Monday, 28 July 2014

GEORGIA PART 2- The Mountains

The marshrutka (minibus) from Didube bus station in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi to Kazbegi, a mountain village three hours to the north, was 80 % full of tourists- an indicator of its popularity due to its beauty, ease of transport, and many options for hiking. The drive on the famous Georgian Military Highway that leads to Russia was super scenic, with the mostly excellent road climbing through snowy mountainous areas to an altitude of 1750 m, where we arrived in the village.

We were surprised to be met by the most amusing touts we have ever come across- elderly ladies with small home stays, all fiercely vying for the business of the tourists disembarking the marshrutka. Sal chose one who seemed nice (how can one tell?!), and after dragging Rich away from the fearsome lady with a stubbly ginger beard who had latched onto him, we followed our hostess home, where she gave us a comfortable room with a stunning view of the famous Kazbeg mountain and glacier, brought us tea and coffee, and looked after us so well for the nearly week we stayed there. 

View of majestic Kazbeg mountain from our balcony

Cutting up a fresh pig in the guesthouse garden, Kazbegi

This was another place where many travelers came and went within a couple of days, so we had plenty of people to chat with, and when we were alone, the view from the balcony of the constantly changing Caucasus mountains held our attention. Again, meals were inclusive, and at this place we ate the best food we’d had since leaving Iran. Our hostess must have thought we were gluttons with the amount of delicious food she put on the table, but those long days walking do work up an appetite!

Most people climbed up to the 14th century Sameba church, a very important church for the Georgians, took some photos of the impressively picturesque site, and left the next day (it’s pretty crowded up there). A few attempted the strenuous climb up the 5000 m Kazbeg mountain- two poor under prepared German boys staggered back to the guesthouse one night after being caught for 24 hours in extreme weather. But we discovered many small walks around the area, with no other tourists around, and took our time exploring and enjoying a new environment for us. 

The many moods of Kazbeg/Sameba church..........

The two best walks we did (apart from Sameba church), were up the mountain at the back of the guesthouse, where we received gobsmacking views in all directions, and a walk along the river to the next village, where an intact ancient defensive tower located on a spooky hill had us enthralled.

Walking up hill behind Kazbegi village

Walk to Pancheti village
Ruined village, Pancheti

Enjoying the view!

Semi-runied tower in Pancheti village

Beautifully intact defensive tower, Pancheti

The wildflowers were incredible and covered the meadows and hillsides- they seemed to be getting more and more varied, colourful and plentiful at every place we visited. One bad thing about walking in Georgia was the HUGE dogs that almost every country house seemed to have. We have no idea why they were so big, and they had no ears flaps which really made them ugly. They were so aggressive, that even with the stick we carried at all times, they still often tried to attack.

Wildflowers, Kazbegi

Rich getting in touch with his inner flowerchild

Beautiful flower filled valley, Kazbegi

Horrible big dogs everywhere

The Sameba church on the hill was quite an effort for unfit people like us (!), but we took our time, and made it up the slow and scenic way. The weather was almost the same every day we were in Kazbegi- bright sunny mornings, quickly clouding over, with a little rain in the afternoons, interspersed with sunshine. So, when we made it to the top, the clouds had already come down over the mountains, but the views were sill superb, and we felt a great sense of achievement in ourselves- especially considering our footwear!


Village under the mountain

Lovely slow walk up the mountain, Kazbegi

View of Kazbegi village from Sameba church

Sameba church, Kazbegi

Sameba church before the rain

Although our next destination, Khevsureti was only the next valley over, and if we were serious walkers would be a couple of days hiking, as it was we actually had to go all the way back to Tbilisi in order to catch another bus that only ran a few times a week to the remote village of Korsha. Khevsureti region is very sparsely populated, and we were shocked and a little bit worried when the cranky old bus kept going and going(just- this was the worst bus we'd been on since India) for hours up the rough valley road without us seeing any traffic or people and only a few houses here and there. Not having much choice, we went with the flow, and upon arrival in Korsha, we realized we were on the bus with the hostess of the only guesthouse around for miles! The place was amazing to find in the wilderness- a little haven of creativity, as the owner and his son were both artists. The guesthouse doubled as a museum, and was crammed with artefacts, art, antiques and quirky objects on every surface. We were given the best room (becoming a habit!) with a balcony at the front of the house, overlooking the gardens. We had planned to stay a night or two, but because of the bus schedule (very sporadic) and lack of traffic to hitch hike, we stayed three nights and found it very relaxing to stop and enjoy the country side,the unique guesthouse and the perfect weather- hotter than chilly Kazbegi, but cooler than sticky Tbilisi.

Guesthouse in Korsha

Guesthouse garden sculpture, Korsha

Lovely walks, Korsha

Shatili was our ultimate destination in Khevsureti region, and when the little marshrutka pulled up to pick us up at the guesthouse in Korsha, we were dismayed to find it packed to the brim, but managed to squeeze ourselves in. As the bus trundled up the very rough and windy road, various people got off at random places in the middle of nowhere and we were more comfortable. The music mix of traditional Georgian music, Lady Ga Ga, and Build Me Up Buttercup, was an odd accompaniment to the trip! If we thought we were remote in Korsha, Shatili (nearly at the border with Chechnya) was another 3.5 slow hours through concentrated, dense forest, with hardly a soul or dwelling in sight. We pondered if we had ever been anywhere this isolated, and we thought not! Amazingly, quite a few tourists mange to getup this way- mostly Georgian and on small tourist buses.

As the marshrutka pulled into Shatili, we rolled out, happy to be on non-moving ground, and crossed a small bridge to the guesthouse recommended by our hosts in Korsha. It seemed like a strange dream to be this far away from anywhere, yet shown a nice room with comfortable beds, lovely clean bathroom with hot water and electricity, and WIFI and satellite TV in the village! A place this remote in Oz (and many other countries) would have no facilities whatsoever. We were particularly impressed with the guesthouse location- directly at the base of a big tower complex. The defensive towers found in the Khevsureti valley and other valleys in northern Georgia seemed to have had two purpose from what we could gather. One was to keep a look out for marauders in the distance, and the other was for families to hide in if there was an invasion. Hundreds of years later, the towers are still owned by individual families, and the complex at Shatili was interesting because a few families had turned there own towers into basic guesthouses.

Again, because of the bus schedule, we had an "enforced" 4 days in Shatili, although that was a pretty good amount of time to have a good look around the complex, and the nearby sights. The scenery was once again stunning- no snow capped mountains here, but moody big hills and valleys dotted with decaying towers, wonderfully built old stone houses, waterfalls, rickety bridges and deciduous trees mixing with pines to create lovely colors. The downside of walking were the huge amounts of stinging nettles, thistles and other prickly trees that lined the paths, as well as summer time bitey insects that attacked us when we stopped walking.

Shatili dwelling

Shatili stone house

Walking back to Shatili

One challenging walk we undertook without realizing it's length beforehand, was to the village of Mutso. Sal really wanted to visit this place, but as there was no public transport, and next to no traffic, so we had to hoof it. It turned out to be one of the most beautiful walks we have done in a long time- starting with the area near the Chechnyan border, where fascinating little stone huts housed the remains of plague victims, who thoughtfully came here to avoid infecting the rest of the village, and eventually to die. The rest of the road led through eery but cute villages, where one or two residents seemed to be around in their decrepit stone shacks for the summer (along with their big guard dogs), thickly forested woods up steep slopes alongside the raging river and gorgeous views of crumbling towers and other hilltop ruins.

Remains of plague victims, road to Mutso

Mutso tower

Approaching Mutso village

Stone village house, road to Mutso

The tower complex was something very different. It felt like it would have been a small town back in the day, with wonky little lanes leading to doorways and houses in towers with balconies overlooking the river and valley- quite a spectacular spot. Parts have been renovated, which must have been a difficult job considering the haphazard nature of the buildings- bits and pieces obviously added on willy nilly at different times, but the end result is cohesive. Our early morning visit was free of people and any outside sounds, and particularly atmospheric.

Shatili tower complex

View from Shatili tower complex

Old tower, Shatili tower complex

Shatili tower complex

Coming into Shatili

Clouds around Shatili

The day the bus arrived, we wanted to be sure we got  a seat near the front, as Sal's tummy and Rich's back didn't like the rear seats coming up from Korsha, but we easily nabbed good seats, although unfortunately they were behind two loud Georgian women who didn't shut up for the entire 6 hours ride to Tbilisi. Despite the long long journey on bad roads back to the capital, we opted to jump straight on another marshrutka to the tongue twister town of Mtshkheta, a short ride out of Tbilisi.

Bus Shatili to Tbilisi

Our experience of Tbilisi hadn't been the great (although admittedly, it was based on the areas around the main transport hubs), and we decided by staying in Mtshkheta, we could enjoy a better value room, still easily travel to Tbilisi and get to explore a little of the important and pleasant town. It's another on the list of renovated places in Georgia, and reminded us of Telavi and Sighnagi, with it's perfect little lane ways covered with grape arbours coming from cute restored house on cobblestone streets.

We were lucky to stumble on a brand new guesthouse, with an amazing value luxury room, budget price and no other guests! The price included a new mattress (well, new everything!), our own bathroom with hot water (although the weather was so hot now, that wouldn't be necessary), tea and coffee, fan (a rarity in Georgia) and a little kitchen/lounge area. We were very happy no food was on offer, as we were so sick of huge meals at set times, and for the few days days in Mtshkheta, we enjoyed eating a little of whatever we felt like at any time of the day.

Luxury guesthouse room, Mtshkheva

Mtshkheta was the old capital of Georgia, and a significant spiritual centre for Georgians, and the most important cathedral in the country, Svetitiskhoveli, was literally across the road from where we were staying -the rooftop view was wonderful. Even though we were quite "churched-out" by this stage after a couple of months in Armenia and Georgia, we could appreciate the beauty of the cathedral, and it was a nice change that photography was no problem inside the building.

Worshipers in Svetitiskhoveli Cathedral

Enormous Svetitiskhoveli Cathedral

Interesting Buddha-like pose by JC

View of Svetitiskhoveli Cathedral from guesthouse roof, Mtshkheva

Icons, Svetitiskhoveli Cathedral

Svetitiskhoveli Cathedral

Our couple of days in hot, sticky and busy Tbilisi included a visit to the old part of town- a large area, again the lovely old buildings have been renovated to within an inch of it's life, and very touristy (especially since it was now mid-July). We could see why people like it, it's quite pleasant, with MANY stylish bars, cafes, restaurants, art galleries and museums, and the old sulfur baths area has a particularly interesting character, with it's Persian style dome hammams sticking up from the ground and typically Persian style mosque. Perhaps we will return again one day to explore more of the long standing buildings in the area, and find some quieter places away from the tourists. Other highlights were the Dry Bridge flea market- similar to it's Yerevan counterpart in style and content, but much smaller; an amazing second hand clothes market at the bus station, where Rich eagerly stocked up on items at a small price; and marveling at the speed of the escalator in the Soviet era metro- those things go on for kilometers, are hugely steep, and we really felt we had to hang on! We obviously didn't see a lot in Tbilisi, due to more time spent in the mountains, but it was nice to have a taster, and there's tons more stuff to see next time, when we are more enthusiastic and less tired!

Refurbished Old Tbilisi

Sulfur baths area, Tbilisi

Dry Bridge market, Tbilisi

Dry Bridge Market, Tbilisi

Fill your own beer bottles in Carrefour, Tbilisi

We have to say, we didn’t really experience the famous Georgian hospitality we had heard so much about. That’s not to say the people weren’t friendly- just the same as any other country we have traveled in. We had a lovely time at the guesthouses we stayed in, and people on the street always smiled and said hello- usually when we said it first. But I think because we don’t speak Russian (or Georgian), we missed out on a lot. We couldn’t usually have conversations with anyone outside of the guesthouse, which was obviously quite limiting, and people were very shy with us when they couldn’t speak English. And having recently come from Iran, the friendliest country in the world, it was hard act to follow!

We stayed wholly in home stays or guesthouses during our time in Georgia, and found most of them great. Usually the rooms were cosy and clean, great food, tea, coffee and WIFI were included, and a hot water shower in a shared bathroom. We paid between 30 lari (AU$17) per person and 40 lari (AU$22) per person a night including breakfast and dinner. It was a bit more expensive and basic in Khevsureti due to its extreme remoteness.

Our food experience was almost totally based on eating at the guesthouses, as it was such a good deal to have meals included, and we were able to try many local specialities. Georgian food is very famous in the region, and like Armenia, consisted of many plates covering the table. Cheese (usually salty), bread (mostly the strangely shaped Georgian bread), homemade wine and several salads with fresh ingredients (and VERY heavy on dill and coriander) were always present, usually accompanied by either khinkali (a momo like dumpling filled with meat), or khachapuri (yummy cheese filled pizza-like bread). Breakfast was always filling (actually too much for us!), and consisted of some of the following: bread, homemade jam, sour cream, salami, cheese, eggs, chips, butter, biscuits, cake, cheese dumplings, salad, tea and coffee! Our snacks during the day mostly consisted of the amazingly delicious and cheap stone fruits that were in season- peaches, nectarines, cherries, raspberries and plums. We also scoffed mulberries everywhere, as the trees lined almost every street and the fruit was falling to the ground. Churchkhela was another favourite- a string of walnuts, covered with a grape wrapping. Drinking was varied- beer and wine were cheap, plentiful and tasty, (we have never seen such a huge variety of local and international beer on display as in Georgian supermarkets!) and Georgian lemonade in a variety of flavours was great on a hot day.   

Nightly feast at Sighnagi guesthouse

Georgian bread

Huge meals at Kazbegi guesthouse

Georgian staple- kachapuri

The other staple- khinkali

We love new places, and we felt very lucky to have had two completely different and fantastic months in Armenia and Georgia. But after nearly one year away from our easy going "home" of South-east Asia, traveling in many cool, mountainous or desert areas, we were extremely happy to get on a plane bound for Malaysia- and looking forward to some much needed beach R and R time!