Travel stories: from Kazbegi and David Gareja to Chiatura and Armenia

During the past two months, I have luckily managed to see quite a lot of the beautiful country that is Georgia. I am really impressed by the natural variety it disposes – as you will see snowy mountains, lavish valleys, and arid semi-deserts within a scope of only a few travel hours. That being said, the nature is of an outstanding beauty, and will probably accumulatively lead to more tourists arriving in Georgia every year. In winter, however, one has to be aware of the more difficult conditions that roads might impose. Being flexible is key. As I concluded with some friends, going on weekend trips in Georgia in winter means most of the time ‘hiking through the snow, climbing up slippery stairs, overcoming dangerous cliffs and risking your life’. When you make it to your viewpoint, however, you immediately forget all your struggles, as Georgian nature never disappoints.

Ananuri Complex
The Caucasus viewpoints in Gudauri

The Georgian Military Highway

One of the first trips I made, in the beginning of February, was the Georgian Military Highway up to Stepantsminda (better known as Kazbegi). The road runs from Tbilisi to Vladikavkaz (North Ossetia, Russia), and is often described as one of the most beautiful roads in the world. The first stop brought us to beautiful Ananuri, a scenic castle complex some 65 kilometres north of Tbilisi. From 13th until 18th century, it was the seat of the eristavis of Aragvi, a local feudal dynasty. The fortified castle that can be discovered nowadays dates from the 17th century. After Ananuri, one follows the road that leads to Gudauri, a ski resort on the southern plateau of the Greater Caucasus. Although we did not have time to ski, we could enjoy the amazing viewpoints, as Gudauri is entirely located above tree-level (at an elevation of 2.200m). After many steep and rough sections, we arrived at Stepantsminda, at only 22 kilometres from Vladikavkaz, from where the mighty 14th-century Gergeti Trinity Church can be seen on an elevated hilltop. Normally, one can either climb up a steep path or reach the church by car, but this path was completely covered with a thick icy layer, and locals secured us that without professional hiking gear we would not be successful. Being flexible was a must again. Kazbegi remains on the list and has to be revisited in another season.

Kazbegi

The arid Georgian south at David Gareja

In the beginning of February, with some friends I attempted a visit to the monastery complex of David Gareja, in the deep south of Kakheti. This mysterious complex was founded in the 6th century, when an Assyrian monk arrived in the region, and is known for cells, churches, living spaces and chapels that have been carved or hollowed out from the rocky surface. When arriving at Udabno, the last village before the dirt track leading to David Gareja, we were once again confronted with Georgian winter. The dirt track was blocked by metres of snow. We visited Bodbe and Signagi, the showpiece of former President Saakashvili, instead. A few weeks ago, another attempt proved more successful. One has to be very determined and willing to go all the way to David Gareja. The conditions of the road transformed a 70km-drive in 3 hours travelling. When we finally arrived, a steep hike up provided us with breath-taking panoramic views with the Georgian Greater Caucasus up north, and the arid Azerbaijani landscape in southern direction. The arid semi-desert landscape around the complex is fairly different from the rest of Georgia and provides unique vegetation and colours. The complex is actually squatted along the Georgian-Azerbaijani border, a part of it officially located in Azerbaijan. This has generated some border tensions since both countries obtained independence in 1991. The Georgian stance explains David Gareja as intrinsically Georgian and as part of its historical heritage, while Azerbaijan states the complex has Caucasian Albanian origins, and therefore belongs to Azerbaijan.

The road to David Gareja on our first attempt.
David Gareja

Chiatura: a Soviet relic

When Georgia regained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it had obtained a legacy of Soviet relics. While those might generally be portrayed through the typical communist flats that one finds in suburbs, such as is the case in Tbilisi, the town of Chiatura tells another story. In the heart of Imereti, Chiatura was a bustling manganese-mining town. During the 1950s and 60s, this provided employment to the people of the region, making it a prosperous industrial town. The mining-labour character of the town made it always stood out, as had been proven during the Russian Revolution, when it became the only Bolshevik-stronghold in Georgia. Stalin was offered shelter in Chiatura and became a hero for the mining workers, who dubbed him ‘sergeant major Koba’. In the 50s, Stalin instructed the development of an ingenious cable car-system. As Chiatura is located within a deep gorge, this seemed the only feasible way to connect the different parts of the town and to get the workers to the mine as fast as possible. In 1954, the first ones where opened, providing a true modern masterpiece during the time. Nowadays, Chiatura provides a gloomy overview. Nothing seems to have changed. Some rusty and coloured cable cars are still functioning, while others hang motionless. Flats and factories look abandoned, although they might sometimes still be functioning. A true adventure awaits us. While we hear a lot of squeaky noises, and have to jump over an abyss when getting out, we had a unique experience in a town that was once ahead of its time. Nowadays, many flats remain empty and are basically valueless, as inhabitants have left for Tbilisi, Kutaisi, or other cities.

Chiatura and its cablecar system

The long Hayastan weekend

Ever since I came to Tbilisi, visiting Armenia was high on my list. Its closeness and easy border procedures made me think it would be a waste to not cross into Hayastan, as Armenians call their country themselves. However, other than Tbilisi, most parts of Armenia have a very extreme climate, with cold winters and hot, dry summers. For weeks I was checking the weather in Yerevan, just to see that another weekend with temperatures plummeting to as much as -25 °C was to be expected. Thus, I had to be patient. Last weekend, spring finally seemed to have arrived in Armenia and together with my Kazakh friends, we decided to grab our chance. As we heard good stories about hitchhiking (something I would have never tried in Western Europe), we were keen to at least try this. Although our luck was variable, we managed to reach Yerevan safe and sound with a stop at the beautiful Lake Sevan along the way. Safe and sound, that is. While our Armenian taxi driver assured us the road at the Sadakhlo-Bagratashen border crossing leading through Noyemberyan, Dilijan, Sevan, to Yerevan, was safe enough during daytime, we later found out this certainly is not always the case. The road scrapes along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border for a couple of kilometres, and abandoned houses and churches with bullet holes can be witnessed.

Sevanavank and frozen Lake Sevan

Arriving in Sevan, we witnessed a completely frozen lake. According to locals, this was a unique event that had occurred for the first time in twenty years. We arrived in Yerevan after sunset and could immediately enjoy the great view on the city we had from our apartment. Yerevan cannot be compared to Tbilisi in a lot of perspectives. Where Tbilisi boasts an old city centre, and a vibrant cosmopolitan and clubbing culture, Yerevan seems a rather conservative and impromptu capital. It possesses over lavish avenues, an impressive Republic Square, fancy shops, and great restaurants with great hospitability and tasty Armenian food, but at the same time a real core seems to be absent. As Yerevan only started to gain independence after Armenia rose as an independent state for the first time in 1918, most buildings are either in Soviet or post-Soviet style. The several monuments and references that refer to Armenia’s very troubled past seem to actually hold the country back in this past. An understandable sense of sadness, combined with boundless militancy seems never far away. However, this clingy nostalgia often feels like impeding Yerevan from truly becoming a 21st-century capital, regardless of how many new skyscrapers may be built. The feeling of loss becomes ultimate in Khor Virap, an ancient Armenian monastery complex close to the Turkish border. Its opponent on the Turkish side is the mighty Ararat, the long-lost Armenian symbol. Everywhere you go in Armenia, the Ararat is present. It is an intangible religious, cultural and heroic symbol for the Armenians, but which now finds itself located within the boundaries of another state. Armenia, being one of the oldest inhabited regions of the world, is definitely a very interesting place to visit, and stirs many different, often opposed, sentiments and emotions.

Yerevan concrete
Khor Virap and Mount Ararat in the background

Tbilisi wanderings

Every time I went on trips and came back to Tbilisi, it felt as coming home. It’s a strange feeling how fast this city seems to have accepted me and made me feel comfortable. In a relatively short time, I managed to make a lot of new great friends, interesting contacts, and see a lot of this bubbling city. In many senses, Tbilisi is one of the new places to be! Rarely I have seen a city developing so fast, becoming so vibrant, and inspiring. It boasts over great history, a well-maintained old centre, chic modern neighbourhoods, many cultural events, and an exciting nightlife. It is the exact opposite of what people might expect when they think of Tbilisi as a former Soviet outlet in the Caucasus. Tbilisi is special. It unifies many cultures, and it is becoming more cosmopolitan every day. When I complained to my colleague Ana about the lack of bookshops in the city, she wanted to prove me wrong and took me on a ‘bookshop tour’. And although those places might not always be on the most central locations, they indeed exist and possess over a variety of books in Georgian, Russian and English. You just have to know where they are located and what they are specialised in. As copyright laws are not so strict here, Ana also taught me how to differentiate real editions from fake books. Even in Georgia, 8GEL for Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel seems to be too good to be true. While sadly very little of Georgian literature has been translated, it is definitely worth trying to find something. Shota Rustaveli’s ვეფხისტყაოსანი (The Knight in the Panther’s Skin), a national epic poem, is probably Georgia’s most famous work.

Tbilisi book hunting

Cultural caravanserai vs. linguistic uniqueness

My first weeks in Georgia have been a blast, so it’s definitely time to share some thoughts about this unique country. Starting with its capital, Tbilisi, one can feel an atmosphere that radiates cultural, social and architectural versatility. Within Edward Said’s framework of orientalism, such a place could easily be dubbed as a space ‘Where East meets West’ (and vice versa). While this indeed covers the idea of Tbilisi finding itself at a geographic, cultural and political crossroads, it fails to explain the blending which has taken place in Georgia’s capital throughout centuries. The Caucasus region, Georgia not being an exception, has always been a plaything for bigger regional powers. In fact, the Georgian national identity heavily relies on its heydays in the so-called Georgian Golden Age (between the 11th and 13th century), as it never regained independence ever after until 1991.

The predominance of Turkic tribes, Persians, Ottomans and Russians, however, has left its traces, and could be pictured as a cultural, political and economic melting pot, which in this region has often been embodied in a caravanserai (etymologically originating from the Persian kārwānsarā, and in Arabic often translated as fanduk). A caravanserai back in the day was an inn where travellers could rest, but primarily share information and negotiate with one another. They were primarily located along the Silk Road and other trade routes in Asia, Northern Africa and South-eastern Europe. ‘Tiflis’ found itself at a junction between the different regions and roads, and thus possessed over a bunch of caravanserais. One of the largest ქარვასლა (/karvasla/, in Georgian) of the city can be found in the Sioni Street and now hosts the Tbilisi History Museum.

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Tbilisi has steep hills, and reaching different neighbourhoods can be a hefty climb, as is the case here in Avlabari (‘Havlabar’ in Armenian), which was already mentioned in chronicles from the 11th-13th century and could for a long time be seen as the Armenian nucleus of the city.

The Kartvelian perseverance

Although the Georgian equivalent of caravanserai, as can be noted above, is borrowed from Persian, the Georgian language (ქართული, /Kartuli/) is less of a blend when comparing it to Georgia’s history and culture. Georgian belongs to the Kartvelian languages, unique to the Southern Caucasus. In fact, they are not related to any other language group and are only spoken by roughly 5 million speakers worldwide (Georgia itself has around 3.7 million inhabitants, of which 85% are ethnic Georgians). The modern Georgian script, called Mkhedruli, is the used writing system for all four Kartvelian languages (Georgian, Svan, Mingrelian and Laz). While the script is unique in its appearance, and its origins are not known, some sources state Greek might have influenced it, as the alphabetical order in both scripts is similar. There is a fairly overall consensus about the Georgian script emerging out of a trend in Eastern Europe and the Near East to create an own script during the process of Christianization. In the Southern Caucasus, this led to the creation of the Georgian, Armenian, and Caucasian Albanian alphabets. Caucasian Albania was the territory comprising most of modern-day Azerbaijan and Russian Dagestan before their conversion to Islam under Persian rule.

Going back to the uniqueness of the Kartvelian languages and their perseverance, it’s noteworthy that Georgian national identity is heavily rooted within this language family, and the root –kartv– is used to denote all things ‘Georgian’, such derivations being /Sakartvelo/ (Georgia, საქართველო), the previously mentioned /Kartuli/ (the Georgian language), and /Kartveli/ (a Georgian person, ქართველი). While Georgians themselves firmly hold on to this Kartvelian character, it is interesting noting that their geographical denomination in other languages has no Kartvelian origin. The word ‘Georgia’ seems to originate from the Indo-European Persian gurğān (‘wolf’), indicating Georgia as Gorgan (‘land of the wolves’), which was later adopted by most other Indo-European languages.

Georgian, furthermore, has seven noun cases, which is rather modest comparing to other Caucasian languages, such as the Dagestani Lak, which has 56. Culturally being a blend, the Caucasus can also linguistically be seen as a rich region, hosting six language families. In Georgia itself, it is noteworthy that besides the Kartvelian languages, Abkhazian (a Pontic language) and Ossetian (an Indo-European Iranian language) are spoken in their respective disputed territories in the north, and one will encounter ethnic Armenian (an Indo-European language) and Azeri (a Turkic language) communities in the south, meaning four of the aforementioned six language families of the Caucasus are present in the country. Due to its Soviet past, the dominance of Russian should also be added to this spectrum, while the younger generation might be more fluent in English in some cases.

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Persian-influenced café in the old centre of Tbilisi.