I head to Asia the day after tomorrow for the first time in nine years, ending five months of living in and traveling around nine countries in Eastern Europe. Here are my thoughts on the highlights of what I’ve seen.
I absolutely loved Georgia and Armenia. Both of these countries are stunningly beautiful, endlessly fascinating, and palpably ancient. They’ve got great food and wonderful people. I spent two months in Georgia and could easily go back for more. I’m no stranger to mountains, but the Caucasus are the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever seen. The interior of Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, a cathedral just north of Tbilisi and the seat of the Georgian Orthodox Church, is the most hauntingly beautiful of an orthodox church of any kind that I’ve seen (and I’ve seen hundreds of them at this point). I felt like I was stepping back in when I visited the incredible, middle-of-nowhere cave monasteries of Davit Gareja, and it’s hard to think of many cities more beautiful than Tbilisi.
As far as Armenia goes, the whole country is less modern and less European even than Georgia. Being in Armenia feels like being at the edge of the world, and it’s such a cool feeling, one that I haven’t felt anywhere else. Yerevan is #1 on the list of places I’d like to return to out of everywhere I’ve been these last five months. I was there for a week and really fell for the city, though I can’t quite put my finger on why. There are more beautiful cities. There are more interesting cities. There are more historic cities. But Yerevan beguiled me. I only scratched the surface of things to see and do in Armenia, and I’m already trying to figure out how to get back.
Going back to Ukraine for the first time since 2007 was strange but great. I’d forgotten just how beautiful Kiev’s many churches are. Visiting Chernobyl was possibly the coolest touristy thing I’ve ever done, and the castle-fortresses of Kamyanets Podilsky and Khotyn were amazing. Ukrainian cuisine might be my favorite in the world (it’s a close race with Indian). The only bad thing about visiting Ukraine was realizing just how bad my Ukrainian has gotten.
Moldova was interesting because I really hadn’t heard much about it at all except that it was really poor, but I liked the capital city, Kishinev, a lot. It’s a very pleasant city and I had some surprisingly tasty pizza and cheesecake there. Tiraspol was a bizarre homage to Soviet days. The Moldovan countryside was a beautiful patchwork of rolling green hills and vineyards. I saw just one other tourist in the whole country, and I’ve never met anyone as shocked and excited to meet an American as the lady in the currency exchange booth at the Kishinev bus station.
Romania is my least favorite country in Eastern Europe (though I still enjoyed it and had a good time), and I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe it was just a shock to be somewhere that wasn’t Russian-speaking or Slavic. Or maybe it’s because Romania felt more Western European, and Western Europe doesn’t interest me very much. Brasov was beautiful, but there were a lot of tourists. Bucharest was probably the ugliest capital city I’ve been to, but I liked its chaos. The food I had in Romania was just fantastic; I especially liked the goulash, schnitzel, and stuffed peppers.
I rested in Bulgaria after a whirlwind couple weeks of traveling. I spent almost all of my time there in Sofia and really enjoyed it. It was a very easy, comfortable, and pretty city to be in, and I met some great people there. I have fond memories of gorging myself on several kilos of fresh blackberries every week. It was also nice to get a taste of the mountains again by hiking up the tallest mountain in the country, Musala.
Turkey was fantastic. It only took a few hours in Istanbul for it to become my favorite city in the world. The Blue Mosque is something I’ve wanted to see for years and years and it is the single most beautiful building I’ve ever seen. Cappadocia was unlike anywhere else I’ve been, and Kas was a great place to unwind. Visiting the town near Sivas in central Turkey that my Armenian ancestors immigrated to America from was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Bosnia was a surprise. I had heard a lot of good things about Sarajevo before going there and expected to like the city, but I still wasn’t prepared for just how much I’d like it. Outside of Turkey, Georgia, and Armenia, it’s my favorite city in Eastern Europe. I was shocked by how many reminders there still are all over the city of the war and siege.
Half of the bus ride from Sarajevo to Belgrade was on a slow and winding road through the beautiful mountains of Bosnia, but the landscape changed to flatlands the instant we crossed over into Serbia. I was also surprised by how much I liked Belgrade. It’s much larger and more cosmopolitan than Sarajevo, but it doesn’t feel quite as old or charming. It’s a very livable place, though, and I met a shocking number of people who speak very good English. It might be the least foreign-feeling city I’ve been to in Eastern Europe (if you ignore the handful of bombed out buildings). It’s a place I could live in for a relatively extended period of time and not go crazy.
I really do love this part of the world, and I feel at home here. There’s still so much here that I want to see and do, both in the countries I’ve visited and in the ones I haven’t. I would happily go back to any of these countries (and I’m definitely going back to some), but for now it’s time to move on. I’m looking forward to new adventures in completely foreign places. Next stop: Nepal.