More Armenia – Three Monasteries

Continuing around the north of Armenia, we travel the Debed Canyon to Alaverdi.

Debed River from above

Seen throughout Armenia are these carved stone crosses called khachkars.

We call them ‘cash-cows’ as a mnemonic device

We park Cardashian below and hike up a steep path to the ruins of the Kobayr Monastery.

‘I always wanted to be a Gregorian monk. But I never got the chants.’

The interior still has visible frescos.

According to Wikipedia: ‘The monastery is currently undergoing renovation funded by the government of Armenia with the assistance of the government of Italy.’

We can assure you, there isn’t much in the way of restoration going on.

Just two guys carrying tools around and sawing a plank every now and then. By the time they’re done, we’ll be in the new Dark Ages.

Must be a saint. He’s got a halo.

Maria takes a rest in the bell tower.

No bats in this belfry

This is a common sight in Armenia – a raised concrete platform beside the road for convenient DIY oil changes. Just drive up the ramp, drain out the old onto the ground, replace with new oil, and drive away. Not exactly good for the environment, but what the hey.

Mr. Lube

In better shape is the Haghpat Monastery.

Haghpat – exterior

Unlike Georgia and Azerbaijan, a lot of the sights in Armenia have free admission.

Haghpat – interior

Even though it’s a UNESCO-listed heritage site, there are few signposts showing the way. The story is the same with the nearby Sanahin Monastery.

Sanahin – exterior

We manage to find them in the end.

Sanahin – interior

One of the reasons many of these monasteries are still standing is that they are built so solidly of massive blocks, it would take high explosives to demolish them completely.

In the village are houses that typify the character of these Caucasus countries. There is very much a Balkan/Ottoman/Asiatic influence, especially in rural areas. Ramshackle brick construction, squat toilets, roaming farm animals. Being under the Russian jackboot for several centuries is also a hindrance to modernity, you could say.

Sight or Insight of the Day

We’re fascinated by the number of abandoned Soviet-era factories we see here.

All three Caucasus countries have some, but Armenia seems to have more than its share. Some of these places are enormous.

Alaverdi copper smelter

We wonder what was produced in these now-desolate spaces that once hummed with human activity.

Given more time, we’d be interested in infiltrating one to have a look around. Spooky stuff.

Out of Yerevan, Heading North

We set out from the capital for the airport to pick up our latest rental car. We name our new wheels Car-dashian, after one of Armenia’s more colourful daughters.

It’s a Nissan Sentra, the snazziest rental car we’ve had so far.


Roll up for the mystery tour

Our first stop is at the ruins of Svartnots Cathedral. This was first built in the seventh century.

It’s a cold, drizzly day. Our next stop is Sardarapat, the site of a pivotal battle in which the Armenians fought off the Turkish army in 1918. This probably saved them from being wiped completely off the face of the earth.

There’s a museum, but it doesn’t have any information about the battle in English.

We finish the day in Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city. Gyumri suffered a lot in the massive earthquake of 1988.

Formerly known as Leninakan

The roads are for the most part, not bad.

Everywhere we go, we seem to be surrounded by snow-capped mountains.

Next, we head for Dilijan. We hike 14.5 kilometers from Parz Lake back to Dilijan. Mostly through heavily-forested mountains.

This region is known – with considerable hyperbole – as ‘the Switzerland of Armenia’.

The marking of the trails is way better than we experienced in Georgia.

Maria feigns terror on learning there are bears (and wolves) in the forest.

On the morning we depart, Cardashian is covered in frost. I use an expired credit card as an impromptu scraper.

A common sight in Armenia are these ancient Soviet buses. Note the tanks on the top. Many vehicles here – especially older ones – are powered by LPG.

Public transit

Armenia has a project similar to Georgia’s for the care of street dogs. Maria was simply going to pose beside this sign. Of course, within seconds, a few strays show up for some attention, tails wagging furiously.

We discuss how some things are common to Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia and some things are unique. An example: Armenian gas stations have a strange barrier between the pumps in all multiple-pump locations. We’ve never seen this anywhere else and can’t find a reason for it. Even Google couldn’t help.

Great Barrier Refill

You can’t simply ask, because the gas station attendants – yes, they have them here – don’t speak any English.

(Armenia also has the ugliest gas stations.)

Sight or Insight of the Day

One thing that is common to all three Caucasus countries we have visited: every town has a mysterious network of Soviet-era pipes reaching everywhere.

These remind me of the pipes that are ever-present in the Terry Gilliam film dystopia Brazil.

One movie critique has this to say about the significance of the pipes:

‘What’s perhaps most memorable about Brazil is the plethora of comical pipes that seem to reach out of every nook and cranny of the buildings. The pipes symbolize the exhaustive reach of the bureaucracy, and the intrusion of inhuman standards that stifle what sociologist Lewis Mumford calls our “organic” sensibilities.’

Welcome to Armenia

Because Azerbaijan and Armenia are, let’s say, not the best of friends, we have to fly back to Tbilisi in Georgia before proceeding to Armenia. We celebrate our last night in Georgia at a good restaurant.

I pet my last Georgian street dog

We take an overnight train from Tbilisi, Georgia to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.

This one is much more comfortable than the train we took to Mtskheta. It’s brand new.

Going in style

We have a private, 2-person sleeper for the equivalent of $CAD 90.00 per person. This summer, I paid $CAD 100.00 to travel from Ottawa to Montreal – a distance of a little over 200 kilometres – to see a Nick Cave exhibit.

In Republic Square, Yerevan

The gates of Yerevan University are still adorned with symbols of Communist abundance from the Soviet days.

‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’– William Faulkner

Armenians seem to have a good (but not a fawning) relationship with Russia. The country is comfortably bilingual, primarily in Armenian, and everyone seems to know Russian. Younger people speak English as well.

Here’s the Yerevan Opera House. We miss seeing Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet by one day.

Also known as the Armenian National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet

If you notice that we have more layers of clothing on, it’s because October has come in like a lamb and out like a lion. It’s getting cold here.

Colourful souvenir vendor.

We bought a fridge magnet

This is the Matenadaran. It’s a museum of ancient manuscripts. We like that sort of thing.

‘A beggar’s book outworths a noble’s blood.’ – Shakespeare, Henry VIII

During our visit, a throng of police are also present on a field trip of some kind. Somehow, I find it hard to imagine the Ottawa police on a cultural junket. Good luck prying them out of their patrol cars.

The thin blue line

The place is also thick with schoolkids. Loud schoolkids.

Here’s a view down Mashtots Avenue that leads there. Mesrop Mashtots was the inventor of the squiggly Armenian alphabet.

Formerly known as Lenin Avenue

A similar climb is to the Cafesjian Museum of Art. It’s Maria’s favourite spot in Yerevan so far.

In front of the Botero

(In truth, there are escalators – no climbing required.)

From the top, you get another good view down through the centre of the city.

Downtown Yerevan

The ‘Mother Armenia‘ statue can be seen from everywhere in the city.

She replaces the former resident, Josef Stalin.

Uncle Joe

We take an Uber-like ride to the Armenian Genocide Memorial

No surprise that it is tasteful and well-done. It was constructed to commemorate one of the world’s genuine genocides. Just don’t mention it to the Turks.

Sight or Insight of the Day

This is something you see all the time here: cars with one or both bumpers missing.

Note they’re also parked in a No Parking zone

True throughout the Caucasus region. People are such egregiously bad drivers; fender benders are an everyday thing. Modern bumpers are meant to crumple so they take the impact of the crash instead of the people in the car. Then they detach. And they’re expensive to replace. So people just leave them off. (They’d probably only get in another accident anyway.)

This is minimal – many cars have deep gashes, scrapes, and dents to go with the missing bumpers.

So Long, Azerbaijan!

After visiting Sheki, we decide it’s time for Ganja.

Not that kind of ganja. We mean Ganja, the second-biggest city in Azerbaijan.

It’s challenging to drive here. Long, wide boulevards, unheeded road markings, and many roundabouts turn the flow of traffic into a Roman chariot race.

Around our neighbourhood are some Soviet-era flatblocks. Even these don’t look so bad on a bright sunny day.

Victory Mansions

A few blocks down, the real estate becomes less grim.


Decades ago, Bruce Cockburn wrote a song called Fascist Architecture. The song doesn’t actually have anything to do with fascists or architecture, but the phrase has always stuck in my mind. You certainly know it when you see it.

‘Fascist architecture of my own design…’

Speaking of fascists, this square is overseen by Heydar Aliyev, the late President for Life and father of the current President for Life. In preparation for running independent Azerbaijan from 1993 until his death in 2003, he led Soviet Azerbaijan from 1969 to 1982 (and held the post of First Deputy Premier of the Soviet Union from 1982 to 1987). The man had a natural gift for governing.

Then he bequeathed the whole country to his son, Ilham.

‘His regime in Azerbaijan has been described as dictatorial, authoritarian, and repressive.’ – Wikipedia

A few fun facts about Ilham Aliyev – his annual salary as President of the Azerbaijani Republic is US$145,639.00, according to this site. Yet his net worth, according to this site is US$900 million. He must be a very astute investor. In these times of plunging equity prices worldwide, it can be hard to stay in the green.

Having said that, we must say that most people have been kind to us here. It’s like Iran to the south – people who are generally nice living under an appalling government. (To be fair, the government in Azerbaijan is nowhere near as Satanic as Iran’s.)

There are also less Stalinesque buildings around, like this concert hall.


Maria relaxes on a paisley-shaped piece of mall furniture. What we call paisley is known here as buta, and has a long history in this part of the globe.

Isn’t Paisley a town in Scotland?

Ganja is not quite as cosmopolitan as Baku. Like most of the country, it’s typically Islamic in that you constantly find yourself surrounded by groups of men and boys, with no women in sight.

Personally, I find this a bit depressing. To sum up the world in three words: Women are Civilization.

Boy’s club

Maria indulges in a fresh pomegranate drink on the street.

Too tart for this kid

Next day we drive back towards Baku. We go over a few fair-sized rivers, where men sell fish at the side of the road.

Fish vendors

Gobustan is where we spend the night. The main attraction here is the presence of ancient petroglyphs.

There is a new-ish museum that explains the history and significance of these petroglyphs. It’s very well done. Then you proceed to the sites themselves.

It really looks like someplace you’d find ancient petroglyphs.

There are signs saying ‘beware of snakes’, but we don’t see any.

Petroglyph – people
Petroglyph – boat
Petroglyph – animals

We can see the Caspian Sea from here, with scores of oil derricks.

The zoom on our camera brings them into view.

Black gold. Texas tea.

The other attraction around Gobustan is the access to mud volcanos.

Maria tests the beautifying powers of the mud.

The terrain around the mud volcanos is like a lunar landscape.

The sound of the gurgling mud is quite comical.


There is also an ‘eternal flame’ burning. It’s difficult to see in this photo, but escaping gas was ignited at one time and just keeps burning.

Should’ve brought marshmallows

Sight or Insight of the Day

We spend a couple of nights in Baku before flying back to Tbilisi. On our first visit, we missed the Heydar Aliyev Centre. (Three guesses who it’s named for.)

The shape of things to come

So we make a point of taking the Metro there.

Like a wave inside a wave

It’s pretty stunning. Even by the standards of Baku’s over-the-top architecture binge.

Curved stairway

Our last night in Azerbaijan. From the balcony of our room, we see the nightly show displayed on the Flame Towers.

You can almost feel the heat

Did we mention that the Flame Towers are completely covered with LED screens? They display things like giant flickering flames (shown here) and jingoistic scenes of Azerbaijani soldiers waving the national flag,

Quba – Lahic – Sheki

We depart Quba for the mountain village of Lahic.

‘Give me a good road and a desert’ I tell Maria. Sounds like the title of a Country & Western song.

Heading west

Lahic (apparently pronounced ‘La-HEEJ’) is another scenic spot.

It’s kind of like the villages we visited in Svaneti, but the buildings are still in one piece.

An interesting development: we stay at the Lahic Guest House. The first night we have the place to ourselves. Next day, we are joined by the Ambassador of Slovakia to Azerbaijan and his family.

Sign on the door says “No company allowed“…’ – Bob Dylan

They’re very nice people (the ambassador, his wife, and two almost-adult kids). Very down to earth. Rustam, our host serves up an elaborate meal of plov, which is a rice pilau-like dish.

Back in town, there are still a few people making things. I think this is going to be a samovar.

Lahic at one time had many craftspersons. But now we suspect a lot of the wares on display come from somewhere else.


Outside the local library branch.

Librarian says ‘shhhhh!’

Earthquakes occur from time to time.


Maria likes taking photos of herbs. So, I’m putting this one in for her.

Azerbaijani herbs and spices

On departure, we navigate Shorty through the narrow stony streets.

The next stop is Sheki, another town that was once on the Silk Road.

We stay in an old caravanserai, which was an inn for wandering merchants and their wares. We stayed in one in Iran a few years ago.

Courtyard not by Marriot

A view of the outside corner. This photo was taken from the Wine House across the street. They make surprisingly good wine in Azerbaijan.

That’s Shorty in the foreground

I check my phone for vital messages.

Alas, there are none

One of Sheki’s main attractions is the Palace of the Sheki Khans. It’s modest for a palace, but I guess the khanate itself was not very big.

‘He that has a house to put his head in has a good head-piece.’ – King Lear, Act III, Scene II

Sheki also has a silk industry. Maria acquires a block-printed silk scarf.

It’s a gift

The resident kitten decides that we’re good people to hang around with. I don’t have the heart to kick him off.

He’s watching the mouse

We enjoy a full moon on our two nights in Sheki.

The Light Side of the Moon

Sight or Insight of the Day

While driving from Quba to Lahic, we stop for a coffee in this restaurant.

Within a nanosecond of crossing the threshold, we are strong-armed away by a waiter and placed in a separate, small room. The door is shut behind us. We get to drink our coffee in splendid isolation.

The scene of the crime

Our transgression? Maria, as a woman, was FORBIDDEN to be in the presence of the paunchy, coffee-slurping men inside. Our heads were spinning, we were whisked away so fast.

I still can’t believe there are people who declare, with a straight face, that ‘actually, women in Islam are MUCH more respected than women outside Islam.

People who concern themselves in Canada with the unsafe and triggered subset of Canadians often speak of ‘erasure’ by the mainstream. Man, this is erasure in spades. This isn’t a case of feeling left out of the history books; this is being physically removed from a space, as if your very existence is an abomination.

Oh, and this was on a major highway on the outskirts of cosmopolitan Baku, not some benighted remote village.

Azerbaijan – from Baku to Xinaliq

We depart from Baku in our rental car. We call him Shorty because he’s so small.

Unsurprisingly, the polished prosperity of Baku doesn’t extend far beyond the city limits. The landscape becomes more typical for the region.

Pumpjacks are a common sight. This is where all the petrowealth comes from.

Also known as ‘nodding donkeys’

There isn’t much to see in Quba itself. But we hear the 48-kilometre road to the village of Xinaliq is worth a look.

Just outside of town is a forested area, popular with the locals for picnics.

As we begin to climb, we see a shepherd using an ATV to herd his sheep with great efficiency.

The end of the sheepdog?

The road soon ascends through canyons and switchback curves.

Maria poses with Shorty.

A lone horseman checks his phone.

After two hours of driving, we reach Xinaliq.

According to Wikipedia, there are many unique things about this place. But it just looks like another rag-tag village to us. A spectacular drive, though.

On the way back, we pass several herds of sheep and cows on the road. And this guy.


We pass a more-elaborate-than-usual shrine to Ilham Aliyev, the president for life. (He’s the son of the late president for life.) Giant billboards throughout the country are erected by the Azerbaijani people as spontaneous demonstrations of affection.

‘I’ll be watching you…’

Back in Quba, we visit a Genocide Memorial. This is ostensibly to commemorate the victims of inter-ethnic strife in March and April 2018. The Azerbaijani tally is 50,000 victims. Less biased sources put the figure at 12,000. (And no mention at all that in September of that year, Azerbaijanis murdered 10,000 Armenians.)

All this occurs because of the Russian Revolution in 1917. Besides pulling out of the First World War, the former nations of Tsarist Russia’s empire were left to work out their destinies on their own. Usually with great violence.

There’s a fairly pungent whiff of propaganda about the place. It’s obviously designed to whip up anti-Armenian sentiment in advance of any future war. (Doubtless the Armenians are probably, with equal vigour, preparing the ground with anti-Azerbaijani propaganda.)

One thing that’s not in doubt – people in this part of the world spent a lot of resources in the first half of the twentieth century in murdering each other.

Sight or Insight of the Day

In Quba, we visit a carpet weaving studio.

Maria gets tutoring in the tying of a carpet knot from the manager.

She’s ready for her solo.

Tying the knot

Now there is a tiny part of this carpet that will be forever Maria.

In Azerbaijan – Is Baku the New Paris?

In short, no. It’s pretty damn impressive, though.

We fly from Tbilisi to Baku and arrive in the evening. On the ride in from the airport, we pass wide boulevards and elegant apartment buildings.

On a material level, it’s way different than shambolic Tbilisi. Where things in Tbilisi often seem to be ramshackle and falling to bits, Baku is sparkling clean and robustly put together. No graffiti.

Of course, a large reason for this is that Georgia is a Western-leaning liberal democracy and Azerbaijan is, well, not. It’s like making the trains run on time – keeping the streets neat and orderly is easier in an authoritarian environment.

Another manifestation of this is, in contrast to Georgia’s hearty support of Ukraine in Putin’s War, in Azerbaijan there is absolutely nothing negative about Russia in the media or on the street. No mention of Ukraine at all. Not surprising, considering Azerbaijan’s best buds are Russia and Turkey, making up as villainous a trio of dictatorships as can be imagined.

Still, it’s an interesting place to visit.

Maria in front of the Azerbaijan Independence Museum

Baku itself is famous for its modern architecture. The skyline is full of it.

Walkway along the Caspian Sea

From anywhere in the city, the most prominent buildings are the Flame Towers.


Here’s the unusual Azerbaijan Carpet Museum. It’s supposed to look like a rolled-up carpet. The results are, um, different. Maria detests it. The collection, however, is excellent.

Carpet Museum

At the entrance of the Old Town is the enigmatic Qız Qalası, or Maiden Tower. Nobody knows with certainty how old it is, or why it was originally built.

Building a mystery

Even the Old Town is pretty spiffy, in comparison to the reeking alleyways of most ‘Old Towns’.

Antique chic

We take the funicular railway up to Highland Park to see the Flame Towers close up.

Potemkin edifice?

The Caspian Sea from above. Note what looks like an unmolested oligarch’s superyacht in the harbour.

We make our way home at the end of the day across Fountains Square.

In search of shawarma

Sight or Insight of the Day

First noticeable feature about Baku: there are no stray dogs. None. The only dogs to be seen are the designer kind at the end of a leash.

We imagine that because Azerbaijan is a Muslim country (at least nominally – they don’t seem very observant from what we’ve seen so far) they simply destroy them.

There are, however, many cats. And they seem to be as amenable to being stroked by complete strangers as the dogs of Georgia.

Hello Kitty

Vardzia to Kakheti – the Oenophiles’ Progress

In the morning, we find this interesting spider on the back step of our guesthouse.

Poor Uncle Joe looks like he’s been through the wars after the thrashing he took on yesterday’s crappy roads.

Road warrior

Work on the caves began in the twelfth century.

After earthquakes and invasions, it was mostly abandoned in the sixteenth century.

Most of the frescoes have not survived the centuries.

You get a good view across the valley.

There are still a handful of monks living here. These are their quarters (off limits to visitors).

Every morning at seven, the monks ring the bell in the high arch.‘ So says Wikipedia.

The road to our next destination is much better than the previous day’s goat track. This part of southern Georgia reminds us of the Canadian prairies.

Runnin’ Back to Saskatoon

We arrive in Kakheti in good time. They make wine almost everywhere in Georgia, but Kakheti is recognized as the major producing area.

Chateau Napareuli, not far from Telavi, is where we stay for a couple of days.

Just chilling on the balcony

Maria gives Uncle Joe a bath.

A clean car is a happy car

Traditionally, Georgian wine is made in enormous ceramic containers called qvevris.

‘But we have this treasure in jars of clay…’ – 2 Corinthians 4:7

They remind us of the Plain of Jars we visited in Laos in 2017.

Georgia also produces a lot of wine in the usual fashion – big steel tanks, oak barrels, and all that – but this method is dear to their hearts.

In the vineyards

I have a go at stirring the mash of grapes, seed, skins, twigs…everything.

Among the wineries we visit is Khareba. They have a cellar of cool, dark tunnels under a mountain.

These are the qvervis in their usual location – underground.

Our host is very pleasant and speaks excellent English.

One day Maria drives and I sample the vino, the next day we alternate. In theory, Georgia has a zero-blood-alcohol-while-driving policy. Like, ZERO. So it’s strange that the roads in Georgia are lined with empty booze bottles and cans of every description.

We also spend a couple of days in Signagi (or Sighnaghi).

Our Lonely Planet guide calls Signagi ‘Georgia’s single most attractive town’. We have to agree. It sits high up overlooking the Alazani Valley.

Cobblestone streets are everywhere.

So are quaint houses.

Whole Lada Love

Note the Lada in the foreground. When I was young, a good friend bought a brand-new Lada after he got his first real job. I think he paid two thousand bucks for it. That was over forty years ago. Apparently, many are still running.

The town is surrounded by walls and towers.

Sight or Insight of the Day

Our time in Georgia is nearly up. One more day back to Tbilisi, then it’s off to Baku, Azerbaijan.

We’ve grown used to Georgia’s foibles and idiosyncrasies. (For instance, tobacco use is still widespread: Georgians smoke like burning haystacks.) And the lack of road signs.

But we’ll miss the good food and wine. And the friendly dogs.