A Travellerspoint blog

Caucasus - Georgia and Armenia

Visiting the neighbours...

Last week Kate and I set off on another trip together, our last being Croatia and Montenegro. This time our destination was far less warm, on a variety of levels. As well, there were maybe 70% less tourists, particularly in Armenia where I have a feeling their major source of tourism comes from: diaspora, Iranians and Russians. Armenia's an interesting case as the diaspora community is at least three times as big as the population in Armenia proper (which is roughly 3 million). The biggest centers for diaspora are in the U.S. and Russia, and much of what's been built in recent years in Armenia can be attributed to these generous communities. The capital itself, Yerevan, no matter how nice a select number of the buildings are, or how gorgeous the view of Ararat is, is not a very attractive city. It has parks, which are quite beautiful, but there's an uncomfortable feel to the place - possibly owing partially to the behaviour of the men, who gawked and yelled at us seemingly shamelessly. It's reminiscent of behaviour we experienced in the Black Sea city of Trabzon, but we weren't expecting it in either situation and it's quite off-putting - particularly when you're alone, a pair of girls. I'll try to be a little more positive about Yerevan, by pointing out some of the highlights.
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To begin with, there are some of the stunning views of Ararat. It can be seen from various areas around the city. The Armenians we met typically referred to it somewhat in terms of occupied territory - a temporary loan to Turkey. They also used humor, like one woman who went on to say that they joke in Armenia that when the view is obscured by clouds it means the Turkish soldiers' smoke-making machine is hard at work, and when it's clear it means the Turks are taking a nap. They were also very proud to relay an anecdote about an important Armenian official who replied to a Turkish general who asked why they keep Ararat in their coat of arms and art, by saying that although Ararat's not technically in Armenia right now it's not like the crescent moon is in Turkey either. Kate and I didn't typically share our living in Turkey within the first few minutes of meeting someone, although we didn't hesitate to admit it either. No one had particularly harsh words to say, although I wondered about their real feelings about the matter - living in a country that they see as such an aggressor. On a similar note, Kate and I visited the genocide memorial and museum, which was fascinating. Having visited a lot of museums dedicated to the Holocaust, it was interesting for me to see a museum dedicated to another genocide.
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It seemed that their main aim was proving that the genocide happened, rather than trying to inform people about the details of what had transpired. Instead of providing background information and context, they had lots of plaques dedicated to the numbers of people killed and momentos of those victims. It was more like a memorial than a museum, which is probably necessary as the primary visitors are Armenian diaspora. It was a touching place, and was in no way easy to navigate for the amount of torture you felt coming alive through photos, art and documents. After a lengthy visit inside the museum we ended up at the guest book, where I spent a considerable amount of time rifling through pages. In fact, on this trip I developed a fascination with guest book comments. At the genocide museum the last two just so happened to be in Turkish - the last expressing what great sorrow the person felt for the men, women and children whose lives were so violently taken. This is a fascinating and complicated topic, but I'll wait a few months before attempting to delve further into it.
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On a more uplifting note Yerevan does appear to have some nice nightlife in the forms of an area called the Cascades (pretty well-lit man-made waterfalls), the parks and also the clubs. We also went to a local tavern and watched some Armenian musicians perform. It was excellent. They also sold the most interesting wine I've ever tasted, it felt really earthy, sweet and much thicker than normal. We had a dessert, which reminded me a lot of a Hittite meal I had tried here in Ankara - lots of raisins, dough and nuts used. Kate and I also managed to visit a few bars, one of which I literally fell into and then rapidly retreated out of. I hadn't realized that there were stairs right after the doorway, so I made a grand entrance, looked into the faces of many confused rockeresque Armenians and slowly backed out shaking my head at Kate. We went back to the one bar we trusted to be comfortable, cheap and play good music - a Beatles themed bar, where there was much less smoke and a much friendlier environment. In any case, if I were to summarize our time in Yerevan, I'd say that it was fairly confusing. There were some beautiful sights, but there was always a hint of desertion about them or conflict hidden away. We went to the national art gallery and history museums, both of which were deserted and felt highly sterile. We also visited a gorgeous blue mosque, attended to by the Iranian Embassy. Our guide hadn't wanted to take us, but at our behest we entered a gorgeous, peaceful courtyard and were then told that there are roughly 10 000 Iranians in Armenia and that the community is not always well-received. Apparently, according to the guide, Ramadan is known as "Iranian season" since wealthy Iranians flock to Yerevan, and shop at the most expensive stores (Burberry, for example) on a new main street called Northern Avenue, where it was claimed that Armenians can't afford to shop. On that note, I'm going to try to briefly highlight the day trips we took through the country, which basically meant seeing a lot of Monasteries and Churches.
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We visited a number of Monasteries dedicated to nuns like St. Hripsime or to saints like Gregory the Illuminator (Khor Virap). Khor Virap was a fairly interesting place to visit as it's dedicated to Gregory who was kept there for 13 years for having tried to spread Christianity among other reasons (quite a long and convoluted story came out of the guide's mouth). He was eventually let out at the behest of the sister of the King. Christianity then became the official religion in 301 AD. So, an interesting little fact is that Armenia is the first ever officially Christian nation. Another interesting fact is that they still practice ritual sacrifice, for example to show thanks for a son or daughter returning home from an internship abroad. Overall, I noticed a huge amount of pagan influence in the practices. For example, their equivalent of the Pope is known as the Catholicus and he carries a staff with dragons on it, which are supposed to ward off evil spirits. At the head church of Armenia, St. Echmiadzin, we saw dragons carved all over the place as well as other interesting symbols. In terms of natural beauty the Armenians have placed their Monasteries in some very strategic places. One of the most beautiful was Noravank Church, located among hills. It also has quite a sad legacy. Supposedly it was built by an architect who was in love with a king's daughter and was told that if he could create something spectacular within two years he could have her. When the king sent his henchmen to check the place out after two years he told them that if it was stunning he had to be killed, and if it wasn't then it was no problem. It was, and he was pushed off the roof to his death.
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What I learned is that in Armenia when you go sightseeing, what you're doing really is visiting churches. That being said, after coming from Georgia, which has churches at every corner (even in Tbilisi), I was surprised by how few churches were in Yerevan. At first I thought it may have to do with Soviet occupation, but then I realized that Georgia should have been in the same situation in that case. The Soviets did destroy some churches, as well as a synagogue and mosque (in Georgia - not sure about Armenia); however it doesn't explain why there would be so many more churches in Georgia as opposed to the "original" Christian nation of Armenia. In any case, my last day spent in Armenia involved visiting the countryside and churches. We went to a Monastery called Sanahin, which I thought was nice; however, it was built by "the teacher" and his student's monastery - Haghpat, I much preferred. They were both built around the 10th century, and are UNESCO World Heritage sites. While wandering around you can see why. I particularly liked exploring buildings like the dining hall, and concert hall at Haghpat where they were constructed carefully to allow for light in the right places, as well as excellent acoustics. What I found surprising about Armenian monasteries was how high the ceilings were, as well as the strange nooks and crannies we always found - most likely for defense, given the time period they were built. They all had a very sad, dark feeling to them. When I asked the guide about this sorrowful vibe, she explained that according to the Armenian Apostolic Church, when one prays it shouldn't be in a glitzy building adorned with jewels but rather in a simple, peaceful place that won't serve as a distraction. This answer satisfied me as I completely agree with the sentiment. That being said, glitzier can make for a more interesting visit. While visiting churches in Georgia it felt like there was far more to discover, due to all of the beautiful art pieces. Georgia also has the advantage of a long legacy of excellent gold smithery.
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In any case, the last monasteries we visited (aforementioned ones) are located in a region called Alaverdi, which in Turkish means G-d gave. Apparently the name is derived from the beauty of the region. The most interesting aspects of this trip were the Soviet traces and as in other places, here they had constructed massive chemical factories (in valleys), which they then deserted. These chemical factories are one of the contributing factors to Armenia's having the highest rate of breast cancer in the world, and third for lung cancer - supposedly. It's horrible travelling through the lush, verdant countryside and seeing the remnants of Soviet times - abandoned eyesores scattered everywhere. One of the most poignant sights was a cable car, left dangling halfway between the top and bottom. Visiting Armenia was not a comfortable trip. The legacy of the Soviets is strong, and it seems like in many ways the Russians are still in power. I'll explain more in a bit, but I would venture to say that the most fascinating aspect of this trip was comparing two former Soviet states and seeing how incredibly differently they've grown regardless of the additional problems they face. As well, it was interesting to hear how positively many people in Armenia speak about the Soviet times. One final site in Armenia itself that was worth a visit is a Monastery called Akhtala. The small city itself has historically been responsible for copper and silver mining, although now that's a thing of the past. As with all of the other Armenian Monasteries visited the accompanying town is poor. The people living there are often unemployed and living way below the poverty line. The Akhtala Monastery and fortress were built around the 10th century and reconstructed in the 13th as they had fallen into disrepair. The most striking features are: the incredibly preserved frescoes inside, as well as a massive hole that goes right through the face of the Virgin Mary. Apparently during a raid the townspeople came and hid in a secret passage built into the walls, and unfortunately a baby started crying so a cannonball was shot (no idea how that would have worked, but anyway) and it just so happened to go right through her face and come out as a perfect circle on the other side (which again, I don't understand, but let's accept it regardless).
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At this point I just want to mention how strange the variety of tourists we met were. Typically when you travel you meet an interesting crew of people, but when you venture off into countries fairly far off the beaten track you genuinely have some bizarre encounters. On that last day travelling through Armenia we had a few interesting encounters. Firstly, we ended up buying bread in a town called Aparan, which was so full of pot holes I felt like we were in some perverse reality video game themed show, where we joined a crew of Armenians to wait and watch for the President. He drove through in his tinted windowed SUV, with a full entourage - never once did he wave, or step out of his car. Not a leader I could support; simple gestures make a huge difference. Some Armenians support him, because the feeling is that although he's cold and not likeable in the slightest apparently he's extremely calculating, which is ideal for a politician. In any case, the absolute strangest encounter was within our tour group. As it happens we were travelling with the former deputy Minister of Finance of Georgia, who (to me) looked more like an aspiring Russian rapper. He retired from the world of finance in order to find himself spiritually. This led to some fascinating conversation with our Armenian guide, George (Anglicized version of his name, of course). Our guide was one of the more egoistic and nationalistic people I've ever met. His arguments basically resulted in him believing himself to have convinced us of his thought process and if not, he'd drop it. His strategy involved trying to compare everything to science so that it would sound legitimate and scare us off. The "Russian rapper" wasn't having any of it and their ensuing discussion about the value of goodness, and the place of sex in religion was enthralling because neither side had any inclination of backing down. Even though I saw a man walking around a church with chicken in hand, which he was about to sacrifice, I can confidently say witnessing this conversation was quite possibly the strangest experience I had on the whole trip. It took place in a tiny trailer home in the hills of the Armenian countryside about 20 km from the Georgian border - decorated like a home from Pleasantville, with campaign posters for the upcoming election lying around; it felt unreal. To hear the "Russian rapper" explaining how there are different stages we all need to go through including an acceptance of our need for sex and then finally love; while the Armenian guide went on about how monks are able to overcome the need for sex by channeling their energy in something positive (by that he meant bible study). Interesting questions arose: should one need to isolate oneself in order to achieve a higher level of meditation, or should one be able to work on it while surrounded by distraction? Why should sex be considered a negative act? And so on... And with this last picture (which I find has an eerie quality to it), let's move onto Georgia.
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Although both countries are plagued with poverty, and high unemployment (Armenia 7% and Georgia 16% - although in both countries citizens claimed it to be closer to 25-30%) - I much preferred travelling through Georgia. I felt more comfortable there, partially because of the places and partially because of the people. Perhaps because there's more tourism in Tbilisi than in Yerevan (it seems, at least) the people there weren't as interested in hassling us or even noticing us for that matter. Tbilisi itself is a really beautiful city, with many different vibes in its different neighbourhoods. We were fortunate enough to arrive on Easter weekend (Georgian Orthodox), so we started off by visiting the Sameba Cathedral, which is new and huge. Building was completed in 2004, and apparently it's the third biggest Eastern Orthodox Church in the world. We entered and observed their Easter rituals, which didn't involve a mass but rather people lining up with candles to light and then walking up to a picture, which they then kissed. They recited some prayers while at the picture and then left. The whole cathedral was full of different pictures of Jesus and Saints, which everyone was taking turns walking up to and kissing (while mumbling prayers to themselves). Although the churches were packed on Easter, and the touristy ones were packed the whole week I noticed that the Armenian churches seemed like they were much more used. What we were told is that after the Soviets pulled out, the Armenians, as a reaction to the oppression, became extremely devout. It's not just older people you'll see in church, but also a lot of youth. They're very proud of their religion, and apparently don't take well to the Mormons and Jehova's Witnesses who were shipped in after the Soviets left to try to proselytize. In any case, after we visited the Sameba Cathedral we wandered around the area a bit. To be honest, the first morning in Georgia I was not highly impressed. We were approached by an old man who pulled down his pants, while pulling out some strange blue fabric which he began rubbing (around his crotch area). Then after that, we wandered through some very grungy looking areas before we came to the Cathedral, after which we couldn't find a restaurant for ages. Heat, hunger, being flashed, and lack of sleep aren't a good combination when arriving somewhere new. Due to financial constraints we didn't sleep much the whole time - our flights were awkward times, and hostels aren't the quietest places for a solid night's rest. When we did find a restaurant it was superb. I had a delicious salmon lunch, with traditional Georgian vegetable dish (very tasty mix of spices) as well as an eggplant dish with walnut spread and pomegranates on top. They were very sweet at the restaurant and gave us free Easter goodies at the end, including spiced sweet bread and eggs (which were presented in grass, as is traditional there). I found people in Georgia to be very gracious, and sweet. It likely helped that we didn't have endless issues with harassment or stalking.
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In addition, the food is spectacular. I had fish most days, and ate well. They have many national dishes, including khinkali (like dumplings, whose eating style Kate mastered) as well as khajapouri (like pide, except greasier and more delicious). I had no shortage of delicious dining in Georgia. Anyway, in Tbilisi Kate and I were able to explore a number of beautiful areas including the Old Town, the bath district (Abanotubani) and the old fortress. It's a very nice city to wander around because the architecture is so gorgeous that at every new street you feel compelled to wander and take in what new balcony design, or colour of paint you can find. It's got such interesting balconies that there are recommended tours to just take in the variety of balcony styles and intricate workmanship. We chose not to participate, and we set our own schedule and path instead. This flexibility led us to a fortress, which I decided to climb to the top.
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While Kate waited at the nearest Church just a bit below, I encountered some U.S. army men with whom I had a pretty funny exchange of words. We went off on our separate ways and I didn't think much of it until later while we were wandering in one of the hipper areas of town and we ran into them again. We ended up sitting with them for hours, eating and enjoying the nightlife. We then ended up wandering through a massive new park, exploring a newly constructed bridge and heading over to another bar district. It was an excellent encounter as it toned down my notions about military men. As it happens there are a fair number of military folks in Georgia (U.S.), many of whom we ran into throughout our trip. Part of that could be attributed to our visiting the number one expat bar, which is owned by a former army woman. It's a strange life being an expat. I've come to terms with it while living in Ankara, but I think that were I to move overseas again I would possibly isolate myself more from expats at the beginning so as to immerse myself better in the local culture. I chose that method in Spain, and my Spanish flourished for it. In Turkey, I've enjoyed both time spent with locals and other expats, so I have no complaints; however, I do regret that I didn't devote more time and effort to learning academic Turkish, which could have come in handy for future professional plans. In Georgia (as in Turkey) it seems that all the expats we met were either businessmen, embassy employees, English teachers or involved in the army. Whoever they were, we enjoyed their company. That first night in Tbilisi, with our three army men in tow we visited a few bars and ended up having a fabulous time dancing with some Georgians to good old Rock 'n Roll. One of our buddies had perfected a style of dancing he called the Octopus. I maintain, we met some very interesting people on this trip.
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Some other points of interest in Tbilisi are the main avenue called Rustaveli, which is the site of the Georgian National Museum. This museum houses the Archaeological Treasury (worth a visit), and the Soviet Occupation Museum (also worth a visit). The Archaeological Treasury had some of the most gorgeous gold jewelry I've ever seen, as well as other random items like a writing set. I couldn't believe how well preserved the items were, and also how contemporaneously beautiful they still were. I would have no qualms wearing a number of the bracelets and necklaces I saw. Typically when I look at things like this, I check the dates, look at the style but don't particularly care and forget everything I've seen shortly after. This time, they really left an impression. However, it was the Soviet exhibition which I took more of an interest in. It was clear while in Armenia that there's still adoration and respect for the Russians. It's spoken everywhere and learned in school. A large number of Armenians still live there, and channel a lot of money into Armenia from those areas. Even though there's still anger about religious intolerance, and other mistreatment there's an overwhelming feeling that Russia is still in control of Armenia in many ways. In Georgia, it's a completely different story. It feels much more independent. It's clear that once the Soviets were out, they began building their own society back once more - trying to distance themselves from Russian influence. It's also obvious through campaigns like "Stop Russia", which you can buy postcards of in popular stores like Prospero's bookstore on Rustaveli. Of course this is owing to the continued territory disputes regarding Abkhazia and Ossetia, which Georgia sees as occupied Georgian territory. This negative feeling toward Russians was very much reflected in the exhibit, which had mainly momentos of victims of the regime (intellectuals and clerics). Similar to the Armenian Genocide Museum, it felt that there was a need to prove that this terror had in fact happened - a desire to show who the victims were, and who the aggressors were. Unlike the Armenian Museum, the Georgian one had more detailed context and background. They also provided us with free books that were full of information about what changes occurred, and offenses at that time. It was shocking to see just how many Georgians had been either killed or deported to Siberia. It worked out to be something like a quarter of the population (which was not a very big one). Once again though, it was the guest book which I was glued to at the end. There was a large variety of comments in the different languages I know. The strongest were generally in English, with people making statements like, "A museum is a place for mutual understanding and forgiving, not for political propaganda, I disagree highly with the messages exhibited here." Many people felt that the museum wasn't educating the visitors, but rather brainwashing them with anti-Russian sentiment. This is a fair statement considering that the last image you're left with upon leaving is a map highlighting Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region, with a massive sign above saying "Occupation Continues". There were others though, who felt that there was no alternative method of displaying the history of what happened to the Georgians under Soviet control. As a response to the previously mentioned comment someone wrote, "Try mutual understanding with Communists. Wish you luck." My personal feeling is that when creating a museum about occupation, there's no way for it to be neutral. The best way to approach it is through context, history and then personalization - allow people to see how daily life was controlled and affected in those times by using realia. It's difficult to comment when you haven't lived it, because it's such a loaded subject - especially given the current conflicts regarding territory between Georgia and Russia, and Georgia and Azerbaijan. What I can say is that while learning, you always come to the realization that you know next to nothing and I think that's important. Travel allows you to piece together connections between nations as opposed to seeing a country in isolation. The more countries you see, the more associations you're able to build and the less prejudice you end up with (one would hope...)... My comment in the guest book? Emphasizing the role of dialogue in the resolution of conflict.
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Georgia has a flourishing art and underground scene, as evidenced by thoughtful graffiti everywhere, as well as excellent music. Kate and I were lucky enough to hear some wonderful Georgian music live - it was varied, but always beautiful. In addition, we went to a festival concert where we heard the Tbilisi Symphony Orchestra perform Mozart, as well as a number of other famous composers' work. It's a city that's worth a visit, whether you're interested in architecture, excellent food, theatre or just wandering (there are a number of strange museums, like the doll one). I can't stress enough how much we both enjoyed our time there, including when we just sat in a cafe, chatted and drank tea. We felt calm and happy. Yerevan had some really wonderful places too, like Lover's Park or the Beatles Bar but neither of us left with the same enchanting feeling as we walked away from Tbilisi with.
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As a final note, I want to suggest some day trips to do from Tbilisi. Firstly, David Gareja is well worth a visit. Although it's a horrible road out there, and the scenery isn't very appealing (it's not green, or lush, or much of anything really), the place itself is an enjoyable hike. The monastery complex was first founded in the 6th century and has flourished since. There are still monks living on site, and were celebrating Easter still when we visited - once again with candles, eggs and the sweet bread. It's beautiful and full of lizards, as well as frescoes. The place itself has been under attack by Mongols, Persians and then later was uninhabited during the Soviet reign (although it was used as a military training ground at some point too). I really enjoyed the opportunity to wander through the little caves, and see the frescoes as well as the recently lit candles. People still come to David Gareja to pray, particularly on holidays like Easter. It's an interesting site too because it's also contested territory. Technically Kate, Katie and I wandered into Azerbaijan while hiking - part of the property is in Georgia and part in Azerbaijan.
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On our last day we visited a number of places including: Gori (Stalin's hometown), Uplistsikhe and Mtskheta. To begin with, in Gori we went to the Stalin museum, which hasn't been changed since Soviet times. This means that it's a house (more like a palace) full of pro-Stalin propaganda, outlining his rise to power as well as some personal information about his wives and children. Once again, there was no context and also no real mention of the victims of the regime. This is set to change as they plan on completely redoing the museum and getting rid of all of the current exhibits. I think the most valuable option would be to leave aspects of the current exhibit the same so that people can see how it was presented under the Soviets, but add a number of exhibits to deal with the regime in general as well as the victims of it - turn parts of it into a memorial, one could say and include disclaimers about the horrors people experienced. Our guide has probably been working there for a good 30 years, and she's memorized a script, which she didn't appreciate us interrupting. Whenever one of us asked a question, she would give a slightly irritated look, usually say that she wasn't sure of the answer and then continue with her routine. We also saw the house that Stalin was born and raised in. Behind the building there's a section of the train that he used to use, since he had a fear of flying. Wherever he went it had to be on land, and this wasn't such a bad way to travel really - it had quite a spacious compartment. In Gori we also visited the fortress, which had a nice view of the city. If you visit Gori, why not hike a bit up the hill and see the layout of the place, right?
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Uplistsikhe was the highlight for me as it meant a full couple hours of hiking around caves, and running up and down hills. The history is interesting, but to me just exploring the site meant more. A lot of the gold jewelry from the Treasury in Tbilisi was recovered from here, as people had been living there since the 4th century. There's also a little church, which is still in use.
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Finally, if anyone is looking to do a day trip into a fairytale, I suggest Mtskheta, Georgia. It's like a real-life version of Pleasantville. The streets are all incredibly clean, and the houses have all been renovated in the old town. At the center there's a beautiful old church, which is the center of Georgian Orthodoxy apparently. This place is surrounded by beautiful hills, and it's no surprise that they found ruins suggesting human life there as long ago as 1000 BC. Who doesn't like the idea of living in paradise, right? It's also no coincidence that this place has become a hot spot for weddings. While we were there we spotted three separate wedding parties: some of which looked happy to be signing away eternity, while others closely resembled funeral processions.
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I really feel that no matter how this post may have come across in terms of my judgments of both countries, I'm thoroughly pleased that I was able to visit both. There was a lot to learn in both places. I feel like Armenia surprised me a lot more in terms of the cultural facts; while Georgia surprised me since it was so much more beautiful and safer than I had expected. I think visiting 8 years ago would have been a different story, since politics has changed so much. Both countries are a lot more stable than the 'Stans', for example, but I think Georgia made a very practical decision when they chose to involve outside parties in their politics. In order to fight corruption they started looking outside for politicians (like the 28 year old Canadian Minister of Economics!), and it seems to have been a step in the right direction. Speaking to our waiter on the last night, it seems that Georgia ten years ago and Georgia now are quite different. Ten years ago muggings were extremely common, and even more people were still living in the refugee camps that dot the countryside; nowadays, people are slowly beginning to move on. Both countries have their own set of unique problems to deal with, but it's how they choose to cope that distinguishes them and also their citizens. These were two of the most surprising countries I've been to - a wealth of incredible experiences to offer and a seemingly endless array of green hills to drive through!

Posted by madrugada 09:18 Archived in Armenia

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insightful observations!

by joffre

Thank you, joffre! It was a powerful trip.

by madrugada

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