Crabs, bats and communists, in Cuba's greatest Soviet souvenir.
For years now, I’ve been bookmarking interesting locations that I’d like to visit in the Caucasus region. In time those bookmarks evolved into pins on a map, and last month I finally got there. Along with two friends, I spent 16 intense days exploring sites scattered across Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and the unrecognised republics of Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
This trip is going to end up spawning countless blog posts over the months and years to come. For now though, here’s a quick overview of what we did with those 16 days in August.
Day 1: Azerbaijan
I arrived in Baku after dark; I paid too much to the taxi driver, who eventually dropped me close – but not close enough – to my hostel in the Old Town area. I slept soundly, having seen nothing so far but darkness and slippery cobblestones. I woke to a heat wave.
Azerbaijan, in August, is excruciatingly hot. I always knew that was likely to be the case, but my 2017 schedule has been so fully booked that these two weeks were all I had available. I resigned myself to discomfort.
I met with the first of my travel companions, an Australian friend, in the hostel next morning. We set out to get a feel for the city, wandering around the old town and beyond up to the Flame Towers. The marble staircase approaching the War Monument and ‘Martyrs’ Lane’ was perhaps the most difficult part of the day – a long climb in the hot sun, no shade anywhere to be found.
Later, we took an Uber (it’s prolific, in Baku) to a monument I had judged from the map to be nearby. It wasn’t. We ended up in another city, a planned socialist city on the northern coast of the cape, walking through Caspian seaside resorts at sunset.
There was a sign pinned up in the hostel, advertising full-day tours around the Baku region. I had already pinned various out-of-town sites onto the map, and this seemed to tick off a few of them: mud volcanoes, ancient cave art, a burning mountain.
The tour took a minimum of four, and so we found two German girls in the hostel common room and coerced them to join us.
It was a delightfully terrible tour.
Our ‘guide’ was a middle-aged Azeri taxi driver with gold teeth, who spoke not a single word of English; and every place we visited was spectacularly underwhelming. The ‘mud volcanoes’ were small hillocks that occasionally squirted cold, grey trickles of slime; the burning mountain was a few dozen tourists stood around a bunch of flames on a hillside; and so on.
Nevertheless, we had a terrific time of it – cruising along Azeri highways past oil fields and factories and ruins, admiring the country’s bizarre landscapes and marvelling at a place so refreshingly bad at tourism.
Back in Baku, we took a free walking tour. Our guide was young, clever, well travelled, and he gave a fantastic overview of the country and its recent past.
A lot of the things I’d already observed here began making sense… though on more sensitive topics (the war with Armenia, for example) I wondered how explanations would differ once we reached the other side of the border.
We spent some time exploring alone after that – guided by my own map again, looking for Soviet-era monuments around Baku.
Azerbaijan has done a good job of erasing its Soviet history. Oil money has helped with that. There are still some fantastic monuments though, tucked away along back streets and in public parks. I added a handful of new sites to my collection, before we departed on an evening flight to Tbilisi, Georgia.
Day 4: Georgia
I didn’t like Tbilisi at first. We walked through the centre of the Georgian capital and out the other side, following my map of pinned monuments and mosaics – but it led us mostly along busy roads and through ugly housing estates. We saw good art but entirely without context; and without much interaction with locals or their culture.
We picked up our third crew member at the first hostel – but there were problems with our accommodation, and we changed hostel twice that first day before finding a comfortable base on our third attempt.
The sun was just as hot here as it had been in Baku – though we found shelter, in the afternoon, when we explored an abandoned swimming pool and sports centre complex.
Around sunset, we took a taxi to a monumental complex on the northern outskirts of the city. The drive took far longer (and cost a good deal more) than expected… but the ‘Chronicles of Georgia’ would turn out to be one of the most extraordinary memorial sites I’d see all trip, and we stayed there until well after dark.
It was time to leave the capital, and in the morning we picked up the hire car we’d be using for the next 10 days. We drove it north – several hours from Tbilisi, through dramatic mountain landscapes towards the Georgia-Russia Friendship Monument at Gudauri.
Georgian roads are really quite something. Herds of cows wander or sleep on the tarmac. Drivers overtake at full speed around high-altitude bends.
We stopped for various monuments along the drive, and returning to Tbisili later that night we ended up hunting for an abandoned Young Pioneer Camp – my map claimed it was hidden along backroads near the capital. We never found it, and by nightfall we were lost somewhere on endless, unlit gravel roads, halfway up the side of a mountain.
Eventually we found our way back to the main road – and we drove hard into the night, settling, some hours later, at our next destination: Gori.
We made some friends at our guesthouse in Gori. A family of Iranians were visiting, and we had hardly said Hello, the previous night, before they offered to cook dinner for us.
This morning, we set out to explore a city most famous for being the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. We saw Stalin’s childhood home, and ran into the Iranians again inside the Stalin museum.
We walked through Stalin’s personal train, and explored an exhibition filled with portraits and sculptures of the Soviet leader – even rugs with his face woven into them. The place was surreal.
After lunch we followed the highway west: riding the rusted Soviet-era cable cars at the mining town of Chiatura, then photographing monuments in Kutaisi and Khobi. Finally, after driving almost the full length of Georgia, we arrived in the northwest, at Zugdidi, where we lodged for the night.
Day 7: Abkhazia
Abkhazia is not recognised by most of the world, but rather is considered a breakaway region of Georgia. In the 90s, it won its ‘independence’ through brutal conflict that involved massacres, rape, torture and attempted ethnic cleansing. I honestly didn’t know quite what to expect.
The border was tough – few vehicles are allowed to cross, so we took a taxi to the checkpoints on the bridge across the Ingur River. We spent an hour waiting at the Georgian checkpoint, and on the other side, almost three hours sat in the hot sun (no shade) waiting for Abkhaz officers to return our documents. At a third checkpoint, after that, Russian soldiers with guns searched through our luggage.
Once into Abkhazia though, it was another world. Beautiful mountains surround the green plains. The people are not Georgian – they speak their own language, Abkhaz, as well as Russian, and everything from the food to the architecture feels like an entirely different country to where we’d come from.
We stayed at a family-run guest house in the capital, Sukhum: a lively seaside city full of flags, gulls and Russian tourists. Bomb-scarred ruins stood shoulder-to-shoulder with colourful cafes and resort hotels.
On that second day in Abkhazia, we went out exploring the former Soviet riviera that stretches from Sukhum to Gagra in the north. Without a car though, we were limited to taxis – and it meant that I would miss a lot of photo opportunities. Sometimes I asked the driver to stop, but usually they’d get frustrated and there were several monuments (plus plenty of elaborate Soviet-era bus stops) that I could only glance at as we passed.
Gagra is a beautiful town. There are more ruins here than in Sukhum, but it is more peaceful too. We explored an abandoned castle-like structure… where an enterprising local had set a chair beside the entrance and started charging tourists for admission. The waterfront, meanwhile, was littered with mosaics, murals, monuments and more of those bizarre bus stops.
Taking another taxi, we hit Pitsunda in time for sunset. It’s a smaller resort, and more popular with the Russians – this place was absolutely heaving with tourists, a sight that really makes a mockery of all those Western documentaries describing Abkhazia as ‘remote,’ ‘forgotten,’ and ‘unvisited’ (all words used by this recent one from the BBC).
Abkhazia, despite the lurking ghosts of its bombed-out buildings, is a lively, colourful, even chaotic place, and one of the most interesting stretches of coastline I’ve ever seen.
Day 9: Georgia II
Getting out was easier than getting in. The taxi driver who took us to the border accused us of being spies… but he was friendly enough, as were the Russian soldiers who quizzed us briefly about the nature of our visit. With barely a delay we were across, through three checkpoints, and back to our hire car parked outside the hotel in Zugdidi.
We drove down the coast all day.
At Anaklia we explored a bizarre maze of tetrapods, concrete wave-breakers heaped into geometric mountains; we stopped again near Poti, to visit a wonderfully weird war memorial featuring abstract shapes resembling ocean waves.
Further down the Georgian coast we drove through a ruined holiday resort, where we took a break to wander through empty theatres, around derelict outdoor pools and abandoned hotels.
It was dark by the time we hit Batumi, the largest city on Georgia’s Black Sea coast. We had made plans to explore the city by night, but in the end, I left the others to go alone: and taking advantage of the comfortable accommodation, I had my first good sleep in a while.
Another day, another crazy drive across the full length of Georgia.
We took the backroads at first, bumping along corroded tarmac to stop at a number of war memorials dotted in rural villages; then somewhere not far from Poti we got on the highway and picked up speed.
We didn’t drive due east, to Tbilisi, but instead stopped off at a few different cities we’d missed coming the other way. In one of those places, we took a wrong turning and ended up down by the lake… where I spotted the shell of a massive, empty structure lurking behind austere stone walls.
I guess it must have been a mansion, or a hotel, perhaps, though the rooms looked too small for guests. The building spread across five floors and featured two wings, a theatre, and huge, grand staircases. We stayed until after dark.
It was some time in the early hours when we finally got back to Tbilisi. The hotel I’d booked was almost impossible to find – hidden down a backstreet in the suburbs. It wasn’t the most comfortable, either, with plastic furniture, cockroaches and malfunctioning fans as our only defence against the heat. Not that it really mattered… we wouldn’t be sleeping long.
Day 11: Armenia
On the road to the border, we stopped at two more monuments – both of them fascinating – and then we passed from Georgia into Armenia with ease. A storm was building, and the first few places we stopped in were seen through heavy rain. It made a welcome change from the oppressive heat of the past few weeks.
Those northern Armenian cities felt grimly post-industrial. Abandoned factories, rusted collieries, red brick buildings under grey skies. The landscape was already different too, the green mountains of Georgia giving way to yellowed hills and rocky plateaus.
We visited the hometown of Artem Mikoyan, the aircraft designer who appears as the ‘M’ in MiG; his statue stood outside a museum, accompanied by one of his jets.
At Vanadzor, we hit the abandoned factory motherlode… an incredible city, full of murals and statues and amusement parks, though most of them now stood in ruins. We explored here until sunset, and then continued south towards the capital.
We made one last stop before Yerevan – for a monument, of course, that we photographed by torchlight – and then we hit the capital sometime around 11pm.
Armenian monuments have a very different feel about them. They use the reddish-pink brick so typical of the country, and the vast majority are dedicated to the Armenian genocide. In fact, we saw very few monuments about anything else.
On our first full day in the country, we hit the road early – driving west, through Vagharshapat, and all the way to the massive memorial complex at Sardarapat. We had expected to stop for a photo, and move on; but this place was larger than expected, with a lot to explore. It was afternoon by the time we got back to the car.
We followed the closed Armenian-Turkish border north… often within a stone’s throw of Turkish fields, just beyond the river. Here and there, gun turrets and bunkers had been built along the roadside, all of them pointing west at the enemy.
Through a series of towns and villages we found more genocide memorials, as well as an abandoned black-stone church on top of a hill.
In Gyumri, the furthest point on my map, we toured a district that I had seen described as a ‘ghost town’ in various newspapers. Now, it is inhabited – but the place was so derelict, so impoverished, that I felt uncomfortable taking photographs there.
We ate in a small restaurant with rainwater running down the walls… the power cut out just before our food arrived and later, after dark, we admired a bizarre, unfinished fountain (that appears as the header image to this post).
It was a long drive back to the capital that night, and at one point, in the darkness, we missed a sharp turn in the road and ended in a field. There was a police patrol nearby, and they were on us immediately. “Vodka?” the officer kept asking, and in place of a breathalyser, he sniffed the driver’s breath before he would let us leave.
On our last full day in Armenia (not for the first time, this trip felt too quick) we spent a half-day driving, and the other half getting to know the capital.
At Ujan we stopped by a war memorial, and three old men crossed the road to come and see us. They wanted to know where we came from, and to tell us about their town and its monument. When we struggled to communicate, they phoned for a friend to come and translate.
We drove north and around, in a big circle, to the Armenian Alphabet memorial: a wonderfully weird place, where the characters of the national alphabet have been placed across a hillside in stone-carved form.
Back in Yerevan, we payed our respects at the national genocide memorial before joining a walking tour of the city. When the guide began with a diatribe against Soviet-era Brutalist architecture, I already knew this wasn’t going to be my sort of thing. He seemed to despise exactly the structures I had travelled here to visit – and instead walked us through the churches and more ‘picturesque’ parts of his city.
It was interesting, though, to note the guide’s attitudes to neighbouring countries. He was aggressively bitter on the topic of Turkey, but he spoke unkindly of Azerbaijan too, which he called out as a “fake country” full of “Caucasian Turks.”
It made me more curious than ever for where we were going next.
Day 14: Nagorno-Karabakh
We drove out of the country by way of Lake Sevan – skirting around the waterfront, following the shore for hours until we passed into the mountains and out of Armenia. Most people would say we crossed into Azerbaijan, but since the 1990s, the Nagorno-Karabakh region has declared itself an independent state.
The border was the easiest one yet. A policeman waved us over, came to the car, and checked our passports. That was more or less it, and we were waved on through to follow a high, twisting road flanked by dramatic valleys and burned-out tanks.
Before heading to the capital, Stepanakert, we first tried to check out the ghost town at Agdam. It was smaller than expected though, so we left and went to find our hotel.
Stepanakert is a strange city. It feels like an army base, full of young soldiers and flags and banners. The people identify as Armenian, and I suspect the only reason they don’t just call this region ‘Armenia’ is out of fear of the political mess that would ensue. It’s safer for Armenia to passively support the independence of Armenian minorities living in a corner of what was formerly Azerbaijan… than to make an open and transparent territory grab from their neighbour. Whereas Abkhazia had seemed like a truly unique little country, at least to me, Nagorno-Karabakh felt like a purely political construct.
That night, we drove to Vank. We had seen photos of a rock formation in the town, carved to resemble a lion. When we arrived we found that the artists had installed speakers too, so that the cliff roared and growled in the darkness. We had dinner nearby, then returned to Stepanakert… photographing one more monument, the twin-headed sculpture composition known as ‘We Are Our Mountains.’
Day 15: Armenia II
That night in Stepanakert I read some articles online – and found that what we’d seen at Agdam, the underwhelming ghost town, had been just one tiny fraction of the place. So we returned there a little after dawn.
Taking a different route this time, we found ourselves in the heart of an abandoned city. This place marked a site where Armenians had committed terrible violence against ethnic Azeris – nowadays, it doesn’t fit their political narrative and they don’t like foreigners looking at it. We snuck around, carefully, then climbed the minaret of an abandoned mosque to look out across the ghost city.
After Agdam, we drove through Stepanakert and back towards Armenia. There were stops along the way, for monuments, food and scenery, and then we were back across the border.
We hit Yerevan again in the late afternoon, and we made our way up to Victory Park and the towering ‘Mother Armenia’ statue. It was a wonderfully pleasant place – cafes, restaurants and bars, an amusement park, and a memorial area filled with tanks and cannons and MiGs. The Ferris wheel here, I noticed, was exactly the same design as the wheel that rises from Luna Park in Pripyat, Chernobyl.
That night was our last one together… and the following morning, the three of us would go our separate ways.
Day 16: Georgia III
When I left Yerevan (stopping briefly to admire the ridiculously Brutalist flight control tower at the city’s airport) I flew to Tbilisi. I was soon due to lead a tour, starting in Kiev… but the cheapest route led me back via Georgia, where I would spend the next two nights.
On the previous two visits, we had driven quickly through the Georgian capital and I hardly felt I’d understood it. This time, I did it properly.
My room at the guest house wasn’t ready when I arrived. It was 10am, so I asked if I could store my bags and go out exploring the city… my host agreed to the first part. But when I tried to leave he took my arm, and led me down to the basement. Here, this elderly Georgian man had been making his own wine and cognac. He made it very clear that he’d be offended if I didn’t try some.
Each time I put an empty glass down, the next had already been poured. By 11am I had been coerced into drinking three glasses of cognac, three of wine, and two shots of Georgian chacha (a kind of grape vodka). I walked outside into the Old Town area of Tbilisi, leaving my map behind… and suddenly, the place made a whole lot more sense.