Georgia, part 1
Trip Start Sep 11, 2008
4Trip End Oct 03, 2008
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Also, September/October was quite a good time for travelling there: it is not so hot anymore, it doesn't rain so often, there is no snow in the mountains yet and it's off season already.
The whole journey took three weeks: 14 days in Georgia, 5 days in Armenia and 3.5 days in Istanbul
So: Gamarjoba, Barev & Merhaba ;)
At 2:30am I'm leaving for the train station in Saarbrucken. Despite the early morning trains are already quite full (Germans don't mind getting up early) and the driver excuses himself for having a 3 min delay (Germans are pünktlich). Then for the first time I'm taking an ICE express train. I get off at Muenchen Passing station, take a picture of the leaving train and want to dress my jacket..
At the Muenchen airport everything goes smooth and soon I can spend my five hours of waiting time in Riga, Estonia. Although small, the airport is a good place to wait - there are TVs with CNN (hmm, this TV really evokes fear, just like Roger Moore said;))) and CartoonNetwork, chairs with leg rests and very comfortable sofas. The non-EU terminal is worse, but one doesn't have to be there till the very end;).
Tbilisi airport is newly built and modern. I have to wait there for the first public transport for three hours, but I'm unable to get some sleep since I'm the only tourist left there and therefore the taxi drivers keep on bombarding me with offers.
Later, outside the airport, I find out there is a new railway link to the city! However, when at the same moment both the train and marshrutka (a public stop-anywhere Ford Tranzit on a preset route) come, all the people suddently run for the bus and so I do as well - I guess because it was slightly cheaper
Marshrutka is an interesting service: there is no space for any luggage whatsoever (some long-distance one have *a bit* of space in the back if the driver is willing), all signs are in georgian, most of the time one pays a fixed price (no matter where you got off/on) only when getting off and in the streets there is no indication of time-tables or even numbers of passing marshrutkas/buses. In these countries one has to either ask all the time or have the newest Lonely Planet;). The good thing is they are much faster than buses and stop only where the people want to (this also means that one has to know, just from the window view, where to get off) or where somebody in the street flags them. "Funnily" enough, inter-city marschutkas don't stop if they are full - and they usually leave when full;).
During the ride I eagerly check the map in LP and I manage to get off at the train station. Tbilisi is a city in a semidesert region with quite dusty streets and is a mix of soviet style architecture (I imagine czech cities in the socialistic 70th to be like that), old buildings&churches, neglected or totally destroyed places, renovated streets and houses, asia-like chaos and unreliability in traffic, small shops, street sellers, stray dogs, western shops on rebuilt avenues, russian signs in the old parts and latin script in the new ones, old broken ladas and brand new imported 4WD cars, parks filled with trash&sculptures and parks filled with grass&banks&sculptures... Change is exactly the thing one can see nowadays - the current president Saakashiwili is said having fired the *whole* bureaucracy system to destroy the former corruption, hired new people and sponsored by amounts of US money [Georgia likes the US very much, there's even a George-Bush-Boulevard with his photo;)] started to stabilize and rebuild the country by means of many reformation packages
Standing by the train station, I went through some empty morning streets to find a hostel. Since street names are not easy to find, house numbers are even harder and hostels ("homestays") are quite often not marked at all...it's fun. I met two Slovak guys doing the same and finally we found it - Dodo's homestay, recommended by LP. Unfortunately, I can't recommend it at all: it's hugely expensive (>=27gel), has a very old equipment and beds and moody personnel. However, I met some interesting people: eldery US guy doing a photo study on kurdish people, bright-minded gigolo and remotely working university teacher at the same time having no home since in his 32 years he travelled over the whole world, and so on
Walking through the streets, knowledge of Russian is nearly a necessity - but making parody of it with my Czech does the job as well. There is a usual amount of beggars (no amounts of homeless people after the war as I expected!) and some gypsy children who can be pretty importunate hanging on one's leg. Although Tbilisi is relatively a dirty place, *all* people throughout the whole Georgia and Armenia are quite nicely and spotlessly clean dressed [though traditionally - grey-scale colors, long trousers, no sport shoes...], fascinating. More to it, girls tend to have nice bodies, somehow [cold faces however];). And yes, all people just walk - there are absolutely no people doing any sports, even having a bike is the same kind of attraction as having a Segway in Europe;).
The first place I went to in Tbilisi was to meet Tamar at Rustaveli square, what a nice moment. I couldn't find the metro but it was an easy walk anyway. We went to see her uni, a park next to her block of flats filled with policemen, playgrounds and ruins of playgrounds; then Rustaveli avenue with the only street sellers of tourist stuff [it's the main shopping street in the city, used also as a kind of lively promenade: Tamar met several friends there and I did the Slovak people;) - this town organization reminds me of Saarbruecken;)]. Later we stopped in a Georgian restaurant [name 2do] for some khinkali (meat dumplings) and beer
I got up at 10am and went to the metro station Politeknikuri to meet up with Tamar. By the way, the street between Tbilisi's homestays neighbourhood and metro station became quite a home for me in those two weeks - it's nice when beggars and shop assistants recognize you [even smile at you, a thing georgian assistans/waitresses/etc never do]. There is even Popular western-style supermarket [funnily, their size is indicated in the banner: from S to XL;)]
Tamar quickly flagged down a marshrutka to Didube, which is the main station for non-east bound domestic intercity marshrutkas. Well, term "station" is quite euphemistic since in fact it's a order-lacking set of dirty squares filled up with street vendors and marshrutkas. Note that in general marshrutkas times are conveniently scheduled for local people and not tourists.
From Didube, it's a 30min ride to Mtskheta, a home of two nice churches. The wall-surrounded Svetitskhoveli Cathedral lies directly in the town and is the best example of Georgian orthodox church architecture. The overall feeling is different than in western christianity chureches. There's a round dome in the nave crossing with narrow windows letting just distinct rays of light into the gloom inside. The interiors used to be fully covered in frescoes picturing saints' life in much more realistic way than stupid gothic paintings in western churches do [and one can directly see who's the saint since they've got aureolas], but the Russians painted the walls in white since in russian churches it's like that. Fortunately many have been recovered. Essential part are many icons with incense and candles in front of it. There is also a special chair for patriarch and a wall-separated altair reserved for priests opposite the entry. Priests wear black clothes and beards, women can enter only with a headscarf. There are often some geometric reliefs on outer walls
There is one more church in Mtskheta bit to the north. It is a part of a nunnery and lies in a garden. On the way there, a man suddently wants us to see his garden. He's weird but nice, so I give him a Prague postcard...and voila, he's been to Prague and shows me some old maps and photos for comparison. Funny.
Our next destination is Jvari church sitting on a hill above Mtskheta. It should be a hour's ascent. My idea of hiking renders unpopular since it's getting hot and we can't find the way. So we relax by sitting in shade and eating sunflower seeds (Georgia's pastime #1) and decide for taking a taxi. I ask the only other tourist here if he wants to share the costs for one. But he's got his own car here and manages to pick us up even before we are able to find a taxi. That original guy is a Japanese and has been travelling all around the world with his car for some years now. By car it's a surprising deal of way and it's hard to guess the directions. However, a Georgian van helps us with navigation to the extent that they even drive some way before us in the opposite direction they originally went;).
Jvari offers a very nice view on confluence of two rivers and Mtskheta itself and is a popular destination for weddings
Then the guy drops us by the highway exit for Mtskheta. Near this place on the main road towards the town there is one of the most popular restaurants outside Tbilisi, offering for example some delicious bean soup or pizza-like khachapuris. Here I have to note, that Georgia offers also one of the best lemonades I've drunk.
When we get back to Tbilisi it's nearly dark. Next I pay a bit unexpected visit to whole Tamar's family and by midnight I'm back in my hostel.
14.9.2008: David Gareja
In the morning there was a Agatha Christie affair in the hostel: in the night, a spoon was put into a doorlock of some eldery touchy guy. He had to smash the spoon to get out and tried to carry some investigation, called the police and argued with crying and secretly swearing hostel owners - a really good theatre.
However, I have to leave in the middle for a cave complex and monastery near Azerbaijan borders called David Gareja. When I came to Didube station, taxis wanted 80gel for roundtrip from Tbilisi and so I took the first marshrutka at 9am from Gardabani (1.5gel). The road goes through ugly regions around Rustavi, full of disused soviet industry, violently smoking factories and prisons with guarding towers in between. In Gardabani I take an old Lada taxi with an old Azeri taxi driver for 50gel (no other tourists for sharing it) with 3h waiting time. Despite my "russian" he's nicely talkative and stops for some grapes from his garden and also gives me some cheese and a tomato in exchange for my khachapuris. As the landscape goes more desert so does the road change into a harsh unpaved road. We miss some forsaken buildings, take many unposted turnings [even the driver gets lost on the way back;)] and climb from the flat land towards the savannah-style highlands
In David Gareja I'm the only tourist there, besides three jolly Slovak motobikers travelling round the Mediterranean. The landscape around is similar to Morocco baren deserts with an exception of a singular hill covered with vegetation - an ideal site for picturesque Lavra monastery, best viewed from above the hill. However for now I take the uphill path behind Lavra to reach Udabno caves. Once the hill is climbed, one comes to a small church and is suddenly standing on a cliff dotted with caves and having a spectacular panorama of flat plateau below and Lesser Caucasus somewhere in the mist on the horizon. There is a pole-lined path leading under the caves, but one has to climb to see the actual caves. And it's really worth it - the caves are carved into dwellings and some of them include really superb frescoes, still having rather vivid colors. The whole place is just for me and the Slovak guy who leaves later anyway. Indiana Jones feeling guaranteed. On the way back I explore the Lavra, a photogenic inhabited stone-build monastery with some still in-use and therefore inaccessible cave dwellings. The ride back goes without any problems and the nice driver drops me directly on a Tbilisi-bound 15:00 marshrutka
In Tbilisi, I made a quick stop at the hostel and went wandering through the old town: besides some old streets there is also a part with a bunch of overpriced cafés (however the only ones in the city). I also took the famous sulphur baths (3GEL/h for common bath in the arabic house; the underground saunas at the square in front are horribly expensive (40GEL+)). The water really smells of sulphur but it's not unpleasant. One can find there a bath, dry sauna, two superhot pools and I met there two Czech guys having a massage.
After getting myself scrubbed I could meet Tamar again at Rustavelli. This time we are heading to Mamadaviti church built halfway the TV-Tower hill and surrounded by graves of famous Georgians - a fine romantic place with a nice nightview of Tbilisi. The TV-Tower is quite an orientational landmark in Tbilisi and, inspired by the Eiffel counterpart, it also performs a variety of flashing and blinking effect each night. There is even a funicular to the top, but seemed to be out of order these days.
Today I get up so early that I have nobody to say goodbye after packing up. As usually, the city is really dead in the morning but I still manage to buy some breakfast (khachapuri, nut sweets and bottles of delicious local lemonade I can recommend to anyone [tarragon,pear,...])
Four hours after departure and a few years before end of the Soviet union, we find ourselves in Akhaltsikhe, a provincial town where the time stopped. There is just everything - broken streets, very old buses, small general stores with unwelcoming shopkeepers, old equipment, abacuses and so on. However, there should be a nice old town which we happened to forget/miss. Right after arrival we took a taxi to Sapara monastery (20gel). The off-road road pushes Opel Omega and its driver to the limits, but it's definitely worth it. The monastery is itself very beautiful and moreover it's built on a small cliff by the forest and having inspiring views of semidesert Lesser Caucausus around - just perfect. Very well preserved wall paintings, good atmosphere and nice stone ornaments outside make the church itself very interesting as well. To get back we had to wake up our driver fallen asleep of russian music and gratefully refuse local farmers offering us boozing to death.
Back in Akhaltsikhe we managed to buy some georgian cheese (very salty, one tastes it before buying) and tasty cookies before taking the last 4pm marshrutka to Vardzia (5gel)
At 6pm we are finally in Vardzia. The hotel is simple but OK and since Tamar is native, the price is 10gel instead of 15usd and we are even given a bottle of wine;). The owner has big plans about it - there will be road repaired, he is renovating the hotel and wants to offer guided tours next year [there are supposed to be many hidden sights around - caves, fortresses, dungeon city, you name it...?]. And maybe Tamar is going to work as an interpreter there;).
The evening is really nice: first we have a nice supper by the river and then a couple of drinks with two polish guys (the only other tourists here) and the hotel owner (interpreted by Tamar). Now for a little insight about georgian drinking culture - they have an elaborate toasting system: either doing a round-robin toasting or better choosing so-called tamada who is the best speaker&drinker at the table and who leads the toasting. There are even people who get invited to parties just to be a tamada there. The toasts are long, sentimental, have a structure or plot and end with a final statement what to actually drink for
Today we gonna get some sights explored! We cross the river and pay 6 gel for entry [the only sight in Geogria I paid for]. Vardzia used to be an underground city completely carved inside a cliff. It was however destroyed by an earthquake soon after getting finished when a half of the cliff slid down into the valey - like an anthill that was kicked into a half. The rooms, steps, vertical ventilation shafts,.. - everything used to be hidden. There's even a fresco-filled church dated to Queen Tamar's times and a minichurch built inside a cave. Water was taken from an underground cave (normally it's locked) with a constant waterline. There are some monks living there. Tamar's grandma is a archeologist who worked here and everybody knows her, nice. Now tourists can walk into many many half-naked rooms and wonder what they used to be for, crawl through some corridors remaining in the rocks with own flashlight and enjoy marvelous views of the canyon
Next we wanna get to Upper Vardzia. We don't get too far and a van stops, wanting us to have a lift. The story is that the hotel owner from yesterday spot us and organized his friend to do this. He artlessly delivers us as far as his car can make it on those bad roads - wow. As advertised by the polish guys, the path is really very interesting since it's lined with well-grown weed;)). Then the path ends in front of a farm but one has to walk through. Then just past one guarding dog and there it is: a women convent and one very old church, not even having the characteristic dome in the middle. Not a highlight around here.
On the way back to hotel we meet two boys on horses. One of them is one from the bus yesterday who stood to his promise and showed up to meet Tamar. He gives her a horse ride and at the end even buys two cool cans, fearlessly walks through guard dogs and gives them to us as a present. WTF, what to say!
I want to see some fortress down the road, but Tamar has a good conversation with the hotelier. In a short time the last marshrutka comes (3pm) and as opposed to my darkest fears it's quite new and fast this time. On the way we pass a bus stop filled with cows - so that's why they start to build them;). After the ride we have some time back in Akhaltsikhe before the bus to Tbilisi leaves and so we eat some dinner in the street among cute stray trash-eating dogs and old buses
In Tbilisi I stay away from Dodo's homestay and I try out Irina's homestay, just 100m away. For 20gel it's much better: cleaner, cheeper, modern and with proper light and bath&washing machine. Definitely can recommend this one. Oooh, warm shower! There are again some interesting people: a spanish guy learning georgian, US peace corps guy teaching english, some old guy groaning all the time and so on. Irina herself speaks russian and seems to be a good fellow.
In the morning I find an ATM (and get completely unusable 200gel banknotes) and ask at Armenien embassy if I get visa at the borders (yes, as opposed to what some people say) among other things.
At noon I meet Tamar and we go to Didube to wait for Gio, my Georgian friend from Saarbruecken. We plan to go for a picnic to Ananuri, Kazbegi direction. First marshrutka is at 1pm and so we take 12pm one to some place in the middle of the road. Gio comes exactly at 12 and it's nice to see him again.
At the "middle of the road" we hitch a well-situated man Dato driving to repair a ski-lift in nearby mountains and works as a mobile network planner (Georgia seems to be a good land to test some 3G ones)
Ananuri is a castle just by the main road built on a top of a valley, nowadays an edge of an artificial lake [there's even a bridge leading somewhere into the water]. It is not so bad: there are two distinct churches in the fortification, some nice wall ornaments and as always it's free of tourists. We explored a couple of ruined houses nearby and picked some fruit, followed by a pleasant wine picnic in the guard tower [thx Gio for organising]. If only I learned to have such a good toasts as they do.
Then we walked to nearby village [not worth it at all] where besides a meeting a car whose mafia-looking driver had a gun and ""a sheep"" in the trunk nothing suspicious happened;). We then waited for a relative of Dato, whom he had organised to meet us since we were to early for him...LOL, would that happen anywhere else? Anyway, the car really came and gave us a lift to Tbilisi.
In Tbilisi we went to newly built Tsminda Sameba Church, the biggest cathedral in the city. It's nice to see from outside but inside there are just white walls (ready to be painted...but by whom;?)). We spent some time sitting in the area watching some swans and cute children and that was it for today.
This morning I'm meeting Tamar at 9am to take the first Marshrutka to Kazbegi (10gel). I'm a bit early at Didube so I kill the time by just watching people doing their stuff. Tamar makes it at the last second and off we go. A talkative mid-aged spanish woman from Irina's meets me on the bus and joins us for the rest of the day. She's really fun to talk with. She likes travelling alone all the time, complains about water shortage in Barcelona, praises women since they keep the countries working in hard times, says the people here remind her of those in Spain, etc.
The bus goes past Ananuri and starts climbing along a huge valley to Gudauri skiing resort (pass in 2379m) sometimes offering cool views of the depth below. Interestingly enough, the cars pass all the tunnels from outside. Then it descents a bit and voila Kazbegi near Russian borders. The weather is really not fine but it gets better soon and one can finally see Tsminda Sameba Church with dominating Kazbek (5047m) in background on one side and high steep dark walls of other mountain range on the other one.
We refuse some taxis offering us a lift and we climb the 500m ourselves. The road leads through the town (mostly low stone houses), small fields and a couple of unpaved road bends finishing with a steeper shortcut through the forest [mortal for the Spaniard;)]
Back down in Kazbeg foggy weather starts to come from Russia. But we still have an hour left till the last 6pm marshrutka leaves and so we try out an offer of those taxi guys: waterfalls (30gel). The driver asserts he can make it in one hour and quickly takes us to the fog-filled Dariali gorge. The road sticks to the cliff side, the car sticks to the road (surprising in that speed) and clouds stick to everything above. Suddenly he takes a off-route turn to an inconspicuous valley and Niva shows why it is still being produced;). His son takes us some meters to the waterfall - nice but not really worth it. By the way, that boy was really smart. I don't know how old he was but all the way he was giving her father pieces of advice on how to drive, boasting he would get a driving license soon ... and then after we had got off he really drove away;)).
The marshrutka back is tuned, having good speakers under the seats
By the way, there is Sno valley near Kazbegi which I head only praise of. Unfortunately I didn't see it since I could be in Kazbegi only for one day because of Tamar, but it might be very nice.
Well this was a bit hollow day. Since it started with a strong rain (there're no working sewers in Tbilisi) I swam to an internet cafe and dropped by Tamar round noon. We went strolling up to Vake park. One takes a really unsafe looking cable car to get there. Atop there's some trash, ruined cafés and a lake with some not ruined cafés. And yes, a view of all blocks of flats in Tbilisi. But still...memorable...in a way and a good place to drive to with ones car in the evening. On the road back to the city one can find an ethnography open-air museum (notice the Svaneti tower by the lake), which I skipped however.
Down in the city there's a Russian embassy: nowadays empty, surrounded with trash and anti-russian slogans at many places around. Moreover people boycott nearly all Russian products in the shops.
Then we went to a specialised khachapuri restaurant to have a real khachapuri adjararuli [yes, nearly all words end with -i in Georgian;)], which is a khachapuri with hot cheese, butter and egg - a really nutritious thing. And there's a special way to eat it: at first one has to mix everything in the middle and then eat it out->in and top->bottom.
Then I went again to Tamars place to give some birthday felicitation for her parents... and I missed a free Bryan Adams concert, damn^2;).