17 Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia

AZERBAIJAN

It was midnight when the ferry approached the lights of Baku. On the peninsula above the capital, we could see the flames of the ancient Zoroastrian temple. After half a night in the customs area, we moved to the park-lined promenade of the Caspian bay.

The next day we explored the city’s ancient narrow lanes and climbed up the mysterious Maiden Tower with walls 5 metres thick.

It was an experience to dine in an old atmospheric caravanserai, decorated with local embroidery and carpets. (Even though we waited in vain for the cultural show and they tried to cheat on the bill). Internet was fast. We discovered a new blossoming of restaurants with lovely bright décor. Two of our favourite dishes were: sturgeon fish with layers of walnut, and “Dovga” (sour milk cooked with greens- a mixture between soup and salad).

Although Azeris practice the same type of Muslim religion as Iran, they are very relaxed and produce wine and beer. Baku was once the world’s most important petro-town and one of the five largest cities in the USSR. The Russians left some impressive cultural buildings and the usual soulless Soviet concrete tower blocks on the outskirts. Russian signs have been deliberately removed everywhere.

We had to obtain a visa for our next country, Georgia. The embassy was near the superb turn of the century oil boom mansions. Mobil HQ was in the grandest one of all.

We read that work on the 1,737-kilometer pipeline from Baku to a Turkish port on the Mediterranean had begun.  We hope that it and the proposed gas pipeline at the bottom of the Caspian Sea, would benefit the region without harming the environment and without angering Russia too much (Russia would prefer its existing pipelines to be used).

 

There was nothing cosmopolitan about the rest of Azerbaijan. The roads were of the usual bumpy ex-Soviet quality. However, the flat desert became hilly and afforded marvellous views of valleys, fields and the Great Caucasian mountains. We found a nice river to do the backlog of washing. There were old villages with copper and black smiths, neglected mosques and palaces and town squares with trees 700 years old. We followed signs through hazelnut orchards and tobacco fields to “Seven beautiful maidens waterfall restaurant”. Each table on a different ledge next to a cascade. They served only shashlik (but Jan didn’t mind!).

At a Police check in the middle of nowhere, we had the usual. “South Africa! Ah, Mandela!” (We thought: It is thanks to him and FW that we have been able to get into all these countries; there had to be some advantage to the new South Africa!)

  



GEORGIA  (SAKARTVELO, they call it)

We reluctantly paid a $38 (bad) road permit. Signs with Georgian squiggles replaced Russian writing. Close to the border little piglets were wallowing in the mud. Soon we saw the first stone church. We realised that we were no longer in a Muslim country. Georgia’s link with Christianity is as old as the religion itself. When the soviet Union collapsed in 1991 Lenin statues were torn down with great delight. In 1992 the country fell into virtual civil war heavily prodded by Russia. Anarchy and mob rule left the economy looted. More than 300 000 citizens are still displaced from disputed regions. It is difficult to believe that Georgia once had the strongest economy in the USSR. The area we drove through looked too dreadful! Buildings were derelict and vandalised. Houses were crumbling and no building or fence or sign had any paint on it.  Rubbish and scrap metal was scattered next to the pot-holed road.        

The capital, Tblisi, however, is a most appealing town. (In spite of some buildings overflowing with refugees and washing). We walked many kilometres from a convenient parking place. Bomb damaged buildings are largely patched up and burnt out hotels rebuilt. Georgian heroes have replaced the Lenin statues. There are old dwellings with wooden balconies, tree lined lanes, a river valley with castle ruins and many imposing churches. Soviet white-wash was being removed from monastery paintings.


Georgian’s love their food. There were so many restaurants everywhere. They    

 filled up at lunch times and in the evenings the dancing and music went on till late. Wine was served in large jugs. The toasting ritual is taken very seriously, usually with vodka (never with beer). The toasts are usually “to peace”, “to Georgia”, to guests, to ancestors, to children, etc. They usually had dumplings filled with meat and mutton kebabs. Other local specialities are cheese turnovers, and dishes prepared with sour cream or pomegranate juice. Kiosks sold a dangling sausage-like sweet: stringed walnuts covered with jellied grape juice.  
 
        

The road signs out of Tblisi were in Georgian squiggles but we found our way through the wine region. It was October and there were grapes on the vines. (Although Gorbachev’s anti alcohol campaign had chopped the wine production to one tenth of what it had been).

 


ARMENIA                                                                                        

15 out of 15!  This oldest Christian country was our 15th ex Soviet state.

CIS: Ukraine, Moldova, Belorus, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Russia, Kazakstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia.

In the 1st century it was one of the world’s greatest powers. Poor little Armenia has been in between warring nations and competing religions for millennia. It was not ready to cope without Big Brother when the USSR collapsed. We hoped that our visa fee of $76 each would go to a good cause!

The badly maintained road took us past lakes and through forests with autumn colours. When we stopped to collect water from a mountain stream friendly Armenians invited us to share their meal.

Yerevan, the capital, has a grand central square with fountains and imposing Soviet Buildings. In the university grounds we admired the large collection of ancient Armenian manuscripts. “Due to wars and earthquakes, Armenian churches often lay in ruins. Armenians had only one reliable instrument – the book – taking upon itself the great cause of preservation of culture, faith, wisdom and beauty” (Kim Bakshi).

   


    
  

The many open-air cafés give Yerevan an almost Parisian atmosphere. We discovered two very elegant restaurants with fine food and gracious waiters (one played the piano for us.)

                                                                                                                       

 The famous Ararat cognac is produced in Armenia. The snow-capped peak of Mount Ararat

is visible from Yerevan, although it is now in Turkey having been grabbed from Armenia in 1915. The borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan are closed and as it is also in a state of war with Azerbaijan, we were glad that the narrow corridor (30 km wide) leading to the Iranian border now had a good road built to overcome the Turkish-Azeri blockade. This saved us a very long detour back through Georgia. And so, after 5 months in the ex-Soviet Union, we left the CIS, where Russian was the lingua franca and entered the Indian sub-continent with English again widespread; nostalgia and relief!

After Russia and the ex-Soviet states our route was: Iran, Pakistan, India, Nepal, (Bhutan), Bangladesh, India, Malaysia.

 
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