The Caucasus – the band of mountains between the Caspian and the Black Sea, marked the start of Europe – or did it? Wasn’t it some sort of American political meeting? (No, that’s caucus). Or was I still in Asia? All the countries I visited here were in Eurovision, but I was still east of the Urals. I’d learned in school that Mt Blanc was Europe’s highest mountain in school, but then Mt Elbrus in the Russian Caucasus range had come along to steal its crown. This stuff mattered, dammit!
The Caucasus is a fractal division of countries: there are three sovereign states but enclaves, exclaves and autonomous regions abound. You have to be careful what route you take here, or you might find yourself in someone else’s territory, or on the wrong side of a closed border.
Larger then all the shifting post-Soviet boundaries I crossed here, the major frontier was a spiritual one: the transition back into the Christian world. Since leaving America I’d ridden through Shintoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism and Islam, plus officially-atheist states that contained them all. If this trip had shown me one thing, it was how deep the differences ran: no matter whether an individual believed in the theology of their local faith, its cultural payload would undergird thinking, their assumptions and their conception of the world, society and behaviour. Now as I crossed the border from Muslim Azerbaijan to Georgia, I was back with the Christianity I knew – just in time for Easter.
In fact, I was too early for Easter’s local date: the Georgian Orthodox church was celebrating the festival a week later than the West this year, while over the border in Armenia they would be celebrating at the same time as us. This might seem odd but there was good reason: our calendar – the Gregorian – has only been in use for two and a half centuries, and the Georgian Orthodox church still uses the Julian calendar that was used for the two millennia before. People think that the days of the year are immutable, as regular as the clockwork of the universe and inextricably linked to our path around the sun, but that’s not true, and here on the border of Europe was a temporal reminder of their impermanence – and of our own.
I did manage to celebrate Easter, with a congregation of Anglicans who met in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. Marking this holiest of festivals was important to me, but it required a dash for the coast the day after – nearly four hundred kilometres in two days – to catch the irregular ferry for Odessa. I missed Turkey by doing this, but it can wait for another time. Armenia can wait too – in fact they can both form a future route on the way to Iran when that country’s borders open and British cyclists can once again travel there.
Safely aboard ship, I could see Turkey on the port side as we slipped out of harbour – and was that Russian-separatist Abkhazia to starboard or could we see as far as Russia itself? Turkey and Russia: not two countries I’d ever uttered in the same breath before, or even entertained of in the same thought, yet here they were, separated by only a few miles and the tiny little country of Georgia.
The Caucasus: it’s a small region but it will change your perspectives.