Archives for category: Travel

Since the semester is mostly over I currently have a little more free time. The heat in Tbilisi has been intense (and record-breaking!), so I was ready to get out of town. I had long-ago read an article about the Convent at Phoka, and I had tried their chocolate from an Old Town souvenir shop. Someone mentioned Paravani Lake in a conversation (the convent is on its shores), and an idea formed in my mind. It was an especially perfect plan, because one day isn’t enough time to go to the seaside, but I did want to be by the water. I woke up Sunday morning and said “Let’s go on an adventure!”. Famous last words.

Paravani Lake is located in the Southern part of Georgia in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region. Southern Georgia (Kvemo Kartli and Samtskhe-Javakheti regions especially) is interesting for its ethnic diversity; there are great numbers of ethnic Armenians and Azeris, villages of Russian spiritual Christians, the odd historically German village, and a few others. There are two roads from Tbilisi to Tsalka, from where there is only one road to the village of Phoka, via Kojori and Manglisi or via Tetritskaro on the Marneuli road. We went via Tetritskaro, as the road is supposed to be in better condition. I had been on part of this road a few times before, including on my first trip to Georgia in 2010. What was amazing about this drive was that nothing looked different. Every time I travel westward on the main road to Gori and beyond, there’s something new and more developed: new marshrutka stops, freshly painted signs on shops, better roads…the road towards Marneuli was just the same as 8 years ago. This is the poorest area of Georgia, and you could see it. Once you leave the dry, brown plains, just after Tetritskaro, things turn green and you enter what is one of the most beautiful areas of Georgia I have seen. Green, with lots of streams and ponds, plentiful wildflowers in the meadows and evergreen forests atop small craggy peaks and rolling hills. It was a beautiful drive. There’s an organization, Elkana, which is working to develop rural tourism in this area, and now I get it. The Georgian government just released a video promoting tourism in the region, with many beautiful shots but ignoring the region’s ethnic diversity, which ruffled a few feathers.

Just before Tsalka, we decided to go explore a few of the villages, more or less at random, and see what there was to see. We turned down the road to the village of Kokhta (I was told this means tower, but I can’t find confirmation of that…) and drove on to the next village, Chrdilisubani (shadow neighborhood). There was no tower, but there was some shade. If anyone knows anything about these villages, please let me know! We spoke to someone in Chrdilisubani to clear up whether or not the road connected back to the highway (answer: it goes back to the highway, but it isn’t really a road. GoogleMaps Lie #1). He was clearly a native Georgian speaker. When we retraced our route back through Kokhta, I noticed that the church had a three-barred Russian cross on it rather than the Georgian cross of grapevines or the Armenian cross I would expect to see in an Armenian village. This piqued my interest since this region is known to be very diverse. Do the Russian spiritual Christians use the Russian Orthodox cross? Did we stumble across some Dukhobors? Maybe Georgians or Armenians just preferred that cross in this village? I couldn’t find an answer in a few quick Google searches, though I can say I’m pretty sure the village is not Azeri.

We continued on to Phoka, through the segment of bad roads in the village of Sameba (the rest of the road from Tbilisi to Phoka was fine).  The beautiful scenery continued, especially as we drove along the shore of Lake Paravani, and the further we were from Tbilisi, the cooler the temperatures got. It was down to 61* (F) on the car thermostat by the time we were in Phoka. There was also a little bit of rain, but nothing major.  We found the convent shop by following the convenient signs. This is a very entrepreneurial convent, who have studied cheesemaking in France and take advantage of their location and solitude to make high-quality gourmet products. We splurged on cheese and chocolate and fancy jam.  The plan was to go to a little marketi, buy some bread and maybe tomatoes, and have a little picnic and return to Tbilisi. End of Day.

IMG_20180708_162037-COLLAGE

Treats from Phoka (that white chocolate with rose petals was so good!)

HAHAHAHAHA

G had the idea to make a loop, rather than going  back to Tbilisi the way we had come. Ninotsminda is the next major town down the road from Phoka, and he knew of a road from Tabatskuri Lake down to Ninotsminda, and had driven from Bakuriani to Tabatskuri Lake before and said the road was good enough. Our new plan was Phoka–>Ninotsminda–>Tbatskuri Lake–>Bakuriani–>Borjomi–>highway back to Tbilisi. It would be beautiful and nice and great.

HAHAHAHAHA

We went to Ninotsminda and bought some bread, and picked up a few (very lovely) Polish hitchhikers outside town. Their goal was to go to Vardzia the next day, so they wanted to find a bed in a place where it would be easy to get a tour to Vardzia. We suggested Borjomi, because it’s a nice town, there are organized tours there, and we could drive them all the way. Perfect! We consulted GoogleMaps which didn’t show a road straight to Tabatskuri, but said that the road to Bakuriani that went near there was a highway, the M20, and off we went. Now, I didn’t expect this highway to be a highway like the divided highway between Tbilisi and Gori, but since it was the same color on the map as all the roads we had been on earlier that day, I expected it to be, you know, passable. It was in yellow, and village roads are generally shown in white. Village roads are dicey, sure. But this was a yellow road; it would be fine.

HAHAHAHAHA

Clearly it was not fine. (GoogleMaps Lie #2) There was a bit of asphalt, and then good gravel, and then….After a short way of bumping and scary crashy-grindy noises and no indication of a better road ahead, we thought to reevaluate the plan. The black storm clouds behind us clinched the deal, and we turned around back to Akhalkalaki. Here we had two choices: go back the way we had come (leaving our hitchhikers further from their destination than they had started) or continue the loop on the road to Akhaltsikhe. We knew the road we had been on was fine, and we knew the road from Akhaltsikhe to Tbilisi was fine…but what about the road between Akhaltsikhe and Akhalkalaki? GoogleMaps said it was yellow. And as we had learned, yellow can mean pretty much anything. We saw that Aspindza was along that route, and I remembered that that was the road to Vardzia, and that THAT road was OK, so it was only a little bit of mystery. We went for it.

Luckily, this part of the road was fine. Potholes, of course, but normal potholes. (This is ALSO a beautiful drive along a small river with mountains on either side). However, the poor little Prius had had a long day, and between Aspindza and Akhaltsikhe a rattling emerged. G climbed out and looked and saw “something” hanging, but couldn’t reach it. We arrived in Akhaltsikhe a little after 8 (on Sunday evening) and saw a lot of closed garages. We found a tire shop and carwash that was open. They let us use the bathroom, and the backpackers bought some coffee in the unfortunately named cafe “Coffee. Oil”. They couldn’t help us with the car, but they told us where the open mechanic’s shop was. Once we found the mechanic, the car got lifted up and we got the good news that it was only the protector that was dangling, so they put it back in place, and after just 10 lari we were good to go. Onwards!

The backpackers had cleverly gone online to book a guesthouse in Borjomi, so we dropped our new friends off and said goodbye (of course the guesthouse wasn’t where GoogleMaps said it was. Lie #3). Now we had been on the road for 10 hours, were hungry (never got that picnic!), and not as relaxed as we had hoped. Clearly we needed a khachapuri break in the village of Akhaldaba outside Borjomi, where they make amazing wood-oven khachapuri. It finally started raining seriously, so we waited it out while we ate. Refreshed and with the rain abating, we had an uneventful (but late) drive back to Tbilisi.

poka map

Long story short: visit this area of Georgia; it’s stunning; do not trust GoogleMaps there.

 

Advertisements
6598284

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (image from GoodReads)

Theroux, Paul. Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar. First Mariner Books ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2009. Print.

In this book, the author, Paul Theroux, travels across Eurasia mostly on land, primarily by train. He more or less retraces his journey 30 years earlier, which was recounted in his book “The Great Railway Bazaar”. The most pertinent difference between these two journeys, for my purposes, is that on his second journey, he was not able to get a visa to Iran, and so he rerouted through Georgia. This book stands out as the least glowing travel memoir of Georgia I’ve read, which is not to say it’s negative, though. It’s certainly an interesting tale and a snapshot of Georgia at a very particular time. Theroux crosses the land border from Turkey to Georgia at Sarpi on a dreary, muddy spring day not long after the Rose Revolution. This was before Saakashvili shined things up, and before the tourists came. He visits charity houses, watches the mediocre ballet in the faded Opera House, and sees subsistence farmers all along the rail line across the country. It’s a good reminder that the Rose Revolution was not very long ago, and that Saakashvili’s reforms still took time. The Opera House only recently reopened after years of renovations, and some of the people he met and spoke to are still relevant cultural figures, but the Georgia he describes is very different than the experience visitors will have in Tbilisi or Batumi these days, though the Georgia Theroux descrives is still prevalent in the regions and prone to be forgotten by Tbilisi elites and foreign tourists alike.

One quotation from one of Theroux’s conversations made me think, in particular, about this blog. They say, “You live in a place and you become blind to it” (p. 454). I think that has been happening to me, now that I’ve been in Georgia for more than six years (!?!?!). Things just seem normal now, and I don’t have the observations that I used to. That said, if anyone has any requests for posts…

One interesting part of Theroux’s journey was that he made a point of meeting with writers on his travels, including one of my favorites: Elif Shafak. Her book “The Bastard of Istanbul” remains one of the most enjoyable and thought-provoking contemporary novels I have read.  It’s clear that Theroux holds her in similar esteem (and also that she’s really really pretty). She is great. Reading “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star” has greatly expanded my to-read list, as so many of the books whose authors he meets sound great, and I am curious to read about his previous journey when he and the world were very different.

I had a glorious and rare free day the day before Easter vacation this year, so I decided to get out of town, get some fresh air, and try to avoid the Easter traffic at the same time. Luckily, it was nearly perfect weather, so there were plenty of options. I convinced G to join me for a day trip to Surami, a town I had passed through hundreds of times, but had never visited. If the name rings a vague bell, it might be because of the film by Sergei Parajanov “The Legend of Suram Fortress”. I’ve never seen the film, but I did see the ballet Gorda (a must-see at the Tbilisi Opera!) which tells the same folktale, and so my sights were set on that fortress.

IMG_20180405_145051

The tree-lined lane from the road up to Surami Fortress

Turns out, the fortress is pretty easy to access; it’s just a short not-too-steep walk up a lane from the main road. We timed our visit just right, as the fruit trees lining the little lane were blooming, making it a lovely sight. We shared the fortress with a cow and, briefly, one other group of visitors. There were lots of places that would be an Instagrammer’s heaven, but posing for photos isn’t my thing. We still got some nice shots, though.

Ready to explore some more, we stopped at the town mineral water fountain, which was quite beautiful but not very delicious. I guess the water is supposed to be good for your health, or something, because it wasn’t particularly refreshing. We went on to try to visit the museum dedicated to Ukrainian poetess Lesya Ukrainka, but it was closed, seemingly in early celebration of Easter.

We couldn’t leave Surami without purchasing some of the town’s famous nazuki (ნაზუქი sweet bread). It’s quite the sight the first time you drive through Surami on the highway, and all along the highway are huts selling bread, often with ambitious salespeople flapping around their wares. Nazuki is rarely sold outside of Surami and neighboring Khashuri (they say that they have special matsoni (yogurt) there that makes the bread especially good). I really enjoy nazuki (but don’t tell too many Georgians that I like to spread cream cheese or mascarpone on top!), so it was an important part of the expedition.

IMG_20180405_180048

Nazuki huts along the highway

We had a surprisingly good dinner at a place in Khashuri, and then made our way back to Tbilisi to spend the holiday weekend in the unusually quiet city.

IMG_0687

The beach chairs on Gonio beach in previous summers

Seriously, Gonio beach chair people? You don’t get the whole beach! You can see from the photo of a previous summer, there were quite a few beach chairs for rent on the beach in previous summers, but in summer 2017 the problem really exploded. There wasn’t any beach left WITHOUT beach chairs on it, and the beach chair attendants wouldn’t allow you to move one. The prices aren’t too bad, at 6 GEL/hour, but if I have brought my own chair or mat from home, I don’t really need a beach chair, and I still have a right to use some part of the public beach. There are way more beach chairs for rent than there is demand. The attendant finally relented and let us use a little patch of beach, since we argued that since there were 20 chairs in a row unoccupied, it probably wouldn’t make much of a difference to his bottom line.  Come on now, folks. I applaud the entrepreneurial spirit, but it’s a public beach. You can’t take the whole thing. Capitalism: you’re doing it wrong.

The accepted way to spend a summer vacation in Georgia is to head to the Black Sea coast. Some people prefer Kobuleti, others Batumi. Usually I stay in Gonio, as it’s a bit cheaper than Batumi but very close by, and the water is cleaner and more pleasant for swimming. This year, I stayed in Gonio again, in the same guesthouse that I have for the past few years, but had a very different trip. This time, we did the MOUNTAINS. The weather wasn’t very good at the beach, and I’ve seen the Botanical Garden and the Boulevard a few times (not that they’re not still fun), but I was looking for something new. This time we had a reliable car, so we went exploring. One day, we set off on the back road to Akhaltsikhe. The road goes along a very wide and scenic river, so there are lots of beautiful views. The name of a village caught our eye: Bzubzu (that sounds funny in Georgian, too), so we turned and drove up that road. It was a surprisingly good road, and we followed it for a while taking in the scenery and fresh air before coming back down the mountain and returning to the main road.

IMG_20170829_171538

BZUBZU (and awkwardly placed cow)

As we drove on, we noticed multiple rafting companies operating and a number of wine cellars open to tourists. There seemed to be lots of tour groups visiting, as well. There was a medieval bridge, an early Soviet aqueduct and a few waterfalls, all with people gathered around taking photos. (I’m also guilty…the photo of me posing with Akhali Cola in my summer favorites was taken atop the Soviet aqueduct)

IMG_20170830_165231

Funny sign at Mtirala National Park HQ

Our next adventure was to Mtirala (literally “weeping”) National Park, the rainiest place in Georgia. True to its name, it was indeed raining off and on as we drove to the park headquarters. Unlike the road into the mountain villages, this road was shockingly bad. I’m really not sure how the little Prius made it. If we’d had more time, hiking in wouldn’t have been a bad idea. We did the short hike to the waterfall, and the trail was very well-marked and -maintained. Some of our party, however, complained that we had had to walk so far just to see some water. Hiking’s not for everyone, I guess. On the return leg, it started raining in earnest, so we skipped stopping to see the lake. We returned to the visitor center to have a picnic, but they were charging a fee for tables, so they suggested we go next door to the restaurant next door where we could use a table for free (Capitalism: you’re doing it wrong). Then we hit the road back and crept across all the potholes back to Chakvi.

Our final excursion into the mountains came on Eid, or Kurban Bayramoba as it’s called in Georgian. The owner of the guesthouse where we were staying is an Adjaran Muslim, and he invited us to celebrate with him and his friends on the mountaintop near the village. Of course we said yes! This time the trusty little Prius nearly didn’t make it (it overheated a few times–despite the high altitude chill–so we had to stop multiple times on the way up to let it cool down). The host’s estimation of how long it took to get to the village was a vast underestimate. Then, we weren’t actually visiting the village, but the mountaintop nearby. It took a REALLY long time to get up there. The village was a little place named Tsablana, and they tell me the mountain is called Ghomis Mta, though I can’t confirm that on any maps. Ghomis Mta translates literally to “Grits Mountain” and there’s a great story for why it’s called that. Two neighboring villages disputed which village owned the mountain, so they agreed to a contest to settle the matter. Whichever village could bring hot food to the top of the mountain faster, and without the food getting cold would get ownership of the mountain. Those silly people in the other village prepared the Adjaran specialty of borano which is very delicious, but apparently doesn’t hold its heat very well. The wily Tsablanans, however, made the Megrelian staple ghomi (grits). Even wilier, they put a fire-warmed stone underneath the food so that it would stay hot longer. Tsablana’s trick worked, and they gained claim over the mountain. So this is where we gathered with our host and his friends to celebrate Eid with a feast. They grilled fish and chicken over a fire, and we had fresh fruits and veggies and some cold khinkali. And lots of wine and chacha (level of observance of Islam: pork, no; alcohol, yes). I was delighted that the mountaintop was covered in juicy sweet wild blueberries (they’re hard to buy here!). I’m told the view is stunning on a clear day and you can see the few kilometers into Turkey, but we only saw mist:

IMG_20170901_150916

Misty view from Ghomis Mta

I can’t believe it took me this long to get into Mountainous Adjara, and there’s still so much left to explore!

IMG_20170712_124616.jpg

Wildflowers and mountains, very Bakuriani

I FINALLY made it to Bakuriani! It’s odd that I’d never been there before, as it’s just up the mountain from Borjomi, one of my favorite weekend getaways. I went there a different way than I usually travel, though; I was teaching at a summer camp held there. It was, to be honest, a pretty sweet gig (despite some incredibly rude kids): as a teacher I wasn’t responsible for the kids outside my class hours, so I got to have plenty of free time to read novels, go on walks, and catch up on Jane the Virgin. Bakuriani is primarily famous as a ski resort, but they’ve done quite well in marketing themselves as a summer destination, too. The place was full of summer camps and families relaxing outside the heat of Tbilisi. Though room rates are cut in half for summer, it looked like the hotel was making a fairly good profit selling the campers Coca-Cola and ice cream. It was on average about 10*C cooler in Bakuriani than back in Tbilisi, making the weather just lovely. We were lucky to have sunshine for the majority of our time there, and somehow I didn’t spot any mosquitoes!

Since camp was keeping the hotels quite full, I actually spent time in three different hotels: Hotel Ritza, Hotel Ana-Maria, and Hotel Edemi.  None of them were perfect, but all of them were quite good–especially for the summer season prices. I was definitely comfortable. They all seem to be managed by the same people, but Ana-Maria was the most recently renovated.

IMG_20170717_081932

View of Aghmashenebeli Street from below, where Hotels Ritza (the big yellow one left of center), Ana-Maria, and Edemi are located.

Since I was at summer camp, I didn’t try any of the restaurants in town, eating with the camp at Ritza. The strawberry-apple jam and (home made?) pelmeni were excellent (though pelmeni for breakfast was hard on my stomach). Other meals were less impressive, but nothing was disgusting or anything. Likewise, I can’t comment on transportation to Bakuriani, as I traveled on the camp bus, though I hear the train up from Borjomi is wonderful.

IMG_20170715_202734

Thunderstorms rolling in over the mountains at dusk

Everyone working in the little shops in town was incredibly friendly and helpful (not always the norm), and I really liked walking around, poking in various places, and exploring. The town layout was pretty simple, so I never worried about getting lost. One nice little walk was to a suspended footbridge behind the “Bakuriani Resorts” hotel (I think that’s near the “Otsdakhutianebi” ski slope. Visiting the Didveli ski slope and taking the cable car up was also fun, but be warned–5 GEL only gets you halfway up; you’ll need to spend another 5 GEL for the next cable car further to the top (I didn’t…this time). There’s quite a lot to do in Bakuriani (I didn’t have time to do it all): it has one of the few cinemas outside of Tbilisi, there’s an amusement park and a botanical garden, and you can rent horses, bicycles or ATVs to go for a ride. The scenery is beautiful, and in early July, at least, all the meadows were full of wildflowers. Bakuriani is definitely a nice place to escape the summer heat and relax–I hope to go back sometime soon, maybe I’ll even try skiing.

I kept delaying this post as I tried to get the names of villages from a friend who was keeping track, but that never happened and it’s now embarrassingly late to post about last summer’s travels, so let’s call this an anniversary “throw-back” post, with a little less detail than originally planned. This trip was to the Lechkhumi portion of the Raja-Lechkumi and Kvemo Svaneti Region of Georgia which is in the north and center-west of the country and part of the Greater Caucasus. I visited in July 2016. #TBT

 

We started the weekend with the drive to Kutaisi, from whence we went into Lechkhumi via the village of Rioni, mostly following the Rioni river. This route was beautiful, but the roads were bad (we had car trouble in a Delica!), so I wouldn’t recommend it for independent travel. We stopped at a few waterfalls along the road, and visited a variety of village churches, some with beautiful frescoes. One of the last towns we stopped in featured a cemetery with nicely decorated gravestones and a treehouse which was fun to climb. Down the road a bit was a beautiful panoramic view, where we could apparently see into Svaneti. The only village name I remember on this route is Lailashi, which I remember because we ran out of time to go there. At the end of the day, we arrived in Tsageri to a cheap home-stay that let some members of our group camp in the yard for free while the rest of us paid for beds in the house.

The next day, we woke up and headed to the Tsageri museum which was EXCELLENT–one of the best curated museums I’ve visited in Georgia. It housed taxidermy, ancient artifacts (coins, statues, and weapons), photography, and other bits and bobs all labelled in understandable English. The director of the museum (I think…the man who showed us around) is also, apparently, an artist and he showed us some of his work as well. The whole town of Tsageri was really impressive. The locals clearly care for their town; everything looked well-maintained and tidy. I’ve since met someone who grew up in Tsageri and he agreed with my conclusion, saying people only leave because there are so few jobs there. I’ve seen plans to re-build the airport and build a football stadium to international standards in the town, so maybe that trend will stop.

Our next stop was the fortress overlooking Tsageri, which guarded the crossroads between the different principalities in the medieval period. At this time, the weather was starting to turn for the worse, so we spent a lot of time fiddle-faddling around deciding whether or not to go up to the summit of Khvamli Mountain. We actually went halfway up, decided to turn around and visit Tskaltubo instead, and then went back all the way to the top the next time. The view from Khvamli was incredible, and the clouds causing the poor weather made the view mystical and magical, but I really could have done without all the indecision and time-wasting. We did end up with some nice photos, though.

Then we were back on the road to Kutaisi via Tskaltubo and then home to Tbilisi, tired after a busy weekend and a lot of fresh air. Unlike the other road, this road was very good quality. It you’re flying into Kutaisi and want to visit the mountains, Tsageri and Khvamli might be a good, accessible option. It’s certainly a beautiful corner of Georgia.

Having spent most of May injured and recuperating, I was itching to get out of the city and be active now that I was feeling better, but I was sure that my endurance had taken a hit from not doing much other than stretching for a month. A friend posted on Facebook that he was organizing a group hike to Lagodekhi, and it was suitable for beginners, so it seemed like it could be the perfect thing for me to get back at it. I’ve heard Lagodekhi is beautiful, but I’d never been there, and it was supposed to be a fairly flat and easy trail. Perfect! But the weather foiled our plans. Weather reports were divided as to whether or not it was raining in Lagodekhi at the time of our departure, but there had been 3 days of rain before, so the trail would have been MUDDY. We decided as a group to go instead to Ateni in Shida Kartli, where the weather was supposed to be lovely. One of my co-workers has a village house in Ateni, and she always brings us the most wonderful fruit from her orchard, so it seemed like a fine idea to me.

Ateni isn’t a very long drive from Tbilisi, so that’s definitely a mark in its favor. It took us a few tries to locate the right bridge in the village to start our hike from, but once we were there we began by following the road through the village up the hill easily enough (the entire hike followed that road, though “road” became a less accurate description the further we went). I was off to a good start, feeling strong on my way up the hill. I started to feel it right before the trail split, though. There was a fortress (I believe it was Veres Tsikhe) off to the left, and we were given the option to either go see the fortress, or take a little break. Though I love fortresses, I knew I should conserve my energy, so I sat and took a break with another girl in the group.

The others returned, citing steep walls and snakes (!) and we were off on our hike again. This section of the trail was much harder than before as it was pretty much straight up the mountain, and I was definitely starting to get tired. Every time I thought we’d reached the summit, another hill appeared beyond the meadow. One time we even left the trail and were climbing a hill so steep the ground was nearly right in front of my face. After I while I was only managing to trudge 3 steps before taking a mini-break, with my hip flexors aching all the way (that was new! Usually it’s my thighs that burn from hiking).

I thought we’d reached the top, but was confronted with yet another hill before we reached the church. But, you know what? I was done. I’ve never done that before…given up and stopped. But this hike was much harder than I had planned, and I was starting to wonder if I would have the strength to get back down the mountain. I’ve also seen plenty of Georgian churches at this point. I was in a safe and comfortable place, so I told the others to go on without me, and I waited in that nice mountain meadow. I made sure the friend I had come with and the hike leader knew where I was, and I dropped a pin on Google maps and sent my location to a friend not in the group, and then I just laid down in that meadow and rested. Actually, I had a really great time there, watching the clouds and thinking. I initially wished I had brought my Kindle, or that my phone had gotten internet reception, but in the end I only got bored about 10 minutes before the others returned. It took them more than 2 and a half hours to get up and back (they had estimated 45 minutes), so it was a difficult hike. Apparently that section of trail was really muddy and slippery, making it even more of a challenge. Staying was 100% the right decision for me at that time. When they returned, some of the others told me they wished they had stayed with me, and even those who didn’t mind the hike said that the view wasn’t so much better to justify the difficult walk (some of them may have been trying to make me feel better, but I don’t think all of them were).

IMG_20170611_154418

The church I did not visit atop the mountain I did not climb.

IMG_20170611_170938

The sights I saw on this trip.

Refreshed, I kept up with the others and was able to chat and socialize on the way down, which seemed so much shorter! The scenery was pretty and I didn’t re-injure myself, so even though I had to give up, I’m calling the day a success.

Note: I believe the fortress I didn’t visit was Veres Tsikhe, and though I’m pretty sure I located the “road” we followed on the map, I can’t find a name for the church at the top.

Now that the high season is upon us, I’ll tell you the things that everyone else has forgotten to mention.

20170516_134414-COLLAGE

Clockwise from top left: A marshrutka station in Sagarejo, Former roommate S models some Borjomi water while hiking in Borjomi, a zebra crossing (photo from Jim (for another project, but fits here perfectly), my former host sister Ani and I in “church clothes”, some delicious but heavy adjaruli khachapuri.

#1 Don’t cross the street! Of course you have to get to the other side of the street, but don’t just traipse across. If it looks difficult to cross, that’s because it is. The busiest streets will have either underpasses or pedestrian bridges every few blocks. Look for those; it’s worth it. If there isn’t one, the designated crossing place will be painted on the road with zebra stripes, but it’s much, much better to find one at a traffic light, and even then you have to be careful. The ones unattached to traffic lights are mostly decorative in practice, and the one on the Embankment near Dry Bridge is basically nothing (go up the hill to the park and cross the bridge itself to the flea market)

#2 Go easy on the Georgian food the first few days. Georgian food is amazing, and probably part of the reason you chose to come here, but “Tbilisi Tummy” is common and will really put a damper on your travels, so go easy at first. Many of the iconic Georgian dishes (I’m looking at you, khachapuri and khinkali) are greasy and heavy and hard to digest, and not all places will be up to the hygiene standards you may be used to, so let yourself adjust for a few days before you hit the supra hard. There is plenty of good, light fare available (even in a typical Georgian restaurant). If you want to gird your digestive system with fermented foods, Georgian pickles are delicious (especially jonjoli, my favorite!) and Georgian yogurt (matsoni) is cheap, tasty, and easily available.

#3 Pack a scarf and a skirt. A large number of the tourist attractions are churches, and almost all Georgian Orthodox churches require that women wear a skirt and have their hair covered. Some of them provide various wraps at the door and some don’t; some of those provided are clean… You’ll be much more comfortable and likely to see what you came for if you just bring your own. Some churches don’t mind, some are even stricter (I’ve heard stories that Gergeti Sameba in Kazbegi won’t let people wear glasses inside?!?), but scarf and skirt is the norm. For the fellows–no shorts.

#4 Smile? Many Americans’ default facial position is a smile, and that’s not the case in Georgia. If you want to attract the attention of someone across the bar (/metro car), smiling is a good way to do it. If you’d rather be left alone, relaxing your face will reduce (though may not eliminate) unwanted attention.

#5 If you choose to use the marshrutka system, have faith in it. I know the marshrutka system seems like it will never work, but it really does work fairly efficiently. It’s by far the cheapest way to get around, though there will be a certain amount of standing by the road and waiting. Be patient. If you are on the right route (check with some locals if you’re nervous about that, but honestly there aren’t very many roads, so it’s unlikely they took a detour), it will come eventually. If the marshrutka isn’t your style, there’s no shame in that; there are also trains and buses, or you can hire a taxi (or rent a car, or hitchhike, or join an organized excursion). Don’t expect the marshrutka to be something it’s not, and you’ll avert a lot of disappointment.

#6. Stay hydrated. It can get hot here. Even though it may be cool in the mountains, you’re at a higher elevation. You’re probably going to be drinking some wine, and maybe even some chacha. You might be walking/hiking a lot. Bottled water is cheap (starting at 50 tetri/bottle) and sold everywhere, and Georgia is famous for its mineral water. Most towns even have free public drinking fountains, and there are lots of mountain springs (the water is usually OK to drink, but make your own risk assessment based on your health, background, and location). You’ll be a much happier camper if you aren’t thirsty.

Any others with experience travelling here have some advice I missed?

Any questions, class?

I went to Tao-Klarjeti a few weeks ago. If you chose to take a break and look for that on a map, you may be very confused at this point. Tao-Klarjeti isn’t the name of anywhere anymore. It was the region where the Bagrationi dynasty of Georgian monarchs were from, and now it’s part of Turkey; the places we visited were mostly in Artvin province. It’s a pretty popular destination for Georgians to go on tours, but not somewhere many Americans visit, so when a friend asked if I wanted to join, I said “Why not?”. We went on an organized, but not guided, tour. We had two mini vans full of people, including a professional driver for each, and the organizer. The drivers were very good and did not suffer from lead foot or road rage, and the organizer had a route worked out and pre-arranged cheap hotels. We paid 270 GEL/person for a 3-day trip, which included everything except food–we didn’t stop at restaurants or stores (though one evening we went to a teahouse and bought some olives and baklava); we brought pretty much everything with us from Tbilisi, and ate in the car en route.

We left Tbilisi early in the morning and made for the Vale-Türkgözü border crossing. There was a long line of trucks, but very few passenger cars, so they let us skip ahead and we crossed quite quickly. It was interesting to see the change as we crossed the border. The geography in the region was the same on the Georgian and Turkish sides, but nonetheless it was obvious that we were in a different country–the cemeteries were different, the houses were a different style, and there were tractors and mechanized agriculture all around us. As we drove further into Turkey we got into higher and higher mountains. There was still quite a bit of snow, and we were even caught in a blizzard in the mountains between Ardahan and Savsat. There was some sort of nature reserve or natural park in the mountains, and it reminded me of the American West–pine forests, rugged mountains, and well-maintained picnic areas. As we drove through a village on the Savsat side, one whole village was outside (despite the poor weather) having some sort of festival.

Late in the afternoon, we made our first stop: Tbeti Monastery, the first of many old, abandoned Georgian churches in various states of ruin. Apparently this church survived fairly well for a long time, but was “exploded” in the mid-20th century…sounds like there’s a story there, but I didn’t get any more information than that. One of the villagers speaks some Georgian and runs a little souvenir shop (and paid toilet) next to the site. Next, we stopped at Savsat Kalesi, the former citadel of the town of Savsat (in Georgian, შავშეთი/Shavsheti) which was kind of a big deal back in the Georgian era. There are archeological excavations ongoing sponsored by the Turkish government. The fortress has some typically Georgian features–there’s a tone (traditional Georgian bread kiln) and kvevri (Georgian amphorae), and a “pharmacy” very similar to the one at Vardzia. Then we took a break from historical sites and clambered around “Hell’s Canyon” (Cehennem Deresi Kanyonu). It was a nice enough canyon, I suppose, but as I’ve spent a lot of time in the American West, a canyon in and of itself is nothing so impressive. This was the place where it became abundantly clear that our organizer’s footwear recommendations were way off the mark. She had recommended galoshes or rain boots, which I don’t have, so I wore what was closest: snow boots. Even though my snow boots are made by an outdoors/hiking brand, they are absolute clodhoppers, and I had real difficulty maneuvering through the canyon and leaping from stone to stone. I also picked up a good few kilos of mud in the treads, making me kind of miserable. But I made it through. Our next stop was the fortress Artanuji / Gevhernik. We approached from behind, and it was perched atop a sheer rock face. When my friend told me we were climbing up there, I joked about not having brought any rock climbing gear. We walked around to the other side, and though there was a path (of a sort) it was still tough climbing in the aforementioned clodhoppers. It was worth the climb, as the fortress was filled with wildflowers, and was really, really beautiful.

DSC_0091

Artanuji Fortress

After one more stop at Dolishane Church, which is supposed to have lovely frescoes, but I couldn’t tell you as it was pitch black by the time we got there, we returned to the town of Savsat and stayed in a pension run by a guy called Jemal, who is the widower of a Georgian woman and loves all things Georgia. The place was basic, but clean (until we tramped mud through), and the beds were comfy and showers were warm.

The next day, I ignored any further fashion advice and switched to my trail runners, so I had no further climbing issues. First, we drove up a narrow, windy, frightening/beautiful mountain road to Porta monastery.  We saved some time getting there by scrambling up a stream bed rather than following the path. This was once a massive complex; now much of it is buried, but bits are still accessible. The ground we stood on was once one of the upper roofs. Apparently a large piece of the dome (which is still above ground) had fallen just a few days before our visit, so I was rather wary of exploring very much. It was also interesting that the village is still inhabited, and though it’s tiny and remote, electric lines do reach up there.

DSC_0139

You can understand why bits of Porta are falling down, right?

We also visited the village spring to refill our water bottles with cool fresh water. The Georgians said it had some special health/religious properties, but I was mostly happy to get a cool drink.

Our next stop was Artvin Castle, which is now part of a Turkish military base (so no photos). At first they told us we couldn’t enter, but then a nice young soldier who spoke very good English came to escort us. On the road to our next destination, there was a distinct change in the landscape. The area around Savsat was one of the lushest, greenest places I’ve visited (we drove past a hotel called Green Valley: they were not lying), and as we went further on, the landscape become much more arid (and brown). We visited many churches this afternoon: Ishan Monastery, which was closed for restoration–the Georgian government has protested the way the Turks were renovating, allegedly frescoes were destroyed, but they seem to be back at work; Haho/Hahuli which is now used as a mosque; there are supposed to be good frescoes, but it was locked so we couldn’t see; and the Oshki Monastery, which was relatively intact except for the lack of roof, and also had an academy. Our last stop of the evening was  Tortum Waterfall, the highest in Turkey, which had rather nice tourism infrastructure and cafes. We were due to spend the night in the town of Yusufeli, so we wandered around a bit, bought some edible souvenirs, and met and chatted with a Georgian Turk in a teahouse. We then proceeded on to our accommodation at Hotel Agara, which was lovely, and a sakalmakhe (საკალმახე, trout restaurant) as well as a hotel. This day was particularly poignant as much of the area surrounding these places, apparently including the town of Yusufeli, will soon be flooded with the completion of planned dam projects. I’m not sure about the status of the historical sites themselves, though the ones on mountaintops are likely to be fine.

On the third and final day of our trip, we began at the Tekkale/Otkhta Monastery (the “Monastery of Four”), then visited Esbek, which was interesting as it was the ruins of a village, rather than a religious site. Apparently snakes like it there, though, so we had to be careful. There was also quite a view down into the valley. Then we visited Bana, my favorite of the old churches. It was really, really, ruined, but in a very picturesque way. Apparently its current gravity-defying structure is the result of being used as a military installation in the Crimean and Russo-Turkish wars. It’s also located on a small rise in the middle of a broad valley surrounded on all sides by colorful mountains, giving you stunning views in all directions.

IMG_0867

Ruins at Bana

One of the mini-vans got a flat tire at Bana, so we had to stop for repairs before we went on our way home. Along the road we saw the source of the Mtkvari, the river through Tbilisi. Our last stop was Seytan Castle (allegedly the setting of Georgia’s most famous epic poem, The Knight in the Panther Skin).

DSC_0088

You remember “Where’s Waldo?”, right? This is “Where’s Em?” at Seytan Castle

We crossed back to Georgia at the Çıldır-Aktaş-Kartsakhi crossing point, which the internet says is closed, but seemed to work mostly fine for us (one of our drivers had a little trouble and was taken for interrogation because he had the same name as someone on the deportation list…it got sorted out, though). We returned to Tbilisi late at night, tired from a jam-packed three days of sightseeing.

I can’t write a post about traveling in Turkey and ignore the security/terrorism question. I thought long and hard before I chose to take this trip, and asked a lot of questions. I’m lucky that I have friends who are experts on security in the region, and family who support me in making these kinds of decisions. Just before I went to Tao-Klarjeti, the US State Department updated its Turkey travel warning, and it is kind of grim, so I debated this trip a lot. On the one hand, I really don’t want to get hurt, and on the other hand, I believe that staying at home, not going anywhere or doing anything out of fear is playing into the hands of terrorists. In summary: this particular area neither has much of a Kurdish population, nor is it near Syria, so in those ways it’s not a likely target. This is also a very sparsely populated area: the most populous town we spent any time in was Artvin, with a population of 25,771. I could count the number of other tourists we came across on my fingers. However, as this area was the Soviet-NATO border, there are a large number of military installations, and there is also a good amount of strategic infrastructure, particularly dams and reservoirs, which I was unaware of before I traveled. To be honest, there’s much more immediate danger from road accidents than there is from terrorism–the mountain roads were very steep and windy, though much better maintained than their Georgian equivalents. Overall, I didn’t feel that I was in any particular danger while I was there. My conclusion was (and is) that this is probably the safest area of Turkey to visit right now, but it’s not without risks (but even home is never 100% safe).

%d bloggers like this: