The Caucuses – Untrodden, Unexplored (2006)

The Caucuses – Untrodden, Unexplored (2006)

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Where can you see snow-topped mountain ranges straddling two seas, one aquamarine and another, sapphire-blue?  Where can you drive through a continuous canopy of russet and golden maple leaves festooning the winding hill roads? Where in the world does one encounter bright sunshine in one stretch of the road and blinding snow blizzard in the other on the same day? How does it feel to get a panoramic 360 degree view of the horizon splattered with the myriad hues of a setting sun?

No glossy tourist brochure will tell you the answer because the grand Caucuses is truly the last bastion that has not yet been ravaged by that all-pervasive, unstoppable juggernaut called tourism. There is truly a mystique about the Caucasian landscape – Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and parts of Turkey, Iran and Russia that abut the three Caucasian states, not least because of their remoteness. The lofty Caucuses form a mountainous bridge between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Aloof and mysterious, the region is home to an array of ethnic groups and nationalities some of them living peaceably with one another, some not.  One reason why the Caucuses have remained outside the tourist radar is because the area is inaccessible, not so much because of its geography as because of its complex geopolitics.

Just fifteen years ago, the three countries of the region were one vast family – all members of the sprawling Soviet Republic. Then you could easily drive down from Russia’s Black Sea port of Sochi to Georgia and thence to Azerbaijan and Armenia. Or you could drive down from the Caspian estuary of Astrakhan to Baku, also on the Caspian shores. Not any more. Neither geopolitics nor Russian government will allow you to go through Dagestan and Chechnya, for obvious reasons. You should be adept at geographic jigzaw to navigate this complex region. And be able to separate romance from reality.

We therefore drive all the way from Astrakhan to Sochi on the northern flank of the Black Sea, but we cannot enter Georgia which is just a hop away on the Caucuses because the route will take us through Abkazia. Instead, we sail all the way down – cars and all – to Trabzon on the southern banks of the Black Sea and drive up the Caucuses to Georgia. But who can complain when such enthralling scenery accompanies you all the way?

The drive to Sochi in Russia’s Krasnadorsky Krai was our first introduction to the Caucuses mountains. The sky is an electric blue and the hills are in their autumnal splendour – gold, yellow, brown, red and rust leaves clothe the winding roads in carpet and canopy. Sochi was Soviet Russia’s watering hole where the Commissars went to unwind in the beaches of the Black Sea. The snow-covered peaks of the Caucuses form a stunning backdrop and the seaside promenade is lined with cafes and bars.  We visit the Tree of Friendship in the botanical gardens established by Mikhail Alexandrovich, brother of Czar Nicholas II. Here a single citrous tree has been grafted by visitors from at least 45 countries. The boughs are weighed down with fruits of every size, shape, colour and vintage. I add my own graft to this wonderful tree and immortalized with a plaque slung from the branch. I share my honour with several other Indians, P.K.Sanial, A.Aiangar and V.Munuswami among others.  I am even awarded a certificate of friendship for this contribution! We also visit the tower built by Stalin to watch over his motherland. In fact, Stalin used to have a second residence on the outskirts of Sochi. Today the tower is shrouded in mist, but we do get a glimpse of Georgia from the top. As we drive down, we are dazzled by tantalizing glimpses of the sea from every bend.

The 12-hour sail on Appollonia-II to Trabzon is a delight. Mt.Ruslan in its snow clothes beckons from far away and slowly, the Russian coast recedes from our view. We land in Trabzon around 10 pm and make our way to our hotel overlooking the harbour.  Trabzon is Turkish to the core – colourful, easy-going and friendly. The shops in this hilly town are piled high with fresh produce and other merchandise, ancient mosques loom around the street corner, minarets ring with the call of the muezzin to prayer. We visit the Aya Sofia, the stunning church built in the 12th century during the Byzantine empire, but which was converted in a mosque in the 14th century to commemorate the fall of Trabzon to Sultan Mehmet. The view of the sea through the main entrance to the mosque is a sight to behold.

Next on our itinerary is the Sumela monastery, perched high on a cliff about an hour’s drive from Trabzon. A steep climb brings us to the portal and a plaque which claims that the monastery was built in the 13th Century during the Commenian empire by Mannuel III.  The monastery is a wealth of murals depicting scenes from the Old Testament and the Bible, but is today a picture of neglect. The plaque claims that the monastery was preserved by the Ottoman sultans, but was neglected during the Russian occupation of Trabzon between 1916 and 1918.   A tour takes you through chapels, student hostel, library and kitchen. Pink-tinged snow peaks watch over the monastery.

From Trabzon we drive towards Georgia. The initial part of the drive takes us along the sea. With the Black Sea to your left and the mighty mountains to your right, this spectacular drive is remarkable for the absence of a single tourist intrusion. Soon we leave the sea and begin the ascent up the steep hills. En route, we are assailed by a blinding blizzard that splatters the windscreen and creates eerie images. We crawl at snail’s pace. But eventually, the blizzard subsides and blue skies return.

As you enter Sirapi, the Georgian border town, all road signs are either in English or in Georgian. The latter is written in Phoenician script and is very similar to the Dravidian script. Guram Chikovani, the Rector of Tbilisi Institute of Asia and Africa at Georgia State University and a philologist says there are many Georgian words that are similar to Dravidian words. While Russian is still taught in some schools, most students prefer to learn German, French and even Japanese, apart from English.  Tbilisi, located on the banks of Mtkvari river, and in the cross-roads of the silk route in the North Caucuses, is a pretty town, almost entirely Caucasian and Christian. A brand-new church, Holy Trinity, has just been built at a huge cost on top of a hill overlooking Tbilisi and has been funded by an unknown non-resident Georgian benefactor.

Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan are just beginning to come to terms with the problems and prospects thrown up by their new-found status as independent countries that now have to fend for themselves. The region is riven by geopolitical rivalries and territorial disputes. Although part of the CIS, the Rose Revolution in Georgia installed the US-friendly Mikheil Saakhashvili at the helm in 2003 and since then, the Georgian pendulum has swung to the other extreme. In Tbilisi, the United States has one of the largest embassies anywhere in the world. American influence is evident everywhere.

Nowhere is it more glaring than in the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline built at the behest of United States by a consortium of multinational oil companies. The pipeline, built with remarkable speed and at enormous expense, enables Caspian oil to be sent to the Mediterranean dodging both Russian and Iranian routes, an achievement of no mean measure in this land-locked region. A gas pipeline along the same route is also being built. The oil pipeline was commissioned early this year, but is not functioning at full capacity because Baku cannot supply sufficient quantities of oil. There is, therefore, talk of getting Kazakh oil in barges down the Caspian to Baku to be sent through BTC. Incidentally, India’s Punj-Lloyd was one of the companies engaged in the construction of BTC.

Georgia is an agrarian economy virtually bereft of natural resources. Sandwiched between Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia, Georgia’s future depends upon its ability to leverage its unique position as a non-controversial transit route for Caspian oil, something Saakashvili seems to handle with consummate ease. The US is not only backing Georgia’s candidacy for NATO, but even vows to help Georgia gain full control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia its two troubled provinces over which Russia has laid claim. In fact, Russia effectively controls these two provinces.

(Excerpted from article published in Frontline dated Feb 9, 2007)