Among the classics which make up the majority of the Russian Prelims set list is a surprising text: a little-known work by Lermontov, called Mtsyri. This poem, an archetype of Romanticism, tells the story of a young orphan who is brought up in a Georgian monastery in preparation for becoming a monk. Isolated and unhappy, he runs away in a bid to be reunited with his long-lost homeland. During his three-day adventure in the wilds of the Caucasus he battles a snow leopard, falls in love with a Georgian maiden and deliriously hears a fish sing until he is defeated by nature and dies a premature death.
After writing an inordinate number of essays about this unfortunate chap, my two tutorial partners and I sat in the King’s Arms chatting about how funny it would be if we were to recreate his adventure at the Georgian monastery, which inspired Lermontov’s fictionalised version. Suddenly we paused: why not…? A few weeks later we booked our tickets and a few months later we boarded our first flight at the ungodly hour of 3.30 a.m. Our journey was to be slightly more far-reaching than that of our monastic counterpart, encompassing Turkey, Georgia and Armenia.
The first leg of our trip was in the bustling Turkish metropolis. It is impossible not to use clichés when describing Istanbul, which truly is a hybrid of East and West, Europe and Asia, Old and New. We fulfilled our touristic duties by going to all the major sites, a highlight of which was the Hagia Sophia. Originally built as a Byzantine church, it was later converted into a mosque, and in its current form retains the best aspects of both the Islamic and Christian traditions: inside the sprawling structure of domes and minarets lie gilded icons and a magnificent altar. Another highlight was the Basilica Cistern, a Roman-built underground water system not dissimilar to the Chamber of Secrets in the second Harry Potter film. Its atmospheric vibe is slightly ruined by the massage-parlour music though.
Just an enjoyable as seeing the sights was perusing the old bookshops in BeyoÄŸlu, sipping chai in rooftop cafés or crossing the Bosphorus to the Asian side of the city and playing backgammon, no doubt at one hundredth of the speed of the locals, for whom it is not just a game, but a serious hobby. Apart from our endless glasses of sugared tea, during our stay we lived off a diet of chicken kebabs costing the disconcertingly low sum of 3 lira (about 85p) and menemen, a breakfast dish made from scrambled eggs, tomatoes and green peppers, which despite looking a bit like vomit, tastes delicious.
Inevitably for a big city there are some things that are worth avoiding; The first being the Galata Tower. For the price of 12 lira (or four kebabs) you, and what seems like half the population of Spain, get to climb a claustrophobia-inducing tower to see the same view that you could get from any of Istanbul’s many rooftops. Then there’s pomegranate juice. The deceptively appealing magenta colour of this juice conceals an acidity, which will burn your insides for hours. The final pitfall to point out is perhaps the obvious – scams. Rip-off cab rides and Grand Bazaar carpet mark-ups were designed for the less savvy tourists of the past. The new scams are far sneakier. As we walked back to our hostel one evening a shoe polisher dropped one of his brushes right in front of us. My friend picked it up and handed it to him. Out of gratitude the shoe polisher offered to scrub his shoes (and bizarrely, my pink flip flops) for free. When my friend’s shoes were squeaky clean, we realised this was not a free service at all and the shoe polisher wouldn’t let us leave without milking us for all our change. When we walked into our hostel we noticed a big poster warning about scams in Istanbul, headed by ‘The Shoe Polisher’, which described in exact detail what had just happened to us.
After a magical few days in Istanbul, we boarded our night flight – you may be sensing a theme – to Tbilisi. Our hostel in Tbilisi, painted in light blue and filled with antiques, was like something out of a Russian fairy tale. The city itself is also charming: a mixture of beautiful crumbling houses and new-age urban design features, like the Peace Bridge, which (in)famously resembles a sanitary towel. The Nariqala Fortress provides a lovely view over the city, but getting up to and down from it is such a health and safety catastrophe that the view is likely to be the last thing you ever see.
A major feature of our time in Georgia was khachapuri, a traditional cheese-filled bread. Itis so integral to everyday life that the cost of making it is used as a measure of inflation in different Georgian cities. Even though a couple of us had slightly delicate stomachs after drinking the Georgian tap water, this doughy cheesy goodness made an appearance in just about every meal.
Perhaps Georgia’s most endearing quality though, better even than the cheese bread, was the hospitality. As we wandered through the Old City one day, admiring the hanging ivy and laced wooden balconies, a little voice came out of a courtyard, ushering us in. When we did so we found a family sitting around a table. They asked us everything about ourselves and loaded us up with a life supply of fruit and nuts.
That night we took the night train to Armenia’s capital, Yerevan. As soon as we boarded we realised that a group of French girls were booked into exactly the same seats as us. This did not seem to bother the train staff who, clearly taking bribes from most of the passengers, spent half the night reshuffling us. Finally, though, we got the four-person compartment, roughly the size of a kitchen table, to ourselves. Yerevan is an uninspiring city with a very Soviet feel. Most Armenians don’t actually like Armenia and this dissatisfaction is palpable and accounts for the enormous Armenian diaspora, approximately double the size of Armenia’s population. Most people there don’t make enough money to live on, so have to rely on the salaries of their relatives working abroad. The tourism, too, is minimal: the three of us made up 10% of the 30 British tourists who go to Armenia, annually.
Nevertheless, it is a beautiful country and the first one to adopt Christianity, which means it is home to oldest church in the world. We took a day trip to the monastery of Gerhard, named after the spear, which wounded Jesus during the Crucifixion and which was brought to this monastery by the Apostle Jude. Carved into the cliff it is essentially a cave-church, nestled in the mountains, which are both arid and verdant. It is decorated with minute ornamental carvings and writings in the inherently calligraphic Armenian script. Perhaps one of the most spiritual places I have ever been.
After Armenia, we had one final day in Georgia before we flew home. We used it to make a day trip out of Tbilisi to the monastery on which Lermontov’s poem was based – the culmination of our journey. On the way we stopped at Gory, Stalin’s birth town, where we saw his museum, his first home and his train wagon, all of which were nostalgically memorialised as though they were relics of a saint. Finally, we drove up to Jvari Monastery just as the sun was setting. Its style is simple and austere; it is understandable that a young man could feel isolated in such a setting. At one point in his poem Lermontov uses a vivid simile to compare the captive monk to a snake. As we walked up the hill, we caught sight of an enormous pale snake slithering through the grass about a meter away from us. Needless to say I legged it pretty swiftly up the hill after this rather appropriate end to our literary pilgrimage!