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This is my diary and photos from the 17 days round trip in the countries of Caucasus with the Swedish travel agency Världens Resor. Our original travel program is written in italics and it's not translated into English.


Tuesday 30th of June / Departure
We departed at 9:30 by taxi to the train station. It was nice to avoid carrying the luggage as it was as hot as it had been the last week. We changed at Herrljunga and Skövde and we could take an earlier train in Stockholm to Arlanda airport, where we arrived about 3 pm.

We could make the check in 5 hours before the departure and we had some lunch before we passed the security control. I could finally finish my Lonely Planet guide book before we met some of our fellows in the group. Among them were Jan-Olof and Beatrice from the Silk Road voyage 4 years earlier and Bengt and Anders from the Mekong voyage half a year earlier. But we also found all the other including our guide Anna Mnatsakanova.

The flight was slightly late from Riga, so we departed around 8:30 pm and arrived 50 minutes later in company with Karin who sat beside us. The airport of Riga is extremely dull and we soon went through the passport control as we were going outside EU. The plane departed 0:30 am and we tried immediately to get some sleep, as the flight is only three and a half hour long.

Wednesday 1st of July / Flight to Yerevan, Armenia
Vi anländer till Armeniens huvudstad tidigt på morgonen. Efter en kort vila och frukost begär vi oss på strövtåg och utforskar staden. Arkeologiska fyndigheter berättar att stadens historia börjar på 700-talet f Kr. Erebuni fortet restes vid en strategisk korsväg mellan Europa och Indien. Dagens Jerevan är en modern stad med allt vad det innebär, tunnelbana, ett invecklat nätverk av allmänna kommunikationer, butiker, livsmedelsaffärer, gigantiska monument från Sovjetepoken och betongförorter. Jerevans centrala torg är ritat av en känd armenisk arkitekt, Alexander Tamanian, och är ett av de bästa exempel på sovjetisk stadsplanering som går att hitta. Det utgör en självklar start för en vandring genom centrum. Vi kommer till Jerevan under den bästa tiden, när stadsborna och besökare flyttar ut till otaliga uteserveringar och tillbringar långa ljumma kvällar med gott skratt över en kopp stark kaffe eller öl. Efter lunch fortsätter vi till Etjmiadzin, hjärtat av den armeniska kyrkan. Kristendomen kom tidigt till Armenien och många av landets gamla kyrkor är också landets främsta turistattraktioner. På kvällen är det välkomstmiddag på en lokal restaurang.

We had gotten 1-2 hours of disturbed sleep, when we arrived just before 6 am local time (GMT+4 including daylight saving time). We got another paper to fill in for the customs to show whom to contact in case of health problems. It was surprisingly efficient with both the visa application and the passport control. As Christina had a crutch, one of the officials thought she should use the priority queue and that I should join her. The luggage had already arrived and quickly everybody went outside.

There we met our local guide Mary and the bus driver Samuel. Mary told us a few facts about Armenia during the drive to Ani Plaza hotel in the centre of Yerevan. It is the first country with Christianity as state religion and the Armenian king was converted 301 AD. She also briefly mentioned the genocide of Armenians, which Turkey started 1915 and this border is closed until Turkey confesses that they are guilty to it and apologizes. Along the road we had a view of Mount Ararat, which is 5165 metres high and still has a large importance even if it is situated in Turkey. The country was founded 782 BC as a union of 60 tribes into a kingdom.

After check in, we had breakfast 7:30 am and then we slept for a couple of hours before we went for a tour in and around Yerevan at 11:00 am.
We first went just outside the city. Yerevan was the new capital when Armenia became independent 1918, but it became a state of the Soviet Union 1921 and remained so until 1991. The country only has 3 millions inhabitants, but it is estimated to be living 7 millions abroad, whereof 2 millions live in Los Angeles. But we never got to know how those Armenians were defined. Did she mean second, third or another generation abroad or just people who knew the Armenian language? The city is situated 900 metres high, which made it comfortable even in the hot sun, but the winters are colder than in Sweden. Still the highest mountain is just 2095 metres high. 2001 the country became a member of the European council.

First we arrived to the old church Surp Hripsime built 680 AD. It was built very stable, so it had resisted all earth-quakes. All inscriptions in the church are made in Classic Armenian, which is different from the modern one.

Then we continued to Echmiabzin, which is the centre of the Armenian apocalyptic church. There are seminars for theological students, who also are involved in exchange programs around the world and there is also the Catolicus (=something like an arch bishop) residence. We visited the church, which was cool inside. There was a treasury with many artefacts and manuscripts. Among those were a cauldron, which is said to contain the very first myrrh, which has been renewed every year since before Christ. There is also a spear tip, which is said to have been pointed to Christ to assure that he was dead.

The next destination was the World Heritage of Zvartnots church dedicated to Saint Grigor Lusavorich. It was built 642-652 AD, but it had too high proportions to resist earth-quakes and is now in ruins. In the background we could see Mount Ararat. When I tried to take photos, I fell badly on a stone, probably due to the tiredness, but it was only some scrubs and I felt it a couple of days in the upper part of my left leg.

Then we returned to Yerevan and ate a 3-course lunch in the centre. First we had like Lebanese meze appetizer and after that meat and some kind of pilaff rice and then ending with ice-cream with chocolate sauce. Wine was served with the lunch. It was really delicious.

After lunch we went to the Historical Museum beside the Republic Square. It was very interesting, but we weren't allowed to take pictures even without flash. The guide was translated by Anna, but she answered some questions in German, which she seemed to speak fluently. After the tour Christina made a new tour to look at the most interesting things again, but I was too tired due to the lack of sleep. We walked back with Anna and a few others and stopped to buy water, bread, cheese and fruits to be able to get to bed early. It was nice to be in the middle of the apricot season. Back at the room we ate after a shower and then went to bed around 8 pm.

Thursday 2nd of July / Yerevan
Idag gör vi en utflykt till det storslagna klosterkomplexet Geghard. Klostret började huggas ut från bergväggarna på 600-talet. Det ligger gömt och otillgängligt för att det skulle skyddas från inkräktare. Vi fortsätter till templet Garni, som oväntat är romersk i sin stil.

The alarm rang at 7 am and we felt pretty rested. The day excursion started 8:30 and we went outside the city just over an hour away. We stopped to see the view at Voghjaberd, where we had a nice view over the valley and the ever-present Mount Ararat. The first stop was the Garni temple, which is a Roman temple dedicated to the sun God Helios. It has 24 pillars and probably also had some astronomical significance. A man played flute for us in the temple, of course for a minor fee. Outside are there ruins from an old church and a bath house. The latter had mosaic with unusually small pieces. Beside the church is a stone with cuneiform inscriptions from 8 BC. The temple is situated high above a gorge with fantastic formations. Outside I bought some walnut sweets from one of the old ladies in the market stalls.

We continued to the Geghard cave churches from the 7th century, which is a world heritage site. They are partly made into the stones, to be concealed. The main church seemed to be small from the outside but it is impressing from the inside. We stumbled upon a baptism and in a nearby chapel Mary had arranged a choir who sang beautifully for us.

Afterwards we went back to the village Garni and went to a family restaurant, where we first could see how they baked the thin lavish bread, which you usually ate with cheese and some vegetable. The main course was grilled meat and potatoes plus some fruits for dessert. We had some local wine to drink.
Then we returned to Yerevan for a visit to Ararat Brandy factory, which is part of the French company group Pernod-Ricard. They produced brandy of different ages and we had a guided tour. It was started 1887 and the first batch was finished and sold 1902. The current factory is situated in an old fort since 1953. They produce 45000 bottles a day with a staff of 370 persons. 92% is exported to 25 countries around the world. The brandy was a favourite of Winston Churchill and Stalin sent him a few cases now and then. We finished the tour by tasting 3, 10 and 20 years old brandy. It was interesting to try, but too strong for my taste.

When we had returned to the hotel we bought some water in a shop and then Christina needed to rest a couple of hours before we went out for dinner. There were a few drops of rains so we fetched our jackets, but it was false alarm even it as very windy. We went nearby the opera house, but we only found cafes, so finally we entered a fast food place called Yum Yum Doughnuts and had some pizza in opposite of our principles. Then we went back to prepare for the departure and read some about the tour tomorrow before it was time to sleep.

Friday 3rd of July / Yerevan - Goris
Med buss genom Araratdalen, dominerad av det bibliska berget. Enligt Moseboken strandade Noaks ark på Ararats topp och flera expeditioner har anordnats för att söka efter arken. En gång sträckte sig Armenien till Medelhavet, men landet föll i händerna på olika härskare och gränserna har idag krympt rejält. Det heliga berget Ararat ligger numera i Turkiet, men fortfarande är landets starkaste symbol. Bergsmassiven med sin 5165 möh höga topp svävar över dalen och har gett grannprovinsen i Armenien sitt namn. Vi besöker Khor Virap klostret och beundrar den hisnande utsikten över Mt Ararat. Vyerna är som vackrast tidigt på morgonen och i synnerhet under sommaren när bergskonturerna syns tydligt mot den klara blå himlen. Khor Virap var en gång i tiden ett mycket viktigt pilgrimsmål och ligger bara 33 km från Turkiets gräns. Vi lämnar den bördiga Ararat dalen och kommer till en av Armeniens mest avlägsna delar. I Vayots Dzor stannar vi för att göra ett besök på Noravank klostret, en av Armeniens mest kända sevärdheter. Vi följer vägen som slingrar vidare genom karga djupa floddalar och passerar Karahunj - ett fornhistoriskt observatorium, med andra ord Armeniens svar på Stonehenge. Fortsatt färd till Goris där vi övernattar.

The same morning procedure before checkout and we departed just before 9 am. It was yet another warm and sunny day. We went by bus through the Ararat valley to Khor Virap monastery, where Grigor Lusavorich was imprisoned in a pit during 13 years. It was a lovely view with Mount Ararat in the background. We could see the military zone towards Turkey, where the border is closed. Lenin gave away quite a big part of Armenia to Turkey without realizing their intention, which was followed by a genocide of the Armenians living in this area during a few years after 1921. This still is the reason for the conflict today. In the monastery we looked into the church and some of us climbed down into the 15 meters deep pit.

When we continued Mary told us about the conflict with Azerbaijan and especially Nagorno-Karabach. It was actually Stalin who had started it by splitting the old countries. When the rate of Armenians in the province had decreased to 75% during the 80's they started to claim independency and when USSR fell down this demand increased and the war started and prevailed until 1994, when there was a cease-fire and this is still the current status.

We passed through the town called Ararat, which has a big cement factory, as well as a gold factory. There are also lot of ore, copper and molybdenum in the country. There are 50 hydropower plants and on nuclear power plant.

We stopped in the village Arnach to see storks, but there were also many fruit market stalls and fish cultivations. We passed the road to the Naxcivan province of Azerbaijan, which only is connected to the main part of the country through a narrow corridor in Northern Iran.

The next stop was in the village Areni for wine tasting. There they sold wine in coca cola bottles, mainly to Iran truck drivers as this is the main road to Iran and islam disallows usage of alcohol.

Nearby we turned into a narrower road leading to the monastery of Novarank. It is beautifully situated in a gorge. This masterpiece was made by Monik, who not only was an architect, but also a sculptor and scribe. He finished it 1339. After the tour we had lunch before we continued in a more varied landscape. It was no less fertile and we went higher up on dwindling roads surrounded by green hills and with plenty of colourful flowers everywhere. We made a short stop at the top of the pass, which also is a province border. Below it is a large reservoir.

Our last stop was at Karahunj, which the Armenians compare with Stonehenge in England. There are holes in 84 of the nearly 223 standing stones, which are said to have astronomical significance, but this is still disputed. You may read more at:  http://www.carahunge.com/  (but be critical… it’s very nationalistic texts and conclusions).

I also finally got a photo of the gas lines you could see everywhere and they are like portals wherever a car must pass. During the last part of the tour Mary told us about the two years of conscript military service, which only could be avoided if you studied and took your Ph.D. There are about 45000 students at the universities and there are even 17 private ones, but only 3 are certified.

We arrived to the small town of Goris just after 6:30 pm to the Mirav hotel. It was just time for a quick shower before dinner at the hotel. Some tested the local mulberry schnapps, but we preferred to keep to the local wine. It was nice to go to bed after a long day in the bus and the sun.

Saturday 4th of July / Goris-Yerevan
Vi gör ett stopp i den mycket speciella byn Khndzoresk, känd för sina grottbostäder. Byn ligger bland fantastiska kalkstensformationer och vägen dit bjuder på Armeniens vackraste vyer. Vi fortsätter till Tatevklostret som ligger gömt i grönskan av Vorotan dalen. Lunch serveras i byn i närheten av klostret. Gott bröd, ost eller yoghurt smaksatt av pepparmint, grillspett och frukt är den vanligaste menyn av en enkel måltid i Armenien. Armenien har drabbats av många katastrofer men människorna är vänliga och nyfikna, och gästfriheten stor.

As we had a later start, the alarm was set on 7:30 am. It had been some thunder during the night and there were still some drizzling. After a less overwhelming breakfast we left at 8:30 in two mini buses, which weren't of a recent date.

First we went to Khndzoresk an old and the now abandoned village, which is built with caves, except for a church. The last part of the road was terribly bad. We had a view over the village from a platform. The sun shone nicely now. Archaeologists believe that the place has been inhabited since about the 5th century. The last persons lived there until 1968, and then all had moved to a village on top of the ridge. Stone had been taken from the old to the new village, so parts were demolished. Probably there had been about 2000 caves, but today there are about 600 left. Some are hardly accessible and were used as storage, but also when there were worried times. At the bottom of the valley is a stone church built and we started to walk down. Soon the path was very muddy of the rain and it was heavy to walk. Christina turned as she realized that it would not be possible, as she was afraid of stumbling in the mud. Also had Mary returned and she brought the mini buses to the other side of the valley where it should be easier to walk up.

Meanwhile the other of us had reached the church before we knew about the changed plans. Actually Mary had never understood that we should walk down as no other tourists ever walked down, as they only looked from the top of both sides. We looked around in the valley while waiting that she would turn up from the other side, which took quite a long time. The church is of course also abandoned and in quite a bad shape with cattle shit on the floor. There used to be 16 fresh water springs in the valley.

It was nearly noon when we went back to Goris for a short stop at a petrol station for toilets and some snacks before we continued up in the mountains on quite bad roads, When we had come over the ridge we went on a narrow serpentine road to the bottom of a valley where it used to be a clergyman school, before the poor buses had to climb up on the other side on an even bumpier road to reach the Tatev monastery.

When we finally had reached the village of Tatev we first had a lunch on a farm. It was as usual very plentiful, but this time without any meat, which mostly felt as an advantage. Some drank home made apple vodka, which was in a mineral water bottle. In all it was a very pleasant lunch in a nice environment and the family including a lady of at least 80 years took care of us well. But the toilet facilities were very modest here.

The Tatev monastery is on the edge to the valley and it is surrounded by a wall like a fortress. It was built 906 together with the school in the valley. This became the cultural centre of Armenia for theology, math, science, poetry etc. There had been about 600 monks plus about 200 students.

After the tour we had to return on the same road. It took about 25 minutes down to the bottom, where we stopped to see the creek and formations, which are called Devil's Bridge. Another 20 minutes before we were on the top on the other side and then soon continued a little bit before we turned into a new road. Just before the main road further up, Samuel met up with the big bus and he had prepared coffee, tea and biscuits for us before the long journey back.
For a while we had some rain, but when we made a toilet stop at the road towards Noravank near 8 pm, it was sunny again. When we came closer to Mount Ararat we had a really great sunset towards the mountain, and stopped to take photos of it before we continued towards Yerevan.

We didn't return until 10 pm and were quite tired. Some went out for dinner, but we only bought yoghurt and a cake in a kiosk on the other side of the street. It had also started to rain again, so this was more than enough for us, as we yet was late to bed.

Sunday 5th of July / Yerevan - Sevansjön
Dagens program inleds med ett besök på det imponerande Matenadranmuséet med sin unika samling av manuskript, en av de finaste konstformerna i Armeniens kulturella arv. Bland annat ser vi det äldsta manuskriptet på armeniska från 989 samt den första tryckta boken på armeniska från 1512. Vi åker med egen buss till den vackra Sevansjön, belägen på 1915 m ö h i ett tidigare vulkaniskt område. Under sommaren stiger vattentemperaturen till behagliga 22 grader. Vi hinner säkert med ett eftermiddagsdopp i sjön.

It had been some thunder during the night, but now it was sunny and hot as most of the time. We departed at 9 am after loading the luggage on the bus.
The first destination was the "Vernissage", which in practice is a flea market with both amateurs selling their old stuff, as well as entrepreneurs and artists selling paintings, handicrafts, books etc. It wasn't much for European tourists to buy, but at least Anders had found a chess game he enjoyed.

Then we went to the genocide museum, which is erected in memory of the Turkish genocide of Armenians 1915. Lenin thought that Turkey had good intentions as a socialistic state and he also wanted to end the war, so he gave Turkey a large part of Armenia including Mount Ararat to them, which turned into a catastrophe. This is still the reason why the border is closed between these two countries. There are discussions between them, but first of all Armenia want Turkey to confess the genocide. Until 1922 they killed about 2 millions Armenian, mainly in Anatolia. The monument was built 1968 during a period when Soviet Union was quite open for a while. Unfortunately it was closed due to the Constitution Day today and the agency didn't know this in advance, so we continued after looking only at the memorial monument and the view over the city.

Instead we went to the museum of Sergei Paradjanov, who was a director of eight Russian movies, but also a strange artist. His most well-known film is "the colour of pomegranates". His art is very weird, but most important is that he spoke very liberally and had a very critical symbol language in his art, so he was locked into prison a couple of times. In any case he seemed to be more weird than interesting and I won't run and see a movie by him when I come home.
Just after noon we went to the manuscript museum dedicated to Matenadram Mashtop, who created the Armenian 36 letters alphabet. But this was closed all Sundays and Mondays according to a sign, so we continued towards lake Sevan at 1900 metres. This is an important holiday and weekend resort for inhabitants of Yeravan, which could be seen on all bathing toys and barbecue wood sold along the road. The lake is also known for its many trout, which are caught in the lake.

Mary told us other general facts about the country. The unemployment is 25%, but we never found out how this is calculated. Retired get a pension of 10000-20000 drams (20-40 euros) per month. If you have insurance you are eligible for at least basic health care. The birth rate is low and the death rate is quite high. The prices are getting higher, especially in Yerevan. Apartments are always owned and they are very expensive in the capital, not least as many foreign living Armenians are buying them.

We arrived after an hour’s trip and went out to a peninsula, where many people seemed to be. We first stopped for lunch in the rain. Some of us had a really good trout from the lake after the usual buffet of cheese, salad, lavash bread and other small plates. The sun returned just when we started to climb the steps to the top of the hill to see the Sevan monastery. This was from the 12th century and there were never any women allowed to visit the monks. We entered the church where there was a baptism.

When we had returned down to the bus we continued to the top of the lake and turned Eastwards to follow the lake on the other side. It was a real difference on that side. There were many holiday resorts from the Soviet time, but they seemed to have been abandoned a long time ago. In general it was more declination there. An old railway was only used for some mines and there were small scattered villages and farms, but the environment was nice to see. We arrived to the village Tsapatagh and the quite recently built Avan Marak hotel, which belonged to the heritage hotel chain Tufenkian. The room was a surprise, as it was a suite with the bedroom at the second floor. All was designed with cement and steel. Actually I found it quite ugly.

When we intended to walk around a little, it started to rain again and when we went to the dinner at 7 pm Samuel drove us in the bus, as the restaurant is situated a bit further up in the village even if it apparently was a part of the hotel. I doubt that any locals visit it. It was a pleasantly good dinner and the wine was a little more expensive than usual. After dinner the rained had ceased and all except Samuel walked back. We bought some biscuits and water in the local shop, as we were going to cross a border tomorrow. It was getting late and the light was quite bad as usual

Monday 6th of July / Sevansjön - Tbilisi, Georgia
Idag lämnar vi Armenien och fortsätter cirka fem timmar med buss till Georgiens huvudstad Tbilisi. Vi känner Georgien från "rosornas revolution" som lyfte fram georgiernas hopp om demokratisering, samt de senaste motsättningarna mellan oppositionen och den omvalda presidenten Saakasjvili. Landskapet i södra Georgien är ganska monotont och just här är det svårt att förstå att Georgien rymmer några av Kaukasus högsta och mest spektakulära bergstoppar och glaciärer. Trots sin storlek på 70.000 kv km har Georgien ett mycket varierat klimat och naturskillnaderna är stora mellan syd och nord, öst och väst. Karga bergskullar ersätts så småningom av halvöken i syd, medan i väst övergår de till skogskädda bergssluttningar. I norr glimtar Stora Kaukasus och i öst slingrar sig Alasani floden genom prydliga vinrankor. Övernattning i Tbilisi.

Breakfast was at 8 am and we had to walk a bit again. It was a quite chilly morning with only shorts and barefoot in sandals, but it had become warmer when we departed at 9 am.

We went back to the top of the lake and then we continued Northwards. The flat landscape became hilly and we passed a tunnel before we started a descent. In most of the curves stood somebody and cooked corn for sale. For the first time there were quite a lot of forests.

After about an hour we stopped at the small town and spa resort Dilijan, but it is big enough to have both college and a university. Here it was very common with wooden balconies with a lot of gingerbread work. We stopped at a cultural centre with several handicraft workshops. We finished by taking a cup of coffee and tasted some local cookies.

The green hill landscape reminded me a lot of Ireland. The railway to Georgia followed us most of the times, as well as a small river. We stopped for lunch in Alaverdi. There was also live musical entertainment and some American Armenians started to dance.

After lunch we visited the world heritage Sanahin, which is a monastery, which was finished 953 AD. Particular it's known for its bell tower.

We continued to Hoghipat, which also is a part of the same world heritage, higher up, but north of the town. There we spoke with a local priest, who had been active in Las Vegas for a while, so his English was good. We bought some small stuff for the last coins before we continued to the border.

Even if it was late afternoon it was quite hot at the border. Samuel offered to take our luggage on the bus over the border bridge, but we had to walk. It didn't take long time for us, but it was a mistake to let Samuel take the luggage, as we had to wait nearly an hour for it. Just after we had passed a computer problem had stopped all exits of Armenia for quite a while.

Finally we came through the customs to Georgia, which wasn't really thorough, as they realised we were tourists. We were met by the bus driver Mischa. We went through a landscape of sunflowers and corn. The first villages were mostly inhabited by Azeri people.

After an hour drive we came to Tbilisi and checked in at hotel Sherdan in the old town around 7:30 pm. Then Anna went with some of us to a restaurant for dinner after we had changed money just outside the hotel. It was really nice, but far too much to eat at that time of the day. But we had a joyful company. A girl sang mostly European older songs. When we came back we washed some clothes before it was time to go to bed.

Tuesday 7th of July / Tbilisi
Det bästa sättet att se och uppleva Tbilisi är till fots. Vi börjar fotvandringen vid en historisk plats, Metekhi klippan. Här vid foten av det gamla fortet grundades staden år 458. Staden domineras fortfarande av det gamla Narikala fortet. Sedan 1980-talet har omfattande renoveringsarbeten skänkt stadskärnan ett nytt fräscht utseende. De körsbärsfärgade, solgula och turkosa fasaderna med vackert snidade träbalkonger skapar en oas av ro i storstadens myller. Många hantverksateljéer, eleganta butiker har börjat flytta till Gamla stan och flera gamla tehus har omvandlats till mysiga caféer. Samtidigt har större delen av byggnaderna inte genomgått någon renovering på flera decennier och tecken på förfall är mycket synliga på sina håll. Vi fortsätter till Tbilisis huvudstråk, Rustaveliavenyn med några intressanta byggnader från 1800-talet när Tbilisi blev Kaukasus kulturella centrum. Vi ser eleganta hotell Tbilisi, det gamla guvernörspalatset samt stadshuset och Operan som var byggda i orientalisk stil, populärt på den tiden. Vi hinner med besök på stadens Historiska museum och stadens konstmuseum med de tillhörande guldrummen som är måsten för alla historieintresserade.

After breakfast we started a walking tour through the centre at 9 am. First we walked to the Meidan square and there we entered a synagogue, which was built 1904. Tbilisi has always been a tolerant and multi-cultural city with both Jews and Muslims together with the Christians. During the Soviet era the Jews were very active at the black market, especially with medicine. It was already David the Builder, who had realised that the loyalty of as many as possible was important and he created laws that all religions should be tolerated.

We had a nice view over the Narikhala fortress, but it was quite far to walk up to it. This was initially built by Persians in the 4th century, but the current form is from the 17th century.

Then we went over an old bridge and up to the Metikhi cliff, where we had a good view over the old town. We took a quick view into the church, but it was crowded by people in a service, so I quickly went out again. On the cliff were many teenager in a painting school and some were really talented. There is also a statue of Vakhtang Gorgasali, who founded Tbilisi 458 AD.

Being in the middle between Russia, Byzantium, Persia and Mongolia, Georgia was under a constant pressure from all directions with both conquests and alliances with its surroundings, but somehow it more or less kept its independency during the history.

Most of the houses in the central city are from the 19th century. We made a visit into one of the many bath houses. It was possible to rent a part of it for an hour or two, as well as there are cheaper common baths.

We sat down to take a cup of coffee, but most took something cold to drink in the heat. Then we went into old town and entered the Sioni cathedral. They were very strict toward both men and women to cover bare legs and shoulders. The church was very active including a wake.

The old quarters had many beautiful wooden balconies. Some were restored, particularly where there many bars, but others were in a very bad shape.
When we had come through the old alleys the bus picked us up and drove us to the Tavisuplebis Moedani (liberty square) where we entered Shaiva Amiranaschvili museum of art. As the historical museum still is closed after 3-4 years, some of the treasures are moved to this museum. But we had to split us in two groups. The first went with a Russian guide so Anna would translate and the second with an English-speaking guide. So we went to see some oriental art in a part, which was really shabby and had a slight smell of humidity. It took 40 minutes before our guide arrived, but she talked in racer speed about the icons and gold treasures, so we had to put questions to stop her now and then. I’m sure se only took a breath when she moved a meter to the next showcase. She had caught up 35 minutes on the other group when she finished by saying the phrase "goodbye, there is the door and you can go now".
In any case it was time for lunch and we went by the bus to the outskirts of the city to an ethnographic museum for lunch. We had a nice view over the city. When we went back most jumped off the bus in the modern part at the Rustavieli avenue, but we continued back to the hotel with the bus.
After a short visit to the room to get rid of our small packs, we walked around in the old town, where many lived in quite bad shaped houses. Finally we came out near Liberty Square, where we rested on a bench beside the city hall for a while. It was quite hot, so it was just nice watching people who passed by.

We went back to the hotel to cool down and remove the dust of the day. As we wanted a lighter dinner, we sat down in a place which seemed to be specialized in cheese pies, which is the countries national dish. But we didn't realise how large they were. Particularly was the minced meat pie I took very good. It was nice to come to bed after an intense day.

Wednesday 8th of July / Tbilisi - Kazbegi
Efter tidig frukost börjar vi vår expedition upp till Georgiens högsta bergspass. På vägen gör vi ett stopp i Mtskheta - den gamla huvudstaden, numera en liten stad och centrum för georgiska ortodoxa kyrkan. Vi besöker den storslagna Svetitskhoveli katedralen (1010-1029). Några delar av komplexet har tillkommit under senare tider, däremot stod huvudbyggnaden klar i ett viktigt historiskt ögonblick när Georgien efter många krig började återuppfinna sin identitet. Mest slående är kyrkans interiör och fantastiska väggmålningar. Dessutom ser vi kyrkan Djvari som ligger högt belägen på en bergstopp som dominerar en vacker dal där floderna Aragvi och Mtkvari mötts. Vi ser några av Georgiens mest magnifika vyer när vi reser längs den s.k. Georgian Military Highway. Vägen korsar Stora Kaukasus och har funnits sedan 100 f Kr. Leden var brant, smal och väldigt farlig och kunde endast klaras på hästrygg.

I slutet av 1700-talet omvandlades den till en riktig väg av ryssarna som hade strategiska och militära ambitioner. Den stod klar 1783 och binder Tbilisi med Vladikavkaz (huvudstad i Ossetien i Ryska Federationen). Området är glest befolkat. Mellan Tbilisi och Kazbegi, som är målet för dagen, finns endast en ort som har något större befolkning och infrastruktur. Det är Pasanauri, där vi äter lunch. Längs vägen finns det intressanta lämningar av medeltida kyrkor, slott och vakttorn. Det mest tilltalande är naturligtvis bergslandskapet som sakta övergår från karga sandkullar till skogsklädda bergssluttningar och så småningom storslagna alpina ängar. Vi följer Aragvifloden och efter ett par timmar ser vi Kaukasus med sina snöklädda toppar. Vägens smalaste del kommer vi till efter ha passerat Korspasset vid 2 395möh. Landskapet är oerhört vackert och domineras av Terekfloden. Den uppstår på 4 160 m höjd av flera glaciärer i trakterna och genombryter bergen vid Darialpasset. Övernattning i byn Kazbegi.

The bus was loaded with our luggage at 9 am and we departed from Tbilisi. Jan-Olof felt ill and lay down on the back seat. Just 20 km from the city is the old capital Mskhteta situated. We first went up to the Jvari church, which is the first church of Georgia. It is situated on a high hill on the other side of the river and the name means "the church of the holy cross".

One of the different stories about the Christianisation of Georgia 337 AD says that King Mirian was hunting alone when there was a solar eclipse and he prayed to his different gods, but it didn't help. Than he thought about the new god his queen had talked about and when he prayed to him and the light returned and after this he ordered everyone to baptise. There had been wandering monks mainly from Cappadocia in current Turkey and among them the holy Nina who spread the message in the area. In practice it probably took a couple of hundreds years before all were converted.

The original church was built in the 6th century and it is made of limestone. We had a splendid view over the surroundings with the two rivers who met in the valley and the old capital on the other riverside. We also saw a modern hydro power plant in the river.

Then we went to Mtskheta to see the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral from the 11th century. This is the site of the Catolicus (Archbishop) of Georgia. It is surrounded by a large wall built 1787, as the cathedral had been attacked many times during the years, among them 4 times by Tamerlane (Timur Lenk), who “just passed by” to other targets. There are really nice wall paintings. But most are from the 17th century. Most of them were painted over with white during the 19th century by the Soviet Communists.

We continued at noon and it had been very hot again. We passed the large Shinvali reservoir and stopped at Aranori, where it is a well preserved defence tower and yet another church.

After another half an hour we stopped at a small town called Pasanauri for lunch. As usual we had too much to eat before we continued on more serpentine-like roads. We passed a big ski resort at Gudauri and stopped a couple a times at splendid views over the valley with hills, which has many resemblance with the Faroe Islands. The last stop was at the Russian-Georgian friendship monument, which was built 1983 at the edge of the cliff. It was a large monument to be in the middle of nowhere along the Georgian Military Highway. The road leads to the Russian border, but due to the conflict in August last year the border still is closed. We went through the Jvari pass at 2379 meters and then the descent started. There were many glaciers on the mountains that surrounded us. Sometimes they were very reddish due to the high content of minerals. There were several tunnels, which only were used during the winter and we went at the bumpy road beside them.

We arrived at Kazbegi, which officially is renamed to Stepantsminda, at 5:30 pm.  The town is situated at about 1750 meters. We got a quite large room with two balconies towards the river behind hotel Stepandsminda.

We rested and made some washing up before dinner at 7 pm, which this time was a buffet at the hotel. After a small walk outside, as it was a bit chilly now, we went back to the room for reading and writing before it was time to sleep. From the balcony I got some nice photos of Mount Kazbek, which is 5033 meters high, as well as the church we were going to walk to the next day.

Thursday 9th of July / Kazbegi
Vi vandrar ca 6 timmar i storslaget bergslandskap. Picknick serveras i det gröna. Vandringen är inte ansträngande, men vill du ta det lugnt finns det alternativ.

We had breakfast at 8 pm and Anna had some tough negotiations with the taxi drivers before it was decided that Christina, Jan-Olof and Beatrice would take one of them up to the church. Olle and Ulla had decided to remain in the town and just stroll around.

The other of us started to walk just before 9 am when a local guide had arrived, so it would be possible to have separate groups if some wanted to walk quicker and other slower It was cloudy with mist over the mountains, but no rain so it was perfect for a walk.

We first walked through the village on the other side of the river. There where many local people and domestic animals. Some houses are nicely restored, but most are in a bad condition. We saw other who was on their way up to the church, among them a large group of Georgian teenagers with some adults. Partly we walked on stony paths and partly on bad roads. The meadows were flourishing in many colours.

We arrived at the Tsminda Sameba church at 11 am. We had a splendid view over the valley, but still we didn't see much of the mountains due to the clouds. We visited the church where they were very severe regarding the dress code, so some with shorts where refused entrance by a monk. I could as usual prolong my shorts to full-length trousers, so I could enter. But the interior wasn't anything spectacular. The teenager group had arrived and we could see that they kissed the doors to the church and the icons in reverence. It was quite chilly on the top of the hill.

We started the walk back at 11:30 am and now we followed the main road, which more looked like a dried river as it was very rough. Even if it was downhill it took nearly two hours back, but some seemed to be very tired and I felt in my back of the strain. We returned to the hotel just before 1:30 pm.
Christina also had had a nice trip up to the church, but the Niva 1600 taxi car was very bumpy on the same road, which we descended on. When she returned she had walked around in the town. The Alexander Kazbeg museum was closed, otherwise there isn’t much to see in the small town.

When we all were gathered, we took the bus up in the town to a family, where we got served a traditional Georgian lunch. It was as usual very abundant. When we had finished, it had started to rain and we were glad that we had the bus, as most people had left their rain coats at the hotel, happy to get rid of all packing they had carried during the morning. But the rain also had the consequence that that the driver refused to drive to the Russian border today, which Anna had planned. This was due to the fact that the road could be very slippery and dangerous when it is wet. Instead we went back to the hotel and had an easy afternoon before the dinner buffet, which started at 7 pm. There wasn't more to do than read after the dinner.

Friday 10th of July / Kazbegi - Tbilisi
Buss till Gori, som är framförallt känd för sitt unika Stalinmuseum. Vi besöker muséet förstås. Här ges också ett perfekt tillfälle att se och ta pulsen av en mindre stad. Buss till Tbilisi som tar ca 1,5 timmar. Folkdansföreställning på kvällen.

We had an early breakfast at 7:30 and the departure half an hour later towards the Russian border. The road was narrow and in a quite bad shape. The border is closed due to the current conflict with Russia as they have occupied South Ossetia. Despite this they are restoring the road. On the other hand it's good to do it when the traffic is minimal. The views were fantastic and dwindling and they were actually restoring a church nearby the border, but we were never allowed to pass the last curve to see the other side.

We went back through Kazbegi and up to the Jvari pass. Before the pass we stopped to look closer at the reddish cliffs. It was quite chilly so we needed at least a jumper and it was still quite cloudy. We went the same road as we went up and it soon got clearer and warmer when we were halfway down.
After Mtskheta we turned Westward and at a petrol station we picked up the local guide Lily. Except for Russian she also spoke French fluently.

We continued towards Gori, the birth town of the former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. After we had some lunch, we went to the Stalin museum. Outside was his childhood house under a roof of marble and of course a statue of himself. He let the museum be erected 1937. There was also the bullet-proof railway wagon with which he used to get around the country. The museum looked like a marble palace and gave us a déjà vu of North Korea with both the mausoleum and the gift gathering palace, but this is in a much smaller scale. The guiding itself was surprisingly positive to Stalin. Somebody put a question about Trotsky, which was ignored. It was more like an interesting phenomenon than a place to get objective information. It's difficult to remove the fact that he is the most important person born in this city, compared to the bad deeds he did even to Georgians. Anyway he was of a quite poor origin, but his mother had ambitions that he should become a priest and when he studied at the university he came in touch with the radical ideas of the Bolsheviks. They financed the propaganda with bank robberies. He lived 1879-1953.

We continued outside the city to the Western side where we visited the old cave city Uplistsikhe, which was a really interesting surprise. Unfortunately Christina wasn't prepared to the difficult walk as she hadn't taken stronger pain pills, but she couldn’t resist the temptation of this. The city is about 3000 years old, but it was mainly active from the 6th century BC until the 1st century AD. After the Mongol invasion during the 12th century it ceased to be used. It had about 20000 inhabitants during its peak. It had markets, theatre, pharmacy, bakery, winery, temple (which later became a basilica), a palace, water supply, sewers etc. 1930 there was an earthquake, which only left 30% of the original city. Even if I helped Christina, she also got help by a local elder man who got some tips. Afterwards we tried some local wine at the café.

We stopped for a photo of the city fortress from the 8th century, when we passed back through Gori towards Tbilisi. We were back at hotel Sharden just after 7 pm. We made a quick check in before we went by bus to the Nabadi folk theatre. I'm always quite hesitant to folklore dance for tourists, but this was a positive surprise, as it apparently tried to tell a story and they were very quick and skilful dancers. Still the song and music felt very alike after a while. 80 minutes performance was more than enough, especially as the seats were unusually uncomfortable. There were also served some red wine and local candies.
We went back to the hotel and some went out for dinner at 10 pm, but we bought some biscuits and juice at a local store as Christina was extremely tired of the pain and we was in bed at 11 pm.

Saturday 11th of July / Tbilisi - Signakhi
Vi fortsätter till distriktet Kakaheti, i östra Georgien. Området är centrum för Georgiens vinindustri och har landets tätaste koncentration av historiska monument. Vi besöker klippklostret David-Gareja. För att se hela komplexet i sin storhet måste vi lämna bussen och fotvandra sista sträckan genom stäppliknande landskap(ca 4 km). Det är ett stort område med en ansamling av kyrkor, administrativa byggnader, celler och vakttorn från perioden mellan 500-1200-talet. Väggmålningarna som föreställer scener från bibeln och evangeliet är välbevarade tack vare den torra ökenliknande miljön. Tragiskt nog användes det här området under sovjettiden för militära övningar. Vi övernattar i den lilla staden Signakhi.

We went up at 7 am to pack and the departure was at 9 am. It was already another hot day. On the way out of the city we passed many water melon stalls, but they were probably from Azerbaijan, as it was slightly too early season here. We also passed the largest gross market in the country.

In this part there is a lot of wheat cultivations. Along the main road there are many pine trees, but often not very tall. When we turned southward the terrain became more like a desert and the trees disappeared. Some cultivation could be seen, but it was mostly sunflowers. Here are many cattle herds and most of the inhabitants are Azeri, as we were close to the border. We passed a minor town in the middle of nowhere, which was a remain of a project from the Soviet era, when they wanted to spread out people in less inhabited areas. This was mostly a ghost town with houses, which never had been maintained, but there were a few people around.

We arrived at the vast Davit Gareja monastery complex. The first parts were built during the 6th century. The monasteries are carved into the cliffs off sandstone. In general there were many beautiful formations around the area. Today there are only 300 monks, but there have been up to 1000 monks at the same time in the 25 km large complex with many independent monasteries. We walked around in one of the easiest accessible parts and also entered a church. Outside grows a mulberry tree and we could taste the berries.

There were only three who wanted to do the 2 km climb up to another part, so Anna discouraged this, especially as it was extremely hot, and there are many poisonous vipers along the path. Also the rest of us had to wait at least 2-3 hours, as it's a tough climb.

We had drive back the same road for a quite long way. We stopped to get a photo of a salt lake. We got lunch after 2 pm, so I don't want to imagine when we would have it if anyone had climbed. We stopped in a small village, which had a big restaurant and conference centre.

We continued towards Sighnaghi, but made a minor detour outside the town to visit one of the most holy places in the country, the grave, church and nun monastery of Saint Nino. It was slightly absurd to see the teenagers kissing the tomb stone. Nino was from Lebanon and belonged to a noble and religious family. When she was only 12 years old, she dreamed that she should walk to Georgia to Christianise them.

We arrived at Hotel Signaci at 16:30 and after check in we walked to the historical museum. It was quite nice. The most spectacular thing was a small golden lion, which is over 4000 years old. There were many other locally found things, but also an exhibition of a Georgian painter called Niko Pirosmanashvili (late 19th – early 20th century).

After the museum we went out to look at the town. It gave a feeling of a pasted on beauty. It had been into a program to restore the city centre and people who wanted to marry was encouraged to go to what they called "the city of love" and the registration office is open 24/7. Afterwards we took a shower and this was overcomplicated. The system seemed to be able to give water massage, but it was even tricky to find out to take a simple shower and the water spilled a lot on the floor. At least we still didn’t feel the smell of mould, which we felt in the reception and the stairs up to the rooms.

We made a walk behind the hotel, which is situated at the highest part of the town. We found a surrounding wall, which stretched far away. We walked down the streets and found a Georgian restaurant where we with minimal communication got something to eat before we went back home. There was a big concert at the main square, but as we had our windows towards the town, we decided to have them open and listen to it from the room. There were really a lot of people in town, but when it finished at 11 pm they disappeared quickly and it was time to go to bed.

Sunday 12th of July / Signakhi - Telavi
Byarna i Kahketi är genuina och gästfriheten stor. Du kliver över tröskeln och inom ett ögonblick får du ett glas vin i handen och bjuds på mat. Varje by odlar med egen druva; vinerna kommer sällan till internationella auktioner, men det är i Kakheti du kan uppleva vinskörden (rtveli) och vintillverkning på traditionellt vis där de fortfarande trampar druvorna. Vi besöker Tjavtjavadze släktens gamla gods i Tsinandali med tillhörande trädgård och dess gamla vinfabrik. Vi blir säkert inbjudna på middag hos en lokal familj för att uppleva det berömda umgängessättet och toastmasterceremonin. Man får titta in i grytorna och se hur maten tillagas och se hur det traditionella georgiska brödet bakas. Övernattning i Telavi på ett gästhus.

It had been a sweaty night as we hadn't any air condition in our room plus that a dog had barked so much that Christina had closed the balcony door. After breakfast we went for a walk to see the wall from the other side. We loaded the luggage at 9:30 and then we went for a walk to see the wall together with the other. We had a nice view over the fertile valley, which had been a target from many foreign attacks during the centuries. The wall was built during the 17th century by locals with 23 towers around the old town, and it covered about 40 hectares.

Then we walked to a local carpet centre where they had started to weave and knot carpets according to old techniques. They are mainly done of wool, but they also used silk in some of them. There was also a carpet done for the Romanov family, which is one of three special orders to them. It was made 1897.
We departed with the bus at 10:40 towards the Tsinandali goods. Along the road we stopped to buy peaches as the season had started and there were plenty of sellers along the road.

The Chavchavardze family had lived on the estate at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. The estate is now a restored state museum. We also visited the old wine cellar, which had 16000 bottles, which 500 are from the 19th century. The oldest is from 1841. During the Soviet era this was a wine science centre, as there were few places where the grapes grew in the union.

It felt extremely hot when we took the bus to Tsindali, where a family had prepared a feast meal as lunch. First the host showed us their 130 years old grapevine and he opened a barrel with a 2 years old wine, which we had for lunch. As usual there were plenty of small plates. Our host joined us and acted as "tamada", i.e. as a toastmaster and made us toast in the wine quite a lot. Particular Bengt who sat beside him drank quite a lot. In any case it was quite joyful when we left.

We arrived to Telavi and looked at a large plane tree, which had 11 meters diameter, 36 meters high and over 800 years old. We could embrace it with 11 persons. We also passed a statue of King Erekle II. Then we continued outside Telavi and we had to make a quick stop as Bengt felt really bad.

The destination was the Alaverdi cathedral, which used to be the highest church in Georgia until they built a new one a few years ago in Tbilisi. We were lucky and stumbled upon a wedding ritual in the final stages. Later we understood that Stig hadn't even understood that we had stopped, as he was asleep.
We finally arrived to hotel Alaznisveli in Telavi. This was really an old Soviet hotel as we had expected all to be. The numbering of the rooms was incomplete, so we had to make a couple of tries with the key before we found our room. It gave a quite discouraging feeling. Christina was tired so I went out to buy something to eat and change back the last money to Euros. The whole town was very depressing, but the people were nice although only hand sign worked here.

Even if the water was scarce, it was really great to get a shower, as this had been the hottest day so far. When the sun had gone down, the light was very dim and we went to bed before 10 pm as it was impossible to read.

Monday 13th of July / Telavi - Sheki, Azerbaijan
Vi lämnar Georgien och åker buss över gränsen till Azerbajdzjan. Tro det eller ej, men vi befinner oss på den historiska Sidenvägen! Den legendariska vägen är ett geografiskt och historiskt begrepp och i princip var ett nätverk av många karavanvägar som förband Öst och Väst. Vi följer en bit längs den mindre kända sträckan som bl a gick genom handelsstäderna Zaqatala, Shemaxi och Sheki och vidare längs Kaspiska havet in i Iran. Vår rutt ligger i skuggan av Kaukasus spektakulära toppar och bjuder på Azerbajdzjans vackraste vyer. Vi stannar i den lilla karavanstaden Sheki känt för sina hantverkstraditioner. Här finns också Khanpalatset och några karavanserai, ålderdomliga hotell som funnits sedan karavanernas dagar. Fram till 1990-talet var sidentillverkning och broderi den viktigaste näringen för stadens invånare, men i och med Sovjetunionens kollaps krympte marknaden för lokalt producerad siden och numera är väverierna fåtaliga. Shekis största attraktion ligger i de välbevarade gamla kvarter med smala gränder där lokala hantverkare visar sin konst av träsnideri och glastillverkning. Vi promenerar genom gamla stan. I basaren provsmakar vi sötsaker som staden också är känd för, speciellt "Sheki halva". Det stora Khan palatset, Xan Saray från 1761 ska inte missas. Vi besöker palatset och beundrar den turkosblå- och terrakottafärgade mosaiken som pryder palatset i intrikata mönster.

It was already hot when we departed. We only went further up the street to the local market, where we walked around an hour before we continued to Telavi Wine Cellar outside the town.

They were established 1915 and is now privately owned. They have bought modern technology from Italy. They use grapes from their own vineyards and forecast that they will produce 2 millions bottles this year, but it is only half of the production compared to before the border troubles with Russia last year. They are exporting to 15 countries mostly old Soviet states, but also to China and USA. After the show around the factory we tasted 6 different kinds of wines from white, to rose and red. All were quite nice. After some had bought a few bottles, we continued towards the border, which we reached 1.5 hours later, i.e. at 1:30.

It was quickly done to exit the Georgian border and it was hot to wait on the bridge to gather the group even in the shade of a truck. We were met by our Azeri guide Gorban who helped us through the customs to Azerbaijan and we seemed to pass a group of locals who of course whined due to this. It took a while to clear the passports and they asked if anybody had illegal maps with incorrect borders drawn towards Armenia. Anna said that we didn't have any and they only picked one luggage to check and that was very briefly, probably thanks to Gorban. After we had set our watches one hour ahead due to daylight saving time (it is the same time zone), we departed at 15:50.

As the bus had started early in the morning there were two bus drivers, plus a trainee guide as well as the director of the company, who had joined the tour as Anna was responsible for the tours in this area. It was irritating that the windows both were darkened as well as dirty, so it was impossible to take any photos from the bus. There wasn't much difference in the landscape on the other side of the border. There were quite a lot of trees beside the road, mainly plate trees. The fields looked fertile and dry at the same time. Along the road Gorban told us some facts about the country. 40% is lowland and the rest is mountains. A large part is agriculture and they have a lot of cattle and sheep. The Azeri language is similar to Turkish in about 70%. 96% of the inhabitants are Muslims, but only 10% are strict and the rest drinks alcohol and are only in the mosque for praying once a week or so. The capital is Baku, which is situated 29 meters below the sea level and oil is the most important product from the country, which made the Nobel brothers rich at the end of the 19th century. The first prosperous oil period was 1870-1914. This was also an important target for Germany during World War II, where they lost the march at the battle of Stalingrad. The name Azerbaijan means "land of fire", which was due to spontaneous fire caused by oil. The cotton was important during the Soviet era, but it dried out a lot of the water. There is also tobacco and a lot of mulberry trees as the silk weaving used to be important until Soviet fell down. This is especially true for Sheki where we were heading.

At 5 pm we finally stopped for lunch and had a really superb meal before we continued an hour later. It took about one and a half hour before we arrived in Sheki and hotel Karavanseray. This was a nice stone building from the 17th century. We got a suit with a living room as well. But the shower and bathroom looked modern and shabby, but the shower worked fine. At least we couldn't smell any mould. After the check in, we met Anna and Gorban at the reception and we took a small walk along the road. Gorban had spoken with a store nearby and they were prepared to be paid in Euro or Dollars, as we hadn't been able to change money yet.

As it was late we decided that we didn’t need much to eat during the evening, so we bought some in the store and had picnic in the courtyard of the hotel. There it was also possible to read without a torch, as the light was very sparse in the room. So it had to be quite an early evening again. As we had no air condition we had to have the window opened, but it was quite noisy outside, both from the traffic as well as from the cafeteria just below our window.

Tuesday 14th of July / Sheki - Baku
Vi fortsätter med buss till Baku. Landskapet förändras stegvis och övergår till halvöken. Vi närmar oss Kaspiska havet, världens största insjö. Oljetillgångar vid Kaspiska havet var kända sedan 700-talet och sedan år 1400 utvanns olja av invånarna för eget bruk. 1873 kom svensken Robert Nobel, Alfred Nobels bror, och grundade oljebolaget Nobel Brothers Petroleum, som på några år hade blivit ett ledande oljebolag på världsmarknaden. Oljeboomen bidrog till att Baku, det moderna Azerbajdzjans huvudstad förvandlades snabbt till Kaukasus kommersiella nav. Oljebaronerna stod för utbyggnaden av stadens europeiska kvareter. Under 2000-talet har Kaspiska havet igen blivit ett strategiskt viktigt område. När Azerbajdzjan blev självständigt öppnades dörrar för utländska oljebolag och med modern teknik utvinns mycket mer olja än under stagnationsperioden på 1980-talet. Den medeltida muromgärdade delen av Baku är omsorgsfullt renoverad och ligger numera på UNESCO:s Världsarvslista. Från Jungfrutornet öppnas en fantastisk utsikt över Kaspiska havet. Vi ger oss ut strövtåg genom gamla stans smala gränder. Det går alldeles utmärkt att söka tillflykt från det skyddande gatulivet i ett tehus och kontemplera dagens intryck över en kopp te. Vi besöker Shirvanshahrnas Palats och badar eller kopplar av vid stranden på eftermiddagen. Övernattning i Baku. Avskedsmiddag på kvällen dag 16.

We woke up before the alarm clock rang at 8 am. We packed and then we had breakfast outdoors and even there it was getting too warm. After the luggage was loaded we went up to a lookout over the town. We drove on extremely narrow streets and in one place our guide had to move a ladder at a construction site, so we would pass. Gorban told us at the view that before had all houses brick roof, but that is going to disappear.

Then we went down to the centre and after exchange of money to Azeri manats, we walked around on a larger and more interesting market than the one in Telavi. You could find anything from vegetables and clothes to electronic devices. We wanted to buy a couple of peaches but after we had selected them, the man in the stall thought we could get them for free, so we thanked him.

At 11 am we continued with the bus up to the old Khan palace, built 1752-61. It was renovated 1955 and it contains no furniture, but the stained glass in the wooden frames plus the paintings on the walls and the ceilings are really beautiful. There was a cost of 2 manats to take photos, but that’s better then to disallow it.

On the way to the bus, we visited the small workshop, where they had recovered the techniques for the windows during the restoration. Nowadays they have large orders from rich people in both USA and Europe, who want a different handcrafted doors and windows.

We went for lunch in town before we departed 1:30 pm for an over 6 hour’s trip to Baku. It is 370 km on a relatively good road. The landscape turned soon arid and looked like a desert with tiny bushes and turfs. The landscape could be grey in the end of July. But the landscape changed slightly here and there with some smaller villages, but no large town. Along the road there were vegetable and melon market stalls. We crossed the main railroad to Tbilisi and had to stop for a goods train. We only made stops for toilets and kiosk with a couple of hours in between them.

During the Soviet era illiteracy was eliminated and women became very equal to men. This is still very true. You start school at 6 years age and continue 11 years for free. There are both public and private universities and the more points you earn per year the less the cost is. There are also scholarships for talented pupils. There is both public and private health care but it's normally only employed persons who are insured, which is required to get surgical operations. About 80% of the teachers are women and 70% of them doctors. Military service is compulsory during 18 months for men from at 18 years age, but university students are deferred until their exam and have 6 months less. To get to Naxcivan province you may fly above the Armenian territory or drive by land in an Iranian corridor, but that cost 40 USD for a visa plus 40 USD per car or truck. Azeri language have 32 sounds and it uses the Latin alphabet with umlauts and cedillas plus a backward "e". The women may get a 5 years maternal leave, before they either have to go back to work or be dismissed.
Closer to Baku the fields look more fertile and you could see houses that looked like palaces. It is important for the persons who have become rich, mainly through the oil, to show their wealth. The road was really good with some interruptions and it's planned to contruct roads of the same standard all the way between Baku and Tbilisi. In a few places we saw some oil rigs. Gorban said that the temperature was just over 40 degrees outside and we were happy to be in a bus with air condition.

Near the coast just before we passed Astara, we could see some oil rigs in the fields and when we reached the Caspian Sea there were also some of them visible in the sea. This sea is 29 metres below the Atlantic sea. There were also several pipes along the shore. We made a short stop just to dip our feet in the sea before we continued. Gorban pointed out the mountain where he had been with Thor Heyerdahl to investigate petroglyphs. Those were discovered 1939 by a local archaeologist. Heyerdahl had been there 1981, 1997 and 2001 and at least the last time he was here, he was supported by Norwegian Statoil. He has proposed some disputable theories that the Vikings gods originally were real people who originated from this area. But we were slightly surprised as we had heard that those ideas were from Ukraine.

The old Soviet oil rigs could only drill down to 300 meters, but the new ones were able to reach 8000 metres and one had recently come down to 5000 metres. When we just had entered the city of Baku, we stopped to look at a new mosque, which replaced an old one destroyed by Stalin. We also looked at the docks where they were building parts of the oil rigs.

We arrived to hotel Diplomat in the centre of the city near 8:30 pm and got our rooms. After this unusually sweaty day it was nice to walk into an air conditioned room with a shower. Afterwards we decided to eat something light at the top restaurant of the hotel. We don't know if the waiter tried to fool us with the bill or if he just was plain dumb, but we believed it was the latter. Finally we got to bed at 10:30 pm.

Wednesday 16th of July / Baku
We had a good nights sleep in a cool room. The guy at the breakfast seemed to have difficult to understand so it was apparently a requirement to be employed there. The bus departed at 9 am.

Baku has about 4 millions inhabitants and all over the city you could see construction sites, mainly for new apartments, which are as expensive as in Stockholm and often more. The first oil barons were in the city 1870-1914 and the last disappeared when the Bolsheviks took over the country 1920. Robert, Ludvig and Alfred Nobel were active in the oil business and they were considered very fair bosses, so Robert was defended by the workers when the Bolsheviks wanted to kill all owners of factories etc. That is probably one of the main reasons that their house has been restored as a museum called Villa Petrolia.

We stopped at a panorama site, which also was a memorial for those 122 persons who were killed the 20th of January 1990 by the Russians before the fall of Soviet, as well as a memorial of soldiers who died in the Nagorno-Karabash war with Armenia 1990-94.

We continued to the Old City, which was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage 2003. First we visited Shirvanshani Palace from the 16th century. Here everything is constructed mostly of limestone. Peter the Great destroyed parts of it and the bullet holes in the walls are from the Bolsheviks. Also the Persians had their share in destroying it, but quite a lot has now been restored.

Outside the palace we made a short visit to a miniature books museum, which always have been popular in former Soviet. The 6000 books were collected from all over the worlds with many different more or less known authors.

We were outside the oldest mosque, Mahammed Meseidi from 1078-79 and saw the portal of an old Caravanserai. The "Friday mosque" is now active, but it used to be a carpet museum during the Soviet era. We entered a carpet shop and saw a silk carpet with the map of Azerbaijan and one with the picture of the ex-president Heydar Ejeyev.

Most of us climbed up to the top of Maiden's Tower. It was really windy on the top, but we had a splendid view over the city. We also entered the old Caravanserai Buchara, which now is remade into a restaurant.

We passed the twin gate with the bull’s head surrounded by two lions and the sun and moon, which is the symbol of the city. Gorban pointed out where we should meet and where there were places to eat lunch and then we had of couple of hours by ourselves.

First we changed money, as particularly restaurants are more expensive here than in Sweden. Then we found a quite empty restaurant in a cool cellar. It still took nearly half an hour to get the food. We walked around in the modern part and it was apparent that there must be many richer people to make the expensive fashion shops to make profit.

2:45 am we were picked up by the bus and continued to the Absheron peninsula to see the Zoroastrian temple of fire in Suraxani, which is called Atashgali. We saw some oil rigs along the road, but the bus wasn’t allowed to stop near them. The temple is 2100 years old and built upon a source of methane gas, which spontaneously had become lit. Today the gas is transferred in pipes. There are Sanskrit inscriptions, which also show that many Indian people came here to pray.

The last stop was at Villa Petrolia in memory of the Swedish Nobel brothers. Apparently they had made a good and impression in the oil history, as the renovation of their house had been done. They showed their furniture, paintings and not least many photos from this era and copies of shares in their oil company.

When we came back to he hotel we had a couple of hours to rest and to pack for the departure, but after yet another hot and sweaty day we first longed for a shower.

Just after 8 pm we went down to the lobby and all but Beatrice walked down to a restaurant at the seaside. The new buildings we passed were mostly in a style as in the 19th century, but often more colourful. In any case they were quite beautiful. We passed a park with a statue of the ex-president Heyder Eliyev, who seems to be treated like a god. We had a joyful departure dinner and walked back after 10 pm. Near the hotel we stopped in a bakery, where Anna bought some croissants for breakfast, as it would be too early for a breakfast in the hotel the next morning. We weren't in bed until 11:30 pm.

Thursday 17th of July / Trip back home
The alarm clock rang at 4:45 pm and we quickly prepared for departure and took the luggage down to the bus, which departed at 5:30 pm. The drive took just over half an hour to the airport, which a is named after the ex-president.

The check in and security procedures were quite quick and we could eat our meagre breakfast near the gate. The plane lifted just before 8 am and we spent most of the time half sleeping before we landed about three and a half hour later at Riga airport. As we sat quite far back in the plane the most of the other had gone through the passport control, so we missed to say goodbye to them as we were the only who should continue to Gothenburg and we would spend the day in Riga until the evening. At least we said goodbye and thanks to Anna who both had been a good guide and tour leader during the voyage.

We had some trouble with the check in automates and was referred to the incorrect queue, but managed to get a boarding card without queuing again. We just missed the airbus to the city centre and took a cup of coffee.

In the city we found the tourist information to get a map and as is now was noon we decided it was time for lunch, and we hadn't eaten much since the day before.

After lunch we walked around in the beautiful old town and then we went to the national museum, which is really good. We also walked to the 5 old zeppelin hangars, where the big market is situated. They looked quite much as 8 years ago, but we could also notice some modernisations.

After it had been as sunny and warm as in Baku we noted that the sky turned black and we hurried into the town centre. We just had less than 100 metres left before the rain really started to pour down and we hurried into a bookstore. After waiting there for a quarter of an hour without the rain and thunder ceasing, we decided to put on our jackets and run to Hotel Riga where the airport bus would depart.

We waited for an half an hour before a quarter late airport bus arrived. It had both been a traffic jam, as well as problem with the water in the streets. The driver said we would catch up, bit it was difficult to pass and he made some shortcuts and at least once it was in a forbidden direction. He also had to make some other compulsory stops before he turned towards the airports with some more shortcuts, but we get an interesting sightseeing in different suburbs.

We still were one and a half hour before departure and we could quickly pass the security control and had some expensive coke and fanta at a cafeteria, but we would in any case pay a lot aboard as the meals never are included at Air Baltic. The departure was on time at 6:20 pm, but they had changed plane, so Christina got a new boarding pass at the gate. At least she got a talkative new friend aboard, while the guy beside me slept all the way. We ate at Gothenburg airport waiting one and a half hour on the airport bus and we finally was home around 10 pm after a yet another great voyage.

Carl-Gustaf Samuelsson
Christina Arrindell

 

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Carl-Gustaf Samuelsson