Day 6: To Gudauri (2,250 m)
On the way – Gori – Stalin’s birthplace: I had a headache and I often get ‘museum headache’ so I opted out of visiting the inside of Stalin’s museum so the comments below are from Judy.
[The museum of Stalin’s life. It was built after his death but still in the time of Soviet Occupation, and is the only museum I have ever seen dedicated to just one man. It was hard to determine how much propaganda was involved. As well as photos and documents, it bizarrely had his death mask mounted on a plinth in a room by itself, which certainly resembled a shrine. Ugh!! I asked Nick why the museum hadn’t been burnt when the Soviets left, but he said “it is part of our history” but also a lot of the older generation still admire Stalin. Certainly, they are worse off now financially as the Russians did provide accommodation, employment and a type of social security.
Stalin initially began training as a priest in the Georgian Seminary in Tbilisi, before abandoning religion to become a brigand and join the new Bolshevik movement. It has been suggested that Georgia escaped the worst horrors of Stalin’s regime because he was afraid of his conservative, Christian mother! We had a local guide for the museum tour as nothing was in English, and she was straight out of robot school. One of the guys on the tour said he thought she was actually a recording. She spoke in a dead flat monotone, was dressed in black, and was everyone’s caricature of a Russian spy. She gave us more to talk about than the museum.]
Back to me: Instead of visiting the museum I walked with Nick, visited the market, and had lunch with Nick and the driver – the barbecued pork I had here was the nicest so far on the trip, I have noticed that the ‘cuts’ of meat in Georgia, whether lamb, chicken or pork, seem to be rather random as though the butcher has randomly slashed at the meat with his cleaver with no thought to the bits of bone that are left. The salad was also really nice – cucumber, tomato, raw onion with dill and fennel (just a little as there was only a hint of aniseed in the salad.)
We drove along the Georgian Military Highway/Road – this follows the traditional route from Tbilisi to Vladikavkaz (Russia), taken by invaders and traders – we had been on it before at Mtskheta. Although the route has been known since antiquity (mentioned by Pliny), the present road was started in 1799 (yes) by the Russian Military – after the Kingdom of Georgia was annexed by Russia in 1801, Tzar Alexander 1, ordered that the road surface be improved to ‘facilitate troop movement and communications.’ This work was officially ‘completed’ in 1817 but work continued until 1863. At this point the work had cost 4 million pounds (British pounds) a staggering amount for that time – the road was a 2-3 lane road with good iron bridges, astonishing at a time when good roads in Russia proper, were almost non-existent. It used to be a really important route, but now, not so much, especially with the delays and frequent closures of the border (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgian_Military_Road)
On the way to Gudauri we visited the Ananuri 17th C architectural complex containing yet two more churches! They overlooked the shores of a turquoise lake (actually a reservoir) which was quite beautiful. We wished we could get out on the lake to take photos back towards the church. There were some beautiful frescoes inside and interesting carvings on the external walls.
The mountain road was very steep and winding but was quite pretty apart from the rubbish in the villages. The mountains were snow-capped but the slopes were just green grass rather than forests – there was some serious erosion as well. The road zig-zagged up the mountain – we were only one of many large vehicles; as this is a main route out of Georgia to Russia there were lots of trucks.
Gudauri, a ski resort, but out of season of course, was a cluster of buildings and one supermarket, but there were lots of broken tiles, pipes, rubbish and mud. Our hotel was very different – the room was tiny – a third the size of the previous one, and for those whose rooms were upstairs, there were some interesting challenges with spiral wrought-iron stairs to their room and light switches outside the door!
Some of the group chose to stay at the hotel but the rest of us continued on up (and then down) the mountain in 2 minibuses; due to major road works to fix the damage to the road caused by a recent storm, the big bus couldn’t go on this bit of road – but the trucks did! (And we actually saw two normal sized buses on the road but we felt much safer in the minibuses). The road was so bad that when we got to the area of road works there was a line of at least 10 trucks waiting for the road to open. We had to wait for 15 minutes or so while there was a ‘stand-off at OK Corall’! 2 trucks and some vans behind the truck coming towards us, had decided that even though there were parked trucks in both directions, that they could ignore them and proceed! This meant that they ended up on a single road section in a ‘face-off’ – eventually the truck going our way backed up and pulled over to the side of the road as did the opposing vehicles which meant that the smaller vehicles (which included us) were able to pass.
The trip to Kazbegi was interesting – the highest point on the road (still the Georgian Military Highway) is 2,379 m (7,815 ft). The road has optional tunnels at many of the corners which are actually for protection against rock falls or avalanches or, when the road is blocked as it was when we drove past by an over-turned truck. It must have happened recently as on the way back we saw another truck beside the over-turned one, unloading it. The only stop we made was beside a cold sulphur outcrop – normally sulphur deposits come from hot springs, but in the mountains here, the springs are cold, but the sulphur is still deposited – it looked amazing – from a distance the yellow stood out very clearly compared to the rest of the mountainside. It took nearly 2 hours to get to Kazbegi, and a bit less on the way back as we didn’t have the hold up at the road works on the way back.
Our final destination was the Church of the Holy Trinity – it is situated way up on the mountainside above Gergeti village (same town as Kazbegi, just called a different name on the other side of the river). We had a choice of walking up or sharing a vehicle. One of our group had every intention of walking up, but when she was shown how far up the mountain the church was, we all wished we’d had our cameras ready – her reaction was a classic! And after seeing where the church was, those who had not been sure whether they would walk or not were unanimous in their decision to pay to be driven up. We had been told it would take 2-3 hours at the very least to walk up, so 7 of us paid 10 lari (NZ$7) each to be driven up in a 4-wheel drive vehicle – even that took 30 minutes as the road was very bad with rocks and large ruts from the winter rain. That left 6 die-hard good walkers who got to the top in 1.5 hours but it would have taken the rest of us much longer especially at that altitude (Kazbegi = 1740m, the church = 2170m). The church was interesting – no photos allowed inside which was a pity as the special chair (maybe for the bishop?) was beautifully carved and very different from any others I had seen. On the way up, the driver of our 4-wheel drive stopped and took a large bag from a woman walking up (no spare seats so we couldn’t give her a ride). When I first went into the church the soil in the garden around the church was bare but when I went back up just before we left, she and a monk were busy planting the gardens with seedlings. There were lots of lovely mountain flowers in the meadows around the church.
We were in the middle of having lunch with Nick (at a restaurant back in Kazbegi run by the parents of a friend of his, who works on the Georgian-Russian border 10 km further on) when it started raining – the last of the walkers had to walk all the way back in the rain. As it was the beginning of the season nothing was open so we left ¾ hr earlier than planned, as being a tourist isn’t fun in the rain with nothing to do or visit.
We were to visit a felt-making and icon-painting centre on the way back but the owner had died unexpectedly that morning so in the end as a group we didn’t see felt being made anywhere. Here in Georgia craft people make felt scarves – coloured felt is sown in patterns onto material, and hats, slippers and children’s booties and toys are made totally out of felt – we saw the finished product in several places. Judy and I saw toys being made on our last day in Tbilisi.
We were back at the hotel early, so a group of us played table tennis – it was a lot of fun, especially for those of us who were not very good! Of course with the high altitude it was exhausting – it is hard to get enough oxygen. That evening Nick discussed Georgian poetry. Evidently a few years ago, he translated some of Robert Burns’ poetry into Georgian, and it was published.
Day 8 To Telavi via Tbilisi
Archaeological Treasury: During our previous day in Tbilisi the Georgian National Museum was closed as it was a state holiday (but museums are often closed on one day during the week so it pays to allow for this if museums are your ‘thing’). Today we had time in Tbilisi to visit it – and it was well worth it. There are two permanent exhibitions at the moment – the Archaeological Treasury and the Soviet occupation 1921-1991. We all saw the Treasury and some saw the Soviet occupation (I didn’t). We were allowed to take photos in the Treasury – it was amazing – one particular cup was made in 17th C BC! It was beautiful – many of the pieces on display are so intricate and the quality of workmanship was amazing for things (mainly gold and silver) that were so old. These beautiful gold treasures had been recovered from the tombs of noblemen and women. I have looked at the museum website but there is nothing on it that shows more than one piece from the Archaeological Treasure exhibition – very frustrating.
[Judy’s comments on the Soviet Occupation exhibition: There was also a very sombre exhibition of the Soviet Occupation of Georgia, and the systematic annihilation of all the intellectuals, rich peasants, teachers, priests, etc who might have opposed Stalin. Included was a railway carriage riddled with bullets used to transport some of the prisoners.]
Street with ironwork: I found a street off Liberty Square with old, not renovated buildings and most of them had wrought-iron balconies and window coverings which I happily took photos of. I was directed to one doorway by an English-speaking Canadian-Armenian café owner – and there were four paintings at least 150 yrs old in the hall way – I would never have found them without his help. [Aside: On Judy’s and my last day in Tbilisi, we had lunch at his café – a delicious baked flat bread wrap, filled with meat and salad – it was one of the best meals we had.]
I also walked up the parallel street to this one, and it was full of expensive looking restaurants with menus in English; it was mostly renovated in a very ornate and expensive looking way – I wonder how long until the first street becomes like that. It will be a pity as that was an example of the ‘real’ Tbilisi, not touristy, just old and tired.
After we left Tbilisi, we drove to the Kakheti region which is famous for its wine production – we visited a local winery that has been operating for over 300 years. They showed us the way the wine was (and in this winery, still is) stored in large pots buried in the ground. The houses in this area have roof ornamentation that is different from almost anywhere else – along the ridges, at the top, along the gutter edges and often the top of the drain pipe are a fine wrought-iron ‘lace’ – and sometimes at the top of the ridges is a date when the house was built. We drove past an open-air butcher’s ‘shop’ with carcases hanging uncovered at the front! We also saw for the first time donkeys with carts – normally we had only seen them in the fields.
We visited a very pretty village, Sighnaghi, but it was pouring with rain so after a few quick photos, we all ended up in a hotel having coffee. However, I found a wall which I guess was a memorial wall. I will find a photo and put it in.
We stayed in Telaviv at a very simple guesthouse (again, very small rooms) at the back of the family house. Our room looked onto the terrace where they served the meals – the terrace overlooks the valley, and in the distance amongst the clouds was the huge snow-capped mountain range which forms the border with Chechnya. It was cloudy and the visibility was not good enough at any time for us to see the mountains properly but the mountain tops were poking out of the top of the clouds when we got there. We had another birthday cake as there was another birthday – it was also our last night together before the tour split – half going onto Azerbaijan, and half returning to Tbilisi, and the end of the tour.
We were pleased not to be staying longer at the guesthouse – breakfast wasn’t until 8 am but at 7.30 am food was already out on the table – uncovered! We visited the farmers’ market in the town, more to allow those going to Azerbaijan to change their Georgian money into US dollars than to buy anything. I had seen enough markets so I made a quick trip back up the hill to the town centre and took some photos of what we had driven past the previous evening.
We had yet another stop at a winery, and this was much more commercial than the one the previous day (too many wineries!) I bought a very small bottle of good brandy to have in Fethiye (in Turkey where I went afterwards.) Then we had lunch with a local family – however, although the barbecue pork (done as kebabs) was really delicious, as was the liqueur-type drink they offered, the rest of the meal was not particularly appealing. After the meal, we said our farewells to Nick who was going on with the Azerbaijan group, moved our luggage into the Tbilisi-bound smaller bus, said our farewells to the rest of the group and left – it was a very odd feeling, after being with everyone for 14 days.
Judy and I didn’t do anything that night in Tbilisi, (1) because there was an anti-gay parade on and the resulting opposition to it had closed the square at the closest metro station to the hotel, but (2) we wanted to repack for our flight to Istanbul the next afternoon and have an early night.
Day 10 – last day in Georgia
The other 7 in the group had left in the early hours (1.30 am for the airport) – we had said our goodbyes when we reached the hotel the night before. Judy and I checked out, left our luggage at the hotel, and walked down the street all the way to Liberty Square, taking photos of things we hadn’t seen previously.
We visited the State Museum for Folk and Applied Arts of Georgia near the café in the street I had found on our half day in Tbilisi. It is a very grand name for quite a small museum, but it was free and definitely worth visiting. When we arrived, all the lights were off, but they were soon turned on, and an English speaking guide showed us around. Upstairs we saw art work, carpets, silver work, pottery etc. and a woman was making felt animals. She had one completed animal – a cute donkey which I bought for Caleb (the new grandson) – it must have taken her hours but it cost only $30 – less than half the price of other, not nearly as cute, animals we had seen elsewhere. After we left the upstairs section, the lights were turned off, and she left – so obviously she only goes to her ‘work’ station when there are visitors. Georgian carpets are different to Turkish carpets – Georgian have more circular designs whereas Turkish carpets have geometrical designs. Back to the hotel by taxi, out to the airport and our 2 week Explore tour was over.
Final thoughts on Georgia in another post.