Roadbook n°9 – The three little of the Caucasus

After 1 month in Iran, we are eager to begin our roadtrip in the Caucasus. It is Armenia, as small country as Belgium; Georgia, famous for its gastronomy and mountain range and Azerbaijan about which we have no idea, that are waiting for us on the other side of the border.

The quarrels that are taking place in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Azeri region under the Republic of Azerbaijan by Armenians or on the other way around for the Azeris of course, are nearby. Despite this strong military presence, when the guards see that Quentin is French, they get their smile back and constantly refer with pride to “Charles Aznavour” (famous French singer with Armenian origin). It changes from the quotes of “Zidane” and singing a few sentence with them relax a bit the atmosphere.

At 3 am, we are on the other side, excited to discover these three new countries during the next two months. In thurst of civilization and the Internet, we head to Yerevan, the capital. Every morning we push our departure and eventually stay there for eight days. This capital fulfilled us. Its unique architecture made of huge pale pink stones that cover all the facades of almost every Soviet building is very strange at the first sight, it is also called “Pink City”.image But it offers a lot of charm in the end. And this freedom … Cafés in every corner, music in the streets, bars, museums, art galleries, jazz clubs, women drinking their coffee in a park with their friends and children unveiled, uncovered arms, jeans … it seems completely normal for you but after Iran, it’s back to “reality”. But putting our cultural-shock aside, Yerevan’s a beautiful capital that has nothing to envy from our European capitals, if not their sizes.

What did we like in this small country at the end ?

- Playing chess in the chess academy of Yerevan dedicated solely to this game. Chess is a lifestyle here. Everyone plays since 7yrs old. It is even a class in schools, such as yoga in India;

- Taste the Armenian “snickers”. Nuts covered with dried fruit pastry. Excellent, especially the pomegranate ones. We find the same in Georgia but bigger and more floury;
– Enjoy the many jazz clubs in the city, mainly the famous Jazz Club Malkass which resonated in our bones for more than 4 hours with two musician groups;

- Learn that the Armenian cheese can be as strong as the French ones, we have the feeling that we drink directly from the cow’s udder;

- Visit one of the oldest monasteries of the country where you quickly appreciate the sounds with heavy and powerful echoes when monks sing like “Moooohoooo hooooo oooooo oooooo … Amen.” Let’s not forget that Armenia is the first Christian state in the world. Founded in 303, today they have dozens of monasteries across the country. We don’t visit a lot since the one of Geghart really amazed us;

- Take “Marshutka”. It is the main mean of transport in the Caucasus. This term is so representative of this crowded mini-bus where some have to stand with the head bent due to the short interior height or if you have the chance to sit, you have to share your seat between cartons of chickens (in the countryside, not in town of course) or packages! And yes, the Marshutka works also as the post office. As in Africa by the way;

- Take a train to Gyumri, a city where there is nothing to see and do. But the ride in this old train that runs along the Turkish border offered us superb views and also the opportunity to buy herbs, radishes and salads from our wooden bench of another century. Mobile vendors in trains or at bus stations, it’s a whole love story. Sometimes they have such original concepts. We love them, especially when our stomachs are rumbling. We had beautiful and unpleasant surprises. Everything is possible, really. In Azerbaijan, a men was running around with a real display on wheels to sell sunglasses (like in an optician shop), just before taking a bus. It can always be useful… We do not continue the list, it is too long. In short, we arrived in Gyumri and were welcome for a home-stay. Another beautiful evening. The next day we set off to discover the ghettos of the survivors of the earthquake that killed more than 50 000 people in this small town. Even though it was in 1988, the situation has not really changed. Many still live in those crapy old containers or metal caravan/do-it-yourself houses. We were invited by a family to drink a coffee. It was good, certainly, but the living conditions were not.imageBefore leaving for Georgia, we try to go hiking in the North East but the weather was against us… For our last day, we walked for hours, carrying tons of mud sticked on our shoes. So at end of May, we are in Georgia with a nice stamp in our passport but no transport to reach the capital, Tbilisi. We jumped quickly into a marshutka in the morning but it only dropped off passengers at border points. Most travelers already prepared their transport but as organized as we are, we have nothing. We therefore decided to hitchhike, without success. But after 30 minutes, we are in a truck. It doesn’t seem like, but truck driver have a pretty comfy place up there in their cabine. We will have a panoramic view over the next three hours before the driver drop us off at the roadside before entering the city. Where are we ? Where are we going ? We have no Lari (local currency) … Solution: jump on the first public bus that slows down in the traffic jam, hoping that it is going in the city center. After all, all roads lead to Rome, right? At the bus station, we take out those famous Lari to pay our transportation but the driver invited us.

Our entry into the capital made us quickly think of Budapest, the city of Agota. Between its majestic buildings (in this case a monastery more than 80m high) on the hill and across the other side of the river, the old city center. It is a total delight! This capital will remain one of the most beautiful of our trip, even better than Yerevan, but obviously not better than Budapest. We shall returned to it 3 times to get our Azeri visas that were constantly postponed. And the ultimate day, the officer did not want to give back the passport of Quentin. He thought it was another person with his long hair and bear. Since our departure, everybody think he is Israeli (most of the time), Mexican, Brazilian, Turkmenistan… Never French as long he doesnt speak.5mn later, we finally have it. imageBetween these multiple returns, we left for a week and half towards the Black Sea in to Batumi and did our first trekking in the Caucasus. Then another week in the North to do other hikes in the Caucuses, again and always. The last will be in the Kazbegi region, where we have pushed our limits.

On our map, we see a base camp at the foot of Mount Kazbek (5000m). Why not going there? The guides and fellow travelers that we met told us that the ascent takes 7 hours, there is a lot of snow and the rooms at the base camp are very basic. We rented two large sleeping bags, 3.5kg each hanging on both sides of our small backpack (we left our big ones as a caution because we did not have our passports), mountaineering boots and waterproof gaiters to join the camp because we will have to cross a glacier. Don’t imagine a glacier as in mountaineering films! It is all covered with snow anyway, but we still had our dose of thrill thanks to some crevasse and the sound of breaking snow of the avalanches on the other side. After 4 hours of walking, we believe that we are halfway. But the hardest is yet to come. Thick fog settles for hours on our way. We did not see further than 5m and walked like ants on the side of the mountain. This white paradise will turn quickly into a nightmare. The sliding of Agota between two mountain sides for 25m will scare us even more. Every time we thought we get to the camp but we were wrong. We were too slow. We spend more than 3 hours to cover the last 2km. The fresh, powdery snow climbed up to our knees, even thighs often. The ascent is endless. We saw the base camp on and off between the movement of two clouds and some sunlight – but with our mammoth walking, it seems like it doesn’t get closer to us. And the lack of oxygen begins. Physical and mental fatigue is rising above us. imageTo be honest, it was not really smart to go without technical clothing and trainings. Lack of sport on the road (not easy when traveling to keep in shape) will cost us, again. But we were closer to the end than the beginning, and then we had the most important: good health, good shoes and a big desire to finish quickly. It did not take us an additional 4 hours of walking but 7 so total 11 hours to reach this goddamn base camp! Literally exhausted, we crush down by the side of the fire in the common room and the guides, who quickly understood what we had to endure by looking at our face, took care of us. One, two, three … seven shots of homemade vodka to heal our feet, singing Georgian songs with a guitar. It feels good! In this old Soviet meteo station converted into a mountaineering base camp, there are no “tourist”, only professional or amateur mountaineers who all want all to conquer Kazbek. We are the only young (besides the guides), only couple and Agota the only woman who came up to say hello. We are quite proud to be honest! At 9pm, after a very light meal, our bed are calling us to regain strength before going down the next day. Not easy to fall asleep with all these stories of disappeared hikers who attempted the peak of Mount Kazbek or to join the camp at the wrong time… Sad reality! The next day we are more careful and take advantage of the views that the Caucaus is finally offering us. It took us 6 hours to go down but less than 15 minutes to devour huge kachapuri dishes, salads, beers, etc.

After this adventure, we make a stop in the region of Svaneti, very famous town for their traditional wines. Georgia is one of the oldest wine-producing nations in the world, maybe even its cradle. The first traces of viticulture dates back to 8000 years ago with production patterns of kveri (large underground jar). We would have stayed in this province a little longer, but the clock is ticking. Margaux, Quentin’s sister is joining us in less than 20 hours 600km away. It is time to take our sleeper train to arrive in the early morning in our last Caucasian country, Azerbaijan.

In Baku, the capital, we get our package from Lille :) We will change nothing regarding our travel style with her. Lose a day in transport for many reasons, taking hours here and there (especially market) to spend time with the locals, eating a little ears of corn and a packet chips for lunch, take public transport by squeezing tight on each other, walk 1 hour with our backpack to reach a hostel instead of taking a taxi to keep fit and watch our budget, sleeping in home-stays, etc … this is our life since 9 months. She will be the only person who understands our daily backpackers life, what we lived and how. She is the only person who can really understand what it means to “tcheu tcheu?” and all the circumstances that follows. Brackets of travel philosophy is over! So what have we done in Baku? Not much. Indulges in the city, smoking a shisha in a local cafe playing cards to catch up time, spend an evening with Azeri friends of Margaux to learn more about this country we’ve never heard about and its people so honest and good hearted!

We will stay just a day to the capital to focus our time in the countryside. Baki, as the locals call it, is a very cosmopolitan city (its history with black gold and the two neighbors dragging into it made it so). It is changing at Speed with capital S as it can be seen from the top of the legendary Maiden Tower with a 360 degree views over the city and the coast. On one hand, the city center, which has hosted the F1 race late June when we were there, is elegant with its old, aristocratic buildings of the Soviet era hosting luxurious boutiques on the ground floor. On the other, the beautiful old town center is enclosed by fortress walls from another century, viewed by this trio of dancing glass towers of 180m, called “Flame Towers” to refer to the country. We are on the “land of fire”. Behind we can still see the old port, off-and on shore oil drills and along the corniche modern malls, one of them reminded us to the theater of Sydney.

Afterwards, we will enjoy the virtues of a charming small town in the North, Seki. We walk to the foot of the mountains to admire the sunsets when the shepherds bring back their herds, playing OK-game with locals in a cafe, do our grocery shopping to enjoy all this strong and fresh herbs, look for sheep cheese, fresh bread, as we can not always find this in restaurants. They mainly offer meat or super oily dishes. But we were surprised by this dograma, cold soup of herbs which recipe we sent to our donors for their reward regarding our crowdfunding campaign last year! But that was only the beginning, a warm-up for Margaux. We reserved her a little surprise after.

At the foothills of the mountain Caucasus, some villages of few hundred inhabitants are living in autarky. Their Middle-Age lifestyle compared to the rest of the country made it a proud region for its values ​​and traditions. After 2 hours drive starting from a small town northeast of the country, we finally arrived in this village, its name we not reveal. Here, we speak Azeri and that’s it. With our little phrase book offered by the tourist office in Seki, we began a conversation with some guys who spend their time by checking how their watch is ticking, smoking their cigarettes with their hot chai (tea) in their hand, in front of the only “store” of the village. With body language and beautiful drawings, we seek a home stay for 3 nights. 30 minutes later, we think we got along to make it clear as our new friend Raouf was keeping repeating “no problem” and welcomed us in his home with brother. This decision is one of the most rewarding of our trip. These three days homestay, how rich in encounters and discoveries, will remain engraved in our memories forever. It was the best home-stay of the whole trip.image

imageLocated more than 2200m above sea level in the heart of a mountain range, this village is so charming with its well-built wooden houses, metal sheets and stones, including a shop, a mosque, a school and a games/party room. But how to summarize our days while we were living in slow motion, only walking around the village, playing with children, sleeping, eating, drinking like kings, bathing in a basin used for making cheese, driving in the sheeps, milking cows, etc. The photos of our photo gallery herebelow speak for themselves!

The next few nights were less comfortable. The first was on the little “couches” of Baku airport since our trio must split at 5am and it was impossible to find housing during the F1 race; the second on cartons of Pizza Hut and Costa coffee to protect us from the cold marble floor of Dubai airport waiting for our check-in 10 hours later. The third was under a mosquito net in a motel located in the middle of a carpenters market who built beds day and night. It was in Kampala, capital of Uganda.

The last roadbook (about Africa) will be sent from Europe. Today, we still have three weeks. The countdown starts!

Agota and Quentin