My next ride was not so serene. After waiting about an hour at the train station in Zugdidi, I caught a marshutka headed directly for Tblisi. Unfortunately, 10 minutes or so out of the gate, we had an accident to which I was an unfortunate witness. All during these months of travel (I left home on May 7), I have had the habit of counting my lucky stars that I am still alive after all the opportunities for near misses and insanity that transportation in foreign countries provide. At the moment that the marshutka was side-swiped (on my side of the bus no less) and almost had a direct hit, I wasn’t sure which stars to pray to. A good way to hear lots of swear words in someone’s native tongue is to endanger their life. That was done in spades as we careened down the road. The marshutka driver was doing the ordinary let’s pass this slow person in front of me. Most times in Georgia, you seen three cars side by side on a two lane road. They have a penchant for passing while an oncoming car is going the other way. Drivers habitually drive on the side of the road to allow the third driver to pass.
During the unlucky moment, the driver behind us had decided to pass us at the same instant that our driver started passing the car in front. So it was four cars on a two-lane road, and the truck behind didn’t plan on us passing and swiped the driver’s side of the van, taking off the side mirror and putting a lovely deep gouge in the new van’s side. The driver was much angrier about his vehicle damage than the fact that we almost got badly injured. I was shaken because I saw it all. Most other people acted as if it weren’t a big deal. He stopped on the highway (in the highway) to examine the damage, undaunted by the possibility that we could get hit while sitting in the road. Apparently car insurance doesn’t do much in Georgia – the other driver sped away without looking back, and our driver simply swore, taped the mirror back on, and drove away. We had 2 stops before Tblisi, and during both of them he lovingly carressed his van and assessed the damage. I had an adrenaline rush for a few hours. The last stop was a very nice fruit market on the side of the highway. I bought some of the best cherries I’ve ever had for 2 Lari (less than a dollar) per kilogram. Wow! It took some of the trauma out of the accident.
Arriving in Tblisi, I made my way back to my good friends whom I’d met couch surfing a few months before. I had the opportunity to go to Kakheti the next day with Cohi and Abraham, friends I’d made in Mestia, Svaneti. We headed to Sighnaghi, a recently redone (for tourism) mountain town, and missed the most important attraction, Bodbe monastery. I’d asked to go down the hill and expore, but as a passenger, I didn’t have a say in where we went or how long, so I just took in what I could. We then headed toward the Caucasus mountains, and visited a very posh resort/hotel around a lake that turned out to be cheap in Estonia or German terms, but seemed very dear at the time. We walked around the administrative capital of Kakheti, Telavi, which had a beautiful old downtown complete with a walled castle. Unfortaunately, the castle was closed for renovation and we couldn’t even enter the walls. I wandered around old neighborhoods covered in grape vines and sun-loving plants while my friends ate ice cream and rested.
We then headed toward the mountains in search of a winery (Cohi was determined to find one to tour). We found a large one but it was not open to tours, so we backtracked and found a lovely winery, Schuchumann Wines Chateau, which had a panoramic view of the entire valley (with a vineyard in the foreground). Apparently you can stay there – bookmark for my next trip. A young Kakhetian took me on a tour, showing me the traditional ways that Kakheti made and stored wine below ground in large terracotta amphorae. What a lovely site! Being German-owned, the place was spotless and very well organized. Huge steel vats controlled by computers kept the wine fermenting at the correct temperature. It was a site to behold. I loved the cool air in the underground storage chambers – what a relief (the ambient air was about 98 degrees)!
After a nice small glass of wine, we headed back to Tblisi, where I bid them adieu and walked back to Kevin and Beka’s place. The next morning, I packed and took the metro south of Tblisi on the road to Armenia. I was lucky to get some rides to the border where I met 3 German couples who were traveling as a caravan of VW micro vans. Actually, I thought I had a ride to Yerevan from a nice elderly gentleman and his business partner, but when I got out to walk across the border (all passengers have to disembark and go through immigration), their car was gone. I was pretty desperate at that point because there’s nothing at the border (or for many miles) and I thought I would have to walk. I also had left my fresh figs in the car, which looked so good. We had stopped at a roadside shack selling cleaning supplies. They negotiated with the man for laundry detergent, pet food, and I spied some huge delicious figs and asked to buy them. I had a large bill (50 Lari), and they didn’t want to change it, but my driver convinced them. He also offered me a small hard candy, brand Colibri, which I later found in Yerevan at Grand Candy (and bought enough to last a month)! Flavors like rose and mint, lemon and lime were subtle and lovely. The joys of different cultures!
We made our way through a lovely forested region in northeastern Armenia (on the Azerbaijani border) towards Lake Sevan. Lake Sevan (Armenian: Սևանա լիճ Sevana lič), is the largest lake in Armenia and the Caucasus region, and one of the largest freshwater high-altitude lakes in the world. Sevan meant black Van, a reference to Lake Van which had been part of Armenia till the war with Turkey. Apparently the Armenians that saw Sevan were reminded of Lake Van only darker.
Once at the lake shore (my favorite Lake Tahoe pales in comparison in terms of size), we drove into Sevan, the biggest town/city on the lake. The town was a typical apocalyptic post-Soviet occupation poster chid with a huge central square (a result of Soviet demolition of tens to hundreds of homes) and ugly 10+story concrete apartment buildings that looked more like prisons. Having seen this in every town that has been occupied by Soviets, I am quite tired of ugly architecture and the disrespect that Russian occupiers had for the aesthetics of the countries they were occupying. We hit a horribly bumpy road in search of an ATM. The area was god-foresaken and I didn’t think we would find one, but we did. I dashed into a store to buy stapes: bread, cheese, etc. They were very impatient, and while it only took me 3 minutes (I timed myself), they were hovering at the door saying let’s go! They had forgotten what it was like to be a backpacker without access to food, as they had storehouses on wheels.
Once at the lake, I told them I’d explore for a while and set off along the lakeshore toward a tree-covered peninsula. It was a Sunday afternoon, and people were happily playing in the water, sitting on the ground with picnics, cooking meat on bbqs, and listening to Armenian music. People seemed very happy and kind – I was struck by Armenians temperament. Apparently trees are unusual in this part of Armenia (near Lake Sevan), in large part because of environmental devestation wrought by the Stalinist regime during Russian occupation of Armenia. The Sevanavan monastery, which used to be on an island in the lake, became accessible by a land bridge when the lake was drained by the Soviets in the 1950s. The lake, as a result of being drained, has dropped to half or so of its former level, and has shrunk dramatically. Eutrophication (algae blooms) have become frequent, as has evaporation and lowering water quality. I don’t know whether they are still diverting water through a pipe, but they had been for many years. Too many large water projects – reminds me of the IMF and world bank, who dammed practically all of Sri Lanka’s rivers in the 1970s. Huge disaster.
I loved Lake Sevan – or more, the whole atmosphere of festive picnickers, bathers, and pilgrims. The monastery was majestic, or what was left of it. Most monasteries and churches in Armenia have been completely destroyed by Turks. The latter literally used them for bombing practice if they were unable to destroy them during battles. The extent of the destruction was shown and described in the National Gallery of Armenia. Huge tragedy – not only were the people executed en masse by Turkish soldiers, but the culture was effectively wiped out via the destuction of all buildings, especially churches, monasteries, and castles. Actually, not so – the spirit of the Armenian people is very strong, as I saw in the week that I was there. People do not give up so easily. Even after being beaten back time and again. I was very sad looking at old sketches of the important monuments done in 1905 or so before the Turkis genocide and wholesale destruction of the country. Luckily, there were very learned and cultured people in Armenia that decided it was essential to catalog all the important structures via drawing.
I was in Armenia in large part because of my high school French teacher Mr. Yervant Andelian whom I admired for his kindness, sense of humor, and belief in me. I had always wanted to thank him for his great teaching but got in touch too late. I wanted to salute the place that had made such a great man. Though he’d been born in France (his parents escaped Armenia during the genocide), he was still an Armenian in my mind. And after my visit to Armenia, I can say without a doubt that Yervant was (and is) an Armenian.
The German caravan set out the next morning (after I showed them the monastery and translated for them). I had learned some Russian in Abkhazia and it came in useful here as it is the lingua franca in all Russian-occupied countries. I found my way to the highway and made my way to Yerevan. People were generous with rides, and I quickly found myself at a bus stop near the center. Uncertain of which way to go, I asked a bus driver and had the good fortune to meet a lovely young woman who spoke English well. She said she would help me find the center and a place to stay, as I didn’t have a place reserved. Lilit and I walked along very modern streets toward the National Gallery and Republic square, designed in 1924 by architect Alexander Tamanyan. It was built of rose and white Armenian tufa stone, and is one of the most elegant I’ve seen. I was amazed at the number of parks, waterworks, and beautiful early 1920s architecture. The people (particularly the women) dressed very elegantly. Heels are required for most jobs, apparently – my friend said that she had to wear them as a hotel concierge and got quite tired doing so.
Lilit helped me find a lovely hostel/hotel (it offered both private rooms and shared dormitories) only 5 minutes walk from Republic Square. They offered the best breakfast I’ve ever had (choice of Russian and Armenian food) and was lucky to have the 8-bed dorm room to myself for 3 nights. After happily dropping my things, we walked to a center of Chinese and Tibetan herbal medicine where she attends classes and workshops on various herbal treatments. I was very interested as well, as I taken many herbs for scleroderma, Raynaud’s, and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. She kindly translated what the women were sharing (it was an all women audience, perhaps 20 people or so). The head of the foundation in Armenia was there and asked whether I’d be interested in representing the company in California. I respectfully declined, not interested in marketing herbs for some company. Lilit had to go home to her mother and sister (like most people, she has a 1+hour bus ride from Yerevan), and we bid farewelll. I wandered around the city in the evening, walking to the parks, getting my orthodic fixed, and just people watching. The shoe repair place that I went to was spotless, and a very elegantly-dressed Armenian woman had brought her beautiful bejeweled heels in. I felt a bit embarrassed in my purple and pink, yellow-laced running shoes. But they treated me as if I were a Parisian model, and kindly glued my orthodic such that it has not to this day come apart. Better than the job done in the US and Georgia!
Lilit and I met again 2 days later, this time for dental cleaning. I had asked Lilit if she knew any dentists, and it turned out that one of her former English language students is a dentist in the best clinic in Armenia. It certainly was a good cleaning – he was gentle and answered the question I’d had about my tooth – yes, the crown had cracked. I later realized that I’d done it biting down hard on an olive in Abkhazia.
Later I would see Mt Ararat on the way towards Nagara-Karabah (which I never reached), and wonder the way that Armenia had been fragmented. The mountain was very important to the religious beliefs of the Armenians, with the claim that Noah’s ark was becalmed somewhere on its might slopes. Very tragic that Turkey decided to claim the great mountain for itself. The border is just a stone’s throw from the town of Ararat half an hour west of Yerevan. Very tragic indeed.