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Posted by Nomadics 07:46 Archived in Georgia Tagged photography

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

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