Remembering the incredible Caucasus

Dramatic scenery. A sense of history, sometimes mystery. The friendliness of so many strangers I interacted with. These are the  things that first come to mind when I remember my journey through Georgia and Armenia. 

I’m in a different world now – South America, Colombia. Yes, I’m back and I’m working on a few projects here that I’m excited about. Before I post anything from Colombia though, I thought that it’s only appropriate to resume with photos from the Caucasus. I had to leave suddenly for family reasons and never got a chance to post the images you’ll see here.

My last post was a quite a while ago! It was about photographing Armenian shepherds who set up camp below a long extinct volcano. From there we went to Yerevan. Great city. Ideal for relaxing, eating well and catching up on chores like washing clothes. 

Our permit for having the car in Armenia was running out. I had to drive back to Georgia. The plan was to reach Tbilisi, send my wife and daughter to Belarus (I still have family there) and for me to try to go to Iran. I say try, because I wasn’t sure if I’d get a permit to bring in my car. 

We moved north. The scenery changed. Mountains, eagles, steppes, more mountains. I made the above photo with the Mavic drone. I’d heard that eagles can bring down drones, but I decided to take the risk. After many attempts I managed to capture the eagle mid-flight. From my iPad screen, it really looked like the bird was heading for the drone. 

It felt like going back to an old friend and saying goodbye to a new friend we’d just gotten to know really well. 

Further up north and higher in the mountains it had already snowed. The air was fresh and cold. The Georgian border was very close. We’d fallen in love with Georgia over the months that we’d spent there. But now we were also in love with Armenia. It felt like going back to an old friend and saying goodbye to a new friend we’d just gotten to know really well. 

The weather can change quickly on the mountain passes. It might be sunny and clear below the mountain, but as you get up you’re in the clouds. Strong wind, temperature drops and in this case – snow. 

We came across a few Azeri shepherds. They were heading back to the flatlands. They’d been herding their animals in the verdant pastures of South Georgian mountains for months. This year the snow came early. It was cold and miserable on the mountain pass. They slept in very basic tents. I don’t know how they managed. 

The young man in the photo asked if I had a lighter to light his cigarette. I didn’t. We talked a little. I tried to make jokes to cheer him up. Not sure if it worked. I took a few photos and we parted ways. 

Georgia has an incredible variety of climatic zones. Back in Tbilisi it was pretty much still t-shirt weather. We came in time for Tbilisoba – the day of the city. The whole centre was covered in smoke created by shashlik sellers. 

Smoke, smell of cooked meat, balloons, roaming musicians performing Georgian music. A table of drunk men would call over the musicians – "Music here!" Some would break into a traditional dance in the middle of the street. Only in Georgia...

My wife and daughter got on a plane to Belarus. I set off back towards Armenia, Yerevan, to collect my Iran visa.

The places on the way were now familiar. I knew that in a particular spot not far from the Armenian border the villagers would bring home their animals around sunset. I parked the Landrover nearby and made sure to get some images. 

The area was beautiful – mountains, a lake. The day was clear. The golden light of the setting sun made the scenery look even more special. The shepherds, as usual had no idea what to make of the drone. I’m just thankful that no one threw anything at it through all these flights. 

After crossing into Armenia I wanted to take a different route to when I first drove through Armenia. I went via Fioletovo - a village of ethnic Russians. They were Molokans – a group of Christians with particular beliefs. They’d escaped religious persecution in Russia and had settled in the mountains of Armenia in the 1800s. 

In Fioletovo the feeling was different and… weird. For the first time in months my glance was met by glances similar to mine

The Molokans hadn't intermarried much with Armenians. At least not the Molokkans who still lived in Fioletovo. Ethnic Armenians with their darker complexion and features are noticeably different physically to Slavs. Throughout my journey I was always the obvious outsider.

In Fioletovo the feeling was different and… weird. For the first time in months my glance was met by glances similar to mine – grey, blue, green eyes. Faces that resembled my own and that of my family members were curiously observing me. 

I stopped to chat with some of the villagers. They spoke a type of Russian that was much closer to what I learnt in school than anything I’d heard the Armenians speak. Yet their way of speaking was peculiar, had a singing quality to it. I assume that the relative isolation meant that the Molokkans preserved a type of Russian which was spoken centuries ago. 

These days the Molokkans specialise in growing cabbage and pickled produce. Aleksei (above) is just one of the men who sells cabbage by the roadside. His long beard is characteristic of the Molokkans. We chatted a little and then I moved on. 

Anya was the next produce seller down the road. Most of her family had gone “back” to Russia. Her children were there too, but they liked to leave their daughter to grandma for months at a time. Anya would be going to visit her family in Russia soon. She visited regularly, which explained her relative lack of the Molokkan accent. 

Back in Yerevan I sorted out my stuff, got my Iran visa and then… I realised that my Landrover was dripping oil from the transfer box. Not a huge issue, but – Iran, embargo, no spare parts, broken down Landrover – this was a possibility that did not sound appealing at all. 

A simple matter of changing a few rubber seals became rather complex in Yerevan too. The seals had to be ordered from Russia. A week of waiting. What was I to do? I rented a Lada Niva, a car I’d been wanting to drive for a very long time. 

Niva is a great little off-roader, much better than I expected. Many in the former USSR love to trash Soviet cars. But, having driven a Defender and a Land Cruiser extensively I have to say that the Niva stacks up. It handles better than the Defender and it’s incredibly capable off-road. In the 24 hours that I had the car I really put it through some tests. 

The Landrover was finally fixed after a week. But… I got some sad news from home in Sydney. I decided not to go to Iran. Instead I’d be going back to Georgia again, leaving the Landrover there, flying to Belarus and then flying to Sydney. 

And so began my premature journey back to Georgia. Rain and grey skies matched my mood. 

Armenia and Georgia have some weird reminders of the Soviet times. I never expected to find Lenin and Stalin on a bus stop shelter in year 2017. A wrong turn in a village by a highway and here they were. “Go ahead, take a photo, everyone does.” Said one of the villagers who gave me the correct directions.

Always in contrast to the Soviet reminders are the ancient Armenian churches. Scattered all over the country, you’re often only a climb up a hill away from being transported into another time. 

Dramatic mountains in Armenia

Both Armenia and Georgia are dominated by mountain ranges. Some of the views are pretty awe-inspiring. The benefit of traveling by car is that I can drive towards the best view whenever I want. 

For me even more fascinating than the mountains is the fact that a high number of inhabitants of this tiny nation (Armenia) still live in close bond with nature. Many still herd their animals and move around with the seasons. 

I was ready to spend the night in the mountains not far from a main road. Landrover parked, I started doing some work on the laptop. Soon I heard the sound of sheep, dogs and a shepherd yelling out commands. 

I drove over to check out the action. Zakar a Yazidi shepherd greeted me (also his photo at the top of the post). He’d be herding his animals until January, when most of the ground would be covered in snow.  “Here people like to say that we're Kurds, but we're not Kurds. We're not Muslims. We're not Christians. We have our own religion." Said Zakar, pointing to the sky.

His Russian was very broken, but enough for us to talk about basic things. Life had been very tough for his people. Zakar is the first person over the age of fifty who I heard say that "It was shit under communism and it's shit now." No rosy Nostalgia there.

“Where are you going to park your car to sleep? Along the road? Don’t do that. Might not be safe.” Zakar invited me to his “camper” bought from the military some time ago. Of course he wanted a drinking buddy.

Thankfully he had very little vodka left and the drinking ended early. After a few simple exchanges our conversation was going nowhere. I said that I'd go to sleep.

A word of caution from Zakar before I left. "If you need to do number two, don’t go too far, the dogs might not recognise you and they’ll… attack.” Thankfully I did not need to do number two. I laid down in the Landrover, slightly drunk and tired. The huge shepherd dogs were barking in the distance. Fighting over food, fending off wolves, then, around 12 am, finally some silence.

It was cabbage harvest season in Northern Armenia. From the road I saw a family loading a car with their produce. I drove over and asked if I could photograph. While understandably surprised by my request, they were kind enough to say “yes”. They even invited me for lunch. Armenian hospitality. I would have loved to, but it was getting late and I had to keep moving. 

The harvest season was in full swing in parts of South Georgia too. I saw many corn fields. People in corn-filled horse carts. Lots of photogenic scenes against the grey autumn sky. I passed up on many photos, but when I saw an elderly couple harvesting corn, I couldn’t pass up any more.

Shamhal and his wife Elvan are corn farmers. They’re Azeris living in Georgia. They’ve lived in the same village all their lives. Shamhal is 85. He spoke to me about the difficult life after WWII. He said that there were so few people around back then. Many were sent to fight and to work on the front. 

Shamhal has fond memories of the Soviet collective farming system, but he emphasized that life is much easier now. "I'm happy with life now." He said.

Shamhal's son (pictured above) helps him. The grandchildren are working in Azerbaijan. The family loaded the cart with corn leaves, these would be given to their animals over winter.

Before I left, Shamhal picked off a few corn cobs and gave them to me. I thanked him and took a final few photos as he rode home atop a now full horse cart. 

Georgians, Armenians, Azeris, Yazidis. I learnt that all these people have one thing in common. Incredible hospitality and friendliness towards those who are guests in their lands. At least this was my experience and that's all I can share on this blog. After a few months here I can say that I've had a good taste of the region, at least of Georgia and Armenia. I love it. I'll be back next year. 

After saying good bye to Shamhal I continued driving to Tbilisi. I reached in the evening. A couple of days to sort out the car parking, a quick visit to see Tanya and Mia in Belarus and a very long flight to Sydney.