Caucasian dominoes

FOLLOWING ON from an earlier post about the restoration/redevelopment of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, it was recently reported that the Georgian border crossing at Ninotsminda is getting a makeover. Have a look at some images here.

While Georgian architects and stonemasons have long enhanced the already stunning landscapes of Georgia with striking buildings – they have a penchant for lofty churches on hilltops – this creation is of an altogether different timbre. Georgia and Armenia may joust over which of them is the most ancient European nation, but now their border will be adorned with a structure that is futuristic. To my eye it looks like an almighty series of dominoes rippling across the border. Perhaps there is supposed to be some symbolism in that, but I can’t determine what it is.

Ninotsminda is one of several border posts Georgia shares with Armenia. To the north, Georgian border posts with the Russian-occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are unlikely to see similar architectural embellishments.

The border crossing with Armenia that is closest to Tbilisi is Sadakhlo-Bagratashen. I wonder if this will get the Ninotsminda treatment. When I crossed Sadakhlo-Bagratshen back in 2007 it was certainly of the old-school frontier post ilk. There were no architectural idiosyncracies here, just a couple of desultory sheds and a boom gate painted in barber-pole stripes. It was an appropriately grey, drizzly day. The mood was like something out of a Graham Greene novel: lots of waiting, loitering, bored soldiers with automatic weapons over the shoulders pinching cigarettes between thumb and forefinger. Small groups of swarthy (and hirsute: Caucasians are so hirsute) men muttered in languages entirely foreign to me. I couldn’t be sure that there wasn’t some greasing of palms or deal-making going on. The boom gate was manually raised to allow us to pass at some signal that I couldn’t fathom, meanwhile a woman with a bad dye job selling sunflower seeds in twisted newspaper cones crossed back and forth with impunity. Call me Orientalist, but I enjoyed the shambolic, post-Soviet nature of it all.

I recall the the pop and crackle of bus tyres on a wet and gritty gravel road, the scent of diesel, a Turkish logo on a semi-trailer. This was the first of many Turkish trucks I was to see: trucks that had taken the long route, passing all the way through Georgia to reach Armenia, so that Turkish goods could be brought to market in Armenia, taking such a long route because the Turkish-Armenian border is closed due ongoing political fractiousness between the two nations.

Gigu and Zohrab, the two Georgians I was travelling with (along with John Noble, long standing Lonely Planet author and traveller in the former Soviet realm), laughed as we drove into Armenia and quipped, ‘Georgia is Europe, Armenia is Russia’. It didn’t look all that different to me: the same breathtaking landscapes and ecclesiastic architecture – at intervals, unexpected – breaking the skyline.

We travelled to Vanadzor through an almighty Caucasian rainstorm. In the market in Vanadzor (see the picture above), a toothless man approached me out of the blue and gave me three apples. I offered him money. I felt compelled to make some sort of reciprocal gesture. Of course, he refused it. His gift may or may not have been significant. An Armenian proverb says: ‘Three apples fell from heaven; one for the storyteller, one for the listener, and one for he who heeds the tale’. Oh, Armenia: poignant to the end…

We turned north again and sped out of Armenia with mighty raindrops slapping on the windscreen, then we recrossed the border as night fell, stars splintering the inky sky. Gigu turned up the radio and in an episode of roadtrip camaraderie we shared chunks of salty Armenian cheese and fistfuls of bread and passed around a bottle of Borjomi mineral water – fizzing and bitter – as we raced towards the throbbing glow of Tbilisi in the darkness. Back we came, from somewhere else, to Europe… perhaps…

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