The mission was simple, use the Marshrutka system to get from Akhaltsikhe to Kutaisi. Turned out to be a bit more of an odyssey than anticipated.
[As I described previously, getting a marshrutka usually means rocking up to the yard and either finding the one that’s going where you want to go, or asking around until they tell you where to wait for the one you want to show up. In the smaller towns, though, the schedule may be a good bit more infrequent. In this case, we wanted to get from Akhaltsikhe to Kutaisi — both technically the “capital” of their respective provinces. Kutaisi is actually the second-largest city in Georgia, and has been the capital of Western Georgia in the times when it’s been an independant kingdom (ancient Colchis, medieval Imereti). Kutaisi has also served as a capital of the united Georgia on various occasions when Tbilisi was in other hands. At any rate, when we told the guys in the square at Akhaltsikhe that we wanted to go to Kutaisi, we got the sign-language-and-pidgin equivalent of “You can’t get there from here”. So it was we had our first experience “marshrutka surfing”. They told us to go to Borjomi. The guys at Borjomi told us to get on the one to Kashuri, etc. until eventually we end up where we want to be. –T.]
Step 1: To Borjomi. This went easily enough (about 90 minutes) , and they suggested we get off there and catch one to Kashuri. Borjomi is famous for its mineral water (which you can buy everywhere) and has been a health-spa-retreat for centuries. [There is also the entrance to the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, one of the largest in Europe… maybe next time. –T.]
[This was taken in a market somewhere along this route. Borjomi, maybe. The obligatory low-brow traveler’s snicker. -T]
Step 2: To Kashuri. [As far as I can tell, Kashuri is there because it’s where the highway from Borjomi intersects the main Tbilisi-Kutaisi highway, so that’s where you change buses. –T] Another easy leg (about 30 minutes). We ended up walking around a bit before we found a bus heading the right way. We ended up waiting about 45 minutes on the little bus to Kutaisi , sharing food around with another young couple on board and an elderly widow.
[We shared around a large muffin we’d acquired, and a bag of walnuts. The young man brought us a beer (plastic liter bottle) and a packet of dried anchovies — the same as he’d acquired for himself. At a later stop, he got a handful of cheap ice creams and shared them around. (I think he may have been showing off for his girlfriend, just a bit…) This sort of thing happened a couple of times on various trips — we got a lot of mileage out of various bags of walnuts, bread, and cherries, and got back hunks of people’s khachapuri, etc. I wouldn’t say it was *common* for patrons to share food around, but it certainly happened more than once. Us being foreigners might have helped as well. We also carried around little pieces of paua shell to give to cute kids and people who’d been particularly helpful. “Iz Novaya Zeelandia” we’d say, in our bad Russian. Or “Me Akhali Zelandidan var” in Georgian. See ? There’s the word “Akhali” (“new”) again.
One of the things I enjoyed about the Akhaltsikhe-Kutaisi-Mestia leg was going through all the little towns and villages. How did the house style change ? What were they growing ? What were they selling by the road side ? Each village seemed to have its own thing, and whatever that thing was, people would be out selling it from little stalls along the highway — like boiled peanuts and hot cider in Appalachia, or fruit stands in Kapiti. One village, it was hand made wooden furniture — bed frames, dressers, chairs. In another one, every third house had someone selling hammocks out the front. In another, the road was lined with women tending racks of churcheli, a Georgian treat consisting of strings of walnuts coated in a leathery sugar made of reduced and thickened grape juice. The racks were draped in lace or netting to keep the road dust off the sweets. –T]
Marshrutkas depart on a sometime idiosyncratic schedule. Sometimes this means the driver does not leave until he has enough passengers to make the trip profitable. Finally another Marshrutka arrived, and we were instructed to transfer over to it. And we were off. Well, for a few minutes. We made it about ten minutes up the road and stopped. Driver taking a break? Not sure, but we were there for 30 minutes before the trip resumed.
Step 3: To Kutaisi. This Marshtutka was a somewhat newer model. It had a stereo system. One speaker. Directly behind our heads. Blaring music. A folder Tam shoved over the speaker managed to mitigate the head-shattering volume, and eventually they turned the volume down a bit. As I was in the middle-rear seat, I could not see out any windows, so spent the drive watching the on-board TV and a parade of music videos in English, French, Russian and a number of unknown other (probably eastern european) languages. [Stephen’s matter-of-fact recounting above does no justice at all to the jaw-gaping WTF-ness of some of these videos. If the cochlear assault didn’t do us in, the boggle damage we took from the vids would have. –T]
It is also worth noting here the “free range” stock you get everywhere in Georgia, particularly cattle. They wander about. Sitting in the middle of the highway. Only the most metropolitan downtown areas don’t have them (probably not enough grass). [Akhaltsikhe had them. We were bemused one dusk to watch one of the cows on her way home wander into what we took to be the front door of someone’s house — but the door in fact led into a courtyard, where her owner stood ready to milk her. –T] Parks have walls and turn-stiles to keep the the cattle out. And watch out, they may congregate in highway tunnels to get out of the hot summer sun. The cattle were nice and predictable though, they just plodded along with cars whipping by at 100kph. The horses on the road were much more frightening, more prone the sudden direction changes and the swerving of cars in every direction.
Kutaisi is a big city. We got into the available cab (pushy driver). We dialed the guest house on our cell phone and handed it to the driver, so he could get directions. Thank goodness for that, I don’t think we could have found the place.
Giorgi’s guest house was a large, lovely place with an enormous glass greenhouse filling the whole back garden. The street in front, like so many in Georgia, was torn up for new infrastructure installations. The house was probably about a 100 years old, and would have built by a quite well-off family. In the corner between some of the rooms you could see the edges of large cylindrical coal-burning stoves which they used to keep it warm in winter. [A massive, floor-to-ceiling iron cylinder, with the house built around it. We saw similar in one of the museums later (not on display — actually used to heat the building) -T]
We picked this guest house [out of the Lonely Planet, which tended to be more useful for things to see than for places to stay, I must say. -T] because the host could speak English. We dropped our stuff and walked down the hill and across the river into town.
Lunch was another “we gesture and smile, and they bring us food” affair. Lobiani, the cheese Tostada of Georgia [khachapuri, with beans in it. Yum. -T]. I like it, more than just a cheese pie, but with no mystery meat.
[A mural relief on the side of a building across from the main central park. The open lot here is full of stalls, and the rest of the permanent market runs for a couple blocks lining the arcade in front of the rows of shops — you can just see the top of the arch in the lower right. -T]
We made it to the local museum by 3 PM, and got a guide with functional English. Sadly no photos in the museum again. There was some cool stuff. Big-bore Jezzails (20mm?) for castle-defense. An early 20th-century enormous rifle with a semi-circular brace. I presume for bracing against a tree, I would not want to fire it otherwise! There were also some nifty curved swords (which we finally got photos of in Batumi, so you will have to wait to see them).
After the Museum we made our way (via cab) to the Gelati monastery. The cab driver was half the fun. He seemed to know everyone there, and gave us his own little guided tour, the limited shared language was no impediment! He wanted to increase Tam’s orthodox fervor, crossing herself and kissing icons. [Yes, teaching me how to be a proper young Orthodox lady, with a wink and a grin. He was a charming rogue. -T]
Geltai was once one of the great theological sites in Christianity (back in the 11th and 12th centuries). It is where the tomb of David the Builder, one of the great Georgian kings, is located. The tomb was placed in the main entrance, so that all visitors would tread upon him, nice humility from a great king.
[The big deal with Gelati was not so much the religious aspect, as the educational one — it was an academy, described by its contemporaries as a “Second Athos”. King David poured money into it, and brought scientists and scholars from all over the Eastern Christian world to teach there, with a humanist slant that predated the Italian Renaissance by several hundred years. David the Builder initiated the reunification, reclamation and expansion — culturally as well as geographically — of Georgia, the “Golden Age” that would reach its zenith with his granddaughter Queen Tamar. I find it significant that of all the amazing things he did and built, it was the Academy that he was most proud of. –T]
[Our cabbie-guide was great; he took us *everywhere*. Well, not into the actual monks’ cells, but near enough. We poked into side chapels, smelled the roses growing ranks with the grapevines outside the old south door, where King David himself is buried; he showed us the bright, clear spring welling up in its basin under the belfry and urged us to drink from the bright steel cup the monks kept there on a chain. And with a wink and a wave, he indicated I could take photos ! (After kissing the icon, of course). He later introduced us to one of the young monks, who I think must have been a relative of his. Oh, and he teased one of the widows begging outside the front gate, stealing coins from her plate. He obviously came there a lot. -T.]
After dinner, we crossed back across the river and ascended the 193 steps to the cathedral. It is currently being rebuilt (as were so many churches) after being blown up by the Turks many centuries ago.
We also found out that many great Icons survived the communist destruction of religious things because by the 20’s they were already being acquired by museums. Most sat in dusty store rooms for decades, and it was not until the 80’s that they began to get displayed again.
At this point in the trip the travel was starting to wear me out, and I was hoping that Mestia would provide a welcome break and change- boy would it!
On Friday the 11th of June we headed out. We took a cab to the Kutaisi airport along with two other guests of Giorgi, a Lithuanian woman and a Polish man. The hope was to catch the plane to Mestia. The plane only goes twice a week, and only if the weather is perfect in Mestia. [Perfect on both ends. -T]
The airport was a large flat field with some concrete runways. There was the shell of what once may have been a small terminal building. A few hangers. Four An-2 paratrooper transports, and a line of dead and decaying soviet military helicopters. That was it. [If the cows grazing the airfiend got too close to the planes, someone would let out some dogs to chase them off. -T] And a few military people at the gate. More and more people arrived, way more than the 10 seats on the plane. Turns out the previous flight in the week had been canceled. People shouting. A woman crying and pleading to get on the plane. A bit of chaos. [Renata shared around some cherries. –T]
It became clear we were not going to get a place. Time for the Marshrutka! [Just as I was thinking to myself, “You know, an enterprising marshrutka driver could do well coming along and picking up the leftover passengers,” lo, an enterprising marshrutka driver showed up to pick up the leftovers. -T.]
The guide book says the trip to Mestia takes 6 to 7 hours. The Marshrutka driver said he could do it in 3. The guide book did not take into account the… spirited… driving style we were about to experience. [We are guessing that this was the same driver who terrorized Scott and Charlotte on their trip out of Mestia — they were still getting over the shock when we met them in Tbilisi. I’m glad we had him on the uphill drive, and not the downhill one. –T.]
It is also worth mentioning that over 50% of all cars, and about 100% of all Marshrutka had cracked windshields. Some just had a decorative crack or two. Others looked like a brick or two had bounced off at some point, leaving fist-sized depressions in the cracked safety glass. It certainly added “character”!
The first leg to Zugdidi was quick and uneventful. A “5 minute” stop dragged on as one of the woman passengers disappeared- to the growing annoyance of everyone else on board. The road to Mestia was a conventional paved one at first (though we had a frighteningly close encounter with some horses crossing the road).
The road followed the river up into the Caucuses. Swift in its most tranquil places, it roared mightily through the gorges. [The Inguri river, the lower part of which is currently the border with Abkhazia. The river is like a tiger — you look at it roaring and you know that it will EAT YOU, without the slightest qualm. –T] The further in we drove, the more exciting the road became. Imagine the Rimutaka hill road. But in much higher mountains. With much more sheer cliffs. And much of the second half not paved (though they are working on that). And now imagine that for 100 km. With 22 people crammed into a Ford Transit.
[By “not paved”, he means “was once a gravel/riverstone road, but has suffered several decades of deferred maintenance.” The road had potholes older than me. That reminds me: we didn’t give the Vardzia road it’s due. Parts of that had been paved, and then gone to potholes. You know how when they’re going to fill a pothole, they have to jackhammer it out into a bigger, square hole first, before they fill and patch it ? Remember how I was describing Batumi — how they tore up all the streets at once, and were re-paving them one at a time, starting at the waterfront ? On the Vardzia road, they had gone through and drilled out tens of kilometers of potholes all at once, and then were going back and filling them one at a time. So instead of dodging potholes, we were dodging huge, axle-breaking pits and trenches. We passed workers putting in a new retaining wall in one little village, and at one culvert, we had to wait five minutes while the guy driving the digger scooped over a bit of extra shingle for us to have something to actually drive on.
The road to Mestia was not quite as under construction, but it had everything the standard NZ gravel-track-in-the-back-blocks has: washouts, drop-offs, fords, places where the cliff has fallen onto the road, places where the road has fallen into the river, etc., etc. Only on a bigger scale, and with more roaming livestock. –T]
The drive is not recommended for people with (1) fear of heights, (2) lack-of-control issues, or (3) any phobia that involves a mechanical failure resulting in your spectacular yet grisly demise.
[In the US and NZ, people put little crosses on the roadside where someone has died — maybe with some ribbons and plastic flowers. In Georgia, they similarly will put up little shrines. These are usually little church-shaped metal boxes on poles — they almost look like open-fronted mailboxes with little crosses on top — and they’ll put votive candles and prayer cards inside. More elaborate ones may have a stone stele with a picture of the deceased laser-etched into it, and a couple we passed were full-on picnic areas with benches and a table. Most of them were for people who drove off the cliff (usually drunk), but at least one was for a guy who died trying to raft down the river. (As I said. It will EAT you. AND the road you drove in on. NOM NOM.) –T]
Once we were a few hours up the road we started to see more and more of the tower-houses for which Svaneti is famous. If you were a prosperous farmer back in the day, you built a 15 to 20 meter high tower next to your house. Every little village would have a half dozen or more of them. If any bandits came in, you went into your tower, closed the door, and shot at them. [From the arrow-slits in the upper levels. Most of the towers didn’t even have doors on the first two stories — you went up a ladder direct to the second or third floor. -T] With the near impassible terrain (roads did not go there until the last 150 years or so), and the fortified populace, Svaneti was never conquered.
In Mestia we were dropped off at the driver’s sister’s place. She ran (among many things) a home stay. While we shared no language, we still hugely enjoyed our time with the fun, lovely woman. Thankfully Renata, the Lithuanian woman we met at Giorgi’s in Kutaisi, could translate for us. [Renata was another serendipitous treasure. -T]
Mestia is getting a lot of work done. New water and sewer pipes. New lamp posts. Lots of buildings being renovated. Saw an old soviet truck drive by dragging three lamp posts behind it.
After dinner we went for a walk around town. Not a big town, only about 2500 people. 20 or more tower houses. Up some random side street we got a taste of Svan hospitality. A party at some house. They saw us and waved us over. Some of the people there had been on the Marshrutka with us. Some giant family shindig. One fellow had just come in from Novasibirsk for the party.
Food. Toasting. Drinking. [The Georgian traditional “supra” — it was a smallish, shortish version, but had the full-on toasting ritual, led by the “tamada” toastmaster with homemade wine and everything. -T] Tam did not have to “shoot” her glass with each toast. The men did. Glad I have a large body mass, and that the wine was not too strong. We were also glad that one of the guests was the ancient retired English teacher from the local school, so we had some capacity to communicate. [She’s the sort of person that you picture when you hear the words “formidable woman” — all ramrod spine and dignified poise, in widow’s black, graciously taking us in hand as the only person there who could translate for us (more or less) effectively. Most of the people there had been her students in English at one time, and every one of them was too shy to try their rusty schoolboy English out on us in front of her. -T]
After eating they asked if we wanted to go up into the family tower. Yes! And so did some of the visiting guests. The son (Giorgi, who was about 25) showed us up. He was in the process of doing some repairs to the top. The tower was very cool, and very not OSH-approved. Ladders were long, and made from split logs. Dark (one woman was using her cellphone to give us some light). The top was unroofed while Giogi did his repairs up there: gotta do maintenance of the 900 year old family tower every now and then. We were later told (through gestures as much as anything) how Giorgi as a young boy climbed up the outside of the tower and went in one of the loops at the top. Yikes.
It was a great experience. You read about the “amazing hospitality”, but to experience it is another thing. And it leaves you seriously chuffed afterwards!
[Mestia photos next post! -T]