In the southern-most corner of Georgia, where the border with Turkey and Armenia draws a deep triangle, a winding river banked by natural levees, rushes madly northward after it has collected the melting snows of northern Turkey; it then drains the lower Caucasus and upper Caucasus, it cuts through the Georgian plain into Azerbaijan, its force harnessed and pacified, and finally deposits its calm waters into the Caspian Sea.
This is the river Kura, named after Cyrus the Great of Persia, one of the great rivers of civilization, its banks settled for over 7000 years, and the source of life for thousands of generations.
In this corner of Georgia, a cave monastery city of orthodox monks overlooks the valley below. Castles and fortresses cling to the cliffs where tributaries join the great river, witnesses of tides of armies and invaders that flowed west and east.
This corner of Georgia is mostly uninhabited, with only a handful of small settlements by the river, sleepily looking at the infrequent cars and buses carrying the few tourists visiting Vardzia, a cave monastery complex carved out of the mountain side in the 12th century. Mostly, people here tend to their gardens and small family vineyards, making some of Georgia’s thousands of varieties of wine, or walk their cattle to the grazing fields on the sides of the cliffs. Over the millennia, the river has carved through the landscape, digging the terrain, sculpting the sharp cliffs on either side. These are mostly bare but for a few trees which line the streams that feed into the Kura, but shine bright green in the setting sun; water flows down from every direction, spurting out of the ground, creating hundreds of small streams which reinforce each other until they join the river below.
We followed a muddy path which rose along one side of the cliff, constantly jumping over streams, our boots squelching at every step. We climbed a few hundred feet until we reached stretches of terraced meadows where the grass grew tall and thick. From our vantage point we could see the ruins of a castle dominating a cliff on the other side of the river, and the outline of the valley as it descended from the Turkish mountains in the south.
Cows grazed in the fields further up, and were soon called to descend, every herd following its leader’s bell.
We pitched our tent and spent the evening jumping over the stones and stream and washing away the dirt and sweat in tiny waterfall by a crevasse in the rock. As the sun set, light and shade played with the landscape into thousands of gradients of green and blue.
By this point we had been travelling for a few weeks, just Giacomo and I, making our way slowly across the mountain ranges of Anatolia, the Caucasus and the Elburz. We had set a vague goal of looking for transhumance trails that cut through the borders of Turkey, Georgia, Armenia and Iran. For millennia these regions have mostly been incorporated under a single political denomination: Ottoman Empire, Russian Empire, Persian Empire, Mongol Empire, Macedonian Empire, fractioning into smaller political units with constantly changing borders. Some of the largest armies the world has ever seen have swept across these lands, bringing with them new people, cultures, goods, technology and religions. And yet, despite the constantly changing nature of this region, transhumance has gone on largely undisturbed for millennia in an infinite cycle along the same paths and routes, from the valleys of the Black Sea in winter to Europe’s highest pastures in summer. Giacomo and I had decided to try and follow some of these routes in a journey that would take us overland from Istanbul to Teheran, hitchhiking over the largest distances, and taking on multi-day hikes once in the mountains.
I was particularly curious to find out just how much national borders had disrupted the traditional movement of people in communities that shared very similar livelihoods, and yet could not be further apart culturally or religiously ever since the forced exchanges of population of the 20th century. Today we were about to find out just how the new states worked together to consolidate their borders in very visible and physical ways.
We got up early the next day and began our climb to the plateau above. We did not really know what to expect, and as there was no path we had to find our way, looking for the softer inclines, and walking sideways to make the ascent easier on our legs. The heat of the day intensified quickly soon after the sun emerged beyond the cliffs on the other side.
Once we reached the plateau we were struck by its total unbroken flatness. A completely barren flat landscape extending as far as the horizon. Not a single tree to be seen, but yellow dusty steppe and dry grass. A village was perched on the edge of the cliff, and as we walked through backyards and gardens we collapsed on a bench, legs turned to jelly, and our backs sticky with sweat. A family welcomed us in for some stale bread and hard salty cheese. We were still in Georgia, but the villagers were all ethnic Armenian, and looked much poorer than those from the other villages we had crossed so far. It lay at the end of a dust road, overlooking the plateau on one side, and the cliff on the other. It was holiday, the last day of school, and families were strolling in groups towards the church dressed in their best clothes, waving and wondering what we were doing there, and possibly how we had reached it without using the road.
We took to the dust road. Our maps showed a lake and another town about six miles away. Around us silent fields, gushes of dust hitting us in the wind, and in the distance the outline of mountains slowly coming into focus. The scenery was dramatically different from the green, lush valley we had left behind in the morning. The wet, rich atmosphere we had breathed by the river, had turned into a dry, arid landscape, how I imagine central Asian steppes to look like, never having actually seen one. A couple of old, battered soviet cars carrying relatives to the village’s feast drove past us, lifting gushes of dust which made us cough breathing through our shirts.
This is the Javakheti Plateau, flat as a plain, but over 2000 metres above sea level. We eventually accepted a ride, and spent the rest of the day hitch-hiking across the vast plateau, driving past frozen alpine lakes fed by thousands of streams descending from every directions from the mountains.
As we roamed deeper into the plateau, the lone road on which we travelled was soon flanked by a new imposing modern railway, seemingly unnecessary in this part of the world, running side by side a massive futuristic-looking tube of concrete. This is the South Caucasus Pipeline (SCP), the main vector carrying gas from Azerbaijan to Turkey. The first tract of a network that will eventually channel gas across Anatolia, through Greece, Albania and Italy. Gas is pumped from the rich Shah Deniz fields in Azerbaijan, conveyed through the SCP across Azerbaijan and Georgia to the Turkish border. Here, in a geopolitically sensitive area which sees also many Kurdish insurgents, it connects to the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP), under construction since 2015 and expected to be finished by 2018, and runs across Anatolia and 20 cities, reaching the Greek border in Thrace. The last tract, the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), will then connect Greece, Albania and run under the Adriatic to Italy. While protests in Italy, Albania and Greece have erupted and have been relatively covered by media, little is known of the social and environmental impact the pipeline has had and will have in the Caucasus and Turkey, apart from the assessments carried out by the energy and construction companies involved in the project.
The European Union is firmly behind the project, as it has recognises the pipeline as a Project of Common Interest, meaning that it is of vital importance to Europe’s energy policy, as one of 12 potential corridors to theoretically free Europe from its dependency on Russian gas (although Russian Gazprom has very recently become a major stakeholder in the TANAP)
The railway alongside the pipeline will potentially be part of a direct route connecting Europe to Baku in a single uninterrupted line, creating new corridors for trade that once again seek to exclude Russia. The geo-political alliances and the fragility of the region are key factors in determining the fate of people and the landscape. As the pipeline and railway swerve to avoid touching Armenia (squeezed and starved for gas by Azerbaijan and Turkey), in this vast, empty land, away from the cities and modern life, we could see the very visible lines we so often take for granted being laid down, track after track, pipe after pipe, from the Caspian Sea across the Georgian valleys and plateaus, into Turkey and Anatolia, and finally onwards to Greece and Europe. This is where the imaginary lines of our borders take form, as the routes, tracks, and pipelines are drawn and built, crossing friendly countries, and carefully avoiding others, in a game of international geo-politics played among countries’ energy strategists and powerful energy companies and lobbies, whose consequences are seen in these remote lands where pipelines thrive, the modern, silent routes of our century’s new invisible silk: gas.