My travel bug, my travel writing – introduction
This post marks the beginning of the huge part of this blog – travel writing: as lately we (me and my Canadian guy) covered a lot of territory – geographically, mentally, psychologically and cuisinally 🙂 (yes I know it isn’t a word). Very little of it features heavily on travel blogs or websites so I will do my best to bring some of our experiences here.
Prior to 2015 we were preoccupied with a move from Ireland (where we spent the previous five years of our life together as a long-distance couple brought close, heart to heart) to Germany, with everything that this entailed, including home and job hunting and polishing our German skills. My German got better since, my Polish yet again got worse and I started to think in a trilingual fashion. Most importantly though, I was finally free to just pick up and go. Live my travel dreams.
Create the path as I moved forward.
We chose Georgia, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh as our long-awaited travel destinations in 2015, and 2016 has seen us together in Paris (after the attacks of November 2015), Bulgaria, Macedonia and Ukraine (for now, obviously not including visits back home in Poland and Canada).
For my blog travel writing needs I will initially focus on Caucasus and Ukraine – in a random fashion, as memories come. In 2016, with the conflict on its Eastern borders and Crimea situation still unresolved, Ukraine specifically was an extremely interesting country to travel to. So this is what’s coming up, geographically.
Now, about the style… While I will strive to write about the places I have visited and conversations held there in detail, my travel writing tends to veer off and towards whimsical. Therefore do not expect wikihow with “how to” lists. This will be nothing but.
However, if you want to taste the best Siergiey’s shashlik in Akhaltsikhe (south of Georgia), feel the cold coming your way with the wind from Mount Ushba in High Caucasus (north of Georgia), run from an oncoming train in Tunnel of Love (western Ukraine) or find traces of war that never ended in Sushi (Nagorno-Karabakh), while ever so often stopping to consider the universal human nature and the sheer vastness of beauty of this world, be my guests. The door is wide open. Welcome.
GORIS, Armenia. Enter the hero of the drama.
Onto the first travel, down the southern Armenian path, up the mountains…
Let me take you down, cause I am going to strawberry fields… or rather, pear gardens.
This is my very first impression of the town of Goris in the south of Armenia… Golden honey-like sweetness: pears handed to us through metal fences, still warm either from the hot Caucasus sun, or human hands holding them gently, with blessings of strangers as our “hellos” as we were walking into the town, followed by the sleepy buzz of late-August bumblebees. From that first moment we could feel we entered yet another weird, uncharted world. In the valley in front of our eyes, wide and welcoming but somehow forgotten within the mountains, nearby the border with Iran, lied the town of Goris. The town, where the time stopped.
We got to Goris by hitchhiking. As usual in Armenia, the only marshrutka (tiny, bumpy, hot and uncomfortable van, so beloved by me – because it spells adventure!) going directly from Yerevan to Goris mysteriously left one of the few Yerevan bus stations (all placed inconveniently at different ends of this rather large city) in early hours of the morning. We were making our way from Lake Sevan and had to go to Yerevan to try to catch a connection, unsuccessfully. Yerevan is a bit like Rome, in a sense that all roads lead to there, and all long-distance buses leave from there, once a day, early in the morning. Obviously, we did not make it in time. Not even sure we made it to the right station.
As usual in such moments we decided to jump on a marshrutka that would bring us at least half way to where we wanted to be. Four hours later, the reality found us helplessly standing in the middle of nowhere (Vayk), informed by locals that no bus would pass on that day down south to Goris. Having to choose between paying an high rate – even by Western standards – to the taxi drivers or walking the rest of the distance on my own two feet, I did the only thing I could think of, channeling my youth: I stuck out the thumb, hoping that Armenians knew how to hitchhike.
The usual loser cars stopped first. Some wanted to chat me up (I hid my partner conveniently in the ditch 😀 – as per old hitchhiking rules from Poland 😀 ). Others wanted a lot of money to drive us over, even though they weren’t officially in the business of faring people around. I said to myself “fifteen minutes more” as I tried to think of a plan B. Five more minutes into that given time, a car pulled onto the side. Two young guys inside. With no English and limited Russian (their Russian was actually more limited than mine, unusual for Caucasus), we found out they were going our way and could drop us off at the suburb of Goris.
They were some of the most beautiful people I met along the Armenian way. They refused any money whatsoever (we offered to split the price of gas as they pulled into a gas station), smiled warmly at us, continued their conversation in Armenian and let us relax in the backseat, drifting into half-dream state as we stared at tall mountains with sandy rocks and vultures hanging in stormy blue skies above, as if a 1920s movie, a diorama from another century.
It was probably the best hitchhike ride of my life, and it lasted about two hours.. Sometimes all an adventure takes is that initial try. And a little risk has never killed anyone (in my world that is) 😀 Those guys were also amazing drivers, so as we disembarked, we paid them in compliments and shook their hands. They seemed flattered.
And now, underneath our feet, lied the world of Goris, a town in the valley of Goris river; new, undiscovered, silent and full of summer light. Walking down from the hill into the city center (the whole way was at least good two or three kilometers long), we focused on the grid of streets in the valley and in the late afternoon sun ignored the rocky boulders standing on the right river bank. As we passed streets upon streets of sandy looking houses, greeted the local children and petted cats, accepted sweet pear gifts and listened to local dialect, we did not know yet this place would turn out to be one of the best discoveries on our path until then.
Initially nothing seemed like we would make any discoveries at all in that town. We spent all of the next morning trying to make sense of the place, chatting with the local tourist information office hidden behind the shop – hidden behind the monumental post-Soviet arcade, which in turn was hidden behind the park full of lizards and opened for just one hour, without proper information and all in French 😀 Frustrating.
A bit disappointed and unsure, yet again feeling as if this world was eluding us, we decided to go to Tatev Monastery. This trip will be featured in another post, but it’s safe to say while the nature around the monastery was absolutely astonishing and breathtaking, the monastery left an impression of a religious place besieged by tourist – it was one of the most touristy places in all of Armenia – once full of soul, now tired, alone and filled with resigned monks.
We woke up the next day, feeling even more confused, as it was really difficult to touch the world around us without resorting to tourist sites. We both have a strong dislike for doing that, since in such places what one experiences is inevitably manufactured for the travel industry, to higher or lesser extend. We like to come into an odd reality and witness. Stand still and understand. Between the two of us specifically my boyfriend has always been a slow traveler, before the “slow travel” label was even a thing. Travel is witnessing, learning, listening, tasting and being amazed. Travel is spending some time in the local place, blending in, understanding the way of life, even learning the language. For me, sometimes it can also be an adrenaline filled amusement park ride – but not always. Sometimes I also love to just be and contemplate.
As we ate our breakfast on the outside terrace of the house running something akin to bed & breakfast, homemade style (Armenian eggs and dark, dense coffee!…), we felt the earth shake underneath our feet. Apparently there was a strong earthquake all the way in Azerbaijan, which could be felt in Goris – and since it was the first earthquake experience ever for me (and nothing bad happened), it immediately perked me up. Though that could also have been the cup of coffee 😀 I am an adrenaline junkie when I travel and experiences like that make me feel very excited (go figure). It also feels very there and then, in that moment, in that far away land.
After breakfast we decided to run after the local bus that was supposed to bring us to Old Khndzoresk Cave Village, a nearby town where up until not long ago people still called caves home. The local bus never went there, it went somewhere else, leaving us standing confused in the middle of the street. We checked all other corners for hidden bus stops and found a police station, where the local policeman just shrugged his shoulders with a mixture of pity and glee.
So much for navigating this world without trouble. Stuck in the middle of the town and equipped for a hike, we finally looked in the direction of the sandy boulders, stone columns, raising high above the other bank of the river, right into the summer pale sky above the town, in silence and merciless sun. Without consulting each other and extremely fed up, we started to march in their direction.
From that moment on, this day turned into one of the best discovery days on our way, becoming also that day when we spent zero money on local taxi drivers (the main way to travel around Armenia without a car, also for locals unfortunately), touristy fees or anything else. It was weird rock formations, caves, sun, stones, bushes, sweat, vultures dance in the skies, local stories, landscapes, water and shade, and absolute love of this undiscovered world.
Old Goris: caves tell their tale
Off we went, marching uphill towards volcanic columns, hanging in the hot summer air – on the way up however rows of quiet headstones caught our eyes. It was an old Armenian cemetery, housed by the slopes. One could tell different layers of history of that little community just by looking at the graves: some relatively current, in a style that I have never seen before, with proper representations of the deceased engraved in stone. Some other graves were just randomly formed from the slowly chipping away sandstone. We spent a good long while just looking at different headstones and trying to decipher the life these people led before they were laid to rest in this one of the most peaceful cemeteries I have ever visited. I must say, with the amount of detail contained on their headstones, it felt like a novel full of many well-written characters.
A little side note has to be included here: Poles are not afraid of visiting cemeteries. For us, a cemetery is like a living history book, so it isn’t uncommon to suggest to friends a “pleasant stroll through cemetery” as an idea for a lovely afternoon. It ain’t creepy. What freaked out my Canadian boyfriend to no end (until he accepted that whole notion of death being a part of life…), was deeply ingrained in my cultural makeup ever since I can remember.
I could feel my imagination stretching its (imaginary) wings. Looking up from the quiet headstones towards the rocks, towering above them, all I wanted to do is just run up and up, higher and higher. As we approached the boulders, we noticed that nearly each and every one of them housed a dark hole, an entrance into another world. Most of them were covered by bushes, suspiciously looking like raspberry or blackberry plants. Anyone familiar with those particular bushes would know they like to scrape hands and legs without mercy. But at that stage, nothing could stop us in our little exploration mission.
I initially focused on hiking up the path, curious too see what hides behind the boulders on the horizon, my boyfriend however started to dart uphill, through bushes, towards the nearest hole-in-the-wall, hiding a mysterious world behind. Soon enough he was waving in my direction, demanding that I join him in there. So off I went, in places I must say on my legs and hands, as some of these slopes were particularly steep and looked like they have not been visited in a million years.
What we discovered was thousands upon thousands of caves, some looking very natural, other showing signs of nature helped by human hand. We spend hours and hours running uphill from one rocky wall to the other, trying to find signs of human habitation, lost alone in the world of sandy towers, blue skies, lizards and total peacefulness, with no other humans around. Up there, between the ground and the skies, everything was standing still in silence. From far away we could hear the buzz of the town in the valley, across the river. My boyfriend, Mister Engineer, meticulously inspected every little corner of every little man-made cave, every angle, every step, every sloping roof.
I would try to sneak my way through narrow and shallow passages in between caves, dangerously hanging over the open horizon. These passages I loved the most. Then, I would just sit in the entrance of one of the million holes, in shade, literally hanging between heaven and earth – and daydreaming, as I stared at over 3,000 meter high mountains in the distance. I sleepily followed the slow, amorous dance of two birds of prey, drawing ornate patterns on the skies as they flew above the mountains. Meditating without actually saying words in my mind. Drinking in the beauty of the world around me. Hanging in between morning and evening, in a hot direct sun moving towards the warm afternoon kiss: here and nowhere at the same time.
It was amazing to think that once, not so long ago, people of Goris called these caves their home, carved within the seemingly inhabitable rocky face. Where I come from, nothing like that ever existed. Homes were always sturdy and down on the ground. What are our homes – I wondered – looking at this peaceful, quiet world inhabited for centuries by human beings, who saw it as their safe haven, for life in such closeness to nature (nature full of jackals and bears in that part of the world, might I add). This is what they saw, leaving their homes in the morning: eagles or vultures in heaven, steps uphill made in the rocky wall by marching cattle, volcanic pillars in the valley leading down to the river. How different would my mental make-up be if every day I woke up to this? Could a modern man exist in those caves anymore? Could reducing oneself to life like this bring a man closer to the universal core? Is there possibility of more knowledge about life contained in this setting of home, so natural and in connection with everything around it?
In my imagination, I could see little children running down those slopes in 19th century or women slowly bringing water from the river below. How much of that way of life was still contained in hearts and minds of citizens of the current town?
It felt like the time has stopped there, reversed and then slowly started to trickle down the valley, together with the migration of local cave inhabitants down the slopes. First they moved down into a slightly more modern looking caves (we found some “houses” that consisted of a cave bed and a front wall made from brick, possibly dating back to the end of 19th century) and then, after a massive earthquake that destroyed a lot of their original caves, onto the plateau across the river. What brought us there into this exploration was childlike curiosity. It paid off a thousand times, as this memory is still one that stands out the most when I think back on my Armenian travels. I love seeing traces of past, stopped in time, seemingly not there anymore, yet extending such a big looming presence over the current town. Life, gone but just a step away, if one looked around carefully enough and decided to discover. With no fees to enter, no tickets and guides, just hanging there between earth and the skies, open.
At the end of that day we found our way into a small Armenian Apostolic church, standing at the bottom of the rocky face on that right river bank. There we talked to a local guy, who still remembered his great-grandmothers’ stories about Old Goris being her home. He told us a lot of stories of his own life, insurrections as part of the 1993-1994 war of Nagorno-Karabakh encroaching onto these territories, all the way to Goris. He also talked a lot about his spiritual life, in broken Russian that somehow I understood through my own broken Russian. Such honest faith in someone has always moved my heart, as it is one of the most important questions I ask myself in life. What do I believe?
Human beings can communicate with each other no matter where they are. No matter even if they speak the language, all they need to do is try.
It was very moving – and he was very honest, similar to all people we met in Caucasus, without a mask. Living a simple life, etched on their faces, transferred in the intensity of their words. I love people, who are direct and intense – they make for a real touch of life. There is really no need to hold back. No need to hide the real nature behind a mask, we are on this planet and in this life together. Our shared humanity, our nature, is what we can cherish in such honesty. Finally, through the experience of Old Goris and finding roots of the current town, I was connected with the local reality and the local people the way I absolutely loved.