Archives for posts with tag: Georgia
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Clockwise from top left: Museum rooftop selfie, Mount Ushba from the museum rooftop, Svan tower, millet tchvishtari

Mariamoba was on a Tuesday this year, and since my Monday classes took a summer vacation, that gave me a 4-day weekend; actually enough time to go a little further afield. G had never been to Svaneti, and my previous trip was far from enough, so we decided to make a weekend of it. We planned to leave mid-day Saturday, but work intervened, so we didn’t leave until late afternoon. Our plan was to drive to Zugdidi to spend the night there, break up the drive, and spend some time with G’s relatives. The thing that had come loose on the car on our trip to Poka was making noise again, and there was heavy traffic, so it took longer than planned and we didn’t get in to Zugdidi until quite late. We got to hang out with the family a bit in the morning, though. One of the little ones is book-obsessed and loved the board books I had brought her, so we got along swimmingly.

We left Zugdidi around noon and drove into Svaneti. We’d stopped at the Enguri dam and taken photos before, so we skipped that stop, but did pull off for the odd scenic pitstop. It took about three and a half hours to get to Mestia. Just outside Mestia, we picked up a group of hitchhikers, who were a great boon to us. They were all Tbilisi Svan English teachers spending their summer vacation in their ancestral home. They called a friend of theirs who ran a guesthouse and hooked us up with a cheap, clean guesthouse with a private bathroom. They also gave us some restaurant and sightseeing advice, and were just generally very nice and helpful. Unfortunately I didn’t catch any of their names, but one of them works with one of my co-workers (small country), so hopefully I can meet her again and say thank you.

After dropping our stuff off in the room we went for a wander in the town and relaxed a bit in the park at Seti Square, and then went to make sure we made it to the Svaneti museum before they closed. I’m really glad we made it to the museum; it’s small but well-presented and really worth visiting. I found the display of coins left at the churches really interesting in their age and geographic range. After seeing the exhibits, we climbed to the museum roof to see the panoramic view of Mestia and take some photos. We finished the day at Koshki Bar (also recommended by our hitchhikers for kubdari). I was surprised that a place next to the bus station would be so good…it’s usually better to walk further afield. The menu was extensive, and despite all my years in Georgia, I wasn’t familiar with all the dishes. We were discussing what to order in our usual mish-mash of Georgian and English, and the waitress kept right up, speaking to us in both languages.  We wound up ordering the kubdari (the Svanetian version of khachapuri, filled with spiced meat), the house salad (which the waitress made sure we knew was made with beef tongue) and a tchvishtari (Svanetian cheesy cornbread, a favorite of mine) made with millet. Everything was delicious, though I thought the tchvishtari was a little on the salty side. When I went to the restroom, I noticed in the refrigerator a legit-looking chocolate cake, so I splurged and had dessert and did not regret it in the least. It was one of the best cakes I’ve had in Georgia. Walking around Mestia I was struck by how different it was than four years ago. Then there were lots of empty new buildings and not many people around. This time, Mestia was vibrant! Tourists and locals alike were playing in the park, strolling along the streets, and eating in cafes. There were far fewer empty storefronts, but there were still cows walking down the main street and old men in traditional hats minding their own business. Right now, they’ve hit the balance between tradition and development right on the head for me…I desperately hope they manage to hold onto that balance, as the place is only going to keep getting more and more popular.

After sleeping in the next morning, I started the day with my first-ever flat white at Erti Kava which brews my beloved Coffee Lab beans and has a really extensive drink menu including the lovely flower fairy tea from the baths (…must find the name of that brand!). We had a breakfast that was really more of a lunch at Cafe Panorama  where I sampled their version of millet tchvistari (I preferred Koshki’s version, but this was also very good) and G had a massive plate of ojakhuri (pork and potatoes cooked together…this version included some wine, too). We walked down to the riverside and relaxed and listened to the rushing water for a while. Then we walked to the Hatsvali Ski Lift. The idea was to take the ski lift up, and go for a short hike/long walk once we were at the top. However, the ski lift was closed for repairs. Given what happened at Gudauri last winter, this is probably for the best, but it was annoying that the sign said the lift would reopen on August 10, and we were well past that with no information on when it would actually reopen. Our plans were foiled, so we wandered around the town for a while and returned to Seti Square, where G to a little nap to digest his ojakhuri. After another little wander through the other part of the town, we had dinner at Buba, which was recomended by our hostess for kubdari. G was still pretty full, so we didn’t order it, though. We got “Svan fries” (french fries with Svanetian salt), millet khachapuri (which was amazing! I think the millet was mixed in with the cheese rather than the used for the dough, though, so I think it still contained wheat) and chicken soup (which may also have contained millet). All the food was really good.

Tuesday was Mariamoba, which is apparently a particularly big deal in Svaneti, but we had to drive back to Tbilisi. Only Laila was open for breakfast but their breakfast menu was limited and kind of disappointing, so G decided to wait and I grabbed a packaged croissant and a banana from the market and returned to Erti Kava for a latte. They also had a little bit of quiche left (they don’t sell much food, but apparently have some), so I got a piece and was quite satisfied with my breakfast. We set off, and stopped along the road for G to have his last taste of kubdari in Khaishi. Despite the holiday, traffic wasn’t too bad on the highway, so we made it back to Tbilisi in decent time.

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A friend and I had tried to go on a trip to Tusheti a few years ago, but it was too expensive for just two people, so we passed up that opportunity. This summer another friend suggested going and put together a group of four, so it was more financially possible (I also have a better salary now). Tusheti is one of the most gushed-over regions of Georgia, so I was really excited about the trip.

Tusheti is one of the most remote regions of Georgia, located on the northern slopes of the Greater Caucasus range; the only road is closed from October to May, and sometimes longer. That road is only accessible to 4 wheel drive vehicles, and it takes at least 4 hours to make it to the main village, Omalo.  Very few people stay in Tusheti over the winter (and most of those who stay remain in Omalo, not the other villages) though the government does provide weekly helicopter service for those who do. Pretty much the entire region is a protected area or national park, so the nature there is relatively unspoiled, especially compared to other parts of the country (there are big chunks of woods!). Administratively, Tusheti is part of the Kakheti region. Tushetians are quite well-integrated into the rest of Georgia, but they do have their own culture and history. One of the most obvious demonstrations of this is the prohibition on pork in Tusheti (whereas pork is synonymous with food in much of the rest of Georgia). Instead of pork, lamb is the primary meat source–this is great for me as I love lamb and it isn’t always easy to find in Tbilisi outside the Easter holidays. Accordingly, the people are mostly shepherds and semi-nomadic. The superstition is that if you bring pork into Tusheti, it will rain. I was pretty sure the pate we brought was beef (and it had a picture of a cow on it!) but some Tushetians scolded us for it anyway…

We left early on Monday morning, picked up the others, and made our way to Telavi where we had a khinkali brunch. We proceeded then to Zemo Alvani, where we met the friend-of-a-friend we were staying with. While he was preparing the last things, we went to the local grocery store and stocked up since the boys were afraid they would starve in Tusheti.  We packed up the Delica (300 GEL/car, shared between the number of passengers: “maximum” 6, so 50 GEL/person), stored our car in another friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend’s house in Kvemo Alvani (the main jumping-off point) and were on the road to Tusheti. This road had me a bit apprehensive; it was featured on the BBC’s Most Dangerous Roads, so that’s hardly an endorsement, is it? To be honest, it wasn’t that bad. The road is very narrow and windy, so it definitely requires a driver who knows how to control the car and pay attention, but the road itself was relatively well-maintained. The other big thing about the road is that many of the mountain streams run straight across it, so the driver and the car need to be able to ford some water. I’ve been on MANY worse roads in Georgia, though. The scenery out the window is certainly beautiful. We did get stuck in a traffic jam mid-way caused by a rockfall that needed to be cleared before cars could continue to pass. There are a number of memorials along the road to those who have died, which does undermine one’s confidence a bit, though I have heard rumors that not all of those are actually due to car accidents…

Our destination that night was the village of Parsma, about an hour and a half drive past Omalo, and the last village generally accessible by vehicle. It was dark when we arrived, and we were told that we needed to just climb that little mountain to get to our place. Before we had been told that the car could bring us to the door, so we hadn’t packed accordingly. I grew up with the Girl Scout advice that you should be able to carry your own supplies one mile, and I try to abide by that. HOWEVER, one kilometer straight up a slippery mountain after dark is not the same as a normal one mile, and somehow the shoulder strap for my duffel bag was nowhere to be found, so that was a struggle. We had been told it was a “normal house”, but we were in a remote region, so I wasn’t really expecting electricity (and I was right), but I was kind of expecting beds (and I was wrong). The sleeping arrangements were tables with padding on them (actually not bad), except they were both shorter and narrower than a regular twin bed, and lacking sheets and pillows. I’m not so high maintenance–I can sleep without a pillow on my back or on my stomach, just not on my side. But since the beds were so short, I was too tall to be able to stretch out to sleep on my back or front. Add to that a sunburn on one hip and an ear infection in the opposite ear making sleeping on either side uncomfortable, even if there were a pillow… We had managed to have too much stuff to haul up the mountain and yet not have the things we needed to sleep properly.

After no sleep and a fair amount of crankiness (not just on my part), the boys decided to let the girls “sleep in” and went off in search of a guest house. They returned heroes when they informed us that we could stay at Guesthouse Baso for two nights (2-person room 60 GEL/night; food available, but we had our own). With hot running water, electricity (thank you, solar technology!), WiFi and real beds with sheets and pillows, this place was paradise! (The hostess also, surprisingly, spoke very good Spanish–better than me, for sure!) The first day we were all tired, so we just hung out with the other guests (some French hikers who are starting a bakery when they return to Paris!) and enjoyed the view and the “fresh air”. Tusheti is famous for fresh air, but in my experience there was always someone smoking their cigarette nearby, so I had more breathing problems there than I usually do in Tbilisi. I did sleep like the dead that night, though.

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View from Guesthouse Baso

The next day was cooler and cloudier, so we mostly just hung out at the guest house. In the afternoon the boys decided to try their hands at fishing…I think we can say that no unknown talents were discovered, but it was nice to sit next to the river and be outside. We returned to the guest house to hang out, but the (new) other guests, European hikers, asked us to be quiet starting at 7, so we couldn’t do much. (What do you think of that? I’m an early-to-bed early-to-rise person myself, and I understand that they had to wake up early to leave and complete their hike in daylight hours, but given the fact that “quiet hours” in Georgia are more like midnight to 10 AM, it seemed like a big ask…even small children tend to stay up until 11 here, so 7 is really early). I climbed into bed and read my book, and the boys went off to drink with the friend-of-a-friend. And then the rain started. Oh, boy, it was a serious downpour, complete with thunder and everything. It was one of the scarier rain storms I’ve been in, and of course I started worrying about the guys who were who knows where, drinking, and unfamiliar with the terrain. And then the beeping started. Remember how this day was kind of cloudy? That meant that the solar power system hadn’t gotten enough sun to make it through the night, and it was beeping to let us know we were running out of power. We didn’t particularly want to turn out the porch light so the guys could find their way home, but the beeping was also REALLY annoying, and European hiker guy poked his head out to ask me to make it stop (I don’t work here!). We turned the system, and all the electricity, off to make the beeping stop, and eventually the guys found their way back, but between all that and the thunder and pounding rain, it wasn’t a great night’s sleep.

The next day was the village festival, but because of that Baso was out of rooms. They very nicely helped us arrange a room for the next two nights at another guesthouse in another village called Mirgvela. In the morning, we hung out at the parking lot of the village to find a driver who was planning on not drinking at the festival…that was actually easier than I thought it would be. We walked up the mountain to the village to attend the festival. The boys “had to” go to the shrine to be beaten with wooden swords, but the girls weren’t allowed to approach the shrine, so we went to the friend-of-a-friend’s house to hang out. His mother asked us why we hadn’t stayed in the nice room with proper beds! Had we known of the nice room with proper beds, I’m pretty sure we would have! The supra was also gender-divided, but this time that was kind of an advantage…no one was forcing the women’s table to eat or drink, but there was lots of delicious food and drink available. We finally got to eat some lamb, and the pickles were some of the tastiest I’ve had. At the supra, the men with wooden swords became the supra police. I was afraid that they might be forcing people to eat and drink, but actually they were stopping people from saying things that would cause fights, so they seemed to actually be a pretty good addition to the supra! Then the rain started again, which made the outdoor supra and festival significantly less fun (and kind of chilly). We went back to the porch of the house to watch the horse-race, which our friend-of-a-friend’s horse won! Since G had left his suitcase there since the first day (not wanting to schlep it up and down mountain again), we left in a break in the rainstorm to get down the mountain and meet our driver. Our driver’s cousins had asked him to drive them to Dartlo, so he said he’d be back in an hour. Then it started really pouring and didn’t let up. We hung out in one of the little cafes, drinking ქონდრის ჩაი (kondris chai, savory tea). Our driver was quite prompt, especially given the weather conditions (only 10 minutes late!), and we bumped our way over mushy roads to Mirgvela.

Mirgvela greeted us with a view of misty mountains beyond mountains and comfortable rooms and beds (but shared bathrooms) (2-person room 50 GEL/night; food 25 GEL/person/day). The staff there were very sweet and friendly, and spoke a little English and were eager to try to communicate. It kept raining the whole next day, so we didn’t do much other than eat, drink kondris chai, read, and hang out. The food at Mirgvela was really good! They made some mchadi that tasted halfway between normal mchadi and American corn bread and was served with real butter and honey–amazing! The food price included wine and chacha, and we always had loads of leftovers from the portions they served us. However, it was really really cold the whole time we were there, and the cloudiness and the fact that everyone was stuck inside meant the limited electricity was used up pretty fast. Unfortunately, G and L got sick one day, but I think it was because of the raw melon, so it’s not the guest house’s fault. The day we had planned to leave, we learned that the road had washed out, and they weren’t sure when it would re-open…and G and L weren’t feeling well, so we waited (and mostly slept).

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View from Mirgvela

The next day (the extra day) we were pleasantly surprised with the news that the road had opened, and our driver was probably on his way, since his neighbors said his car was gone and his phone was out of the coverage area, so we packed and waited.  Eventually the driver’s phone came back into the coverage area, and he said he was on his way! We were heading home! The road back was much bumpier after days of rain, but still only one spot was scary (the road was totally flooded, but apparently it wasn’t too deep if you knew where to drive on the road that you couldn’t see…).

All in all, I can say that Tusheti is pretty and I got a lot of reading done (finished Now I Rise and The Paris Spy, made progress in Let Our Fame be Great and War and Peace), but I don’t know if it was worth the long and expensive drive, particularly since the weather turned out to be bad. Prices are higher there than in other parts of the country because of the difficulty of getting products and the short growing season. We had more adventure and quite a bit less action than I had hoped. If you have plenty of time and money (if you get stuck, you have to pay the guesthouse for those extra days of course) and have already seen other parts of Georgia then maybe it’s worth a trip, but I wouldn’t recommend it for a first-time visit to Georgia. There are lots of beautiful places in Georgia, many of which have significantly less hassle.

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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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)

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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:

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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).

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

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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.

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Fifty Russian Winters by Margaret Wettlin (image from GoodReads)

Wettlin, Margaret. Fifty Russian Winters: An American Woman’s Life in the Soviet Union. New York: Wiley, 1994. Print.

Maybe I’m a little bit nosy, but I’ve always liked books that give me insight into other people’s personal lives. When I was a kid, I read my way through the biography section of the library and preferred novels that were written in diary form. I read more broadly now and will accept non-realistic elements in my books, but I still love a good memoir.

Margaret Wettlin’s story of planning to visit the Soviet Union on a one-month tour and ultimately staying 42 years certainly resonated with me now that I’ve been in Georgia longer than expected. (But I have no intention of staying THAT long!)

I think the most valuable part of this book is her recounting of her experiences during the war. Though I’ve read a decent amount of material about Russia and the Great Patriotic War (/World War Two), I haven’t before come across any first-hand accounts of the civilian experience outside the major cities or of being evacuated. Her short time in Tbilisi during the war was particularly interesting to me. I found it funny that they found a cheap “peasant’s house” in Bagebi “five miles of climb from Tbilisi”(196). Bagebi BARELY counts as a suburb these days, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a cheap anything there. It was a good reminder of the huge changes Georgia underwent as part of the Soviet Union, and the further and faster development I’ve seen even in my few years here.

The greatest weakness of the book was also the most interesting part: Wettlin’s underdeveloped and unsupported political views. She never joined the Communist Party, but she certainly supported the proclaimed Soviet ideals of equality and reform. She even became an informant for the secret police in support of this dream, but when she became disillusioned that her work didn’t seem to be making things better, she quit. She is critical of Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev because they made people’s lives worse, not better. She never would have gotten a good grade on a political science term paper, as she offers no evidence to support her beliefs…but who does, really? How many Americans could give real, evidence-based reasons to explain why they are a Democrat or a Republican? Of course there are many people who can, but I would wager that for the majority of people, it just feels right, as the Soviet dream initially did to Wettlin. Her opinions in this field really shed a lot of light, for me at least, on why so many people continued to support the Soviet Union for so long, despite the hardships they faced.

The book is far from perfect, but that’s a large part of why it’s so interesting. Definitely recommended reading for those interested in Soviet history.

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