The Caucuses

Armenia | Georgia

After Pakistan, it was straight to Armenia to reunite with Amee and Amani.    Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan form the Caucuses, a unique part of the world with Russia to the north, Iran to the south, Turkey to the west and Central Asia to the east – nestled between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.    They are all former Soviet Republics who gained independence in the early 90’s and their distinct heritage, culture and language is very evident.   

Armenia was the first nation state to adopt Christianity as an official religion back in 301AD so many ancient churches and monasteries dot the countryside and are important pilgrimage sites, towered over by Mt Ararat (supposedly the resting place of Noah’s Ark).   We visited the Khor Virap monastery where Gregory the Illuminator spent 11 years banished to a hole in the ground for promoting Christianity.  He later cured the King of an illness, prompting the adoption of Christianity.   Other sights included Noravank Monastery, a local winery and a cave where the world’s oldest leather shoe was discovered (dated to 6000 years ago!).     

Yerevan, the capital, is a lovely and upcoming city full of bustling sidewalk cafes and good food and wine.   We met many visiting diaspora, rather than tourists, which gives it a very local feel – and more and more are returning to live permanently.   At the Genocide Museum we learnt that, as Christians in a very Muslim region, Armenians have long been persecuted and many escaped death – especially around 1915 – by fleeing to other countries, including the US.  Ani, one of our business school friends, is Armenian and we were lucky enough to catch up with her in Yerevan for dinner one night which made the trip even more special.    Amee and Amani, who arrived before me, also attended one of her relatives wedding and had the opportunity to visit even more sights outside the city.  

Next it was onto Georgia, aboard a very meandering train.   After low-key Armenia it was a bit of a shock to experience the hordes of tourists in Georgia (relatively anyway).   Georgia is fast becoming a hot-spot tourist destination and for good reason.   Spectacular mountain scenery, interesting and good food, friendly people and wine, wine, wine.      Tbilisi, the capital, is a very cool mixture of the new and the old – most evident in the architecture where postcard pretty wooden houses with balconies mix with ancient forts and futuristic buildings and bridges.    We tried our hand at making kinkhali (Georgian dumplings), ate lots of kachapuri (kind of like cheese pizza with the cheese on the inside), did day trips to some of the most important nearby churches and monasteries (Mtskheta and David Gareji Monastery), tried out the Sulphur baths, wandered some markets and generally chilled out. 

Having heard that Georgia is a hiking mecca, I headed for Svaneti, a unique and mountainous corner of Georgia that has its own language and culture.   One of its striking features are the stone towers up to six stories tall – some created 1000 years ago – that were used as defensive fortresses from raiding neighbors.    Set in gorgeous green valleys with snow-covered 5000m+ mountains towering behind them, they are a spectacular sight.   My 3 day hike from Mestia to Usghuli (the most popular multi-day hike in Georgia) gave me a great opportunity to immerse myself in the scenery, stay in tiny villages and admire the mountain glaciers up close.    This was actually my first ever solo hike which went remarkably well; although I did fall over in a glacially cold river at one stage – with nobody to carry me across like they did in Pakistan!  

While I was off hiking, Amee and Amani did their own mountain trip to Kazbegi on the Russian border and stayed at the highly rated Rooms Hotel.   My friend Gaye has also visited there and they both raved about the region – great hiking and wonderful scenery with the advantage of a luxury hotel at night.   I’m very happy to report that Amani – just turned three – is proving to be an adventurous and determined hiker. 

Reconnected, we all headed off to the wine district, staying in a traditional stone house in the quaint hill town of Saghnegi.    Georgia prides itself on being the oldest wine making country in the world – with a tradition of 8000 years – and in recent years has really improved the quality to the point where Georgian wines are starting to get international attention.    It is particularly known for its amber wine (white wine made with the skins on for longer) and also wine made in traditional “qveri” clay pots.  Unfortunately Amee and I never quite got our wine mojo happening – and don’t have any favorite recommendations – although we did spend a lovely, rainy afternoon at one winery.   Many others have really enjoyed their Georgian wine experiences, so I think we just got unlucky.   On the positive side, Amani now knows the difference between red and white and dry and sweet and how to smell wine before tasting it.  

I parted from Amee and Amani, very jealous that they were able to head on to Azerbaijan (Amee reports that the capital Baku is very much like a mini Dubai– courtesy of oil money). I wasn’t able to go as Australia is not on the approved entry list during Covid.   I think it is the first time in my life that my Australian passport has failed me and I was not a happy camper!!    But I am happy we got to spend more time together and really enjoyed the Caucuses.   They are easy to travel in, very good value and steeped in history and beautiful scenery.    Put them on your list!  

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