Live the adventures of Dan Walker's travels through reading his travel journal. The travel journals are listed below in descending order of date. To search the travel journals, use the keyword search at the bottom of the page.
|Thursday, September 25, 2003 09:55:23|
Central Asia 2003: 4 - Georgia
The van we piled into with our luggage from the Georgian tour company was the same size, with the same basic level of comfort as the one we left in Azerbaijan, however our hosts were very different. The driver, Gaila, was a bear of a man who dwarfed the wheel as he sat at it, and the guide, Maia was a delightfully bubbly person. Within a short time of boarding the van she announced we would be making a lunch stop up ahead, which was greeted by a cheer. She then produced a large bag of meat and cheese filled pastries, sweets and fruit. By the time we finished we decided the lunch stop was unnecessary, but were all feeling confident that our days of tourism by starvation and exhaustion were over. Maia was great throughout the trip for frequent stops at road-side stands to replenish our stock of fresh fruit and to buy traditional sweets.
The trip was broken by stops at various history buildings, including churches and the house and gardens of Alexander Chavchavadze, a famous Georgian. Georgia is a very poor country of about 5 million people. One of the things we noticed immediately was an increase in the number of horse and mule drawn vehicles. A lot of the motor vehicles were Russian Army surplus. The roads are in bad shape and the average wage is barely $50 per month. Pensioners receive $7 per month, so this is a very poor country indeed. The wealthy here are in the government.
This is the land of St. George and the Dragon, and scenes from the story are depicted in most churches, on tapestries and so on. The country took its name from St. George.
In the late afternoon we arrived at the village of Telavi, where we stayed in a private home. The house is beautiful. It was built by its owner, a master craftsman. The inlaid wood floors had a different design in each room, and the woodworking overall was of superb quality. We had separate bedrooms, but shared two bathrooms. The three young (30s) fellows from the US - Rocky, Jim and Brent - have proved to be excellent travel companions. They are considerate, flexible, easy going and have a great sense of humour, so we have had a great time together.
After time to clean up we were called to dinner. Pitchers of red and white wine were placed on the table, then course after course of delicious food. By the end of the meal we were stuffed and feeling pretty good. Even I broke my water only regimen to partake of the very palatable Georgian wines. I excused myself at about 9:30 PM, as I was fading, but from there the party picked up with guitar playing, singing and dancing until Marilynn announced her arrival in our bedroom at 1 AM by falling over a chair with a resounding crash. We had just experienced our first taste of Georgian hospitality!
In the morning after a hearty breakfast we bade farewell to our generous hosts and were underway by a little after 9 AM. There were some queasy stomachs in the group, and when Maia suggested we tour a winery a few moans. It was very interesting, though, as the technique is unlike any I have seen. The winery was built in the 18th century. Large urns were built into the floor in rows, into which the grape juice is poured. A stone stopper about half a meter across is placed on the top of the urn, which is level with the floor, then a wet mat goes on top of that, and then it is buried in sand. It is left for about a year to ferment naturally; no sugar or other additives assist in the process.
Next Maia decided to show us how typical family wine making was done. We stopped the van at a group of men by the roadside, and she asked if someone was willing to show us their home wine production. A fellow promptly volunteered, hopped into the van and off we went to his house. The whole family turned out to stare curiously at us as we were show the similar urns in the ground - this time only two or three as it was not a commercial operation.
Our host then insisted we try his finished product. A length of garden hose was picked up from the dirty cellar floor, dunked into a barrel of white wine, and fed into some bottles that were lying around after he gave the hose a healthy suck to get the wine flowing. He used his thumb as a stopper as each bottle filled. The perhaps not so sanitary process was repeated for bottles of red wine. His wife came from the kitchen with glasses which were quickly filled and we were soon drinking his tasty brew.
We were now invited to view the vineyards. Several bottles of wine were capped and presented to us to take on our way, and off we went to where the grapes were being harvested by other family members. A large plastic pail was produced, filled to overflowing with grapes and placed in the van as another gift. There was no way it was possible to pay for this generosity. Our guide says that this kind of hospitality is very common among Georgians.
After dropping our wine maker near his house, we turned off the main road to make our way through rolling countryside on dirt roads to reach a long treeless valley which is the site of 12 ancient monasteries. Their watchtowers were clearly visible on various high hills. We stopped along the way for a picnic lunch and more wine - I've given up on water only, it isn't possible in Georgia! Soon after lunch we were at the parking lot below the main monastery.
The path is quite steep, and it requires about an hour each way to reach the buildings, so I declined as I didn't think I'd make it. Gaila and I stayed with the van while the others headed of. It was apparently well worth the effort. Everyone returned bursting with enthusiasm.
When we left we took another set of what should have been four wheel drive mud and dirt tracks, until we finally descended at a deserted Russian military base. Her we joined a once-paved road past abandoned villages until we reached a huge industrial complex covering square miles. Dozens of giant smoke stacks stabbed up into the sky over this former steel and chemical complex. It is now deserted except for a couple of small parts of factories that are being used. The big power plant is silent. It is difficult to imagine the investment abandoned, and the number of jobs lost. The only advantage is that apparently when going full bore the air in the area was barely breathable.
One of the major problems facing Georgia is that they are no longer on good terms with Russia, and Russia has been playing a lot of games to cause them problems, including inciting various of the 100 ethnic groups living here to agitate for separation. They have succeeded in the Abkhazeil area, where it is now dangerous for South Georgians to go. This is apparently a beautiful part of the country, located where the Caucus Mountains meet the Black Sea. The area has elected their own government following a civil war, and the residents have been issued passports by the Russians. The area is Georgian in name only, and it is expected that it will become part of Russia, taking about half the Georgian Black Sea coast with it.
Another problem Georgia faces is electricity. They are totally dependant upon electricity from Russia, and Russia provides it only when they have a surplus. The country is thus frequently without power for days at a time, which has forced most industrial plants to close. Major hotels have their own backup power systems, but it keeps people who live in the many soviet style high rise apartments fit walking up to their suites.
Medical care was free under the Soviets, but no longer is. We would think 80 lari (about $37) a night for a hospital room very cheap, but here that is almost a month's salary even if a person had a job, and it is far beyond the means of many people. The country has gone from having great infrastructure with good roads, free health, free education, a surplus of jobs and a strong tourism industry from Russia to having a badly decayed infrastructure, terrible roads, no jobs and little tourism.
We arrived at our hotel, the Sheraton Metechi Palace, and after getting checked in and cleaned up were picked up to be taken to a delightful Georgian restaurant for dinner in the ancient part of the city. Again the food just kept coming and coming, as did the water pitchers full of wine. Every time we thought we were through a clean plate, knife and fork would appear and another array of food would follow soon afterwards. We literally rolled into the hotel and to bed!
Monday morning, and we had a nice, lazy 10 AM start. Today we toured of the city of Tbilisi. The older sections are beautiful and very historic, but the economic situation is reflected in the large number of beggars and abandoned factories and buildings. We climbed to an old castle which was started in the third century, which gives an idea of how old some of the structures here are. Lunch was at a pleasant restaurant on the bank of the River Mtkvari, which flows through the centre of town. Again the food was good and more than enough. In a landmark move I had my first beer in quite awhile. It went down VERY well!
After exploring the ancient church on the "Holy Mountain" we were invited to Gaila's apartment for tea in the late afternoon. He lives on the ninth floor of a high rise in a residential area, where like most here, he owns his own apartment. The Soviet built building looked almost derelict; an impression that was furthered when we went inside. It would appear nothing had been touched or maintained since it was initially constructed. Deterioration was evident everywhere, doors were missing and windows were knocked out.
We went in shifts up the tiny elevator to find the ninth floor looked a lot like the lower floor, but when we were invited into Gaila's apartment it was very nicely done inside, quite large and comfortable. That is apparently the trend here; absolutely nothing that is not essential is done outside the actual living area. I guess it keeps the common costs away down!
We all comfortably settled into his living room after meeting his wife and two sons, and "tea" was served. There were courses of snacks, lots of beer, wine, compulsory schnapps shooters then champagne. Trays of cakes appeared, and yes - if you really wanted it there was tea!
After leaving we were all stuffed, so voted against the traditional enormous dinner. Instead Maia took us to a coffee house where more drinks accompanied three or four different plates of food. Nothing is done by half measures, but we were all grateful for an early return to the hotel to rest.
Our start in the morning was at 11 AM, as this is when the museums open. We checked out of the hotel and headed for the first museum, which was closed. The second was the State Museum where there is a treasury of precious items of gold and silver dating back to the 3rd century BC. Georgia has been a major centre of the arts since well before that time, but not all that much remains as the country has always been in the path of plundering armies, so many historic artefacts have been taken, often to melt down for their gold and silver content. We had a thorough explanation by a very knowledgeable museum employee after waiting some time while they found keys to the doors, and arranged enough electricity to power the lights.
From there we headed to the South of the country, stopping at a restaurant that specialized in very tasty Georgia dumplings. We stopped in Gori, Stalin's birthplace, to visit the Joseph Stalin Museum. He is still revered in this area - many men have Stalin in their name. The museum is large, and on the grounds are the house in which Stalin was raised and his private railway car. A fellow from Britain was with me as we went through Stalin's private quarters and ensuite bathroom. His comment was, "Well, here's a rare opportunity. You could sit on Stalin's bog!"
Next we drove to the cave city of Uplistsikhe, which was founded in the sixth century BC. It is located in a high escarpment where once 10,000 people lived. The dwellings, shops and common rooms were all carved out of sandstone. Climbing up to it was my first shot at real physical exercise, and I survived not too badly. It seems the mass of medication from the medical ladies of Baku is working!
After another long stretch of driving over bad roads, where making time is not possible, we arrived at our hotel in the ski resort town of Bakuriani, far up in the Southern mountains. Dinner was not until 9 PM, and we were all beat. Gaila, however, showed up for dinner with two 1.5 litre bottles of white wine, and after the required number of Georgian toasts we were all feeling much more chipper. Marilynn didn't make it for dinner, as she was suffering from a tacky tummy, but was well toasted to. Jim's impersonation of her got a lot of laughs and made us feel that she was with us in spirit!
Wednesday, September 24, 2003
We were on the road again at 9 AM for the 3 ½ hour drive to Samtskhe-Javakheti Province. This was the usual route the Persians and Turks took when invading Georgia. As a result, the hills are dotted with castles and forts dating from the birth of Christ. Some are truly magnificent structures. The mountainous countryside with its forests and rivers is beautiful. This 68,000 sq. km. country is truly diverse!
Maia had made another of her fantastic picnic lunches, which we ate beside a river below the cliffs containing the remains of the cave city of Vardzia. Marilynn ate sparingly, but joined us when we hiked up to explore the maze of cave entrances, internal tunnels and buildings. The city was built in the 12th and 13th century, and was regarded as the cultural and educational centre of it's time. There are wineries, shops, and even a large church carved inside the cliffs. The original paintings on the high ceiling and walls of the church are amazingly brilliant considering they are over 1,000 years old and have never been retouched. This city of 25,000 people had running water and a sewer system among other amenities.
This area was alive with Russian tourists in Soviet times, but all that is left is a big, abandoned Intourist hotel. The largest population now are cows and sheep. The cows act like they own the road, and Gaila amused us by smacking them out of the driver's window to try to get them out of the way.
We then had the long ride back to the same mountain hotel, stopping to look at a beautiful old palace along the way. Tonight's contribution to dinner by Gaila was two 1½ litre water bottles filled with red wine. You just can't keep a good Georgian down! Marilynn joined us for dinner as she was feeling better.
Thursday, September 25, 2003
After leaving the ski resort area, which also has a number of abandoned resorts, we had a long drive before coming to the world heritage city of Mtskheta. This was the capital of Georgia from 500 BC until 500 AD. The main cathedral and most holy site in the country is here, a very large structure surrounded by battlements for defence. Apparently the robe of Christ is buried here, making it the second most sacred Christian site in the world.
Another church from the fourth century was located on top of the mountain overlooking the town. We were able to drive up to explore it before another long drive north to Zhinvali Lake and the Ananauri church complex. It is a beautiful site, with two ancient churches surrounded by watchtowers and embattlements complete with secret tunnels and defence positions. We arrived back at the Sheraton in Tbilisi to check in at about 5:30 PM.
Maia and Gaila were back to pick us up for our farewell dinner, for which we went to a modern, popular restaurant on the riverbank. They didn't have a lot of the dishes we wanted, but beer and wine and lots of food were not a problem. There was live entertainment, and Marilynn would have gone all night except it was Rocky's turn for tacky tummy, Gaila was falling asleep from all the driving he had been doing and the rest of us were fading fast as well. It was a quieter farewell than we had expected, but really nice nevertheless.
Tomorrow we head for the Armenian border at Sadakhlo, where we will be sorry to say goodbye to our Georgian hosts.