Common Sense and Whiskey, the Book – The Southern Caucasus, Chapter Fifteen

Here is Chapter Fifteen of Common Sense and Whiskey, the book, a very short trip through Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. Track down previous chapters here. Click the photos to make them bigger. More photos and additional commentary are available at A Common Sense and Whiskey Companion. And here's the Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia Galleries at EarthPhotos.com. Order the entire book for $9.99 at Amazon.com, at BN.com, or the Kindle version (just $4.99).

  ViennaAirport

The Wien Flughafen stood disturbingly deserted at night, all the shops stocked like Christmas, but you couldn’t play with the toys. They glittered and blinked coquettishly behind glass doors pulled shut.

Our old buddy Austrian Airlines left Vienna on a beeline toward Budapest, then Timisoara, Bucharest, Constanta, over the Black Sea to Trabzon and on into Yerevan, all of it in blackness below. The flight tracking screen showed our destination tucked right in between Grozny and Baghdad: “Local time in Jerewan 4:31 a.m.”

Austrian’s corporate color scheme was brilliant red, the national color, and the cabin crew was dressed red hat to sensible (but red) shoes. Fetching, I thought.

Taxiing out (“We are number one for takeoff”), a wail arose behind us. A woman screamed “Go back, go back and check!” Crimson crew rushed to her and kneeled and huddled round our distraught Armenian. One of them came back forward and PA’d their apologies, “Dis is not Azerbaijan, ve know dis.”

The safety announcements were recorded, and they were for the wrong destination. This woman wasn’t by God going to Baku. Azerbaijan’s border with Armenia had been shut tight for fifteen years.

All the Armenian men wore suits. Tomorrow was Whitsunday, “Something after Orthodox Easter,” the lead flight attendant explained, “You know, about when Jesus goes up in the air….”

It might still have been the Soviet era but for all the smiles at the otherwise wholly Soviet Zvarnots airport. They still wore the huge Russian era Hats of Officialdom. As Levon, our man in Armenia, went to fetch his Volga sedan we shuddered at the concrete monstrosity of an airport the Soviet Union had imposed on its Armenian Republic.

Out on the road Levon swept his hands expansively. “Las Vegas of Armenia,” he said as we rolled through a garish land of neon casinos, empty but lit at 5:00 a.m. The very faintest hint of a brightening horizon gathered below Mars and we headed through deserted streets, over trolley tracks without the trolleys and through deserted traffic circles.

Wide boulevards stood utterly dark under streetlights, not a single one lit. Benzene stations and shops with indeterminate wares were lit by multi-colored neon and looked architecturally like maybe the Dari-Dip in the 1960s back home.

A vague scent of damp fires, cheap coal and urine evoked memories of the distinct smell of Soviet Russia. After the sign marking the end of Yerevan (the word Yerevan with a line through it, the way they do), a chill settled over the fields and we cruised down a serviceable four lane split highway to Khor Virap Monastery, about 30 kilometers south of town. It was closed when we arrived.

We served ourselves up as breakfast for mobs of mosquitoes. Levon made us understand that the fourth parallel road out that way was in Turkiye, as was Mt. Ararat, which towered beyond. A really big statue on a hill, Georg somebody, Armenian partisan, stands and taunts the Turks still. Levon explained that ahead on this road was Nagorny Karabakh. He used “Nagorny” (meaning “highland”), while we always hear the Soviet era name “Nagorno” at home.

KhorVirapMonastery

Khor Virap and Mt. Ararat at dawn.

 

When they realized they had guests, the Khor Virap caretakers agreeably opened up and let us poke around the main building, which dates from the 1600s, like everything else seems to between the Caspian and Black Seas. The guy with the key walked around in sort of Mediterranean shirttails-out fashion and the other fellow mainly sported a massive mustache.

Levon pointed at a smokestack and told us, “Cement factory.” I may have gotten him all wrong, but he seemed to take pride in explaining, waving his finger and emphasizing, TWO cement factories! Could it be there are only two cement factories in Armenia, and that even so this is a source of pride?

Levon would later drive us to Tbilisi (Tiflis to him), so we got to know Levon’s Volga. It was black inside, with a Blaupunkt cassette player, a picture of virgin and Son on the dash and a pair of miniature boxing gloves hanging from a visor. A ding on the windshield caused the view to warp precisely at eye level.

Levon himself was very fair in a world of dark Armenians, and well turned out, in a gray jacket, checked white shirt and black slacks. With his ready smile, you felt you could trust him.

And the landscape, sun up now, felt comfy too, spread out, with long sight lines, hills gently rising into the far distance, backed in one or two directions by snowy mountains. People worked the fields as the sun rose. Four car doors were strung together to make a gate across a lane through a field.

Straight ahead ten miles down the A325 highway Armenia, Turkey and Azeri-held Nakhichevan met, and another six miles down the road was the border with Iran, but it wasn't a landscape you'd associate with Iran. Fields of just emerging low yellow crops, perhaps rape, stretched among tall cedars and slender poplars.

The common folk sold petrol from soft drink bottles on tables by the road. One lady sold flowers, too. Flowers and petrol.

The good people of Armenia are close to the earth. Farmers, just the shapes of them really, moved toward the fields, rakes, hoes and scythes over their shoulders. Three heaping baskets of strawberries filled the back of an orange Lada ahead of us as we rolled into Yerevan.

Yerevan streets were rife with remnants. Leftover communism, not their fault but their reality: remnant autos, housing and attitudes. Used Ladas and Zighulis and Volgas. Not as much nouveau flash as contemporary Russia. Lots more like Russia than the U.S.

Couples aging and young alike sat under trees and flirted. Men without shirts mowed a forlorn park. Mashtots Avenue was busy with traffic and shops and change booths, and young people with their phones.

If you were young in Yerevan you had a cell phone. The telephony infrastructure was so decrepit it behooved to erect towers. The girls wore tight pants. Unfortunately what passed for male fashion was still the black-with-trim, mafia-and-running-suit look that used to be the rage in post-Soviet Russia. 

Newlyweds, preceded by a car video-taping their antics, stood through the sunroof in their limousine, as they took a few spins around Republic Square in the center of the capital.

RepublicSquareYerevan

The Foreign Ministry on Republic Square, Yerevan.

 

At an outdoor café associated with the Palace of Culture a half block off the square, a former Peace Corps volunteer remarked how Armenia had grown sharply more European in his five year absence.

We had business at the Sati Travel Agency, where a manager named Noune sat us down for remarks. She kept pulling a shock of gray back into her black hair.

She told us about her sons, in photos on a table behind her. This one was in Boston! A medical student! The other? Oh, he lived in Moscow. She was dismissive. He was in television.

Noune was only some months into her job. She had been a concert violinist but finally resigned herself to the need to get paid. She complained, “Our only pension is ten, fifteen dollars a month. Electricity is expensive, sometimes more than one hundred, but some people make less than one hundred.”
“In the U.S. I know, you can make five thousand, ten thousand dollars in a month, it is depending on what you do, but here? Maybe two hundred.”

That’s a big difference. There’s also a difference in what she says Armenians expect from their leaders.

“We take care of each other, we can not expect the government to.”

•••••

Blood feuds have plagued the Caucasus for centuries. Some clans in Chechnya have been at war for so long they don’t remember the incident that provoked the vendetta. And here, I think, Noune put her finger on where blood feuds and honor killings become the least bit more conceivable.

Civil society was a wreck in the post-Soviet periphery. Outside Russia everybody made the best of their battered Russian remnants, and in remote places beyond Soviet penetration, civil society never existed, and sometimes still doesn’t. Ruling the village was divided among clans, who made and enforced the laws, such as they were.

Jason Burke wrote about blood feuds in his book On the Road to Kandahar: “Such ritualized and overt violence … publicly demonstrated the power of a … tribe to chastise those who transgress its rules….” And it may help, somehow, to push back at a hostile, encroaching world.

There was no fighting here in Armenia. Noune stoutly asserted this, dismissing any other possibility.

No, it was not a war, this conflict that raged both before and after the Soviet collapse, and that displaced maybe a million Armenians and Azeris, centered around the small Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Noune explained that it all happened because of the great earthquake of 1988, after which the good people of Nagorno-Karabakh rose up and demanded places to live, which was their right.

A man in this office went to fight, she told us.

“He is great patriot. And may I say,” she said, with a thin smile, “Very heartbroken.”

So the Armenia/Azerbaijan standoff wasn't going Armenia's way. But what was?

•••••

Noune’s office charged my Visa card 40,000 Manats eight times because they didn’t know how to charge more than 40,000 at once. They had only had a Visa terminal since April, and they said they were the first travel agent in town to get one.

Just before the last charge went through the receipt roll ran out, and a long wait ensued as staff, I guess, ran around town to find more paper. Finally we all agreed a photocopy for each of us would be just as good.

So we rolled out of Yerevan. But in the suburbs they called Levon to come back. Noune stood on the street with a form she forgot for us to sign attesting to the services they’d rendered, because I guess all hell would descend on Sati Travel if they made money and the government didn’t know about it.

It was just as well we came back. We forgot water, so I went to get some and Noune followed me. She spoke a few words to the vendor and he handed me two bottles and waved my money away.

“We help each other.”

And later, when we ate lunch at Lake Sevan, they wouldn’t take our money for Levon. We paid, Levon ate free.

He brings you to our restaurant. We help each other.

•••••

Leaving Yerevan you’ll see a cloister, the zoo, a big water park with curvy slides, the statue to Mashtots (Saint Mesrop Mashtots, inventor of the Armenian alphabet, born around 360) and the engineering and medical institutes.

Yerevan is bigger than Podgorica, Montenegro, capital of the last former Yugoslav state to declare itself independent, but the two have a lot in common. Leafy and dry, battered and saddled with making do with post-communist remains, and never meant to be a national capital. If you live in either place, I imagine it’s a slow but altogether agreeable, family-based way of life.

Huge new housing blocks rose from the hills outside Yerevan, mostly unfinished. Levon made a sign with his hands. “Communist,” he said, and showed this much. “Now,” he indicated much less.

He made a motion with his hand like something falling off a table, like, ‘End of Communism, end of dachas.’ Sometimes there were whole hillsides of sandy-colored unfinished housing.

Noune said Armenians from Iran were trying to move to Armenia because the government in Iran is terrible.

“Of course it’s okay, they’re Armenian!”

•••••

Lavender & yellow wild flowers bloomed and temperatures cooled outside th
e valley around Yerevan. White bushes bloomed in the median of the M4. Tired brown evergreens slumped down slopes in lumpy, listless contrast to a bright yellow soil. With altitude, snowy patches appeared on the hillsides, in summer retreat.

Lake Sevan boasted a proliferation of straw hat and beach towel stands. All around the lake makeshift shashlik grills stood, usually unattended.

Ka – Ra – Ma, Levon chanted at a place. Ka – Ra – Ma. Karama had spotty snow here and there in the fields. Levon gestured to a village over on the left and told us, “Yuri Gegarin,” the Soviet cosmonaut, the first man in orbit in 1961.

A car park led to a walk up to the Lake Sevan monastery. Men sang traditional songs or played stringed instruments for tips, and quit immediately as you walked past.

SevanMonasteryArmenia

Welcome to Lake Sevan.

 

They barbecued fish at a terrace restaurant laid out against deep blue water. Reminded me just the least bit of Lake Baikal, not Lake Sevan itself, but the surroundings – old Russian trucks, unkempt landscaping and signs in Cyrillic. But families were enjoying their day in the sun, there were jet skis out on the water and the lake was busy sprouting resort hotels.

Lake Sevan is remarkable. At 1900 meters (6200 feet), it’s the world’s highest alpine lake. That explained the snow fields in June.

From a delicate salad of dill, flat leaf parsley and tiny green onions, Levon picked a few pieces, folded them back on each other a couple of times so that they fit onto a torn piece of lavash and rolled the bread into a roll around them.

He grinned and said, “Armenian sandwich.”

Then, beaming, he did the same with a slice of cheese, “Armenian sandwich – anything!”

We watched a bus’s exhaust start a brush fire in the parking lot. We were way above it. Boys, just two of them, came with bowls of water and rags to put it out.

At intervals on the road past the lake, men stood outside shipping containers by the roadway. They walked toward the Volga as we approached and pointed the index fingers of both hands at the car, arms held a certain distance apart. They were selling fresh lake fish, advertising them as, “this big.”

Rusty 1960’s vintage buses plied the roads. Forested villages scrolled by one after the next, stone houses tucked under outcrops of rock, dramatic vertical relief, not many cars, most people on foot. Most wore straw hats against the sun, lending a sense of languor.

Few material goods, but of course fashion (or its impostor) imposed itself. A girl on a street corner wore a t-shirt with the English words “Love Team M.”

We’d doze, and Levon, trying his endearing best to be tour guide without a common language, would declaim something like, “Gomarodie!” and grin and poke the air with his finger and show us five or six teeth. A sign announced, “Pambak.” In Pambak you could buy Byuregh distilled water.

Top-heavy Kamaz trucks struggled up switchbacks in smoke-choked queues while we glided down. Breezy cool, it was a brilliant afternoon, the moon waxing through half full, high in the sky at five in the afternoon.

Through the pine forests of Lori we ran inside a narrow defile along the Debed River, which crashed through the center of Dzoraget town where men fished on rocks. It was one of those places where the water has carved so far down into the valley that the sun must leave the valley floor by noon.

They were having a go at making Dzoraget a holiday village, with a fancy hotel called the Avan, featured in Travel & Leisure magazine on a page called “Where to go next.” It must have had some earlier heyday, because there were remnants of cable cars long rusted to a stop. On a few buildings they were replacing cement walls with new siding.

You couldn’t leave Armenia without one last monastery, called Sanahin, from 996 in the reign of Ashot the Bagratuni (doesn’t he sound like a comic book hero?), a time when fortresses and not borders marked the extent of rule. It was perched so high on a hill that even the thought of hauling the building stones up there was crippling.

Ashot the Bagratuni was an enlightened ruler. His fortress housed a school of higher education and a library.

Levon, bless him, would be seriously late by the time he got us to Tbilisi and turned around to head back home, but he dutifully and without reluctance offered to take us up there, and he didn’t even show relief when we declined.

 

RoadSignArmenia

The road north to Georgia.

 

Now we settled into gliding around curves and following stream or canyon rim until gradually the hills were lower and the vegetation shrank from alpine to more scrub than trees, and it was hot again. Cows walked the roads untended.

When we stopped to fill up, Levon smiled and declared, “Toilet is Europe NO!”

They dispensed petrol into a tank in the trunk, and everybody smoked. Mirja and I scrambled out of the car to avoid what looked like an inferno to come. A young man called out to me. I had no idea what he was saying of course, and Levon said something that caused him to laugh and rush over to shake my hand.

“Good morning I am David,” he smiled, even though it was late afternoon.

“Good morning I am Bill,” I replied as we embraced.

Levon told me David was alarmed at my camera and thought I must be the police.

On the Armenian side of the border the officials were indifferent. It was stifling and still. Georgia customs was a shipping container with peeling green paint. They’d made a go at an awning to provide a little shade but it was long gone, its supports rusted away, and three boys, one in uniform, smoked and stared ahead. We did the simple formalities with a Georgian official in approximate French and it all came off with no baksheesh.

In Georgia, sheep and the smell of wood smoke. Craggy, naked hills. For miles people trod the roadside, and there was simply no commerce.

Giant cedars demarked fields, the roads were pocked and potholed, and there was much more holdover Cyrillic than in Armenia. And then there was this comically giant traffic circle, pertinent to nothing.

A vast plain opened before us, and way, way over on the other side stood some kind of fortress or monument on a hill. We made our way toward it. The air was fragrant and a lake spread far below on the right. We descended to merge with a highway in the valley, and ran straight up on the fortress. Predictably, it was a monastery. It held a sweeping view of the next valley floor – and Tbilisi.

•••••

The Marriott Tbilisi offered an island of luxury, and we took them up on it. Eventually we strolled along main street, Rustaveli Boulevard, down toward the massive old Soviet telephone and telegraph building at the far end of the street. From there we followed a warren of cobbled streets down to the river Mtkvari.

On the way pensioners sold family artifacts and whatever else they’d got their hands on, old swords and telephone parts, cutlery and cigarettes, all spread out on mats on the sidewalks, below the leafy canopy of a park.

The sign on the first building across the river was in Georgian, an indecipherable, squiggly script. This was a restaurant, and we went inside.

Sometime in Greek antiquity Jason and his Argonauts sailed safely through the Symplegades, rocks that crushed anything that tried to pass between them, to land in Colchis, the Black Sea coast of present day Georgia. After performing a series of heroic tasks, Jason seized the object of his quest, the Golden Fleece.

In honor of the Argonauts we enjoyed cold Argo beers among men at wooden tables drinking beer and eating khinkali, the Georgian equivalent of pelmeni, Russian meat pastries. Three men in costume wandered out of the back, sat on low chairs in front of a hearth and played the traditional Caucasian reed instrument, the duduki.

An old man in a bright orange jumpsuit with BP on its breast took our picture from a table across the room, so we took his too. He grinned, got up and left, and came back with ice cream bars for Mirja and me. He showed us his pictures and said something like, “Souvenir for me, gift for you.”

•••••

Before we left the U.S. we arranged for a man named Zaza to drive us up the Georgia Military Highway into the high Caucasus. Trouble was, he couldn’t be reached. All day long we tried his cell phone and it rang busy.

Turned out Zaza’s cell phone number required that you press “8” first, but then we got an intercept message that said try again later. I called all night and the next morning, right past our planned departure time.

Finally he answered. Zaza’s voice was deep, his accent thick. I gathered, I’m not sure how, that he’d let the driver go because we hadn’t called, but that he’d do some scrambling, and we set a rendezvous for noon.

We waited in the lobby until long after twelve. I called from the lobby, he answered and I saw him there, outside the hotel, talking to me through the glass. He was walking up and down the sidewalk wondering where the hell we were. We got our things stuffed into the trunk of an aging Volga sedan, perched on the springy back seat and we were off for Kazbegi, up by the Russian border.

Not until we stopped for several monasteries, of course, the first at the ancient Georgian capital of Mtskheta, at the picture-perfect meeting of the Mtkvari and Aragvi Rivers, where Saint Nino brought Christianity east from Cappadocia in the fourth century. Still today Nino is a popular name for Georgian girls.

These monasteries marked the founding of the Georgian nation, one on a hill overlooking town, and another in the town center, where Zaza explained the ins and outs of the founding of Georgia, all the while crossing himself and kissing this or that holy object. Kings were buried there.

  MtskhetaGeorgia

The Mtkvari and Aragvi Rivers.

 

•••••

Georgian toasts are famous, arduous and daunting, with a well-developed ritual. Zaza ordered a remarkably large pitcher of wine along with our beers (Zviadi, our driver, was stoic with his coffee). We’re never gonna down that thing, I thought. But we did.

Zaza’s toasts were masterful little journeys backward to where he wanted to be. He started out with “Now I would like to toast to one man…” and ended up with a salute to the traveling spirit.

“Even little things have a beauty,” he began again, and did a little riff on “be here now.”

A sort of cheese pizza called khachapuri was just stunningly good. The ‘pickle,’ an array of cucumbers, tomatoes, red onions and a salad, like in Armenia, came as a plate trimmed with green onions, flat-leaf parsley and dill.

There were kebabs and beans and fungus, greens that tasted vaguely like licorice, stuffed baby aubergines, a beef salad and a deep dish of fried cheese, yet more bread, a sauce called Satsivi to go with barbecued meat, more salad with thyme sprigs, lemonade, several more beers and many more toasts.

The Georgian toast is a circumlocutionary art:

“All good history is continuous” evolved into a toast to friendship.

A really poignant toast, I thought, started out “Every moment is the present” and ended up being "to people who are at home worrying about us.”

It may be the savior of the Georgian soul, or at least its work ethic, that Georgian wine is mild, and doesn’t object to being gulped. We drank and he toasted and he toasted and we drank and ate, until lunch hit the two hour mark and we were scarcely outside Tbilisi, the Georgian Military Highway was still a theory, and by now it was mid-afternoon.

Still more toasts as we lingered, and finally, with a lofty start, Zaza began the parting toast “To safe journey,” which ended more earthily, with a smile and the assurance that once we’re in Kazbegi, “Then again we can drink.”

When President Putin banned Georgian wine, bottled water and produce, the pretense was that they didn’t meet basic health standards. It was a political irritant for Georgia, nothing more, but for the record, this particular Georgian wine left us feeling considerably more healthy as we got up to leave.

Three and a half hours after leaving Tbilisi and just fifteen kilometers outside town, we hit the open road, mountains beckoning, traffic light, in the direction of the border, our destination ten kilometers from Chechnya.

Leaving Mtskheta, like coming in, involved a comical set of looping highway circles, on this side of the main road then that, as if gaining momentum for the launch up onto the Georgia Military Highway, the traditional route across the high Caucasus used to pillage and trade through the ages.

Mirja and I bounced up and down on the back seat of Zviadi’s Volga. Zaza mostly fit in the front seat, scooting to one side to fit his knees up against the dash. Most of this Volga’s dashboard appeared not to have worked for years, the Yamaha cassette player included.

Zaza was all decked out in denim, with a silly Putin grin and a crumpled sailor’s cap he wore against the sun. Zviadi, after his coffee, was dark and intense, and an unrelenting smokestack. He was much younger than the rest of us and spoke no English at all. He crossed himself like a madman, repeatedly, time after time, as we drove past any kind of religious symbol, and there were many.

Old women sold ice cream and cigarettes on the highway, leaning back against the center divider. The same round orange buses as in Armenia plied Georgian highways. And of course the road wasn’t that good for very long.

But never was the sun more brilliant, the air more crisp, and the light, somehow, had a northern latitude clarity. In time the mountains of the high Caucasus, blue in afternoon haze, stacked up three, then four deep.

Vladikavkaz is the capital of the Russian republic of Ingushetia, just west of Chechnya, and the Georgian Military Highway continues to there. In time the notion of “highway” became a memory, and at 4:30 we found ourselves at a sign reading “Gudari 68, Vladikavkaz 141.”

Perfect snow-capped cones and pointy peaks filled the horizon, and then a jagged one, low in the crook of the near ones. We stopped to peer over a precipice – the verge of a steep defile, at  2395 meters, in intermittent ice fields, with streams and more lavender and yellow flowers.

Up to the border with Ingushetia, the last 36 kilometers were the de rigueur final endurance run. And straight from the screenplay, rain splattered the windshield, kicking up a muddy film the Volga’s vestigial wipers only smeared.

••••• Each end of Kazbegi’s main square comprised nothing much, with a road wandering off each way, one in the direction from which we’d come, from Tbilisi, the other to Vladikavkaz. A hotel sat on one side and on the fourth side, opposite the hotel, a half dozen kiosks all sold the same things, the petty little consumer goods necessary for life. All had tissues and matches and drinks, but not cold. There wasn’t refrigeration anywhere in the whole lot.

The wares on offer took up all the window space, so the salespeople sat back invisible and desultory behind a little open window in the middle. You wouldn’t call these kiosk capitalists sullen. Crestfallen might be the better word.

Kazbegi itself rose on a low hill behind the kiosks. A walk among the houses revealed bright flowers on windowsills and smoking men seated on low benches with a wary eye and a suspicious nod of the head to a stranger. No traffic. Massive amounts of trash were cast onto the ground, pigs snuffling through it. A dump truck-sized Kamaz lumbered by, an unlikely family vehicle that deposited a scarf-clad old woman with a basket down at the bottom of the hill.

At any particular time, six or eight or ten old Russian-made cars congregated at th
e center of the square, their drivers in little knots smoking and waiting for the odd passenger to here or there. Zaza hired a red Lada Niva, strong with a high undercarriage. Just the right vehicle to haul us up to the Holy Trinity church, way up the hill. We’d drive up and walk down.

Little streams ran right down the middle of the road.

From above, Kazbegi looked pleasant and cleaner than it was. You couldn’t see all the trash in the fast-moving River Terek. They reckoned that it was all being swept away to Russia, so what did it matter?

Way at the back of town stood a huge block building. They always used to call those places “sanatoriums” in Soviet days.  Zaza said that in the old days 300 tourists came here from all over the Soviet Union every day. That was all gone now. Zaza had been reading what the Russians were saying about Georgians in internet chat rooms, and it was “Not fantastic, more than fantastic. They are saying we will eat them if they come.”

CaucasusMountainsGeorgia

Hiking the high Caucasus.

 

By my count we represented a tourism trickle of exactly four people staying in the Stepantsminda hotel’s forty-odd rooms, Mirja and me, Zaza and one other American.

The mountains behind Kazbegi town rose jagged and spectacular, holding their winter snow into June. Mt. Blanc, the highest place in the Alps, is 4807 meters. Mt. Kazbeg stood taller than all the Alps at 5033 meters, making its own weather, its snow-clad summit spinning off clouds, its glacier visible, massive, powerful.

•••••

When the Gergeti Holy Trinity Church was built, it was surrounded by a village, since disappeared, called Gergeti, whose inhabitants held the mandatory role of serfs to and caretakers of the church and its surrounds. At that time it marked the northernmost point in Georgia.

The founding legend had it that three contending kings argued about in whose jurisdiction the church should be. A village elder in Mtskheta proposed to slaughter a dry cow (not a valuable milk-giving one) and cast one of its bones out to the edge of the village. A raven would take the bone, and where it stopped they’d build the church. They followed the raven to Ananuri, where they erected a cross, and then here to Gergeti.

Oxen delivered building stones for the church from villages fifteen kilometers away, and spring water for the masons came by sheep. Today that spring is called “Kalata,” or mason.

TrinityChurchGeorgia

The Gergeti Holy Trinity Church.

 

There was a service in progress as we arrived, but no evidence of a congregation. Someone called His Grace Stepantsminda and Khevi Bishop Peter “rather often” performed liturgies at the Holy Trinity Church, and even farther up at the highest place among all Orthodox churches, 4200 meters, at an icy little outpost they call Glacier Holy Trinity Church.

We didn’t disturb the service but we did disturb a young man with bright red tennis shoes, who was offended by the beers Zaza hauled up for us, so we retreated outside the church grounds and enjoyed warm sunshine and a stiff wind, gazing out on the scenery with lunch of beer and potato snacks.

The walk back down to Kazbegi town wound through low canopied birch forest. Birch trees are my favorite. Tall and majestic or young and strong, in stands or solo, birches always look clean and prim, never straggly and hang-down like some of their tropical cousins.

They hold their leaves, which are too small for the trunk, tightly to their sides. The collective sound of birch leaves rattling in wind isn’t a loping, lazy wave, but more of a busy flutter that collectively comes ‘round to the sound you make when you slide into a bed of freshly washed linens.

It took an hour’s walk to reach the uppermost settlements, poor stone houses close together, not many people on the streets at midday, and the thick, stifling smell of pigs. Once again a little stream sometimes appeared in the middle of the road. A shipping container stood along the road, locked, its curtains half pulled shut. “Kebabi,” read a sign on the front.

A woman in boots walked slowly up the hill. A man, maybe crazy, laughed and danced and pulled water from a stream into a big bucket. Two boys, one with a long switch, walked toward a herd of cows in the fields. The sound of rushing water from the Terek walked with you everywhere.

•••••

The Hotel Stepantsminda was owned by the brewers of Kazbegi beer, one of the two top Georgian brands (along with Argo). Its common rooms were always dark and empty, its front door locked at night with the key left in the lock. There was no one behind the reception desk. There were no lifts, and four floors with ten rooms each.

Room 21 had two low double beds and a Fujeta brand TV showing channels Rustav 1 & 2. On Rustav 1: A crime show, a sitcom, a show with singing and pianos, and a soap opera starring, best I could tell, King Hussein of Jordan (or his twin). Rustavi 2 wasn’t on the air most of the time. The hot water worked, a fine asset in raw mountain air.

The dining room downstairs opened onto a terrace with aluminum tables and chairs over the Terek. Occasional showers raked the terrace. It was almost always cold. But sun would return and dry everything quickly, and it was bracing to sit outside and enjoy the stiff wind down the river valley.

Menus were fixed. Breakfast of hot bread, fish and boiled eggs, coffee and tea with lemons started at nine. Before nine, one morning there was a coffee pot with mugs that read “Maldun Seramik,” and another morning there was nothing.

Breakfast and dinner were served on little wooden tables with red tablecloths and hard backed wooden chairs.

Grainy black and white photos from the early twentieth century hung all along the walls. One, called “Karnaval at Kazbegi,” from 1926, showed several dozen people frozen transfixed by the camera, the way they stood back in those days, all wearing their various ethnic headgear, a man holding a cross dressed all in white, men with rifles and swords, kids in tunics, military men, two women in elaborate headdresses and one unfortunate dullard frozen in rigid salute, facing the wrong way.

Our fellow guest at the Stepantsminda was Chris Adam from Raleigh, North Carolina. Chris was dark and slight, well conditioned, and wore the look of a man who had been here too long. He had a driver and a personal translator. He was here to build the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers border post with Russia, a few miles up the road beside the river.

We drove out to see his project. Inside his office, a metal shed, blueprints foresaw a modern outpost of civilization right here on this spot, unlike anything vaguely in actual evidence. Chris’s driver sat inside, a hairy Georgian who was always on his cell phone. He sat over a laptop and I asked, astonished, if they had the internet out here and he smiled, no, it was movies.

One month later the border, the only proper border between Russia and Georgia, was closed. After a week of back and forth provocations in Russian-occupied South Ossetia, the Russians closed it with two hours notice on the pretext that their side needed “repair work.”

We were back home by then, but Chris emailed gamely, “Now I do not need to worry about vehicle and pedestrian traffic.” Not that that was the whole point of the project, or anything.

GeorgiaOssetiaBorder

The Georgia/Russian border post, pending.

 

•••••

The ride in from Georgia foreshadowed what Azerbaijan was all about. In the morning, the train windows filled with oil derricks and post-Soviet housing.

It had been entertaining the night before, rolling out of Tbilisi, to talk with young Georgian businessmen who were certain that in any Middle East, or, for that matter, any other war, Georgia would be victim to summary Russian bombing for its petulant courtship of NATO.

Now, for breakfast, they served coffee, bread and individually wrapped cheese slices, which were cut in half to appear to be more.

The improbably named Viking train consisted of  the engine, two sleeping cars and a restaurant car in between, and was priced far outside local means. The price of admission apparently bought express service at the border. Zaza had rued our having to deal with the border, but he had only traveled the local train, which spent, he said, some hours on each side. In our case, we surrendered our passports on boarding, crossed into Azerbaijan in the restaurant car and that was it.

•••••

They would have you understand that Baku is crawling with western oilmen. Besides the Hyatt, where harried, uneasy young guys in ill-fitting suits rode elevators to meeting rooms, we found neither Texans nor cowboy hats. In fact, Baku, of the three South Caucasus capitals, easily filled the bill as the most Soviet city, with a bonus – head scarves.

Down at the waterfront the Maiden Tower (originally dating from the eleventh century, with an inside-the-fortress well) had a fine view of the old town and the harbor and a ferris wheel enclosed in a strip of trees.

A concrete bund stretched down the Caspian Sea waterfront, waves were in full chop, and families promenaded. Beside an amusement park full of kids and moms, you could enjoy Efes beers from Turkey under shade trees in the fine sea breeze.

Baku was a company town. Oil wealth provided for a fine mix of ethnic restaurants. It had built an urbane and modern pedestrian plaza called “Traders Street,” reminiscent of Baku’s glory days. In the 1890’s, Baku pumped half the world’s oil supply and Europe’s finest architects clambered to build signature buildings. Stay close to Trader’s Street and you’re in Europe. Head out of town, though, and it’s a little different.

•••••

MosqueBaku

Baku from the Maiden Tower.

April, 2006: The arriving guests filed into the Gulustan palace between double rows of male and female dancers clothed in national dress. The hall was decked out with roses and orchids delivered from the Netherlands. Proclamations were read from presidents Bush and Putin, to a crowd that included the Prime Minister, the Speaker and the heads of the ministries of Foreign Affairs, National Security, Emergency Situations, Culture, Economic Development and Health Protection, and the Mayor of Baku.

The Moscow guests included well-known couturiers, a composer, a humorist and other entertainers, notable for their extravagant dress. National cuisine was presented at the wedding, to which guests were warned in advance not to take photo or video cameras or cell phones. Instead the entire event was recorded by the “personal shooting team” of the Azerbaijani president, and by NTV Russia.

The bride and groom left the hall at 2:00 a.m. Two weeks later Leyla and Emin would celebrate their wedding in Moscow.

Leyla was Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s “senior daughter,” and Emin Agalarov was the son of Moscow developer Aras Agalarov, heir to his $730 million fortune. He fancied himself something of a popular singer.

And now we sat in the back of Rashad’s Lada sedan listening to “Still,” a sort of spoken-word song by Emin. Rashad had downloaded “Still” from the internet (he gave me a ‘Where else, stupid?’ kind of look) and was acting proud to have it.

We hired Rashad and his Lada to drive us out to a derelict drilling island called Artyom, both a world away from and the very reason for Baku’s busy oil-driven affluence.

•••••

Rashad, in slacks, fashionable shades and a red T-shirt, didn’t pay much attention to politics. He could tell, though, by a posse of cops in the road, that President Aliyev would be coming in past us from his country place, and sure enough, his motorcade swept past.

Maybe Rashad knew this because his family had a summer place near the president. His father had been, he told us, a mushroom farmer, but that business was done.

Once Rashad drove with a friend to Germany. They bought a Mercedes and drove it back and sold it. They didn’t make much money because they had a great time on the way back, but they enjoyed the hell out of it.

•••••

The drilling towers, in groups of twos and threes mostly long abandoned, cast skeletal shadows on the scrub and brown of the earth, on pools of oil or grease.  Heavy metal poles jutted from the ground, all canted at odd angles, and if they were longer they would have converged. Maybe these were drilling masts begun but abandoned, or maybe they had fallen or been dismantled, and the rest of them had been carried off.

Along the causeway that connected the Abseron peninsula to the island of Artyom (now renamed Pirallahi), an abandoned drilling mast stood alongside the broken bases of others, their rusty remains in the water beside them.

A man stopped his car. His passenger climbed out and glared at us as I took pictures of the gloom. Oil spread in shallow pools, and it wasn’t clear if it was there through neglect or if it rose spontaneously from the earth.

The remains of concrete buildings had crumbled to expose rebar. A few of the “nodding donkeys” were still slowly pumping in spite of being rusted brown through and through, and the entire enterprise stretched nearly as far as the eye could see. Some drilling rigs were tied down with guy wires, and they combined with high tension power lines to describe a crazy random etching across the haze, itself merely a lighter shade of the oily blue-brown earth.

  PirallahiIslandAzerbaijan

Artyom Island, Azerbaijan.

When a bore hole doesn’t produce adequately, one way to get more oil is to employ a submersible pump. Wherever a nodding donkey still slowly raised and lowered its head, a power line ran to a pump, with a transformer on a pole tied to it in the crudest way.

There was a salt pan lined with household trash, maybe because of tidal action. Two rough green trucks lumbered through the mess; One looked implausibly like a logging truck, with big metal brackets at the front and back. The truck following held a pumping device on its flat bed. The left of the bed was jacked up way higher, so that the whole rear slanted awkwardly down to the right. It had six brand new, formidably-treaded tires.

People lived in two places on the island, at the village of Artyom at the northern tip, and at Ostrov Artema, a collection of block housing.  Here an old round bus gasped for air at the curb. It was blue and white, with blue curtains pulled completely shut in each of the four windows along the side. All the windows were surrounded with corrosion, and streaks of dried rust ran down the bus from the bottom of each window.

A low fence surrounded a tin-roofed building that looked, improbably, to be somebody’s house. Pipes ran along the salt pans and the road, and off the island along the causeway.

Leaving Artyom a sign, paint peeling, quoted former president (the current president’s father) Heydar Aliyev: “Oil Is Our Treasure, and Azerbaijan’s Future Is Bright Through Oil.”

•••••

Baku is a contraction of its ancient name, Badu Kuba, or city of winds. All our time in Baku, its best feature was a stiff, unrelenting wind off the Caspian Sea, that sent up a hard chop offshore every single day. Several dozen photos I took out there at Artyom were blurred worthless by the wind.

•••••

What’s right in strongman states like Azerbaijan is that your flight departs precisely, to the minute, on time. And we did. What’s wrong in places like Azerbaijan is sullen, petty officialdom. The Heydar Aliyev airport gleamed bright and new in the predawn, welcoming from the outside, way out from town, but inside it already looked old in the Soviet way, low ceilings, loitering thugs (at 3:00 in the morning) and needless levels of unsmiling functionnaires.

I had been dubious about the cult of the Aliyevs, about how a leadership cult would work in this day and age. But from appearances it was real, with the Great Leader’s pronouncements posted on billboards along the roadside, and with Rashad’s general endorsement.

Rising from the Aliyev airport to the east we just nipped the Caspian shore. Venus hung bright and low as the eastern horizon pinked up, though we fled it. We banked to face Odessa, then Vienna.

RoadSignAzerbaijan

The wisdom of Heydar Aliyev.

•••••

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