Meet two tour guides that we have utilized during recent travels – Pavel, from Russia, and Oksana, from Ukraine. They share their different perspectives and experiences relative to the war in Ukraine.
Pavel, who led us through the Greater Caucasus Mountains for about a week in Georgia, does not support the war with Ukraine but believes that Russia will prevail.
“Russia has many more soldiers than Ukraine. Men who have been failures in life join the Russian army,” he explains. “The average monthly wage in Russia is about the US equivalent of $800 per month. Join the army, and you get ten times that amount.” Not an exaggeration. He explained that Russia manufactures its own weaponry (albeit slowly). “Sanctions have no effect. Everyday life in Russia is just like it was before the war,” he held up his index finger, “Except that we can no longer buy brand new American cars. Russia will outlast Ukraine.”
Oksana, from Ukraine, led us on a twelve-hour tour of the lesser Caucasus Mountains in Armenia. We noticed that she was from Ukraine when seeing her passport as we crossed the border from Georgia into Armenia.
“Do you have family in Ukraine?” I ask. She nods her head. “I understand if you do not want to talk about it.”
“No, it’s okay now,” she replies. I couldn’t talk about it a year ago, but I can now.”
Oksana has lived in Georgia for the past nine years, making a good living as an English and Russian speaking tour guide. When the war started, she asked her parents (current ages 72 and 74) to come live with her, but they refused to leave their home and everything they had worked their whole lives to build. “By the time they changed their minds, it was too late.” Russia now occupies their city of Severodonetsk.
“I haven’t seen my parents in five years,” she says with teary eyes. “First due to Covid and then the war. My father sneaks to the outskirts of town near a dump where he can get cell phone coverage occasionally to let me know that they are still alive.” They had to move to an apartment building that is half destroyed. “Their room has no windows and my mom had a stroke with no hope for good health care.”
Somehow Oksana finds a way to have a positive outlook on life. She loves her job, and enthusiastically shows us around the highlights of northern Armenia from the car of a wild-driving Georgian. Her bubbly personality and sweet nature shows the fortitude of the human spirit in action, despite sad and desperate times. Life is indeed just a tour.
Armenia, the first nation in the world to adopt Christianity (301AD), engulfs the aptly named Lesser Caucasus Mountains. The entire country sits at an average altitude of 5900 ft (1798 m).
We notice right away that this developing nation does not enjoy as much prosperity as neighboring Georgia. Rougher roads, smaller houses and less infrastructure appear as soon as you cross the border.
Decaying Soviet era factories litter the riverside along this busy road through Debed Canyon, but pleasant scenery begins a short distance away. We notice many old Russian trucks and cars still in use on the roadways.
Like Georgia, Armenia does not support the war in Ukraine, and numerous advertisements painted on walls promote recruitment into the Armenian army.
While the Lesser Caucasus Mountains are, well, lesser than the greater ones, they hold some of the highest freshwater lakes in the world.
The town of Dilijan, best known for its tasty water, served as a retreat for artists during Soviet times. Artists still promote their wares in the reconstructed tourist center. Dilijan has been called the “Switzerland of Armenia.” Obviously by someone who has never visited Switzerland!
Lake Sevan, one of the highest freshwater lakes in the world, sits 6200 ft (1900 m) above sea level. Encompassing views from a peninsula that houses two ninth century churches show off its splendor.
Time for lunch along the lake. Siga is a large whitefish that provides a main source of protein for Armenians and is often prepared “khorovats” style. Khorovats is a unique Armenian barbeque method where they grill pieces of skewered fish or meat by leaning the skewers against the inside of a big, hot, clay brick barbeque pot.
And now, for the star of the show (from our viewpoint), we enter the food market. Fish, pastries, meats, and food accompaniments light up our eyes.
I am enthralled with the making of “Lavosh” a flat bread that is lighter, healthier and in some people’s opinion, tastier than a tortilla. The way that they make lavosh looks like a bed sheet laundry factory.
They serve this long strip of flatbread either whole or cut up into squares. I can envision using it as a tablecloth, where you serve food directly on it, eliminate the need for plates, roll up the food and devour everything but the table itself.
We share heartfelt goodbyes and good wishes for a quick ending to war with our new friend Oksana once back in Georgia. Her, and Pavel’s stories will stay with us.
Back In Tbilisi, we surprise our lovely hotel staff with treasures from Armenia including Pomegranate wine and exotic pastries.
Of course, we must wrap things up with a dinner of smoked siga on our balcony, using lavosh as our edible tablecloth.
Thank you, Abundant Universe!