Back in 2012 I was due to lead our third tour into the Islamic Republic of Iran before a month interlude between hooking up with YPT’s second annual Eurasian Adventure Tour in Kiev, and with but a mere two countries between my destinations, a pocket full of money, two trusty travel buddies, and a month to kill all roads led towards a sexy little research trip.
In the good old days of the Cold War the northern border of Iran separated the capitalist west from the Soviet Union and in particular the Azerbaijan SSR, Armenian SSR, and lastly the Georgian SSR, 3 newly independent states that I had wanted to check out both from professional and personal point of view for a long time. What the Caucuses also had was something I have a borderline sick obsession with, unrecognized countries and frozen conflict zones, in this case namely Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, and the real mafia jewel in the crown South Ossetia. A plan was made, we would cross from Tehran up to the border by car before traversing over to Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Georgia before finishing it all in Abkhazia (it was decided that that South Ossetia a bit too sketchy). What could go wrong?
On our first day in Iran my travel companion Joe had noticed that every 3rd shop in Tehran seemed to be selling extremely shiny, and dare I say borderline offensively shiny suits, it was suggested off the cuff that we should all go and buy one, I agreed expecting it was one of those throw away amusing comments that no one ever plans to do. I was wrong and on our last night in Tehran 3 of us were sitting in a tailors being made to measure for shiny silver, green and gold suites, complemented with lapels and frilly elements to our white shirts, the tailor did not speak English, but if he had I half expected him to look at my face and say “too jazzy”?.
So $100 and a mad last night out in Tehran and we were now wearing our shiny suits (now complemented by a Hannah Montana bag) and heading up north to the border with Armenia. Whilst Iran is a beautiful and interesting country to travel around their motorways (and dining choices) are not the most interesting, so we were somewhat pleased to rock up to the border suited and booted around nightfall. Armenia is now visa free, but at the time we went you were required to get an online visa on arrival, something which despite we had done for some reason was not showing up on the system, so despite having cleared through Iran we were now stuck in the the border limbo land. My Russian speaking colleague whiled the two hours away chatting with the guards, whilst I spent my time mostly standing outside smoking and watching the trucks come through. After two hours of post-Soviet bureaucracy we were finally stamped and let through, as we were just about the to leave the building the border guard shouted out to the Russian speaker “one minute man, I got one question”, “whats up”? “Man what the fucks up with those suits”?………he smiled and replied “we just went to a wedding”. The Armenian guard said “oh” and then looked even more confused than ever as we exited into Armenia.
In most of the ex-USSR taxis are less like we know in the west, and much more resemble an old man with a Lada without a meter who charges whatever he fancies charging. Yeah traveling by yourself can be fun, but at this point I was pretty damned pleased to be accompanied by a walking talking tour guide/translator and after negotiating a $4 ride to the nearest cheap as hell hotel we headed off. I’m a massive fan of border towns, because they tend to be very sleazy, and when your particular border town borders genuine Islamic Republic and is serviced by salt if the earth truckers it was unsurprising to see strip clubs and the kind of nightclubs where women outnumber men as far as the eye could see. As tragic as it sounds the three of us being early to late 30’s in age settled for a night in with beer and cheese, two other luxuries (largely) unavailable to us in Iran.
As interesting and seedy as border towns are, during the day they lack interest, so we got up early and decided to head off on the next part of our adventure onto the border town of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, Goris. Goris was an extremely pleasant place to stay for a few days, lots of churches to look at, old buildings, and what we enjoyed the most an old Soviet style bar filled with communist kitsch where the governor (who does resemble Borat) made his own home made vodka. Easily the most drunk I had been in a whole week. I was also introduced to what is now one of my newfound culinary loves Chechil, which is a braided salty cheese traditionally eaten when you eat beer, or drink vodka, I added watching football as well which made it probably the best day of my life.
Goris was nice, but we had come out this way with bigger fish to fry, with that fish being the unrecognized state of Nagorno-Karabakh. If you want a detailed background on the place check out Wikipedia, but for an abridged version basically NK is ethnically Armenian, but was a part of Azerbaijan, at the end of the old CCCP they declared independence and fought a war with Azerbaijan, which with Armenian and Russian help they won. The world recognizes them as part of Azerbaijan and normal level headed people with intelligence accept that not only are they not, but they don’t want to be. I’ve been to quite a few border crossings, but this one was special, army dudes and little look at our passport before we were whisked on to our imaginary country for the next few days. On arrival in Stepanakert the capital we checked into our hotel before heading to the immigration bureau for our “visa on arrival” which they stamp in your passport, or on a piece of paper if you ever want to travel to Azerbaijan, who won’t let you in if you have this visa in your passport. I made my stand that that day and decided I would rather a cool stamp than to go to a country that acted so childishly. Being in genuine capital city and it being Halloween we decided to hit the cities only nightclub. I won’t go into massive detail about the club, but weird would be somewhat the understatement. We went (obviously) in our shiny suits. The clientele ranged from unaccompanied children to oligarchs and the elderly, a total of about 25 people. The evening consisted mostly of what appeared to be strange Soviet era games before at about 11pm when there was a massive, and I mean massive food fight. Not feeling the evening was weird enough I decided to buy 8 cans of beer on the way home, drink them at the hotel and then shave my head, badly. Not your average day at the office.
Aside from frankly bizarre nightclubs Stepanakert doesn’t have all that much to offer, so we decided to head to the next part of our freak show, a place by the name of Vank. Now to give Vank a little background. An Armenian dude went to America chasing the American dream, made himself a billionaire and then decided he would reward his hometown people of Vank by building bizarre monuments such as one made from a Lada the locals gave him as a gift, a collection of number plates, and a hotel modeled on the Titanic. The big Kahuna still pops back every now and again showering the locals with money, and unsurprisingly he’s still fairly popular. Weird, but well worth a stop.
Our next port of call was a brief stop in Yerevan the capital of Armenia. As capitals go it was extremely pleasant, a real post Soviet bar scene, the cool beautiful moneyed people of Armenia, and as we read online great strip clubs……Strippers and booze aside theres also the brandy factory, and just outside the oldest church in the world (Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity), two days well spent we headed to Tblisi.
Whilst driving around in Ladas is pleasant enough you have not traveled around these parts unless you have taken at least one overnight sleeper train, so after stocking up on vodka we boarded our bed for the night. There truly is something special about rolling slowly through the Soviet Wastelands drinking vodka and kicking it back with your friends, in any journey this is a highlight.
Tbilisi the capital of Georgia is OK as cities go, and I have friends that absolutely rave about the place, but to me it was decidedly so so, perhaps because I had enjoyed Yerevan so much. The one night we did “hit the town” was fairly interesting as I arrived to meet my friend at a bar, where he was drinking Absinthe Mojitos and chatting up some rather stunning ladies. After procuring my own Absinthe Mojito, the ladies then left our table to join the huge Soviet dude who had come to meet them. He flashed us a smile, sat down and as his ass hit the chair we got a flash of the glock hanging off his hip. His point was made, we asked for the bill. FYI Absinthe Mojitos cost $25 a pop in Tbilisi. Two lessons learned.
We did a few more days touring around places near the border with Turkey, which largely consisted of the other two looking at stuff whilst I drank vodka, before we headed off for what was in my mind at least the highlight of the trip the hometown of Joseph Jughashvili, or as the cool kids know him Uncle Joe Stalin, Gori.
Now before I go into detail about our crazy few days in Gori, it is worth regaling you with some Soviet humor. Whenever we told friends from various parts of the old USSR that we were going to the Caucuses, and Georgia in particular everyone we told would joke that we should be careful because everyone in this region was gay and would try to “bum rape us”. Something we obviously laughed off as being one of those untrue stereotypes that do not exist in the real world. I’ll come back to this point later….
On arrival in Gori we decided to go full on Soviet and book into the Intourist hotel. For those not geeky enough to know what Intourist is, basically they were the Soviet government tourism monolith that controlled all elements of tourism in the Soviet Union, including which hotels they could bug and thus foreigners were allowed to stay. When YPT stay in Tiraspol we stay in the corresponding hotel there, and it is frankly just a wonderful experience, if you like cold rooms but a real Soviet experience.
Whilst Stalin is largely reviled by most of the world now, in Gori he is a big deal, with this being the only place where his statue was taken down, but actually put up again, it is also where the Stalin museum is. The Stalin museum? Well it is wonderful, very pro Big Joe, and with his old train carriage, his original family home and a massive statue of the Uncle very commie extreme.
After a day spent in museums, we decided to indulge our anthropological sides and get out down and dirty with the locals by indulging in some drinking at a wee local tavern. It was not long before a bunch of young, but big and strong Georgians decided to befriend us and pretty soon we were shooting massive shots of vodka. This is where stuff started to get interesting, Joe from our group is a big muscley American former first mate on ship and is fairly good at arm wrestling, so everyone wanted to arm wrestle him. He kept winning. People in Stalin hometown getting beaten by the American did not go down well. We were then invited aggressively to their houses. We then decided to leave. The end of the night consisted of us running away from a chasing pack of Georgian males shouting they wanted to “fluck your blasses” or words to those effect. Who said stereotypes were always wrong?
My two companions left the next day to continue their travels with my plan to spend one more night in Gori before heading off to Abkhazia. What actually happened was I discovered a great cafe with good food, fast wifi, cheap vodka and a view of Stalin from the window. Everyday I would head off to the bus station drunk at 6pm to be told I had missed the last bus (by day 4 they thought I was mental), before spending another night in Gori.
I eventually left 5 days later for Batumi to get my flight to Kiev. Yes I had missed Abkhazia, yes I had spent almost a week in the drab old Soviet hometown of genuine great dictator, but some like beaches, good bars, great food and clubs, I had cheese, vodka, Soviet grim and a daily view of Stalin, this was my Ibiza.
I managed to visit Abkhazia later, and largely use the basis of the trip to create what is now one of our most important tours on the calendar, the unrecognized countries tour, and whilst, thankfully for most it is not exactly like my research trip, we still feel it holds some of the same spirit.