Mystique of a mountain range

Print edition : February 09, 2007

Exploring romance and reality in the Caucasus, which forms a bridge between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.

TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS SUDHA MAHALINGAM

The Caucasus in Azerbaijan.-

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 winding hill roads? Where in the world does one encounter bright sunshine in one stretch of the road and a blinding 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 Caucasus is 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 Caucasus forms 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 Caucasus has remained outside the tourist radar is that the area is inaccessible, not so much because of its geography as because of its complex geopolitics.

Just 15 years ago, the three countries of the region were one vast family - all members of the sprawling Soviet Union. 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 the Russian government will allow you to go through Dagestan and Chechnya, for obvious reasons. You should be adept at geographic jigsaw to navigate this complex region. And be able to separate romance from reality.

Driving through the Caucasus in Azerbaijan.-

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 Caucasus because the route will take us through Abkazia. Instead, we sail all the way down - cars and all - to Trabzon on the southern shores of the Black Sea and drive up the Caucasus to Georgia. But who can complain when such enthralling scenery accompanies one all the way?

The drive to Sochi in Russia's Krasnadorsky Krai was our first introduction to the Caucasus 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 on the beaches of the Black Sea. The snow-covered peaks of the Caucasus form a stunning backdrop and the seaside promenade is lined with cafes and bars.

A lake in the Caucasus.-

We visit the Tree of Friendship in the botanical gardens established by Mikhail Alexandrovich, brother of Czar Nicholas II. Here a single citrus 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, immortalised 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 tantalising glimpses of the sea from every bend.

The Sumela monastery in Turkey.-

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 at around 10 p.m. 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 corners, 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 times of the Byzantine empire, which was converted into 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.

Frescoes at the monastery.-

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 by Mannuel III of the Commenian empire. 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. 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 the 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 the Mtkvari river, and at the crossroads of the Silk Route in north Caucasus, 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.

The aya Sofia in Trabzon, with the Black Sea in the background. A stunning church, it was converted into a mosque in the 14th century.-

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 Confederation of Independent States (CIS), the Rose Revolution in Georgia installed the United States-friendly Mikheil Saakhashvili at the helm in 2003 and since then, the Georgian pendulum has swung to the other extreme. In Tbilisi, the U.S. 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 the U.S. 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 the pipeline.

An Azeri vendor selling fruits at the foot of the Caucasus near Sochi.-

Georgia's 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 U.S. is not only backing Georgia's candidacy for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (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.

We had to skip Armenia because we would then have to go back to Georgia to enter Azerbaijan. Armenia and Azerbaijan have had troubled relations for some years now. So, from picturesque Tbilisi, we drive towards Azerbaijan. As we cross the border, larger-than-life posters of the father-and-son duo - Hyder and Ilham Aliyev, past and current President of Azerbaijan - adorn the highway every few kilometres.

Baku is a striking contrast to Tbilisi. It is a bustling oil town on the shore of the Caspian, its coastline studded with oil rigs, platforms, tankers, refineries, the works. Baku's legendary `Pillars of Fire' were nothing but gas fields which could not be capped and hence burnt away. Local people began to worship these fires as a supernatural phenomenon. From here, fire worship travelled south into Persia where it attained the status of a full-fledged religious faith - Zoroastrianism. Now, Persian Zoroastrians are clustered in the desert town of Yazd in Iran. The majority of them, however, migrated to Mumbai, which is now home to a prosperous Parsi community.

The Tree of Friendship in Sochi with a plaque bearing the names of visitors who have added a graft to it.-

Oil was found in Baku in 1823 and commercial production started in the early 20th century. Enterprising oil barons like J.D. Rockfeller, Alfred Nobel and others were the first to move into this region where they literally hit pay dirt. Legend has it that when a birthday cake with slices bearing the names of various regions of Europe and beyond was presented to Hitler, he picked one slice, Baku. Hitler's desire to capture and control Baku came to naught as the Germans were repulsed at Volgograd. Baku supplied 85 per cent of all the oil used by the Allies in the Second World War.

The Ateshga or the Fire Temple at Surakhany on the outskirts of Baku was built at the ancient site of the `Pillars of Fire' but now is fed by piped gas. In 1743, Hindu fire-worshippers and mendicants were given the responsibility of reviving the Ateshga. Many Indian merchants pooled money to reconstruct the temple and their names are inscribed in Sanskrit and Gurmukhi at the temple site. There is a 700-strong Indian presence in Baku today, virtually all of them businessmen working in the petroleum and pharmaceutical industries. We are treated to a lavish lunch at the Indian restaurant where the Indian community gathers to greet us.

We visit the Azeri royal palace, which is quite modest compared to the palaces we have back home. There are two caravanserais - one built by Indian traders and the other by Multanis, both of which have since been converted into elegant restaurants.

In Tbilisi, The Georgian capital.-

Contrary to our expectations, Baku, despite the overwhelming presence of oil rigs and platforms, is a sprawling garden city with lovely architecture and fine vistas.

On the final lap of our Caucasian journey from Baku to the Iranian border town of Astara, we stop at Gobustan, a rocky cluster where ancient man carved his angst-filled messages through pictorial depictions 30,000 years ago. I am reminded of our very own Bhimbetka near Bhopal with similar rock carvings. But the setting here in Baku is quite dissimilar - with the Caspian on one side and the mountains on the other.

For several hundred kilometres we travel along the Caspian shore and finally reach Astara, the town that straddles the two countries - Azerbaijan and Iran. While the Caspian follows us well into Iranian territory for several hundred kilometres, the Caucasus bids goodbye to us soon after the border. Never have I felt such reluctance to leave.

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