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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Wonders Await Caucasus' Brave Visitors




A month ago, a friend and I visited Baku, Tbilisi and Yerevan, spending several days in each of the three capitals. When choosing our vacation destinations, we were driven by two seemingly contradictory desires: a holiday-maker's longing to experience the beautiful way of life that exists there - with hearty food, wine and bright sun - and a journalist's curiosity to peek over the edge of the boiling pot that is the Caucasus, without burning ourselves.


The former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia are lands of incredible contrast and great hospitality, but they have been rather neglected as tourist destinations because of the bloody ethnic conflicts that stain their reputations.


Although most of the hot spots, including Chechnya, are across the mountains to the north, Azerbaijan and Armenia still have not settled their long-standing dispute over the Nagorny Karabakh enclave, and Georgia has not made peace with Abkhazia, a separatist region along the Black Sea.


Since all railway and air travel between Azerbaijan and Armenia has been cut for years, our route was bound to go through Georgia. We flew into Baku and traveled to Tbilisi, and then took an overnight train to Yerevan.


On all sides of the borders, we had to deal with extortionist border guards, who blatantly demanded cash to "solve" the "awful problem" with my Soviet passport, which lacks a stamp proving my Russian citizenship. At the border with Georgia, an Azeri guard gave my British friend a hard time because of her Armenian visa. "Do you happen to know they are our enemies?" he said with indignation, just because it seemed to him like a good enough reason for a bribe.


AZERBAIJAN


Baku greeted us with an unbearable, humid heat. We cooled off in the air-conditioned apartment of a friend, and found ourselves in the atmospheric equivalent of a hot broth as soon as we walked out again. The air was a cocktail of sea breezes off the Caspian, car fumes and the sweat of passers-by, mixed with the delightful aromas coming from food stands and the unappetizing smell of rotting vegetables.


Baku used to be the buzzing, multicultural business capital of the Caucasus, and somehow it has managed to keep the feel, even though its heyday is over. Baku residents share the town with ghosts of assorted characters from Zarathustra to Stalin, in whose careers the city played an important role. Chess master Garry Kasparov and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich are both Baku natives.


We strolled the streets in the center, enjoying the beautiful oil boom buildings with their European facades and wide, ornate balconies, and then dove into the Old Town. Looking at the tiny drop representing it on the city map, it was hard to imagine that for centuries the whole of Baku was inside its ancient, yellow walls. When the oil boom hit 100 years ago, the city spilled out overnight.


To this day, the Old Town is perhaps the most appealing part of Baku. It is a wonderful combination of an open-air museum with a lived-in feel. Wandering from the ninth century Maiden Tower to the Shirvanshakh Palace on the far end of the enclave is an adventure. The narrow, winding lanes may lead to an impasse or suddenly bring you out to an elevated spot with views of the roofs of the Old Town buildings and the sea.


Extreme poverty and oil money luxury coexist. Beautifully renovated oil mansions with frescoes and gilded decorations and mosques sporting enormous crystal chandeliers alternate with crumbling residential quarters. After walking past a well dressed woman chatting away on a mobile phone and shops selling expensive handmade rugs, you are likely to come across a housewife in a ragged robe washing an ugly, synthetic Soviet carpet in her tiny courtyard.


We devoted a day to a trip to Gobustan to see its ancient petroglyphs and mud volcanoes. We waved down a yellow cab on the street and drove south for an hour between the colorless, barren steppes of the Apsheron peninsula and the sea, punctuated with triangles of oil derricks.


Our destination was an island of rocks in the middle of a lifeless desert that was once a lush subtropical forest populated with wild animals. What was a high mountain in prehistoric times has over the ages been reduced to a scattering of half-destroyed rocks and caves.


A worker at the local museum, bored to death, gladly took us on a tour under the scorching sun.


Incredibly well-preserved pictures of bulls, hunters, boats and women could be seen on the rocks. Our Azeri guide was especially fascinated with his ancestors' loving depiction of women. "Pay attention to the thin waist and ample chest part," he said, pointing to the figures with a wooden stick.


Large musical stones, placed on three large boulders, have stood in Gobustan for centuries. Thanks to hollow parts in their structure, the stones produced pleasant sounds like those of a xylophone when we knocked on them with a pebble.


The guide showed us the way to another local curiosity, the miniature mud volcanoes. We left our car, which looked like a yellow messenger from Earth's civilization on the deserted landscape of an unknown planet, and walked toward a group of volcanoes about 2 meters high, which were formed from mud and were adorned with picturesque cracks. A dough-like, smooth, black mass slowly boiled inside, spilling over occasionally.


The mud was shallow and cold - our guide said it boils because of natural gas that comes to the surface, sparing the peninsula from earthquakes.


Some people come to Gobustan especially to collect the mud, considered medicinal. We chose not to try the dubious pleasure of a dip in the volcanoes, and swam instead in the Caspian Sea, which was so warm and salty it did little to refresh us.


On the train bound for Tbilisi - there were six of us in a compartment where the window was nailed up - we prayed for some fresh air. The problem was solved when some passengers took the glass out of the corridor windows; however, when you walked to the toilet at night you risked being bounced out of the train accidentally.


GEORGIA


After being given a hard time at the border, where even locals whose papers are fine prefer to get out of the train and take a bus to escape the hassle, we were in one the most attractive cities of the former Soviet Union.


Zoya and Maya, a mother and daughter who saw us deal with the border guards, and who were anxious to make up for such an inhospitable reception, invited us to their home before we found a hotel. We ended up staying with them for a week.


A huge man with a broken nose who drove us to Maya and Zoya's house turned out to be the Georgian champion in blowing the hot-water bottle. He entertained us the whole way with his plans of getting into the Guinness Book of World Records by breaking the 53-second record in his unusual sport, and also shared his views on politics and women's fashion.


It seemed like a good start, and after a walk along Prospekt Rustaveli past the colorful, wooden, century-old palazzos, which create a Mediterranean feel despite the absence of the sea, I realized that I had fallen in love with Tbilisi at first sight.


A visit to the sulfur baths, an urgent necessity because of the excruciatingly hot train ride and a chronic lack of water at the place we were staying, only intensified the impression.


It was for these foul-smelling springs that Vakhtang Gorgasali transferred the capital of his kingdom from Mtskheta to Tbilisi in the fifth century.


Later, Moslems built their traditional breast-shaped baths on the site, with an ornate entrance reminiscent of the facade of a mosque. For the equivalent of a dollar, the most unforgettable pleasure awaits visitors to these baths, which occupy a whole district in the Old Town.


The dim, round shower rooms with their unpainted walls and a single hole for light in the ceiling have a certain mystical ambience, enhanced by the clouds of vapor smelling unwelcomingly of rotten eggs.


A rotund old woman with the figure of a prehistoric stone idol offered us a massage with a kisa, a harsh mitten drenched in vinegar.


After a vigorous rubbing, we were covered in disgusting rolls of dead skin; but once the dirt was washed off, we felt perfectly clean and blissfully relaxed. Few things in life are better than the moments we spent sitting afterward on the balcony of Mama Rosa, a cozy Italian restaurant next to the baths, recovering with unchecked amounts of sweet tea and lemon.


We wanted to go to Batumi, the remaining Georgian resort on the Black Sea since the subtropical towns of Sukhumi and Pitsunda were lost to rebellious Abkhazia, but our attempt to get on the train failed because of a hopeless lack of tickets.


Instead, we hired a driver to go to Gori, the birthplace of Josef Stalin, and stopped at a few wonderful places along the way.


Our first stop was Dzhvari, a lovely sixth century monastery on top of a mountain overlooking Mtskheta, Georgia's ancient capital, which is nestled in the gentle curve of the Kura River where it meets the Aragvi. The soft stone church looked as if it was melting, its upper layers licked off by the wind. The corners of the building had rounded, and columns had become thin in the middle. A monk in black robes sat running his fingers over fish-shaped prayer beads, an embodiment of tranquility and spiritual concentration.


Georgia's conversion to Christianity occurred in Mtskheta in 337, and until the 12th century, it served as the residence of the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church. One of the most sacred places in Georgia, Mtskheta's Sveti-Tskhoveli cathedral is also a coronation and burial site for Georgian rulers, including Giorgi XII, the last Georgian king, who died in 1800. After his death, the country was annexed to Russia.


We arrived just in time for an evening service. A redheaded priest conducted the service as three young men, casually dressed in jeans, sang in the choir like angels. A long-haired pilgrim walked barefoot into the church and prayed humbly behind a column. A sad-eyed Georgian Jesus peered down on us with pity from a fresco on the altar wall.


Gori was a totally different experience. The cult of Stalin is still alive there. The whole street where Iosif Dzhugashvili was born was destroyed and a tremendous museum and park were built there in the 1950s. The Dzhugashvilis' humble house was encased in a marble sarcophagus. Two guards slumped smoking on the porch, desecrating the sanctuary.


The museum, with a colonnade and stained-glass windows, mainly consists of photographs of Stalin and gifts given to him by the people. The exhibition's curators obviously assumed visitors' complete literacy in the history of the Stalin era and gave no commentaries.


The exhibition did communicate a couple of new details about Stalin. Like all dictators, he had his soft spots. While Adolf Hitler left behind his bourgeois landscape paintings, Stalin's heritage includes a couple of sentimental poems.


One of the few unobtrusive hints that he may not have been so nice, Nikita Khrushchev's report discrediting the cult of personality, was discreetly tucked in a corner.


We were completely alone in the museum. A worker startled us, suddenly appearing from nowhere. She ordered us to go see something displayed in a round room where there was no light, and we obediently followed her in. When after peering for a long time in the darkness we made out Stalin's death mask, we shuddered from irrational horror. A wooden box painted by Stalin's son Vasily, who was left by his father to die in German captivity, was the only thing we stopped to see before rushing out of that spooky place.


ARMENIA


Around 4 p.m., people started gathering on the terrace of a sanatorium, a hideous concrete slab hanging over the calm, pale-green surface of Lake Sevan. The sky was cloudless and the solar eclipse was perfectly visible. The black coin of the moon grew with visible speed over the sun, which was bright orange through a piece of smoked glass and electric-green through the peephole of a welder's helmet.


Kids clapped their hands with excitement. Adults discussed the reasons for this ominous natural phenomenon. A photographer struggled to find a good angle to take a picture, laying his camera up on the bench of an ancient hilltop church. An old man with a duduk, a bass Armenian flute, seemed to be the only one who didn't care about all the fuss, absorbed in his meditative tune.


When we arrived in Yerevan the day before, I wrote up a plan for our visit over a breakfast of eggs fried with basturma, delicious spicy sausage, and grainy Turkish coffee. The list read: Matenadaran, the library of ancient texts, some of them written by Mesrop Mashtots who in the fifth century created the Armenian alphabet single-handedly; the museum of the genocide of the Armenians; then the museums of Martiros Saryan, the great painter, and Sergei Paradzhanov, one of my favorite directors; and, of course, we should not forget to buy some genuine Armenian cognac!


But instead, the next morning we found a driver and went to Lake Sevan, a clear pearl amid the yellow, arid hills. In the 1950s, when a hydroelectric station was built on the Razdan River, the water level fell significantly. The ninth century Sevan monastery, which used to be located on an island, is now surrounded by water only on three sides.


We had a great day swimming, and then watched the Aug. 11 eclipse. Our driver, an old man, came to pick us up on the way back from his 100-year-old father's bee farm in a nearby village.


The visit to Yerevan's points of interest was put off one more day so we could visit the Geghard cave monastery and Garni, the only pagan, Hellenic temple on the territory of the former Soviet Union.


We drove across the lifeless, Biblical landscape of Armenia. It was impossible to imagine the succulent local peaches and melons growing on such dry land. I was starting to doze off, bored by the bleak, monotonous views, when suddenly we found ourselves in a natural amphitheater. Mountains abounding with caves rose up around us.


A 13th century church was built against the rocks. After its completion, several adjacent chapels were chiseled out of the mountains. A ray of light, bright and tight as a string, fell from a hole in the dome onto the wall.


We came out stunned, and sat next to a spring. There we listened to musicians playing the duduk and drums at a large family celebration. People made shashlik, drank tuti oghi, a strong, homemade mulberry vodka, and sang. Reluctantly, we left earlier than we would have liked, tired of the attention of a group of young men who kept trying to make friends with us.


The Garni fortress, residence of Armenian kings from the third century B.C. until the fourth century, is located conveniently down the road from Geghard. A Hellenic temple, built in Garni to commemorate Alexander the Great's march through Armenia, was destroyed by an earthquake in the 1960s and then rebuilt from its own rubble.


Realizing it was our last day in Armenia, we went to Echmiadzin, the residence of the head of the Armenian Church. Built in the fourth century and rebuilt in the Middle Ages, the elegant church somehow failed to impress me - perhaps because of its expensive, slightly touristy look, or maybe just because it was impossible to be stunned by anything after Geghard. It was hard to imagine parishioners smashing doves' heads against the walls of the cathedral on feast days and feasting on sacrificial lamb on the Echmiadzin's manicured lawns.


Before taking off the next day, we finally stole a glimpse of Mount Ararat from the airport. The sacred mountain of the Armenians, actually located in Turkey, was invisible most of our stay because of a sunny haze. We never did find time to see Yerevan's sights, but that just gives us one more reason to go back.