For me, travel is all about discovery.
Having already journeyed extensively through Asia and Europe, this year I decided to bridge the glaring gap in my knowledge and experience a part of the world that has traditionally been at the crossroads of East and West.
The Trans-Caucasus countries – Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan – are sandwiched between Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Technically in Asia but European in outlook, this region offers a quixotic mix of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and western European influences. Over 12 weeks in early 2017, I took my time getting to know the three former Soviet Republics.
I’m a city slicker, so I decided to start my journey with a long stay in Tbilisi, Georgia’s cosmopolitan capital. I spent a month sampling as much food and wine as possible (Georgia and Armenia are said to be the birthplaces of viniculture), soaking up the spring weather, and getting a feel for the region.
If there’s one enduring memory I have of Georgia, it’s of balconies layered with colorful laundry. Behind Tbilisi’s well-kept classical street facades lies a jumble of spiral staircases, passageways, and DIY renovations. High-density living is one of the more visible leftovers of communism. Households share communal courtyards and neighborhoods are tight-knit – this is a country where your dirty laundry always gets aired (literally), and it’s a sin to walk past a neighbor in the street without stopping to say hello.
One of my goals for this trip was to overcome my fear of photographing strangers. Lucky for me, despite their often hard exterior, Georgians are renowned for their hospitality and friendliness toward foreigners. There were many times when I timidly pulled out my camera, trying to work up the courage to ask someone for a photo, only to have them approach me and start posing. As I grew more comfortable with street photography, I discovered that my camera could be a great icebreaker.
It’s a good thing I have photos of the Caucasus Mountains, because I still struggle to find the words to describe their grandeur. I have never seen peaks quite like the ones that encase Georgia and form the country’s northern border with Russia. Hidden within this seemingly impenetrable landscape is a cultural and linguistic diversity that is equally as impressive.
Before I came to the Caucasus region, Azerbaijan was the country I knew the least about. Predominantly Muslim in a region known for its devout Christianity, Azerbaijan is the most distinct of the three.
Arriving in Baku, the capital, after two months in Georgia was a bit of a shock to my system. Baku is a boom-town flush with oil money, and Bakuvians are not afraid to flaunt their wealth. There are many ostentatious civic projects in town, such as the iconic Flame Towers and the Heydar Aliyev Center designed by Zaha Hadid. That building in particular is a joy to photograph – I don’t think I’ve ever spent so long concentrating on a single subject. I was spellbound by the sinuous curves and the way the exterior lines melted into the pavement — completely forgot to go inside.
You don’t have to travel far outside Baku to see where the city’s affluence springs from. Oil rigs line the coast on the drive to Qobustan, a desert punctuated by mud flats, burning hillocks, and mud volcanoes – all formed from natural gas and oil that bubbles beneath the surface. Journeying off-road, some friends and I piled into a fleet of Ladas (Russian-made cars commonly found in the former USSR) and were whisked away to what felt like the edge of the Earth. Bumping along in a relic of Azerbaijan’s Soviet past somehow felt like the perfect way to enter such an eerie landscape.
The fabled Silk Road once passed through the town of Sheki in northern Azerbaijan. There, you can still sleep inside caravanserai (inns built along the Silk Road to house travellers and traders) and shop for locally made silk. The Palace of the Sheki Khans was the summer residence of the region’s historical monarch. Decorated from ceiling to floor with miniature paintings and shebeki (stained glass), it’s one of the most exquisite works of art I’ve ever laid eyes on. There’s no photography allowed inside, so it was one of those rare moments when I was forced to put down my camera and just drink it in. Later on, I saw a few kids playing on their phones outside, mesmerised by the screens in much the same way.
Relationships between neighboring countries in the Caucasus are complicated. Armenia and Azerbaijan have been locked in conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh since the 1990s, so traveling from one country to the other necessitates doubling back through Georgia.
I woke up on my first day in Armenia rolling along in a sleeper train. That evening, I climbed the stairs to the top of the Cascade Complex for a view over Yerevan. Just as I reached the concrete summit, a massive storm rolled in, cloaking Mount Ararat in a blanket of blue-gray haze. It was a timely reminder that a turbulent history still hangs over Armenia like a dark cloud. As well as the ongoing conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and loss of territory to Turkey (including the spiritually significant Mount Ararat), the legacy of the Armenian genocide casts a long shadow. I was fortunate enough to spend April 24, Genocide Remembrance Day, in Yerevan and joined in commemorations for the 1.5 million lives lost during WWI.
Despite – or maybe because of – the hardships they have faced, most Armenians have a strong sense of identity and are fiercely proud of their country. The process of making lavash bread is an Armenian tradition recognised by UNESCO as part of the nation’s Intangible Cultural Heritage. I peered between stacks of lavash to capture images of vendors preparing for the day’s trade at the GUM Market in Yerevan. They separated the paper-thin sheets with a palate knife before refreshing each one with a spray of water.
It would be impossible to travel in the Caucasus and not end up with at least a few dozen photos of carpets. Across the region, you’ll see exquisite rugs and tapestries strewn over balconies, hung on walls, and layered thick on café floors. I captured this impressive collection of Armenian and Persian rugs at the Vernissage Market, a huge outdoor bazaar in downtown Yerevan. I travel light, so I usually find myself taking photos rather than buying souvenirs – but in this instance, I indulged in a bit of both.
Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia all have something unique to offer the weary traveler. Taken as a whole, the Caucasus is one of the richest, most complex, and confounding places I have ever been. I’m already planning a return visit.