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Georgia — A month full of coldness and warmth

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Every time we enter a new coun­try, we ask ourselves what kind of encoun­ters will await us. Our expect­a­tions of Geor­gia are high, as we have only read and heard pos­it­ive things from oth­er trav­el­lers so far. Great people, breath­tak­ing nature — a Caucasi­an para­dise that sees itself more European than Asi­an. And with those expect­a­tions our story begins with Georgia.

Grey bor­der
Shortly before the city Batumi dir­ectly at the Black Sea we travel with the Turk­ish bus com­pany Ulusoy. We are assured sev­er­al times that a con­nect­ing bus is wait­ing for us after cross­ing the bor­der. So we shoulder our heavy back­packs and start walk­ing. After a short con­fu­sion, which door is the right one, we find the counter to check out from Tur­key. It was a short inter­mezzo of only eight days. Then we enter no man’s land. We enter a grey cor­ridor — left, right, above — sheet met­al walls every­where, no exit. Agora­pho­bia spreads. After about one kilo­metre of nar­row­ness I see the light at the end of the tun­nel. After anoth­er con­fu­sion we find the way to check in to Geor­gia. The first ATM does not work. For­tu­nately, the second one does. One man tries to con­vince Stef­fen that he broke his phone and anoth­er one begs in an annoy­ing way. Why do grey bor­der cross­ings attract shady fig­ures? By the way, no bus is wait­ing for us. A Geor­gi­an police­man only shrugs his shoulders and says “Wel­come to Geor­gia”. So we jump into a Mashrutka (minibus) — let’s get away from here. Today we still have one des­tin­a­tion: The Nation­al Park Mtir­ala. We booked a room in the Green Hotel for three nights.

Black Nation­al Park
In Batumi, the warm enter­tain­ment para­dise at the Black Sea, we buy food for the next days and look for a taxi. It is already late after­noon and buses gen­er­ally don’t go to the nation­al park. We find a taxi driver who is will­ing to drive with us the one hour to Chak­v­istavi. It is already dark and he races in his hybrid car over the high­way. As soon as we take the exit, it gets more bumpy and slower. Soon we wind our way up nar­row paths between black moun­tain out­lines. It is cloudy and we can only ima­gine the beau­ti­ful nature. No light betrays the beauty of the nation­al park. And then we already see the build­ing: The Green Hotel. It con­sists of a few rooms next to the nation­al park exhib­i­tion and inform­a­tion. I climb up the wooden steps and my fore­bod­ing is con­firmed: everything is dark. Nobody there. I call and knock on all doors, but noth­ing moves. A moun­tain stream roars behind the build­ing. In front of the wooden house there is a car, but no life can be dis­covered far and wide. After some think­ing back and forth we decide to return. The nation­al park remains for us a black memory.

Sweet New Year’s Eve
We ask our taxi driver, who by the way works for the Geor­gi­an mil­it­ary and there­fore prob­ably drives so well, to drive us to anoth­er accom­mod­a­tion. The first thing he thinks of is a lux­ury resort, over 150 dol­lars per night. We can only laugh. So we search for two oth­er accom­mod­a­tions via — unfor­tu­nately both are closed. So we let us drive back to Batumi and rent an apart­ment there. CO2 emit­ted for noth­ing for 2 hours! Quite frus­trat­ing! But we only wanted peace over New Year’s Eve. We do not move the next day out of the house — our wish did­n’t come true!
How­ever, in the even­ing sud­denly our land­lady with her daugh­ter stand infront of our door and bring us a huge plate of cake and Geor­gi­an wine! Our mood improves rights away! They have sweetened our day and even our first exper­i­ence with Georgia.

Col­or­ful Chuberi
After the black incid­ent we want to give Geor­gia and its nature anoth­er chance. Since it is quite cold here, we think “why rain, if you can have snow”, and aim for the moun­tains in the north­w­est. We are so lucky that there is a new couch­surfer. Her name is Salome and she has already con­firmed our request. We are allowed to live 3 nights with her and her fam­ily. Stef­fen is still a bit scep­tic­al, because there is little on her pro­file and we will be the first guests. But noth­ing ven­tured, noth­ing gained. After a night in Zug­didi we plan to go to Chuberi. It is the 2nd of Janu­ary, an offi­cial hol­i­day, and the driver of the Mashrutka (minibus) to Chuberi is prob­ably still has a good night’s rest over his intox­ic­a­tion. We sur­render to our bad luck and once again take a taxi. We can see the white moun­tains from far away and are already look­ing for­ward to it. Finally snow! We climb high­er and high­er and the last sev­en kilo­met­ers we drive over a holey, partly icy and muddy road to Chuberi. With the unfilled couch­surf­ing pro­file in our heads, we slith­er across the ice to Salome’s house. An excited puppy jumps dir­ectly at us and we see Salome. We are wel­comed so warmly that we imme­di­ately feel at home. We are allowed to move into our own room on the first floor. When we return to the warm liv­ing room, a Geor­gi­an feast awaits us: egg­plants stuffed with wal­nut paste, round flat doughs stuffed with cheese and egg (Chatschapuri), a col­our­ful salad and much more. We get to know the moth­er and the two sis­ters of Salome. Slowly the pro­file fills up in our head. We talk about the vil­lage, nearby Abkhazia, the planned dam pro­ject, where the fath­er works as a guard­i­an, and the sis­ters’ life dreams. Salome and Elada have already fin­ished school and plan to study soon. They proudly show us their album with Geor­gi­an script in cal­li­graphy. Salome even won a prize for it. Tamara is still learn­ing and she asks us if we would like to see her vil­lage school. Of course!

The classrooms are still heated with wood. The floor is a trip­ping hazard.

The world here in Chuberi.

In the even­ing we spend the time play­ing games. Rock Paper Scis­sors, Hang­man, Who am I and Yatzhee are a lot of fun and we have a fab­ulous time togeth­er. From time to time also the puppy Tuzik tries to sneak in. I taught him “sit”, “wait” and “come”. He is 100% play­ful, but also very intel­li­gent. The fam­ily has him actu­ally just as a guard dog, that’s why he is prob­ably under­ch­al­lenged. And it is cold outside.

The next day we do a long hike through the white winter land­scape. Snow­ball fight of course included.

A dam is con­struc­ted for this river just a few hun­dred metres upstream. The fam­ily has mixed feel­ings about this project.

The robust mout­nain cows of Chuberi 

The poor jay will serve this man as supper. 

Every time we sit down at the small liv­ing room table, we are dir­ectly presen­ted with food. We have prob­ably gained 3 kg dur­ing this time. But the girls are fast­ing and are eat­ing vegan. Their moth­er shows me how Chatschapuri is made. The farewell after 3 days is very dif­fi­cult for us. It was such a warm and col­or­ful time togeth­er with the family.

This pic­ture shows us with the two sis­ters Salome and Tamara, moth­er, fath­er and Tuzik in front of their house in Chuberi.

White Mes­tia
Our next stop is Mes­tia. In a sweet gues­t­house we avoid the snow storms and in the snow free times we explore the sur­round­ings. We are a little sad as the trip to the highest vil­lage in Europe, Ushguli (also a UNESCO World Her­it­age Site), which is inhab­ited all year round, can­not be guar­an­teed. The snow is simply too high. And also hik­ing would be dif­fi­cult, because we would not find the trail. So we spent time with our web­site and vis­ited the mod­ern museum about the his­tory of Svanetia.

The his­tory museum in Mes­tia is worth a vis­it. We learned a lot about the past of this region. Ancient find­ings from the Stone and Bronze Ages prove the crafts­man­ship of the inhab­it­ants here. Clay works, wooden chests, jew­ellery, arrow­heads and much more want to be admired.

The Svaneti vil­lages are fam­ous for their stone towers. Every house used to have such a defense tower.

Every­where in Geor­gia we find faith­ful and cuddly com­pan­ions. We have only met lovely street dogs who are chipped and dewormed in most cases. The only dan­ger­ous thing about them is that they fol­low you every step of your way when you just smile one time at them.

Pot-holed roads
For the time being we have filled up enough on winter land­scapes and are on our way to Tbil­isi (also: Tbil­isi; Tbilis­si), the cap­it­al of Geor­gia. It is a 10 hour drive from Mestia.

A mashrutka from the inside. The minibuses are very cheap. For one hour drive you pay about 3 Lari (about 1 Euro). We also read that the trains in Geor­gia are sup­posed to be very good, but they are usu­ally slower than the Mashrut­kas, but even cheaper.

No mat­ter where you look, in Geor­gia you see mountains.

In Tbil­isi we spent a total of about 2 weeks. Half of the time we stayed in apart­ments to work on our web­site. The main reas­on: we are wait­ing for our Iran visa. Sight­see­ing got unfor­tu­nately a raw deal dur­ing this time. But we were able to get some impres­sions at least.

Tbil­isi used to be on the Silk Road. Many cara­vanserais are loc­ated in the city centre, but they have lost their tra­di­tion­al char­ac­ter and now serve as super­mar­kets, chic res­taur­ants or fash­ion shops. The rus­tic souven­ir shop­ping mile “Meidan Baz­ari” is loc­ated near the Met­ekhi Bridge. It runs under the street and has a spe­cial charm.

The entrance to the Meidan Baz­ari is marked by these spe­cial let­ter­boxes that allude to the Silk Road.

Some­times we’d eat out­side, like here at the Kiwi Vegan Café. We also tested the Hum­mus­bar and Mama Terra Veg­gie Corner and were sat­is­fied with the vegan food. By the way, the web­site helps to find veg­gie res­taur­ants all over the world.

Besides the deli­cious food we also took two books from the book corner with us, among them “Flight from USSR” by Dato Tur­as­hvili. This has cata­pul­ted us into the Soviet his­tory of Geor­gia and made some things clear­er to us.
If you are not fast­ing, the Geor­gi­an food is very hearty: lots of meat and cheese. Since we eat veget­ari­an or vegan food dur­ing our trip, we cold-shouldered some spe­cial­ties like khinkhali (meat filled dumplings). 

You see col­or­ful shops like these more often in Geor­gia. The strange saus­ages are nuts covered with thickened grape juice. 

Jumble in the architechture jungle
Archi­tec­tur­ally, Tbil­isi is a mix of Soviet, Ortho­dox-reli­gious, mod­ern and tra­di­tion­al buildings.

Court­yards like this one are more common.

Wooden porches and bal­conies are the hall­mark of the old town of Tbilisi.

The Peace Bridge is an example of a mod­ern pro­ject in Tbil­isi. It crosses the prom­in­ent Mtk­vari River.

There is a lot of con­struc­tion and demoli­tion going on. Just like this actu­ally beau­ti­ful build­ing. How­ever, safety at work is not play­ing a big role. And after work, the well-pre­served stones are trans­por­ted home in clunkers and used privately. Unusu­al Second­Hand shopping.

The small craft shops are also unusual.

This repair shop’s full of bits and pieces.

Where togo  now? In Tbil­isi you can always find your way around thanks to the signs. People are also happy to help you. 

The 1,5km long Rustaweli street, which leads into Liberty Square, is sup­posed to invite you for shop­ping and strolling. Unfor­tu­nately, we don’t like it at all. The four-lane, very busy road was appar­ently designed only for car traffic and under­passes are rare. How­ever, the gov­ern­ment build­ings and the opera house catch the eye. It reminds a bit of Otto­man archi­tec­ture, but is designed by the Ger­man Vikt­or Schröter.

In order to escape the noisy and stink­ing city, we made a cir­cu­lar walk up to the Mtats­minda-Park and back to the city on one day. In the park there is an amuse­ment park, the col­our­ful TV tower and the not used Fer­ris wheel. One could also get there by cable car, but the route through the forest offers a good stroll.

When we were not sat­is­fied with these short peri­ods of relax­a­tion, we thank­fully accep­ted the offer of our SERVAS host Mary Ellen and drove with her to her vil­lage cot­tage 40km from Tbil­isi. There we had 5 days of rest.

The vil­lage idyll and the match­ing car.

From the book “Flight to USSR”, which tells about the time of the Soviet occu­pa­tion of Geor­gia, we learned that people were not allowed to own any­thing but their own grave. That’s why they used to have a high value and were some­times even “dec­or­ated” with bicycles and cars. Nowadays they are pre­cisely marked out with a fence. “Mine”.

The stone houses have beau­ti­ful, indi­vidu­al pat­terns. It is worth wan­der­ing through the vil­lages of Geor­gia and admir­ing them.

Since our online status for apply­ing for the Iran visa has still not changed from “Wait­ing for Accept­ance” to “Approved”, we decide to go to the embassy. The gen­tle­man is very unfriendly and just says that we would have an 8020 chance with travel agency and rejects us. We decide to aplly for the visa in Armenia. Nev­er­the­less, we con­tin­ue to enjoy the time in Georgia.

Golden Geor­gia
The Geor­gi­ans are reli­gious and their Ortho­dox faith is very import­ant to them. Every­where we see mon­as­ter­ies and churches. As soon as people see one of these spir­itu­al places, they cru­ci­fy them­selves. In the Mashrutka this already leads to “mass cru­ci­fix­ions” in short distances.

Some believ­ers have a lot to do in mon­as­ter­ies or cathed­rals like Svetit­sk­hoveli Cathed­ral in the former cap­it­al Mtskheta. Because they kiss every single pic­ture with Jesus and/or Vir­gin Mary at least once and nudge it with their fore­head. Mtskheta has been around for over 3000 years and is a UNESCO World Her­it­age Site.

We vis­ited anoth­er mon­as­tery in Borjomi. 

Bor­jomi is known for its heal­ing min­er­al water and the Bor­jomi-Khar­agauli Nation­al Park. It is the old­est of all nation­al parks in Geor­gia and the best tour­ist­ic­ally developed nation­al park recom­men­ded to us by Maka of the WWF Cau­cas­us. We had an inter­view with her in Tbil­isi and learned a lot. For more than 10 years she has been com­mit­ted to the pro­tec­tion of ancient stur­geons and the entire Cau­cas­us region. A rather tense work, as the coun­tries are polit­ic­ally no friends. You can read back­grounds here. Before you want to hike in the nation­al park, you have to go to the nation­al park cen­ter first. We filled out a piece of paper with our inform­a­tion, got help­ful tips for all kinds of activ­it­ies and were offi­cially allowed to enter the nation­al park.

We find a good weath­er day and make a small hike. Unfor­tu­nately a steep part of the way is very icy. There­fore we decide not to do the two-day hike with overnight stay in a moun­tain hut.

The view rewards us for the slip­pery climb.

In Bor­jomis Cent­ral Park we find the old­est hydro­elec­tric power sta­tion in Geor­gia. It is under renov­a­tion, as the sign says. How­ever, we can­not see any trace of it.

Hitch­hik­ing is really easy in Geor­gia. We nev­er had to wait long. My sparse know­ledge of Rus­si­an was mainly used for com­mu­nic­a­tion. The older gen­er­a­tion still speaks Rus­si­an well. The two young gen­tle­men even gave us their  dog mas­cot as present.

As the last stop in Geor­gia before Armenia we look at Akhalsikhe. Here is a (too) ren­ov­ated castle called Rabati.

Our con­clu­sion about Geor­gia
After a stum­bling start Geor­gia turned out to be a very cold but very warm coun­try for us. People are very warm and guests are sim­il­ar to gods accord­ing to a pro­verb. As a fan of his­tory, you find a heav­en in Geor­gia: in the mod­ern museums and the archi­tec­tur­al mix, you can almost feel the past. Cul­tur­ally, Geor­gia can score with its extraordin­ary food, lan­guage and ornate writ­ing, dances and much more. How­ever, we could only guess the beau­ti­ful nature and the Caucasi­an biod­iversity hot­spot with its endem­ic spe­cies. These treas­ures were mostly hid­den under a thick lay­er of snow.

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