Michael Portillo travels from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. Michael discovers a surprise 19th-century tea plantation in the West Georgian countryside.
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My Bradshaw's Continental Railways Guide, dated 1913,
has brought me east, to the border lands where Europe meets Asia.
My journey will take me from the grasslands of the Steppe
to the shores of the Black Sea and run along the ridge
of the mighty Caucasus mountains
to a volcanic land of fire.
I'll explore countries which, at the time of my guidebook,
were under the rule of a tsar,
but which a century ago fell to a revolutionary empire,
the likes of which had never been seen.
I will encounter Cossacks and communists, monasteries and mosques,
tea and black gold.
On my journeys through these enchanting lands,
I'll try to understand the tensions and conflicts of today.
I've crossed the Black Sea to continue my journey
through the former Russian Empire.
I'm in Georgia,
famed for its natural beauty and the hospitality of its people.
Situated at the edge of Europe,
it's been regularly colonised by the great empires of the region.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, by Russia and the Soviet Union.
I'll be following the Transcaucasus Railway,
built by the time of my Bradshaw's Guide
to haul oil from the landlocked Caspian Sea at Baku
to the Black Sea at Batumi.
I'm making that journey in reverse, beginning at the port of Batumi,
to trace the oil to its source.
Heading east, I'll explore the ancient city of Kutaisi
and its medieval hillside monastery.
Reaching the capital, Tbilisi,
I'll uncover the story of Georgia's most famous son.
Then I'll cross into neighbouring Azerbaijan,
once also under Soviet control,
finishing my journey in the heart of the country's oil industry at Baku.
As I ride rails
along which only the most intrepid Bradshaw's tourist ventured,
I'll discover medieval monasteries and magnificent mountains...
Peeking through the clouds now,
5,047 metres up, we skim the top.
..and savour the very soul of Georgia...
You're drinking now my family's heart,
and my family's energy inside of the glass.
..before delighting in Azerbaijan's heritage...
..and seeking out the source of its wealth.
A view of the terminal from up here is absolutely extraordinary.
It is immense.
I've arrived on the dazzling Caucasian Riviera. Batumi beckons.
A sparkling modern train, not what I expected.
What other surprises will there be in Georgia?
On the ancient Silk Road connecting East and West,
Georgia has long been important as a trading route
and 19th-century Batumi was a vital hub.
Bradshaw says, "the chief Russian seaport,
"on the east side of the Black Sea, now strongly fortified,
"having been ceded to Russia in 1878,
"the town has increased rapidly since the railway opened.
"Huge quantities of naphtha are exported."
Naphtha, a product of oil,
that black gold that ignited the greed of the great powers
East and West, and Batumi was the gateway to Europe and beyond.
Trade flourished, and Batumi became a fashionable resort,
but 70 years of Soviet communism hit the city hard.
When Georgia won independence, new life was breathed into Batumi.
It's now a thriving commercial centre and holiday destination
with shiny new buildings and a smart seafront.
This ride to the top of the hill opened four years ago and has become
one of the city's top tourist attractions.
I'm meeting Batumi resident Nino.
The setting of Batumi is stunning -
on the Black Sea, surrounded by mountains and, even in June,
some of these are snow-capped.
-It has a really interesting geographical location.
As you see, we have a coastline.
The weather is summer and really hot weather but on the other hand,
there is a beautiful mountain with snow on top of it.
The strategic location is very obvious
and it's sort of at a crossroads
with Europe and Asia, so Batumi has actually suffered from being
absorbed over history into various empires.
Oh, yes, it was part of the Roman Empire, the Byzantium Empire,
the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire.
it was independent for only three years
before entering the Soviet Union
and being part of it until 1991.
I'm trying to imagine, what was it like in Soviet times?
There were no high-class hotels and business centres.
It was a quiet city with a calm lifestyle.
And now, what sort of tourists are you attracting?
It's a good advantage for the country and for the region
to have these hotels with casinos and conferences
but the main thing for attracting the tourists is
the nature, the landscapes.
In the verdant West Georgian countryside,
according to my 1913 Bradshaw's,
tea is cultivated.
I've come to a plantation 30 miles north-east of Batumi.
Gocha is in charge.
-Hello, I'm Michael.
-Hello, sir. Hello, Mike.
Very good to see you. Now,
what kind of leaves are you picking just at the moment?
Well, we just started harvesting the top quality of green leaves.
Very fresh, very tiny, very new.
-I'm quite surprised to find tea in Georgia.
I associate tea with India and China and this seems a bit far north.
-Is that not so?
-Yes, that's true.
Georgia is the only one country
where tea harvesting season takes place
end of April and finish end of September.
The rest of the year we have a strong winter
and sometimes we have snow
and low temperatures.
Because of that, it is really unique and it has a special flavour.
When did tea production begin in Georgia?
Well, the first seedlings were
introduced in the country in the 19th-century but in mass production,
it was started from 1920s.
At the beginning, the seedlings came from China
but then our scientists created local tea bushes,
Did this production flourish during the Soviet time?
Yes, but at the time of the Soviet Union, we had plan economy, right?
And the quality, of course,
it was not as good as we have at the present time.
Three miles from the plantation at the company's factory,
the tea leaves are processed, packed and tested.
-Time for tasting?
-Yes, now it's time for the tasting.
Normally we put in the cups 3g of the tea, not more.
Then we put hot water. This is the classic green tea.
We put water in the cup.
Now, in terms of flavour, we have to smell...
..and check it. You can feel the Georgian flavour.
It's a unique Georgian flavour.
it's a strong smell.
-It's going right to the back of my throat, actually.
Ah, yeah, that's great.
Did you get some honey flavour?
Now that you suggest it, yes, I get a honey flavour!
The way the cup should be tasted to get taste...
So, you have to make a sound like a sparrow?
Ah, that is a great green tea, with a luscious, full flavour.
I absolutely adore green tea.
And that is a lovely, lovely cup of tea.
As the day draws to a close,
I'm continuing my journey north-east on the evening express service.
Crossing the Rioni River, the largest in Western Georgia,
I'm on my way to historic Kutaisi, the country's second city.
I look forward to exploring tomorrow.
A lovely morning view of Kutaisi and Bradshaw's tells me
it's a convenient centre for several mountain excursions.
It seems the mountains are ever-present in Georgia.
It was, in the medieval period, the capital of a united Georgia,
and in the post-Soviet period,
Kutaisi has been promoted again to an important national role.
Kutaisi has become home to the parliament of Georgia,
which now meets in this wonderful crystal dome.
Parliaments don't need to be housed in old buildings,
they can inhabit architecture like an airport terminal, too.
It's made of glass to represent transparency
and the end of the Soviet era.
The place abounds in metaphors and symbols,
something for the Members of Parliament to reflect upon.
150 are elected every four years
and they meet here for spring and autumn sessions.
The debating chamber is adorned
with the St George's Cross of Georgia
and the colour of the national flag is picked up in the chairs.
I hope that the debate is equally red in tooth and claw.
Away from the big decisions of state,
the heart of this city of almost 180,000 people
is its vibrant central market, one of the largest in Georgia.
HE GREETS THEM IN THEIR OWN LANGUAGE
Everybody, it seems, has a smile.
In Batumi, with all its modernity, it felt like
someone had taken an eraser to recent history,
to the Soviet period, but here in Kutaisi,
the past has been allowed to age gracefully.
To delve further back in time, I've followed my guidebook
to one of this region's oldest and most sacred sites.
"About six miles north-east of Kutaisi, on a height,
"is the Gelati convent," says my Bradshaw's,
"with a church of the 11th century containing portraits of kings."
Its beauty is now somewhat scarred
by scaffolding poles, but amongst this tranquillity and birdsong,
there's no doubt that it has a special feel.
This site is recognised by Unesco as
one of the world's largest medieval Orthodox monasteries
and a monument to Georgian cultural heritage.
At its heart is the ancient Church of the Nativity of the Virgin.
THEY GREET EACH OTHER
WHISPERS: The display of frescoes is absolutely magnificent.
Every centimetre of the wall is covered,
but in poor condition, many of them.
Eka is in charge of the church's restoration.
Eka, this is the most wonderful display of frescoes.
Who is responsible for building this?
Gelati Monastery was built in the 11th century
by King David the Builder.
He was the most powerful king in Georgian history, the best king.
-Why do you say the best?
-Because he became king
just 16 years old. He united Georgia and in the 11th and 12th centuries,
it was the golden age in Georgia.
Built by your best king,
how important is this monastery to the Georgian people?
This monastery is showing to all Georgians how powerful
and how rich was the Georgia in the 11th century
so, for all Georgians, it's one of the most popular sites
as a spiritual centre, also as a historical centre.
And throughout history, Georgia has
Yes, we became to be Christians in the fourth century
and after this until today, we are Christian Orthodox.
80% or 90% of Georgian citizens they are Orthodox Christians.
Did the monastery maintain a connection with royalty?
Yes, of course. The Builder told that, after he,
every king must be buried here,
so here are buried 23 kings of Georgia.
Work is now under way to conserve the precious frescoes
and carefully to restore the exterior.
-Oh, it's quite high up here.
You certainly get a great view, don't you?
Surrounded by beautiful mountains.
Yes. The location is very special here
and the second reason of building the monastery here
was because it was very safe from attacks from enemies.
I can see the work you're doing here.
How far have you got with your work?
Actually, we're working here two years and we have already done
stone conservation works on the wall.
We are now on the lower part and in this year we will finish.
These beautiful tiles, these are the new ones
-that you're putting on now?
-Yes, the green tile is very special.
In Georgia, there were just three churches which had green tiles.
But you found craftsmen today who can make that tile for you?
Yes, it is made in Georgia.
They are special for Gelati Monastery.
I think in the next year we will finish the roofing also.
I get the impression this is, for you,
not just a construction project, it's an emotional thing as well?
It's true. For me, as for all the workers here,
we are doing everything because we are Georgians
and because it is very important for all of us.
I'm resuming my journey from Kutaisi's Rioni station,
just south of the city,
bound for the capital.
Bradshaw's describes the railway to Tbilisi in excited terms.
"As it starts to ascend, it affords good views across viaducts
"and through a tunnel about 4km long.
"It reaches 2,480 feet and descends through a landscape of bare rock."
This is the Transcaucasus Railway,
built to transport oil from Baku in Azerbaijan
to the Georgian port of Batumi.
It's one of the stunning rail routes of the world.
The scenery is getting grander every moment.
This ambitious line, built between 1865 and 1883,
was partly financed by European bankers, the Rothschild family.
Aha! Thank you.
The daring route took heavy oil tank wagons
over the Caucasus Mountains at the Surami Pass.
Because they struggled with the steep gradients,
a new tunnel was blasted through the rock, opening in 1890.
But 15 years later, these sites of engineering prowess
became a battle ground as unrest swept imperial Russia.
During the insurrections of 1905,
it was possible to cut Georgia in half
simply by blocking the tunnel -
as Marxist revolutionaries did
in order to prevent the Tsar's troops
from penetrating West Georgia.
The Tsar survived the revolution of 1905
and at the time of my 1913 Bradshaw's,
the Georgian capital remained an important outpost of his empire.
My Bradshaw's says, "situated in a narrow alley.
"Warm in summer but pleasant in winter.
"Population, very mixed.
"Georgians, Russians and Armenians."
The multiplicity of churches with their crucifixes
confirm how strong here is the Orthodox faith
but this has also long been a crossroads of trades
and cultures, so I'm expecting to find the city as cosmopolitan
as it is Christian.
Today, Tbilisi, home to almost 1.5 million people,
has all the ingredients of a 21st-century city...
..eye-catching buildings, designer shops and a laid-back cafe culture.
Bradshaw's comments that there is a striking contrast
between the old native quarters of narrow lanes and alleys,
and the modern quarter, with its broad boulevards and squares.
There is still a big difference
between the old and the new city today
but everywhere you feel the warmth of the welcome.
In 1918, Tbilisi became the capital of an independent Georgia,
following the Russian Revolution of the previous year.
But in 1921, the Red Army invaded.
The Soviet Communist era began and a Georgian would soon rise to the top
of the party machine.
Legends surround the young life of the most famous Georgian of all,
Joseph Stalin, who ruled the Soviet Union
with an iron fist for 30 years.
It's said that here in Tbilisi,
he organised the hold-up of the state bank of the Russian Empire
to raise funds for the Marxist revolution.
He is believed to have directed operations from the railway station
from which he was able to steal away like a thief in the night.
Stalin was born in 1879 in the town of Gori, north-west of the capital.
To find out more about his youth in Tbilisi,
I'm visiting the site of a once secret printing press
hidden deep in an underground tunnel.
Stalin, it's claimed,
was amongst those who printed revolutionary propaganda here
in the early 20th century.
It's now a privately maintained museum commemorating his life.
-Hello, my friend. How are you?
Very good to see you.
What an extraordinary place!
Dr Lasha Bakradze from Tbilisi University
has met me here to cast some light on Stalin's shadowy young days.
Who was Joseph Stalin?
His name was Ioseb Jughashvili.
His mother was a wash woman and father was a shoemaker
but the relationship between mother and father was not so good
and father left the family very early.
What did the young Stalin intend to be?
Father wanted the son to be a shoemaker like him
but the mother was hoping it will be priest.
-It started in Gori, in
the seminary and afterwards, Orthodox seminary in Tbilisi.
And in this seminary was
many, many young boys like Stalin.
They were fighting against Russian Empire.
It was like central education place for revolutionaries.
So Stalin, as we now know him,
picked up his first revolutionary ideas in a seminary?
Yeah, sure. He was thrown out from this seminary because he took part
in some demonstrations and was reading forbidden literature
from Marx, Engels, and so he became a revolutionary.
With big political ambitions, in 1912,
he dropped his obviously Georgian surname
for the Russian-sounding Stalin,
or "man of steel".
You know, in reality, we have mythology about Stalin
and it is the reality is not so easy to find.
For example, from the beginning, he was a chief and leader and so on.
It was not true. Many, many alternative facts about Stalin,
official biographies in the Soviet, especially from the young period.
We are here sitting in a place which is dedicated to Stalin but we are
even not sure if Stalin was one time here!
How do you think Georgians feel today about Stalin?
If you are outside of Georgia, you say you are Georgian,
and if somebody knows something about Georgia, it is Stalin.
To be from a country from a mass murderer is not so good.
Georgia has now been an independent nation
for more than a quarter of a century,
during which time its capital has been transformed.
Tbilisi has warmly embraced architecture
that is bold and modern.
The city has clearly turned a page in its history.
Alongside sleek new structures,
19th-century buildings have been painstakingly restored.
-Very nice to meet you.
Very nice to see you indeed.
I've come to the National Library of Georgia.
This is a glorious lobby, isn't it?
Look at all these wonderful bright colours and the gold
and the marble staircase. It's gorgeous.
Author Peter Nasmyth is introducing me to a literary brother and sister
who touched the hearts of Georgians at the start of the 20th century.
So, who where the Wardrops, Oliver and Marjory?
Oliver and Marjory Wardrop were what I describe as two literary diplomats
in that they had a very rich cultural basis to their relationship
-with another country.
-What had first excited their interest in Georgia?
Well, their joint interest was sparked by Oliver,
who first came to Georgia in 1887.
A Victorian minor aristocrat,
had seen everybody else do the European grand tour,
and decided that he would take it one stage further.
India had been done, Western Europe, Russia had been done,
but the Caucususes were undiscovered
so Oliver went, saw and wrote a book,
and he called it The Kingdom Of Georgia,
-The Land Of Women, Wine And Song.
Sir Oliver Wardrop began to visit Georgia regularly
on behalf of the British Foreign Office.
His sister, Marjory,
accompanied him and together they shared
a lifelong love of the country.
So, how do they develop this passion?
Well, they decided first of all to learn the language.
Then they started translating Georgian literature
which had never been translated before
and then they started publishing it.
I've seen Georgian writing while I have been here
on street signs and so on. I've never seen an alphabet like it.
Is the Georgian language related to anything else?
It has its own language group.
The Georgian word for father is mamma
and the Georgian wood for mother is dada.
It's a very complex language.
It is a very elegant language, too, a very poetic language.
The Wardrops spotted that.
Oliver started translating more of the tales
but Marjory decided to do the poetry and that is where
she really outshone her brother in many ways.
Marjory made her name as a Georgian language scholar
with her translation of one of the nation's most famous poems,
The Man In The Panther's Skin.
Written by Shota Rustaveli,
Georgia's Shakespeare, in the 12th century,
this is a 1,500-verse epic poem
about courtly love, about friendship.
It's a wonderful artefact, this, isn't it?
This is her original, as it were exercise book,
in which she first attempts the translation?
-And here are all the crossings out.
Unfortunately, she died before this was able to be published
so her brother, Oliver, finished it off
and published it himself in 1912.
Are the Wardrops remembered in Georgia today?
Very much so. They've built a statue to the Wardrops here.
There's streets named after them and in this particular library,
there's a room named after them.
Georgia is such a small country.
It's so cut off from the world that
anybody who takes the trouble to translate the literature
is much appreciated.
Evening draws in but my day in Tbilisi is far from over.
The famous sort of feast in Georgia is called a supra,
and so that I can experience one, I have been invited to a wedding.
Do I know the bride and groom?
I do not, and it's all extraordinary,
but then they say that Georgian hospitality is unique.
Georgian bride Nanuka Zaalishvili has wed Englishman Nathan Moss.
MEN SING IN CLOSE HARMONY
Just outside the city,
the celebration is in full swing with a traditional toast master,
or tamada, and Georgian folk singers.
Nanuka, excuse me.
May I wish you great happiness?
Nathan, great happiness to you as well.
My name is Michael, and just a few flowers.
Thank you so much for your invitation.
-It's our pleasure.
-Please enjoy the meal, culture, music.
Hello, you're the tamada.
Welcome. Yes, I am.
Thank you so much. What a pleasure to see you.
-What a privilege to meet you all, gentlemen.
Thank you so much for your singing.
Isn't it a wonderful setting for a wedding?
What we see here is very much a traditional wedding, is it?
This is traditional wedding.
The only thing which is a little bit untraditional is the bride is
Georgian and the groom is British.
The groom looks the part, though, doesn't he?
Is that national dress he's wearing?
Yeah, so he moved two years ago to this country
and he knows already a lot about Georgian traditions.
Well, it is so lovely to meet you all.
To new friendships!
This morning, following the recommendation of my guidebook,
I'm escaping Tbilisi's busy streets
for the tranquillity of Georgia's Caucasus mountains.
I'm getting a lift from mountaineer Nick Erkomaishvil.
Fantastic terrain, Nick.
You know these mountains pretty well?
Quite well I would say, yeah.
My parents were mountaineers themselves,
so I grew up in the mountains.
We Europeans are used to the Alps.
What's the comparison between the Alps and the Caucasus?
Caucasus is much higher than the Alps.
We have five peaks over 5,000 metres.
The mountains are not as developed.
I would say, like, Alps,
maybe 200 years ago, it is so wild you may walk for days,
for weeks and no seeing anybody.
It is proper wild nature.
I love any mountains, of course, but the Caucasus is like a paradise.
We are travelling along the 120-mile Georgian military road,
which stretches from Tbilisi into southern Russia.
An ancient bridle track,
it was first engineered in the early 19th century
by the colonising Russian army as it pushed further into Georgia.
-You see the watchtower over there?
So there were lots of watchtowers all along this gorge.
These are the signal towers,
so they were used as a communication system when
the enemy was coming.
Mainly from the north.
Still today, Georgia coexists uneasily
with its northern neighbour.
The military road skirts the eastern edge
of the disputed Georgian territory of South Ossetia -
occupied since 2008 by Russian forces.
The official international border is marked by
the peaks of the mountains,
including the mighty Mount Kazbek,
highest and most beautiful in the Caucasus' range.
The first recorded accent was by a British mountaineer,
Douglas Freshfield, in 1868.
You know the mountain - Kazbek, how difficult is it?
It's over 5,000 metres, so it's quite tough.
You need to wear crampons, you need an ice axe, you need two belays.
Especially at those times,
they were like real heroes to climb with all this heavy gear.
Did Freshfields' ascent make the Caucasus popular with European?
Yes, there were some other peaks climbed by Freshfield and his team,
and he even wrote a very interesting guidebook -
The Exploration of the Caucasus.
I can't leave the Caucasus without attempting a glimpse
of this towering peak.
I've forced myself to remember that these mountains,
which we so effortlessly glide above,
were once the most enormous challenge for mountaineers.
And, by the way, the resting place for thousands of invading soldiers
over the centuries.
Tell me about the top of the mountain, Nick.
It's covered by the ice and snow year round,
and it's one of the beautiful mountains in this valley
and in the whole Caucasus.
How does it feel to be on that glacier?
When it is good weather, it's amazing to be there.
Sometimes it's scary, when it is stormy, but in general,
you can feel the spirit of freedom up in the mountains.
Peeking through the clouds now, 5,047 metres up,
we skim the top.
The awesome Caucasus Mountains have witnessed imperviously the rise,
and fall of empires from the Ottomans to the Soviets.
Indeed, in Georgia's mountains, and medieval monasteries,
its traditional singing and epic verse,
I've found a remarkable continuity
that belies the country's turbulent past.
And before I leave it, I must sample one more ancient national tradition.
Georgians had discovered winemaking long before they found Christ.
When they adopted Christianity in the fourth century,
they planted vines in the form of a cross to demonstrate their fervour.
It seems that the grape and faith are the fundamentals
of the Georgian identity.
With Oliver Wardrop's writings on women, wine and song in mind,
I've come to Kakheti to find out more about
Georgian viticulture culture.
-Hi, I'm Michael.
Thank you very much. Great to see you.
-Nice to meet you.
-And what a lovely place this is.
I understand that wine is really deep in the Georgian culture.
-Is that right?
-Yeah, it's true.
You can find the wine everywhere,
in our books, in our paintings.
Part of the religion and everything.
It's very important, yeah.
How long has your family been making wine?
I know that my great-grandfather
was one of the big winemakers in West Georgia.
He was producing and selling the wine.
Then the communists came and everything is destroyed.
Then the life changed, we moved to the capital and five, six years ago,
I tried to rebuild all of this.
..is passionate about preserving the ancient Georgian method
using the earthenware amphora sunk into the ground.
So under here are the amphorae, is that right?
This is the Georgian amphorae, we call it qvevri.
We put under the ground, because it gives you the possibility
to have a constant temperature in the winemaking process.
This is a natural wine and we don't do anything.
We don't add anything.
Where does your wine go to?
Is it drunk by Georgians or does some of it go abroad?
Everywhere, nine countries.
Australia, Japan, Europe, United States, everywhere.
One of the most popular varieties is the traditional Georgian amber wine,
made using the grape skins and stems to create a deep colour.
I love the wine racks. They're absolutely beautiful.
-What are we going to try?
-We will try now 2015 vintage.
Why have you picked up two?
One will be not enough for us.
One for you, one for me.
Always when you're tasting the wine,
there must be fresh cheese and Georgian bread on the table.
I mean, this is an immense surprise to me.
It really is amber.
And a little cheese, you think?
Hmm. Wow. It's quite different from anything I've ever drunk before,
-It has a dryness, a little bit of sour afterwards.
And in your history, what role has wine played?
In history, it was very important.
When the Muslims were coming for the war to the European countries,
the vineyard was very important for the Georgian man.
Georgian religion, Christianity, gives us the possibility to have
this product in our family and in our culture,
but Muslims, no.
And when the Muslims were destroyed, then the vineyards first,
then the Georgian mentality and the mentality was to first restore,
to rebuild the vineyard.
So you really think there's a link between wine, national sentiment,
national revival and national religion?
Yeah, of course. Of course.
You're drinking now my family's heart and my family's energy
-inside the glass.
-What a lovely thing to say.
My time in Georgia is drawing to a close and a new adventure begins.
Back in the capital,
I'm boarding the overnight service to neighbouring Azerbaijan.
Ah, very comfortable.
Now, if there's one thing more exciting than a sleeper train,
it's an international sleeper train.
This will come in handy.
Goodbye, hospitable Georgia,
I think I'm going to miss you.
-Cox sag ol.
Cox sag ol - Azeri for "thank you."
From Tbilisi, I will travel 360 miles across the border
into the Republic of Azerbaijan in eastern Transcaucasia.
My final destination is the capital, Baku,
centre of the country's oil industry on the shores of the Caspian Sea.
Well, it took more than two hours
to clear both sides of the Georgia/Azerbaijan border
and, sadly, the border guards,
with their epaulettes and broad-rimmed military style hats,
were rather camera shy, but they did leave me a souvenir -
exit and entry stamps.
And both are marked with choo-choos.
What a difference a night makes.
I'm about 600km from Tbilisi now,
and gone are the green slopes and the snowy peaks
and now there's a scrubby desert,
and lunar mountains and a pipeline running parallel with the track
in this oil corridor. At the time of my Bradshaw's Guide,
half the world's oil came from the Caucasus.
Most of it from Baku, which already had 1,900 oil wells
producing 12 million tonnes.
This was the supplier to the world of a substance
to which the world was becoming addicted.
My compartment has radio music.
Let's see what's playing in Azerbaijan this morning.
Confirmation that we've moved well to the East.
This is known as the land of fire.
It's blessed with oil and natural gas, which seep from the ground,
igniting hillsides, which inspired worshippers to build fire temples.
Around 14 hours after leaving Tbilisi, I've arrived in Baku.
After so many miles of dry scrub, the last thing I expected was rain.
Polished marble abounds, like an air terminal.
Azerbaijan declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Baku is home to two million people,
and my first impressions are of modernity and money.
These sweeping swirls of whipped cream represent the finest work
of the late Iraqi-born British architect, Zaha Hadid.
The clearing of the homes that used to stand here
mired the project in human rights controversy,
but the finished building sends an unmistakable message -
Baku is wealthy, international and innovative.
The past has been carefully preserved, too.
The old walled quarter dates back around 1,000 years,
and great efforts have been made
to restore important historic buildings.
My Bradshaw's mentions the mosques of Baku
and the majority of the population is Shiite Muslim,
although the state is assertively secular.
This, the Bibi-Heybat Mosque, was the most outstanding -
dating from the 13th century, but blown up by the Soviets.
Explosion after explosion bringing down the minarets.
And rebuilt in the 1990s.
The three domes of the old mosque have been restored,
each featuring inscriptions from the Koran.
It's once more the spiritual centre for Muslims of the region
and one of the most important examples
of Islamic architecture in Azerbaijan.
Well, I have never seen anything like this,
and that beauty is created by the intensity
and uniformity of this colour,
this green turquoise made of reflective tiles.
And here, the tomb of a descendant of the Prophet,
which they were able to rescue before the Soviets did their work.
If the Russians thought they could repress religion...
..this building tells them they were wrong.
Like Georgia, at the time of my Bradshaw's,
the territory now known as Azerbaijan
was part of the Russian Empire.
In preceding centuries, Persians, Ottomans,
and Mongols vied for control.
Since independence, the Republic of Azerbaijan has fought hard
to establish a distinct national identity -
including laying claim to a thrilling traditional sport
first played by nomadic tribes hundreds of years ago.
THEY SHOUT IN OWN LANGUAGE
-Salam eleykum! ALL:
What a beautiful sight! What wonderful horses.
-Hello, welcome to Azerbaijan.
So I've brought some national costumes for you today,
because we are going to watch some chovgan games today.
Very good, thank you.
This ancient sport, a forerunner of polo, is played on Karabakh horses.
First bred on the mountain steppe of the Southern Caucasus,
these magnificent beasts are now a national symbol of Azerbaijan.
Equestrian expert Bahruz Nabiyev has invited me to judge today's game.
If there is a goal, you wave it here and if it's not a goal,
then you wave it underneath.
Here comes the ball, here comes the ball.
Oh! THEY CHEER
I see now how modern Baku is, I see how modern Azerbaijan has changed,
is the sport surviving from generation to generation?
THEY CHEER AND APPLAUD
That's the goal, that's the goal.
A lot of people coming to watch these championships,
and we can feel that people still have this love for horses.
In 2013, UNESCO also approved the chovgan game
as the national horseback game of Azerbaijan.
Need to keep my wits about me now.
Close to the posts now.
THEY CHEER Whoa!
Game over, the riders put on a show of spectacular horsemanship.
Here she comes.
Absolutely thrilling. Their athleticism!
They are superb.
A human pyramid on horseback, an enormous Azerbaijan flag,
of course they're proud.
Today, Azerbaijan's national self-confidence owes a lot
to the oil industry, which accounts for nearly 90% of all exports.
This astonishing story was already unfolding
at the time of my Bradshaw's Guide.
"Baku," says Bradshaw's, "is an important commercial town
"on the west side of the Caspian Sea, having a great trade in naptha.
"It's forced through a pipe nearly 500 miles long
"to Batumi on the Black Sea.
"All round Baku, the odour of naphtha is noticeable."
Since independence, the Azerbaijani government
has struck deals with international oil companies
to exploit deposits of oil and gas discovered offshore.
Just south of the city is BP's vast Sangachal Terminal.
1.2 million barrels of oil and vast amounts of gas
are processed here each day, flowing into the plant
through pipelines laid beneath the Caspian Sea.
The view of the terminal from up here is absolutely extraordinary.
It is immense.
There is a cat's cradle of pipelines and then the plant,
there are gas flares and of course these storage tanks.
This one can hold 100,000 tonnes of crude.
I'm surveying the story of Azerbaijani oil
with BP's Orkhan Guliyev.
Orkhan, from here we have the most amazing vista.
For a start, the setting is beautiful with these mountains,
but then the terminal is absolutely vast.
How does this compare with others?
This is the biggest terminal in the world.
The whole purpose of the terminal is to stabilise crude and stabilise gas
before it's ready to export to the European market.
How did the modern, large-scale oil industry get going in Baku?
Initially, it was just man-dug wells,
and people had been collecting slowly.
The first really properly drilled well goes back to 1846.
That was one of the first wells drilled into 21 metres depth.
From that time onwards,
we've got some Western entrepreneurs coming to Baku.
The first were the Nobels, the family behind the prestigious award.
Robert Nobel, the eldest of three brothers,
was born in Stockholm in 1829
and moved with his family to St Petersburg.
He was working with his brother, Ludwig,
at his gun making factory when he visited Baku in 1873.
They came here in pursuit of fine walnut timber, for rifles, actually.
Got in the middle of the oil refinery here,
they found a fantastic opportunity for investment,
so he bought the kerosene plant,
and then Robert convinced his brother, Ludwig,
to come and join him.
The brothers set up the Branobel Company,
which soon dominated Baku's oil industry.
They pioneered oil engineering practises and drilling extraction,
transportation and storage of oil.
The first rail link was built between Baku and Batumi in 1883,
moving oil to the Black Sea,
and then it was shipped to the Western markets.
But that wasn't good enough, so the smart people at that time
decided to build a new pipeline at the very end of the 19th century.
It was about 900km long.
At that time, it was really an engineering genius.
The pioneering Branobel Pipeline remained in use
until the Second World War, when it was dismantled.
But, in 2006, a new pipeline opened,
which now carries Baku oil all the way to Turkey.
Hello, I'm Michael.
-Good to see you.
-Nice to meet you.
So take me through that map.
Yeah, OK, we're here in Baku.
Pump station one.
Sangachal Terminal. You can see Tbilisi and Ceyhan
is at this point.
From Ceyhan, this is where the tankers
could come into southern Turkey and then take away the crude?
My journey started in Batumi, which would be about here, I think,
-just north of the Turkish border.
This is extraordinary. What length of pipeline is that?
The full length of pipeline is 1,800 kilometres.
It goes up and down to 3,000 metres above sea.
So it goes into mountains, it crosses hundreds of rivers.
This would make the Nobels gasp, wouldn't it?
Absolutely. That would make them proud,
and also envy what has been achieved.
This is a new page in Azerbaijan's history.
At the time of my Bradshaw's,
Georgia and Azerbaijan were already linked by a railway
and, subsequently, were lashed together
within the Soviet Union.
Its collapse gave both countries independence
and a series of political challenges.
Today, though still wary of Russia,
their hopes point in other directions.
Strongly Christian Georgia looks towards the European Union,
whilst Muslim but secular Azerbaijan aspires to bridge East and West,
and Baku resembles a Dubai on the Caspian Sea.
I wish them both well and thank them for their hospitality.
Steered by his 1913 Continental Railway Guide, Michael Portillo travels one of the most stunning rail routes of the world, through the former Russian empire from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea, taking in present-day Georgia and Azerbaijan. Following the historic Trans-Caucasus Railway, Michael begins in the port of Batumi on the dazzling Caucasian Riviera. He savours the soul of Georgia in its wine and discovers a surprise 19th-century tea plantation in the West Georgian countryside. The seat of power beckons in Kutaisi, home to the wonderful glass dome built for the Parliament of Georgia when it moved here from the capital, Tbilisi, in 2012. At the medieval convent of Gelati Michael sees how magnificent frescoes are being painstakingly restored and finds out about the most powerful king in Georgian history.
The daring rail line, built in the late 19th century to haul oil across the Caucasus from Baku to Batumi, reveals grand views from viaducts and passes through a 4km-long tunnel blasted through mountain rock. Arriving in Tbilisi, Michael is struck by the warm welcome of Georgians and is invited to a wedding, where he experiences the legendary feast known as a supra. At a private museum dedicated to the life of the most infamous Georgian, Joseph Stalin, Michael asks how Georgians today feel about the former dictator of the Soviet Union.
From Tbilisi Michael takes a trip along the 120-mile Georgian Military Road, built by the colonising Russian army in the early nineteenth century. Skirting disputed Georgian territory occupied by Russians today, Michael discovers that a Briton was the first to conquer the highest mountain in the Caucasus range. To capture his own view of the mighty Mount Kazbek Michael boards a helicopter to soar above the 5,000 metre peak first climbed in 1868.