I’ve been pretty busy with other things lately, so this trip will be the major international travel event of my year. I’ve been feel pretty damn cooped up, so this is going to be my time to fly free.
HOWEVER, it will only be footnote for my little brother Joe. He’s been living in Kathmandu as an English teacher since last summer, and has just recently embarked on the coolest trip ever. He’s trying to get from Beijing back to Europe without taking a plane. It’s basically the silk road. Over the past month, he’s been all through Western China and half of the -stans. He’s also got his own blog a lot like this one, which you can and should check out here! He’s a bit newer to this world but has already turned out to be a great writer and photographer. And he’s got some serious guts to be doing the stuff that he is right now. #proudparent
Anyway, it had been my intention to join him on this trip somewhere along the line. However, it’s been a busy winter and spring for me, so I was really approaching this trip from a perspective of “if the soonest I can come join you is July, where in the world will you be?”
The answer to that question was that he would likely be in Baku, Azerbaijan, fresh off a boat across the Caspian Sea from Turkmenistan.
So the Caucasus it is!
Georgia was a country that both of us very much wanted to experience, so we decided to meet in Tblisi. And if I’m going to Georgia, there’s absolutely no way that I’m not going to spend a few says in Armenia as well. It’s a place that has always fascinated me, so I’ll be flying solo for a few days in and around Yerevan as well.
LET’S DO THIS!
First up is going to be Armenia. I think Bourdain touched on something very interesting in his episode here—when you think of Armenia, most of us think about an Armenian. That’s definitely true for me (what’s up Tyler!), but it seems that this is a more common experience than I had realized. Even if you don’t know an Armenian personally, you’ve probably heard of the Kardashians. Or how about the band System Of A Down? These are two great examples of Armenians in Western pop culture. Everybody knows an Armenian.
Armenia—at least in the modern era—is largely defined by a genocide that created one of the most notable diasporas in history. Millions of Armenians were forced to flee their homeland, which resulted in the forging of vibrant refugee / transplant communities all over the world. There’s no way that we’re not going to cover this genocide somewhere in this series… but right now I want to go over travel plans.
This will be the shorter leg of the trip. The plan is to spend a few days exploring the capital city of Yerevan, and do a couple day trips out to the countryside. One day trip in particular that I have my eye on is a monastery called Khor Virap on the border between Armenia and Turkey. However, this is still largely TBD. Armenia is small enough that almost anything could qualify as a “day trip.” There are lots of other interesting things to do and see here. Here’s Armenia on the map for some context…
Georgia will be the “main event” of this trip. I’ve wanted to come here for a few years now since hearing a fellow American rave about it in a hostel in Havana. Sometimes you need somebody to put obscure places like this onto the map for you in order for them to become real. That’s when my gears really started to turn, and in the time that has passed since then, this country has had a weird way of staying on my radar in unexpected ways. Once you put the antenna up, it’s funny how much information you catch swirling around you. So when Joe told me he was going to be in this part of the world, the rest of the story pretty much wrote itself.
The plan is to rendezvous in Tblisi, which is the capital of the country. We’ll spend a few days exploring Tblisi but then will make the jump to a more rural, mountainous part of the country. Specifically, the towns we have our eyes on are called Mastia and Ushguli. The “thing to do” is trek from one town to the next, but I don’t envision us doing much trekking outside of a few day hikes. We’ll likely end up staying in one of these towns for a night or two.
From there, we will head further westward to one of Georgia’s “frozen-conflict” zones, for the final item on our itinerary. There’s a ton of context and history surrounding the country of Georgia that I’ll breakdown for you in the forthcoming articles, but for this next stop, I think I’ll need to do some explaining immediately. But first, here’s a map of Georgia for you to play with, as well as some pictures from the parts of Georgia we plan to visit…
Last up will be the little-known, breakaway, former-Soviet Republic of Abkhazia [ob-cah-zee-uh]. Ever heard of this place? ME NEITHER! Here’s a quick summary of what the deal is here…
First, a bit about the inner-workings of the Soviet Union (when it was still a thing). Much like the U.S. is broken up into states, the Soviet Union was broken into semi-autonomous republics. Prior to the formation of the Soviet Union, there was a brief moment in history when Abkhazia was a nonconsensual part of Georgia. But when Georgia fell under Soviet rule, Abkhazia was given status as a separate entity. So for the duration of the life of the Soviet Union, they were (mostly) separate states. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, suddenly Abkhazia belonged to Georgia again. It didn’t take long for ethnic tensions to boil-over, leading to the Abkhazian War in 1993. In this war, Abkhazia tried to succeed from Georgia… and, for all practical purposes, was successful. The only problem is that — technically — the war is still going on. Because there was never a formalized solution to the conflict, the international community has categorized the Abkhazia of today as a “frozen conflict zone.” There are a few of these around the Caucuses region. Keep in mind that there hasn’t been a shot fired in more than 10 years at this point.
So what has been happening in Abkhazia this whole time? Well, it’s been functioning in much the same way any sovereign nation would. It has its own government and military. People pay taxes and vote in elections. All the usual stuff. The only problem is that pretty much the only foreign nation that recognizes their independence is……..(wait for it)……Russia. Of course. Russia will do pretty much anything to de-stabilize and/or undermine countries like Georgia. There are a few other small, problem-states that recognize them as well (like Venezuela), but as far as the rest of the world is concerned, Abkhazia is still part of Georgia.
Although the “border” is closed for Georgians, it’s apparently not that difficult for foreigners like me to get a visa and travel through Abkhazia just like anywhere else. So fuggit—that’s what I’m gonna do! And since Abkhazia has its own language, culture, and government (which will stamp my passport when I enter), I’m going to count them as a separate country.
The U.S. State Department’s website has some pretty scary things to say about Abkhazia… but at this point, I’ve read those same warnings so many times that it’s starting to feel like the boy who cried wolf. I found some blogs of people who did this and had fun. And I also made a Reddit account and had some nice conversations on r/Abkhazia that really sealed the deal for me. People say that this place is weird but safe. So this is happening. We might take 2 or 3 days here to explore.
What Is The Caucasus?
I should probably go ahead and explain this here as well. The Caucasus is a mountainous region located between the Caspian and Black Seas that serves as the land bridge between southwestern Russia and the Middle East. It’s also the origin of the word “caucasian” a.k.a. the scientific word for white people.
In ancient times, the region was quite eventful, with many rival cultures vying for power, resources, and influence. The region would ultimately fold into the territory associated with ancient Persia (modern-day Iran), but was eventually taken under the control of the Russian Empire in the early 1800s. Fast forward to the mid-20th century and the Caucasus region was mostly part of the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union eventually fell apart, the region largely erupted into conflict. From that unrest, emerged 3 sovereign, internationally recognized nations: Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia. However, the borders of these nations have been notoriously mobile in the past 20-ish years. There have been many wars, and a large number of the issues that causes those wars are yet unresolved. For this reason, there numerous frozen-conflict zones throughout the region like Abkhazia. Other examples include Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, and South Ossetia.
Here’s a map of Caucasus region to show you what we’re dealing with. Everything north of Georgia and Azerbaijan belongs to Russia, but you will notice a wide diversity of additional cultural boundary lines that exist within Russian-controlled territory. This is a very complex region.
What region does the caucasus belong to?
One thing about me — I LOVE geography. But I’m also a little OCD when it comes to running this website. All I want from life is just to keep everything neat and organized. So when I visit a new country, I want to be able to file it neatly under one of my “Places” pages. For example, Italy fits very nicely under the umbrella of my Europe page. Done. However, Turkey was a bit less straightforward, since they have always been sort of in limbo between being the Middle East or being Europe. In the past they have tried pretty hard to be part of the EU, but from a cultural standpoint, they fit in much better with the Middle East, especially with Erdogan in charge. So it was a pretty easy decision for me to file them under my Middle East / North Africa and move on. And of course, the existence of this page means that countries like Algeria get listed twice (also in the greater “Africa” umbrella), but that’s okay. My primary goal is to make it as easy possible for readers like you to find what you’re looking for.
So where the fuck am I supposed to put countries like Georgia and Armenia?
There’s really no right answer here, so it looks like I’m going to need to decide for myself.
My first instinct was to file them under the Middle East, since they are surrounded completely by Muslim neighbors. Armenia borders freaking Iran! Even the region of Russia that borders Georgia from the north is, culturally, very Muslim. Chechnya might be the most notable Muslim/Russian neighbor up there. But the Middle East feels like a cultural “no-no” for Georgia and Armenia. These are predominantly white, Christian nations. Furthermore, the list of countries that officially belong to the Middle East are pretty well agreed-upon, and Georgia / Armenia are not included on any such list I have been able to dig up. So the Middle East is out.
The next most obvious way to categorize these nations is as being part of Eastern Europe. After all, these are white, christian nations… but I really just can’t wrap my head around this one. These places are on the wrong side of the Black Sea for me to have grouped them with Europe. They are also surrounded on all sides by Muslim neighbors. Again, Armenia borders IRAN! And even to the north, Georgia borders an extremely Islamic area of Russia (you may have heard of Chechnya?). This tells me that these nations are the exception, not the rule. Also, there’s this thing about how Istanbul is the border between Europe and Asia. Within the city, the banks of the Bosphorus are referred to as “the European side” and “the Asian side.” Well Armenia is literally a straight shot east of the Bosphorus, further into “the asian side” by nearly 850 miles. So there’s no way I’m going to categorize it as Europe.
In the end, I think I’m going to have to group Georgia & Armenia with the rest of the non-European post-Soviet Republics, under the Central Asia page. After all, no matter how European they might feel, they are technically part of Asia. I was hesitant to make this call because this would put them (for my purposes) in the same category as Bangladesh (since I don’t have a “South Asia” page), but I think I can deal with that. The whole reason Central Asia is so fascinating to me is the diversity, so these sorts of differences are definitely par for the course. However, for the sake of accuracy, I think I will need to update the title of my “Central Asia” page to “Central Asia + The Caucasus.”
Y’all, I put a LOT of thought into this. Don’t @ me.
So this is going to be some new ground for me! No matter how many times I do this, I still get anxious before I leave. But the only direction to move is forward. And this time around, my anxiety / excitement balance is decidedly more positive than usual. I think I’m going to like these places. And if things go wrong or get weird, I’ll come away with stories to tell!
Honestly, I could use the excitement. 😑