Why come to Georgia? was a familiar question asked of me by locals. When I stepped off the plane in Kutaisi, in a mist covered, damp landscape I could understand. Or when the taxi drivers converged on the tourists offering ridiculous prices to take you here and there. Or when the tourist information guy told me there was no ATM at the airport. Or further when the bus into the centre was a ramshackled piece of shit leaving you no choice but to take a bus straight out of town and to Tbilisi. This was part of my plan but having your hand forced so thoroughly is surprising from an up-and-coming destination.
Soon enough it all got better as it almost always does. The minivan stopped at an ATM for money and snacks and then hurtled like Sonic the Hedgehog through the fine, green countryside littered with broken factories to the centre of the Georgian world Tbilisi, a place that didin’t disappoint once you found your way out of the chaotic bus station. I later found out all transport hubs in Georgia are this way. While public transport is functional, Tbilisi is home to the most Mercedes and BMW SUVs I’ve seen outside of Kiev. There is clear wealth here and its clearly divided.
The city is traversed by the Kura river and the old town on the south bend is under redevelopment. Vast sums have been invested to repair, rebuild, gentrify or simply wholly construct an impressive area, full of cobbled street overhung by picturesque balconies, statues pointing at various targets, parks with fountains and glass buildings to host this and that. EU flags abound as the country pushes for membership. Grand buildings in classic pre-Soviet styling inhabit the centre alongside uncountable numbers of churches. A cable car takes you above it all to the Lady with the Sword and Tea statue (Welcome but don’t fuck around) for a kind of lovely view.
The older parts of town look like they might in the 1970s. The cars have all taken significant damage. I’ve never seen so many ‘road worth cars’ with smashed in front ends. Men sit near the roads for long parts of the day discussing the world and what walks by. They have little hair and prominent features and yet are prodigiously hairy in everywhere else. There were many beggars, many fruit sellers, not much English and an alphabet impossible to read. But you get around, take pictures of men on horses, visit the museum, the orthodox church and some parks and hear stories about the mountains you don’t have time to visit. Georgia isn’t developed enough yet to allow for no planning.
The hostel was a classic throwback to the old days where people slept everywhere, the communal areas were a mess and the owner was laughing and drinking. Here he was a big, red-headed Azerbajani, full of ideas and sunburn. That was one of his lesser thought out ideas! It styled itself as a party hostel and never let us down. I can’t actually remember how two nights ended up. Something about climbing through the window and a broken water jug. The other involved Ring of Fire followed by beer pong in a pub. Being still on not on the general tourist trail and therefore inviting the hardier traveller, what would be considered now deficencies in modern hostelling are in fact the way it should be. I loved it. After a few days, I dragged myself away and took another rocket minibus to Armenia, a country I’ve always wanted to visit possibly because of it being the first Christian country in the world, alternatively because its in the middle of the mountains.
A few years ago I picked up a history book about the Thirty Years War. Its a war I was aware happened but few English people could talk about it. I was one of them. So I needed to know. The most important result of the inconclusive and wholly destructive war was the Treaty of Westphalia which created the modern conception of the state revolving around national sovereignty and religious tolerance. We tend to eulogise our own history hearing it through filters and forget that not only do other interpretations exist but other parts of the world have no knowledge or interest in our history. They are too busy creating, surviving and eulogising their own. Armenia is like that. The history I was about to see dates back to the time of Christ.
Entering the country was easy. Official borders are smoother these days, simply the tricks of administration and computerisation. However the rest is far more difficult to develop. North Armenia was noticeably poorer. Skirting round cows on the road is a usual sign of disorganised agricultural system or a pastoral care more often seen in vast Africa where pastorialism makes sense and parts of Asia where it doesn’t. This was the latter. Everything along the route was in various states of disrepair – abandoned factories, broken down cars and scrub fields. The minibus hurtled through one endless canyon on poor roads and desolute landscape while stopping for the driver to sell a car radio to a waiting policeman. Later it broke out into wider vallies and verdant mounds that reminded you of a massive Lake District up in the clouds. The further you delved into the country, the more striking it became.
Yerevan is of course the centrepiece of the country and the home of all the wealth, oppportunity and some of the best hair I’ve seen on women. While it wasn’t an attractive city overall to look at, it does surprise. There’s a vibrancy. The architecture is an interpretation on Soviet style grandeur. The streets are packed with people. For such a culturally homogenuous group, they look remarkably different. I’d add as well the girls are prettier than in Georgia and amongst the best you’ll see if you are into dark hair. Every street in the centre was covered with shops and chatter. It felt young and alive. Once I found the hostel called Penthouse and was suitably impressed by the receptionist, I headed out to see what I could see.
The Manhadaran is the home of Armenia’s ancient manuscripts. Some of these books are over 1000 years old. Parchments exist dating back to the 5th century. The books are brilliant preserved. There were also ancient maps, books on medicine from the 15th century and some old copies of the Koran. I never really thought I’d find this interesting but it was. The grandiose building is a natural attraction but inside is the magic. Naturally in the Dark Ages, the content was mostly religious. This system of control continue until the invention by Gutenberg of cheaper methods to print type. This interestingly is one of the great harbingers of democracy as wider communication became organised and news and political views could no longer be controlled by authority and mysticism.
In glorious weather and with two Poles, I visited the Cascades fountain decorated with Botero exhibits, the National History Museum, a fringe art gallery, the Museum to the Armenian Genocide and then we headed out of town to see some Roman temples dating back to the 5thcentury nestled in the vallies. The Genocide Museum brought a hushed silence to us. Leaving aside blame for now, the torment and death in their thousands make it difficult to believe this wasn’t actively organised. The repercussions of the forced explusions by the Turkish state were noticeably to all. We got caught up in the protests against the bus price rises with all passengers being thrown off one bus by the driver after locals refused to pay the elevated fee. Note to the 99%ers: inconveniencing yourself for the common good works.
At night Yerevan stayed alive. The central square was full of families, all generations hanging out together for the fountain shows. A lot more English was spoken here compared to Georgia. It was also signed. The men all had no hair and the beautofu slim women still hungout with them. We met numerous amazing looking girls. Later we (the two Polish guys and me) hit up a bar/nightclub and found the same phenomenen I’ve seen in various countries around midnight. Something I’ll post about soon. Similarly to Georgia there is a love of receipts. You get one with every purchase. I mean every purchase. However the 4×4 Lada stood out. Tinted windows made it look mean.
Like Georgia, I didn’t spend enough time in the country and was mostly based in the capital city. The countryside awaits my next visit. It’ll come.