Category Archives: Georgia (Gurcistan)

All our bags are packed, we’re ready to go

Three hours until we get on the plane home (via a 1 hour stop in Baku and a 1 night stop in Doha). Couldn’t be more excited. We’ve been counting the days, which seem to go by extra slow now.

Tbilisi’s pretty cool, though we didn’t do much, just lazed around the comfortable verandah of the Skadaveli Guest House, chatting with the owner and other guests and making pot after pot of deliciously creamy Turkish coffee (for some reason, it’s much easier to find Turkish coffee in Georgia than in Turkey; people in Turkey seem to only drink tea). Hung out with a couple from Belarus for a bit last night. They were surprised that we knew the name of the capital of Belarus. We were even more surprised that they could describe the Malaysian flag in detail.

The Skadaveli guest house verandah on the top left, in a typical Georgian courtyard. The building was built by a Jewish family in 1860, converted to apartments during the Soviet rule, then later bought over by the current owners who used it as an office before the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict.

Quite a few traditional Georgian buildings, with their typical wooden verandahs still survive. Huge restoration works are ongoing in various parts of the old town

Modernisation has come to town too. Like this new pedestrian bridge and the gigantic Holy Trinity Cathedral (in the background on the left)

Top three observations on Tbilisi:

1. There are a lot of cheap delicious fruits (tiny pears, peaches, cherries, etc.)

2. It’s so difficult to find a Coke here (it’s Pepsi country)

3. There are a many of cool statues (photos of some of them below)

Ever seen a statue of a guy with his hand in his pocket?

Ever seen a statue of two guys holding hands?

Our favourite, the statue of Kartlis Deda (Mother Georgia) who towers over the city

She seems to be everywhere

One huge aluminium mama. With a sword in one hand and a cup of wine in the other. Drunken master, anyone?

It’s easy to tell that we’re ready to go home. Yesterday, we took the cable car up to the hill where the huge Narikala fortress stands. We walked around a bit, and then took the cable car back down. Only on the way down did we realise that we had forgotten to go into the fortress. We were probably thinking of what to eat back home.

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One last climb up a slippery slope

With five days left till the end of our trip, we weren’t planning on doing any more strenuous activities. Definitely not hiking anywhere in the Caucasus mountains near the Russian border. Not even though the leading robber baron of Svaneti (and his son), had been arrested and put behind bars in 2004. We were set on lazing about in Tblisi, maybe do our laundry, some souvenir shopping, or get a scrub in a hammam.

But when the outgoing guests at Leo’s Homestay went on and on about how great the Caucasus mountains near the Russian border were, we thought, what the heck, one more for the road.

So we hopped on a mashrutka (mini-bus) to the Tblisi bus station and then looked for another mashrutka headed to Kazbegi. The second mashrutka was full, but we found a taxi driver who offered to take us for 40 GEL (20 Euro), which was less than half the standard fare. We soon discovered that he was crazy. Apart from driving on the wrong side of the road and overtaking at blind corners, the guy made it a point to swear and menacingly point at every single cow (there were many) and dog on the road. All the way to Kazbegi.

Kazbegi is three hours from Tbilisi on the Georgian Military Highway, which is known for its potholes. By the way, these photos were taken from the mashrutka on the way back. We didn’t take any photos on the taxi ride there as we were busy being scared shitless

The Georgian Military Highway is an ancient passage from Tbilisi over the Caucasus to Vladikavkaz in Russia. The landscape, as you can see here, is amazing

There are a couple tunnels along the Georgian Military Highway. This is the only one that is still in use

We arrived in Kazbegi (1,750m asl) a good three hours later, a little peeved but at least still in one piece, and checked in to Emma’s Guest House  run by Leo’s friend, Piqria Burduli. It was a bargain too: comfortable rooms, great views, and good food (dinner and breakfast) for just GEL35 (17 Euro) per person.

In Kazbegi, which is the last town before the (now closed) Russian border. Google has set up a mini market here

Another photo of Kazbegi

There are apparently many wonderful walks to be had in the mountains surrounding Kazbegi. We tried to do the most basic one: a two hour walk up to the 14th-century Tsminda Sameba Church situated on a hill at 2,200m asl. Here’s the rest of story in pictures:

View from Emma’s Guest House. We tried to climb up to that church (the little dot on the hill in the middle)

Passing the small village of Gergeti to get to the foot of the hil

We got a bit lost in Gergeti. A girl and her dog then showed us a short cut

We then met some ladies who showed us another short cut

We overtook the ladies at some point

One set of legs gave up a short distance from the top. Luckily, there was space for us in a passing Lada Niva!

The view that made Kazbegi famous among backpackers. On a good day you can see mountains towering up around it, including Mt. Kazbek at 5,047m asl. Another 900m ascent from here will take you to the Gergeti glacier

The Tsminda Sameba church, which has become something of a symbol of Georgia. Beware of the dress code though: to enter, men need to be wearing long pants and women need to wear long skirts

View of Gergeti and Kazbegi from the top of the hill

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The Big Breakfast

Desperate to escape the heat and tedium of Batumi, we headed to the hills of Borjomi one day earlier than planned via the night train to Kashuri. After a sweaty start (the air-conditioning wasn’t switched on until much later), it turned out to be a pretty comfortable journey. We shared a cabin with a friendly Iranian who had gone to Batumi for some sea and sun. It turned out that he owned a jewellery shop in Tabriz and was also studying English (he had brought along his homework to do on the train). Visibly thrilled to find out that we were from Malaysia, he invited us to visit him in Iran.

The train was scheduled to arrive in Kashuri at 4.49am. We were up much earlier to keep an eye out for our stop. Just how we would recognise our stop, we weren’t actually sure, as the station signs were all in Georgian. But it turned out that there was no need to worry after all, as the train attendant was kind enough to wake up from his sleep to alert us as the train pulled into the station.

The marshutkas (mini buses) were not running yet, so we took a taxi to Borjomi. The taxi driver was chirpy and chatty throughout the 40 minute journey, even though it was five in the morning and we couldn’t understand a word he was saying.

We reached Leo’s Homestay at 5.45am and waited a good 15 minutes before giving Leo a wake-up call. We felt a little bit guilty when Leo and his mother, Marina emerged bleary eyed. While Marina began preparing breakfast, we followed Leo on his morning walk at the Mineral Water Park.

The Mineral Water Park was established in the 1850s, and had been a popular destination for Russian tourists, including the Tsars, during the Soviet era. The water here is said to have curative properties, namely for diabetes and various stomach related illnesses. The park also has a very nice amusement park as well as free wifi!

There are two types to choose from: cold river water (above photo), which is strangely carbonated and tastes just a little bit salty, or hot spring water, which is nice if you like sulphur. Here, Leo is showing us the gas bubbling up from the cold river water

This is Leo’s neighbour, who works at the Mineral Water Park. In the morning he cuts the grass with a long sickle, and in the afternoon he mans the trampolines. He’s 70 years old and still has a physique “like Stallone”. He took off his shirt to show us

We went back later that day to check out the hot swimming pool, which is a pleasant 2.5km walk through the woods behind the park. It seems that the thing to do here is to jump into the pool. Dylan tried it and soon discovered he’s not twenty-something anymore

Genius seems to run in Leo’s family. Leo himself is a champion pianist and chess player. He would delight his guests by performing one or two pieces on the piano each day, making the apartment seem like a concert hall (check out a live recording here). He also invited us to a game chess but we politely declined, not wanting to embarrass Malaysia. Marina taught herself to speak English, and is now one of the few people in town who can speak it. In her younger days, she also taught herself to read and write Russian, and spent her time translating a few Russian books to Georgian, just for fun.

While poverty was an obvious feature of Batumi, people here seemed to be better off (our indicator was that there was no one begging on the streets). Still, Leo says, jobs are hard to come by, and many are unemployed. No doubt due to their resourcefulness, Leo’s family seems to get by particularly well. A few years ago they turned their first floor, one-bedroom apartment into a guesthouse, and constructed a small wooden extension on the side, where Leo and his parents now sleep. The guesthouse can fit seven quite comfortably, with three beds in the original bedroom and four in the living room.

As there were few guests, we had the original bedroom to ourselves, for just 20 GEL (10 Euros) per person

Breakfast at Leo’s is a feast. Marina prepares up to five dishes single-handedly every morning (sometimes preparation even starts the night before). All this at only 5 GEL (2.50 Euro) per person

Breakfast in the living room on the second day. The menu was totally different each day!

Leo recommended taking the old narrow gauge railway up to the Bakuriani resort. While the hill resort was rather dead since there was no snow, the two and a half hour train ride was quite pleasant and passed through some beautiful pine forests and meadows. The two-carriage train functioned as somewhat more of a mini-bus, stopping to pick up passengers (villagers, woodcutters, etc.) anywhere along the tracks.

One of many meadows along the way that looked like something out of Forks (Twilight fans would understand)

That night we walked down to the town square to watch the Euro 2012 semi-final game between Spain and Portugal. A projector had been set up, with the side of a building used as a giant screen. It was a BYOB (Bring-your-own-bench) event, and we only watched till half-time as our legs had gotten a bit tired from standing throughout.

We psyched ourselves up to do a walk in the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park the next day. After checking in at the park office (no entry fees, but donations are accepted), Leo gave us a lift to the start of the trail, which was 2km away.

In line with the Cabutlari policy on hiking, i.e. when given a choice, go around rather than up the mountain, we chose Trail 6 (Wildlife Traces Trail), which at 13km was one of the shortest trails on offer and from the topographic map, did not seem to lead up to any scary peaks.

As has become tradition for our hikes, the rain and howling wind joined us just one hour in. It was a pity, as the mountains looked as though they would have been stunning had they not been almost totally enveloped in clouds; and the meadows full of wild flowers looked like they would have been a nice place to sit or roll around, had the cold wind and rain not been piercing through our wet clothes and into our bones.  On the bright side, the trail did live up to its name. We did indeed come across many traces of wildlife – fresh scat (technical term for animal poo) of what could have been deer, bear, lynx and horse were spotted at many points on the trail. We also played hide and seek with a cheeky squirrel.

Looking for wildlife traces. The Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park was established in 1995 with assistance from WWF and the government of Germany. It’s the largest park in the Caucasus

The meadows on the ridges are filled with pretty wildflowers, many of which are supposed to be endemic (not that we know which ones)

The underside of one wildflower that we found quite interesting. Notice the beetles feeding on the nectar

Flowers on a different bract of the same plant, yet to bloom

On hindsight, it might have been a good idea to have either checked the weather forecast, or worn our waterproof pants

After crawling laboriously uphill, then slipping and sliding downhill for what seemed to be forever (but was actually just six hours), we made it back to flat land. It was still some 2km to the main road, so we were happy to pay 20 GEL for a taxi from the park back to Bojormi. And the rain continued incessantly till the next morning.

All in all, it was a great three days. And if all goes according to plan, we will be back in a few years to visit Leo and Marina, and purchase a second-, third- or fourth-hand Lada Niva to drive back to Malaysia with.

Leo’s trusty Lada Niva, a Russian-made car that’s ubiquitous in these parts. He had an LPG engine installed. We’re crazy about it

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Georgia, or Gurcistan

Georgia, yeaaa? It’s really, really, really, really nice, yeaaa.” So said Jonny Rainbow, legendary traveller and international man of mystery whom we met in Sarajevo. Thus we decided to visit Georgia, or the country sometimes also known as Gurcistan.

After an eventful border crossing – first the bus from Rize broke down, then the immigration officer on the Turkey side abruptly left his post to go to the loo or lunch, leaving a bunch of us waiting in the sweltering heat, and on finally the Georgian immigration officers took our passports to show their colleagues at the back just for fun – we were in Georgia.

The closest Georgian town to the Turkish border is Batumi, a seaside resort town in the Adjara autonomous region. The old town of Batumi, where most travelers congregate consists of perpendicular grids of old shop houses leading up to the town’s main attraction, the beach.

The beach, which has smooth river rocks all the way into the sea, instead of sand. Dylan attempted to swim, but chickened out when he saw chicken feathers floating about

The government has spent a lot of money beautifying the beachfront. This little girl was striking fierce poses for her mum’s camera

Batumi has crazy drivers who drive at breakneck speed and don’t stop for pedestrians. The girls in blue in the photo help pedestrians cross the road here. We suspect they’re from some sort of NGO trying to educate drivers

We spent two days in Batumi. The hostel won our Cabutlari award for Worst Hostel of the Trip hands down. The place was filthy, the toilet doors had partially see-through windows, one of the caretakers was preoccupied with surfing the internet and making out with her boyfriend, and we even had to make a special request for bed sheets (even though it’s included in the price).

Simulated dancing in the toilet

On the bright side, we met some of the most hardcore travellers ever here. Our roommates were riding from France to Mongolia on motorcycle. Three others were cycling from Germany to Mongolia. Two guys were walking from Paris to Kazakhstan.

Our room mate packing his bags on his Africa Twin. Check out their photos at Vamos Primo

One of the cyclists was using this lean-back bike. We wonder how it performs at traffic lights

The most awesome of all, the walkers with one of their wheelies for towing

One thing that we found particularly disturbing in Batumi was the number of children begging on the streets. There were beggars on almost every street corner, most of whom were young children or women carrying babies. A few kids who looked like they were no older than five were on wheelchairs or had bandages around their hands or feet. One was crying his eyes out to get attention from passerby’s. Many were very persistent and would cling on to us. We were even chased down a street by two ladies carrying babies, after Dylan had given some spare change to one but didn’t have any more to give to the other who suddenly appeared from nowhere.

Wondering if there was a syndicate at work here, we looked it up on the internet. From what we gathered, there is no official estimate of the number of street children in Georgia, though unofficial estimates put the number at around 2,000. A 2009 UNICEF report on a survey of 301 street children around Georgia concluded that there was no syndicate at work here, just economic hardship resulting from the recent turbulent history of the country. The majority of the kids surveyed were on the streets simply because their parents did not earn an sufficient income to feed (and often house) their families.

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