Sunday, July 29, 2007

Impressions of Georgia: wine, Stalin and mountainscenery

On the Azeri-Georgian border, I had to wait for quite some time for the borderguards to finish their bureaucratic stuff. But while waiting, I met some nice Georgian people with whom I talked for a while. Within 5 minutes, I was busy with writing telephonenumbers of all their friends in Georgia who I should visit. Also they helped me with transport from the border, as they had a big bus full of teenagers going to 'patriot camp' and I was invited to join them. They dropped me off in the village Sighnaghi, as I asked them. Sighnaghi is a small town in the region Kakheti, in the east of Georgia. And when I arrived, I found a place to stay right away in the homestay (sleeping in someones house for little money) of an old construction worker. The same man invited me for diner and some beers in a small cafe, which I very much appreciated. The guy walked into the cafe, grabbed a big fish from the wall and smashed it on the table. Bon appetit...... The beer was nice though and it was highly amusing to watch the people in this small cafe full of semi-drunken construction workers.
Next morning, I walked a bit throught Sighnaghi. I liked the town very much, as it has a beautifull setting and some kind of Italian atmosphere. The view from Sighnaghi over the Kakhetian wine valleys was pretty amazing as well and there were some churches and lots of old buildings. Around noon I hitchhiked to Telavi, which took me allmost all day. And when I arrived in Telavi, I walked towards the homestay of an old Georgian woman. Her name is Manana and she lived by herself as both her husband and daughter died. She provided me with lots of Georgian coffee and we spended quite some time talking (in Russian off course) about her and my life. After my coffee, I went to a small park where I met a group of Georgian people, with whom I spended the rest of the evening talking and drinking. At the same time, there was a free concert in the city, it was organised by a telephone company, and it was nice to hear some Georgian music together with my beer.
When I woke up the next morning, there was a nice cup of Manana's coffee waiting for me. After I finished my coffee with macaroni for breakfast, I went to the busstation for a marshrutka to the religious site of Alaverdi. It is a huge complex with a big Georgian Orthodox Cathedral. And I found it quite fascinating to watch the intense practise of Georgian Christianity overthere. The Georgian religion is, after the Armenian, the oldest form of Christianity in the world and almost all Georgians are quite strond believers. At the Cathedral, I talked a bit with some priests and enjoyed the surrounding views, before I catched another marshrutka towards Telavi. On the way, I hopped of the marshrutka and walked towards another religious site, the monastery of Ikalto.
When I arrived at Ikalto, I met some of the people from the monastery, who invited me for Kakhetian wine and a lot of talking about Dutch football. The wine was tasty and one of the man gave me a short tour throught the pretty monastery. After, I returned to Telavi, where I watched the second concert day and spended the evening drinking and eating with another group of Georgians who invited me.
The next day, I thanked Manana and went by marshrutka to the Georgian capital Tbilisi. I got little bit sick in the marshrutka though, but when I arrived in Tbilisi I felt quite better. I met a German traveller (the first foreigner I met since Sheki) who helped me finding the cheapest homestay in the city. I stayed at Khatuna's homestay. Khatuna is a woman of about 35 years old, who lives with her small daughter Nadya and her old mother. The homestay is known as the 'Japanese place', because a lot of Japanese travellers are staying there (allthought I haven't seen any Japanese so far). I talked a bit with Khatuna and her family and went to sleep early to make sure I wouldn't be sick the next day.
My early sleeping helped, as the next day I didn't had any medical problems and could easily spend all the day sightseeing in Tbilisi. I started my walking with coffee and khachapuri (Georgian national dish, very tasty) in a small cafe. And while I was eating, I saw on the television in the cafe a news-reportage about a policeman who was shot in his car. And after I finished my lunch and walked out of the street, I saw the same car including journalists and crime investigators.The city Tbilisi I enjoyed very much, it has a charming and relaxed atmosphere and there are lots of things to see. It is full of churches, but the city feels like an European capital with an Asian way of living. In total I spended 5 days in Tbilisi and I saw a lot sights, including the third biggest church in the world (Sameba), and too many other churches. Also I spended two days with some teenagers who are living in a suburb called 'Afrika' and I was invited to view their living area full of concrete Sovietstyle appartmentblocks (and to drink quite a lot of Kazbegi-beer). Also in Tbilisi, I met two other travellers: Kalin from Bulgaria and Waldek from Poland, with whom I travelled to the mountaintown Kazbegi. We went to Kazbegi by marshrutka and I enjoyed some amazing mountainscenery on the way. The road links Tbilisi with Vladikavkaz (in Russia) and is known as the Georgian Military Highway.
In Kazbegi we found a nice homestay and we spended the rest of the day eating, drinking and talking. The next day, we hiked up to a small church on top of a mountain, with amazingly beautifull views over the Caucasus and the 5033m Mt. Kazbeg. When we made it back to Kazbegi, exhausted, we were hanging a bit around and we made our selves a diner. From Kazbegi, we shared a taxi and went to a small village on the Georgian Military Highway called Ananuri. Overthere is a very pretty fortress/church and we visited this site that afternoon. We catched a marshrutka back to Tbilisi, were we stayed for 3 more nights.
In Tbilisi, I haven't done much actually. I played a lot of pool with Kalin and we went to a 'party' in Irina's homestay (homestay with quite a lot of travellers). Also, we made a daytrip to Gori, a small city in the centre of Georgia, famous for being the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. We saw a huge statue of Stalin (the only statue of the bastard still standing) and we climbed a huge fortress in the middle of the city. And allthought Gori is quite a depressing place, were is nothing much to see besides the Stalin attraction, it was quite nice for a daytrip. Back in Tbilisi, Waldek left us that night, because he met some other Polish travellers. With Kalin I went the next day to Borjomi, another small city, but famous for its mineral water and natural springs. We stayed two nights in Borjomi in a friendly homestay and we spended our time viewing the relaxing town. Also I spended quite some time in the postoffice, to make phonecalls to the ministery of foreign affairs of the 'republic' of Abkhazia, in order to get an entry-permit. From Borjomi, we decided to take a train back to Tbilisi, which was quite some experience. The train was old, very very old, it had no windows and nothing inside except wooden benches (which are very hard). Also the train was slow, very very slow, as it took 5 hours for only 150 km (30km/h average). But the reason we took this train was, because it is damn cheap (2 lari) and an interesting experience. The next day in Tbilisi, I finaly got to speak someone in Abkhazia and I received my entry-permission by mail directly after. Also I did some climbing with Kalin (who is an experienced rock climber) in the 'alpinist club' of Tbilisi.
From Tbilisi, we went west by bus towards Georgia's second biggest city Kutaisi. As every form of transport in Georgia, also this bus was slow, but also quite relaxing. In Kutaisi, we found a good homestay again and the rest of the day we spend eating with the family and drinking wine, and I mean a lot of wine. At the end everyone was pretty drunk and we went to sleep early.
The next day was blazingly hot, the thermometer recorded over 40 degrees celcius.... And with this temperatures it is quite hard to do anything during the day, trust me. Still me and Kalin decided to visit some monasteries around Kutaisi and we chartered a taxi to take us to Motsameta en Gelati. Both monasteries were impressive and build on amazing locations, but as it was so hot, it was hard to fully enjoy it. In the afternoon we went back to Kutaisi for a cold shower and diner. The rest of the evening I spended in an internetcafe and to prepare myself for my journey toward the semi-independant republic of Abkhazia.