My Thoughts on Georgia and Armenia

I am home now, sitting in my comfortable den, reflecting on my most recent trip.  I am happy that I visited these 2 fascinating countries.  I will admit that I knew nothing about them before the trip except the name.  Like most people, when I hear the name Georgia, I would think of the State of Georgia (USA) and not the republic of Georgia.  I still know very little of the two countries as I don’t know the language and my knowledge is based on the opinions of my 2 guides.  Here is my 2 cents worth.

Genocide Memorial Monument, Yerevan

I was in Georgia before I realized that the geopolitical situation of the area is incredibly complex and can change anytime.   Russia is the big guy in the region.  It is so much bigger than others in the area and it can come in and take over anytime it likes (think of Crimea).  Georgia and Armenia face very different challenges.  Armenia is squeezed by Turkey and Azerbaijan.  Georgia is getting its oil and gas from Azerbaijan and therefore supports the territorial claims of Azerbaijan.  However, Georgia is allowing Russian oil and gas to flow to Armenia (I am sure some money change hands but some gentle Russian persuasion may also come into play).  Armenia also uses ports in Georgia to export and import essential goods.  However, Georgia does not like Armenia because of the Russian friendship.  Russia still occupies some of the Georgian territories and gave away some of the Georgian territory to Turkey in return for something.  As you can see things are complicated and I am sure that alliances will change again, probably in the near future.

Georgian barbies

Armenian souvenirs; vodka, pickled chilies, mulberry syrup, and honey.

Both Georgia and Armenia are new in the development of tourist industry; and Georgia is more advanced than Armenia.  Hotels are pretty basic once outside of the capital cities.  That said, it is nice not to feel like the money tree just because I am a tourist.  The souvenir prices are reasonable and there is not that much room for bargain.  Other than the usual fridge magnets and dust collectors, there is not that much to buy (not to my taste).  The locals are friendly.  I never felt threatened even in the less than desirable area of a poor city like Yerevan.  They both are still try to figure out how to attract and hold tourist attention; there is only so many churches most of us can look at before we are “churched out”.  It is unfortunate that the Russians wiped out many of the local cottage industries such as weaving.  They are also responsible for replacing the local architecture with the soviet concrete blocks.

The only protein is the cheese

The food of both countries emphasize local and lots of vegetables.  There are far more meat consumed in Georgia than in Armenia.  The unfortunate common trait is that food is very salty; I am not sure if it is to preserve the food or what.  I learned not to eat the cheese or anything made of cheese because of the salt.  I can also taste the salt in the bread and that takes a lot of salt.  It made absolute sense to me that heart disease and high blood pressure are the most common health problems in Georgia.  Although our guide denied it, I would imagine that Georgia has an alcohol problem.  Grape vines grow in every front yard and there are lots of home brew around.

Under each round thing is a large clay wine jar (up to 2000 litres)

Yes, churches.  There are lot of them around and some are very old and of historical importance.  First, both countries are masters of picking scenic locations to build churches and monasteries.  Many are perched high above rivers or on edge of cliffs (see my previous photos).  My guess is that some of these are for defence.  Georgia has the edge here simply because it has more mountains.  I am sure that some can tell the difference between Georgian and Armenian churches but I cannot from the outside.  The inside of the old churches tends to be dark (small windows), small (thick walls), empty of furnitures (stand for service).  The Armenian churches tends to be plain, decorated with the crosses.  The Georgians like to paint the walls with biblical themes and saints and heroes.

Frescoes inside a Georgian church

Armenian church

I would suggest that you go and visit these 2 countries soon if you are interested.  Both have so much to offer and both are rapidly changing.

Uncle Joe

Gori is a one man town and his name is Joseph Stalin (aka Uncle Joe).  He was one of the most brutal dictator of the 20th century and he was born in Gori as the son of a cobbler. The town itself is fairly insignificant except that it is flooded with Stalin everything (t-shirt, mugs, pipes, post cards, and really tacky fridge magnets). Oh, it also has the Stalin Museum.

I am trying to sort out how the Georgians feel about the man; that is not easy since I don’t speak the language.  According to Alex (my guide), Georgians certainly do not like Stalin because he gave part of Georgia away to Turkey and allowed for occupation of his homeland by Russia. However, The museum was busy including a group of youth (high school students?).

The museum itself is a shrine to Joseph Stalin.  It was built as a museum in the 1950’s by Soviet Union. It glorified the life of Stalin.  It probably contains every photos ever taken of Stalin.  There were plenty of heroic paintings and even carpets with his image.  The death mask made a spectacular presence.  There was also an array of his 70th birthday presents from around the world, including a rhinestone studded accordion.  One of its prized possession is the cabin that Stalin was born, housed under marbled columns and roof.  The museum skipped the fact that his policy killed 6 to 7 million people and his polical enemies were either murdered or spend quality time in Siberia.

Stalin’s death mask

Uncle Joe’s cabin

A special mention goes to the guide from the museum.  We all thought she is Russian; very serious about her job, stern, looks like a Russian spy (in my mind) in stiletto heels.  Okay, so she is Georgian but you decide.

Our guide at the Stalin museum

CAVE CITY OF VARDZIA

Nowadays, I don’t get that many surprises when I travel, with everything available on the net.  The Cave city of Vardzia, Georgia is a pleasant exception to that rule.  I am sure that it is on the net but I just never came across it.  It is a holy city barried deep in the mountains, on the border of Georgia and Turkey (i.e. It is not easy to get there).  It was originally built in the 12th century both as a holy city and for defense.  It was partially destroyed by earthquake in the 13th century and then the Mongols looted and burned the place.  More recently, the Soviets used it for rifle practice.

The drive to get there is spectacular.  It is on a winding road beside the river Mtkvari.  It is 60 km from the nearest city/town Akhaltsikhe (you can say “where?”).  It is a very pretty drive.  En route, we passed villages/hamlets, hydro project construction, more fortress and castle. I apologize for the photo of Tmogvi Castle.  That one was taken from a moving bus.  You have to take my word that the ruins of the castle was perched on the top of the highest point of land at the bend of the river.

Khertvisi Fortress

Timogvi Castle

A lot of the outer caves of Vardzia was destroyed by earthquake.  At its height, the city had 3000 caves and probably housed 10,000 inhabitants.  Nowadays, an estimated 1500 caves remains and a lot of that is storage (one want constant temperatures for wine) and yes, Georgians love their wine.  It is still impressive.  What I love about the place is that there are few “no go” areas.  I had a wonderful time poking around.  It was a wonderful day.

Cave city of Vardzia

Cave city of Vardzia

A TALE OF 2 COUNTRIES

Armenia and Georgia are 2 countries in the southern Caucasus.  They are very similar in some ways but so different in others.

Yerevan, Armenia

History of both countries stretch back at least 4000 to 5000 years.  They both have their own alphabets, own language, and own branch of Christianity.  The wine culture is important to both.  Georgia is recognized by UNESCO as the birth place but Armenia claims to have the oldest grape seeds.  Both are in major earthquake zone.  The border of both countries grew and shrank over their history.  Both experiences tensions with their neighbour’s.  Armenia accuses Turkey of genocide and is in territorial dispute with Azerbaijan.  Russia is still occupying part of Georgia.

The 2 countries are very different in many ways.  Georgia, due to its bitter experience with Russia, looks to Europe.  Tbilisi, the capital, is a delightful mixture of old and new; yes, they still have Soviet concrete blocks but hidden in the suburbs.  Armenia is still stuck in the Soviet mode.  It has some modern buildings but nothing inspirational. Russian is the second most common language in Armenia but 4th in Georgia.  One starts to see the blond hair blue eyes in Georgia but the Armenians look like Turkish with darker hair and skin.

Tbilisi Georgia

Tbilisi Georgia

i am sure that there are other similarities and differences but above would serve as an introduction to the region.

 

RELIGION IN ARMENIA

Armenians are deeply religious.  They have their own branch of Christianity.  It is close to Roman Catholic Church with the ceremonies and all.  The more important armenian churches tends to be older with UNESCO designation.

Mt. Ararat

There are many churches in Armenia and the word I would use to describe them is “dignity”.  The beauty of the churches is mainly on the outside.  They are normally not huge but are solid (nice thick walls).  They are often built high, on top of a hill to be visible or for defensive purpose.  Windows, when found, are normally small. The interiors are usually dark and rather plain.  There is beauty in its simplicity and sincerity. 

More than the churches, the Armenian cross represents the faith and the church.  It is everywhere, inside and outside of the church, both old and new.  It is most often carved out of stone.  It feels sold, strong and sincere.

BASALT COLUMNS

Basalt columns are something I have seen but never really anything spectacular.  The Giant Causeway in Northern Ireland is probably the best known example.  It is formed by lava cooling slowly.

We went for a walk down to the Garni River valley, after checking out the pagan temple.  Behold this amazing basalt formations.  It is very large and in places, one can even see the flow of lava.