My Caucasus adventure

My Caucasus Adventure

Finally, this will be my last dispatch from the Caucasus.

I hesitated to use the world ‘adventure’, because it suggests something daring and even dangerous. But there’s nothing really dangerous about travelling in Georgia and Armenia. Sure, these are far-flung places, off the beaten tracks, and in close proximity to Russia. I started out by taking a hiking trip organized by a walking group in London. Since the war in Ukraine broke out, five people had dropped out, fearing it was too close to Russia, therefore dangerous. In my view, they were far too cautious or they were not well informed enough.
Another element of adventurous travel is certainly level of uncertainty. In many ways, there’ are fewer and fewer adventures left in the world these days.
A few months ago while travelling on my own in Morocco, I saw a large bus carrying a herd of American tourists turned up at the Roman ruins outside Meknes, bearing the sign ‘Morocco Adventure’. I just laughed: being herded around in a bus can’t be qualified as an ‘adventure’.
I enormously enjoyed my recent trip to the Caucasus because it felt like a proper travel with some measure of uncertainty.
Example one, the night train. I always have a romantic notion about long train journeys. So I took the overnight train from Tbilisi to Yerevan, leaving the Georgian capital at 8.30 pm and arriving at 7 am at the capital of Armenia. It didn’t quite work out well – too much waiting/farting around at both the Georgian and Armenia borders. Worse still, the train conductor barged into our carriage and forced us to get up because he needed to take the sheets, two hours before our scheduled arrival! Then again, I expected that things might go wrong when you travel in a less developed region.
I loved my little adventure from Kutaisi to Gori. There is only one day time train from Kutaisi to Gori, which arrives in the late afternoon – too late to visit the Stalin museum. So I took a minivan from Kutaisi heading to the capital and asked to be dropped off on the highway close to Gori.
When I walked down from the highway and got onto the road that leads to Gori, I couldn’t find any taxi – not surprisingly, it was in the middle of the no-where. So I decided to hitchhike. Before long, a middle aged Georgian man stopped, looking at me curiously: there are not many Asian people in Georgia and fewer Asian hitchhikers. Delighted in using my pigeon Russian, I explained that I needed to go to the Stalin Museum, but he said he was not going to the city center. I suddenly remembered how to say ‘bus station’ in Russian, even though I had no idea where the station was. So I shouted the word. He understood me, smiled and gestured me to get on. In ten minutes, we turned up at the local bus station, where I found a taxi.
When I told a neighbor about this, she said: “Hitchhike? Haven’t you heard stories of single women getting adducted and killed while attempting to get a lift?”
“But Georgia is the safest country in the world,” I replied. Our tour guide and every Georgian I met told me so. I later checked and found that according to one survey, Georgia is ranked the fourth safest place in the world, after Qutar, Taiwan, and United Arab Emirates, and the safest place in Europe. Even if the crime rate in Georgia were higher, I would still try to hitchhike. Just a small risk to run. When travelling, I am as happy as a pig in shit.
One important reason that I loved my Caucasus trip so much was I had been fortunate enough to be introduced to so many interesting people, writers, journalists, historians and artists who each helped me to understand this fascinating region, steeped in history.
I spent one particularly memorable evening with two Georgian friends of a friend. I had met Tini, a very sweet and intelligent Georgian girl in Beijing a few years ago. She was so happy and enthusiastic when I told her that I intended to visit her country, as if it were a personal favour to her. When I turned up in Tbilisi in middle June, Tini happened to be away in Germany, but she put me in touch with two of her friends. Since they were ‘global-minded’ and English-speaking, I presumed that they were youngish people. They turned up two oldies – both relatives of Tini. And they are utterly charming.
One of them is Giorgi, a semi-retired engineer who is well into his 60’s and the other is Merab, a fully retired doctor, a brain surgeon, who used to run his own practice. We met at the latter’s elegant flat, decorated by his fantastic photos – Merab is also a keen amateur photographer as well as a global trotter.
We started the conversation politely and gingerly. Soon I discovered that we had plenty to talk about. To start with, they had been briefed about me, and Giorgi also read every article I had written that he could find online. You can imagine how this made me happy – I didn’t expect a fan club in Tbilisi! Partly because of Tini, they are more interested in China than the average Georgian. Merab, an old bachelor, is paying for his brother’s children to take private Chinese lessons because China, in his view, will soon become the number one power in the world. Being well-educated old fashioned gentlemen, they had read Chinese classics such as The Dream of Red Manson and The Water Margin. Regarding myself, having grown up in China, I know quite a bit about Russian/Soviet. I read lots of classic Russian literary works as well as Soviet ones. They laughed when I told them that one book that had made a big impact in my life was How Steel Was Tempered, a classic socialist realistic novel. Of course, they had also read it at school.
By the end of the evening, we were laughing and joking away, as if we were old friends. We talked everything and anything, Georgians’ burning desire to join the EU, their fear of Russia’s further aggression and their hopes for the future.
When I asked them about their view of Stalin, Merab shook his head violently. He told me that he had come from a prominent intellectual family and several of them had been persecuted. He then took out of his family album, showed me their photos and explained their life stories. I learned a lot on this evening and laughed a lot.
It is an evening such as this one that inspires me to travel. (The first photo shows me with my delightful Georgian companions.)

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