Armenia’s sun-parched plains banished chilly Europe from my thoughts. The first Christian state in the world, Armenia had a biblical quality. My melancholia disappeared as I explored ancient monasteries against the backdrop of the immense Mount Ararat. The mooted resting place of Noah’s ark, Mount Ararat is Armenia’s bitter symbol, for it was taken by Turkey and never returned. This post-Soviet state has other scars, including the genocide that killed millions. I visited the memorial, where a chilliing quote from Hitler asks, “who speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
However, it was this raw history that reinvigorated my desire to travel. I chatted with an imam at an Iranian mosque, visited a Roman temple, was invited to a stay on a local’s farm, and rode in an old Russian car with a family who spoke no English but who did stop for a cigarette break at a petrol station.
July brought me to Georgia, a land of shrouded mountains, barrels of wine and unmatched hospitality. The hostel I’d booked in Tbilisi was closed when I arrived due to bedbugs. This led me to Hostel Balcony, and how different everything would’ve been without this occurrence. With the friends I made here a raft of adventures unfolded. Niko, Marina, George, Casey, Amanda – by day we sweltered in the 40 degree heat, by night we drank homemade wine and feasted on Georgia’s sumptuous cuisine. These were days of decadence.
But they were also days of adventure. I climbed a snake-infested hill, crept through a hermit’s monastery, and looked across a vast wasteland into Azerbaijan while Georgian soldiers clutched their guns. The next day I was in the Stalin museum in the tyrant’s hometown, then hitchhiked to a cave-city called Uplistsikhe that had been carved into the hills.
One dreary morning Marina, Casey, George and I took a marshrutka to Signagi, a wine town. The heavens opened and while caught under torrential rain, we were kindly invited to shelter inside a local family’s home. Georgia’s famous hospitality was unleashed upon us, and a short wait for the rain to end devolved into an insane drinking session. The father of the house downed bottles of wine while fixing electrical wires. By the end I was too inebriated to remember Marina’s name, Marina was so drunk that she called an ambulance for George, while George vomited his viscera out on the cobbled streets before spending the night in hospital. And to think that it had all started with a coffee…
I left Georgia by night-train and woke up while crossing Azerbaijan’s oil fields. The border guards were grumpy gun-toting soldiers. They searched my bags, looking for contraband from their hated enemy Armenia, disappointed when they couldn’t find any brandy to confiscate. I spent the next few days in Baku, a mini-Dubai. The glitz and glamour was fascinating in the same way as a surgeon’s scalpel – sterile and disconcerting.
I escaped to the foothills of the Caucasus mountains in Sheki, where I met Peter and Julie. The next days were bliss. We dined on helvasi and piti; visited khan’s palaces, old villages and caravanserai; and drank pots of tea while playing boardgames under the trees.
I left Sheki and travelled with Arnheiður, hitchhiking through gorgeous lowlands fringed by the omniscient Caucasus mountains. We tried trekking in Zinalaq, only to be stopped by three soldiers carrying AK-47s. “Go up there and the Russians will shoot you,” the officer said, “you’d better come with us”.
Virtual prisoners, we followed them to their outpost, jumping over barbed wire and sandbags. Calculations were scrawled on the barricades for firing accurately at the opposing Dagestan border. But rather than having our throats slit and possessions stolen, the soldiers plied us with so much food and drink that I couldn’t take another mouthful, leaving with two bags of leftovers. Having escaped from the Azeri army, Arnheiður and I listened to Ziggy Stardust while sleeping under a million stars, drunk on mountain air and cheap vodka.
Arnheiður left for Kazakhstan while I returned to Georgia, hitchhiking to the border after I ran out of cash. “The All Blacks is my favourite team,” the border guard said as he stamped me through. While waiting for the marshrutka I talked to a Georgian girl called Nino, on her way back home from Egypt. That evening I arrived at the hostel in Tbilisi, hugged Niko, then had a night drinking chacha with Nino and trying new Georgian dishes.
The days that followed couldn’t have been better. I stayed at Niko’s home, where we played games on George’s computer all day and went out all night. One weekend I visited Kazbegi, the monolithic mountains dividing Georgia and Russia, driving the most jaw-dropping mountain road I’ve ever seen. The mountains’ height matched my severe comedown from the night before, making my ascent to Gergeti monastery a religious and also a physical achievement.
I returned to Tbilisi, and spent the remaining days with Niko, George and Kate. We ate khachapuri and drowned in kindzmarauli, while Robert Smith’s voice blasted our ears, “yeah I know who you remind me of…”. July was almost over and so fighting back the tears I said goodbye to Niko and George, then visited Mestia with Nino before leaving for Turkey.
Our marshrutka crawled up the passes, taking us to a land of blood feuds and mythical tribes in the high Caucasus mountains. We gazed at the ancient towers dotting the sweeping valleys, barbecued meat in the forest and drank Nino’s grandfather’s last batch of wine. To say it was poignant would be an understatement. Indeed, I wouldn’t be as happy as this month had made me for a long time.
Did you miss Part one? You can read it here.