Tuesday, July 21, 2009


It has been a while since my last post. First here are the pictures to match the last post.

(Uncle Joe) Stalin still standing in his hometown of Gori:

A bullet scarred building a few meters away (look closely for the marks):

Cycling out from Borjomi was marvelous. The low forestclad mountains gave way to higher altitude, drier hills with smaller patches of forest. On the way, I passed the most bizarre collections of buildings ranging from imperial Russian Dachas to Soviet era apartment blocks and more recent concrete refugee housing. Before Akhaltsikhe I came across a valley absolutely filled with these curious, meter tall plants that gave off an aroma quite similar to that often found in my hometown of Santa Cruz.

Just before the border, outside a very small town, I stumbled onto this Great Patriotic War monument (The Russian name for WWII). In the moment this had a great impact on me. The dark Georgian, his face tense, gaze turned downward, shoulders wıde, fist clenched and gun in hand. 1941-1945.

I got slightly emotional when crossing the border. This crossing (Posof/Vale) is one of the more obsure in this part of the world and I had the feeling that they don't see many foreigners going through on bicycles. One obviously excited Georgian border guard who spoke a little English helped me through. As I was passing through the gate to the Turkish side I heard him call out behind me: You are always welcome in Georgia!
I think Steinbeck after his trip their in the late 1940's said something like:
Georgia is a magical place... and it becomes more mythical the moment you leave.
In the visa office at the border I was sitting with the Turkish officer and two Iranian truck drivers. They saw my passport as I handed it over and the two Iranians started smiling. I turned to them with a smile
-Pa Russky ponimaete? (do you understand Russian)
-no no yok yok
-little little
-You from Iran?
-Yes yes (they looked a little cautious, not sure if the American liked Iran)
-Oh good (They looked surprised) Which city? Isfahan, Shiraz, Tehran, Tabriz...
-Tabriz. You America?
-OOOOHHHHH California(The general response from people in the region followed by a thumbs up) America good.
-Yes. And Iran good.
-America (and usually people list things like Hollywood, Grand Canyon etc but he went off on music) Slipknot, Metallica, Slayer.
I was a bit surprised. But when they invited me out to their trucks for tea, I saw that one had written Slipknot in large letters on above his license plate.
High mountain pass up to the Turkish highlands of the Northeast. That was not fun. Once up the mountain I did not see many trees for a few days. Just smooth, grass and flower covered mountains. Every afternoon it rained which kept the landscape intensely green save for the patches of violet, blue, white or yellow flowers. Quite remote. Kind of felt like the American MidWest and equally as religious.
One evening I ran into a gas station owner who spoke Russian in a town of 100 people. He was quite excited to chat with me no matter how bad my Russian. He after dinner, he sent me over to the gendarma base (that's Turkish military/poice force). The guys were shocked and delighted for the break from the normal routine of their three year deployement in this little, middle-of-nowhere town by hosting a traveller. After a hilarious evening I left to sleep at the gas station. They pleaded with me to stay on the base for the night but I really did not want to risk getting then in trouble. I tried not to laugh as they walked me to the station with their arms around mine and then kissed me on the cheeks goodbye. For a culture so homophobic, I can't help but laugh at how intimate Turkish men get. I remember a similar thing in Georgıa when a man smiled, kissed me goodbye on the cheek, pulled away and suddenly realizing that I may have taken it the wrong way said : I'm not gay, it's just what we do here.
I'm not going to go off too much now on gender relations but I miss seeing equally numbers of men and women interacting freely in public like in Georgia (though it is very far from equal there).

Arrived in Kars (which was once part of the Russian Empire until the Turks re-captured it from Armenian fedayeen forces during the Russian revolution). My main desire was to return to the abandoned ancient Armenian capital Ani.
City walls

Sadly for the Armenians, Ani falls just on the wrong side of the border. It is on the cliffs of a river that marks the international boundry.

Turkey on the left, Armenian on the right and the remains of a bridge that connected them:

The ruins are quite spectacular aside from the Graffiti (Mehmet was here)

Okay this is a disclaimer for the next part. Any Armenians reading this, please take a deep breath, sit down and brace yourselves. In a two different small towns I saw two other churches the first was run down, shot up and turned into a hay storage.
The second was well preserved:

And also in use:

As a storage shed:

...no comment at this second except for a frustrated sigh and an appeal for people to read the history...
On a lighter note, more up and down and up and down. There is nothing really flat in this part of the country. I am finally in Erzurum. It is the most perplexing fusion of ultra-orthodoxy and ultra-consumerism. Women in black chadors or colorful headscarves purchasing fancy new cellular phones next to stores selling sexy, see-through lingerie. I think I need to digest this for a moment.
So I will stay here another day to rest. My body is exhausted after the long haul from Tbilisi. Thankfully the food in this country is fantastic fo I am off for a meal to begin my recovery.
Seljuk Madrasa and flag of Ataturk's Republic against the mountains:

Erzurum from its castle (it is surrounded on all sides by distance mountains):



  1. Why I am not on the road with you, I have no idea.

  2. Hello James! I love your posts that fuse history with anecdotes, photos with descriptions. I imagine that the words you have can scarcely capture the true weight of your emotions as you travel.
    It's hard to keep from being pessimistic with all the things you must have seen, but remember all the smiling faces! That, at least, is universal.
    Love hannah