I came back from a good four weeks in Turkey and the Caucasus just last week. Here are the photographic highlights of my stay in the Caucasus. Technically only three countries, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Caucasus effectively is home to six. Besides the three internationally recognized countries, there's also Nagorno-Karabakh (NKR) (technically in Azerbaijan) and Abkhazia and South Ossetia (both technically in Georgia). Then Dagestan (technically in Russia) sees occasional flashes of separatism.
I visited Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and NKR, with quite a bit of back and forth between the individual countries, as several of the borders are closed. Azerbaijan and Armenia can't get along because of Armenia's support for NKR's fight for independence from Azerbaijan. And Turkey and Armenia don't like each other much, due to Turkey's inability to recognize the mass killing of Armenians in the late 1910s as a genocide.
Day 1: A braai in Baku
I arrived in Baku the night before, staying with an old friend from my university days. It being close to the end of the school season, the parents of the local international school had come together to throw a braai (bbq) in preparation for the start of the summer. Coming home not too late, it was the first of many nights where my friend's homebrew kept us going till late.
Day 2: Baku's flame towers
My Caucasus visit was triggered by Baku's hosting the Eurovision Song Conest. In the evening, we attended a private party where some of the contestants were performing at an outside venue on Baku's boulevard, but during the day, we checked out some of the sights of Baku, which saw its property development sped up in preparation for Eurovision, while a lot of the city was cleaned up for exactly the same reason. More on my first impressions and more on what Azerbaijan did in preparation for Eurovision.
One very impressive construction are the flame towers, three towers with a host of LEDs on their facades, which come alive at night, displaying all sorts of imagery. Indeed, from 'regular' flames, to flag waving individuals.
Day 3: The loneliest church in Azerbaijan
During and after the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, pretty much all Armenians either got out or were kicked out of Azerbaijan. On Baku's Fountain square, you can find an Armenian church which hasn't been used for some 20 years, that is, since the conflict. Though sealed off from the public, the Azeri government so far has had the sense not to knock it down.
Day 4: First Eurovision semi final
With so many countries wanting to participate in Eurovision, specifically after the fall of the wall and the break ups of both the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, the contest consists of two semi finals and the resulting finals. The 'big five', the five countries ponying up most of the money for Eurovision, don't have to qualify for the final, and neither does the previous year's winner. Also, one of the Eurovision rules is that, every year, the shows have to start at exactly the same time. But with Azerbaijan being a few time zones ahead, Baku is further east than Baghdad, it meant we only saw the start of the show at 12 midnight.
Typically, countries either take their entry too serious, or send some campy act, often with hot babes or boys. Interestingly, it's always very hard to predict which countries will do well and which won't, striking the right cord at the right time being very important. More on my Eurovision impression.
Day 5: On a fact finding mission to Sumgayit
Azerbaijan lacks both political and press freedom, which means it's hard to uncover facts. The general story on the street was that all improvements to Baku were only superficial and done solely because of Eurovision. So we decided to check out the nearby town of Sumgayit, a industrial hotbed under Soviet communism and, supposedly, a sad backwater now.
The industrial graveyards apparently still exists, but we found that the city and the surrounding area is quickly being refurbished. As tourism was obviously not common in this little town, clearly, these upgrades were not being done specifically for Eurovision. More on what to see and do in and around Baku.
Day 6: The Dutch Indian
The second Eurovision semi final saw the Dutch entry, Joan Franka, perform. Dressed up like an American Indian, I met her during the private party the weekend before, where I told her that I thought her outfit would cost her a place in the finals. Perhaps that was the reason, but she indeed didn't make it.
This evening also saw Sweden, the later winner, perform, as well as Turkey, easily the campiest act of this year's Eurovision. The crowd went totally apeshit for Turkey, Azerbaijan being a, mostly, Turkic country, which is intriguing, as homosexuality is very much disapproved of in the country. More on my Eurovision impression.
Day 7: Talking to the Azeri opposition
Earlier, enjoying a beer in one of Baku's pleasant garden cafes, we were accosted by representatives of the pro-democracy movement Sing for Democracy, immediately after which they were kicked out. We met up with them again later, strangely, in the exact same cafe they were kicked out from, to get a better understanding as to what their views were on press and political freedom, Eurovision and whatnot. The talk was interesting, though the language barrier was tough. More on the Azeri opposition.
Day 8: On the streets of Baku
Sweden easily beat Russia at the evening's finals at Eurovision, though the popular vote was a tight race, the professional jury widening the gap between first and second place. During the day, I explored more of Baku, where the weather brought out the best in, mostly, the young women.
I also stumbled upon a large billboard using rage faces to promote a cell phone service.
Day 9: Taking the train to Sheki
As with mosts former Soviet republics, the train network in Azerbaijan is still cheap and pretty decent. A sleeper train, where I had a whole compartment to myself, was going to bring me to the town of Sheki, in the north of the country, in the foothills of the Caucasus. Trains are not so popular anymore in the Caucasian countries, primarily because, though cheaper and much more comfortable than busses, they also tend to be significantly slower. And, for some strange reason, you'll occasionally find that a city's train station can be kilometers away from the actual town.
Day 10: Of Norway and Azerbaijan
Just north of Sheki, even closer to the Russian border, there's the village of Kish, which hosts an important, and ancient, church, said to be the first church in the Caucasus. Thor Heyerdahl came here several times to do explorations and concluded that there had to be an ancient connection between his native Norway and the people of Azerbaijan. Perhaps far fetched, it's not total conjecture, but still speculation, at best. More on the Azerbaijan-Norway connection.
Day 11: A trek to Tbilisi
With the Azeri rail network going through Sheki doesn't go onwards to Tbilisi in Georgia, I either had to backtrack or take road transport to get to Georgia. I chose the latter, which meant I had to travel the 275 kilometers in six stages, which took the majority of the day. Perhaps the strangest experience I had was after crossing the river separating the two countries at the Matsimi border crossing, when suddenly I became aware of hordes of birds happily chirping away. Weren't there any birds on the Azeri side?
Tbilisi was rainy and gloomy, but the sunset over Peace Park was impressive.
Day 12: What seperates Europe from Asia
Technically, the whole of the Caucasus is in Europe, but I'd say that the cultural boundary between the two countries runs right through it. Azerbaijan has bidet showers (bum guns) installed in all of its showers, as does Armenia in most, whereas Georgia has none. QED. Note that, with Georgia and Armenia being Christian, and the oldest Christian nations on earth at that, this divide is not along religious lines.
Tbilisi is a nice enough city, but on my first few days, I found the fabled Georgian hospitality a bit lacking. Not that it was bad, it simply didn't match up to the stories. More on Tbilisi.
Day 13: Where Stalin became a man
Near to Tbilisi is the town of Gori, where Stalin grew up. The slum neighborhood he was born into has long been leveled, though the house he lived in as a boy still stands, with its own mausoleum covering it. Behind this construction, the Stalin museum is slowly changing from purely celebrating the former dictator to dealing with a slightly more complex image of the man who was personally responsible for defeating Hitler and murdering millions of Soviets. More on my visit to Gori.
Day 14: Taking the bus to Yerevan
With trains only going once every two days, I was forced to take a bus through the gorgeous landscape of Armenia. Intertwined with Armenia's identity is the mountain Ararat. Said to be where Noah crashed his ark after the flood, both Armenians and Georgians claim being descendents from Noah through his great-grandsons. Sadly, with Ararat completely being in Turkish territory and with the political issues between the two countries, Armenians can see the mountain every day, looming on the horizon, without ever being able to visit. Or rather, only being able to visit by having to go through Georgia first. More on my trip to Yerevan.
Day 15: The sights of Yerevan
I felt Yerevan was less pretentious and more friendly than both Tbilisi and Baku, probably helped by the fact that three old acquaintances, now friends, were showing me the sights of both the city and the surrounding area.
Armenia being the first country that adopted Christianity as a state religion, it's particularly this that instills a lot of pride with Armenians. Also, the Armenian churches are the source for how both European churches and mosques look. More on Yerevan.
Day 16: Ancient Christianity
Perhaps because Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity, the religion here is infused with more pagan aspects than elsewhere, the stone crosses, khatchkar, being one example, the Armenian 'eternity symbol', part of Armenian iconography, but essentially a sun, is another. Also, before Christianity was adopted just after 300 AD, the Greeks were already enjoying the spoils of the country, one leftover being the gorgeously situated Garni temple, just outside of Yerevan.
Day 17: Going to the most remote European capital
Nagorno-Karabakh isn't recognized as a country by most, so Stepanakert (Xankendi to Azeris) is really only the most remote provincial capital, but still. With the train network, coming in from Baku, no longer running due to the province having declared independence from Azerbaijan, the only way to get in is by bus from Yerevan.
The journey is slow, but gorgeous. Though our two hour delay due to a breakdown was really unnecesary. More on my trip to Stepanakert.
Day 18: Inside Nagorno-Karabakh
Nagorno-Karabakh is said to be an excellent destination for hikers, and the country certainly is very pretty, but besides nature, it also doesn't have too much to offer. Stepanakert is pleasant, but also very quiet. What once was the cradle of both Azeri and Armenian culture, the nearby town of Shusha, was all but annihilated during the Nagorno-Karabakh war.
Though effectively being governed as a province of Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh does issue its own visas. And if you have one in your passport, forget about entering Azerbaijan. On the visa, you'll find the symbol of Nagorno-Karabakh, the statue of grandmother and grandfather, just outside of Stepanakert. More on Stepanakert and the sights around the city.
Day 19: The caves of Goris
Back in Armenia, the town of Goris is known for its caves, 'old Goris', where the locals used to live before settling in the actual town. A cute but sleepy lttle town, the city was designed by a German architect, meaning the streets are neatly laid out on a grid.
A nearby megalithic structure, funnily enough called Stonehenge, is believed by some to be as much as 7500 years old. More on my visit to Goris.
Day 20: Tatev monastery
With Armenia's dramatic landscapes and early adoption of Christianity, there are plenty of monasteries in scenic locations. Tatev, now mostly only a tourist attraction, is one of them, perched on the edge of a ravine.
Tatev was an important medieval university and was built on the site of an ancient church. More on my visit to Goris.
Day 21: Perhaps the best brandy in Europe
One of the things Armenia is internationally renowned for is its Ararat brandy, the factory now being owned by Pernod-Ricard. They do tours of the facilities on weekdays and I was lucky enough to arrive just in time to attend the last tour of the week. Or rather, to stumble into the tour just before the tasting started, the best part of the tour anyway.
Being very affordable, I brought home a few bottles, only to finish one off with my host, later in Batumi.
Day 22: An easy day in Yerevan
With trains to Tbilisi only going every second day, I had an easy day in which I could shelter from the dust storm covering the city. To chill, I spent a few hours in the lovely Yellowstreet restaurant, where a yoghurt soup was one of the courses that kept my inner Babak a happy man.
Armenia, though tiny, has two distinct cultural regions, east and west. Not only do these regions' dialect differ, also their foods are different, with the west being more mediterranean, while the east is more middle eastern.
Day 23: Older than Rome
Yerevan is about as old as Rome, and officially even a bit older, though you wouldn't know it from the way the city presents itself, there being very little ancient architecture around, very much unlike Rome. The old fortress of Erebuni, the original Yerevan, where the city was founded nearly 3000 years ago, is just outside the town proper and clearly shows the strong historical and cultural links with ancient Persia.
Day 24: Modern dance in Tbilisi
Having to stop in Tbilisi before my onward travels to the coastal town of Batumi, I attended a modern dance performance at a cute little theater in Tbilisi's old town.
Just like in other former communist countries, performing arts are still an important, and affordable, form of entertainment. The show wasn't too bad, I suppose, although watching modern dance isn't my favorite passtime. More on my inbetween days in Tbilisi and Yerevan.
Day 25: The gorgeous National Gallery
I skipped Georgia's museums during my first visit to Tbilisi, so I went and explored several now, the best one easily being the National Gallery, hosting several photographic exhibitions and a cute, if pricey, cafe overlooking the museum's gardens.
Most exhibitions had a link with Georgia, several specifically with the Black sea.
Day 26: Georgia is looking west
Back in the day, it was Jason who arrived on Georgia's Black Sea coast in search for the Golden Fleece, which he managed to obtain with the help of Medea, whom he later married. Particularly Batumi, the town on the Black Sea coast facing west, has taken this as the excuse to put Georgia firmly in Europe, thanking Medea for her actions by putting up a statue of her in the town's square.
Day 27: East meeting west
Shortly before the second world war, the Azeri Kurban Said wrote the excellent Ali and Nino, a love story between a muslim boy and a Georgian princess. Set during the first Azeri oil boom, it's the perfect love story where east meets west and recognized all over the Caucasus. Baku has a bookstore called Ali and Nino on its main square, but Batumi goes one step further, having a moving statue on its sea front. The statue has Ali and Nino who, seemingly move towards each other and then through each other, uniting and separating every day. More on Batumi.
The next day, I took a bus for Trabzon, from where I flew to Istanbul to get back home. Adieu for now, pretty Caucasus.