(Photo above Walker Ryan, ollie. Batumi, Georgia.)
At first mention, a trip to Georgia doesn’t sound especially exotic. “Oh, cool. Atlanta? Hasn’t Grant Taylor already destroyed that place, along with all the other skaters who live there?” That’s when you have to make the conversation awkward by saying, “No, not the state, the country,” which is usually followed by a response like, “Hmm, never heard of it.” Georgia is a small, ex-Soviet Republic located in Eastern Europe right on the edge of Western Asia. The country is rich with its own culture, language, and amazing food, as well as a serious tradition of winemaking. In fact, Georgia is thought to be the birthplace of winemaking, with evidence of this ancient craft dating back over eight thousand years. Wine remains a defining aspect of the Georgian culture today, which was demonstrated at the passport check where, after stamping our passports, each member of our group received a complimentary bottle of wine. In all my traveling, I’ve never received more than a pamphlet from the grumps checking passports at immigration. A personal bottle of wine? As the first stop along the Caucasus trip, we all took this as a sign for good times to come.
Words by Walker Ryan
Photos by Alexey Lapin
In total there were eight of us traveling together as we planned to zigzag our way through the Caucasus, a mishmash of different nationalities and backgrounds. The Russians—Gosha, Alexi, and Kirill—made life easy for the rest of our group, handling nearly all communications with the locals. Since Georgia was formerly part of the Soviet Union, Russian is still a commonly spoken language in the country. Georgia does have its own language, a language that to an American sounds a lot like Russian but really has no relation in origin, nor any other language for that matter. It’s one of the few truly coded languages left among humans. Madars Apse was along for the ride and was also able to help translate, as he’s a Latvian and seems to be able to speak a little bit of every language, including a fluency in Russian. Joining me from the United States was Pat Duffy, the legend himself who is now living in Finland. From England we had Barney Page, who, along with Duffy and me, didn’t help with any of the translating on this trip. Leading our platoon into the battle field was Patrik Wallner, the enigmatic Hungarian who was responsible for planning this adventure.
While I assumed the majority of the free world looks back on the presidency of George W. Bush with disdain, I was surprised to find that Georgia may be one of the few countries to revere it. The main highway leading in and out of the capital city of Tbilisi is named after the infamous Texan and a picture of the former US president is even plastered on the road sign. Looking into it, aside from Texas, Ghana is the only other country in the world where you can find yourself driving along George W. Bush Highway.
Prior to this trip, I knew very little about Joseph Stalin, the man who was the leader of the Soviet Union for nearly 30 years and is responsible for more genocidal killings than Hitler. It turns out Stalin is from a small town in Georgia called Gori, where we made a point of visiting. While Hitler’s reign of terror over Germany claimed roughly six million deaths, Stalin’s may be closer to 20 million! These appalling facts were brought to light only after his death, at which point all of the hundreds of Stalin statues around the Soviet Union were torn down or demolished. One of the last to remain standing is in Gori, next to a museum dedicated to the despicable dictator.
After being in Georgia for a few days, there are two things that become apparent about the locals: One, they’re all very friendly and welcoming, especially to Americans. Two, all of the men are named Giorgi. Okay, well, not all of them, but nearly. Next time you find yourself in Georgia, test this out by going up to every man you see and say, “Hello, Giorgi.” My guess is that nine times out of 10 they will look back at you with a stupefied look, trying to remember when they had introduced themselves to you before, but happy to see you again anyways.
If Georgia isn’t confusing enough, try telling people you’re going to Abkhazia. “Ab-ka-who?” When traveling with Patrik Wallner—a man who is determined to film skateboarding in the furthermost reaches of obscurity that the greater Eurasian region has to offer—countries or places you’ve never heard of will be guaranteed. This is largely because Patrik is making a book that aims to include a photo from every one of the roughly 101 countries that comprise the two continents.
Abkhazia, in this instance, is a small de facto country sitting right next to Georgia surrounded by Russia. Don’t worry, I’d never heard of this country before this trip either. Calling it “de facto” essentially means that while it claims to be an independent country, almost no one else agrees. So while Abkhazia thinks of itself as its own sovereign nation, Georgia claims it’s simply just another part of Georgia. Russia, on the other hand, supports Abkhazia in its sovereignty, which ended up posing a problem for the Russian members of our crew. Since the plan was to enter and leave Abkhazia from the Georgian side, which is possible to do with the visas that the non-Russians each acquired, the guards working the border told us that the Russians weren’t going to be let back into Georgia if we went on ahead. Not wanting to split up the crew, we voted against going into Abkhazia and headed on to Batumi, another city in Georgia. Sorry, Patty, I guess you’re going to have to make it back there on your own.
In traveling to Armenia in 2015, we were visiting during the 100-year remembrance of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Unlike other brutal genocides of the 20th century, you usually don’t hear much about the one in Armenia, where it’s estimated that over 1.5 million Armenians were slaughtered by the Turks. During our time in the country, the date “1915” was impossible to ignore, as it was plastered all over the city in one of the most aggressive advertising campaigns I’ve ever seen. Aside from this morbid historical attribute, we had a great time in Armenia where we found a number of very cool spots and were hosted by an enthusiastic crew of local skaters. There was even one Armenian skater who, in finding out we were going to be there for a few days, bought a ticket straight from Moscow the same day to show us around. Since none of us knew this guy beforehand, this was an NBD of dedication to tour guiding as far as I’d ever seen, and a testament to how amazing it is to live in this Internet age of connectedness.
Another de facto country included in our Caucasus adventure was Nagorno-Karabakh. For most of us on the trip, even by the time we had entered the country, we still couldn’t quite remember how to pronounce this small republic. Like Abkhazia, NK claims to be its own independent country. In this case, the neighboring country of Azerbaijan thinks differently. As far as international recognition goes, NK is simply a mountainous region nestled in the southwestern corner of Azerbaijan. But since the late 1980s, Azerbaijan has had zero control over the area and Nagorno-Karabakh has operated independently, with help from Armenia, the other bordering country. From the Azerbaijani perspective, entering NK from Armenia would be like entering the USA from Mexico, if there happened to be, let’s say, an area of Texas that claimed to be its own country on the border of Mexico. For this hypothetical scenario, let’s call it the Craytex.
A group of foreign skaters enter Craytex by land from Mexico and receive a passport stamp to prove it. A year passes, the foreign skaters travel elsewhere and then decide to visit the USA, this time by plane through Los Angeles. At immigration, said foreign skaters would have their passports examined and the passport inspection would come to find that in the year prior, said skaters had illegally entered the USA through Mexico. Even though they’d left on their own accord, they’d still likely be deported and then banned from the USA. In our case, if it were ever discovered that we’d been to Nagorno-Karabakh by the Azerbaijani passport inspection, it’s likely that we’d go to jail. The two countries are currently at a standstill peace agreement, no longer fighting with each other for the territory. We were only there for a few days, but in being there, it was weird to realize that we were probably in one of the most remote places any of us had ever been.