.
The Georgians themselves are as equally beguiling as their country, with the warmth and laid-back joie-de-vivre of Asians, but also the rationality and worldliness of Europeans. They are rather like Russians in this respect (a compliment few Georgians would appreciate), though further lack their stoicism and tragedy. Georgians will fervently cross themselves when passing anything remotely religious, but they’re hardly bloody-minded fundamentalists. They strike me as particularly easy people to get along with, though many of their neighbours would vehemently disagree; this is after all, the Caucasus.
Tbilisi is so perfect that I easily while away a week here, wandering the city and stopping in plenty of bars to watch life go by. I do however need to find a way to Russia. With the Georgia-Russia border closed to outsiders, my only hope (aside from an expensive ferry or a very long detour) is the breakaway republic of Abkhazia. After initially being refused entry, I make some tense phone calls and eventually speak to someone high-up in the Abkhazian Foreign Ministry, who grants me access to drive over the Inguri River and into Abkhazia. My route into Russia is thus opened ahead of me.
Murdoch and I set off one morning, heading west. We stop in the town of Gori, birthplace of Ioseb Besarionis dze Jugashvili, better known as Soviet leader Josef Stalin. In the centre of town, near his preserved childhood home, stands a large, imposing black statue of the man. Having survived Khruschev’s de-Stalinisation, it seems a slightly odd relic in a country so avowedly anti-Russian and pro-Western, surviving by the sentiment of local residents. The monument was in fact demolished two month later.
We head further west, along the southern border of the breakaway republic of South Ossetia, which since the 2008 war with Russia has been a tense cease-fire line, making the de facto independent state inaccessible from the rest of Georgia. From Gori, the road winds further west, though steep, rolling green hills dotted by wooden farmhouses and small fields. We stop for lunch in Kutaisi, the historic capital of Colchis, then descend towards the Black Sea to the town of Zugdidi, close to the cease-fire line with Abkhazia.
Leaving Zugdidi the following day, we drive north and are soon looking at a magnificent view of the mountains; a great wall of snow-covered rock rising up to the north. The road initially follows the Inguri river, then deteriorates in quality as it starts to climb through forest, eventually opening to wide, grassy meadows and mountain villages. The landscape here is just emerging from winter, and at one point a huge mudslide has made the road impassable, necessitating a tow from a bulldozer which is driven by the mayor of the nearby town of Mestia. Whilst waiting at the mudslide, we had been invited by a local to stay at his home, something we are glad to do when we arrive in Mestia in the late afternoon.
Mestia is the capital of the region of Svaneti, a historic, mountainous province of Georgia inhabited by the Svans, who are an ethnic sub-group of the Georigans. In addition to mountainous scenery, Svaneti still retains dozens of characteristically Caucasian siege towers; tall, fortified structures which dot the villages that cling to the mountainsides, and were used for protection in times of war, something also evidently characteristic of the Caucasus. Although Mestia offers plenty of well-kept towers, it still has the feel of a small town rather than a mountain village, and so we leave after two nights to the farthest point of the Inguri Gorge; the villages of Ushguli to the east, which lie under some of the highest peaks of the Cacuasus.
The drive to Ushguli is a marvellous piece of alpine driving, as the snowmelt turns the road to mud, with rivulets of water streaming down the road surface. We have a brush with disaster shortly after leaving Mestia as, whilst driving up the valley side, two huge boulders drop down from the hillside onto the road, one stopping dead and one bouncing off into the valley below, both just metres from the back of the truck. What follows is hours of slow, slippery mountain track which hugs hillsides at awkward cambers, and crosses rocky riverbeds churning with snowmelt. The truck handles it all with ease, but it’s the longest period I’ve yet had to keep it engaged in four-wheel drive.
As evidence of the gruelling road conditions, the most precarious parts of the road are dotted by small shrines; open wooden boxes each on a stake driven into the ground, containing a photograph of someone who most likely plummeted to their death in the valley below, and a bottle of chacha (fiery Georgian pomance brandy) and some small glasses. We stop at one such shrine to toast the deceased, each taking a shot of the clear, slightly yellowish liquid. At around 60% alcohol it burns the throat (for a moment I wonder if it’s not petrol), but we make better time afterwards, despite the treacherous mud.
We find a homestay in Chvibiani, one of the villages which make up the greater settlement of Ushguli. Outside, the clouds roll down and snow is falling once again. Nevertheless, fortified with more chacha from our hosts, and donning a pair of rubber boots, I slide up through the quagmire of mud and manure which passes for a street (and in which the truck is parked), then walk up a nearby hill through snow in places more than a metre deep. I find a good overlook, and as the clouds swirl and lift slightly, the snow stops and I’m left with a view down the valley to villages of Chazhashi and Murkmeli, which look to be straight out of medieval Europe. Squat, austere village houses with open upper floors and ornately carved wooden balconies nestle among tall, imposing siege towers with gently pitched slate roofs. Fierce, bored sheepdogs bark, and pigs root in the mucky alleys between buildings, but barely a human soul stirs. It’s the end of a long winter, during which life must all but stop in this high community. It’s a wonderful scene, and one of my favourite moments in Georgia.
We return to Zugdidi the following day, from where Murdoch returns to Tbilisi and I stay a couple of days preparing the truck for crossing the Russian border. On the evening before my departure into Abkhazia, I meet Karolina, a Polish volunteer who lives in the town, and I delay leaving Georgia by a couple of days. I must leave the country however, as I have been very fortunate to have been given permission to drive through Abkhazia and on into Russia. I leave Zugdidi one morning to the heavily policed bridge over the Inguri river. Here the Georgian police seem surprised by my letter from the Abkhazians, which gives me permission to enter by car, but after asking me to write and sign a disclaimer explaining that the Georgian authorities take no responsibility for my safety whilst in Abkhazia, they let me pass.
With a wonderful, welcoming atmopsphere, a very pleasant capital, stunning mountain scenery and endearing people, it’s really difficult to find fault with Georgia. The only annoyance has been the totally indecipherable alphabet, but that is merely my own ignorance. There is one thing however which worries me about the country; the nagging doubt that its untouched, unpretentious charm may merely be a brief snapshot of a country in flux, rather like the first signs of spring. On its current, western-oriented path, will Georgia surrender to the soul-less modernising uniformity which pervades much of Europe? Or will Georgia perhaps come under Russian influence once again, and return to a more reclusive state of corruption, like neighbouring Azerbaijan?
Reaching the far side of the Inguri river bridge, the Abkhazian officials seem surprised to see me, but upon presentation of my letter from the foreign ministry, I’m allowed to enter without even having my passport checked. It’s a grey and dreary morning, which seems to amplify the dereliction and devastation I see around me; a devastated road leads slowly through a dank landscape of abandoned, crumbling and rotting homes; presumably the homes of Georgians, vacated during periods of ethnic cleansing by Abkhazian forces in 1992-3 and 1998. Gali seems to be hanging on the edge of existence, only partly inhabited, with the chorus of croaking frogs enjoying the rain the liveliest thing in town. There is a heavy Russian military presence in the area including patrolling helicopters, and I’m stopped by the Army, who are very polite, but thoroughly search the car.
I get my first glimpse of the Black Sea shortly before the town of Ochamchira, where the road improves markedly, and life returns to some semblance of normality. Despite the obvious signs of depopulation and destruction, one cannot fail to notice just how beautiful the coastline is; with a turquoise sea lapping against clean, pebble beaches lined with palm trees and pines, which continue on into the lush foothills. I reach Sukhumi, the capital around lunchtime, and head to the foreign ministry to pick up my Abkhazian visa, which comes as a loose piece of paper rather than being stuck in my passport.
Sukhumi has a gorgeous location in the mouth of a broad valley, and spreads up into the hills amidst a patchwork of emerald forest. The city still clearly bears the scars of war; whole residential districts of crumbling, bullet-pocked apartment buildings, and plenty of open lots which have gone to seed, with trees sprouting through old asphalt. The old, classical Soviet railway station is unused, leaving a decrepit network of trolleybuses as the only civic transport service. The centre is smarter with a pleasant, palm-lined seafront and several new hotels, but the city’s largest building, the thirteen-storey parliament building, remains a burnt-out skeleton with an empty plinth out front, most likely inhabited by Lenin in times past.
The liveliest part of the city is of course the bazaar, where I sit in a small café for a lunch of basic Russian fare. Here men walk in from the bazaar, take 100 grams of vodka at the counter and walk out wincing, back to work. Unlike Georgia, there are plenty of Russians here, amongst the Abkhazians, Armenians and others who live here. It seems rather like a time-warp back to the USSR; there is no real assertion of national identity that I can feel, certainly not when compared to other newly-independent republics of the former USSR, and the atmosphere is very unlike that in Georgia. An old, forgotten mural near the bazaar shows the classic Soviet image, of three multicultural workers with their tools; but this isolated and half-ruined throwback of a country seems to be a perfect example of the flimsiness of Soviet ethnic harmony, in the Caucasus at least. With the Union toppling, long-standing resentment at ‘Georgianisation’ among Abkhazians erupted into a horrific civil war in 1992, which has left the former autonomous republic isolated and near-destitute. It’s not easy to see what the Abkhazians have gained by chasing all the Georgians out, and I wonder whether this was a conflict stirred up by the greedy and power-hungry, or if it really was an expression of the hatred of one ethnic group for another.
My impressions of a lack of nationalism come perhaps from the large assimilated Russian population, but these are shattered when I meet my first Abkhaz; Gioni, Georgi and Dima, who invite me for a Turkish coffee when I meet them on a seafront bench. Shocked to hear that I have come from Georgia, Gioni begins waving his fist in the direction of Tbilisi; “Fuck you Georgia!” he shouts, “They have caused this; this destruction, desolation and isolation”. These sentiments aside, they are warm and friendly guys, keen for the outside world to see their beautiful, once famous, now forgotten homeland. “Tell your friends to come”. With no airport, it’s hard to imagine many foreigners flocking through Russia or arguing with the foreign ministry to enter through Georgia to this admittedly beautiful slice of coastline, though Abkhazia has become popular once more with Russian tourists looking for a cheaper alternative to Sochi or the Crimean. The guys quickly rebuke any comparison between Abkhazians and Georgians; ethnically, linguistically or physically, but are curious to hear about Georgia. It’s difficult to compare Abkhazia with what is currently one of the most progressive countries of the former USSR, so I merely concede their point that it is indeed different.
After four nights in Sukhumi, I continue my drive up the coast, with the signs of destruction becoming ever fainter with proximity to Russia, and the scenery becoming ever more beautiful. With bright green, forested hills and clear blue rivers cascading down towards the turquoise sea, it’s easily as beautiful as the Mediterranean. I take a side road which winds north towards the mountains, first tracking the crystal-clear Bzhyb river through a towering limestone gorge, then climbing through green forests of beech trees and pines amid a sea of yellow wildflowers to the beautiful alpine Ritsa Lake, with blue waters of glacial melt surrounded by steep, forested hills, and backed by the most westerly snowcapped peaks of the Caucasus. It’s an idyllic spot, one that Stalin also clearly enjoyed, for his dacha (holiday house) lies at the far end of the lake. It is here that I begin to see why Abkhazia was so coveted by Soviet leaders, and why it was the most exclusive of the USSR’s holiday spots. It really is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.
Returning back down the gorgeous valley in the late afternoon, I drive all the way to the coastline and the delightful little resort town of Pitsunda, another favourite holiday spot amongst Soviet leaders. After dinner in a café playing 1980s music, I drive out to the beach and watch the sunset from the pine forest which comes all the way down to the sea. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been somewhere as perfectly tranquil and beautiful as this.
Early next morning I walk along the pebbly shore, which has not been ‘developed’ in any way since Soviet times. From the thick pine forest sprout three large fifteen-storey hotels, as elegant as any Soviet structures I’ve seen, with roof bars overlooking the sea, where dolphins jump in schools just off the coast. Pitsunda must have been the holiday spot of the Soviet elite, enjoying the warmth and beauty after the alternately freezing and sweltering depths of the Eurasian continent. It was indeed here in Pitsunda, in 1964 that Nikita Khrushchev received a call from Brezhnev summoning him to Moscow, where he was forced to resign the following day.
Pitsunda has one last delight, as I drive back towards the main highway, when I stop at Inkit Lake. Lying just beyond the coast, fed by the waters of the Bzhyb river, the tranquil lake is backed by small houses and tall, brush-like poplars and conifers, then successive ridges of emerald green forest, crowned ultimately by a fine ridgeline of snow-covered peaks.
Rejoining the main highway, I drive through the popular resort town of Gagra on a winding coastal road, though encounter nothing as beautiful as Pitsunda. In the early afternoon I reach the Psou river which marks the border to Russia and leave Abkhazia. This constitutes an illegal exit of Georgia, meaning I will not be able to return on the same passport. Nevertheless, Abkhazia has been a pleasant surprise; I wasn’t expecting to find one of the world’s most beautiful spots in this neglected corner of a troubled region.
I would like to have spent more time in the South Caucasus; to have visited Armenia, and seen more of Georgia, but the short Siberian summer was beckoning, and so I left further exploration of the region for a later date. Having reached the western extremity of the Caucasus I prepared to double back, passing through the ethnic jigsaw of Russia’s troubled North Caucasus republics, back to the Caspian Sea.