I recently returned from the South Caucasus: Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Why the trip? I had visited Central Asia earlier and the South Caucasus is the next region to the East.
The three states of the South Caucasus were former Soviet Republics. They gained independence in 1991. All three countries are blessed and cursed; blessed to be on the cultural borderline between East and West but cursed because they are on the route of so many marching Empires. First the Romans came through, then the Mongols, followed by the Persian Dynasties, the Ottomans and finally the Russians. The region has experienced its share of war and upheaval.
The region ranges from bone dry desert in Azerbaijan to spectacular high altitude scenery in the Caucasus Mountains. Georgia it seems has placed a church or monastery on every spectacular mountain peak (see below).
When I travel I like to practice “business tourism,” trying to figure out how people live and how economies operate. Here are some observations.
1. Trump versus Putin. Was I asked a lot about President Trump? Not really. The focus in the region is almost exclusively on Russia. The Bear to the North is still the main trade partner and Putin is the person who everyone worries about. Russia may not want to take back the South Caucasus but it certainly wants to create uncertainty and instability. This seems to be Putin’s modus operandi worldwide.
2. Technology in the Third World. Emerging economies are not going to recreate our original infrastructure, like copper wire phones. They jump right to the present but with interesting characteristics. Everyone uses a cell phone and there are ATM-like machines everywhere (see below) where you punch in your personal code and pay your bills, from gas and electric to phones and parking tickets. Economies in the Caucasus are still cash based and this is what the machines accept. Very creative, very sensible and very convenient.
3. Tourism with a regional twist. You see the usual amount of Germans, French and Italians in the South Caucasus. They have so much vacation time! But not many Chinese yet. The real surprise is the number of Muslim tourists. Azerbaijan is a moderate Muslim country and Georgia and Armenia are friendly enough. The region is a place where many Iranians and Gulf region tourists (including Saudis) can literally and figuratively let their veils down.
Visiting new places makes the world more complicated and this, surprisingly, is also what makes it more interesting. There are no 30-second sound bites after you have visited a country. You understand better the complexity of history and you come away enjoying the diversity of foods and the diversity of people. The going is indeed still good.