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Encounters in the Outer Imperium

The following is an account of our experiences in Georgia and Armenia.

After about seven months in the Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia, we wanted to explore a new part of the world. The idea for the year of travel was to do sort of a loop by beginning and ending the trip in Istanbul. Thus, we knew we wanted to head west from Laos, and after weighing our options we decided on exploring the Caucasus. We settled on this region of the world for several reasons: we knew little about region, but we did know that the area is relatively affordable; Georgia came highly recommended by some fellow travelers; and it would give us a nice change of pace from the noodles and Buddhist temples we had grown so accustomed to in the Mekong.

So we took a few flights from Laos to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. Following several lengthy layovers in Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Dubai, we set foot at the Tbilisi airport wearing shorts and flip flops, where we were immediately greeted by a biting Caucasian winter. After collecting our bags, we hopped into a cab and we were off to city center. The first impressions that struck me of Tbilisi's surrounding landscape was its inescapable Soviet past, its buildings and gas stations pockmarked by a repressive 70-year history under totalitarian rule.

The city of Tbilisi itself, however, is quite charming, with its cobblestone streets, back alleys, wooden staircases, and cozy restaurants. The contrast between Tbilisi's modern and developed downtown with its slightly depressing surrounding environments seem to suggest a forward-thinking, ever progressing country, attempting to shed its past as it marches ever onward.

We settled into a hostel, where a kind man named Giorgi offered us some of Georgia's national drink, a homemade grape vodka known as chacha. Giorgi served us shot after shot, and we had a hard time refusing him given his enthusiasm. Still unaccustomed to the cold, these few drinks warmed us right up, the potent brew of 80-proof going straight to our heads and our bellies.

Giorgi's hospitality, we quickly deduced, was not atypical. Georgians on the whole are incredibly friendly bon vivants, generous with both food and drink, and this was true about everywhere we went. This generosity and kindness is symbolized by a large statue of a woman sitting on a hill overlooking Tbilisi, known as Karlis Deda. The embodiment of the Georgian national character, she holds a glass of wine in one hand to greet those who come as friends, and a sword in the other, to repel those who come as enemies.

Equally generous as the Georgians themselves are the portions of their meals. Bread, cheese, grilled pork, potatoes, onions, full-bodied red wines, fried bean pies, grilled chicken, olives, salads, and more cheese, we never walked away from a Georgian meal feeling disappointed. One can see this in the physical stature of the people; even the street dogs are unusually large. I guess that's what happens when you feed dogs big chunks of meat and cheese every day.

After a couple days exploring some of the sites of Tbilisi and enjoying their delicious restaurants, we rented a car from Giorgi, who sat down with us and gave us a complete itinerary of what to see. Over the next 20 days, with our trusty Toyota Prius, we would explore Mskheta, Kazbegi, Gori, Rabati, Kutaisi, Batumi, Mestia, and Kakheti, among other areas. Instead of writing about every single city and region, for the sake of brevity I'll give a sense of the sites we saw throughout the trip in the photo gallery below.

Following our stint in Georgia, we wanted to explore Armenia as well. We took a bus down and crossed the border - as with Georgia, we were happy to receive a stamp in our passports without the need for a visa. Although we were only in Armenia for a few days, we had enough time to tour the capital city of Yerevan and take a tour of some of the main sites, a handful of ancient cathedrals about an hour radius outside of the city.

Yerevan is a pleasant city. I saw it described somewhere as a cross between Paris and Moscow. The city offers plenty of public spaces, excellent restaurants, and interesting museums. Along with a grand opera house, the city also boasts several stately squares in the old European style. I was pleasantly surprised by Yerevan, a decently large capital with plenty to do for a few days.

The most touching part of our trip was the chance to visit the Armenian Genocide Memorial on April 24, the international remembrance day of the genocide. We walked up Yerevan's largest hill for about 30 minutes with a crowd of Armenians to lay flowers at the Genocide Memorial, and following that experience we toured the Genocide Museum, a conflict of which I unfortunately knew little about previously. It seemed the entire country had come out to pay respects and remember the atrocities of 1915: toddlers and octogenarians alike had come out in support. At the memorial, thousands of Armenians laid down flowers near an eternal flame, in the center of a beautifully built monument.

Like Georgians, Armenians are a proud people, inheritors of an ancient history that is a deep part of their identity. Since time immemorial, Armenians - bordered by Persians, Ottomans, and Russians - have been forced to leave their homeland, and have settled in other countries; for example, Turkey, France, Italy, or the US. The resulting diaspora has often made up an important intellectual and artistic part of their adopted country's culture (think Charles Aznavour, Cher, Andre Agassi, or even the Kardashians).

Accompanying us on our travels was "Imperium," by Ryszard Kapuscinski, my favorite author. The book is a reportage and travelogue on his experiences within the Soviet Union and its outer reaches between the 1950s and 1990s. Starting with his first encounters with the Soviet Union as a boy growing up in Poland, the author takes the reader on a journey through a Trans-Siberian train journey in the 60s, reporting trips in the height of the Cold War, and finally, reflections on the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. Between the central Asian republics, the Caucasus, Eastern Europe, and the heart of the Russia, Kapuscinski's book provides a lucid account of the rise, apex, and fall of the Soviet Union, and greatly informed us on our travels throughout the area. The book provided a clear context to the various conflicts between Georgia-Russia (South Ossetia and Abkhazia), Armenia-Azerbaijan (Nagorno-Karabakh), and Armenia-Turkey (the Armenian Genocide and generally poor relations between the two states), all of which are relevant today to understanding the turbulent geopolitics of the region. The Caucasus, sandwiched between Turkey, Russia, and Iran, remain a fascinatingly complex region of the world, with an uncertain future ahead, and the directions which each country in the region (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan) takes will have rippling effects on the world as a whole.

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