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Georgia

Tsminda Sameba Church in Kazbegi

Tbilisi

August 7, 2005
Fortresses & Food

Our driver from Yerevan, Armenia to Tbilisi, Georgia was Armenian and so once across the border he switched from Armenian to Russian to communicate with the passengers we picked up. We arrived at the bus station in Tbilisi to find a group of cab drivers fighting for our business before we could even exit the mini bus. They seemed to be at each others' throats more than ours and the American we met on the bus, Barry, ran to the bathroom as we hung out waiting and fighting off the taxi driver. Upon his return we got a taxi, which he argued the price of until Barry said the price was fair.

Once we arrived to our hostel, I was struck by the vast number of watermelons along with other fruits and vegetables scattered across the streets; many of the watermelons being sold out of the trunk of Ladas, the most common Russian car.

We soon found our hostel and were greeted by a man; the woman who owns the house we were staying in was out so we went across the way to find her friend, who was checking everyone in. He was nice and as soon as he discovered we spoke Russian he immediately switched to it and told us everything about Georgia. He was particularly interested in politics and spoke at great length about the country's new president, Shakalivo.

We eventually got checked in, dropped our bags off, then headed into town to get water and money. The heat was unbearable and they said that it was 47 degrees, which is 117 degrees Fahrenheit. The water was welcoming as was the street food, which consisted of pastries. We knew we had limited time though so fought the heat and headed out to see the heart of Tbilisi. We headed to the south bank and walked the streets seeing Parliament, Abanotubani (sulfur baths), many churches, a synagogue, and finally after passing the mosque we reached Narikala fortress topping the hill beside the Mother Georgia statue. The fortress's highlights were the views. We could see for miles to the west and to the east we looked down the river reflecting the quaint little buildings sitting upon the edge.

We returned to the hostel starving, but struggled to get out to dinner since we met so many backpackers. One of these backpackers, a French girl was very nice and intelligent; she has been living in Montreal since she was 15 and after a short conversation, we headed to dinner to a nearby restaurant she recommended.

The restaurant was an excellent choice and the staff did everything to help us. There was no menu in Russian or English so we found ourselves with a guy named Alex, who didn't work there, but was willing to help us out. Alex told us what is good and bad and what the more traditional Georgian foods are. On his recommendation, we got the khinkali, a kababi, salad, khachapuri, and our new friend bought Georgian lemonade for us (similar to 7up).

Khinkali are meat dumplings and one must order them in vast quantities, at least five per person, less is truly unacceptable and when we tried to order less we were corrected. They are good, with a doughy nexus on the top and filled with meat and juices, but they are also big, making five or so a good amount, although I was starving and finished them. The kababi had extremely tender meat and great flavor. The khachapuri was also good, however it was covered in goat cheese and I am not a huge fan. It had a layer of dough, cheese, dough, cheese and butter. It was excellent for goat cheese, and extremely filling. We couldn't finish it and when a young boy of about 10 came in begging for money or food we gave him the rest of it.

Absolutely stuffed, we returned to organize transportation the following morning to see Gori and Mtskheta so we could make it to Kazbegi by tomorrow's nightfall.

Gori

August 8, 2004
Stalin's Hometown & Museum

We were welcomed to Gori by a statue of Josef Stalin standing in front of what seemed to be the largest building in the city. We walked around the back to find a train car, the one and same that Stalin traveled in to various places including the Potsdam Conference. It sported a green jacket, a couple Cyrillic letters and little else other than a bullet proof frame.

We then saw his birth house, which is extremely small and is now covered with a canopy decorated with a couple hammers and sickles. The cover protecting the building is a mausoleum of sorts with classical pillars.

We then moved on to the museum itself, basically consisting of pictures of Stalin along with some of his poetry written while in monastery. The first two rooms were pictures of his early years in life and in power. The next room was spectacular: a round wall with photos of him as a war victor and hero. Finally, we reached the climax of the museum, which is truly a mausoleum or some sort of altar dedicated to Stalin. There were white square pillars rising up, encircling a white pillow on a pedestal holding one simple object: Stalin's burial mask. The light was low and the feeling surreal.

After this, the following hallway of pictures mattered not and we had nothing else to see that could compare, so headed down the stairs that were guarded by another Stalin statue, hit the bathroom, and walked around the gardens. The complex truly is a mausoleum; there is no other explanation, for in death, here Stalin is still very much alive.

On the ride back to Tbilisi we had a quick stop for some fried bread with meat in it compliments of our driver; both the food and his hospitality were greatly appreciated.

Mtskheta

August 8, 2004
A Quick Stop in Georgia's Old Capital

Roland, our hired driver for the day was nice and soon enough we made it to Jvari Monastery, the most holy of holies in the country. The church is perched atop a cliff with nothing for miles along the roads. It overlooks the meeting of the Mtkvari and Aragvi Rivers and the town of Mtskheta. Beside the church, stood the remains of an earlier church from the 6th century.

After seeing the church, we headed down to Mtskheta to see the old capital city and Sveti-Tskhoveli Cathedral, the burial place of Christ's robe. At first glance the church and town are not extremely impressive, but then you realize the monstrous church was built in the 11th century. When we entered the courtyard, the grounds were draped in silence other than a single monk tolling a bell at the southern end. The bell stood atop the southern wall with a long rope hanging down to the earth from where he pulled to send out a ring that echoed throughout the complex and town.

Kazbegi

August 8, 2004
A Little Culture with Drinks

We got to the bus station in Tbilisi with Roland, who helped us get us on the right mini bus. Here we ran into Filipo, a flamboyantly gay Italian man we had briefly met at the hostel the night before. We talked a little and waited a lot until the minibus filled up.

Once filled and on the road, I almost immediately fell asleep, I had slept no more than a couple hours the night before and I don't think I've caught up from the overnight flight from Istanbul. After waking up to find our driver nearly driving us off this cliff or that one, we found ourselves in Kazbegi.

We grabbed our belongings and headed out into the rain to find our place on the other side of the river, actually in Gergeti village, not Kazbegi. The home we were trying to get was booked so we stayed next door.

The next door neighbor, Vano decided he would show us around. Soon our group split up and I found myself with Elizabeth and Filipo. The two talked as I let my mind wander, thinking about how the mountains to me are a place of peace, solitude, and a destination to discover one's self. This time mentally alone was the best thing for me and I simply made no effort to socialize. The scenery was beautiful and the air perfect, thin, and crisp.

Our group stopped at a store as I wandered off on my own, but I found the others soon following me. As I looked across the river to Gergeti village and Tsminda Sameba Church I turned around to find the other four talking to a woman and her daughter; they were speaking Russian.

Vano seemed to have little interested and soon got snubbed out of the conversation as Elizabeth dominated the conversation until we were invited to their house. At their house, we were joined by the family's father and son; all very nice and the father soon had the cognac and wine out as the mother had dishes upon dishes of food for her unexpected guests.

Before I could explain that I was not feeling well I had a glass of homemade cognac in front of me and a plate full of traditional Georgian foods. The cognac was as good as possible in my present state, and the homemade wine that was later brought out was better. For food, we had cake, a thick and heavy dessert that consisted of cheese, potato, and dough, and the Kazbegi "national" dessert which was another thick cake, semi sweet and really unique. All were good and absolutely essential at the time, considering we all had no food in our stomachs, but about three or four shots of cognac and another two shots of wine.

The time here was very pleasant and my Russian struggled to return for the first few minutes. The conversation was intermittently interrupted by toasts, of course the first to the guest, the second to the hosts, the third to women and the final toast to the horse. I believe this is done in the assumption that the drinkers are so drunk they must put their faith in their horse to get them home, a Russian tradition.

We learned a lot about this family including the fact that the daughter, Tamara is a designer and has designed shoes for both Susan Sarandon and Donald Trump's wife. The conversation was light and easy until one member of our group asked what the Caucus people think of each other. We unfortunately translated this question and it was the beginning of the end of the light and pleasant conversation. The father responded that they were all friend, including the Azeri's and Armenians; he said that the arguments were based upon historical conflicts and political debates. One member of our group began to argue this statement and my mind wandered off to remember why I avoid political discussions while traveling. Perhaps the most insightful comment came from Tamara who pointed out that the conflict is generally not between individual people but primarily between the politicians and press magnifying these conflicts.

After the cognac and wine were finished we saw the backyard, with numerous pear trees and a couple apple trees. Unfortunately the family is only in Kazbegi the month of August so never actually gets to eat the fruit since they return to Tbilisi by the time they are ripe. This tour of the backyard was also taken as a sign to move on so we bid them farewell, however before leaving I invited them to climb to the church with us the next day, which they accepted.

We had dinner waiting for us at our home stay; after dinner and lighting candles (we had no electricity) we got ready for bed and went to sleep.

August 9, 2005
Hike to Georgia's Most Famous Landmark

This morning I was again feeling ill so skipped out early during breakfast to run to the bathroom (well, the outhouse). Once prepared for our hike, we then went to Kazbegi and picked up our new friends. For most of the hike I walked with Tamara and we talked about everything. She is not only a designer, she also does paintings on colored glass that cost 100 Euros each. She seems extremely talented and I hope she sees most of the money that is paid for her art. She works out of her house and sells her art either out of her house/studio, through another store in Tbilisi or in a store in New York, the one that the two above mentioned celebrities bought her shoes.

As we walked, Tamara told me about her grandfather who planted all the trees in the region, all the forests around the church and Kazbegi. He spent most of his life planting the forests so is appropriately buried near them beside a stream of mountain water.

Tamara also hates bees so I quickly learned the Georgian word for bee, bziki, which I rather like. The conversation for much of the time was simple and unforced. Tamara, however kept stopping to focus on what she was saying, making us fall further and further behind the rest of the group until we were completely isolated.

The walk was great and ended with the final ridge leading to the church. The views from here were incredible and this is the perspective of the stereotypical picture representing Georgia.

We walked to the church, which was more impressive as a stately figure than as a church itself. Before entering we had to walk around the building three times in a counter clockwise direction then cross ourselves three times from left to right, kiss the door frame and enter.

They told us of the icons, some of the many representing the Virgin Mary, St. George, and various others, but the one that I found the most impressive was fabrics sown together. The church's interior was bland other than the icons and only a beam of light from the steeple lit the interior. There was also a monk and a picture of the bishop of the church, a man originally from Kazbegi, but now living in Mtskheta at the center of the church.

The girls were required to wear skirts and cover their heads and shoulders, whereas I was alright with simply my shorts and t-shirt. We lit candles and while I kept mine there, Tamara took hers after letting it burn for a short while, a tradition not uncommon in Georgia.

Upon exiting the church we ran into a group from Israel; a man, who fell in love with the region 25 years earlier who was returning with his daughter and son-in-law. They were all nice and the son seemed particularly interested in Tamara's work. He said that it looks like the art of Gaudy. As I was translating this, his father-in-law put his arm around Tamara and said that it was the greatest compliment she would ever receive. I again translated and then he froze and said that I didn't understand; he explained that he was an art history major and specialized in the work of Gaudy and he has never seen anything so well done since Gaudy himself. Tamara didn't know how to respond, so immediately gave the man her number and told him to call if he was interested in buying anything.

The walk back down the mountain was confusing as we all got separated. Tamara's mom began picking every tea flower she could find along with spices for a local-turned-national dish, khinkali. They explained to me that khinkali is a Kazbegi dish and only in Kazbegi can one get true khinkali.

I also learned about their family history, the mother's father was Polish and mother Estonian, but of course they communicated in Russian. After her father died, her mother re-married a German and they moved to Central Asia for work. After a few years there they moved to Georgia, which is where she learned Georgian and met her husband, who is originally from Kazbegi. Because of this, the family has three houses. The two grandparents from Kazbegi left houses, grandfather's in Gergeti village and grandmother's in Kazbegi along with their permanent residence in Tbilisi.

They were extremely nice and invited us back any time. They encouraged me to return next year. The son also really wants to climb Mt. Kazbek and we agreed that if and when I return we would climb it, stopping at the cave church on the way. Before leaving this family, we followed Georgian tradition and kissed each other once left cheek to left cheek. It was sad to see them go, but they made our experience more than memorable.

As we made our way back into the village there seemed to be goats and other random animals everywhere. We checked out of our house then returned to Kazbegi to get our bus, which was to leave a half hour later. It then changed to three hours later and soon to four hours. We simply didn't have enough people interested in going to Tbilisi at the moment so had to wait until it filled up. We had little patience and instead of paying 8 lari each for the mini bus, we decided to share a taxi for 12 lari each.

The trip from Kazbegi to Tbilisi by taxi saved us a lot of time and felt safer. In addition, our driver stopped at a Soviet lookout over a gorge and later at an iceberg, a road wayside, and a church. I bought a great hat at the wayside and got fantastic pictures from the other three stops.

Tbilisi

August 9, 2005
Dinner & Departure

Once back in Tbilisi, our driver said that we needed to get gas, but we kept passing "gas" stations and I couldn't figure out what he meant until he came to the place with the biggest line and we began waiting. I realized that there's a difference between gas and petrol, petrol is what I, as an American think of as gas and gas is condensed vapor into liquid form much like propane or natural gas. The cars use a combination of propane and petrol like a hybrid. As we approached the station, our driver quickly puffed on and put out a cigarette before reaching the pumps. We had to get out of the car before reaching the pump and only after stopping at the pump did our driver or any driver really decide to pay at the building beside the pumps. Once he paid he went back and then the attendants pumped the gas.

We got back to the hostel to find Nasi, the home's owner we didn't meet on our first stay in town. She wasn't very outgoing and her living room wall was home to a big calendar with pictures of Stalin on it.

We returned to the same restaurant that we ate at the other night, which made me feel a little ill, but was so good I couldn't refuse. We only slightly changed our order, having the salad, kababi, khachapuri, and mtsvadi (shashlik); all were again good.

August 10, 2005

We awoke to get a cab to the bus station for the 9:00am bus to Baku, but found ourselves out of luck, since only two buses go to Baku each week. We asked how else we could get to Baku and a man said that he could take us to the border then we could cross by foot, and pick up a bus to Baku on the other side of the border, where buses leave every half hour. We got to the border extremely quickly; our driver said that we were going faster than an airplane at one point and I don't doubt it. The border had long lines so we thanked our driver and went by foot out of Georgia across the Kracny Most (Red Bridge) to Azerbaijan.

Continue the above trip to: Azerbaijan

Learn more about Georgia Return to Justin's Travel Blog