Back into a Stan.
24.07.2009 - 27.07.2009
From Tbilisi we took another marshrutka north, along the Georgian Military Highway to the town of Kazbegi, nestled in some steep snow-capped mountains, with the mighty Mt Kazbeg in the distance. Or at least, it should have been behind the clouds. Our stay in Kazbegi was mired by lots and lots of rain, which made most of the paths into the mountains into mud streams.
There was a little sunshine, in the morning, during which we managed to walk up to a breathtaking monastery on a wind swept peak above the town, it's beige stones standing out against the green grass of the mountainsides. After that, it started pouring down, with no apppearance of subsiding, so we decided to return to Tbilisi.
In the marshrutka, we met a few Georgian students who'd been holidaying in Kazbegi, although they ran out of money and had been boiling grass for food. They took us in as guests and showed us some famous Georgian hospitality. Big thanks to Sergei, Sandro, Pompe, Georgi and the gang.
First they took us to a folk festival, which eventually turned into a rock concert, which wasn't actually too bad, although Georgian conservative values shone through a little: the only people dancing were some drunkards, whilst everyone else laughed at them. Later we went back to Sergei's (decended from Georgian aristocracy, although that doesn't mean much now) for fine wines and dumplings. We had a lot of interesting discussions, and eventually got to sleep. Next morning, we were going to Armenia, despite warnings from the guys that and Armenia is a terrible place with horrible people (they said that Georgians were intrested in wine, whilst all Armenians are after is money)
My impressions of Georgia were very positive. The people are very warm, the hospitality is awe-inspiring (we left the boys with a really nice bottle of wine and a horn to drink it out of), and definitely one of the highlights of the trip so far. The scenery and the nature is amazing (awesome fruit).
The country is a bit of a wreck, but it is changing fast, President Saakashvili has made a lot of positive changes, the boys were especially thankful to him for returning the rule of law. Before, they were "street boys", who lived by what essentially were prison rules, which governed the whole country. They didn't go into what they actually did during the "bad times", but suffice to say it wasn't pretty. The new regime caught and imprisoned all the mobsters and corrupt officials, and almost instantaneously the county returned to law and order.
Georgian people are passionate and can get argumentative in politics, making it hard to reach a consensus, which means that no matter what any politican does, in a free society there will always be some camped outside the parliament building shouting for the downfall of the President. But hey, changes are definitely happening there, and compared to the nineties, it can't get worse.
A few minivans later we crossed the border into Armenia, and after hours of waiting and chatting to people heading to Istanbul on coaches (apparently there are no jobs in Armenia, so everyone goes to Turkey), we hopped on a bus going to Alaverdi, our first stop.
Alaverdi was a Soviet copper mining town in the Debed canyon, where most of the mining and mettalurgical complex had shut down (standard) and now most of the population was unemployed. Well, a very small part of the complex was functional, unfortunately, it happened to be the part that spewed white fumes that pollute the canyon. Surprisingly, this was the first (partially) working factory I had seen in the Caucasus.
Anyway, we stayed in another homestay, this time in a gritty Soviet flat (it seems that many flats are abandoned in the town as many people have left to seek out work elsewhere). I wont describe further in the hope that time will erase this memory...
The way we travel also had to change in Armenia, since all the moasteries are scattered in various lonely places throughout the countryside. Taxis are too expensive to be an option (it seems like the default job for anyone with a car, so predatory taxi drivers are everywhere), we hitch around and walk a lot to reach these places, which were specially built to be hidden away so invading armies (Arabs, Persians, Turks, Mongols, Russian etc.) wouldn't find them. These churches (especailly Hagpat and Salahin) were very beautiful, but seem a lot more sombre and austere that Georgian churches, made from a dark stone and without coulourful frescoes inside, just lots of intricate carving work. They have a solidity about them that seems to express their timelessness. They are very, very old (Armenia was the first christian kingdom), and will probably be around for a lot longer that I will (although maybe not, since I may live forever).
Finally we leaft the post-industrial wasteland, for the forested mountainsides of Dilijan.