Saturday, October 21, 2006

Caucasus/Turkey: Where Once Was Colchis

While in Georgia, I must have read a thousand times of how in eastern Georgia, known to the ancient Greeks as Colchis, people used to sift for gold in the mountain streams using fleeces, a practice which ultimately gave rise to the legend of the Golden Fleece sought by Jason and the Argonauts. After deciding not to head for Karabakh and then Ani, I went back to Tbilisi with the idea of stopping at Kutaisi on my way out of the country, and from there taking half a day to head over to Vani, an archaeological site which may be the ruins of ancient Colchis's capital.

The weather, however, persuaded me otherwise. Although I'd had great weather for most of my trip, the Caucasus do get a lot of rain, and when I checked in Tbilisi, rain was forecast throughout all of Georgia for the next several days. I decided to cut my losses and head west to better weather in Turkey, stopping for the night at the Black Sea port of Batumi, traditionally Georgia's second city, and now the capital of Ajaria, a culturally (not very observant, it would seem) Muslim region with a Russian-backed successionist movement under Aslan Abashidze, whose main claim to fame is probably destroying the bridges leading into the region to prevent the Georgians from coming in about the time of the Rose Revolution.

Unfortunately, I really don't know the current status of all this, except that it's supposedly been resolved. I only learn about it from R. Robert Hentzel, who hasn't brought it up in awhile. When we crossed into the region, the marshrutka stopped at some police station, but I don't know if that was some sort of checkpoint. Plaques on official buildings read "Autonomous Republic of Ajaria," but I don't know if that was leftover from the conflict or reflected the new conditions. I even happened to wander by what Lonely Planet informed me was Abashidze's house, where the street seemed to be blocked off, which surprised me because I thought he had wound up fleeing to Moscow. Maybe his successor had moved in.

In the end, I hardly explored any of Batumi, which was probably not more than a half-day city to begin with. The night I arrived, rain was coming down in buckets - it was two days before my shoes were again mostly dry. The rain continued with varying levels of intensity all through the next day, causing me to do something people have been suggesting since my QU days: buy an umbrella. The cheap blue contraption I purchased from a Batumi shop proved quite remarkable - when I opened it and held it over my head, the rain hit the umbrella instead of me, and either soaked in or ran down the sides, allowing me to remain mostly dry. I now keep it in my apartment, and may use it in future downpours, one of the many things I've been able to learn about thanks to the generous support of the Mosse Program.

The next day I headed down to Sarpi, where I crossed into Turkey. I was sad to leave Georgia behind. Where else can you not only feel comfortable that the drivers of the unmetered taxis will give you fair change, but may even park the taxi and walk with you a bit to point you to the right part of the bus station? Georgians seem to have the attitude that because you are in their country, they have the obligation to act as your hosts at all times, and will be perpetually offering you fruits, wine, or whatever else happens to be handy. As someone commented to me, if Vladimir Putin - probably the most hated man in Georgia - were to show up at a Tbilisi home, the family would press upon him all manner of food and drink even while giving him a piece of their mind. It occurred to me that if its bid to host the Winter Olympics is successful - admittedly highly unlikely - the entire country could go bankrupt because of all the visitors the people would be trying to show hospitality to.

Sarpi, on the other hand, was a rude introduction to a different world. Since the fall of the Soviet Union it has come to fall on a major shipping route, and semis and long-distance busses were well backed up at the border. There was also a smattering of tourists presumably sampling Georgia's Black Sea resorts. All this contributed to making Sarpi perhaps the wildest border crossing I've ever made. On the Turkish side of the border, your only options for getting to the nearby city of Hopa are a marhsrutka - which the Turks call a dolmus - which isn't going anywhere until full, perhaps in a few hours if you're lucky, or a horde of taxi drivers all of whom seemed like they were hustlers. If you set down your luggage, these guys will grab it and try to coerce you into going with them, and if you're already in a taxi, they will break into the trunk and your driver will have to go fight them to get it back. The place could really benefit from some police presence, or even an organization among the taxi drivers so you can at least just deal with whomever is up next in line.

When I got to Hopa, I got hosed on the bus ticket to Trabzon, because my driver took me to some odd place where the bus conductor insisted on twice the normal rate so as to give the taxi driver a commission, and I didn't know anything about the city to risk striking out on my own - for all I knew, I might be hiking to an otogar five kilometers away. Once on the bus, however, life picked up dramatically, for the Turkish bus system is excellent, with fast, comfortable vehicles on which even on short runs you will be offered drinks much like on an airplane. I later took a 19-hour bus trip from Trabzon to Istanbul, and it was a pleasant as a 19-hour overnight bus trip could possibly be. The road was also scenic, an extension of Georgia's Black Sea coast, with sheer cliffs showing signs of having been blasted to build the highway frequently spilling the waters of the countless mountain streams of ancient Colchis down into the ocean. Some of these were so small they didn't even bother to build bridges, but just let them splash over the roadway like moving puddles of a tiny but torrential rainstorm.

The main attraction I wanted to see near Trabzon was the Sumela Monastery, nestled high against a sheer rock face in the Kachkar Range of mountains. First built in the 4th century, it gained prominence after the Crusaders took Jerusalem during the 4th Crusade, after which the Byzantine rulers fled to this region and set up the Eastern Orthodox Kingdom of Trebizond. Under the Ottomans it gained even more prominance, but it was finally abandoned in 1923 after a Russian/Soviet occupation and the founding of the Republic of Turkey. Although many of the frescoes were nice, the main reason you go is for the location, set where the barren tops of mountains are clearly visible and where the streams that will eventually find their way to the Black Sea weave through the valleys in turbulent whitewater rushes often captured in the tanks of commercial fisheries. If you go, I recommend walking at least some of the way up just to experience the countryside. The only reason I didn't was because of the rain.

That, for all intents and purposes, was the finale of my trip to the Caucasus, though I also spent two days in Istanbul and have plenty to say about that. It was a trip I undertook without really knowing what to expect. In looking back, however, I'm glad I went when I did, even as I'm a little afraid to go back if I want too long to do it.

Permit me to explain. The main places to stay for budget travellers in the region are homestays, an evolution of traditional Caucasian hospitality in which you pay someone to sleep in extra beds they keep in their house. In Yerevan, for example, I stayed with one Anahit Stepanyan and her two sons just across from the Opera House at 25/5 Sayat-Nova Poghota, one unit of an entire apartment building where people seem to do them. The reception you get at places like this is far more personal than most hotels would be - Anahit saved me both time and money by calling a laundry service out in the suburbs that would pick up and return and still cost less than anywhere I could walk to, and when I and two other guests left to head back to Tbilisi, she even sent along some muffins for the road.

Another person staying there was an Israeli girl who knew of it thanks to a web site which I like to cast as a sort of Israeli backpacker version of the old yishuv support system, in which Israelis are all recommending travel destinations to each other, as well as good places to stay there, many of which aren't in the guidebooks. The Caucasus was actually relatively awash with Israelis who claimed to have gotten the idea from previous good reviews on this web site. Unanimously they directed us to a place in Tbilisi which was reputedly the best place to stay there. I can still repeat the directions like a mantra: "From the Marjanashvili Metro stop, go north along Marjanashvilis Kucha until the first street past the first church. There, turn left. On the right side of the street are gates, and through one of the first is a doorway guarded by two stone lions. Go inside, and on the top floor you will find Hebrew Heaven."

We did this, and when we got there it was actually pretty funny. The place was so packed with Israelis (the woman has 30 beds) that I felt like I'd come back already. The one non-Israeli was as exuberant about seeing people whose first language wasn't Hebrew as Israelis usually are to meet someone whose is. It also lived up to its billing, as it was cheap, she had several showers, good heating, and you could even use the internet, which I don't think many Georgians have in their homes. I really wonder how people discover these things for the first time, but the woman - I think her name was Irene - knew how business came to be booming, as she commented that a couple of years ago two Israelis had stayed with her, then the next year there were more who had followed their recommendation, and then this year she had hosted celebrations of every major Jewish holiday.

I mention all this in part because it is part of a growing trend: Tourism is growing in the region. In Irene's, a few of us wound up sitting around a table talking about the effects that would ultimately have. For one thing, right now the Caucasus attracted certain sorts of people, what you might call travellers rather than tourists. This gives people unused to lots of foreigners passing through a different experience of them than they might get from people who expect everything to be perfectly set up for them to go touring? More importantly, perhaps, is how the sheer volume of people will change Georgia, perhaps much like Baku had changed between the time my Lonely Planet was researched and when I visited. How long will the warm homestay culture last when people start opening quality budget hotels and hostels? How long will people continue to reach out to foreigners when there get to be many more of them, a constant separate body moving through the streets and on treks out in the mountains? When will some of the more corruptible people start becoming hustlers like those at the Sarpi border, and will it reach the point it has in many places where everyone has to behave that way to make a living?

Change comes, and as the region continues to stabilize, the Caucasus will prosper. As someone who remembers Georgia in particular as a place to visit rather than live, however, some changes that are almost certain to go with that are hard for me to welcome. A lot of Egyptians are also really nice, but as an outsider it takes a lot of patient searching and drilling through society to find that core. Just as kingdoms and empires come and go, cultures also change, and the culture of the mountains between the Black Sea and the Caspian perhaps has more change in its future than some living there can now imagine.



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