Many-faced Armenia

There is one thing I know for sure: one should never be afraid. I spent some of my 100 days out of Georgia in the country where nothing is black or white; it has many shades and many ways to be, which can be discovered only if you are open and brave enough to explore the places and meet the people. Ashot, the guest house owner which suffers from some kind of brain injure, was calm and mad, honest and sneaky, suspicious and open-hearted at the same time. He showed us that Armenia is the country in which you feel no fear; not all of its many faces are pretty, but it doesn’t make you frightened. Therefore my story will not be about the universe, I have nothing to say about love and it was already told too much about the faith  –  I want to share something that is different from Georgia: the silence, the space and the darkness.

The silence

There is one very special moment of a day just before the sunrise: many travelers, artists and philosophers have worshiped the hour of down when the world becomes silent, and frozen time imprisons every living creature on the ground in a mood of slow motion. In this peace you can feel how thick and how light at the same the air is, making you inhale this silence which like the velvet goes through your throat. I was siting in marshrutka going from Yerevan to the southern part of Armenia when suddenly the first light in the morning appeared from behind of the mount Ararat. After realizing how wonderful it is, all purple with its white peak, I understood why are Armenians so disappointed to be able just to watch the mount.

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Nevertheless, people there have many things to enjoy: while walking around the black garden full of autumn leaves I felt that I’m inhaling fresh air, mixed with the smell of sweet pomegranate wine and the finest baklava which is so good in this land that it melts in one’s mouth. The young Armenian boy I met in a bus said that it is so sweet because of the life in such regions – the heavier it is, the sweeter your desserts should be. “Are people atheists in Europe?” he asked after I told him how openhearted Armenians seem to be. “Some of them are”, I answered. “That is the reason – you have no faith, therefore you are all so selfish, thinking only about yourselves”. After that conversation nobody broke the silence in a bus till the very end of the trip.

The space

And then when the sun reached its zenith something happened – the world was opened and I saw the space I haven’t seen for a long time. No matter how beautiful Georgia is, everywhere you go you feel the weight of the sky: it is above you in the mountains, by the sea, in the forest, deep in the valleys and meadows, even in Tbilisi the big eye is watching you. But just as the noise was muted in Armenia, it seemed like the heavy hood was removed from my head as well. The mountains were growing out of the plain, and regardless of their altitude the sky was not occupied.

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I found myself in an endless space and my sight was not trapped anymore. It was traveling freely in the pagan temple of Garni, which looks so out of the Armenian context that finally it fits in. The structure was supposed to be a temple to the sun god Myhr and is one of the few monuments of pre-christian Armenia, and now it is just a gravestone in blurred Armenian autumn. From Garni one can see the road which leads to the other place, all drowned in sun and dust.

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I took this gilded road to Geghard without even knowing that such a small monastery carved in a rock contains so many space inside – one could even see it coming through the window and growing in the simple but solemn chamber. The sound of water caught my attention and for a moment I stood astonished, thinking that the water in a dark room comes out of nowhere, until I saw the person falling to his knees to wash his face and drink from this spring. His things were all around him on the ground, and all he had at that moment was this water. But at the same time he held all the sacredness of that place in his palms.

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The darkness

“I am a forest, and a night of dark trees:

but he who is not afraid of my darkness,

will find banks full of roses under my cypresses.”

Friedrich Nietzshe

 

After I left the monastery the strange feeling that all the light remains inside appeared: the sun was going down. Since I still had to reach my last point in Armenian trip, the race with the sun was about to start. It is almost impossible to watch how the sun rises or observe the sunset  in such cities as Tbilisi, surrounded by mountains and hills, but during my crazy running to the Sevan lake I saw how slowly but inevitably the night comes: spilled shadows and mists appeared on the ground, and everything lost its colors.

In mountainous regions the temperature goes down together with the sun, so after the sunset it becomes difficult to stay outdoors. Nevertheless, the cold was the only problem. The forecast of Armenian darkness gave me no fear, just excitement: the same feeling of velvet appeared in the air so one could almost taste it mixed with iron and beeswax. But the odds were in my favor and the great Armenian trip was finished in the same manner as it started: the sun disappeared in the depth of Sevan lake.

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The land of shepherds and gods

These days people living in Tbilisi are hiding themselves in sweaters, coats and warm jackets; in the streets one can see the endless river of hats, and sometimes sunglasses – even if the days are getting colder, Georgian sun still reaches rushing Tbiliseli. Nevertheless, everyone feels that something is different – winter is coming.

The cold and wind come here from the roof of the world – Caucasus mountains with snowy peaks, glaciers and freezing rivers. Some of the roads in the Northern Georgia are already closed, and it is not advisable to travel on the others. I understood after my recent trip to the mountains that this small expedition was the last one this season. However, I managed to visit four wonderful places surrounded by mountains, which have many different stories and secrets.

The very first meeting with previously unfamiliar landscape took place in Mestia and its surroundings in Svaneti historic province. People there are still telling the stories about old Georgian gods, worshiped long time before saint Nino of Cappadocia brought Christianity to Georgia. But even after the conversion to Christianity in the 4th century some pagans and zoroastrians followed their old gods high up to the mountains, so their hymns became louder and they opened their eyes widely. And we felt while sleeping under the open sky in Svaneti that someone is watching us in this country of shepherds and gods.

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The Mount Kazbek (I think that sometimes I can see it through the window in Tbilisi) seemed to be a good idea for the beginning of October. It is located in historic area of Khevi, surrounded by fog, clouds and… sheep. To reach the church of Gergeti Trinity, which is under Kazbek, one has to follow the narrow path while climbing up. Sometimes it is so sunken in fog that you can only see 1 meter towards you, and when the fog suddenly dissipates you are so shocked and amazed of the view which was hidden that the only thing you can do is scream! It seems that the mountains, appeared out of the clouds, are breathing in the fog and breathing out the countless number of sheep.

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The second time when I saw so many sheep was on the way to Tusheti, the place with gentle and delicate mountains, looking more like made of velvet rather than stone. When the cold days are coming, the shepherds move their herds down, where the weather is not so harsh. It’s very important for the people living in the mountains to take care of their herds, because from it they are producing milk, meat and wool (and long horns are used as mugs for wine and chacha while raising them in a toast) – the land is too harsh for other agrarian activities to prosper.

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Tusheti people, living in the village called Omalo, told us that after the roads are closed, the only way for them to reach the external world is to use helicopter, which comes to the village once per month. Even if the mountain road to Omalo doesn’t seem too dangerous looking from the further distance, it is extremely difficult to travel there after the first ice appears on the ground. Locals are saying that Tusheti region is very lady-like because of its gentle appearance and subtle dangerousness.

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Next to Tusheti one can find Khevsureti region, bordering with Chechnya. Mountains in Khevsureti are extraordinary because of all the hidden treasures laying deep in their valleys and between mountain passes. The three gems of this region are the Lakes of Abudelauri: the White, Green and the Blue one. To reach them you have to hike a lot from the main road, and the snow makes everything more complicated – on one hand, it’s difficult not to lose the hiking track, on the other hand, when you reach your destination (after all the struggles) you have to go the same way back. And continue the trip to Shatili, the village which is considered to be an example of the past life of the highlanders.

 

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The traveler can hear one of the most interesting and dark stories in one of the valleys of Khevsureti: on the top of the hill medieval Anatori Crypts are facing Chechnya. In these old communal tombs one can see well preserved human bones and skulls – nobody is touching or trying to remove it. Ananori crypts keep the bones of those plague infected inhabitants of the valley, who were ready to go there during the epidemic, to voluntarily close themselves only with a little bit of water to prevent the spread of disease and to wait for death. Locals told us the story about one boy who was supposed to die in the crypt, but after some days he came back to the village healthy. People were asking curiously where did he come from, but the boy only said “from the place where the sun rises two times in a row”.

Sometimes it actually happens in the mountains – if the valley in which you are is deep enough, morning sun might reach one peak of the mountains and then disappear just to rise again.

After the last trip I finally realized that the winter comes to Tbilisi from the highest point of the mountains, that have not been explored by human feet yet, from the animal horns and frozen lakes, and from the dark Caucasus nights.

The tale of two towns

Georgia is an extraordinary country because of its intermediate state: it lies between Europe and Asia, West and East. Sometimes even Georgians agree, that it is not easy to describe the country only by using European either Asian categories. „We are somewhere in between“, said David, a cab driver with whom we were traveling around Tusheti region just for the price of the fuel.

Many everyday’s examples show this interesting mixture of cultures. Every morning a lady with full bucket of raspberries starts her journey around Tbilisi; she walks through countless stalls full of traditional Georgian food  (with all these names, as interesting as the recipes are: khinkali, khachapuri, lobiani etc etc); at about 8 AM she passes by the bakery full of baklava, then reaches McDonalds and goes up to Vasil Barnov street. The city is almost awake, and the river of engines follows her steps; the cars are big and shiny, made in Japan, USA or Europe, but not as interesting as soviet marshrutkas. Last night young Georgian man rode his unsaddled horse down the street, but the lady was already asleep – you should wake up early to do such a trip by walk.

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It’s easy to imagine her walking in another city, let’s say Batumi. In Batumi she would see eclecticism and the skyscrapers surrounded by old tenements, she would meet Russian tourists and Turkish street artists. She would find herself between the two seas while being in this city, one them is the Black sea, and the other is blue: next to almost every building (which has administrative function or is political significant in the city) there is a blowing flag of European Union. Even if the questions regarding the legality of this performance could be raised, pretentious decision to keep using Union’s flag is justified by highlighting the desire for Georgia’s Euro-integration and Euro-Atlantic geopolitical direction.

The lady with raspberries also would pass by one of the most popular objects in Batumi – „Statue of Love“, through the story of cross-cultural couple symbolizing the reconciliation between East and West, Islam and Christianity. It’s Ali and Nino, the two lovers often used to prove that there is no place for the clash of cultures in Georgia, and one can see the cooperation instead of it.

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Unless you go down to the Georgian-Turkish border. Two small towns are located on the coast of the black sea; one of them, called Sarpi, is situated on the Georgian side, another one, Sarp, is Turkish. A border post with customs which is so big that covers the view of Turkey from Georgian side is not the only thing, illustrating a strange competition between two towns. Many small details create the atmosphere of rivalry in the border area.

The very first thing which attracts one’s attention shortly after arrival to Sarpi is the sound of Muslim prayers in Georgian side. The sound is so clear and loud that it makes you think about a mosque somewhere around; since it’s not visible in the eye-level, it seems natural to lift your eyes. Only then one see the source of this sound – large loudspeakers, from Turkey turned to Georgia’s side.

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On the other hand, there undoubtedly is a mosque in Sarp, as well as a church in Sarpi. Both of them are large, visible and newly build. Big and noticeable objects in both sides are flags; both Turkish and Georgian-European flags are facing each other while competing which one has the higher stand: the higher you are, the more you are visible (and more will you cover.) For an ordinary spectator it seems like the biggest flags one has ever seen in his life. This spectator could also mention an incredible curiosity of the inhabitants of these places: the most important question for the tourists was „on which side are you staying?“ Followed by glum „but why?“ if an opposite side of the border is mentioned in the answer. It seems that it is easy to find „the others“ when you are living around the border.

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Nevertheless, the lady with raspberries only walks in Tbilisi. And every morning when she comes in front of my balcony shouting „malina malina“ I know that it is the time to wake up.

All roads lead to Tbilisi

The city of Tbilisi is located in Georgia at 41.7167° North Latitude and 44.7833° East Longitude. It is about 300 kilometers away from Georgia’s western border and about 140 kilometers away from the Georgian-Azerbaijani border in the east. One can travel from the northernmost to the southernmost point of Georgia in one day. Regardless Georgia’s geographical compactness, it took about 300 hours for me to reach Tbilisi after the landing at Kutaisi International Airport. The reason of this discrepancy is a great detour, made by two Lithuanian travelers.

Since the very beginning of our journey we met many good people: Mancho, Georgian driver who took us even before we raised our hands to hitchhike from Kutaisi to Zugdidi, drove his two new friends to the local market, showing us the town at the same time. Despite the fact that we started our trip in the beginning of September, the weather was hot and heavy in Zugdidi. Therefore our plan to reach Mestia became even more tempting.

So we made it. It is not easy to raise your thumbs under the burning Zugdidi sun, but it seems that Georgia is not that kind of country where you will be left on the road. The driver who picked us up by his small cargo car was very kind to stop at every nice spot on the way, letting us take some pictures:

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There are many things to do in Mestia, and the trip plan depends on one’s personal taste. Since we are used to sleep in a tent, our nights in Mestia went under the open sky. We went on a hike to the Chaladi glacier, where baby bear welcomed us together with border officers.

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On our way back we met a nice Georgian couple – they not only drove us back to Mestia, but also offered us to join them and go to the top of the mountain, where two lakes can be found:

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From Mestia we decided to go down to Zugdidi, this time by marshrutka, and reach Martvili, located in Samegerelo region, and surrounded by rivers and waterfalls. It’s also the place where we learned about Georgian hospitality in a hard way: if you receive an offer to come and share some food or drinks with your Georgian friends, regardless of your wishes, you go.

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But to swim in a river is not enough for two travelers from one of the Baltic states – we headed out to the sea. Kobuleti was chosen as our first sea-stop, and this town showed us how to trust each other (especially during the storm, while trying to keep the tent on the ground), and how to eat khinkali.

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Kobuleti with all its cows walking on the sea shore was also not enough for us, so we reached Batumi. The thing is that we were still thirsty for the sea, rather than gloss and glory, therefore Sarpi became our third stop.

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During our long trip around the northern and western parts of Georgia we were traveling by walk, by marshrutkas, and by different cars we stopped. As a reward, we came back to Batumi to take the night-train to Tbilisi.
Only then we reached it, the place where I’m going to stay until the end of the year. But that is another story about my internship at „Caucasian House“, studies at Tbilisi State University and many other projects.