Saturday, August 25, 2012

So many churches, so little time

Church overlooking Lake Sevan
Armenia reminds me of Israel--as I imagine it.  While Azerbaijan is technically richer, their oil wealth hasn't trickled down very far yet, and they seem more intent on imitating Dubai--huge hotels, gleaming plazas, vast boulevards--than catering to tourists.  And Georgia is too poor, and too broken from war, to engage in any grand plans.  But Armenia seems almost quivering with anticipation not simply to welcome tourists, but to make sure they see the whole picture, and the correct picture.  After a big, tired tour bus in Azerbaijan, and a new but spartan minibus in Georgia, our Armenian guide pulled up in a sparkling new Mercedes van kitted out to within an inch of its life with raised roof, fold-down video screens, wireless PA, even a custom-fitted pen that matched the wood finish of the dashboard.  When it broke down a few miles away from the border pickup, another one was dispatched straight from Yerevan to meet us within a couple hours (while we shared a gleaming full-size bus with a group of Spaniards).

Photos of survivors, Genocide Museum
Much of Armenia's wealth comes from diaspora remissions (like Israel).  And a fair amount of it gets spent reconstructing churches destroyed by Turks or Soviets, or erecting museums about the genocide and other cultural cornerstones.  And many of those American, French, and other ex-pats return to Armenia for vacation, bringing with them high expectations for luxurious hotels, bilingual guides, and so on.  Simply put, tourism works in Armenia, to Western standards, in a way it doesn't in Georgia or Azerbaijan.

Our guide, David, was the picture of attentiveness, asking if we'd like to hear Armenian music on the bus, pushing wait staff to bring our food more quickly, and manipulating the itinerary down to the minute to squeeze in every possible site and preference.  This was especially lucky given that the tour only allowed three days in Armenia.  It's a small country, but there's a lot to see.

Better than stained glass?

As in Georgia, churches were a big focus.  Though a bit less ancient--and in many cases reconstructed--they're much plainer here, stripped of iconostasis or most any other decoration on the inside.  Outside, though, there's a tradition of carving crosses and lettering into the stone: while not quite as flowery as Georgian script, Armenian letters are very picturesque.  There's also a tradition of kachkars, granite blocks carved into ornate crosses trussed up with remarkably Celtic-looking ornamentation and writing. 
Pair of kachkars
Supposedly many of these were destroyed in the various invasions and purges to which Armenia has fallen victim.  We were able to see one vast cemetery of them, as well as many scattered examples in various churchyards. 

Armenian scripture or Elvin runes?

Pedestrian mall, Yerevan
Yerevan seems a different world from the darkened stone sanctuaries dotting the countryside.  People pay a lot of attention to fashion, and they have the means to pursue it.  Gleaming Mercedes are at least as common as tired Ladas.  Swank shops line the streets, which are clean and orderly.  Elegant cafes spill onto the sidewalks, drawing in passersby with everything from "Armenian" (Turkish) coffee to vodka to ice cream.  Thanks both to Soviet and ex-pat influence, the arts enjoy high status: orchestra hall anchors the central square, and the opera house dominates the end of the main pedestrian boulevard. 

Armenians are much more open than Georgians, energetic almost to the point of being pushy.  In a little convenience store, an old lady and a young man were dancing enthusiastically to the radio, and invited anyone in our group to join in.  Nearly every restaurant featured a small band, and recorded music filled many other spaces.  Russian and French are more common than English, yet people are not easily intimidated by language barriers.  The Iranian influence can be seen in the food, which is much more elaborately prepared than Georgian food--yet to me it lacks that certain handmade charm; even in a restaurant, Georgian food feels like what Mom made, while in Armenia it suggests the practiced hand of a chef.

Roadside "soda" fountain

We went to a winery and sampled several reds, plus an array of fruit brandies.  The roadsides are peppered with people selling wine in Coke bottles mostly to Iranian truckers, who can't get alcohol at home and don't want anyone to know what they're drinking.  Armenia exports wine to Russia--presumably taking over the market share given up by Georgia--but "cognac" gets a lot more attention in-country.  Like a comical quantity of other things, its major brand is "Ararat," after the mountain where Noah's ark supposedly landed, which now lies in Turkey.  It's very fine; the same can't be said of the beer.

Like the rest of the Caucasus, Armenia is a study in contradictions and complications.  The very modern meets the most traditional; urban blends with rural; East meets West; Christianity almost converges with Islam.  Each of the three countries has its own character that's no less distinct for being difficult to summarize.  After nearly a month in the region, surprises still await at every turn.

High-fashion shepherd

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Grapes for God

Georgia was love at first bite.  I'd passed through Tbilisi already, but the first act on entering with the group was to stop for lunch with a local family.  At the risk of hyperbole, by the time I was in the midst of this meal, I thought I'd died and gone to culinary heaven: plate after little plate of handmade delicacies just kept coming, along with bottles of vin de maison in the literal sense, and eventually a sweet, fruity, apricot-colored brandy.  Almost as an afterthought, the owner came around and pushed hunks of barbecued pork off swords onto our plates.  This was French food as it ought to be: vegetables and herbs at the peak of freshness, prepared so as to get out of the way of their inherent flavors and textures.  As we chomped on luscious watermelon, the owner's daughter sang folk songs.  It all took place under a vast grape arbor, the leaves and fruit dappling the sun on an afternoon so warm we hardly needed wine to become inebriate.

Grapes have become a de facto theme for Georgia: practically every spare inch of space is planted with them, from the fronts of houses to window-boxes to arched trellises over tables to gutter downspouts.  They're carved into the ancient stone walls of churches, where monks cultivate them and congregants make offerings of wine.  The leaves are stuffed, tightly rolled, and served as dolmas (Persian word), or arranged as a decorative bed for cheese or other appetizers.  Locals boast that some 500 varieties of wine grapes are cultivated in Georgia--out of 5000 worldwide but only a handful even in such wine powerhouses as France.  The vast majority of the world's wine, after all, is made from only six different grapes.  I can't say I can taste all the different grapes in Georgian wine, but it is distinctly delicious (as described in a previous post).  

Grape vines are ineffably beautiful, a beauty we never see in the US, because the fruit comes pre-harvested from California or Chile.  Leaves and vines interweave to form the most soothing of screens, while the fruits hang half clandestine, like ornate ornaments too heavy to be hung anywhere but deep within a Christmas tree.  The shade provided by a grape arbor is a godsend in the heat of a Georgian summer afternoon, but there's a psychological cooling effect too to know that you're surrounded by living plants, and at any moment you can reach up and grab a little pearl of sweet refreshment. 

Women in the market
As in Azerbaijan, the people of Georgia were perhaps the greatest highlight: sprawling, chaotic fruit markets provide abundant opportunities to greet and photograph curious children, exuberant men, and bashful women.  Free samples are often proffered as thanks; before long I had more peaches, plums, and apples than I really wanted to carry. 

The other major feature of Georgia is churches, many of which are nearly 2000 years old, dating to when the very first missionaries set out to spread the gospel.  The Assyrian fathers got some seriously choice real estate on which to erect their elegantly simple sandstone sanctuaries and retreats.  It's said that you can tell the age of a Georgian church from its location: the more spectacular, the older.
Church with a view
Inside you go dizzy trying to take in all the iconostasis and stone carving.  Some in the group grew grumpy over what became a daily routine of two or three churches, but even as a non-religious person, I found them unflaggingly magical.  The cliché "if these walls could speak" doesn't seem so hollow when you can actually see the pockmarks slowly chewing their way into the stone, and feel the smoothness worn by thousands of devotional kisses.  And with so few windows, and no stained glass, sunlight plays tricks, casting what really look like beams of heaven onto patches of the dark, cool floor. 

Icon orgy
Lux aeterna?

Churches aside, it's hard to pinpoint many specific "draws" to Georgia, yet it gets under your skin somehow.  It's very poor, struggling desperately to squeeze out from under the thumb of the USSR (and Russia), stuck in something of an identity crisis between nouveau-riche Azerbaijan and famous-for-all-the-wrong-reasons Armenia.  Tooling around the slow, winding roads, the houses pushed right up onto the shoulders, grotesquely overloaded hay trucks as common as mounted donkeys, you feel as if you've stepped back in time to when things were gentler, quieter, purer.  Life is very relaxed, and while people work hard and enjoy few obvious comforts, they've really mastered the simple pleasures: good food, good wine, good company, good views.
Woman selling woolens by the roadside

Horsing around in the street

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Digital diplomacy

Main street, Lakic, Azerbaijan
From Baku we moved to the little village of Lakic, which involved several hours grinding up good mountain roads in a big tour bus followed by another hour lurching up much worse roads in an old Mercedes minibus.  It was the first long bus journey of the trip, but even intermittent air-conditioning and a sore behind couldn't keep me from smiling at the prospect of climbing high enough to escape the oppressive desert heat of the Caspian coast.  Indeed, before long sand and scrub gave way to grape plantations, grasslands, and even forests that might have been snatched from Bavaria.

Where wishes come true...

The village was very much a one-horse town, centered on a picturesque cobbled main street so narrow and winding you had to back into a shop or around a corner sometimes to get out of the way of passing cars.  The accommodations were very impressive for such an out-of-the-way place, and the scenery was nice, but the highlight quickly became the people.  Suddenly it felt like Pakistan in that many folks were charmingly bashful at first yet eager to converse once addressed, and only too happy to have their photos taken, gazing gleefully at the result as if they'd never seen their own image before.  English was very scarce, but people made heroic efforts to cross the language barrier--often expressing shock that foreigners such as us didn't speak Russian, the only second language older people have any knowledge of.
Children in front of Lekic mosque
ASIDE: as I cheerfully snapped portraits of everyone who seemed interested, I reflected on how much technology has changed the basic relationship between local and traveler, and the way humans process their own images.  As little as ten years ago I was scolded by a salt-gatherer in Bolivia who was making sure I didn't sneak any of him in my picture of the landscape.  Aymara Indians still believed that taking a photograph of someone was akin to stealing their soul.  Five years ago, I could snap a shot of someone (after they consented), shake hands, exchange pleasantries, and that would be that: they would never see the result, nor expect to--unless they took the time to give me an address and beg me to mail a copy, which was very rare.  Children, and sometimes adults, were often so tickled by the strange mechanics of a full-size camera that they were happy just to see the contraption work.  Once digital cameras became popular, and I still shot film, I found myself in the awkward position of shooting a portrait of someone and then being unable to show them the result immediately.  More than once people got quite angry about this.  By now this instant feedback has become so normal that in Pakistan many people would ask to have their picture taken by multiple people in the group, just so they could see it on different screens.  I lucked into a lot of extra portraits simply because my camera happened to have the biggest screen.  Few people here have stand-alone cameras, so I think they're still impressed by these big black beasts we tourists whip out, but cell phones with cameras are now so ubiquitous that the novelty of having your image captured and demonstrated must be all but gone.  There are few parts of tourism as thrilling to me as the warmth that instantly radiates from someone after seeing his own likeness on the back of my camera, but I also had enormous respect for the old Aymara man who really believed his own image was too precious to be captured, and it saddens me to think that such an attitude is probably all but extinct.
Man on "Main Street," Lekic
Man at roadside market

We backtracked a bit to pick up the first bus and continue to Seki (pronounced Sheki), a surprisingly large city that sprawls for miles and miles up the foothills of the Caucasus mountains, famous for its caravanserais and halvah, among other things.  In the 'stans "caravanserai" usually means the ruins of what looks something like a Turkish bath, but here it's a well-preserved palace with some fairly ornate brick- and plasterwork on the outside and an absolute orgy of rococo murals on the inside.  The basic themes are common to any Islamic building: plants, flowers, pomegranates, fountains, but never have I seen them realized in anywhere near so much color and precision--it's almost as if someone tore out the illuminations from a Moghul book and plastered them all over the walls.  Unfortunately, photos are strictly forbidden--one lady in our group got a severe upbraiding from a guard, and the temporary confiscation of her camera, for trying to sneak one shot. 

To me "halvah" is an oddly grainy, mildly sweet paste vaguely reminiscent of peanuts, even though I don't think it actually contains any.  Here it's much closer to baklava.  We visited a cottage-factory where a man roasted hazelnuts over an open fire and then pan-fried them with coarse sugar--to make a different confection from halvah proper, it turns out.

Tomorrow it's on to the border and back into Georgia.
Boy cutting halvah

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Hot streets, cold beer

Grapevines overtaking an apartment building (Tbilisi)
After lollygagging around Istanbul for nearly a week, I moved in and out of Tbilisi (Georgia) in about 24 hours, and on to Baku (Azerbaijan).  Each city is very different.  Though it's described as the "liveliest" of the three Caucasian capitals (Tbilisi, Baku, Yerevan), Tbilisi feels several steps beyond sleepy after the hustle and bustle of Istanbul.  It's a bit hard to explain how Soviet it feels to someone who's never been to anywhere in the former USSR, but it reminds me a lot of Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), Almaty (Kazakhstan), Tashkent (Uzbekistan), or any of the smaller, more far-flung cities within Russia itself--like Irkutsk, on the shores of Lake Baikal, for instance.

A great many buildings seem to be falling to pieces; many of the big important ones are under intensive restoration, but the side streets remain a study in architectural decay.  It becomes darkly comical after a while that wherever you want to walk, there's a hole in the sidewalk, or a fresh trench, or a small lake of wet concrete, or a man with a jackhammer, or rubble cascading from demolition overhead.  One expects that the city will look lovely in a few years, after all the construction is completed, but for the moment things are pretty grim, at least in terms of the architecture.  The locals don't seem bothered by any of this; they just keep on keeping on in that stoic Soviet way.  A surprising number of people speak English, and they're very helpful once you engage them, but the default setting is very reserved--especially after the boisterous Turks!  I may be overindulging my imagination, but it seems as if the population divides almost perfectly in half between those under 40, who go out of their way to sport cell phones and American t-shirts, and those over 40, whose eyes and bodies sag under the weight of past oppression. 

Typical Georgian lunch (Tbilisi)
Grapes growing on restaurant roof (Tbilisi)
Time didn't allow for investigations into the famed nightlife of Tbilisi, but Georgians are said to have the best food on earth, and after two meals, I'm almost prepared to agree.  I don't know why it's taken foodies in the West so long to figure out that freshness is of the utmost importance, but in Georgia they never forgot this.  The tomatoes were excellent in Turkey, but possibly even better in Georgia: I'm not sure I could do better even from my own garden.  "Cheese" is somewhere between mozzarella and feta, clearly made within days if not hours.  "Bread" is baked on the premises or very nearby, and shows the marks of charcoal and/or a brick oven.  Most interestingly of all, perhaps, "wine" is very fresh and light compared to anything I've had from Europe or the Americas, but it lacks nothing in body or complexity.  They also make excellent beer, which is extremely appealing in the intense heat (no more Mediterranean breezes in this landlocked city of the plains); pictured are the remains of possibly the best weissbier I've ever had outside Germany.

Sleeper train, Tbilisi to Baku
Istanbul to Tbilisi was covered by plane; Tbilisi to Baku by train.  My apologies to readers who were understandably hoping to see what a Georgian sleeper train looks like: it was so hot on board I couldn't even think clearly enough to get out my camera.  Long time readers, however, will know what I mean by saying that Georgian trains are very much like Russian ones, if a little worse for wear.  Sadly, the only major stop was at the border, so my dreams of assembling a picnic from little old ladies on various platforms and rural stops, as I had all across Russia and the 'stans, were squashed. 

Old City walls (Baku)
Art Deco metro (Baku)

Baku is a hard place to get a handle on.  It's nominally Muslim, yet there are no calls-to-prayer and no mosques that I can see.  Dress is flashy not in the immodest sense so much, but very much in the pursuit-of-fashion sense.  A Montblanc store almost abuts the old city walls.  It's much cleaner and more modern and prosperous than Tbilisi, and also less relaxed.  People drive like maniacs, and though the city center is dense enough to be easily walkable, doing so is not particularly pleasant.  There is a nice big park on the shore of the Caspian Sea, but it was simply too hot today to venture out from the shade to the waters themselves, especially since they're reputed to be oily.  Oil is a big industry here, and you can see how it drives the economy, as well as the somewhat rushed, all-business attitude of the citizens.  People are nice enough, but English is much less common than in Turkey or Georgia, making more than the most casual interactions challenging.

Tomorrow I join the "Across the Caucasus" tour for 15 days; we'll spend one more day in Baku before wending our way for 3-1/2 days back to Georgia, and then Armenia.  Please stay tuned.