Covid-19 vaccination started in Georgia on March 15, and as a medical worker, my brother-in-law was vaccinated that very day. My in-laws also got vaccinated quickly and easily as they were in the high-priority age group. The vaccine roll-out here has had some highly publicized ups and downs. The news sites have covered them extensively, and EurasiaNet has a regional vaccine tracker for those interested in the more general view of vaccines in Georgia. I’ll focus on my own experience in this post.

Given high rates of vaccine hesitancy in Georgia that increased after a preventable tragedy, Georgia’s vaccine policy has been fairly open to any who want a vaccine. The most popular vaccine, Pfizer, has just become available to the general population as of today. Individuals can choose which vaccine they want when they are eligible, though there have been different eligibility criteria for each vaccine at different times. Being able to choose which vaccine we received was…strange. While I believe the best vaccine is the one in your arm, being able to choose also made me think maybe I should wait for a vaccine with higher efficacy or that is authorized in the US. G and I decided that we would take the first WHO (emergency)-approved vaccine we were able to. (We decided to wait for WHO approval because we do want to be considered vaccinated for future travel, though now it turns out not all countries are sticking to the WHO decision, but it’s a positive step, anyway). The SinoPharm vaccine was made available to G and I relatively early, but since it wasn’t yet WHO-approved when appointment sign-ups began, we waited to register. I thought given how much vaccine hesitancy there was and how few people chose that vaccine in the survey that we’d still be able to get appointments later on. That strategy didn’t pan out. SinoPharm received WHO approval just a few days later, but the only appointments still available were mid-week in Svaneti, which just wasn’t an option given our work schedules.

I wised up by the time SinoVac appointments were offered. It still wasn’t WHO approved at the time, but the approval was expected soon. It did take me a few hours to realize that I could sign up for an appointment in the future, and cancel it if it wasn’t approved by that time. In those few hours, though, most of the appointments in Tbilisi had been booked up, though there were plenty of appointments throughout the country. We wanted something further in the future to give the WHO time to make their decision, two appointments together so G could do the talking for me if necessary, and if we were leaving Tbilisi we needed a weekend appointment. That did limit the appointments available to us, but we found a perfect slot in Ozurgeti. It’s a relatively accessible town and we’d never been, so we decided to book and make a vaccination vacation of it. Since I had some time before my appointment, I did consult with my doctors about my vaccine options, and they were both enthusiastically in favor of getting SinoVac sooner rather than waiting for something else.

I wasn’t 100% sure if I would be able to get vaccinated at all, as evidence was mixed. Early on, the authorities were notably quiet on the official policy. The US Embassy claimed that vaccination was available only for permanent residents, not temporary, though I knew some temporary residents who had successfully gotten vaccinated. The media always used the word “citizens”, but not “Georgian citizens” (I have an official document that refers to me as “Citizen Em”, though I am not a Georgian citizen). Some friends with legal residence (I’m not sure if temporary or permanent) had trouble registering, though the exact reason wasn’t clear. Some of them may have been trying to register for vaccines their age wasn’t eligible for, and many people had trouble entering the correct Georgian version of their name. I was able to register via the online portal quite easily, so at least that hurdle was cleared. (tip for others registering: your name has to be in Georgian characters spelled exactly the same as on your ID, with middle name, etc. Either permanent or temporary residence seems to work.). A few days before our appointments, the head of the CDC mentioned vaccinating residents in a press conference, so that was positive news, though I still wasn’t positive I’d be able to get it until it was in my arm, as there was presumably some amount of discretion reserved to the doctors administering the vaccine.

Dose 1:
The day we were scheduled, we got calls from the clinic inviting us to come earlier if it was convenient for us. The clinic was very easy to find (on a hillside visible from the town center with a big sign), even though we weren’t too familiar with Ozurgeti. It wasn’t very busy, but we were far from the only ones there. We were, however, the youngest by a good few decades. We didn’t have to wait long, and the clinical registration process was fairly fast and simple, just making sure they had the correct personal information and that we were healthy enough to be vaccinated. The staff were all friendly and efficient. The registration was so easy and pleasant that having worried about being turned away seemed silly.

After filling out the form, they sent us to the doctor who took our blood pressure and gave us the vaccine. Again, she was friendly and efficient. They used such a tiny needle that if I hadn’t watched her prepare it (and G hadn’t taken a photo), I wouldn’t have been sure that she had even administered it.

We were then moved to another section of the room to wait to make sure we didn’t have any post-vaccine reactions. (They are being very cautious now). I have a habit of waving my arm around and exercising it after injections, as I’ve heard this can help keep your arm from being sore after. (I don’t know if this is just the placebo effect and I don’t know how sore my arm might have been otherwise, but I have a pretty good track record with this technique). When she saw me flailing my arm about, another of the doctors rushed over to make sure I was OK, so we were definitely being well monitored. Every so often, a staff member would call out checking to make sure everyone was still feeling OK. One benefit of choosing this clinic, which I’d had no idea of in advance, was that the view from the windows was really beautiful. It was certainly nice to be able to see the beautiful Gurian mountain scenery while waiting. We were given our paper certificates during this time, and after the monitoring time was done, we were released.

After a few hours, my arm did get slightly sore (less so than from my recent tetanus booster, but it lasted longer). I couldn’t fall asleep on that arm when I went to bed, but I woke up in the morning sleeping on that side without any issues. The next few days I felt a little sleepy during the day and slept like a log, but that could also have been from the travel, the fact that it was the first really hot days of the year, or because I was no longer worrying about being able to get vaccinated. I hadn’t slept so well for two nights in a row in a long time, so I’m quite pleased with this result.

First dose

Dose 2:

Our recommended date for the second dose was the beginning of July, though we’re allowed to take it in a 2-week window from 2-4 weeks after the first dose. After our first dose, the month of July wasn’t on the booking system at all, so we had to keep checking until July appointments appeared. At one point I got a little nervous and messaged the vaccine-coordinating body on Facebook, and they replied quickly, helpfully and in English letting me know that July appointments indeed hadn’t been released yet, and that I didn’t need to worry.

On June 28, there were rumors that the vaccine was available to everyone regardless of immigration status that day (they were false, but spurred by the fact that the English version of the booking site had been released a few days before). There were also news stories that the new, large shipments of SinoVac and SinoPharm were set to arrive at the end of the week. I was (unsuccessfully) helping some friends register, so I was actively checking the site regularly that day, which did happen to be when July appointments started popping up. Since we saw them immediately, we were able to book our appointments together on our preferred day (as long an interval between doses as allowed, as that seems to increase efficacy) at the clinic around the corner from our house. A few days later they re-opened booking for first doses of SinoPharm, and the booking site was the victim of a cyberattack. Fortunately it didn’t affect previous bookings, so we didn’t personally experience any issues with it. Partially in response to that event, it is now also possible to register with (some) clinics directly for vaccine appointments by phone. For those trying to register now, if you have a flexible schedule I recommend missing out on the first-day booking rush and periodically scouting for cancelled appointments. While looking for appointments for others and waiting for July to be added, I noticed that I could have gotten a much more convenient appointment that way.

When we arrived for our second dose, the clinic was quite busy but the vaccine administration was quite well-organized. This clinic was much slicker than the one we went to in Ozurgeti–everything was bright and shiny, and they had branded banners to get their logo into vaccine photos. Again, the staff were all friendly and professional. The doctor doing the intake survey asked if I’d prefer to speak English, and his English was excellent–a nice bonus. I think they used a bigger needle this time, because I definitely felt the injection this time. After our jabs, we were brought into a nice, modern auditorium to be monitored for side effects while they processed our paperwork. One thing that this clinic did that I thought was smart was in addition to the doctor doing the monitoring and the people handling the paperwork, they had an administrator (who I believe was also an MD, though I’m not sure) in the room to answer patients’ questions. She congratulated everyone for being vaccinated, and emphasized that people with just one dose of vaccine needed to be even more careful now than they had been before. She said that while there wasn’t an official policy on boosters for SinoVac and SinoPharm yet, it looked likely that a booster with Pfizer (or another Western vaccine) would be recommended in the future and would be made available to everyone who had received those vaccines. There were some heated discussions about the lack of European recognition of the Chinese-made vaccines, but she handled the situation well, even though it was obviously beyond her control.

In terms of side effects, my arm was slightly sore. Interestingly, it continued the trend of my recent vaccines and was less sore than from the previous, but the soreness lingered for even longer. Unfortunately, I didn’t sleep as perfectly as I did after the first dose. G did feel quite tired on the first day, but his arm wasn’t even sore.

The best vaccine is the one in your arm. Yes, it may be less effective, but something with lower side effects isn’t a bad consolation prize. Since registration for Pfizer has now been announced for all ages, just a few days after I got my second dose, I do feel a little like I’ve missed out. However, I will be fully vaccinated in time for some date-specific family gatherings, which wouldn’t have happened even if I managed to get a Pfizer appointment on the first day. Even after my vaccine is fully-developed, I’ll still be cautious (turns out, I strongly prefer eating outside) and wear my mask (allergies are much improved by wearing one) and get boosters as necessary, especially since the Delta variant is spreading and case numbers are increasing. I’d rather have some protection than none at all! I’m (unbelievably) looking forward to going to the dentist and getting my teeth cleaned!

This trip was a little different, as the primary motive was to get our Covid-19 vaccines. (After our second dose, I’ll post about getting vaccinated in Georgia). Our appointments were in Ozurgeti, the capital of Guria, which we chose in part because we had never been there and I had recently read Emily Lush’s post about interesting things to do in the area. I have some friends from the area and it seems to inspire great loyalty. Now that I’ve visited I can see why.

The 5ish hour drive from Tbilisi was slightly complicated at this time by the 11 PM curfew, but G was able to leave work a little early and we made it out of the house by 5, giving us enough time to get there comfortably. The highway has been improved since we last went to Western Georgia, so the drive was faster and easier. There are multiple roads from the main highway to Ozurgeti, and we took the one from Lanchkhuti. The road was in pretty good shape, but the narrow twisty mountain road after dark was giving me conniption fits. We probably should have taken a different route at that hour. I’m sure that area has beautiful scenery when it’s light out, though. We had pre-booked our stay at Komli Guesthouse, and we definitely should have called Lika for directions earlier on the drive. GoogleMaps will get you VERY close to Komli, and then it will send you driving around in circles rather than getting you the last two minutes. Honestly, if you listen to Lika and not GoogleMaps, Komli is very easy to find, even in the dark. Even though we arrived late she had a feast waiting for us, including Gurian wine, some of the best badrijani nigvzit (eggplant with walnut) I’ve ever had (and that’s my favorite, so I can judge), bamboo pickles, and the Gurian version of chakapuli made with beef and cilantro. Everything was delicious, and we quickly decided that we would add board to our room while we were there. I was a bit nervous about staying in an “historic farmhouse”, but Komli understands both Georgian hospitality and the hospitality industry, so the beautiful old room had a comfortable bed, clean modern bathroom, and wasn’t the slightest bit musty while still being full of character.

Komli

After staying up late chatting with Lika, we woke up on the late side on Saturday morning. We had a massive breakfast (featuring a huge pot of wonderful homegrown tea), and met Lika’s family, friends, and neighbors–everyone was very nice. We agreed to do the tea tour, and Lika told us about the history of tea in Georgia and Guria and her family’s history. We then went to pick some tea from her tea bushes. It’s easier than I thought, and actually quite nice (when you don’t have a quota). We then visited the area where they’re constructing an eco-friendly straw house on the property. Throwing mud at the walls seems quite fun. There’s a rivulet through the property, so Lika has constructed a little boat and you can go on a “mini cruise” which was nice and relaxing. The colors of the bamboo grove were surprisingly bright and pretty.

Picking tea

After a relaxing morning and early afternoon, we went into Ozurgeti proper to get our vaccines at the clinic. The vaccination center was on the 4th floor, so while we were being observed post-vaccine, we had a lovely view of verdant green mountains. We decided to go for a drive and see the scenery while we were out and about, so we picked a road to follow for awhile. Seeing a village with some interesting architecture, we looked on GoogleMaps and realized we were already closer to Batumi than Ozurgeti! We decided it was worth a visit to the Black Sea so we continued on to Kobuleti. We checked to see if our favorite fish farm had survived the pandemic (It has and they’re doing pretty significant renovations). Then we went to the beach and I played in the sea for a bit. We took another road back to Ozurgeti, making a loop. I knew Ozurgeti wasn’t far from the Black Sea, but I was still surprised by how close and accessible it was. If you drive (or are a marshrutka master), I would highly recommend staying in or around Ozurgeti for a beach trip that avoids the hustle of the beach towns.

Playing in the Black Sea

We had hoped to spend more of Sunday in Ozurgeti and explore on the way back, but it turned out we needed to return to Tbilisi sooner than expected, so we took the road back via Chokhatauri, which I think is the main road. Before we left Komli, we bought some of her tea to bring home and continue enjoying.

Even though there “isn’t much to do” in Ozurgeti, we didn’t do nearly everything and would be happy to visit again. Gomi Mountain, the Ozurgeti Theatre, and some Soviet mosaics still await us on our next trip to Guria!

I’d kind of stopped writing my seasonal favorites, but if there’s any time that the shining stars deserve a shout-out it’s 2020. Here are some of the cool new things and businesses that have been creative and awesome and brought bright spots to a weird year. Maybe they’ll help with your holiday gifts or celebrations!



(In alphabetical order, not playing favorites within the favorites)
Agro Meat Market Looking for lamb or mutton? Craving English-style bangers? This South African-run farm will bring them to your door. (They also now have retail locations in Tbilisi, but I haven’t visited yet). Their products are good quality and the prices are reasonable. Stocking our freezer with their products before the lockdown was one of the smartest things we did.

Bagelin.ge It’s long been a joke among ex-pats that Tbilisi would be perfect if only we could get bagels and Mexican food. Bagelin is taking care of part 1 (actually, the chef makes great Mexican food, too, but only occasionally…keep your eye out). The order in advance and pick-up/delivery model is pandemic-friendly, and the bagels are delicious. They’re just what bagels should be–both traditional and Georgian-inspired flavors. They’ve also got their own spreads and drinks from local microbreweries. Additionally, they value supporting their employees, local agriculture, and good causes like the Transcaucasian Trail. Located within Lokal, listed below.

Chveni Puri is a new bakery in our neighborhood. The brilliance of the place is that it’s a walk-up kiosk, so you don’t have to go inside to buy. Bread is the limiting factor to reducing grocery trips in our house (and I assume many Georgian homes), so it’s particularly suited to 2020. Their bread is also really good, and they sell amazing chocolate buns and whole-grain crackers.

Dighomi Forest Park is different than most of the city’s other big parks. Tbilisi parks tend to be manicured and full of amenities, which can be nice, but Dighomi Forest Park, which is basically just trees and grass with some trails and benches, is a literal breath of fresh air. It’s usually busy, but you can always find a place away from everyone else.

The Great Central Asian Bake-Off #GCABO: A social media baking contest sponsored by the Uzbekistan tourism ambassador and the cookbook writer Caroline Eden to promote her new book Red Sands had people all over the world (myself included) trying their hand at making Central Asian baked goods: non, samsa, peach cake, and bread pudding, as well as a “showstopper” of their choice. The showstoppers were really incredible! Cakes decorated like hats and bus stops and beautiful cookies. Some of my friends participated, too, and it was great fun to try new recipes and see how other people had made them. I learned a lot about Central Asia and had a lot of fun; I’d love to see other countries/cookbook authors steal this idea, and hope we have round 2 next year.

International Georgian Wine Tasting from Eat This! Tours is the best Zoom event I’ve attended. It was well-organized, which is of course key, but what made it really special was that they had wine suppliers in both the US and Georgia, so I was able to attend the event with my parents and some family friends in the US. Baia’s and Gvantsa’s Wines are delicious! Would love to do another event like this (hint,hint if you read this)

Lokal Tbilisi describes itself as a co-working and co-living space, but not just..and the “not just” is where things get interesting. They quickly became the coolest place to hang out, hosting all sorts of fun and interesting events ranging from family dinners cooked by the Bagelin guy, to beer festivals, to lectures on taxes, and everything you can imagine in between. They now host our BookSwap group (and have shelves for those who can’t attend the meetings) and offer a great place to relax and see a friendly face when the restrictions allow. They’ve become a cornerstone of the English-speaking community in Tbilisi. They are meticulous about following the Georgian CDC’s hygiene recommendations so I always felt safe going there when it was allowed, and now that they aren’t allowed to have in-person events, they are using their space to collect charitable donations; keep an eye out for potential online events. If you’re looking for a place to live or work, you should definitely check them out. If not, there’s probably an interesting event going on.

Megobrebi Brewery I discovered them last year, and in February I heard that they offered free tours of the brewery, so some friends and I arranged to visit. That turned out to be one of the last things we did in the old normal. Their beers are creative and delicious, and they’ve been creative through the pandemic, offering deliveries and online homebrewing classes. Their tarragon beer is my favorite, but I think they’re all pretty good and I’m not usually a beer drinker, so that’s quite an endorsement.

Soplidan.ge I was a customer before the pandemic, but they really took the opportunity to expand their offerings and services and make a good company even better. They saved Thanksgiving by having turkey available with no fuss, and they generally have a good assortment of hard-to-find local products (spinach, leeks) and gems from small producers. They also carry the Georgian heritage wheat flour (called lomtagora) that I love, and some very tasty nut butters and goat cheese. Also available on the Wolt Delivery App.

Travel Box (read my whole post here…such a fun and creative way of supporting the domestic tourism industry until international tourists can return)

Wine Junkies Another “box”, this time of Georgian wine and treats. I don’t think we’ve ever had a product we didn’t like in their boxes, and everything is packaged very prettily so it feels like Christmas morning once a month. It’s a great way to explore Georgian food and wine, and they’re supporting small producers making high quality products, something I think we’d all love to see more of! In addition to their regular boxes, they’ve now got a special series of boxes raising money for Dog Organization of Georgia.

Note: I’ve waited a few weeks to post this to make sure that we stayed healthy, weren’t contacted by contact tracers, and didn’t see the hotel pop up in the news as a cluster (and also because I’m kind of a slow writer/photo editor and there’s been a lot going on in the world).

There’s a new Georgian company called Travel Box that I heard about through Facebook, and I wanted to give it a try. I love the “box” concept (beauty boxes, snack boxes, etc)…they’re usually a good deal if themed so you’ll use the products, and getting one feels like a mini Christmas morning. The Travel Box concept is that you get to pick the region for your trip, but which of their partner hotels you get a voucher for is a surprise until you open it. The voucher is for 2 people for 2 nights, and the partner hotels are all 5-star. In the box you also get some accessories (some branded, some not) and beauty products. It looks like they may have added a bottle of wine in recently, as well. Each box is 350 GEL (currently 103 USD). You have to book your stay in advance through Travel Box, and you’re responsible for your own transportation and any expenses other than the room.

I hesitated to buy the box at first because it isn’t a small amount of money–especially-if the voucher gets wasted–but I contacted customer service with some questions before buying and they were very helpful and set my mind at ease about taking the risk. The responded quickly and in English, and all of their policies seemed reasonable to me (free rebooking 10 days before the scheduled trip, can book in someone else’s name, or change the name for free up to 2 days before the trip, rescheduling allowed if COVID regulations change abruptly, etc.). The delivery arrived smoothly and I was quite pleased with the products–the facemask fits me quite well and is a good option for running to open the door or going for walks when I don’t plan to see anyone, the scarf really suited G’s mom, and I found some lotion I quite like. In general it’s a good deal if you’ll be able to use the voucher (our hotel’s advertised price was 300 GEL/night), but would be a waste of money if you don’t, though the products might soften the blow a little.

You book your stay through Travel Box, not the hotel directly, but the booking process was easy and fast, and when I had follow-up questions the Travel Box staff replied very quickly.

We chose Kakheti for our surprise hotel because it’s a short drive from Tbilisi, we thought it would be beautiful with fall colors, autumn is the wine season, and we thought there would be plenty of outdoor activities to keep us occupied in a lower Covid-risk way. Travel Box has lots of partners in Kakheti, so where we would wind up was a surprise. (There are some regions where they only have one partner, so you pretty much know where you’ll wind up, though they are constantly adding more partners so it isn’t a guarantee). Our voucher was for Esquisse Hotel in Telavi itself, which we had never heard of before. I was delighted when I looked at their website and saw a beautiful swimming pool, so we tried to schedule our visit when we might still be able to use it.

When we arrived, the staff were friendly, our room was gorgeous, and they seemed to be doing a good job following the Georgian CDC’s anti-coronavirus protocols. We had a big balcony with an incredible view of the mountains, which also made it easy to air out the room before we spent too much time there (though I did let a fly in. Oops). (I also used my disinfecting wipes on high-touch surfaces before we settled in). G had to do some remote work while we were there, so he was pleased that the desk in the room was comfortable and the WiFi was fast and reliable. That isn’t always the case in Georgia, even in fancy hotels. The bed and shower were luxuriously comfortable, and the whole room was clean and beautifully decorated.

Esquisse has two restaurants on the premises, and the first night we ate at the “modern Georgian” restaurant. The food was very impressive, and we were the only ones there. We had a delicious beet salad with “pink” goat cheese, a Georgian take on beef bourguignon garnished with tklapi (Georgian fruit leather) served over tashmijabi (Svanetian cheesy mashed potatoes) (I am going to try to copy this dish at home this winter), and some m/phkhlovani (khachapuri with greens baked in). Everything was delicious, and the house saperavi was a little sweet and smoky–delicious and unlike other saperavis I’m familiar with–and the pour was generous!

Dinner in Esquisse hotel’s “modern Georgian” restaurant

The next morning we slept in and went to brunch at the traditional Georgian restaurant. We had thought we would go walk around Telavi or visit some of the surrounding sights, but we were having so much fun at the hotel and the food options were so good, we wound up never leaving! My first reaction walking into the yard was that it would be a perfect location for a wedding (their conference facilities also looked quite nice). The winemakers were at work that morning and G got to talking with them, which led to a few free samples of their wines and chacha. The chicken mtsvadi was particularly good, as it’s prone to dryness and this was especially succulent. We played billiards for a little while, went for a stroll, and then I was happy that the weather seemed warm enough to go for a swim. The pool was beautiful and long enough to actually swim laps in (20m, I believe). There was only one other family swimming, though there were plenty of sunbathers. G’s chats with the winemakers had resulted in the information that there was a free winetasting that afternoon sponsored by Bank of Georgia Solo, so we popped down to attend (no one seemed to care that we aren’t Solo clients). The sommelier was there and she told us about the wines, but it was a Georgian-style wine-tasting with a lot of wine provided and the suggestion “Taste it!” rather than the style where you get little sips of each. The kindzmarauli was our favorite. It’s a semi-sweet wine, but this one was sweet in a very fruity way and pleasant for sipping. G got some advice from the sommelier about his winemaking, and we enjoyed spending time outside absorbing the sunshine and breathing fresh air. For dinner G wanted khinkali, so we ate at the traditional Georgian restaurant again. Their cheese khinkali (კვარამკვარი) were the best I’ve had outside of someone’s home, and the meat khinkali were quite good, though not the best I’ve ever had. The traditional Georgian tomato and cucumber salad was served with dressing on the side! We were very full of good food and wine by the end of the day.

View of the sunrise over the Caucasus range from Esquisse Hotel in Telavi
View of the sunrise over the Caucasus range from our balcony

I managed to wake up early Sunday morning to watch the sun rise over the Caucasus from our balcony, and it was beautiful. I got a morning swim in, which was chilly but totally worth it. I was glad to be able to swim twice–it definitely has a positive effect on my mood, as did all the fresh air and sunshine we got that weekend. We had a last meal back in the modern restaurant, and since all the food we tried had been so good I took a risk and ordered a burger (until recently burgers in Georgia have been mostly disappointing, and I hadn’t yet had a decent one outside of Tbilisi). The burger was quite good, and they even managed to get the char-grilled taste. G ordered some excellent khachapuri, and we brought the leftovers home for lunch the next day. Unfortunately we didn’t eat enough meals there to be able to try the tolma with peach, which also sounded amazing.

On our way out of town, we stopped at the Telavi agricultural bazaar to buy fruits and vegetables. The fall foliage along the Gombori pass was really beautiful.

Regarding Covid: Cases were and have remained comparatively low in Kakheti at the time I’m writing this post. At the time we travelled, most cases were still centered in Adjara and Tbilisi cases were just starting to increase. At this time, masks were only required in enclosed public spaces. Mask compliance was generally good indoors, though apart from the staff we were pretty much the only ones wearing them outside (we only took them off to eat/drink and swim and in our own room). I’m glad we invested in some comfortable, reusable filtered masks earlier this summer so we were able to protect ourselves and others while still having an enjoyable time. We did our best to protect the staff and tip them well. I was surprised how crowded the hotel was on Saturday (it was quite empty on Friday), but there was generally enough space to not have too much close interaction with people, even around the pool and at the winetasting. The weather was perfect, so we were able to spend most of our time outside and only ate outdoors. I used the government’s StopCov contact tracing app, as well, to be able to be alerted and alert others to possible contact quickly if it turned out to be necessary. We limited outside contact as much as possible for the 2 weeks before the trip, with only necessary grocery shopping and work, and for 4 days before we left for the trip (the most that work would allow at that time) we didn’t leave the house at all.

I think the Travel Box format is a great way to promote domestic tourism and a creative response to the Covid-19 challenges to Georgia’s tourism industry. It was a good deal at a lovely hotel that we hadn’t heard of before (and would love to return to, though it’s pricey for us). Our experience with Travel Box was very positive, and I would definitely buy a box again, though I’m not sure I will this winter–things seem to be getting worse and worse and it will be more difficult to plan and travel safely. Overall, I’d say Travel Box was a nice way of mixing luxury travel with a bit of adventure and sticking to a budget (though we did spend a lot at the restaurants; we could have eaten much more frugally if we wanted to, though). I don’t know if the logistics of Travel Box would work for first-time visitors to Georgia (though I’m sure their staff would be willing to provide help and advice), but I’d definitely recommend it to folks with some experience in the country. I’ll certainly keep an eye out for similar deals when I travel in the future. If you’re looking for a beautiful and comfortable place to stay in Telavi, I definitely recommend Esquisse: with or without the Travel Box.

There are many places I find books in English here, in Tbilisi, capital of Georgia. I will look at those in more detail in later videos. In this video, I focus on one of the most fruitful sources of English books for me and that is Tbilisi English Book Swap. Tbilisi English Book Swap was […]

Tbilisi English Book Swap — Blog #2

Sharing my friend Jim’s post about our BookSwap, one of my favorite social activities.

my bookshop

Since I’m often asked for book recommendations, I’ve started a list (two actually) on Bookshop.org of books about Georgia and books about the region more generally. They are by nature incomplete–I can only include books available on that site, and I am sticking to things available in English and that I have personally read and liked. If you think something is missing, feel free to reach out–if I haven’t read it yet and you’re willing to get a copy to me, it could make its way there soon! I do plan to keep updating the lists as I work my way through my massive “To Read” pile. Full disclosure, if you buy books through the link, I will get a small commission; you’re of course welcome to make note of my recommendations and buy the books elsewhere. I have also updated the links in my book reviews, where possible. Happy reading!

As restaurants in Tbilisi start to reopen, here is some inspiration for the tastiest, coolest, freshest salads in the city. (No guarantees these exact dishes are still on current menus, though).

A collection of my Twitter posts on the best salads in Tbilisi. (#bestsaladsoftbilisi)

I LOVE a good salad; it might even be in my top 5 favorite foods. A good salad has many different toppings and a well-paired dressing. It can be a riot of different colors, flavors, and textures. A bad salad, on the other hand, is one of the saddest dishes there is. Here are the places doing it well. (In no particular order)

CoffeeLab’s seasonal salad.

In summer the oranges are replaced by nectarines.
Just the right balance of sweet and sour, creamy and crunchy.

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Tomato Salad from Salobie Bia

Perfectly lives up to their tagline of “unpretentious Georgian food”, simple Georgian ingredients put together perfectly. Oh so delicious!

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 Blue Cheese, Grilled Apple, and Walnut at Cafe Gallery.

Great combination!

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Warm salad with wild garlic from Culinarium Khasheria

(something similar on the menu at Cafe Littera, as well).
Unique and delicious!

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Spinach and orange salad from Chemo Kargo Beer Factory 

Though good, this was the weakest dish we ordered there. The whole menu is creative and delicious. Surprised I haven’t heard more buzz about this place! Get the rye adjaruli with adjika compound butter.

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Chicken Caesar Salad from CoffeeLab

Also contains some sort or warm, delicious, peppery pork product.
Pleasant surprise! (But not for people who don’t eat pork)

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Spinach with dates, cream cheese, and fried spring onions at Lolita.
Solid, but not as interesting as it sounds.

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Unknown vegetable salad/pkhali at Amra.

Neither I nor the Georgians had heard the word on the menu before, but the waitress said. “No, it’s beets”. And some greens. Something is pickled. With walnut sauce. Refreshing! (Determined by Twitter to probably be kohlrabi).
kohlrabi

Chicken Salad from Mazaki 

Looks like the picture on the menu! Super fresh greens and crispy veggies, nice light Asian dressing. Chicken a little too soy-sauce-y/salty for me, but good texture, and good with the dressing.

mazaki

Chickpea, Beet, Bulgarian pepper and mizuna from Lolita (via Wolt)

Didn’t notice the peppers, but delicious anyway. Chickpeas perfectly cooked, and just the right amount of tang to the dressing. Might be some French-fried onions in there, too

lolita

Now that I’m only working one job with strict hours, I decided to use our break to travel. My cousin lives in Ukraine (no, we don’t have a family connection to the region, we independently found interesting opportunities), and I’d been meaning to visit for a while. I was surprised that ticket prices didn’t go down after the UIH 752 crash, but they still weren’t too expensive, and it seemed like a time the airline and the country could use some customers, so I booked a visit. I thought it might be a little crazy to go to Ukraine in February (cold, right?), but my cousin assured me that with the right gear it would be fine. Lucky for me, I had just bought a proper winter coat. Buying my tickets was ridiculously difficult (no longer a fan of CapitalOne), but I did manage to procure them eventually. I have nothing but good things to say about the individual customer service agents from Ukrainian Airlines, though their website could use some work.

The flight times weren’t ideal, but they were manageable. I had to get up pretty early Saturday morning, but I did manage to snooze on the plane. There was some unplanned drama on the flight when a gentleman smoked in the lavatory, but I was quite impressed with the flight attendants’ handling of it…I don’t think people who weren’t nearby even noticed. My family were pretty much ready to start the day once I got to their house, so the timing was good in that regard. Since they live there and have stuff to do, we spent time together on the weekend and I explored on my own while they were busy with work and school. They introduced me to Ukrainian food at Ostannya Barykada and Khutorets ne Dnipri, some of their favorite Ukrainian restaurants. They were very different, but I enjoyed both. Turns out borscht can be delicious!  We also went to their favorite modern Georgian restaurant, Chichiko, which was fantastic. It was interesting to see how the different food trends in Tbilisi and Kyiv have influenced the menu. Everything was undeniably Georgian food, but there were things on the menu that are not common or popular in Tbilisi–loads of turkey and lamb dishes. The tonis puri was served with an excellent Kakhetian sunflower oil and green onion dipping sauce (I’m working on duplicating it but haven’t been fully successful yet), and we loved the “khachapuri diavola” with adjika baked in.

Most of my top must-sees were museums, and I found that, unlike in many countries where all museums close on Monday, different museums in Kyiv were closed different days. On the one hand this was an advantage, because there was some museum for me to see everyday, but on the other hand it required paying attention to the schedules and planning accordingly. I wasn’t sure how I felt about going on a tour to Chernobyl, so my cousin suggested I go to the museum first and decide after that (Chernobyl tours do need to be booked a few days in advance due to security procedures). I followed his advice and went on Monday (I would recommend this strategy for others who are not sure, too). The Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum was really impressively put together, mostly with historical artifacts, but with some artistic touches mixed in. I got the audioguide and found it interesting and helpful. From there I grabbed some lunch and walked up Andriyivskyy Uzviz to the National Museum of the History of Ukraine, which was also well worth the visit. It was a good-sized museum; complete but not so big as to be exhausting.  I was impressed by the attention to details in the design (curtains with traditional embroidery in the textiles room, actually comfortable chairs in front of the video exhibits, kids’ activities in most rooms).

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Cabbage Dessert from 100 Years Back in Future

I decided that after an emotional day of museum viewing, I deserved to try some of Ukraine’s famous coffee and pastries. I opened GoogleMaps and was headed to the closest highly-rated coffeeshop when I noticed I was walking past 100 Years Back in Future, which had been recommended to me on Twitter. My mind was made up. I decided to go for it and order the weirdest thing on the dessert menu, a cabbage-based dessert, with my coffee. My tweeps have excellent taste, because the cabbage-based dessert was delicious. The weather was pretty nice and I had some free time, but as it was late afternoon most museums and tourist sites were starting to close, I decided to get to know the city better by walking home. It was a little far (certainly further than would be a reasonable daily commute), but it gave me a great view of the city and helped me figure out the layout.

The next day, I decided to go to Rodina Mat and Lavra Pechersk Monastery since they are near one another and the books said they were open on Tuesdays. The weather was gorgeous (actually warmer than Tbilisi that day!) and I enjoyed walking around in the sunshine and seeing the memorial. There were signs to “the museum” which seemed to be in a different place than I had thought, but I followed them anyway and wound up in the “Museum Making of Ukrainian Nation”, which is not the museum I was looking for. The ticket was also much more expensive than I had read, but I paid up and went in. It was in fact a different museum, and the reason it hadn’t come up in my research was that it had just opened last fall. This is a museum designed for people who don’t like museums (so I’m not the target audience). It had plenty of selfie opportunities, and scenes from Ukrainian history up to the present. The audioguide was generally good, but there were some exhibits that had neither audio nor text descriptions. It was a good overview of Ukrainian history, though the exhibits didn’t provide much information on their own. You could get some great Instagram shots, though.

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Cossacks in “Museum Making of Ukrainian Nation”

Then I found my way to my intended museum, the  “Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War”, which was cheap and heart-wrenching and interesting. I remember in history classes in school drawing maps of WW2 battles, and drawing a big marsh between Germany and Moscow. This museum hammered home the fact that there was NOT nothing there; there were good-sized cities and many people living in this area. Kyiv and other parts of Ukraine played a major role in WW2. There was also an exhibit on the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine, so the museum wasn’t limited to WW2 alone. I was in definite need of sustenance after an emotional morning, so I made my way to the Kyiv Food Market, a conglomeration of the best restaurants from a variety of styles and cuisines. I tried three different places, enjoying my green borsht (that’s sorrel instead of beet–also good!), mors, matcha latte and a cinnamon roll. It was a good type of place to eat alone, with the shared tables and simplified service, but it would also be great with a group to share nibbles and try lots of different things. I then wandered back towards the Lavra complex, passing through the Holodomor Memorial (museum under construction) and entered the Lavra complex itself. Most of the museums there were closed on Tuesdays, but the one I was most interested in, the Museum of Historical Treasures, was open and well-worth the visit. So much historical bling that is still absolutely stunning! I found Lavra as a whole a strange place. A door with a sign that said “bookstore” demanded to see my ticket, and all but one of the churches I tried to visit were closed (the open one was nice). The caves that I got to at 3 had closed at 2, and the caves that I got to at 4:01 had closed at 4. But there were loads of shopping opportunities! The grounds were full of stores, restaurants, and kiosks (my tea and donut were really cheap). One door looked like the entry to a church, but was actually a hallway filled with vendors yelling “Girl! I’ll pray for you if you buy something! Curse you for not buying!”. I had thought about going back to Lavra the next day to see more of the museums and churches and maybe go into the caves but I found the whole place had a creepy vibe, so I decided I had seen it and didn’t need to go back.

Wednesday morning I went to Mezhyhirya, Former President Yanukovich’s former home, now billed as the “Museum of Corruption” (a national park) a little outside of Kyiv.  However, when I was there, most things were closed. The house is inaccessible (rumored to be because everything was stolen), there were a number of cafes and souvenir shops that were closed, and even an art gallery that said open but was locked. It was a nice, scenic place to walk around, though, but nothing more at the time I was there. Just when I was getting cold and hungry from walking around a few hours and had decided to head back to Kyiv, a guy started bringing out racks of bicycles available to rent, but I was ready to go so I didn’t rent one. Mezhyhirya is a particularly controversial place. The driver told me he would never go there because everything had been stolen from the Ukrainian people, but he seemed OK with driving me there. However, as a national park, it is the Ukrainian people’s again, but it seems they don’t know quite what to do with it. Turning it into a national park brings up a whiff of the forced collectivization under the Soviets, but it was ill-gotten gains in the first place. It’s unclear if the national park is meant to be a warning to other corrupt officials, a way of educating the public, or a form of retribution. There’s a lot of potential here, but when I was there, none of it was realized. In the afternoon I went to the famous Ukrainian fast food chain Puzata Hata for lunch, and strolled down Kreschatyk to do some shopping. I kind of wanted to buy a vyshyvanka, but the prettiest ones are also the most expensive, so I decided to save my money this time and plan ahead for my next visit to Ukraine. I bought lots of nice little non-souvenir souvenirs at Vsi Svoi, including a hoodie, a trivet, some soap, an English notebook, and other interesting everyday items. Vsi Svoi is a department store (two actually, one for clothes and accessories, one for homegoods) of all Ukrainian-made objects. Not necessarily souvenirs or folkarts, just regular stuff made in Ukraine. They have a great variety and prices are reasonable. If you aren’t sure what type of clothes you’ll need when visiting Ukraine, I’d recommend packing minimally and making a stop at Vsi Svoi early in your trip to get stuff that is definitely seasonally, culturally, and fashionably appropriate. I went next door to a cool coffeeshop filled with ex-pats for my afternoon coffee and a raspberry-chocolate croissant.

The next morning I decided to finish my souvenir shopping and went to Ocean Plaza mall, the second-largest in the city, for the Roshen store (one of my favorite chocolate bars is Roshen’s milk chocolate with sesame seeds, and it’s been scarce in Tbilisi lately) and to see what there was to see. I picked up a few postcards and souvenirs at the UA Made store (not as cool as Vsi Svoi, but still fun). In the afternoon I took myself on a little tour of the metro using this really helpful blog post as a guide. The Kyiv metro is really beautiful, but not as complicated as the Moscow metro. Given my familiarity with the Tbilisi metro, it was a breeze to navigate because all the signs were the same style, and the tokens looked like the ones Tbilisi used to use. It was a fun and cheap afternoon activity.  I had noticed a Ukrainian Museum of Revolution 1917-1921 in my research, and I’m interested in that time time period, but Google suggested it might or might not be open. I decided to check it out with no expectations. When I got nearby, I realized that the address was of the VERY closed-looking building I had walked past before, and indeed it was closed, though the Museum of Pedagogy in the same building seemed open. I went back to Kreschatyk to pick up a few more souvenirs, and went back to hang out with the family.

On Valentine’s Day, I went for my tour of Chernobyl with SoloEast.  I chose them by looking up all the tour companies recommended in my travel books and by the Chernobyl Museum, and seeing who had availability and the lowest price on the day I wanted. This strategy worked out fine. I took the metro to the meeting place outside McDonald’s on Maidan (and grabbed a hashbrown, too!) and met with my group. I was the only solo traveler in the group, and folks weren’t very friendly, but our guides were good. The most important thing for a trip to Chernobyl is that the guides know what they’re doing and where they’re going, both for safety and to avoid bureaucratic delays, and the folks at SoloEast definitely did that. The tour was really interesting, and though there was a lot of information provided and I had been to the Chernobyl Museum (and we did a big commemoration for the 25th anniversary when I was in grad school), I still wanted to know more and more. The church in Chernobyl town is one of the prettiest Orthodox churches I have ever seen (and I’ve seen a lot).  The “Russian woodpecker” was an incredible structure, and it’s hard to believe how well-concealed it was. Seeing the endangered Chernobyl wild horses just standing at the side of the road was something I don’t think I’ll forget for a long time. The reactor itself was not particularly interesting, and I personally didn’t get a kick out of trying to find radiation hot spots with a geiger counter, but that was the highlight for some people. Lunch on the tour was the only meal that lived up to the stereotypes of Slavic food as boring, flavorless, and stodgy (and to be fair, no one was marketing it as a food tour). Chernobyl was good practice for the “Don’t touch your face!” “Don’t touch anything!” times that are upon us now. I’m glad I chose to do the tour.

The scale of Covid-19 was growing over the course of my trip, and people were posting all sorts of alarming things on Facebook (rumor mill, I know) about being denied entry into Georgia, so I was getting a little nervous about my return. There were definitely health precautions in place that I had never seen in Tbilisi before, but at that time it was still fairly calm. There were apparently body temperature scanners, though I didn’t notice them; we had to fill out a health card, and there were doctors in the terminal keeping watch. Unsurprisingly, the precautions have been strengthened since then–if you’re planning a trip to Georgia, here is the MFA’s post with the updated airport health procedures as of March 12. (I recommend checking for updates if you’re on your way to Tbilisi anytime soon). Nonetheless, I still got a warm greeting and a second bottle of welcome wine!

If you, like me, have been saying to yourself “I should go to Ukraine sometime”, you really should! I loved it

I recently met the organizer of a library project and agreed to help her collect books. Here is her message:
“I am organizing a regional school in 7 cities of Georgia about human rights and children’s rights for 14-18 year-olds through a Flex alumni grant. I will be visiting Lagodekhi, Khulo, Mestia, Oni, Akhaltsikhe, Gori and Gardabani starting from 9th of September through November. In most of the cities I have a venue in public libraries. If you have English books (or journals, especially about human/children’s rights) and you are willing to donate them in those cities please contact me asap.”

If you’re in Tbilisi and have books to donate, I can help facilitate. If you are abroad and would like to contribute, the organizer and I brainstormed a few titles that we think would be particularly of interest to the participants and added them to my Amazon wishlist (note, the list is for all of my ongoing projects, the notes will point out which project they are for–all of them benefit Georgian kids in one way or another). I have budgeted some money for the shipping to receive those books via USA2Georgia (8$/kilo), but contributing towards those expenses is another way you can help from abroad: PayPal is cookiesandthecaucasus@gmail.com

Georgian food in general is pretty great, but each restaurant has their own specialties.  For example, you might be disappointed by the khachapuri at a sakhinkle (or you might get lucky). These are the best of the best! My top ten tend to be a little unique, as it’s hard to judge which of the millions of similar dishes is a hair better, whereas the unique and delicious stand out.

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Clockwise: rye Adjaruli (#4), ojakhuri (#1), Nutella dessert (#10), and pomegranate khinkali (#7). Enjoy!

  1. Ojakhuri (roast pork and potatoes) at Salobie Bia (their kharcho with millet ghomi is also a contender, and you should really order the tomato salad, too, to round out the meal)
  2. Shkhmeruli (chicken in garlic sauce) at Khasheria (has been known to make lifelong vegetarians want a bite)
  3. Sorrel and Strawberry Salad at Kakhelebi (counteract the healthfulness with a khachapuri Darejani)
  4. Rye Khachapuri with Adjika Compound Butter at Chemo Kargo Beer Factory
  5. Warm Salad at Khasheria or Cafe Littera (not exactly the same, but similar enough to put them together as they’re both Chef Tekuna’s restaurants)
  6. Ossetian Khachapuri (khabizgina) at Alani
  7. Pomegranate Khinkali at Zodiaqo
  8. Spinach Dip (fancified pkhali) and pita bread at Sirajkhana
  9. Sulguni Waffle at CoffeeLab
    …and because you’re clearly going to need dessert:
  10. Nutella “dessert” (it’s adjaruli) at Sakhachapure No.1

    Who wants to fight me on these?

    I’ve excluded definitively non-Georgian dishes (like my favorite pad thai or burger) from the list, though I’ve allowed both traditional and contemporary “mostly Georgian” dishes to compete.
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