There's no guide book and the waiters think I want three breakfasts - now that's what I call travelling
Sunday 28 March 1999
If so, I have news for you. There is one small corner of the planet which fits so badly into our global classification systems that it has not yet been conquered even by the Lonely Planet empire. Before the first LP guide to the three Caucasus republics of the former Soviet Union does appear (next year, they tell me), Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan may have become the last three countries on earth still holding out against the relentless guide-book advance.
How can they have escaped the attention of guide-book publishers? One possible reason is their largely unfounded image as being blood-soaked and war-torn. A more telling reason is that we have not yet worked out what continent they are on. They are a thousand miles to the east of Istanbul - which is supposed to be where Europe ends - and the nearest big foreign city is Tehran. On the other hand, Caucasian football teams get to play in European football competitions.
When I visited the biggest travel bookshop in London last week, I was told that of the three countries, only Georgia had ever had its own guide- book. And sorry. That was unavailable. Otherwise there was a guide ambitiously entitled Asia (published by Trailblazer), but with the Caucasus republics briefly featuring in a book which by a remarkable feat of compression manages to zoom through 35 countries in 500 pages, it does seem that the region is about to turn into the next Costa del Sol.
Determined to experience the place before it succumbs to other people's descriptions, I have just flown into Yerevan from where it is my intention to visit all three republics. And how does it feel so far? To be a tourist in the last undescribed place on earth? I have to confess: it shows. When I gave the friendly waiter my breakfast coupons this morning, it seemed as though he had never actually had a real customer before. "You want three breakfasts?" he gasped. "Yes, but I only want one of them today," I explained. Five nervous men in ill-fitting jackets immediately convened to discuss this perplexing situation - a guest sitting down in the dining hall for all the world as if he wanted breakfast. In the end I received coffee and tea and salty cheese and eggs and flat bread and the most charmingly improvised service you could imagine.
I am now looking out over a cityscape which, because it is not in the guide-books, is mysteriously different to that of any place which is. Other cities never have quite this peculiar, yellow, misty light. Trees and grass never look quite as dead as this. Villas with shining roofs never sit one above the other on stoney hillsides quite like these. And the locals' eyes are never quite as smiley.
Oh, and by the way, Yerevan is in Armenia. I keep forgetting that the guide book hasn't been published yet.
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