The tour I did in 2013 with Judy started in Armenia and finished in Georgia. This is the start of the Georgia section.
It was an Explore tour – Land of the Golden Fleece – and it was wonderful. There are some photos later this entry.
The Georgian part of the tour started in Tbilisi: This is a ‘History lesson’ from the trip notes and Judy’s research – I have included this as it really quite interesting.
Tibilisi, the capital of Georgia is an ancient and cosmopolitan city; there is a synagogue, a mosque, a Georgian basilica, an Armenian church and a Zoroastrian Fire-Worshipper’s temple all within 15 minutes’ walk. Tbilisi is surprisingly beautiful, with many old buildings, but as in any city, new and modern buildings, some eyesores, some lovely, are sprouting up amongst the treasures of the past. A quarter of Georgia’s 5 million population lives in the capital.
King Gorgasali won the town back from the Persians, and moved his capital here in the 5th C. In 645 the Arabs captured Tbilisi and kept it as an emirate for four centuries until King David the Builder took the city in 1122 and made it the capital of a united Georgia. Under David and his great-granddaughter Queen Tamar, Georgia enjoyed its medieval golden age and Tbilisi developed into a multi-ethnic city, known for its production of weapons, jewellery, leather and silk clothing. The golden age ended with the Mongols in 1235, followed by the Black Death, the conqueror Tamerlane, who destroyed the city in 1386, and the Persians who captured it again in 1540.
In 1762 it again became the capital of an independent Georgia, was attacked and burnt to the ground by the Persians in 1795, was annexed by Russia in 1800, and suffered 70+ years of Soviet occupation from 1921 to 1991, although the soviet era also was a time of growth and prosperity for the city. Protesters forced out the president in 2003, after years of falling living standards, corruption and crime becoming rife, and frequent power blackouts. The next president successfully turned the corruption, crime and economy around, but last year he lost the election to ‘money and power’ – the incoming president had a lot of that and he won – and Nick (the tour leader) says he talks about turning Georgia towards the north again (Russia) instead of the west (Europe).
Georgia suffers frequent border skirmishes, disputes over neighbouring territories which once were part of Georgia, and military invasions by Russia right up until 2008, when, during the Beijing Olympics, Georgia and Russia were involved in the 5 day war. After months of provocation, Georgia invaded South Ossetia, to try and reclaim it from Russia. Russia then moved troops into Ossetia, and bombed strategic targets in Georgia proper, claiming that these actions were “necessary humanitarian intervention and peace enforcement”! Tell that to the Georgians who were killed, or who lost their homes. Russia also moved troops into Georgia itself – withdrawing later, but some western analysts say the Russians did not go back to their original border positions.
However, even though the EU have said that both sides were in the wrong that is not how the very patriotic Georgians see it. Nick made the comment about Armenia having to ‘earn its friends’ based on Armenia’s involvement (letting the Russians have bases in North Armenia). Also Nick’s grandfather was one of those who ‘disappeared’ during Stalin’s time, so he is understandably not the biggest fan of Russia.
Evidently Russia deliberately bombed a world-recognised heritage National Park that happened to be close to the gas pipeline that takes gas to Armenia from Iran. The world organisation for lost species (I have no idea what its proper name is) says that this was a very special area ecologically, and now there are several species of trees that are extinct because of this bombing which lead to massive fires which burned uncontrolled for 2 days until on day 3, Turkey sent in firefighting helicopters. Evidently, the world looked on, and ignored Georgia’s urgent requests (to France and the USA) for assistance – and they understandably feel betrayed by those countries in particular, especially as Russia was breaking its own ‘treaty’. There is no love lost between the two countries. Of course, if you Google it, which I have just done, the information there is much more clinical and neutral. Seeing how passionate Nick was about it, I could see how easy it is for situations to escalate to war or skirmishes. These countries who have been taken over, or who have been invaded by other countries, have many reasons to get angry about old grievances.
For example, water: Rivers get dammed and the water flow restricted for that country’s benefit. But what about the countries further downstream who rely on this river for their own economy and livelihood? For example, Turkey is continuing to build more and more dams, and this means less and less water reaching Iran and those countries downstream. This is the sort of thing countries go to war for. This history is typical of all the countries in this region, which have been conquered and reconquered since civilisation began in this region. There are definite advantages to living on an island, or a long way away from the action as I do in New Zealand!
Georgian Restaurant meal the night we arrived: this restaurant served typical Georgian food and we went as a group – Judy and I had a beef stew which was served in a bowl, just the meat with no vegetables. The normal meal in Georgia is always shared, and is a combination of cold salads, cheese, or just vegetables e.g. tomato, cucumber, peppers or eggplant (served with walnut cream and pomegranate seeds and is really delicious) and then the meat. Fruit seems to be never served at a meal, however it is available at the markets, but you need to wash everything first. Of course, safe, hygienic, easy to eat with your hands, bananas are everywhere.
Day 1: A taste of Tbilisi – we saw so much more but these were the highlights.
Orientation walking tour of the old part of Tbilisi: this included the important Church of Metecki, Sioni Cathedral, the Synagogue, the ancient bath houses (sulphur springs), a steep climb up to the 17th C fortress ruins, and the boulevards and back streets of the old city.
During the tour we saw a group of cats and kittens in a doorway, and suddenly this old woman was there, stroking the cats and she put one really little kitten on her head – it sat there crying! Some of us gave her money for food for the cats and I am sure that is what she did with it – these cats are her income – tourists stop and take photos of them and her, so she isn’t going to starve the cats.
The Gabriadze puppet theatre is just amazing – it is not possible to describe it properly, so try googling it if you are interested. I took so many photos of it – it was recently renovated.
Basically it is a clock tower with attitude! It isn’t straight, has different ‘floors’, lovely tiles on one side, and other decorations around it. We did think of going to a show but there were no tickets available while we were there.
David the fourth Avenue: In the afternoon Judy and I caught the metro to a newer part of the city with some lovely 19th and early 20thC buildings, some of which reminded me of the Art Nouveau and Art Deco buildings of Riga, but others also reminded me of Prague (not the gold embellishment though) and Vienna.
We revisited the old town to wander on our own. We stopped at one shop that had lovely paintings and the son of the painter let us take photos of them – the artist is Niko Kherkeladze – see his website. This is a collage of a few of the paintings that were available in the shop.
The next shop had the most beautiful enamel cloisonné work – and there was one large piece that was amazing – I asked, just for interest, how much it was – $80,000 US !!! I decided not to buy it this time. . . . but, they let us take photos of it. The expensive one is the long piece and the photo of part of it. The other piece was ‘only’ $11,000 US….
Continues in the next post.