Trans-Caucasus

JusticeiroJusticeiro E clunibus tractumMannheim, GermanyRegistered Users Posts: 1,177 Major grins
edited March 24, 2014 in Journeys
Give me a few days to process, upload, and write...

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For I have a tale to tell.
Cave ab homine unius libri

Comments

  • coldclimbcoldclimb Outside the Lines Wasilla, AlaskaRegistered Users Posts: 1,169 Major grins
    edited October 20, 2013
    Sounds good... :D
    John Borland
    www.morffed.com
  • JusticeiroJusticeiro E clunibus tractum Mannheim, GermanyRegistered Users Posts: 1,177 Major grins
    edited October 25, 2013
    "Beginning with thee, O Phoebus, I will recount the famous deeds of men of old, who, at the behest of King Pelias, down through the mouth of Pontus and between the Cyanean rocks, sped well-benched Argo in quest of the golden fleece."

    Thus begins the first epic description of trip to the South Caucasus, written by one Apollonius of Rhodes, in the 3rd century BC- the Argonautica. I had considered writing this trip report in a similar neo-Homeric style, with constant references to how I girt myself with strong-bodied Canon D2 of famous lore, and lo, did go forth and capture the picture of the mountain sheep calling upon the aid of far-seeing 70-200, of the sharp-eyed cthonian race of the old gods (also known as the L-Series of lenses). I didn't do this for two reasons. One, it would likely become tedious in anything other than small doses. Two, I once referred to my wife as "cow-eyed Sonia" and she didn't take it kindly, even after I explained that the Attic Greeks regarded "cow-eyed" as the highest of compliments (viz Homer's constant references to "cow-eyed Hera", a Goddess you would do well not to annoy) as they held cattle in rather higher regard than we tend to do today. She was somewhat less than amused. Also, if one is going to ape the style of Homer, one should be able to do it better than I can. Apollonius' Argonautica is a classic, but his Homericness so annoyed his fellow Rhodians that, scandalized, they exiled him. I hope this telling receives a better reception, though in all honesty Mannheim already seems something of an exile, but it could be worse. I could be in Detroit.

    Nevertheless, invocation of the gods is an important thing. My last epic trip, undertaken last year, was so awful that, despite the fact that I had some of the best pictures I had ever taken, I simply had no heart to write a travelogue about it. I began it several times, and then abandoned the attempt on each occasion. I recalled the advice of my sainted mother, cow-eyed mom, who often said "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all." Truly this is advice it would be well to heed. On the other hand, sharp-tongued Grandma always said "If you don't have anything nice to say, come sit by me." This too has its merits.

    Clearly, my lack of proper attention to ritual doomed my last trip- I poured out no libations on the ground, engaged in no lustral sacrifices, and the oracle I consulted (the Lonely Planet) was clearly less than Delphic in its quality, though it was often just as obscure. Let us begin this in the proper way, with a paean to the appropriate god, the genealogy of the heroes, and an encomium to the vehicle that carried us.

    O Long-Striding Hermes, God of Travel, Communication, Trade, Thievery, Diplomacy, Language, Writing , Athletics, and Animal Husbandry! I will recount to thee the deeds of not particularly famous men who, at the behest of no one in particular, did set out to the far ends of the earth, seeking glory as the trod the path from the Wine-Dark Pontic Sea across the mountains of cursed Prometheus to the ever-burning shores of the Scythian Lake. Look kindly upon these voyagers, O Fleet-Footed God, and bestow upon them the gifts in your command, excepting only the husbandry of animals, as they wish no intimate congress with any of the copious sheep that dwell within those lands!

    This is the tale of the Justiceiro, Ryan son of Lee, son of another dude named Lee, laborer from the lands of Eastern Tennesee, son of Cassius, whose forebears traveled from indentured servitude in American Georgia to the less than bounteous hills of Appalachia, and of the wise-tabulating Bebezinho, skilled in logistics, accounting, and commerce lore, daughter of Fernando of Arioca who dug the light-bringing black rock that burns in the hearths of the good men and women of the land of the Lusitani, son of yet another Fernando (I think, maybe not) who long since has passed into to underworld, to bide his time in the half lit world of Hades; and of their voyage on the well-benched Turkish Airlines plane "City of Erzerum."

    Now that we've done the necessary, let us begin with the telling.

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    I planned my last trip meticulously, which clearly insulted the fates, as the plans immediately fell apart, and bad things resulted. So this time, I decided to (with a few reservations) place our destinies in the hands of Fortuna for the most part. We had a starting point (A plane ticket to Batumi, on the Black Sea coast), an ending point (A plane ticket home from Baku) and a strong desire to see some mountains.

    There are cheaper ways to get to Georgia than by flying to Batumi, which has a postage stamp sized airport and is relatively obscure from the perspective of Western Europe. There are, of course, no direct flights from Frankfurt to Batumi. You can fly either with Ukraine Air, or Turkish Airlines. We chose Turkish- which turned out to be an excellent choice. Brand new airplanes and fresh hot bread served with excellent food, even in economy. To Batumi and back from Baku set us back about 500 euros. You can get directly to Tbilisi, and fly back therefrom, for 200 euros less, but it isn't quite as epic as making an overland trip with no backtracking. Backtracking isn't epic at all, and as part of my preparation for the trip involved reading every book in English available on the South Caucasus (all seven of them), one of which was the Argonautica, I was inspired to be Epic. Also, it has been a hard couple of years, particularly for my life-partner and CFO, and we badly needed some epic in our lives.

    I was inspired to choose this particular destination mainly due to the Azerbaijan tourist ministry's ads on CNN. Oddly enough, though the Azerbaijan Ministry of Tourism is doing a bang up job of attracting visitors (they have well designed ads and one of the prettiest tourism websites I have ever seen.
    apparently they haven't been in close communication with the other parts of the Azeri government, particularly the Ministry of Letting People Into the Country, which doesn't seem keen on tourists at all- you need to get a visa to enter the country, and it is expensive (100 euros for EU citizens, 180 euros for US citizens, which is particularly unfair as we give them a rather large amount of foreign aid). Later we found out that you can get a visa for $50 through some shady dudes in Baku, a visa that isn't even in your passport, but that you can download and print out yourself. It apparently works, because A buch of Poles got in with them.
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    The Poles and their dodgy, yet apparently effective, visa

    I would suggest exploring this, because if you get it the normal way it is expensive, and some of the requirements are bizarre.

    I needed to submit:

    1. The cash
    2. My passport
    3. A proof that I resided in Germany (I have a US passport, but am getting the visa at the consulate in Stuttgart, so I am clearly a spy
    4. Proof of gainful employment (apparently, large numbers of Germans are attempting to sneak into Azerbaijan illegally for, I assume, the generous welfare benefits)
    5. A plane ticket home (so I can show I will eventually GTFO).
    6. A 30 minute conversation with the consular official about why I don't exactly know how, when or where I will enter Azerbaijan, despite knowing when I will leave. Apparently "I'm going to wander around Georgia, then sort of stroll over to Azerbaijan," is not something they really get. To them it sounds like "I am an Armenian spy who wants to photograph sensitive stuff, so as to enable those crafty Armenians to screw you." In all fairness, though the policies of the foreign ministry are not friendly, their staff in Stuttgart were as helpful as they could be in the circumstances, just a bit perplexed.

    So all Libations being poured, and the gods of borders being satisfied, visas obtained, we rolled out of bed in Mannheim at 3:30 in the Morning, caught our 5 AM flight to Istanbul on the well-benched "City of Erzerum" and another flight to Batumi, arriving at around 4 in the afternoon.

    BATUMI

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    Batumi, the most uncomfortable beach in the former USSR



    Batumi's airport is the size of Key West's. It seems they get three planes per day. Two smallish ones, one from Kiev and another from Istanbul, and one tiny one from Tbilisi. It is also about 5 kilometers out of town. I have no photos of it because, in this part of the world, photographing any installation that can be even vaguely considered military is a very bad idea. It isn't impressive anyway.

    Here is a tip on getting into town from the airport. Ignore the taxi drivers. They want to charge very high rates, and you can simply jump on bus 10 or 11, which will take you into the center of town. They pull up directly in front of the entrance to the airport about every ten minutes, and cost $0.20 verses 15 bucks or so for the taxi. You can take any buss that shows up, and buy the tickets on the bus.

    Batumi is a town that was obviously once very grand (under the Czars and oil money), then became crappy (due to the civil war), then became crappy-grand (Soviet worker's playground), then became just crappy (inevitable decay due to poor quality Soviet cement), then became grand again rather recently (Casinos). This leads to a very strange combination of muddy, broken up streets on the outskirts, and amazingly inventive architecture and public art in the center.

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    empty lots and, that's right, a skyscraper with ferris wheel stuck on the side


    Architecture throughout the South Caucasus is amazing. When Germans or Americans spend a lot of money on a construction project, they build a soulless glass and/or concrete crap box just like every other soulless glass and/or concrete crap box on the street. this style is called late 20th century scheisskubismus, at least by me, although not apparently by any real architects. In the Caucasus, Architects seem to feel that, having been given a giant sack of cash, they should build something weird, or cool. Usually, it works, like the "alphabet tower" featuring the Georgian Alphabet

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    Very occasionally it doesn't, like this band shell that looks like a pig from certain angles:

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    Nevertheless, it isn't boring. This was Mannheim before the war:

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    Awesome, right?

    This is the result of postwar scheisskubismus:

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    Mannheim is boring

    Batumi has been settled since the 7th century BC, when it was a Greek city called Bathys Limen (Deep Harbor) in the Kingdom of Cholcis, of renown due to Jason, Madea, and the Golden Fleece (about which more later). There isn't anything left from that time because it was a long time ago. Most of the city dates from the Czarist era or later, although the Alexander Nevskyand the Friday Mosque no longer exist because of Stalin, the man who put the "Cauc" in "Caucasus." Still, there are some nice late 19th and early twentieth century buildings, as well as a few Ottoman ones (everybody owned this place at one time or another).

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    The Azerbaijani Embassy. you can get a visa here, I think

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    Ottoman light house (?) Definitely not Seljuk

    I have got to go to work, so I will be back later with more awesome Batumosity.
    Cave ab homine unius libri
  • JusticeiroJusticeiro E clunibus tractum Mannheim, GermanyRegistered Users Posts: 1,177 Major grins
    edited October 25, 2013
    Some General Notes on the Caucasus
    Before we dive back into Batumi, I'd like to let you know why I chose the Caucasus as a Destination (in Particular the South Caucasus). In truth, I would have loved to wander all over the Caucasus, but since the demise of the Soviet Union this has been difficult to do, for a number of reasons. The first is political. The entire region was politically unified from the early 19th century until 1991; first as part of Czarist Russia, then the Soviet Union (with a brief period of independence during the Russian civil war). This is what the map looks like now:

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    The Caucasus includes all the pinkish regions to the north of Azerbaijan and Georgia which are still in Russia, as well as Armenia. Not everybody is too happy about the breakup of the Soviet Union- most saliently Vladimir Putin, who called it the "greatest geo-political tragedy of the 20th century." He's been setting about making sure that Russia doesn't get any smaller by brutally suppressing independence movements in the North Caucasus (notably Chechnya) and by pitting different groups in the South Caucasus against each other.

    Armenia currently occupies about 16% of the legal territory of Azerbaijan which it seized in the early 1990s. I won't get into the rights or wrongs of this, but suffice it to say that if you have an Armenian visa in your passport, or an Armenian name, you won't be visiting Azerbaijan. Also, Russia supports Armenia against Azerbaijan because a weak Azerbaijan is good for... well, somebody in Russia. Probably not Russians, but certainly the Kremlin. So the Azeri-Russian border is closed unless you are Russian or Azeri. Get too close to it and you will be hustled off to an overnight stay in jail and fine 400 euros.


    The situation in Georgia is even worse than in Azerbaijan. There are no external enemies for Russia to use as leverage against Georgia (It's friendly with Armenia because they are both Christian, and with Azerbaijan for reasons I can't quite figure out). So Russia has used stoked internal divisions within Georgia- and by stoked I mean lending both support (in the early 90s) and direct military intervention (in 2008) in order to break chunks of Georgia off. The two breakaway regions are Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

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    Russian troops are currently stationed about an hour's drive from the capital, and the border with South Ossetia is most definitely closed, to everyone. Attempting to cross might get you shot.

    Why is everybody so interested in controlling the Caucasus? It is beautiful, as Herodotus wrote in the 5th century BC, "the longest and loftiest of all mountain ranges." But he also wrote that it is "inhabited by many tribes, most of whom live off wild scrub."

    The answer has always been gold. Back in the time of Jason and the Argonauts it was real gold, collected from the rivers of Colchis (the coast of what is now Georgia) by "panning" for it with sheep wool (hence the "golden fleece"). That gold has long ago run out, but the Caspian is full of Black Gold- petroleum deposits of some size have been exploited there since the end of the 19th Century. And the best way to get this oil to Europe is via Georgia and the black sea, which is way the Trans-Caucasian railway (Baku to Batumi) was built in the first place.

    Russia currently has troops practically on top of the trans-caucasian railroad (in South Ossetia, near Gori), and Allied troops (the Armenians) within a few hours striking distance of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. So it can close off the gas flow whenever it wants, which is probably the point of it's behavior in the Region.

    So you can go to either Georgia and Armenia, or Georgia and Azerbaijan. I chose Georgia and Azerbaijan because I wanted to follow the trans-Caucasian railway as much as possible (you all know my thing for trains) and I wanted to go sea to shining sea. Also, these two countries have the best mountains in the South Caucasus.

    Russians love Georgia, mainly because of the beaches, which I find strange, as the beach in Batumi consist of an enormous amount of rocks.

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    These are big rocks as well. Not relatively soft ones. Even walking with hiking boots on it can be relatively difficult. Despite that, and the cold temperatures, there were Russian bathers on the beach. Russians seem to be impervious to physical discomfort. The other group of tourists one sees are Turkish (though I didn't see any on the beach). They come for the Casinos.

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    The "no littering" signs are in Turkish and English, but not Georgian. Rather insulting, when you think about it.

    The black Sea is, geologically speaking, rather new. It likely formed between 5,500 and 7,500 BC, when the Mediterranean sea level rose, and water broke through the highlands of the Hellespont in an even that almost certainly was a cataclysmic flood. The Black sea is fresher than most "seas" and is incredibly deep and thus cold. It also gets deep pretty quick- the slope of the Caucasus continue uninterruptedly as it meets the Black Sea, and the sea floor plunges into the depths rather rapidly. This makes Batumi and Poti (the other major Black Sea port in Georgia) accessible for large ocean going vessels.

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    Batumi is still a port active in the oil industry, although capacity these day is about 6,000 tons per year. The bulk of the oil from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan now travels down to Ceyhan on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey. Nevertheless, one still sees a constant stream of ships entering and leaving the port.

    Be aware that the Lonely Planet is rather thin on information about how to get from the airport to the center of town, and the map always seems to be inaccurate by a street or two- most guidebooks show that there is a lake in the center of town. There is, but there is another, smaller lake about a 20 minute walk out in the suburbs. We discovered this from bus 10 when, seeing the lake, we thought we had arrived at the center. Wait for the second lake. You should also be able to clearly see the tower fo the Sheraton hotel.

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    The Sheraron Batumi



    Once you reach the second lake, you can walk down Batumi's lovely promenade. It is cement molded and painted to look like an Atlantic City boardwalk, but the effect is better than it sounds.

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    The boardwalk should be visited twice- once during the day when you can see examples of the small but nice pieces of public art that abound in Georgia, and the other at night, when the whole thing is nicely lit up.

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    Outdoor ping pong and billiard tables

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    One of my favorite works is the "Ali and Nino" statue- so called because it reflects a man and woman entwined, and has been taken to be representative of one the most beloved novels of the region, both in Georgia and Azerbaijan, Ali and Nino, written by Kurban Said. It is the story of a doomed love affair between a Georgian woman and an Azeri man in Baku in the 1920s. Once I had read it, I couldn't believe it had previously been unknown to me. As well as being a good love and adventure story, it contains many trenchant observations about life in the Caucasus. I highly recommend it.

    Apparently Georgians are suckers for doomed love stories, dating from the time of Jason and Madea, who (according to the Argonautica) slew her own brother in order to escape from Colchis and return to Hellas with Jason. Not much of a good omen for the area's first contact with Europe, but never the less there is a giant statue of Madea in the main square holding, of course, a golden fleece, which is illuminated at night.

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    Apropos of nothing, Georgian cats are friendly and unafraid of people. I think the way cats behave around people says a lot about a culture. Georgians are apparently not the type of folks to be mean to animals.

    Having wandered around and seen all of this stuff, as darkness fell we headed to a restaurant to try the local Adjaran (that is the region Batumi is in) version of the Georgian standard, Katchapuri. It is basically bread with cheese in it, but in Adjara they add an egg, and sometimes use meat instead of cheese, and it has handles.

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    Notice the script on the beer bottle. That's not Korean, that is Georgian. It contains 33 letters and, unlike Cyrillic, has absolutely no common ground at all with the latin alphabet. There a few alphabets around like that (aramaic, for instance) but most of them are ancient and predate the latin alphabet or developed in a totally different sphere. The Georgian alphabet was created in the 4th century AD, when the country adopted Christianity. Why they didn't at least borrow a bit from extant alphabets, like the Greek, I have no idea. Perhaps they were still mad about that whole Madea thing.

    After all that flying, walking, and food, we were pretty much wiped out.

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    So we returned to our hotel, and prepared for a good sleep and the next day.
    Cave ab homine unius libri
  • coldclimbcoldclimb Outside the Lines Wasilla, AlaskaRegistered Users Posts: 1,169 Major grins
    edited October 26, 2013
    Good stuff, thanks for sharing! A friend of mine was shot and some of his coworkers killed while working as a journalist in Georgia in 2008. It was interesting for me to read your writings after hearing the details of his travels there. His story is here if you're interested: http://www.anchoragepress.com/news/three-days-in-august/article_c7e9697c-f87d-11e1-ba22-0019bb2963f4.html
    John Borland
    www.morffed.com
  • JusticeiroJusticeiro E clunibus tractum Mannheim, GermanyRegistered Users Posts: 1,177 Major grins
    edited October 27, 2013
    The Mountain of Languages
    coldclimb wrote: »
    Good stuff, thanks for sharing! A friend of mine was shot and some of his coworkers killed while working as a journalist in Georgia in 2008. It was interesting for me to read your writings after hearing the details of his travels there. His story is here if you're interested: http://www.anchoragepress.com/news/three-days-in-august/article_c7e9697c-f87d-11e1-ba22-0019bb2963f4.html


    That's a fascinating article. Unfortunately, I don't agree with his conclusion, that "the war killed many hundreds but resolved nothing." It unfortunately resolved that when push comes to shove NATO will not go to bat for Georgia, and that has clarified the relationship between Russia and Georgia- The Russians stopped in Gori becuase they decided to - they stopped, they were not stopped. Not a great resolution, but there it is.

    I wanted to get to the war a bit later, but now is as good a time as any to address some of the salient features of the Caucasus which, being in Batumi, we hadn't really visited yet. The Caucasus is one of the most ethnically diverse areas on the face of the earth, which means that outside powers seeking to interfere in the region can almost always find clients to use as allies. In the 10th century, Arabic chroniclers referred to the area as Jabal al-Ansinah, the mountain of languages. The area has among the highest language diversities in the world, and the greatest geographical concentration of autocthonic language families- languages that have no living relatives. To put this in perspective, there are only 147 language phyla in the entire world. Three of them come from this region. Over 50 individual languages are spoken here, a little less than 1% of the world's total number of languages.

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    Wikicommons map of Caucasian Languages


    The map above is, in a sense, misleading- there is even less ethnolinguistic unity than it describes. Saying there are 50 languages here is a lowball number. Georgian, for example, is usually counted as one language (as it is on the map), but the dialects are so far apart as to be mutually unintelligible. And the dialects are not insignificant in geographic distribution.

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    Mingrelian, Svan, and Laz are all part of the Kartvelian (Georgian) family of languages, but are at least as far apart as the German languages, such as English, Dutch, and German. It's likely that they are called "Georgian" for political reasons (not that Svans seem to mind), but note that all the words we learned in Svaneti only got us puzzled looks outside the mountains.

    English isn't much help either. As in Uzbekistan, people here seem to assume that the entire outside world speaks Russian, so when they find you are a from France, or America, they will immediately talk to you in Russian.

    Why so many ways to talk? The simple answer is "mountains." Language uniformity is usually created by imposition or acquisition. Imposition is when a state or state-like organization imposes its language on people. This is what happened in France- the French state eliminated rival languages such as Occitan in the course of it's state centralizing project. The Russian Empire "owned" most of the Caucasus for over a century, but the State had no real presence in any of these people's lives until mid-Soviet times. They were simply too isolated by physical barriers. Despite the Czar "owning" the Caucasus, in no way could he have been said to "control" them.

    Acquisition usually happens by trade as well as conquest, such as in Portugal. Rome made no attempt to impose its language on the Lusitanian tribes, but the benefits of being able to talk to Romans, use Roman technology, and acquire Roman culture were so obvious that all the tribes of Iberia assimilated their language as well.

    Both methods require access for traders, missionaries, or conquering soldiers. Most of the Caucasus are extremely inaccessible. For example, despite Georgia being the second country to adopt Christianity (in the 4th century, after Armenia) the Khevsureti highlands of Georgia remained Pagan- possible as late as the early 20th century. Even today, they carry out pagan rituals at shrines women are not allowed to approach.

    Getting up there can still be difficult to do. As we were soon to discover.

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    Beyond these mountains lies Svaneti


    Our destination was the village of Mestia, in the Georgian region known as Svaneti.

    There are only two roads into Svaneti. The best one, and the easiest, goes northeast from the city of Zugdidi. There is another road into Svaneti from the Kutaisi region, which I never saw, but I assume it is little more than a rather advanced goat track. Mestia also has an airport, but flights are irregular and depend on weather and demand.

    To get to Zugdid, you first have to find the Mashrutka station. If you have read my Uzbekistan travelogue, you should be familiar with how Mashrutky work. This is the system all over the former Soviet Union- small buses that leave mostly when they are full. Unlike Uzbekistan, there are a few destinations that are so little serviced they have no Mashrutky at all, or scheduled ones. Nevertheless, if you need to go somewhere, go to a Mashrutka station and you will find one, or someone will find you an alternate type of transport, such as a jeep.

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    The Mashrutka stop in Batumi

    Mashrutky are buses, small freight haulers, and postal delivery vehicles all in one. The Lazy planet is, once again, rather unhelpful with finding the correct Mashrutka stop. The map in the LP has an arrow that points of the Batum map and says "Bus Station, 250 meters." Walk in that direction until you hit a bus station (you will see lots of Mashrutky and full size buses). This is not the bus station you want. Continue through the bus station (less of a bus station than a traffic circle with buses parked in the middle) and go straight, along some disused rail tracks, for about another half kilometer. You will see the mashrutky above. There is also Georgia's nastiest toilet. Zugdidi is a big city and a rail terminus, so a lot of mashrutky should go there.

    For about an hour you follow the coast, skirting Poti (Gerogia's other Black Sea port), eventually being dropped off at the Zugdidi train station 2 hours or so later. Note for the ladies (and myself) by this time you will have to pee. Instead of spending thirty minutes looking for the WC, as I did, you can simply walk around the left side of the train station to find the toilet, which has a helpful direction sign with an arrow pointing to the toilet, that is three feet away from the toilet. A mashrutka to Mestia, the base village for exploring Svaneti, leaves from the train station parking lot.


    The journey to Mestia, 80 some miles away, used to take about seven hours and require a four wheel drive, but a few years ago the government built a "good quality" (those are air quotes, by the way) road up into the valley. Now it is supposed to take 2 hours, conditions permitting, which they rarely do. It had rained quite a lot the previous week, and the road seemed to be literally falling apart, so it took us four hours.

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    I know, I know. the photo quality is crap.

    For virtually the entire trip, the road follows the Inguri river gorge, hugging cliffs that range from sheer to straight down. Mestia as 1400 meters, almost a mile, higher than coast.

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    This is from the begining of the Inguri Gorge, before it gets nasty

    I have no idea why, but the government blasted only enough cliff face of the side of the mountain to accommodate the 1 1/2 lane road, with no shoulder on either side. This means that when any part of the mountain degrades, either the road slides down the mountain, or the mountain slides down onto the road.

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    Rock and mud slides are common after heavy rains. Fortunately, the road is important for military reasons as the Inguri marks the border with breakaway province Abkhazia at some points, so they keep it open, but it must require constant maintenance. Not to mention the fact that the driver of the Mashrutka often slows down, sticks his head out the window, and uses some mountain alchemy to determine if that looming boulder is about to roll down on the car or not. I saw rocks of considerable size plopping down on the road before and after us on several occasions. Often we had to wait for road crews, who were carving new road out of the mountain, to move their heavy equipment in order to allow us to pass. Keep in mind in the pictures below that immediately to the left is a 300 meter drop.


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    This was the second scariest moment of our trip


    The area is sparsely inhabited. You occasionally run across villages of a few hundred people.

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    Eventually you reach your destination, the village of Mestia. Having left Batumi at five, we arrived here about 6. Keep in mind when planning a trip in the Caucasus that getting from anywhere to anywhere takes about a day. this was our experience everywhere.

    Since it was way to late to assualt the mountains, we found ourselves one of the many guest houses in Mestia (10 or so). There are building that claim to be hotels but are not open. I don't know if this is because they are udner construction or it is the off season. It is clear that Mestia is gearing up for an expansion of tourism. The infrastructure in the town itself is nice, and it has the feeling of lodge-like hotels, a bit like Glacier National Park back when we went there on the Dgrin shootout.

    We stayed at Rosa's Guest House, Which calls itself a hotel on its website, but is actually Rosa's family farm, turned into something between a hotel and a hostel. It is 25 Lari per night, and Rosa speaks excellent English (her grandfather is friendly, but speaks only Svan and Russian, when he speaks at all, which isn't much because he has stuff to do like take care of the cows in the barn directly opposite the house. Rosa also cooks, which is good, because there is only one restaurant in town and it isn't always open.

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    Rosa's Guest House and Barn

    This is a working farm. It reminds me a lot of my Grandparents' place in the hills of Tennessee, except that the hills are much higher.

    The entire village is dotted with the famous Svan towers.

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    These were built for defensive purposes, both to detect and defend against cattle raiding and blood feud based revenge assaults from other clans, meaning, "the village down the valley." Here is an interesting site detailing their architecture and history.

    Good trekking maps are available from Rosa, or the tourist office in town. These are really well detailed, with enough trails to keep you busy for a week or so. We decided to attempt to ascend high enough to get a good view of Mount Ushba, one of the more dramatic peaks in the area. That story, however, will have to wait for the next post.
    Cave ab homine unius libri
  • ChrisJChrisJ Major grins Los AngelesRegistered Users Posts: 2,162 Major grins
    edited October 29, 2013
    Very nice travelogue so far! Definitely a place I will most likely never get to on my own. Enjoying the pictures, descriptions, and history! Looking forward to more...
    Chris
  • JusticeiroJusticeiro E clunibus tractum Mannheim, GermanyRegistered Users Posts: 1,177 Major grins
    edited October 29, 2013
    I wandered around a bit on some relatively easy trails when I was in the GNP with the other dgrinners a few years back, but I had never ascended a mountain of the type one finds in the Caucasus. Keep in mind that by ascent I in no way mean mountain climbing as in alpinism- this is highly technical and rather dangerous, and if I ever do attempt anything involving an ice axe (unlikely) I will do so in an area with readily available medevac (which is not Georgia) and under the tutelage of experts. Granted, if real mountain climbing is your thing, there are peaks of all ranges of difficulty as far as the eye can see. But I was intent on getting up as far as possible via non-technical means. Unsure of how much time this would take, and not wanting to get stuck on the mountain as night fell, we set off at 7:30 AM when it was just getting light.

    Our plan was to go up the mountain directly behind the village, to catch sight of Mount Ushba, which is about 8-10 km from Mestia itself.

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    There is supposed to be a marked trail that will take up to a lake with the best view of Ushba. Ushba isn't the highest peak in Georgia, in fact it isn't even in the top 10, being only 4,690 meters (15,387 feet). However, it is considered to the most beautiful and the most difficult climb. I wasn't, of course, thinking about climbing it, but I wanted the best possible view.

    To orient yourself, look out from Mestia across the river towards the church, which looks like this:

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    Turn to your left, and go straight, which should be east down the town's road (it is the only road at this point).

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    If this is the view you see, you are going the wrong way

    In a few minutes, you will walk through the main square. There is only really one square, but if you're unsure, right before the main square is the rather unique police station.

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    After about 300 meters, you should see a smaller plaza to your right, with Mestia's Hotel. Just beyond or before this (I don't really remember) there should be a hand painted sign for an art gallery and "bread" on your right. Take a quick detour and you can buy fresh hot bread from a guy in a window for about fifty cents.

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    You can see in this photo that after a bit, the road curves slightly and drops. After the slope, you will take the first left, which will lead you back uphill. Once you take this first left, you go straight until, pretty much, you are climbing the mountain.

    Watch out for the pigs.

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    The road is paved, then cobblestoned, and then it just sort of peters out and looks like this:

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    Go up. The trail is "marked" rather haphazardly by a badge painted on rocks (usually) that is red and white. Sometimes these markers are 5 feet apart, sometimes 500. There is really only one "fork" that we encountered that you have to worry about. Very soon, when you look up, you should see a cross on the crest of the first hill.

    Then you climb for five hours.

    At first the slope isn't too bad, varying between relatively flat and 30 degrees. After about 15 minutes you should pass the last of the cultivated fields and fences.

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    Another 10 minutes should bring you to the end of the easy bit. There is an abondoned house/shed and a small church to your left, but there is still no obvious trail. Keep going up and to the right.


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    There's an incline here, and if when you crest it, you should turn back and see this:

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    that building is the small church

    From here on out the path is pretty clearly a path. Relatively clearly, as in "this path may have been made by a goat."

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    After this point, the trail becomes extremely steep- more or less 45 degrees and occasional switchbacks where it levels all to briefly off. the switchbacks are easier on the legs, but the drop over the side is straight down. All the more reason to get off the mountain before dark.

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    I don't have a lot of photos of the trail itself, because after an hour and a half it was kicking my ass and I had to go into a zenlike "just put one foot in front of the other and carry on" mode. We have spent the last four months getting fitter in the gym, and we had ramped up our walking on the weekends, and I am glad we did so. Even so, it was tough. This one isn't for couch potatoes.


    About 90 minutes into the hike you can look back and see the Queen Tamar airport.
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    Down there is pretty much where you started from.

    I certainly don't want to brag about my iron man endurance, and when I say "two hours into the hike" I mean two hours for a spare tire wearing middle aged economics teacher. About this time we were passed by two 50 year old or so Ukrainian (we found out when we met them again as they were coming down) guys going up the mountain in loafers. They were not phased at all. Then again, Russians and Ukrainians appear to me to be indestructible. They blazed past us at an impressive rate.

    Roundabout now is when the views start getting good.

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    The rains had swollen the mountain streams into some annoying watercourses, but none of them are impassable.

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    After three hours, you will reach the first great plateau. A very broad shelf that is used, I believe, as summer pasturage due to the enormous amounts of cow droppings and some fences. The brief period of flat walking was a blessed relief.

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    by the way, that's the trail marker on the rock

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    This is really the last bit of flatness before you reach the peak, so take advantage of it to have lunch. Now is a good time to eat the bread you bought back in town.

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    It is also a good spot to take the ultimate Eddie Bauer catalogue photo

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    Makes you want to buy a backpack, doesn't it?

    All right, enough fooling around lazy bones! time to get back to the hike. Just beyond this area is when you come to the first fork in the trail/cow path. Inconveniently, there are no trail markings here. One branch goes up and to the right, the other slightly down and to the left. We took the right branch. I think this is a mistake, and to get to the lake, you need to go left, but it took us another two hours to figure that out. Are branch did eventually lead to a decent Ushba view, though not the best.

    This altitude (I figure we were at least 1000 meters above Mestia by this point) is decidedly cooler. this is where we started to hit snow.

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    As you follow the path higher, it get snowier and snowier. Another 45 minutes, and you are starting to reach the tree line. I have no idea how high we were at this point, but the tree line in the Western Caucasus usually between 1500 and 1800 meters, so we were pretty high up.

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    Now is an excellent time to have a snowball fight.

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    We thought this was hysterical, but we had been climbing for four hours and the air was thin. In retrospect, it was probably just stupid.

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    By hour five (about 1 o'clock) the path started to run out and become more or less just mud.


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    At 1:30, about 5 and a half hours after we started on the path, we got as far as wee could go. The bad news was that the path is gone and what is left is literally a goat path, just wide enough to go foot over foot, muddy and slippery, and with a rather sheer drop. Additionally, it is clear that the ridge you have been following is a dead end.

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    The good news is that you have a pretty decent view, at last, of Mount Ushba.

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    We had no idea how long it would take us to backtrack to the right trail, nor to get down the mountain, so we decided to content ourselves with this view.

    Nevertheless, THE PATH FAILED BEFORE WE DID! You know what that means.

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    It means VICTORY!

    Going down only took about two hours, but was infinitely more painful.

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    How did that horse get up here?

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    The very top of this boulder has cow crap on it. Don't ask me how it got there.

    By the end of the descent my knees felt like someone was sticking hot irons in them, so we returned to the town's main square, to grab a glass of Georgian Saperavi wine, so dark red it was almost black. Delicious.

    Isn't that the way all mountain climbing stories should end?

    One glass quickly led to three, and we staggered ,under the weight of alcohol and exhaustion, back to the guest house, were we met two cool Polish guys and yet another indestructible Russian. But that tale will have to wait for the next post.
    Cave ab homine unius libri
  • ian408ian408 More wag. Less Bark. Administrators Posts: 21,747 moderator
    edited November 2, 2013
    That's quite a journey. In Batumi, they apparently have a Yahoo! inspired building (5th image, right side) :D
    Moderator Journeys/Sports/Big Picture :: Need some help with dgrin?
  • JusticeiroJusticeiro E clunibus tractum Mannheim, GermanyRegistered Users Posts: 1,177 Major grins
    edited November 9, 2013
    Our original plan was to spend three or so days in upper Svaneti hiking about. We got up the next day at 6:30 with the intention of heading of to the foot of the nearest glacier, with enough time to get a jeep in the afternoon to Ushguli, which we would use as a base to explore the higher regions of the valley. Rosa prepared a hearty breakfast for us, as well as Simon and Michael (the Polish guys) and Valery, the Russian ex-Merchant Marine. The prospects for the day didn't look good, it had already begun to rain a bit, and it seemed to be getting heavier. From our conversation with Valery, who had up to date weather information (and what self-respecting merchant marine wouldn't?) The temperatures were set to drop severely, and we could well end up getting snowed in "for a while."

    Down at the transport information office (the village pub) where one usually gets the jeeps to Ushguli, they told us there would be no jeep tomorrow. The next one might be the day after. Or it might be in Spring.

    My desire to see Ushguli was great, but not quite as great as my desire to avoid spending the winter in Svaneti, so we decided that discretion was the greater part of valor, and that we should flee.

    The rest of the tourists in Svaneti had apparently taken a similar decision (except Valery, who was likely the least perturbable human being I have ever encountered). Rosa's guests (Me, my hetero-life partner, and the Poles) piled into the Mashrutka to Zugdidi, and drove down to the town square. We waited there until about 10:00, and then we set off. Or so we thought.

    We actually drove about 200 meters back to the pub, where some other tourists were waiting- namely an older Polish guy named Gabriel, his wife, and two Israelis.

    Everyone headed for the pub, where we began to have a few drinks and, after an hour, food as well. Gabriel produced a battered guitar from somewhere (it wasn't his guitar) and, after fixing what strings remained on it, began to play traditional Polish and Russian folk songs, many of which were quite pornographic and extremely funny.

    Simon and Michael were passing about a lovely bottle of home brewed "cha-cha", the local version of Grappa, and set off to get more, as the bottle was running low (as happens when one is singing lascivious folk songs). On the main square, right across from the park, is an old truck. Within it are, on occasion, two old ladies, who have a giant 20 liter milk tin which is full of grappa. If you bring your own bottle, they will use a tin cup and a funnel to fill it for 4 lari (2 euros) per liter. It's amazingly good.

    At about 1 PM we all piled back in the Mashrutka and set off.

    Well, not quite yet. First we stopped to get "the others," and our driver disappeared. As we waited, another vehicle pulled up behind us, honking its horn. the driver wished to go up the mountain road that we were blocking with the Mashrutka, and when our driver failed to appear, he simply came over to our vehicle, said hello in Svan, and drove us forward five feet or so. Waving cheerily, he then rattled away in his truck.

    At 2:30 PM five more Israelis showed up, and this time we truly did set off.

    It turns out that our decision to leave was a good one (despite it taking six hours or so to do it) as the Israelis has been heading up to Ushguli by foot, and had run into a monster snow storm. One of them had taken a video of them trudging through knee high snow and a thick blanket of falling flakes. This storm was headed our way.

    The road seemed, if anything, in worse condition than when we had driven up.

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    not so bad

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    not so good

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    After about two hours we stopped for food at the "Mariami Restaurant." I have no idea if this is the village, or the person who owns the restaurant.

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    Food here consist of bread cheese-meat disks. Fantastic.

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    more rock slides

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    Our driver had a mix-CD of Georgian Turbo folk and Whitney Houston on a continuous loop. By hour 4 of the trip this was making us all rather restless. I suppose I didn't help matters by breaking into a full throated version of "I will always love you" in my best falsetto. The Israelis began to shout "Radio! Radio! Yala Yala!" I assume "yala yala" is Hebrew for "please lord no more Whitney Houston."

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    About 7:30 we rolled into the Zugdidi train station, and bought tickets to Tbilisi. All the sleepers were sold out, so we got seats.

    We had about an hour before the train left, so the Israelis busted out voluminous amounts of Kosher food (mainly mushroom soup) and a gas burner and lit it up in the Train station waiting room. Despite being far from any sources of Kosher food (I assume they travel with it from Israel) they graciously insisted that we join them. The soup was delicious and we all opined about the sad lack of good falafel in Georgia.

    As the trained rolled into the night, Simon, Michael and I began to eat chips and drink copious amounts of grappa. Soon we were joined by Georgian strangers, who brought more food and more grappa. Somehow, with the aid of a few additional bottles, including Georgian cognac, we solved all the worlds problems by two in the morning, hashing them out with the locals in a curious Russian-Polish-English pidgen. What a coincidence that such an amazing collection of political geniuses should find themselves on the same train, at the same time, with the same bottles of alcohol. Its unfortunate that we couldn't remember our plans the next morning.
    Cave ab homine unius libri
  • JusticeiroJusticeiro E clunibus tractum Mannheim, GermanyRegistered Users Posts: 1,177 Major grins
    edited December 7, 2013
    When we arrived in Tbilisi, it was about 7 in the morning, and the day was overcast, gray, and cold. Once again I wished we had taken this trip about a month earlier.

    We didn't have a set place to stay, just a few vague ideas, so we walked down Rustaveli with Michael and Simon. They were looking for a cheap hostel, and found one, but it was a bit dodgy (they ended up sleeping somewhere cooler). I figure I gots my street cred as a backpacker back in the 90s, when I helped sneak a Serbian draft dodger across the German frontier by hiding him in a Duetsche Bahn water tank crawl space, so we decided to go for a posher place. Well, not sooo posh, but pretty reasonable. We jumped in the metro, which is deep enough to double as a thermonuclear attack shelter. We had originally planned to stay in a place called hotel charm, but that was full, so we ended up in a place just up the street called Villa Mtiebi, a pretty cool Art Deco style place with really comfortable beds. It ain't cheap, at about 83 euro per night.

    By the time we had stowed our bags and had a bit of a shower, the weather was shaping up to be super nice. The sun was out, which was good, because Tbilisi is a wonderful town in the sun, absolutely full (like Batumi) with daring architecture and tiny little bits of cool public art scattered about.

    The first thing we did was walk to the Kura river, which is about 5 minutes walk from both hotels.

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    The first thing you notice is the "bridge of peace," which is the official name of this fine pontus. The locals apparently call it the "always ultra" because it resembles a maxi-pad. At night it lights up with thousands of LEDS.

    Just up the river from the bridge is the Presidential Administrative Building:

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    Tbilisi is dominated by a giant ridge, atop which there is a bunch of cool stuff to see. If you want to avoid a steep climb, you can cross the peace bridge and walk about 150 meters east to a cable car station. The ride costs as much as a normal metro trip, and you can use your metro ticket. Great platform for some shots of the city. Bear in mind that the cable car is far from EU standard- the thing never really stops, you just kind of leap into the car as it passes by.

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    The ridge is dominated by a ruined old Persian fortress and the Kartlis Deda (Mother Georgia), an enormous 20 meter (65 feet) tall aluminum statue of a woman in traditional Georgian dress, holding a cup of wine in greeting for friends in her left hand, and a huge can of whoop ass in the form of a giant sword for her enemies. I prefer the wine, myself.


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    Unfortunately, all the pictures I have of her from the front are directly into the sun, so here is one blatently stolen from Wikipedia:

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    Behind Mother Georgia is a dude selling Cappucinos from a mobile coffee truck. They cost about a bukc and are quite good, and it is windy up there.


    A walk east along the ridge takes you to the Narikala fortress, which has been fortified since the 4th century- the original having been built by Persians. The current citadel dates from the 8th century, when it was built by Arabs, who at the time held the city. It was later expanded by King David the Builder in the 12th century, and severely damaged by an earthquake in the 18th.

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    A series of stairs will eventually take you down to the old Arabic section of Tbilisi, which is just below the fort. There is a sort of mini-canyon with a neighborhood wedged in it, which begins with a lovely little Heydar Aliyev park.

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    Statue of Heydar Aliyev

    Just beyond the park is a series of recently restored and functional turkish style baths.



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    Old Mosque. Shot right into the Sun, dammit!

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    Minaret, from above

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    It is hard to believe that this peaceful little canyon, complete with river, is about 150 feet from the main drag of the city's riverfront. Little houses are built into the cliffs of the canyon.

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    Cave ab homine unius libri
  • JusticeiroJusticeiro E clunibus tractum Mannheim, GermanyRegistered Users Posts: 1,177 Major grins
    edited March 24, 2014
    Sorry about the over long break. I have had to design an entirely new syllabus for a new class, and I bought an apartment, so I have been a bit busy.

    On our way back to the hotel we passed by a rather impressive looking Synagogue on Leselidze street. Wandering in, we found ourselves amidst a large group of German tourists, along with their interpreter/Guide. I found it politic not to point out that the only reason the synagogue was there was because the Germans were only just now reaching it. (Snark!)
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    After the group had left, the Shammas (the custodian), an orthodox jew of the "tassels but not hat" variety, approached us and spoke to us in German and halting English. He was excited to discover that we were from America, as his mother lives in Brooklyn. I found this a bit surprising, as he was already advanced in age, and his mother must be at least in her 80s, but I did not inquire as to why she had gone to Brookln and he had not. The Shammas then took us on a rather more extended tour than the Germans had got, and explained to us the history of this particular building.IMG_9379-M.jpg

    The Great Synagogue was built around the turn of the century to accomodate Jews who had moved there from a village in Southwest Georgia called Akhaltsikhe. Hence it is still usually referred to as "the synagogue of Akhaltsikhe" by Tbilisi Jews (of which there are many). Jews, known locally as Gurjim, have been in Georgia since the time of the Babylonian captivity- approximately 2,600 years. And unlike "Europe," there was little anti-Semitism in Georgia until the incorporation of it into the Russian Empire, and the Nazis never reached Tbilisi, so their presence has been (relatively) trouble free and is still much in evidence. I am not sure why the Shammas spoke German, as the local Jewish dialect, Kivruli, is like Yiddish insofar as it mixes Hebrew with the local language, but contains little to no German.
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    Local Georgian Jews on a Plaque outside the synagogue, whose meaning I did not understand

    Today the population is aging, and declining severely. It seems that the freedom to travel that came with the fall of the Soviet Union is accomplishing what the Czars and the Nazis could not- the young people have almost all made Aliyah to Israel to seek better economic opportunities.

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    The Shammas in the main hall

    We then spent the rest of the day just sort of being flanuers and wandering about Tbilisi, seeing a number of interesting paintings and public art along the way. Then, to bed.



    The nxt morning the weekend had arrived (Saturday), and with it the opportunity to move to a less expensive hotel- the Hotel Charm, which is actually only about a 3 minute walk from where we had previously been staying. After checking in, we headed down to the mashrutka stand near the main station and caught a shared taxi to Gori, a city an hour or so to the west of Tbilisi. We paid 5 lari, and piled into an old ex-Soviet clunker, which ran on natural gas. We found this out when we stopped to fill up, and had to all exit the vehicle due to safety laws.

    Why on earth would we visit Gori, a rather nondescript small Georgian town? Gori is really famous for one thing only, but what a thing it is. It is the birthplace of one Iosef Vissarionovich Dzugashvili. You might know him better under his working name- Joseph Stalin.

    Surprisingly, the greatest and most terrible Russian dictator of all time wasn't even Russian at all. Stalin was born in 1878 in what was then a rather small and unimportant village. Like Jesus, his mother was a homemaker and his father a carpenter, there is no resemblance beyond that, however.

    Unlike most of the Ex-Soviet Union, Stalin is still a real hero here, and his statue in the main square was not removed until 2010, and even then had to be taken away in the dead of night. The mains treet is till named after him.

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    If you have an inexplicable hankering to see him larger than life, fear not, there is a museum devoted to his life that contains his birth home, and the obligatory statue.

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    The museum is not exactly celebratory (it has apparently been toned down since independence) but isn't exactly a lurid "hall of crimes" either.

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    It contains much information about his life, particularly the early bits of it, including portraits of him as a young man, which I had never seen before. I guess I just sort of assuemd that he crawled out of his mother's womb already sporting a bristling moustache and a murderous stare. (the moustache likely not, the stare, perhaps).
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    Portrait of the Mass-Murderer as a Young Man

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    Here he looks disturbingly like a young Al Pacino

    The Museum is chock-a-block with commemorative gifts from naive outsiders (like Nehru) and likely terrified Soviet Satraps.

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    Stalin with terrified Chairman of the Uzbek SSR

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    Stalin's office from the time of the "Great Patriotic War 1941-45"


    The Guest comment book upon leaving contains a wide variety of reactions, from "long live Stalin!" in Russian to "Stalin was a criminal, Thank You." That one was a bit cryptic.

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    As it is well known that Dictators love Kitsch, you can pick up a wide variety of Stalin Tschochkes in the gift shop.

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    Everything from Wine to matchboxes to little busts. Or big ones.

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    I wanted to get one to put on the mantel and threaten my future kids with the wrath of "Uncle Joe" should they misbehave, but this was not allowed by my better half.

    Stalin only left Russia/the Soviet Union twice in his life- once to Vienna before the revolution, and the second time to attend the Tehran Conference with the other allies. He only ever flew once, to Tehran. At all other times he traveled in his personal train car, which is outside the museum.

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    There isn't much to see in Gori other than this, so we had some wonderful lunch at a very strange "hunter restaurant" on the main drag (Stalin Ave.)

    If you care to eat there, look for the window full of badly stuffed animals.

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    The food was excellent.

    The train station is down Stalin ave., all the way out of town, over a bridge.

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    Just walk over some train tracks to the main building.

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    tarragon flavored Soda available near the train station

    The train back to Tbilisi took about an hour, and when we arrived it was already dark.

    We met up with the two Polish guys we had met in Svaneti, and headed down to the main square. I have no pictures of what followed, because I had sensibly left my camera in the hotel. On the main square a number of people had set up RV's that had been transformed into Kitchen/bars, and we ate enormous amounts of shashlik and drank even more copious amounts of wine- mainly by being introduced into the arcane world of Georgian toasting rituals. As we were honored foreign guests, I don't remember paying for any on this. I do remember, eventually, hugging a goat. That isn't a metaphor for post-drinking nausea. I really hugged a real goat, which was for some inexplicable reason tied up in the square.

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    There is the goat.











    Cave ab homine unius libri
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