An awesome drive up the Georgian Military Highway

Georgia are playing Uruguay in the 2019 Rugby World Cup today. So the day has to start in a bar in the old town. The idea of going to a bar to watch sport has not reached Georgia. There was a dozen or so expats and a handful of very passionate locals. Still, at least they opened early and were showing it…..and Georgia won.

So then I had to play a bit of catch up.

The drive north out of Tbilisi on the Georgian Military Highway is awesome. We follow the river out of the city and soon start to wind our way through the Caucasus Mountains. It is wide at this point, maybe 500 metres across. Well into the mountains a reservoir has been formed behind a large dam, creating the energy to generate hydro-electric power. Behind it the river bubbles along in a shallow channel lacking any real force until the spring snows melt.

The rest of the width of the valley is taken up by rusty excavating machinery collecting gravel and sand. Inflatables lie in clusters waiting for the white water and the tourists. We pass the occasional village looking idyllic, faded houses hiding amongst old established fruit trees and mounds of hay.

The valley sides, and the slopes behind, have a dense fuzz of low deciduous trees displaying a blanket of turning autumn colours.

The valley becomes narrower and the road starts to climb into the mountains. The sides close in, the gradient increases, the slopes loose their tree cover and bare rock dominates. These are Georgia’s ski slopes and a fair bit of development is going on.

The road was built after the Soviet invasion of Georgia and is the main artery from Russia south. It is used by convoys of heavy lorries which trundle up and over the pass, maneuvering around the mountains bends with great difficulty.

Stephantsminda is a mountain village with one main attraction – Holy Trinity Church. The church stands high above the settlement.

There are two ways to reach it – walk or ride in a jeep. Sorry folks, I took the easy option. The landscape at the top is truly special, especially with the backdrop of autumn yellow in the trees and grasses.

As the sun slopes off, the temperature drops like a stone and cloud starts to whisp in around the houses down in the village, creating layered patterns of bonfire-like haze.

The delight that is Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia

We cross over the border into Georgia and it immediately feels like the different country it is. New language, new alphabet. The place where wine was first produced and where European Man first lived. The world’s first thread was found here, and also honey, thousands of years before Christ. Saint Nino is one of Georgia’s most iconic saints.

And St George is one of the country’s patron saints. Yep, the same as England. Have a look at the Georgian flag. Maybe we’re related.

Georgia has a population of 3.7 million and 1.1 million live in Tbilisi, the capital.

Tbilisi is true to its history. Old and new stand shoulder to shoulder, each contributing to the atmosphere and character of the capital.

The lemon squeezer towers of the cathedral and 12th century churches and the fortifications standing up on the high ground, overlook the shiny edifices of 21st century architecture. A smart cable car system links the two and making a clear statement that Georgia has arrived.

Most locals live in the many, large estates of 7/8 storey Soviet apartment blocks that cluster around the approaches to the city. The old town is home to many.

Locals are happy to sit and chat on the pavements and squares.

Tbilisi is a bright, vibrant place. Vehicles are modern and buses are bright and clean. Even the Hop On/Off buses look at home and are evidence of a booming tourist scene. Traffic moves freely through the wide tree-lined avenues, not always keeping to the speed limit.

Large parks and open squares combine to give the city its green credentials and a feeling of calm and freshness. The river adds to the feeling of peace and tranquility as it winds its way to the Black Sea.

Initially, Tblisis feels like any other European city. But as you delve deeper the influences of east and west & of ancient and modern are clear to see, giving the city a unique feel. The bathhouse complex, still operating, is one example.

Georgia was on the Silk Route and this is one of the many caravanserai in the cathedral, converted from a resting place for merchants and soldiers into a cultural center.

Elegant, modern architecture stands next to glass-roofed government buildings and then to cultural attractions like the puppet theatre, here, with its extravagent@y unique ticket office.

Tbilisi is well worth a visit.

What is the way ahead for Armenia?

I don’t really know what to make of Armenia. I’ve really enjoyed travelling around this country where everything is so very different. First impression from Yerevan is that it is a cosmopolitan, cultured place with a very western feel.

As one moves further away from the capital the mountains increasingly dominate.

Whether you live high up on the high ridges or down on the valley farmlands or in the concrete and steel of the towns and cities, life is hard, really hard. There is little money, winters are long and raw, industry and the infrastructure is painfully run down. The beauty of the landscape cannot hide the fact that with the collapse of the Soviet Union the country has been in a time warp for fifty odd years and it will require a superhuman effort to overcome the legacy of the past.

I can visit spiritual places and medieval monasteries and beautiful forests and eat juicy tomatoes and drink wonderful wine. I can interact with the locals in gardens and bars and share a laugh and shake a hand.

 

But then I pass through Alaverdi and any optimism hits rock bottom. This city used to have a copper factory. No longer. It now feels like a war zone with empty, wrecked buildings and a feeling of desolation and hopelessness.


From the 16th century Eastern Armenia came under the influence of Iran and Western Armenia became part of the Ottoman Empire. By 1800s the former was occupied by Russia and the western part, the vast proportion of the Armenian ancestral lands, remained in Turkey.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the Turks began the process of genocide against the western Armenian territories. In 1894/6 villages were razed to ground and 1000s killed. East Armenia sided with Russia in WWI. In 1915 the Turks began the ‘Turkification’ of the Armenian population. The men were treated as virtual slaves and labourers. Their families were sent into desert where they suffered enormously. Of a population of 2 million Armenians in 1915, only 388,000 remained in 1922.

This is the main reason why the population of present-day Armenia is 2.5 million and over 10 million ethnic Armenians live elsewhere in the world. The fact is that only 10% of Armenia’s ancestral land lies in the present-day republic. 90% of it lies in Turkey.

There is still much evidence of the Soviet Union throughout Armenia. The Russians are popular with many. They came to the aid of Armenia against foreign aggression throughout recent history and they still guard the border between Armenia and Turkey today.

The job ahead is huge. But the people are focussed on creating a fair society where people from different backgrounds can live together in harmony, reflecting the strength of their history and the nature of their geography. Good luck to them.

Lake Sevan is hugely important as a provider of energy, a resort area for locals and visitors and as the source of irrigation for the orchards and farms of the hinterland. Fish from the lake, particularly trout, are an important source of food. 28 rivers flow in, only one flows out. There are 6 hydro electric power stations which use the waters of the lake to produce energy.

The monastery at Sevanavank holds a commanding position over the lake and the resort that has grown on the shore near the President’s summer residence.

Lake Sevan is Armenia’s seaside. The resort is full of reminders of what Soviet summer fun must have been like. Bleached walkways lead to the water, rusty metal umbrellas cover flaking seats, tired bamboo shield picnic tables from the wind off the lake. Leather-skinned men, with cigarettes glued to their lips, offer boat rides.

The hawkers are here selling cheap jewellery, precious stones and local produce.

Then it is a drive into the Caucasus Mountains proper. The landscape changes completely. This feels like mountains. Tall deciduous forest grows up the side of canyons and gorges and through their turning foliage the highest ridges are bare and exposed. Streams provide a harmonious accompaniment of trickles and hushes on their descent through the trees. The road winds through this natural cathedral where sky and rock and flora combine to lift the spirit. Haghartsin Monastery is hidden away in the forest.

Dilijan is a small town nestling in a valley.

We pass through a Molokan village and drop into a home for tea. They are a sect of Russian Old Believers who live in their own communities and lead a very simple, rural life. Tea is very simple- tea, potato doughnuts, lavash (thin, floppy pancake-type pitta breads) with home made apricot jam.

One last night in Armenia.

The Wings of Tatev

Today we fly with eagles. We are taking the Wings of Tatev, the world’s longest reversible aerial tramway running 5,752 metres from the terminal down to Tatev Monastery. The journey takes 12 minutes. Two cable cars cross the valley,  suspended from two sets of cables running between 4 huge pylons. Below, the sharp faces of the Voratan Canyon are starting to display their autumn foliage.

At one point a relay of three golden eagles ride the thermals around the cable car.

The monastery consists of numerous churches, a university, a library and a refectory and dates from the 10th/13th centuries.

Now it’s time to head northwards across the mountains to Lake Sevan.

The Silk Road is not a single route. Numerous routes crisscrossed the area moving goods between the markets of Europe and Asia. Different routes travelled across this dry, dusty landscape – north-south and east-west. Caravanserai were overnight halts, or inns, where traders and merchants could rest up and replenish themselves and their animals before moving on. Selim was one such caravanserai, originally built in 1332.

Different spaces had specific uses: the central area was for the animals; the sides were to store the goods being carried; there were biars at the edge for fodder for the animals; troughs carried running water for man & beast. They were secure and offered protection to travellers on their long journey between China and the markets of Europe.

200 km to Goris in the southern Caucasus

Today we head south. The road crosses the flat, barren plain outdide Yerevan sandwiched between parallel lines of well maintained orchards of fruit – apricots, apples, plums, all displayed on the road-side stalls of the farmers. At one point rectangular lakes of water appear on one side. Strangely this is a big fish farming area and the signs over the stalls depict a range of similar looking fish.

We divert to spend time at Khor Virap Monastery. This was built in 1662 around the remains of a 6th century chapel where Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned for 14 years.

You can climb down a set of scary steps to visit the cave where he was imprisoned…as long as claustrophobia is not one of your conditions. The hole is 40cms in diameter!

The further south we go is like heading further back in time. The strip of orchards continues on either side, only its character changes. Soon we are in the wine producing area. Very good reds. Whites are a bit sweet. Irrigation pipes have been constructed alongside the road, like complicated, open Marble-Run systems running all the way from Lake Sevan.

The roads are very basic. In places only they are just passable and in places construction crews are laying new tarmac. The vehicles are also varied. New Mercedes lorries and coaches share the road with rusty trucks, Ladas and old Opel, many held together with wire and a smile. Ask your parents what a Lada is.The road starts to climb out of the valley and into the high rolling landscape of the mountains. It realy is layers of mountains, in front of layers of mountains against a backdrop of layers of mountains. Not the peaks of Europe but a more gentle, grass covered landscape of rolling bands of ridges and undulating folds of expansive green-tufted blankets and rugged rugs.


Meandering around the lines of valleys & high ranges, the road enters passes and climbs gorges and descends high canyons. Noravank Monastery, built in the 13th century, is set at the head of one of these gorges.

The road twists and turns following the tight contours of the land, up and down the curves and courses of the peaks and troughs. It goes on for miles upon miles with the only changes in the roll of the gradient and the changing lines of different types of electricity pylons.

Occasionally the road descends into a village where underground springs nourish summer trees or some basic crops on which to feed a few cattle and sheep and goats. It might provide a bit of energy to produce cement or other building materials. With no timber out clay in evidence corrugated iron takes its place as an essential pay of the building process. The motorway services….

Goris is our overnight stop.

Magical moments at Gehard Monastery

Armenia is so intriguing. It is only day two but I am already fascinated by this ancient country. There is some pretty nasty historical stuff which I will share with you at a later date but I want to give you a flavour of the place today as I find it, unpicking its many different layers to get to its core.

So, some images to extend your understanding of life in Yerevan. The wide, tree-lined boulevards give the city its cosmopolitan feel. But people need somewhere to live and work and the city expanded outwards in the 1960’s with tall blocks standing functional and strong to catch for the needs of ordinary people.

Today we drive out of town into the mountains. Armenia is made up of rocks and stones and mountains, with mountains behind mountains, hiding behind even more mountains. Once out of the city this becomes obvious.

These guys were singing in a small arched gateway looking out over the rolling hills. Awesome.

Gerhard Monastery is our destination, where caves in the hillside housed monastic cells and cluster around a collection of churches. The main cathedral was built in 1215. Let me take you on a magical journey. First we go up past the locals selling breads, sweets and dried fruits.

Through the gateway into the courtyard, the main buildings can be seen on the left. You know you are somewhere special when you are surrounded by ancient carvings and stonework.

It gets really special when you get inside a number of these worshipping spaces.

I am drawn to one. I think it’s the cathedral. It is dark and only lit by a central hole high above.

Three groups of singers come into my space and take me somewhere I’ve never been to before. Surrounded by dusty ancient pillars and carvings, their voices chant and hum and exist around me releasing emotion and releasing tears of wonder from my eyes. Wow!

So, you see, in one day you get Armenia – ancient and modern.