A Travellerspoint blog

Georgia

Bumps in the road

There's always something...

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Valley around Telavi

Well, I made it to Georgia without a hitch. There was a slight delay leaving Philly, but luckily I planned for delays in my flight plans. After "only" 28 hours of travel, I made it to Tbilisi at midnight on the dot. Mike was an angel and picked me up at the airport which was an immense help for me. I'm sure I could have gotten to the hotel by myself, but I was very tired and I didn't really want to haggle with a taxi driver if I didn't have to.

We had breakfast and then I got my baptism in the art of mashrutkas. Mashrutkas are shared mini vans that take the place of buses all over the country. They leave at "scheduled" times and are CHEAP! The drawback is that they stop along the way to drop off and pick up people all along the way. We took a taxi from the hotel to the mashrutka station and got there, apparently, right after the mashrutka to Telavi left. So, we got to wait in the hot sun for an hour until the next one left. That's ok. These things happen.

Mike has been telling me about his mashrutka rides the entire time he's been here. You really have to experience it for yourself to fully understand it though. NOBODY is allowed to faster than the driver. Nobody. You know those double yellow "no passing zone" lines on the road in the States? On blind cruves? Those don't have a place here. I finally had to make myself look out the side windows or I would have been a nervous wreck by the time we made it to Telavi.

We made it safely to Telavi and found the hotel that I had booked thorough a travel agency here. Seems the agency didn't bother to check with the hotel to see if there were actually rooms available. Nice. It appears there is a movie company from India that has taken nearly every hotel room in the vicinity...for a month! Needless to say, the woman at the hotel was surprised when we walked up and asked for our room. At first she offered us their Presidential Suite at a discount - only 250 lari for just one night. Down from 300. 250 lari is approximately $175! We were quoted a price of 100 lari per night for 2 nights. We declined that "generous" offer. After much ado, she finally found us a room at a new hotel in town. This place is very new. In fact, they're still finishing the 3rd of 3 floors.

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Batonistsikhe castle

After we unpacked some, we decided to check out the town. We noticed when we got to town, there was some construction going on. I didn't realize they were reconstructing nearly the entire town! They have pulled up the several streets and have completely gutted every building on 2 streets. They're giving the place a complete facelift. Facades and all. Of course, with all of the construction in town, the one in-town site we wanted to see is closed. Batonistsikhe castle is a 17th century castle in the center of town. We decided to see what we could anyways. Up we walked to the gate...it was open. In we walked. The construction does have parts closed, but we were able to get a glimpse of some of the buildings inside. None of the construction workers seemed to mind.

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From there, we walked around some more getting the lay of the land. It was a hot day. Probably low 90s. Which, of course, isnt as bad as the 100+ temperatures we've had in Columbus recently, but it's still hot when you're out in the sun! After a couple hours, we decided to find a place to sit and have a cold beer. That did the trick! My body clock is still a little off and I was getting hungry around 6pm. It was still early for the locals but Mike humored me and we started looking for a place to eat. The nice lady at the Tourist Information office suggested a couple places to try. We settled on Dzveki Galavani. We each had a cucumber and tomato salad with some scrumptious bread. Think of a thick sort of flatbread. Mike had veal in black wine sauce and I had some of the best kebabs I've ever eaten. Both dinners were extremely tasty! I don't know what kind of seasoning they put on the kebabs but it was perfect! by the way, I'm under orders from my boss, Angela, to include info on the food. So, yes, you will have to endure pictures of food. Sorry.

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Yummy kebab!

We've booked a taxi for tomorrow to take us to some of the local sites. There are several monasteries and castles in the surrounding area that I've been looking forward to seeing. The scenery is supposed to be beautiful.

Stay tuned!

Posted by Jengt 09:37 Archived in Georgia Comments (2)

Pious pilgrims

sunny 90 °F

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Old (Akhali) Shuamta

My second day in Telavi was spent mainly away from Telavi. Even after the problems at the hotel we thought we had booked, the desk manager was very nice to us. We had mentioned to her, during our "negotiations", that we had some sightseeing to do in the area. She did help us book the taxi for a tour of six historic sites in the area.

The first on the tour is actually 2 different sites. The first of the two we visited is "Old" Shuamta which is actually three different churches in a close cluster. The oldest is 6th century and the newest is 7th century. They are all small, pale stone churches, each with it's own style. The churches are hidden on a wooded hill, well off from the main road.

The next stop was "New" Shumata. Akhali (new) Shumata is a convent built in the 16th century. During Soviet times, it was used as a orphanage but is now back to an orphanage. This was my first time (but not the last) having to conform to traditional dress while visiting churches today. I knew I would probably have to cover my head, so I brought a scarf with me. (I'm not that interested in borrowing a scarf that has been used by MANY women before me.). Even though I wore long pants, I still had to wear a skirt. At the entrance of most of the churches was a rack with wrap-around skirts so women not dressed "properly" could enter. I had to finish dressing while Mike just walked in. Figures. This was also one of those places that doesnt allow photography inside. It pained me to comply, but the stern nun watching our every move convinced me it was a good idea. Inside the church, there are beautiful frescoes on the walls and ceiling. I just stood there with my mouth agape in wonder.

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Ikalto Monastery

From here, we hopped back in the taxi and headed to our next destination, the Ikalto monastery. Ikalto is a 6th or 7th century church. Next to the church is the ruins of an academy built in the 12th century. The entire complex was destroyed in the 16th century but the church has been rebuilt. We were able to photograph at will here. And, luckily, no skirt. I noticed other women without headscarves, but I thought the least I could do was be polite and wear that, at least. We wandered the grounds for a while until we'd both seen our fill.

To this point, we'd pretty much had each of the places to ourselves. We were playing leap frog with a group of 3 other people and their tour guide but we kept pretty well separated from each other.

Our 4th stop of the day was Alaverdi cathedral. Alaverdi is a magnificent church inside of a walled fortress. Once again, I had to don the skirt before entering. The big difference between Alaverdi and Shuamta is that they don't even allow photos on the grounds. Both Mike and I pulled our cameras out at the front gate to get an overview photo. We weren't "quite" inside...yet. It seems the most beautiful places are the ones you aren't allow to photograph. Turns out, that was the least of my worries here. While in the cathedral, I was apparently walking too close to a nave when a woman started berating me in Georgian. Pointing at me and shaking her head grabbing candles that someone had put on a railing in front of an icon. I backed off apologetically, not knowing what I had done wrong. She then walked up to the monk who was keeping watch and she laid into him too. I guess she didn't think he was doing his job well enough. I stared at more fantastic frescoes for a few minutes and then decided to see more of what I could outside. A convent had been added in the 17th century and there were several other buildings, but we weren't allowed anywhere near them. Mike and I decided we'd seen all we could and started out. At the gate, we were getting ready to take a few parting photos when I realized that the woman from inside was sitting in the souvenir shop - looking right at us. She suddenly got up and walked away after giving us the evil eye.

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Gremi

The next stop was Gremi. This small walled castle and church sit atop a hill overlooking the valley below. The castle has a tower you can climb to see some beautiful views of the countryside. This citadel was the Capitol of Georgia for over 200 years from the mid 15th to 17th centuries. They are working on reconstructing some of the outlying buildings. This will be a great spot to visit in a few years!

Our driver saved the best for last. Nekresi monastery is set high on a wooded hill. As you approach on the road, you see this church seemingly hanging off the side of the hill. Cars park at the foot of the hill and the monastery is 1.5 kilometers (approximately a mile) almost straight up. Our driver let us out and just pointed up. Mike and I set out walking up. It was very hot and there was very little shade on the road. The incline was, at times, as steep as climbing stairs. About a third of the way there, I asked Mike if this made us "Pious pilgrims" climbing to see the church. We both agreed it did. Shortly after, a mini bus passed us going down the hill. We looked at each other and decided it was a tour company that had paid extra to be able to drive up. Then, after more grueling climbing in the heat, another passed us going uphill. We noticed the group we had been seeing all day were on it. Hmmmmmm. Eventually, drenched in sweat, we made it to the top. YAY. That's when Mike looked at his guidebook a little closer and saw that the bus was offered to anyone for 1 lari round trip. Ok, lesson learned. Read the guidebook more closely next time.

Even with the long, toiling walk uphill, Nekresi was, by far, the hilight of the day. I'd even say it was more than worth every step. The complex of churches and buildings was great. We wandered around for quite a while soaking in all of the history. For the trip back downhill, we decided to hitch a ride on the bus. We would have even paid the full round trip price if needed. Luckily, they figured we paid to get there and didn't ask.

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Nekresi Monastery

Over dinner, I reflected that the climb to Nekresi reminded me of part of the Inca trail. Thankfully, we didn't have to deal with the high altitude, just oppressive heat. I'm not sure which is worse.

Tomorrow we leave Telavi and head to the mountains and Mestia. I've been really looking forward to this part for a long time. Hiking in the mountains. Yes!

Posted by Jengt 10:40 Archived in Georgia Comments (0)

Into the Mountains

Let the adventure begin.

sunny 75 °F

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Mestia

Every adventure starts with a different adventure. The next location we were off to was Mestia, in the Caucus mountains. This was the part of the trip i'd been most excited about. I LOVE the mountains. Any mountains. (Yes, I live in Columbus, Ohio - flat, flat, flat.). From our hotel in Telavi, we took an hour taxi ride back to the Tibilisi airport. According to the flight board, we were going to be the first flight out and it was on time. Mike & I sat and had a nice breakfast waiting on the flight to be called. Not too much later, we heard an announcement...flight delayed 3 hours. This was not a good sign. The flight to Mestia is known to cancel...often. We started to get our plan B in order when, after "just" 2 hours, they called our flight. YAY!

We got in the bus to be transported to the plane and pulled up next to a de Havilland 6 turboprop plane. I, for one was stoked. I think small planes are cool! We handed our bags to the first officer and climbed onboard. I was the first on, besides the couple mom's with small children, and quickly picked a window seat behind the pilot. In this type of plane, there is no bulletproof door between the pilots and passengers. There is no flight attendant. It's just the pilot, co-pilot and the 17 passengers. We chatted with the pilot as he was getting ready. Where else can you do that? Eventually, we got airborne for our one hour flight. (Much better than an 11 hour marshrutka ride.). As we started to get closer, I was having the time of my life, watching out the front window as the mountains got larger and larger. I laughed with Mike saying there would be NO chance my mom would have stepped on that plane.

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Eventually, all good things must come to an end and we landed at the Mestia airport. Home of only one flight a day...maybe. We grabbed a car to take us to our accommodations, Rozza's Guesthouse. Mike and I have decided that we're just too old to do the hostel thing. We were hoping the guesthouse would be a little more B & B than hostel. Not so much. We did meet some fine folks there, but decided after the first night that we should probably find a different place to stay for our last night in Mestia.

We decided to head into town to get a lay of the land and check with the traveler's information office to get additional details on the hikes and other things to do in town. Mestia is a small town in the mountains that is, of course, in the middle of a MAJOR reconstruction. The streets are torn up and they are rebuilding all of the buildings at the town center. It is, however, still a beautiful town with medieval towers EVERYWHERE! We tried to find the Ethnographic museum that out guidebooks had highly touted. It was closed - in the process of being reconstructed. Next to that is the residence of the local monks with a charming chapel. The gate was open, so we decided to try to look. Not. So. Fast. Mike was allowed in, but I was not since I'm a woman who was not "properly" dressed. Again. Mike got his photos and we continued to check the town out.

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Chapel

We headed back into town and found a couple of travelers staying at our guesthouse having a drink at a cafe. We stopped by and talked about our travels and enjoyed a beer to help cut the dust everywhere. We decided to make it an early night because the next day we were heading to Ushguli, the highest populated town in Europe which was supposed to have some amazing views. Over dinner at the guesthouse, we met a couple from Ukraine who offered to share the cost of the car to take us to Ushguli the next day. Win / win.

The 2 1/2 hour ride to Ushguli is a VERY rough ride. There is no actual road. The "road" there is mainly an almost two lane gravel road pitted with huge potholes and streams crossing it. Even so, it was worth the discomfort getting there. We arrived in Ushguli and were in heaven. The town is in three sections, each with towers everywhere. The driver gave us 3 1/2 hours to wander before we had to meet for the ride back. Mike and I immediately shot off, cameras in hand, looking for the best views which is easy. There are great views everywhere you look. We checked out middle and lower but saved upper for last. From upper Ushguli, you have views of Mt. Shkhara, the highest point in Georgia. BEAUTUFUL! Ushguli is one of those places that you can try to describe until you turn blue in the face but the words can never quite do it. The air is so clear and the sky is so blue with mountains surrounding you. In a word, heaven.

I was afraid 3 1/2 hours wouldn't be enough time. It was perfect. We met up with the Ukranians and driver and started back on our bumpy ride to Mestia. We all agreed on the drive that this was going to be one of those days that will remain in our minds forever.

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Posted by Jengt 06:18 Archived in Georgia Tagged mountains 6 dehavilland Comments (1)

What Doesn't Kill You

...makes a lasting impression

sunny 93 °F

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Svaneti Valley

It was to be our last day in the Svaneti region. Both Mike and I had wanted to do some hiking in the mountains while we were here. The previous day, we had asked at the information office about relatively short hikes that we could easily follow. They confirmed the info from the guidebook. There was a hike from town that went to the top of one of the surrounding ridges to a cross that had recently been erected. We stopped to pick up a couple of bottles of water each and headed out.

Up we climbed. The trail up was nearly vertical in a few spots and I worried if I'd bitten off more than I could chew. The more beautiful views around each corner kept me going forward. We'd stop now and then to rest and just take it all in. THIS was why we came here. About half way to the top, the footpath meets up with a jeep track. Just as we got to that point, Mike noticed some horses coming up the track. A couple on horses stopped to ask if we'd come up the trail. They looked incredulous and said theirs was the easy way. We agreed.

Off they rode, and on we climbed. It was a very hot, sunny day. But beautiful! We'd pass mountain pastures with views that just kept getting better. I was afraid I'd be jaded of what we saw by the time we got to the cross. I needn't have worried. As we got close, I had a sudden burst of energy and nearly ran (or as close to running uphill as I was capable) to the top. It just doesn't get any better than this!!!

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View from the top

360 views of the valley and mountains surrounding us everywhere we looked. We sat down to rest and immerse ourselves in the atmosphere. The scenery here was worth the entire trip. We lingered, taking pictures from every angle.

Sadly, it was finally time to head back. This was the point I was least looking forward to. Those near vertical climbs coming up meant near vertical drops going down. My knees started to protest after a very short time but I was not going to let them get the best of me. Down we went, picking our footing as carefully as possible. I managed to not slip until we were within 1000 feet of the trail end. I was very impressed with myself that that was the worst that happened.

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Cabin with a view!

We ended the evening at the hotel, sitting on the patio enjoying cool drinks, dinner and magnificent views. As the sun started to set, Mike remembered seeing a photo of the towers lit up at night. We sat on the deck, waiting for the sun to set. We were rewarded with another hilight of the trip. This vacation just keeps getting better!

Tomorrow we would start the long trip back to Tibilisi. This time, we'd be going to Zugdigi to catch the overnight train to Tibilisi. Hopefully, I'll get a chance to dream. I dont think any dream could possibly compare to the past few days in the mountains.

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Night view of Mestia

Posted by Jengt 02:54 Archived in Georgia Comments (1)

A Bittersweet Goodbye to Georgia

sunny 93 °F

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St George slaying the Dragon - Liberty Square

Our train arrived at the main Tibilisi train station at 6:30am. It had been a rough night. Mike had purchased first class sleeper tickets for us for the trip back from Ushguli to Tibilisi. We figured the 15 Lari (approximately $10) tickets beat spending $75-$100 for a hotel for the night. Maybe, maybe not. The train compartment was stuffy and you couldn't open the window. The "air conditioning" didn't kick in unless the train was running at full speed - which it did for a maximum of ten minutes before it pulled into another station. Neither of us got a good night's sleep.

We stopped by the hotel Mike had booked to see if they would let us check in early. We really didn't want to carry our heavy packs around all day until we could check in. The woman at the desk let us drop our bags until noon when we could get our room. We decided to walk around Tibiilisi to see some of the local sites I had not yet seen. It was Sunday, so some places (churches) were having services and some opened later than usual. Out first stop was the Metekhi church. Services were in session and I had not brought my scarf. The chapel was standing room only, so we took a few photos of the outside and moved on.

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Anchiskhati Basilica - The oldest surviving church in Tibilisi

Next, we'd tried to catch the cable car up to the Narikala fortress looming over Old Town. It didn't open until noon and it was just 10am. Time to rethink our plans. We wandered around the riverside park a little and then wove our way back through Old Town towards Liberty Square. On the way, we found a couple other churches Mike had not yet found, one of which was the oldest church in Tibilisi, a quirky clock tower and a part of the old city wall. The main attraction we were headed for was the Museum of Georgia. I was expecting a lot of ancient history information regarding the different civilizations that had inhabited the area. What we found was a collection of jewelry and goldsmithing from ancient times that held some very beautiful items. One of the other exhibits was on the Soviet occupation of Georgia. I was shocked and horrified to see how the Soviets had targeted not just the elite families, but the "Inteligencia" - the poets, musicians, scientists, clergy - anyone who held the cultural heart of Georgia. It was definitely a sobering experience.

After the museum, it was finally time to check into our hotel. We unpacked, dropped off some laundry and headed back out to see more of the city. I felt bad that Mike was having to see a lot of this again, but we did manage to find a few places that he missed in his previous visit to Tibilisi. We decided after dinner to make it an early night since we were both tired and had scheduled another big sightseeing day for our last day in Georgia.

When we were planning the trip, there was one place near Tibilisi that I asked Mike to hold off seeing until I got here - the nearby town of Mtskheta. Here, we're several old churches and a monastery that is the most sacred place in Georgia. How could I not want to see that? Our 1 lari (60 cent) marshrutka ride got us there in about 20 minutes.

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Samtavro Church

We started off at Samtavro Church. As we walked in, we noticed the room full of nuns and novitiates cleaning every inch of the church. Including scrubbing the marble floors with steel wool! What we didn't see was a "no photography" sign. In one corner, are two beautifully carved stone sarcophagi for King Mirian and Queen Nana who are buried in the church. As I was taking a photo, one of the older nuns came over and asked me to not take photos. She asked what language I spoke and walked off. Mike and I continued to take in the beauty of the frescoes on the walls and ceilings. As we were starting to leave, the older nun brought over one of the novitiates who spoke English (sort of) to give us a brief lesson of the church. She was genuinely thankful that we were interested in their church and history. I mentioned to Mike that if the woman from the cathedral in Telavi had been kinder, as this nun was, I would have come away with a more favorable impression of the church. I will always remember this nun and her gentle understanding.

From here, we walked to the walled Svetiskhoveli Cathedral. Not knowing which way to get to the front entrance, we ended up walking all the way around the wall. We entered the the cathedral through an impressive gate and through a courtyard. From there, we walked into the cathedral. It was beautiful! And, there was no sign saying we couldn't take pictures. Mike & I started snapping away. This was one of the more crowded sites we had been to. And I can see why. The frescoes were much more colorful than many we had previously seen. We spent quite a decent amount of time wandering around the church and the grounds.

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Jvari Church

There were three more sites in the area that Mike and I wanted to see, but they were not within walking distance. As we walked down the street, a taxi driver asked if we needed a car. We agreed on a price an hopped in. First up was Bebris Tsikhe, a ruined feudal period castle. There's not much left but a few walls, but it was cool to climb through anyways. Next, was the main reason for coming to Mtskheta - Jvari church. The church was built around 600 AD on the site where King Mirian was converted to Christianity and later erected a cross. Jvari sits on a hilltop overlooking the city. I have to say, I was extremely underwhelmed. All of the build up to this and there really wasn't much to see. It just didn't live up to the hype.

The last stop was to be a site that wasn't in my guidebook but was in Mike's more recent one. Armaztsikhe Bagineti is a pre-Christian site on a hill across from Jvari. The guidebook didn't say much about it but we decided to check it out anyways. Here, we were both very pleasantly surprised. It appears to be a site that is currently under excavation but is open to the public. There were Roman style baths and an area that could have been the residence of the king of the time. It doesn't appear there have been many visitors to the site. In fact, there is no real parking for it. The taxi driver had to just park along the side of the road as he waited for us.

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Armaztsikhe Bagineti

It was time to head back to Tibilisi. We were dropped off at the stop for the marshrutka. I was thinking that this had been an interesting day. The places I thought would hold the most interest didn't and the sites I thought would just be ok were the ones that were most memorable.

The rest of the afternoon was spent catching up on e-mail and resting up. For dinner, we found an Irish pub that the guidebook said had "the best damn burgers" in Tibilisi. Mike was tired of Georgian food by now so we opted for more American fare. It was good. Maybe not the best I'd ever had, but it hit the spot.

We then walked down to the river park to get some night pictures of the Freedom bridge and the castle walls high above. In the park, there is a fountain that is choreographed to music. I took way too many pictures of it. Even thoughit was still early in the evening, we had to call it a night. Our early flight meant a 4am wake up.

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Fountain in the Park

Posted by Jengt 14:48 Archived in Georgia Comments (0)

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