Echoes Of The Past In Transcaucasia

“Armenia? Why the hell do you want to go to Armenia?”
You’ve never left the country in your life, and you’re going to Nagorno-Karabakh? You don’t even speak Russian!”
“Isn’t that place still at war or something?”
“I love that this is a thing, that you are doing this, please don’t die because this is awesome.”

When I first told people I was headed to the Caucasus, to hike through Nagorno-Karabakh and explore Armenia, reviews were mixed. My mother was understandably horrified, being old enough to have watched the brutal wars of the 1990’s unfold during the fall of the Soviet Union. Friends were torn between a complete lack of surprise and predictions of an untimely demise, depending on how long they’d known me. The responses all had one thing in common though: the complete lack of knowledge that most Canadians have regarding this tiny (yet vastly important historically) corner of the world. Mention somewhere truly obscure, such as Abkhazia, and they’ll assume you’re making up words.

My fascination with the region started back when I was a boy, while researching for a school project on civil wars. I stumbled across the (then sparse) Wikipedia page for Nagorno-Karabakh, the “Mountainous Black Garden” of Transcaucasia, and was immediately enraptured. To this day I don’t know what caught my heart, I hope to find out when I arrive.

Years passed by, jobs and relationships started and ended, but still the siren song of the Caucasus remained in the corners of my mind, waiting for the time to be right. In April 2015 the stars finally aligned, albeit taking me by surprise with little time to prepare! An unexpected termination from my job with full severance, a summer ahead with no commitments, and the lingering fallout from my engagement to the woman I loved for nearly a decade being brutally severed; by a tidal wave of lies and revealed affairs. It was time to head for ancient shores, to wander the ruins of long dead empires and experience ways of life quite different from my own.

Despite nearly two thousand years of strife, being ground beneath the boots of successive imperial conquerors, and a century of Soviet development projects, the region retains so much heritage waiting to be discovered. The oldest monasteries in the world, crumbled fortresses that repelled the Byzantines, Persians, and Russians alike, glimmers of cultures that have survived and adapted against all odds. And then there is Turkey, the vast plains of Anatolia and rich garden of the Marmara. Deathbed of the Roman Empire 600 years ago, and the Ottomans a mere century past.  A country of rapid change, today, and little time to see its more obscure wonders before they are lost forever beneath the march of progress. Having recently finished reading A Short History of Byzantium has most certainly increased my appreciation for the lands I am about to travel.

Thus I fly out on May 28th, landing in Yerevan a few days later at 3am, speaking only a few words of Armenian, less Russian, and virtually no Georgian or Turkish. From there my itinerary takes me on a winding course: across Armenia, hiking the relatively undiscovered Janapar trail through Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh from here on) while mingling with locals, then a dash across Georgia to a terrifying border crossing into Abkhazia, and back to crisscrossing Georgia through July and on into Turkey for August.

I don’t know what I’ll find out there, to be honest, and as the deadline looms true terror has begun to set in. That’s the essence of adventure though, isn’t it? Striking out into the unknown with the barest of itineraries and seeing where the winds take you? Whatever happens, this will be a fascinating experience.

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