A Travellerspoint blog

Georgia

Batumi to Erzurum

all seasons in one day

From the train in Batumi it was another marshrutka ride to the border, back the way I had come 6 days before. I looked out for the supposedly well impressive Roman fortress at Gioni just 3Ks short of the border but as like on the way in it was dark and couldnt be seen. The crossing was easier this time, certainly quieter, and I was surprised to find the border shut, we had to wait around for an hour to be processed. This time I still got the same spotlight on the face treatment but at least I could see the officials face too, this was a particularly Georgian interpretation of detente. In waiting at the border I had blessed how mild it was only to suddenly be hit by a storm out of nowhere. I had tempted rate and it was chucking it down by the time I reached Hopa again, which struck me as being the norm. I only ever saw the border region dark and wet! Upon entering Turkey we had gained 2hrs which I thought would be useful in helping cover some distance that day but as it turned out it just meant that we had 3 hours to kill at Hopa Otogar waiting for the first departure to Erzurum. We met another young Japanese couple here so it was a little strange sitting it out with now 4 Japanese, but cool nonetheless. The couple were headed from whence we'd come so we swapped money and shared tea, they all had good English and I liked the Japs very much, very polite people.

The road from Hopa to Erzurum was fantastic. It had been another reason for going to Georgia that even the approach roads were experiences in their own right and I was not disappointed. In contrast to the road to Trabzon however this road did not so much go over the mountains but through them. For a hundred solid kilometres the road was hemmed in by steep mountainsides, normally more like a ravine than a valley, just wide enough for the river and road. The climb was almost imperceptible through the Kachkar Mountains, perhaps the highest range in Turkey reaching almost 4000 metres. It was like travelling along the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

It had seemed a little crazy going back to Erzurum, there were so many other Turkish cities I would have liked to have seen, but it was about as far as we could cover in daylight and I was happy to have the expectation of a familiar city after scraping by in Georgia. As it turned out by the time we reached Erzurum at 2000 metres it was getting hammered by a blizzard and the snow was lying. Much against my expectations Yoshi and I resolved to leave again that night in search of warmer climes. The coldest place in the country, Erzurum in winter was no place to hang around and the weather would blot out the scenery making daytime travel pointless anyway. Going back to Erzurum had also been a bonus however in that I finally managed to catch the local museum. The archaeological displays were predictable, mainly Urartian finds but there was also a whole section on the disputed Armenian Genocide. It was actually a very topical subject since France had recently insisted on Turkish recognition of it as a pre-requisite to EU membership. Turkey had always denied the allegations. What was displayed was a very predictable one-sided presentation of Armenian provocation and counteraction which in the short time I had to study it I did not buy. Unfortunately in spite of my original intentions I had not been able to hear the other side of the story in Armenia.

Yoshi was heading on to Diyarbakir and whilst I had originally intended going to Gaziantep fate transpired to make Diyarbakir the only night departure available. I realised that I would have to come back to this part of the world anyway someday, there were so many stones left unturned. So we headed off to Diyarbakir together at 9, not only would it save me a couple of days but it would put me on target to meet Anthony, an internet chum, on his days off.

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in Georgia Comments (0)

Day trips from Tbilisi

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With mutual support, Mag and I had decided upon a couple of forays from the city the next day so it was an early start with no daylight until 9. The first priority was a marshrutka ride out to Mtskheta, another UNESCO destination to scratch off the list, and one noted for its superb and massive cathedral ringed by excellent defensive walls. We checked out another smaller carbon copy church in the village and then found to our dismay that though the door to the museum was open the museum itself was apparently not. There was not a soul around. The evocative Jvari Church standing like a beacon on the summit of a distant hill was the quintessential fairytale destination, and despite the disappointing gloom we shared a taxi fare up to it and contemplated the village and river confluence below. I was bitter about the weather and damned the Iranians for my visa delay debacle one more time. Though the classicly Georgian shaped church in itself was nothing, in sunshine this would have been beauty beyond comparison and a sight to epitomise Georgia, what a shame.

With no bus or train to take us onwards, it was back to Tbilisi just to come back out the same way again, then farther on to the town of Gori. Its majestic wide boulevards and hilltop castle put it a touch above the other towns I had seen but what really put this place on the map was the story of a man. This had been the home town of a certain Joseph Djugashvili who later rose to become better known as Stalin (Man of Steel). Though pretty much now universally condemned elsewhere as the worlds greatest mass murderer, Gori had nevertheless found it hard to let go of the fact that one of its sons had grown to command the largest nation on Earth. His statue still stood in Stalin Square and you walked down Stalin Avenue to visit the very large and plush palace-like Stalin Museum, purpose built as a backdrop to the small preserved shack where he lived with his parents until the age of 15. It still lay as was in situ, the whole town's layout had been carved out around it. It was actually a sub-let, whereby the Djugashvilis had made do with a single spartan room, furnished sparingly with a single bed. Nobody knew for sure but the boy must have slept somewhere on the floor. The young honey of a guide sprinted us round the place while rattling off a heavily inflected set piece monologue, scouring over big Joe's life story in photos. There were lots of personal effects and gifts he had received from around the world. The piece that struck me most was the long grey trenchcoat uniform and peaked cap I had seen him in many times. The compulsory tour was too limited, too restrictive and certainly much too one-sided a presentation, but hey when you're still living in the Soviet good old days what do you expect? Outside we also squeezed through Big Joe's train carriage. He never flew and used it to go everywhere, including the Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam conferences. It was very plainly decked out with ordinary cabins for his head honchos and a double cabin with bath for himself. The simple table and chairs at one end must have held the contemplation of many an atrocity.

In what had now ironically turned out to be quite a nice day we climbed up to get views of the castle with what I thought were unusual but impressive spiral shaped fortifications. It seemed to me that the walls went on for miles but only the castle itself was secure, the walls merely channeled its approach in a circular fashion I hadnt seen before. With the last of the day it shone down on us in a most appropriate rose tinted light. Back to the city and I bought myself a couchette ticket for that nights train back to Batumi, meeting Japanese guy Yoshi in the process. We ate together and in gaining a new travel mate I said goodbye to another. Mag was staying on to see some of the mountains and much as I wanted to it was time I just couldnt afford. Perversely the day I met Mag we spoke only French, the next day only English. We had barely known each other a day but it really was a pity, we were on the same wavelength.

Remarkably Yoshi was planning on going all the way to Gaziantep the same as me and for good measure we met another Jap guy Kai on the platform whilst boarding the train. We all headed off to Batumi in the plush American Express owned train and I ended up getting sidled into a piss up with Yoshi and his cabin mates, 2 Georgian boys (1 ethnic Azeri) and a Turkish guy, replete with Georgian wine, vodka and beer. Too bad.

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in Georgia Comments (0)

Tbilisi

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I was abruptly shakened awake by the carriage attendant a tad before 8, a tramplike poor excuse for a man complete with fag hanging off his bottom lip, bellowing words I guessed were to the effect of "What the hell was I still doing on the train?". I dont know how long I had lain comatosed in Tbilisi station but didnt care, the boy was just lucky he wasnt more of a match or he might have got thumped. After a false start walking miles out to two derelict hotels, in disgust I dumped my bags back at the station and resigned myself to another night train for the want of a cheap bed. Then I had the very good fortune to bump into Lela, a 15 year old honey who wanted to practice her English, she had an important exam coming up which might win her a scholarship to America she explained. She took me round a nice park and up to the adjacent fortress, then across to the largest and most prominent church in town. It was the perfect antidote to what had been a difficult morning and gave me the resolve to give Tbilisi a 2nd chance, with her help I had already seen more of the city than I would have done otherwise. I ribbed her about whether she always went around picking up strange older men and we generally had a good laugh, but she was probably a bit scared of big hairy me in the end. She had a class to attend and had to part so I headed for the one cheap bed in town she knew about and that was that. My initial impressions hadnt been helped by the fact that it was Sunday, the big church was mobbed and the shops very often shut. Upon further investigation however I found a few pubs and diners, including not one but two ubiquitous Irish bars. At least I could now see that this place was trying to get into the 21st century and it was actually a very pleasantly set town for a capital city, sited in a winding river valley surrounded by wooded hills. It'll need another good 50 years to fully wake up but its clearly another candidate for the Paris of the East tag I'm quite sure.

In passing by the National Museum I had been especially interested by a large banner over the door promoting the Museum of the Soviet Occupation, it was good to see if nothing else that they had the free will to express such sentiments and were coming to terms with their past. It was a disappointment then to find that the majority of the museum was closed for refurbishment and the only part accessable was the basement vault ringed with treasures recovered from 4th century BC Vani. What there was was excellent though, some pretty stunning gold and jewelry work that must be worth millions in any currency.

It was another diversion of sorts coming to terms with the Tbilisi Metro system, the signs were incredibly in Georgian script only and it took careful study just to identify which destination was which and in which direction to travel. The alphabet was such that even Cyrillic would have been a relative breeze but it had obviously been rather overzealously derussified for the common good. In time I found my way back to Nasi's though, an old biddy who rather than shuffle the streets with her hand held out like all the other failed Soviet heros, had enterprisingly opened her house up to backpackers and single handedly spared the city from being sidelined by the fraternity. She had become the celebrated star of the Caucases circuit. She was genuinely hospitable and seemed to take pleasure in discoursing in fluent German, maybe Nasi had been a Nazi! Things had really fallen into place too with the discovery of an excellent diner nearby which actually served real food. I had a passable steak and rice with beer for 2 pound 60, it seemed like a reprieve. Later on at Nasi's I bumped into Mag, a French-Egyptian guy who had been on the road nearly a year having started in Ecuador and come through Central Asia, quite a trip. I invited him out to one of the Irish pubs which was a little too noisy for conversation, they were playing live salsa music and my head was reeling now having to speak French on top of everything else. I had languages coming out of my ears these days. German with Nasi, French now with Mag and a mix of Georgian and Russian on the street. And in its confusion my mind kept slipping gear with the now preprogrammed Turkish trying to come back to the fore, what a mind scramble!

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Kutaisi

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I had had the intention of going out of town to visit the nearby Gelati Monastery today, which together with the cathedral constituted another UNESCO listing. By chance though some boys I was sharing a table with in the cafe told me that a ballet would be kicking off shortly at the theatre across the square. Having been well impressed with Russian ballet in the past I fancied it but couldnt do both. As it turned out I had to walk right past the theatre to get to the bus stop and when I saw the doors open I just walked on in to get an idea of what exactly was happening. With the place already packed to capacity the doors had been left open and I walked in to see the fantastic spectacle of perhaps 100 or more kids giving traditional dance displays, there was a heavy Cossack style influence. Again and again I lost count of the number of different acts, performed in the main by kids from the ages of 6-10. They pirhouetted around on their knees, they leapt acrobatically, they were superb. A few adults also threw in some contemporary stuff like Salsa and Ballroom but the act which most impressed me was teenage boys simultaneously dancing and fighting with swords and shields, what a show! And all free gratis at 1 oclock in the afternoon! So that was that, no monastery for me but I almost didnt care.

I went back to my favoured haunt where I had promised myself to try one of Georgia's staples, Khinkali. This is meat dumplings served rather unappetisingly on their own and again a tad heavy on the stomach for the uninitiated. They were purse shaped bags of plain dough filled with spicy pork mince and were very filling. You always received 10 but half that would have sufficed. I couldnt get anywhere near finishing them which is saying something.

After finally finding a net cafe which actually worked I remained no further forward in some respects, the Georgian Railways website was under construction and only in Georgian anyway. Having had 3 failed attempts at locating the nearby Kutaisi I train station (Lonely Planet dodgy map syndrome strikes again) I eventually headed off in the general direction of the Kutaisi II station knowing there would be a night train to catch. True to form though I got snookered, the road to follow for 3Ks according to the map forked after 2 and I knew not which way to go. In the dark deserted suburban street I then had one of those golden encounters which make all the difference. It just so happened at that point that a young local boy passing by, the only other soul in sight, asked me for the time and so in turn I looked to him for help. I normally found that a good attitude paid dividends and football was always a popular icebreaker, I had to admit though I was a little short on the recent fortunes of Dynamo Tbilisi! From what little I understood from him the station was miles away and I would have to take a taxi. More than that though, it transpired that he knew better than the guidebook did that the night train actually departed from Kutaisi I not Kutaisi II after all. In my confused and sceptical state we jumped in a dodgy Lada and some while later he escorted me all the way to the ticket desk and had the attendant ladies sort me out. Though I thought perhaps he was on the make I didnt care, it was a cheap country and for once this guy deserved my money for his help. In the end however he refused point blank to accept it. Only 17 or 18, I'd taken him miles out of his way and was sincerely heartened by his act of kindness, what a star.

In true Soviet fashion there were 3 women to sell me my ticket, whereby they tabulated ledgers, handwrote some notes amidst piles of photocopied tickets and most unusually then proceeded to hand cut my ticket out with scissors. It was the most remarkable ticket I had ever received for anything. Complete with a jaggy point, the shape of it reminded me of the stylised Glock pistols found plastered all over the Scottish parliament. Not content with that, another lady then folded it into 2 unequal parts and added some more scribbles on the fold for good measure. Andy Warhol would have loved it. The one with a hint of English requested my passport and I quized in the light of the ensuing farce whether she was KGB. It was all she could do not to smile, that would never have fitted the image. All that was left was to kill the 3 hours until the 1am departure time and fortunately the one sign of life at the station was a beer den where I learned very quickly it was worth paying more for quality. The concourse itself was another massive Soviet carbuncle the size of the Kingsgate, "illuminated" by a single bare lightbulb. It was a bad dream like a scene out of the Omega Man with untold creatures shuffling about in the dark. The only good news was that I dont suppose anyone could have noticed I hadnt shaved for a week! The farce was complete when the dinky 2 carriage train trundled up early and I boarded my allotted wagon no.14. Upon stuttering back and forward as though having a coughing fit it eventually limped out of Kutaisi and stayed like that all the way. It was as though they had to eke out the journey in order to make it last the night!

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Batumi to Kutaisi

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If the town in parts was dodgy, the Batumi bus station was singularly a bad advertisement for progress. The gap in public transport provision since liberalisation had been filled by 101 battered minivans known as Marshrutkas and I had the job of finding one to Kutaisi this morning. With signs unreadable I asked around and waited half the day to get going, the very pretty journey eventually passing through very verdant land, almost sub-tropical, with pigs and cattle free to roam across the roads and fantastic mountain ranges to either horizon north and south. My stunning first view of the snow crested Caucuses and I was not disappointed. Without explanation I was dumped at the bus station well away from the centre whilst everyone else stayed on board, and it was a long walk just to end up at the incongruous Intourist Hotel. This behemoth sat on the main square with not even so much as a sign to bely its existence, I simply figured from my map that the anonymous door leading to a once grand stair case had to be the joint. It was a massive draughty carbuncle full of refugees from Georgia's colourful recent civil unrest but it kept a few rooms free for passing fools like me. No water, no flush, nobody cared. The stark contrast with Turkey crossed my mind that in that country new projects were seen all over the place, it just seemed like they were never finished. Even the end product tended to be shoddily done. Soviet Georgia however had been built to last but unfortunately that was 70 years ago, with not a spot of maintenance done ever since. With the last of the sun I climbed the nearby hill to see Davrigi Cathedral, a ruin but a fine one at that. Its still used for ceremonies despite not having a roof and has found a place on the UNESCO list. There was a great view of the whole town and snow crested ...... mountains to the South. I managed to find a pretty jumping modern wee joint on the main square which pumped out what could best be described as wholesome food and good cheap beer. And it actually proved to be the star attraction in town. With no internet to be had after 7pm, a couple of tins back in my barn like room was the best the night could muster. For a second city it was pretty second class it had to be said. Not that there was anything particularly wrong with it but not much to see, nothing to do and as dead and dark as Brezhnev after the sun went down.

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in Georgia Comments (0)

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