A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Nomadics

End of the Caucasus

Not the end of the adventure

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Yerevan is a very Soviet city, with large buildings in shades beige and grey dominating the streets, which are all surprisingly well kept (around the centre at least), sharp corners and paint still on. The central planning of it shows too, theres a ring road around the centre, with long boulevards going through, dotted with sociaL realist statues. Despite the illusion of a giant soviet city, it is actually very small, this centre ring is only about a kilometer and a half in diameter. There don't seem to be any old buildings there either, and apparently Russian officers visiting Yerevan in the 19th century called the city a "collection of mud huts", Armenians don't seem to build anything out of stone apart from monasteries and the odd caravanserai, and Yerevan's were all demolished to make way for what the Soviet architect decided. It's skyline seems to be changing drastically though, with new deveopment making the city seem like a forest of cranes.

As with Tbilisi, Yerevan has a large statue overlooking it on a hill north of the city, Mother Armenia, defensively holding a sword across her body. It seems Caucasian peoples love mother figures, sort of how Turkic peoples love father figures (Ataturk = Father of Turks, Turkmenbashi = Father of Turkmen). Tbilisi had a Mother Georgia statue, holding a cup of wine for guests and a sword for enemies. The Russians are in on the game too, with the largest of them all at 85m, near Volgograd, holding a massive sword aloft, arm outstretched and shouting. The Azeris, caught in the middle of the mother-father complex, have abstained, perhaps as a mother-father combination statue would be too weird.

Most of Armenia's most famous and most visited sights (unsurprisingly churches and monasteries) are scattered around Yerevan, and although we hadn't planned on seeing all of them, our laundry wouldn't be ready till monday so we had an extra day to kill. First on the list was Echmiadzin, Armenia's Vatican, where the head of the oldest chrisian sect resides. Most of the complex is inaccessable to non-Armenian clegy, but the main church is very nice, and by far the most colourful Armenian church we've seen so far, with frescoes decorating the walls, and packed with a large candle lighting brigade. Walking around the small town, we didn't find much else of interest, but met a man who sung us a song, and a woman who wanted who know where the concert was (which one I have no idea) and how much are shoes cost. She did give us a chocolate bar, so I guess shes the good kind of crazy.
Next day (still waiting for laundry, but it had to bedone, seriously) we saw Garni and Geghard, having teamed up with a Mecedonian-Canadian firefighter from our flat-hostel. The first a hellenic temple which is mostly rebuilt, overlooking a nice valley (not much else to add), the latter a church with many acoustically awesome chambers carved into the cliff by which it resides, definitely a 9 out of 10.

We spent a lot of time in Yerevan just walking around, sitting in the many, many cafes that litter the streets and eating shwarmas and trying out wierd Armenian soft drinks (like bright green Feti Cola, Estragon flavour, yum). The cafes and trees lining the streets do give it a slight European feel, but counterbalancing that there were also dogfights in the main central park (by the opera), which were quite entertaining.

As soon as we got our laundry back (I can't stress enough how much it was necessary), we decided to break north and see how far we close we could get to the Georgian border, so that we could cross to Turkey as soon as possible.
Getting the last marshrutka out of town at 8 (no one travels at night because the roads are so bad and there are no lights on the "motorways") and our first marshrutka after sunset, we set out north to the town of Gyumri.
This turned out to be the most epic ride of my life, as we rode on a rickety minibus into the mountains skirting a giant electrical storm. The lightning lit up the arid ground around us every few seconds for what seemed like an eternity (2 hours) and occasionally a huge flash would draw itself starky in the sky. As we kept driving along the storm kept moving toward us, creeping closer from the left side, then it was chasing us from behind, then surrounded us but somehow we managed to bouce along the pothole ridden road just quickly enough to avoid it. I wish I was a better writer to capture the moment, but sufice to say I saw more lighting that night that I have ever in my life before. Also, we had a wicked soundtrack :).

We got to Gyumri slightly dumbfounded and were dumped somewhere near the centre. As none of the locals seemed to know any the geography of the town at all (we asked a few), and the rain had finally caught up with us, we took a cab to a cheap homestay somewhere in town. Not planning to stay long, or see the city at all (it was mostly levelled in an earthquake 20 years ago), we got up early and got to the bus station to get on something going to Georgia. As usual we had to wait for a couple of hours, so we got a shotfull of sunflower seeds and practiced our seed eating skills, which are far below that of the average Armenian (that is super-expert, we even saw some who would pop the seed into their mouths and spit out the shells). It passed the time. Eventually we got to another border crossing of shacks, guys with AKs, cows, and stressed out people, although we got through without any problems.

Going back into Georgia the scenery got a lot more green and lush (and the roads a lot worse), and we got dumped off near some Georgian farmers armed to the teeth with knives, scythes and pitchforks (probably planning to kill the local vampire lord), on on a turn-off to the cave-city of Vardzia, the last sight we planned to see in Georgia before heading into Muslim lands. A hitch got us halfway there, as well as lots of apples, and another hitch put us into the open arms of a Georgian tour group from Tbilisi, who drove us to more sights than we knew where there as well as filling us with khachipuri. The cave city was awesome, with hundreds of caves carved into the rock, and long pitch black tunnels between some of them. All of the caves were empty apart form one working church, but it was very fun to climb around. There were also more impressive caves nearby, as well as a nunnery set amidst nice vegetation and ruins all along the canyon, including a castle set on a cliff, controlling the valley beneath.

The tour group eventually dropped us off outside a hotel (probably slightly over estimating our budget) on the outskirts of the unpronouncable town of Akhaltsikhe, but it was late so having no choice we eventually haggled it down to something fairly manageable. Hey, after the next day, all our Georgian money would be completely useless, and we got a nice shower, BBC news and a massive breakfast. Also we met some Mongol Rallyers, who were new to the region and had made the mistake of driving at night, battering their car. Giving them a few tips, we left them making repairs and went to get the bus from the bus station mostly filled with giant watermelons to the border of Turkey.

Posted by Nomadics 10:10 Archived in Armenia Tagged backpacking

Hitching Armenia

Closing the loop

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The sights of southern Armenia are nice, amidst the mountains carpeted in the whites, blues, yellows and purples of small mountain flowers in bloom. Our first day in Sisian we wandered around the sights scattered in the hills above the town, the first of which was Zorats Karer, or Karahundj (stone hundj, or henge), a mysterious collection of large rocks punctured with small holes that is thought to be some kind of ancient observatory.
It is dated to 7000 BC, making it the oldest rock observatory (if you can call a bunch of rocks an observatory), but according to the man in the small shack selling souvenirs, who invited us in for coffee (we were the only people there when we arrived), the dating was done using "procession", so measuring how far off it is from actually seeing stars through the holes. Since the stars move their position centimeters in millions of years, I would assume this method has a margin of error of somewhere in the thousands of years, so it's safe to say we have no idea when, who or why these rocks are placed here. Also it's making the assumption that they haven't been moved within that time, which is rather ludicrous since messing stuff up has been a human pastime since day 1, and this area has been inhabited by us humans almost since then. It all sounded like the Armenian claim of "this is the oldest, best and most incredible thing EVER!", and the naming it to karahundj (a recent thing) seems like a attempt to gain legitimacy by linking it to Stonehenge. Anyway, despite the rant, it was actually a very interesting place, with large rocks arranged in a east-west line with a circle in the middle, with most of the rocks having small holes through them. It definitely throws up questions of why these strange rocks are here, and what it must have meant to early peoples.

Then we had some cross country mountain walking to a large waterfall nearby, which was actually "shut off" because the nearby hydroelectric station was using up the water, so there was only a small trickle down the falls themselves. There was still an opportunity to have a swim in the cold mountain waters in the pool above with some local boys, and some rock climbing to the top of a mountain nearby.

The next day we decided to be adventurous and have a day trip to Tatev, a famous monastery in the region that was recommended to us by a trucker we had hitched with earlier: "If you haven't seen Tatev, you haven't seen Armenia". This was rather daring as there was one bus going there from the town of Goris (further down the motorway from us) and none going back until the next day, and since it wasn't on the main road or anything of the sort, hitching would be hard.
We had this "hitching would be hard" revelation after a few hours of standing along the dirt track that leads to Tatev, being told a few times that we'd have no chance of getting there by passing drivers (some of whom said they'd drive us there for big money, ie. filthy taxi drivers, so we ignored them). Eventually a passing kid confirmed our suspicions and invited us into his house, where we were somehow ushered into a farewell feast for a newly married couple, who were leaving that same day on their honeymoon. Some chess games and shots of homemade mulberry vodka later, they put us on the only (packed) bus going there along the dirt path into the mountains. The jackhammer ride didn't help the daytime hangover, but we made it eventually. After we arrived, some kids laughed at our wishes to get back on the same day, pointing to some local homestays nearby. Deciding to ignore that issue for the time being, we went to check out the monastery that Tatev is famous for.

The monastery was surrounded by a large wall, perched on a cliff overlooking a deep canyon, definitely an epic sight. The building itself was fairly usual (I'm getting quite sick of these monasteries), beige stone, drum and conical dome, carvings of crosses everywhere, orange wax all over the walls from years of candles. After this was done, we had the pressing issue of somehow getting back, which also meant that we couldn't see the other sight of the area, Satan's bridge, as hiking 5km through mountains and back then trying to hitch a ride wasn't really an option since it was getting late.
But one again, luck was on our side, and we managed to befriend some Armenian playboys (the big dog was LSE and MGU educated, with his trophy girl and 2 lackeys) out on holiday and got a ride back in their big black jeep. Amazingly enough, they also wanted to see Satan's bridge and took us there too, which was a natural bridge over a steep gorge (ie a rockfall). You can even go under the bridge, to the place where you'd expect the trolls to lurk, which is an dark tunnel dripping with stalactites and pools of warm spring water, as well as lots of cool rocks to climb around.

Eventually, after losing the way a few times (iphone GPS doesn't work here) the sleek black SUV dropped us off on the motorway to Sisian, where we quickly found a classic foul mouthed Armenian trucker on his was to Yerevan from Iran who dropped us off at the turn. There we miraculously found another truck home. The hitching itself is very fun, as you get good banter with the truckers in a particular Russian vernacular where every second word is somehow offensive.

A dinner of fresh fruit and bread and quick night at our hotel, and we hopped onto a minivan heading north to Yerevan, the capital, almost completing our loop of the country. But before we stopped at Khor Virap, yet another monastery on a hill overlooking Ararat plain and the mountain itself, another epic location. Obviously it's very picturesque, but it feels quite standard. They need to step it up and build a monastery on an island inside an active volcano or something. Despite taxi touts bluntly saying there's no public transport, we got onto a waiting bus right in from of us to the capital.

Yerevan is a slight shock, a developed city where we don't have to avoid cow pats on the streets, nicely dressed attractive people, neon lights and tall buildings. Definitely a mild "farmer boy in the big city for the first time" kind of sensation, although it soon passed. We shall delve deeper into what there is around...

Posted by Nomadics 09:20 Archived in Armenia Tagged backpacking


Differences in the Kavkaz

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Armenia is definitely different. The aphabet, although still undecipherable, is less swirly and more u and n shaped (all the letters kinda look the same). The people look slightly more middle-eastern, still with big noses, but with the bump in the nose in a slightly higher up place. The typical Georgian face, with a thiner jaw than forhead is long gone, and the men's haircuts have all become short, with a (nasty) fringe. The music has definitely changed, with cafes, restaurants, marshrutkas and taxis now blaring our seriously middle eastern sounding music, quarter tones and all, a change from the ballads popular with their Georgian counterparts.

The infrastructure and the roads have definitely gotten better (these ones aren't bombed out), we now have hardly any potholes, hardly any cows, and barriers on the sides of roads! Luyks! The economic situation here is not great though, and the crisis really shows, there are no jobs in the towns, and many people leave for Istanbul, Moscow and anywhere else they can get a visa for work. This tourist season also seems to be a record low, we've been alone in all of the places we've stayed at, and we've seen hardly any foreigners at the sights, most taxi drivers and hotel owners we've met have been complaining about how there's noone around (to swindle) compared to last year (when foreigner's money flew straight into their hands). Hmm... comments in brackets must be the Georgian propaganda.

Dilijan is a town famous during Soviet days for being a retreat for the creative socialist workers, which the Armenian tourist machine has audaciously rebranded "The Switzerland of Armenia". Although the forested mountainsides were pretty nice, the Soviet appartment blocks and buildings take something away from the alpine charm, as do the piles of rubbish and building materials. There we did the standard hitchhiking around, which has been amazing to meet funny bored drivers looking for some foreign entertainment, as well as getting us to monasteries hidden away in the forests. We got lost looking for one, and ended up trekking through the forest for quite a long time, knowing that the monastery wasn't there but hoping to stumble upon somthing good, until we found some lumberjacks who told us to turn back "nehuya tam i netu" ("nothing there", but in a style you would expect from a lumberjack).

Today, we managed ventured into long distance hitchhiking, after some transport around the pretty lake Sevan, a fairly large blue lake surrounded by grassy mountains we got onto a bus of middle aged German hikers, a bus which we actually hitched on before, albeit previously without the germans. This was an incredible piece of luck, and I was happy we had more in common with the driver and some random Armenian dude on the bus (who was probably on the payroll but didn't seem to actually do anything apart from chat to us) than with the bourgeois European scum. Yeah. Then after some waiting (we have nothing but time), we fulfilled another dream and got a Kamaz, carrying around 30 tonnes of wet sand to a factory somewhere. Clearly, 30 tonnes is a lot, and going uphill seemed a slow as if I were pushing it. A few painstaking mountian passes later, we reached our target in the southern grass covered mountains: Sisian, in a piece of Armenia wedged between Azerbaijan of 2 sides and Iran from the bottom (lots of Hajji truckers). Tomorrow we plan to inspect the petroglyphs and other cool stuff around here, a welcome change from the seemingly hundreds of thousand-year-old monasteries that seem to be as common here as gold teeth on old ladies (that's very common to the uninitiated into all things Soviet).

Posted by Nomadics 09:46 Archived in Armenia Tagged backpacking

Caucasian Banter

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In Georgia, people were pretty fervent at how terrible the Armenians are: "they always claim that everything, including Georgia, is theirs", when one of the boys was claiming how the wine was the best in the world, the others reminded his to be careful: he was beginning to sound like an Armenian.

2 days into Armenia we heard the other side from a fat farmer called Fyodor: In Armenia, they are cultured and civilised people, who like to help out foreigners, whearas we should watch out in Georgia and Azerbaijan, as our stuff will probably get stolen.

Posted by Nomadics 09:44 Archived in Armenia Tagged tips_and_tricks

Georgia (Sakartvelo) to Armenia (Hayastan)

Back into a Stan.

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From Tbilisi we took another marshrutka north, along the Georgian Military Highway to the town of Kazbegi, nestled in some steep snow-capped mountains, with the mighty Mt Kazbeg in the distance. Or at least, it should have been behind the clouds. Our stay in Kazbegi was mired by lots and lots of rain, which made most of the paths into the mountains into mud streams.

There was a little sunshine, in the morning, during which we managed to walk up to a breathtaking monastery on a wind swept peak above the town, it's beige stones standing out against the green grass of the mountainsides. After that, it started pouring down, with no apppearance of subsiding, so we decided to return to Tbilisi.

In the marshrutka, we met a few Georgian students who'd been holidaying in Kazbegi, although they ran out of money and had been boiling grass for food. They took us in as guests and showed us some famous Georgian hospitality. Big thanks to Sergei, Sandro, Pompe, Georgi and the gang.

First they took us to a folk festival, which eventually turned into a rock concert, which wasn't actually too bad, although Georgian conservative values shone through a little: the only people dancing were some drunkards, whilst everyone else laughed at them. Later we went back to Sergei's (decended from Georgian aristocracy, although that doesn't mean much now) for fine wines and dumplings. We had a lot of interesting discussions, and eventually got to sleep. Next morning, we were going to Armenia, despite warnings from the guys that and Armenia is a terrible place with horrible people (they said that Georgians were intrested in wine, whilst all Armenians are after is money)

My impressions of Georgia were very positive. The people are very warm, the hospitality is awe-inspiring (we left the boys with a really nice bottle of wine and a horn to drink it out of), and definitely one of the highlights of the trip so far. The scenery and the nature is amazing (awesome fruit).
The country is a bit of a wreck, but it is changing fast, President Saakashvili has made a lot of positive changes, the boys were especially thankful to him for returning the rule of law. Before, they were "street boys", who lived by what essentially were prison rules, which governed the whole country. They didn't go into what they actually did during the "bad times", but suffice to say it wasn't pretty. The new regime caught and imprisoned all the mobsters and corrupt officials, and almost instantaneously the county returned to law and order.
Georgian people are passionate and can get argumentative in politics, making it hard to reach a consensus, which means that no matter what any politican does, in a free society there will always be some camped outside the parliament building shouting for the downfall of the President. But hey, changes are definitely happening there, and compared to the nineties, it can't get worse.

A few minivans later we crossed the border into Armenia, and after hours of waiting and chatting to people heading to Istanbul on coaches (apparently there are no jobs in Armenia, so everyone goes to Turkey), we hopped on a bus going to Alaverdi, our first stop.
Alaverdi was a Soviet copper mining town in the Debed canyon, where most of the mining and mettalurgical complex had shut down (standard) and now most of the population was unemployed. Well, a very small part of the complex was functional, unfortunately, it happened to be the part that spewed white fumes that pollute the canyon. Surprisingly, this was the first (partially) working factory I had seen in the Caucasus.

Anyway, we stayed in another homestay, this time in a gritty Soviet flat (it seems that many flats are abandoned in the town as many people have left to seek out work elsewhere). I wont describe further in the hope that time will erase this memory...

The way we travel also had to change in Armenia, since all the moasteries are scattered in various lonely places throughout the countryside. Taxis are too expensive to be an option (it seems like the default job for anyone with a car, so predatory taxi drivers are everywhere), we hitch around and walk a lot to reach these places, which were specially built to be hidden away so invading armies (Arabs, Persians, Turks, Mongols, Russian etc.) wouldn't find them. These churches (especailly Hagpat and Salahin) were very beautiful, but seem a lot more sombre and austere that Georgian churches, made from a dark stone and without coulourful frescoes inside, just lots of intricate carving work. They have a solidity about them that seems to express their timelessness. They are very, very old (Armenia was the first christian kingdom), and will probably be around for a lot longer that I will (although maybe not, since I may live forever).

Finally we leaft the post-industrial wasteland, for the forested mountainsides of Dilijan.

Posted by Nomadics 06:40 Archived in Georgia Tagged backpacking


The Revolutionary Capital

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Arriving to Tbilisi, we got onto a standard Soviet metro (probably made in the exactly the same factory as the metro we took in Kiev), and walked along the dusty street of Marjanishvili, lined with old ladies selling vegetables, to one of the homestay-hostels in the area. A quick shower (the water problems in Kutaisi meant I hadn't washed in a while...) and we went to look around the town. It's actually very nice. The streets need a little paving in places, but the archtecture is impressive, with definite Russian and Persian influences.

Wandering aound we got a good feel for the town, walking along the leafy, boutique lines Rustaveli we reached the Parliament Building, where the street became blocked off by white boxes labeled with "Cell" and a number, which are where the prostesters to the Saakashvili government currently reside. There are about 50 or so of these boxes surrounding the government building, most empty, but a few groups of die hard protesters are still holding out for change. There is also a large podium directly in front of Parliament with a massive banner reading "people for the resignation of Saakashvili".

We chatted to some of these protesters to get the word on the street, and were pointed to their "starshiy", the elder of the group, a large man with a huge beard sitting on a bench. He spouted a lot of rhetoric, some sensible, but a lot of nationalistic ramblings. They say that both America and Russia want the take over Georgia (they seemed to dislike America more as Russia is an orthodox country), but do not care about her people, and naievely that they want Georgia to be a neutral country trading their wares with the rest of the world. They dislike Saakashvili as he is not religious, or nationalistic enough. They wanted a lot of change, but didn't seem to offer up any ideas. A few months ago there were apparently millions out in the street demanding change, but recently the protests have died down, wih only the die-hard remaining living here for the past 3 and a half months.

The next day we saw Tbilisi properly, especially the old town, which is nice but still very run down with a surprising amount of abandoned building which we broke into and climbed around. After some more walking, st seemed that most of the centre was suddenly flooded by busloads of police, police armoured vehicles which began clearing the streets of people. Biden was in town, which also explained the US flags flying around the place. The police were fairly polite though, unlike during the Shavernadze years, as some locals recounted, when they'd used to beat and extort people for fun. This hampered our exploration of the town somewhat as it shut down all of the centre until tomorrow, but there was wtill a lot of interesting things to see, like a market which consisted of old people selling off random stuff, like plates, knives forks and heaps of Soviet trinkets from their homes to make ends meet.

Anyway, I have little time now, but more to follow... Tibilisi is very nice, but tomorrow we head back into the wild mountains along the Georgian military highway.

Posted by Nomadics 11:49 Archived in Georgia Tagged backpacking

Into Georgia Proper

More like the land of Borat than Kazakhstan could ever be, although he would be Boratashvili or Boratdze.

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After whole day of driving on the dusty roads avoiding cows, potholes and other cars we got to Kutaisi, our first stop in real Georgia (the Svan are slightly different, although happy to be part of Georgia unlike most of the other random ethnicities around here). We stopped in another homestay, with an old couple called Suliko and Mediko. As soon as we arrived we had a variety of foods and homemade alcohols shoved into us (in a nice way), and spent a long night chatting with the other guest, a Czech guy who we teamed up with to see the sights the next day.

The sights were pretty nice, we saw the first of many ubiquitous churches and monastries (all with the seemingly standard bleating goats) that dot the hills and mountains of this country, complete with bearded, black clad monks in funny hats, incuding one mafiosi looking one in sunglasses driving a blacked out jeep. A long walk accross the hills and we saw another, this time on a dramatic clifftop overlooking a valley. The walk seemed to be through fairly average Georgian countryside, but it was packed with a variety of fruit and nut trees. Everything seems to grow here in abundance (except bananas, accoring to Suliko), and walking along almost any road you can pick blackberries, plums, cherries, pomegranates, grapes and nectarines off the trees.

One striking thing about the cities here is the proto-capitalistic bazaar culture,with people selling all sorts of random stuff of the pavements, mainly large piles of fruit (including amazing watermelons). The bazaar of Kutaisi neems to sprawl through most of the centre of town, with old ladies and men sitting around spitting sunflower seeds hawking random wares (none of which seem any good for trading though).

The utilities infrastructure are also an issue here. Is our homestay, there was no running water in the evenings, and here was he occasional blackout (as well as one in the internet cafe halfway through a blog post...), and this ass seems very standard in Georgia, although they all seem to cope by having massive water tanks they fill up during the day and candles. Apparently, it used to be much worse before, as Suliko and Madiko recounted, and it seems they spent most of the early nineties by candlelight.

Some more random walking around and eventually getting stuck in an internet cafe during a huge downpour of rain (the central square filled with almost half a meter of water), we eventually got back to the homestay for more delicious home cooking and homemade wine.

Next stop was Gori, famed for the most famous Georgian of all time ever, Iosif Vissaronovich Jugashvili, better known as Joseph Stalin. He's still pretty popular in Georgia, with many streets named after him, but Gori was a particular Stalinfest, with many statues including a huge one in the main square (obviously Stalin square) which the russians avoided bombing when they shelled the town last year (there's a large Georgian half-rebuilt military base nearby that was their main target).

The Stalin museum is a temple like structure built next to the wooden shack where he was born which is now encased in a superstructure over it, the roof of which is covered in an assortment of stars, hammers and sickles as a sort of temple to communism. The museum is even stranger, containing hundreds of photos and paintings of the man, charting his course from childhood to death, portraying his as a heroic revolutionary who kicked Hitler's ass so hard Hitler could taste the shoe polish. It also proudly displays a room full of his personal items like his pen, his cigars, pipes, a watch he gave his mum, and his entire office from the kremlin. There is also a room dedicated to his bronze death mask, which lays in the middle of the circular pillared room, creating a definitively religious feel.

After a quick overview of empty ruins of a castle (apart from some AK toting guards) and some cheese pies, we were quickly shoved into a packed taxi heading to Tbilisi.

Posted by Nomadics 13:00 Archived in Georgia Tagged backpacking

Georgia: Out of the Sea, Straight into the Mountains

A country with 5 George's crosses on it's flag. Take that England.

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So, there we were at the port of Poti, walking out of the boat onto a mysterious new country, surrounded by abandoned buildings and huge piles of scrap metal. On the dirt outside we got a taxi into town, where we withdrew some money (lari) were immedeately shoved into a minivan heading where we needed to go, a town called Zugdidi, a stepping stone to the mountains of Svaneti where we wanted to be to that night. Even though there isn't any proper organised transport system, it seems quite easy to get around, or rather, our travelling luck is continuing. With the help of the friendly marshrutka people, a quick khachipuri (a staple Georgian cheese pie) later, we were on a jeep heading deep into the mountains.

What struck me about Georgia is the amount of abandoned buildings and ruins, a third of Poti was in ruins and empty. According to some locals, it was much more bustling and full before the war last August, but then many fled and have not returned. Since Poti is the site of the main Georgian naval base, the Russians bombed it last year, and it definitely has a wor-torn atmosphere, although there is no danger now. The town of Zugdidi was packed full of people, standing around and doing nothing. Being the closest town to Abkhazia, it has taken in many Georgian refugees (The Abkhaz were ethnically cleansing the Georgians) from that conflict. The separatist conflict was in the early nineties, and what these refugees are currenly doing and how they are managing to survive is unknown to me, standing around doesn't seem particularly profitable.
Another thing about Georgia are the animals, especially cows, on the all the roads we've seen, just eating grass by the side of the road, or just sitting in the middle of the road. Combined with the giant pot-holes and other cars, driving along the roads involves a lot of swerving, obviously at high speeds.

Our UAZ Soviet jeep up to Mestia in Svaneti was no exception, the road was a dirt track, populated by mountain cows, who seem completely oblivious to the cars driving dangerously close to them. The road led deep into the mountains, with spectacular views of forested mountainsides, rivers and lakes, untouched by human hands (except the occasional Ex-Soviet abandoned building by the side of the road). There were 8 people in total in our jeep, including Avtandil and a slightly drunk Gurgen, who had amusing sounding banter in a highly enunciated but completely incompresible Svan language (same linguistic family as Georgian, so, unlike eveything else). On one of our many stops (the jeep kept breaking down) they introduced us to hospitality Georgian style, lots of booze, and lots of toasts.
We arrived very late to Mestia, and Avtandil even arranged a homestay for us, with lovely woman called Anna, who lives with her mother-in-law and her 3 kids. Highly recommended if anyone's in the area (I'm going to start diversifying into travel recommendations now):

Anna's Homestay,
Senaki Street 1
(35-40 GEL all inclusive)

Anyway, having arrived we were immedeately sat down and fed with excellent Svan cheese, bread, and watered with hot milk and chacha (a local grape liqueur) made by the mother-in-law. Our first day we spent hiking around the area, and deciding to push ourselves to the limit, pointed at a nearby snow-capped mountain and decided to climb it. This involved 9 hours in total, walking many arduous kilometers, hanging on to small ledges, and being breathless from the altitude (it was probably around 2500m near the top). The views and the endorphins were definitely worth it though, we saw the glaciers of mt Ushba nearby and the whole of Mestia and the Svaneti mountains around it unfold beneath us. We even had a snowball fight. We just made it down in time before sunset, had it been dark it we my have broken our necks as there was no path and it was very steep. Completely worn out, we stumbled back to Anna's for a heartly Svan meal (and of course chacha), and fell into a deep, deep sleep.

Waking up sore the next day, we decided to take it easy and wandered around town with the aim of getting into one of the Svan towers (big, old, stone towers that every family house used to have) that litter the town. after some wandering we ran into Paata, who I can only describe as a lovable mix between the village idiot and violent drunkard.
It was around 11, he shouted at us and waved us into his house, where it seemed that his sister had locked him in his bedroom (although he escaped through the window and managed to down a bottle of vodka). He was a very proud man, and loudly proclaimed that he was the only jew in town (he did actually live in Tel Aviv for a few years, but said that he didn't feel at home there). He was a sargeant in the Red army, and insised that he is very strong and would never die, he would even kill his enemies from his grave.
We had a variety of adventures with him trying to get into one of the towers which mainly involved going into peoples houses so that Paata could fill up with more booze. Eventually we got into one of the towers, where he embarassed his sister who also turned up leading a very official group of tourists by shouting drunken "truths" at them, which were apparently painful but necessary to hear. There truths were that the Svan towers were created as instruments of death and hatred, and that the Svan, although never invaded by the Mongols, have been killing each other since time immemorial. I guess there is some truth to that. Eventually, after more hilarious ramblings like that he would kill, choke or crush anyone that would give us any problems, that all non-believers in Jesus Christ should be killed we shared some vodka with him and he left us, having found some out of town women to harass.

That night it was also Anna's birthday and we were invited to the festivities. A Georgian feast is really a sight to behold. There is a tamada (a toastmaster) who leads the drinking with long and eloquent toasts to pretty much anything. The wine, chacha and congac drinking was interspersed with some food too. We chatted and danced long into the night with Anna's schoolfriends, and my memory of the occassion gets very hazy...

Next day, with our sore heads, we went into the main square of Mestia to try to find a ride out of Svaneti. A few hours of sitting around and haggling with random drivers we finally managed to get a ride back, agaist all expectations. Another stunning 4-hour drive through the mountains and we found another marshruka going to Tbilisi, which dropped us off at the ancient Georgian capital of Kutaisi, our current location (although we got ripped off a little, but we had no choice).
Getting around has definitely been easy, it seems the old adage needs to be adapted somewhat:
Where there's a will and a wallet, there's a way.

Posted by Nomadics 08:25 Archived in Georgia Tagged backpacking

Poseidon Ruins the Party

Boredom on the Boat

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Our arrival to Georgia was meant to be highly romanticised, arriving by boat to the shores of Kolchis like Jason and the Argonauts (Kolchis is an ancient kindgom in western Georgia, and interestingly enough, to this day there are mountain traditions of using a sheep's fleece to filter the gold out of the rivers, hence the golden fleece). In a cynicism-affirming turn of events, because of "bad weather" (a little rain), or more likely lazy Georgian port authorities, we were stuck on the boat for 3 days, of which the last night we were anchored floating tantalisingly close to shore.

The boat was an interesting experience nonetheless. It seemed that we crossed the Europe-Asia divide when we reached the ramshackle port building in Illichyevsk in the Ukraine, complete with Georgian truckers squatting, smoking, and displaying their fat hairy bellies. The port building was surrounded by token Ex-Soviet industrial buildings that served no obvious purpose apart from creating a post apocalyptic atmosphere. In a Tarkovskyesque attempt, I photographed a few of them, but was immedeately shouted at by some woman, screaming things like "do you want your hands broken?", "do you think you're smarter than us?" and generally implying that the customs officials would rape me (to put it nicely). Nothing came of it.
Anyway, after hours of waiting for the customs officials to arrive, then waiting for the head customs official to have a 3 hour cigarette break, we were driven just to the stairs leading up to the giant MS Greifswald, and then we had to wait (this time in the rain) for them to open the door. The Greifswald is a Northern European (Danish I think) build ferry which took on trucks, trains and a few passangers. The signs on the ferry were in Danish, German, English and Lithuanian, with some paper Russian signs taped over. Clearly it was built for the Baltic, how it ended up ferrying Georgian truckers I have no idea.

There wasn't much to do on the boat. We had 3 meals a day of filling Soviet canteen style food, read, played chess, played capoeira, and slept a lot. The other passengers seemed content chain smoking huddled around the TVs watching terrible Russian programmes (all about crime) or even worse Georgian programmes (a bunch of people talking gibberish) with a light smattering of static. A small group decided to have a backgammon-fest, playing for pretty much the entire time. There were also some Russian and Ukranian truckers on board, but they kept to themselves, the Georgians dominated with their hairy exposed bellies.

Eventually we docked after hours of manuever, to another post apocalyptic Ex-Sovet port. This time with even more rusting piles of scrap metal, abandoned industrial complexes, and even half sunk rusting ships. Amusingly enough there was also a shiny white marina with a gleaming yacht in the middle of all this. Now, Georgia awaits...

Posted by Nomadics 07:54 Archived in Ukraine Tagged backpacking

Adventure has begun...

Freedom of the open road

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A quick flight, and I'm in Kiev, meeting Chuck at the airport. Everything is in place.

Central Kiev, we arrange for an overnight train to Odesa for that night, which gives us a few hours to kill looking around the oldest Slavic city there is. Kiev is nice, more european than Moscow in my eyes, tree lined boulevards, cafes, quaint old buildings that definitely look their age. Of course, this quaintness is surrounded by giant generic Soviet blocks and more modern buildings with shine plastic windows, but who would have it any other way? Although it seems Kiev has managed to throw off it's bad memories of the past.
As it was a weekend, the main thoroughfare is all pedestrianised, there was a mini anti-drugs techno rave, complete with 3 ravers, and all manner of vaguely entertaining street performance, like a man trying to cycle with no steering.

The churches in Kiev are definitely worth seeing, golden domes glittering under the blazing sunshine, it was very photogenic. We even managed to catch an orthodox service, the trance inducing harmonic chanting and incence was very awe-inspiring. A quick capoeira session on the square and meal later, and we got onto our overnight train heading south to the seaside, sharing a cabin with 2 Ukrainian Babushkas going on holiday.

Odesa is a nice town, very atmospheric old world buildings with the paint peeling off. I kept picturing in my head a story about my great-grandma, who lived here as a little girl. Apparently when she would go to the theatre with her father, he would always carry a pistol with him, just in case. Odesa has a huge network of tunnels underneath it, which have traditionally been the hiding place for all manner of brigands and pirates, giving a reputation of the black sea pirate capital during the Tsarist era.

Now it is a tourist haven, packed full or tour groups taking in the sights and the sun (although there has been a huge thunderstorm and rain all day today). We spent most of the day in a cafe, and fortunately stumbled upon the office of the ferry company that would take us to Georgia. Everything has worked out incredibly well, perfectly to plan. The boat is delayed for a day, so we can get on tomorrow, we found the offices 10 minutes before they shut, bought the tickets and now we're ready to go.

We have raced through the Ukraine in search of places more wild, and tomorrow we get on a 40 hour boat to Poti, Georgia, finally leaving Europe. See you on the other side :).

Posted by Nomadics 03:21 Archived in Ukraine Tagged backpacking

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