Sunday, September 7, 2008

Over the border

I had a few people warn me against going to Georgia, but they were far away from the area. The area I hoped to visit was far from the fighting, so I assumed that life wouldn’t be too affected at this point.

I was right.

I crossed over the Azerbaijan-Georgia by the Azerbaijan town of Balakan. On the other side of the town is Lagodekhi. The guidebook I’m using calls Lagodekhi “soulless.” That seems harsh, although I can’t say I saw much compelling there. The nature reserve that it borders sounds quite beautiful, with populations of chamois, mountain goats, bear, and wolf. But visiting the reserve takes considerable planning. You can’t just drop in and go hiking.

After crossing the border quite easily, I caught a taxi to Tsnori (40 lari, or about $20). Tsnori had less to it than I imagined. A run-down commercial area, and run-down Soviet-style housing. So I wandered through the back streets until I found the road to Signaghi. Rather than pay for another cab, I decided to walk the whole way. After the first 40 minutes of the walk, I began to question my decision – but I had made the choice and there was little chance of flagging a cab at that point, even if my pride had allowed it.

On the positive side, I found an old Georgian church on the way. It was ancient- but not abandoned. Inside, people evidently still burned candles in front the icons. But I’m not sure if the bats sleeping on the ceiling were Christian.
And when I got hungry, I found snacks growing on the blackberry bushes and pomegranate trees by the road.

People have lived in the area now occupied by this little town since pre-history, but the town itself only developed in the lat 18th century. Perched on a bluff above a broad plain that stretches to the Caucasus Mountains, Signaghi has been has home to many musicians and artists over the years. I could understand this, given its scenic location.

At the moment, the town seems is still completing a renovation project, financed by some U.S. grants. Maybe some World Bank funds too. (I can’t remember the details from the signs. While some people might argue that the grants make the place look less “authentic,” for the most part the renovation seems to have been very tasteful. It’s nice to see houses well-kept and painted. And I loved the baskets for throwing litter away. They were very common – and appeared to be used. Of course, out of the town, people still dump their trash by the side of the road, but at least within the town it’s quite neat.

The style of the architecture in the town is quite different the houses in Azerbaijan. The houses were almost Italianate, brightly painted with red tiled roofs. After strolling around the center, I headed toward what is referred to as “the monastery.” Now, this place is a convent, and the black robed nuns were working outside on the beautiful grounds. In the church lies the tomb of St. Nino, the saint who brought Christianity to Georgia.

You may notice that the word “war” doesn’t occur in any of this description. No refugees clogged the roads. No smell of cordite in the air. The war was alluded to in a conversation I had at the local tourist center. But no one spit at me when I asked if Russian was understood. And in fact, most of the people I spoke with did speak Russian. The most extensive conversation I had about the war was in the taxi on my way back from Signaghi. He said that Georgia has good relations with all its neighbors. Except for Russia.

Yeah, I guess.

(Above is a shot from the interior of an old church. And a shot of Signaghi.)