‘The hospitality drew me back’: the pleasure of the Caucasus

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I put in three months crossing the Caucasus from Europe to . My 2,600-mile journey started out in Sochi, Russia, and took me by Chechnya, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia to Iran. Not like my former adventures (going for walks the length of the Nile, the Himalayas and the Americas), this excursion was not all on foot. I travelled the way locals do, strolling, using, having donkey carts and hitchhiking. The hitchhiking was a reminder of my initially go to to the region, as a 22-yr-outdated backpacker alongside the Silk Highway.

Trailer of From Russia to Iran: Crossing the Wild Frontier with Levison Wood

On that 2004 journey, I was sleeping on a village bench when some males approached. 1, Gocha, insisted I remain with him. When we got to his dwelling, out arrived a bottle of vodka. When it was vacant, out arrived a further a single. He would not allow me leave for a few times! Eventually I climbed out of the window and did a runner. When I went again 13 years later on, he quickly explained: “Ah, Englishman.” And then, of program, he opened yet another bottle …

Traditional Georgian khachapuri bread. Standard Georgian khachapuri bread.

That hospitality was what drew me back again. Georgians have a declaring: “A stranger will never ever die of hunger.” The food stuff is wonderful: my favorite dish was khachapuri, Georgian cheesy bread which is terrific with neighborhood wine. I slept in all varieties of sites: shepherds’ caves, locals’ floors and the odd hotel. A person unforgettable place was a cave that turned out to be an ancient tomb – I’d slept among the the old graves.

The landscape is very numerous, but it is the cultural diversity that genuinely stands out. One particular valley will be Christian, the upcoming Muslim, and there are additional than 50 ethnic teams – Dagestan alone has about 35. I started out my journey in April, when it was -40C in the mountains. By the time I acquired to Iran in July, it was 45C! May well and June are wonderful instances to go, as is early autumn.

Mud Volcano at Gobustan in Azerbaijan Mud volcano at Gobustan in Azerbaijan.

The most hazardous component was hoping to climb Mount Elbrus in southern Russia. It’s Europe’s greatest mountain at 5,642 metres I got to 4,900 metres and experienced to flip back again in hurricane-strength winds. The most magical moment was waking up in Azerbaijan’s Gobustan desert, a world heritage website with 6,000 rock engravings, and gazing at the mud volcanoes via the mist.

Nariqala Fortress and the Abanotubani quarter, Tbilisi. Nariqala Fortress and the Abanotubani quarter, Tbilisi.

Any one could do this journey, or at minimum element of it. Ga and Azerbaijan have comfy lodges but do not see lots of western vacationers: you could go on a two-week holiday getaway and not see a solitary a single. In certain components of Russia and Iran, you have to accept that you will be adopted by the mystery police or offered a governing administration minder. In Russia I was trailed by the FSB (the previous KGB).

If you only go to one particular town in the Caucasus, make it Tbilisi, funds of Ga. It is an remarkable position that has come on in leaps and bounds in the past 10 years. There are historic web sites these kinds of as Narikala fortress, and a hipster quarter in which you can get a pleasant coffee. You can just take working day excursions into the mountains and go snowboarding at Gudauri.

Tabriz, old bazaar, Iran Tabriz, previous bazaar, Iran

It was interesting to see how technology has modified lives in Iran. The government can check out to ban Fb and Twitter, but folks discover a way all around it. They go to get-togethers and on dates – culture is opening up. For conventional browsing, you can’t beat Tabriz, just one of Iran’s previous capitals. It has the biggest included bazaar in the planet, and is the spot to get Persian rugs, jewelry, spices and a lot additional.

Right after the Chechen wars in the 1990s, Grozny, the funds, was bulldozed and began again from scratch. Today, it appears like Dubai. I stayed in the five-star , which opened in 2011 – a spot like that was unthinkable in 2004.

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