Editor’s note: This is Part 2 of Donna Altes account of traveling in Central Asia. Part 1, the “Five Stans” —Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan — ran on Sept. 11.
I geared myself for a brand-new group of travelers, ready to begin a sojourn into the southern Caucasus region of the former USSR.
Arriving at dawn, as three of us flew from Turkmenistan to Baku, Azerbaijan, Our journey for the next three weeks would meander through Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia, all part of the ancient Silk Road, from the shores of the Caspian Sea though the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains.
Since I arrived a day earlier than the group, I was able to navigate through Bak independently, content to be unscheduled and free to roam.
Azerbaijanis were able to protect themselves behind city walls, until the 19th century, when the Russian Empire began exploiting the great oil reserves under the Caspian Sea. As I entered the gates of the Old City, I happened upon a French café, “Merci Baku.” Confused by the menu in Azerbaijani, I engaged the help of a friendly-appearing Russian Embassy interpreter, and a new friendship was born.
Armed with scads of suggestions as to where to walk, eat, drink and be merry, I was off and running.
Once again, I was awe-struck by the modern versus ancient structures. From the Flaming Tower Buildings, resembling fire flames based on the ancient Zoastrian religious rituals (which present psychedelic light shows at night) to the 15th century palace built by the Shirvanshahs, Baku is an eclectic capital city.
As we ventured outside Baku to the UNESCO Gobustan site, with an impressive number of preserved petroglyphs in their natural setting, we were in awe. There were no gates, signs, warnings, just innate trust of the sensibility of international travelers who venture to this isolated spot.
An hour later, stuffed into primitive four-wheel drive vehicles, we bumped our way to the desolate, windy locale of the natural mud volcanoes.
On the way to ancient Sheki, Azerbaijan (2,700 years old), we shouted at the driver to “Stop!” and we all jumped out into enormous fields of brilliant red poppies. We frolicked, posed, picked and ended up ruining our clothes with red dye and mud. The bus was a disaster after we climbed back on.
The driver again accommodated us when we were unable to resist the roadside bread makers, who were pulling steaming, aromatic bread out of the beehive ovens. I spied one lonely woman, down the road, with no one buying her wares. I bought one large circle of the hot, flavorful, mouth-watering bread. She ran after me with a miniature round and handed it to me with a huge smile. I touched my heart and returned the smile.
Our four-wheeled vehicles traversed the recently washed-out roads (due to ever-present enormous snow melt), leading up to the charming cobblestoned village of Kish, one of the oldest Azerbaijani villages, well known for its 1st century Albanian temple. As I walked through the tiny streets glimpsing the clothing, babushkas, and ancient structures, and, partaking in the traditional Azerbaijani tea and jelly ceremony, I felt immersed in a time and culture I only knew from the books and movies
On the way to the lavishly-mosaiced summer Palace of the Shaki Khan, we visited the local Sheki “farmer’s market,” where friendly, gold-toothed Azerbaijanis were selling everything from animal heads to Sheki halvah sweets.
Here, I entered a well-preserved, ancient caravansary, an inn surrounding a court, where caravans rested their weary camels and themselves, as they traveled the Silk Road.
On the road to the border of Azerbaijan and Georgia, the majestic Caucasus came into view.
The Georgian script is one of only 14 world alphabets and evolved around the 5th century B.C. As we stood at the defensive wall around the town of 18th century Signagi, Georgia, I was reminded of the centuries of historical battles fought on this spot. For an American, whose country’s inception is relatively recent, it is an unfamiliar, awe-inspiring paradigm.
For the next few days, Tbilisi, capital of Georgia, was our home base. With a diverse population, a richly-cobblestoned old town reflecting both Persian and Russian rule, Eastern Orthodox churches, art nouveau buildings, and the ubiquitous Soviet modernist structures, Tbilisi is colorful, compelling, and exciting. An enormous statue of the Mother of Georgia looms over the city, protecting the citizens, as it has through its diverse past.
Another woman and I ventured out on our own to see an avant-garde adult puppet show and stopped for a glass of Georgian wine (no need for Russian vodka any longer, the wines in the Caucasus are excellent). Before the end of the hour, the ex-pat American owner was a new friend. The combination of wine, exotic travel, and a willingness to step outside of one’s comfort zone to reach out to “strangers” succeeded once again.
At the Great Synagogue, built by Akhaltsikhe Jews in 1904, an aging caretaker asked if we would like a “private tour” upstairs to see the sanctuary. After we talked about his life, he asked if we would like to see the Torah scrolls. Excited, we responded, “Yes, of course.” He opened the doors; the moment was magical.
Another long, bumpy drive brought us to the isolated complex of 6th century David Gareja Cave Monasteries. By the 12th century, 2000 monks were living in these caves, but it was eventually sacked and looted in the 13th century by the Mongols. Several monks, are still living in this blissfully serene mountain sanctuary.
The many historical monuments of Mtskheta, comprised the next UNESCO site, a masterpiece of the early Middle Ages, reputed to be the burial site of the Christ’s mantle.
We were given a rare view into the Eastern Orthodox altar when they opened it up to celebrate the holiday of Queen Tamar. The solemnity, ethereal singers, and the sacred rituals, created a special serendipitous moment for us.
Climbing into the cold and high winds, we visited the monument fortress of Ananauri, ruled by the Dukes of Aragvi (13th-18th centuries). Centuries ago, Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, and so many others had stood on this spot. It was magnificent.
On the long, winding Georgian Military Road, the only main road through Georgia, on the northern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains, the views are starkly stunning.
Finally, we reached snow-covered Qazbegi, the “gem” of the Caucasus, where a multi-course authentic Georgian lunch was being prepared the by local women. We watched the creation of the Georgian dumplings — each requires 16 pinches. I could see myself running home and making them!
Four-wheel drive vehicles took us up to the top of the mountain to see the famous Tsminda Church. I closed my eyes for 45 minutes both ways, because the ruts were deep, muddy, and dangerous, especially when other vehicles had to pass each other, with a sheer drop-off and no room. I did a lot of praying. Some people horses on the way back.
When we left fog-shrouded Qazbeki, we drove by South Ossetia, still occupied by Russian forces looking out from watchtowers above barbed wire. We stopped to tour Stalin House Museum, located in Gori, the birthplace of Stalin. It was hard to process the reverence and pride that the citizens still have. To walk through his private railway car, while schoolchildren excitedly waited their turn, was surreal.
The decaying, yet beautiful frescoes at the Gelati Monastery, the stalagmites of the Prometheus Caves in Kutaisi, (where I feared I would never find the way out), and the imposing, frescoed Bagrati Cathedral, where we were serenaded by a band of roving minstrels, all contributed to the magic of the moment.
On the way to Vardzia, in the south of Georgia, close to the Turkish border, lies a medieval cave city, hewn into the side of the rocks at Mt. Erusheti. It was built after 10,000 Turkish troops marched into Georgia; these were eventually vanquished by a bold Georgian army of 2,000. In its heyday, it housed 50,000 people. It is said that Queen Tamar, Georgia’s first female sovereign, had 366 rooms – so that if Vardzia were to be invaded by the Persians, she would be able to lose the enemy in her quarters. Only 750 rooms are left, today, after an earthquake took its toll.
On the way back to Tbilisi, as we prepared to cross over into Armenia, we stopped at the town of Borjomi, which has glacial artesian springs. The hospitable women hand out cups of this foul-smelling water, reputed to cure everything, including infertility and impotence. I took one sip and secretly dumped the rest.
Crossing on foot into Armenia, the final country of this extended sojourn, I was reminded that we were not able to enter this country directly across the more convenient, shared border of Azerbaijan, due to centuries-old continuing hostilities between the two countries.
As we visited several more of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of the Hahgpat and Sanahin Monasteries, our bus, and “tourist” look caught the attention to everyone as we passed. Tourism is not an everyday event in Armenia. The ubiquitous above-ground gas lines are a visual blight on their environment, and the depressing, gray Soviet-era buildings, remain a constant reminder of that era. In spite of all this, the spirit of the people is wonderfully positive, welcoming, and authentic, while they attempt to eke an existence in today’s depressed Armenian economy.
Travel always involves changes in itineraries and inevitable bus breakdowns, but we were fortunate to break down near the resplendent, snow-covered Mt. Ararat, surrounded by luscious vineyards at the base, while we waited for rescue.
Housed in the Etchmiadzin Cathedral are sacred relics said to belong to apostles of Jesus and John the Baptist, as well as a fragments of Noah’s Ark, and a piece of the spear that pierced Jesus when He was on the cross. Amazing.
We experienced an emotional visit to the Armenian Genocide Museum, which guides you through the extermination of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during 1915-1923. To this day, some countries refuse to acknowledge the mass genocide of the Armenian people. A new movie, “The Promise,” tackles the Armenian genocide as its main theme.
This seven-week journey has caused me to reflect about parts of the world where Americans do not usually travel. The five Stans and the Caucasus are not uppermost on most Americans’ itineraries for leisure travel. For me, it has been one of the most educational and eye-opening cultural experiences I have had in this never-ending world of travel. This entire journey was a trip back in timed, exactly what I was seeking.
I can’t wait for the next turn in the road!
Suggestion for international travelers: I bought a tiny, lightweight book of pictures demonstrating everything a traveler will need. No language is involved. All you have to do is to point to the photo, and your needs —around the world — can be comprehended. Brilliant!
As was the 5 Stan’s excursion, the Caucasus trip was planned, executed and escorted by Jeff Garrett, JMG Tibet Tours – Jeff@jmgtibettours.com/866-548-4238.
The editor's note has been corrected since the article's original posting.