Singapore Zoo

Right. We went to Singapore last year. On the way to India and Nepal. Prepare for a series of photo updates, preparatory to this year’s epic Mongolia trip.

Singapore Air has this special where if you stay over for a night on your way to wherever it is you’re actually going, they give you discount accommodation and vouchers to get into all this cool stuff. One of the places we went was the Singapore Zoo.

The white tigers were so very pretty.

There was an Elephant Show. One of the demonstrations in the show, along with the usual pulling logs, etc., was walking along a log, and then turning around 180 degrees on it. If you look at the bones in their feet, elephants are walking on their tippy-toes, and they’re surprisingly nimble.

The elephants are clever.

D’awww! This photo included prmarily for Beth:

Snoozing ocelot.

You could get surprisingly close to the animals, even the ones that weren’t in the big walk-in enclosures.

Monkey!

The lemurs, for example, were so close and unconcerned that I suspect you could actually pat them if you moved quick enough — I didn’t see anyone try, but I did kind of worry about dumb obnoxious tourists harrassing the critters. Not that these lemurs would have likely noticed, given that they were more or less entirely focussed on their lemur hormones. We were amused by a young mother explaining to her curious toddler just what they were up to.

Lemurs.  They're cuddling.

The feeding stations for the fruit bats were just off the railings of one of the elevated walkways. Seriously, I’m barely using the zoom for some of these pics.

Bats like fruit.  Also, corncobs.

This fella is soooo bored.

Bored lemur is bored.

These tapirs were in a more traditional enclosure (i.e., on the other side of a wall). I found them to be unexpectedly adorable.

Tapirs: suprisingly cute.

Most of the animals had feeding times that you could time your zoo exploration to intersect with. Not visible in this photo is the moat below, where many of the tigers hung out swimming around waiting for the hunks of chicken to be tossed to them. Like stripey white sharks, they were, circling in hungry anticipation. Apparently, if it rains too much, they have to cancel the tiger feeding because the moat gets too high.

Tiger anticipating nom.

Georgia Trip, part… uh, where were we ?

Oh right, I think I had just gotten us out of Mestia. Or wait, no I hadn’t. When it finally came time for us to leave, we got a ride back to Zugdidi (take a moment and say that out loud: “Zugdidi”) with Jia, who charged us only around $5 more than he was charging the relatives he was also taking into town — and he asked Renata somewhat uncertainly if she thought that was fair. So sweet !

Different parts of the country naturally will have different styles of houses, and I was starting to get an eye for them. On the way to Zugdidi, the style seemed to require enormous, elaborate external staircases and wide verandahs. Similar to the place we’d stayed in Kutaisi, the main part of the house was on the upper floor, and the lower floor served as a granny flat for relatives, or renters.

More striking, though was the graveyards. If you’ve been following along, you may recall the little roadside shrines built by the relatives of whoever had died on that stretch of road. We passed a cemetary where, I swear, entire rooms had been built on the gravesite — three sided, complete with floors and furniture and fancy wrought-iron decorations on the roofs — each one different from the others, each one more elaborate than the next. As with the roadside picnic areas, they seemed to be for family outings to the grave, as well as of course displays of wealth and filial piety.

We still had a few days to kill before our flight out, so we decided that we’d take a detour to Vani. This involved another bit of marshrutka surfing, aided this time by Jia handing us off to the next driver and letting him know where we were going. The final leg to the museum in Vani required a cab, and we were relieved to be able to dump our packs in the blessedly air conditioned lobby.

Why Vani ? Vani was, as near as they can tell, the capital of ancient Colchis. As in the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece and Medea. They’ve found job lots of amazing stuff there, from Hellenistic styled statuary and pottery, to gold filigree and granular work like no where else. Things that I’d only ever seen photos of were right there in the glass cases, being stared at by bored school kids.

It wasn’t a very big museum, so we ambled down the hill into the little town square to wait for the next marshrutka heading towards Batumi. Stopping into a shop to buy snacks for a late lunch, the proprietress and the local constable were pleased as punch to give us directions and instructions in gestures and smiles. We ate lunch in the little park (protected from the roving cattle by a low wall and turnstiles) and amused the locals with our extremely limited Georgian (I had worked out how to say “I am from New Zealand”, to their utter delight).

And finally, back to Batumi, so very different both from Tbilisi and from the little villages we’d been traveling through. Back at the beginning, I had been somewhat put off by the seemingly haphazard construction and just the general shock of suddenly being on our own and somewhat lost. Now, the place was familiar, and the outrageous architecture and exuberant rebuilding was actually kind of charming. The fact that it was drizzly and COOL undoubtedly helped.

waterfront promenade, Batumi seriously OTT shop interior the building of architectural horrors new streets, double quick one of the many random decorative elements

With a couple of spare days to kill, we hit all of the local museums. If you happen to know the proper name for this sword, I’d love to know. It seems to be primarily an Adjaran thing (Adjara, or Adchara being the region).

not a kindjal

We also took a day trip to Gonio, just to the south, near the Turkish border. Gonio happens to have one of the best preserved roman forts anywhere. At one point, the interior was used as a garden, and we were deeply amused to find New Zealand cabbage trees and fejoas inside. We ran into some young American Peace Corps volunteers who’d come out from Armenia to spend time on the beach, and get some food that wasn’t potatos. We also picked up a small pack of schoolboys, practicing their English on us and vying to impress each other.

inside Gonio fort amazing how lush the surroundings were Hee.

Afterwards, we had an amazing lunch at a little cafe that apparently catered to the local truck drivers making the run to and from Turkey. As had become our modus operandi, we wandered in, looked hungry and confused, and got fed. Basically, the cook showed us what he had in the pots & raised his eyebrows & we nodded happily. It was some kind of soup, a meat and veg stew, and rice. They also gave us salad, bread & watermelon & it was all absolutely gorgeous.

Then flag down the next marshrutka back to Batumi.

our hotel, the one we switched to where we got our breakfasts Georgians, getting it done

Aaaaand, that’s basicly that. Going through the journal, there’s heaps I didn’t write about, and a billion more photos, but OMG, I’ve got the India/Nepal trip still to write up !

Georgia Trip 12

Back in Mestia…

After the trail ride (see previous post), and a bit of recovery time, we hooked up with Renata for some more ambling around town. There are a couple of mineral water springs in town, and we followed some locals who were going to collect water. One of the springs came up actually in the river bed, so at some point when the flow was low, a wall had been built so that the spring would be accessible all year. It was startlingly COLD down there in the bottom of the gorge, next tot he rushing river.

I think I mentioned before how the rivers in the mountains are like tigers – they will eat you if you aren’t careful, and they roar. The three of us spent a while coming up with schemes for opening a adventure tourism scheme that would send you down the river in a Zorb, including plans for getting you out (or not) when you got stuck in one of the many steep narrow gorges.

the river will eat you

Here are the awesome Renata, our host Laura (also awesome), and me, on the front porch of Laura’s house. In addition to running the guest house, Laura is an anaesthesiologist, sold the tickets for the marshrutka (the local minibus), and was also organizing meals and lodging for the guys in her husband’s work crew, who were putting in a new water main while we were there.

here we are

This is the view from their front porch looking out toward town. The house you can see on the other side of the front garden is where the cow that produced our breakfast yogurt lived. In the courtyard, I mean. We saw Laura helping the old lady milk it one evening. Renata related an interesting conversation with one of the builders. She had remarked on how beautiful the view was & one of the men replied that it was, but that it made them sad, because Russia owned those mountains now.

the front yard

The next day, we toured Mestia some more.

schoolkids one of the towers

You’ll recall that the livestock is freerange…

Piggies !

Except this bullock team, taking a break from whatever it was they were doing — probably hauling firewood.

parked

One of the houses, including its tower, is open as a sort of family museum. Basically, this is the family’s old house, more or less unchanged since the 14th century. The woman whose family owns the house pointed out the parts that had been updated — the ironwork around the hearth, for instance, was relatively new. It was really cool — the little corridor of pens along one wall were for the sheep and goats, with a little arch for each one to stick its head through to get fodder. The bigger arches were for the cattle. Though the animals were all pastured outside during the summer, in the winter, they lived in the big common room with rest of the family, where everyone could benefit from each other’s heat.

I got the impression that it was mostly used for family gatherings now, and of course showing off to tourists. The view from the tower was pretty cool, too.

inside looking out one end of town

Our Russian was not great, and Laura & Jia’s English was not great, but we did our best, and overall it was a really terrific experience. One evening we all piled into the minivan we’d taken to Ushguli, and we drove up to one of the ski lifts at the valley rim. From there we could see the lights of the valley spread out below us, each of the medieval towers lit up by its own soft yellow light. Really beautiful. THey told us how someone had put up some money to have an international specialist come in and design new lighting for them, and we joked about getting them done up like the Tbilisi TV tower (which has a crazy light show which I think we described earlier). We compared the Caucasus and Ushba — the valley’s sort of sentinel mountain — to the Southern Alps and Aoraki/Mt Cook. The whole stay with them was really just lovely.

Ushba

Meanwhile…. 11d

Bet you thought we’d never finish this trip !

Here we are, back in Mestia, in Svaneti, Republic of Georgia, way up in the Caucasus. We’d arranged with our hosts to go on a little horse ride, not realizing that the day we’d picked was the day most of the valley was going to be off mustering cattle (with their horses).

They nonetheless managed to scrape up a couple of mounts — a brown gelding and a black mare. Slight complication: the mare had a young (as in days old) foal at foot. The boy who delivered the horses initially tried to take the foal home by leading it away with a rope around its neck, but it didn’t like the idea, and neither did we, really. Little foal needs to stay with its mom ! We assured everyone that we would take it easy on the trip and take breaks for the little guy to eat and nap.

Trail ride

It did take us a bit to get out of town. For one, our horses pretty much had two speeds: slow, and amble. Various helpful passers-by tried to get them going for us by making various giddy-up sort of noises. At one point, we took a wrong turn and a helpful soldier gave us directions. Then we had to pass the airfield, which seemed to go on for days (unless you were landing on it, in which case I’m sure it would have seemed far too short).

This house, made from a pair of old caravan trailers, would not be at all out of place in New Zealand.

clever

We stopped for lunch — Laura had packed us khachapuri (cheese bread), boiled eggs, and other tidbits, which we shared with the guide that the Georgian Canine Tourist Guide Board had assigned us for the day. We put the cokes in a stream, which got them plenty cold, and the foal had his own lunch, and one of several naps.

D'awwww!

While were eating lunch, we were passed by a mob of cattle, being taken further up the valley. They were going faster than we were.

As you do, we eventually made up names for the horses. Stephen’s black mare was “Chernobyl”, my gelding was “Three Mile”, and Chernobyl’s foal was “Fallout”. Har har. Laura laughed when we told her.

more scenery

This was as far as we chose to go – had we been on foot, we could have gone across this bridge and around the boulder to the other side of the river, where the track went up to the glacier that fed the river. Alternatively, we could have followed the trail we were on through a gate made of young birch trunks along a ledge farther up the side we were on — that was evidently the path the cattle had taken. As it was, we were content to turn around. On the way back, somewhat saddlesore, we walked more than we rode, often only mounting to cross streams.

As we approached the airfield, several helicopters landed, their occupants driven into town in shiny black state cars. We found out later that this was the President, and a wealthy Swedish investor who was about to put a lot of money into the town developing a ski resort. Exuberant locals honked and waved as they drove past us.

Also exuberant were some of the horses that had returned from the morning’s muster — we had to chase off a couple of young ones who wanted to play with the foal. This boy, though, contented himself with posing.

Lovely color, dont you think?

There was a bit of confusion due to our bad Russian when we got back, over who we were supposed to pay for the horses (tree, treenatsat, treetsat…), and how much, but it all worked out in the end.

Continuing the Georgia trip, 11c

Right-o.  When we last left our intrepid travelers, they/we were in a minivan (driven by our Svan host Jia Japaridze) on a day trip to Ushguli, a remote village in Uper Svaneti.  Somewhere around here:

First glimpse of Ushguli

It’s very much a mix of modern and medieval up in these remote villages. This bullock team is bringing in a load of birch trees for firewood.

Bullock power

We pretty much drove straight through and out the other side, where Jia parked and we were given the option of hiking a few K further to the glacier that feeds the river.

The road keeps going but we did not.

We elected not to do the hike out, as it began raining on us. We took shelter in some old church buildings.

I love old buildings.

And then we sat in the van and ate the lunch that Laura had packed for us — boiled eggs, khachapuri, and I passed around the walnuts and churcheli that we’d acquired. Stephen described this dog previously:

Big scary dog.

He seemed perfectly friendly and tail-waggy, but we were all — Svans included — happy to stay inside the van while Renata tossed him bits of her lunch out the window. You can see the thick coat and the round bear ears. Harder to spot in this photo are the wickedly spiked collar and the scars on his muzzle from fighting off wolves. The Caucasian mountain dog is a working dog, not a pet, and the guide books warn travelers not to try and get friendly with them.

After lunch, the rain eased a bit and we wandered into “town”. Seriously, this is a lot what I picture a medieval village must have been like, with livestock wandering around, and a bit of diverted stream running through the middle of one of the uneven cobblestone streets, and people just getting on with their regular lives, farming and sorting out their food and heat for the winter, and etc.

Looking back toward town.

Into town.

Towers, oh yeah.

As we were wandering through, we were intercepted by a 10 year old boy who took us to the “museum” his family ran. It was basically a barn, with a bunch of amazing stuff inside — stuff that I nearly wept to see not being looked after better. There was one light bulb to illuminate the gloom & I wish we had had more time (and a flashlight) to stare at all of the wonders. The Svan are known for their woodcarving — here are a couple of the pieces I managed to photograph:

The head of the household's chair.

I’m not even sure exactly what this was used for — our guide had a little bit of English, but not quite enough. Isn’t it stunning, though ?

Solar symbols, horses, and livestock motifs are usual.

On our way out, we met the rest of our party in front of a house featuring this gorgeous panther over the door. Similar art shows up in rock carvings and elsewhere.

Panther.

And that’s it for Ushguli. Horse trip next, I believe….

11.b photos

These are from the trip to Ushguli, up to the part where we actually make it to Ushguli.

Mount Ushba, very distinctive with its double peak, watches over Mestia. In our broken Russian, we had a conversation with Gia comparing the heights of Ushba and New Zealand’s Aoraki/Mt. Cook.
Mount Ushba is Mestia's mountain, and one of the most difficult to climb anywhere.

Some assorted scenery shots.
Scenery on the road to Ushguli We paused to stretch our legs and take photos here.

It was wildflower season in Georgia, too.
The meadow was full of these orchids.  Those flower spikes are about seven inches long, just the purple parts

This is a section of the road, where it perches above the gorge, and the German motorcyclist we ran into a couple times. The river is way, way, way below the road on left.
For scale.

Not all of the moutains were slate like this, but a lot of them were. Many of the older sheds in the villages used slabs of slate for roofing, as you would expect. Some buildings had iron roofs, and the newest, wealthiest ones had sheet aluminum.
Slate, we has it.

There’s a person — Stephen, in fact — on the road, to give you some idea of the scale.
Road and river.

And our first glimpse of Ushguli (or, one of the several little village-ettes that are collectively referred to by outsiders under the umbrella of Ushguli). Very broody.
Ushguli

11.a Photos

This is going to be easier if I just stick the photos for this part in a separate post or two, or three.

First, some establishing shots. The first is taken through the window of the marshrutka, which is why it’s a little washed out and spotty. I was lucky enough to have a seat at this point — I’d started the trip sitting on one of our backpacks, but managed to upgrade when a couple people got off at Zugdidi (and one of the new guys got stuck on the backpack). There was another fellow next to me who spent most of the trip with his right shoulder hunched into the curve of the window.

Svaneti, from the marshrutka window

The second was taken in one of the villages we paused in on the way. Once we got up into mountains, we started shedding passengers. Some got off in one or another village. Others would ge let off apparently just by the side of the road — until we saw the four wheel drive that was waiting to pick them up and take them farther on. We shed baggage as well, as most everyone was bringing stuff up from town — boxes of beer, a carpet bag full of home-made cheeses, sacks of… something. The driver took a short detour into one of the little hamlets, where he stopped to fill up water bottles from a spring by the side of the road. It was tidy little thing, like a square wooden well, only a couple of feet deep, and with a roof over it. The water was clear and cold, with a sandy bottom. I filled one of our bottles out of curiosity. Svaneti is dotted with mineral water springs like this one — there were two or three in Mestia where we stayed. The Svans call them “sour water”, and so they are.

One of the villages we passed through

And this one is just of a random door. This sort of wood carving, with the circular solar symbols, is pure Svan.

A random door

Here is the party we were invited to. It was just as Stephen described: we were just wandering the streets, looking at the houses, when these people called to us from the porch & sat us down to dinner. The lady just behind Stephen is the school teacher. The gentleman next to her is the tamada (toastmaster). The tamada role will be taken either by the male head of the household, or the man present who has the greatest mana, effectively. I never heard a Georgian use the expression mana, but that’s basically how it works. Just out of shot to the left is the guy who was squashed in next to me in the marshrutka, and the guy in the grey shirt is the one from Novosibirsk.

The Svan supra

Here’s Giorgi, leading the way up his tower. These towers are on the UNESCO World Heritage list. We need to sit down at some point and tally up how many UNESCO sites we visited on this trip.

Up a Svan tower

And here’s the view from the top:

Mestia, from Girogi's tower

And I think that about catches me up to the beginning of Stephen’s last post…

Part 11- Ushguli, Mestia Ponies

A day trip was arranged. Our hosts would take us up the road to Ushguli, which is the village at the end of the line, as far as the road goes. You get there via 4WD jeep. In this case we had a fairly luxurious chariot, a recent model Japanese 4WD minivan. And I mean Japanese, the wheel was on the right, wrong way around for Georgia. But considering the roads and the way they have to drive, that is a minor problem only.

Another tourist was joining the four of us, Jaroslav. Turns out we had met him previously in the chapel at Vardzia! When there are so very few foreign tourists, it is amazing how you can run into people you recognize. Jaroslav was a bit late, something that was a bit of a theme for him. Turns out he takes photos, lot and lots of photos. When we later discovered he is a documentary film director in training, that made sense.

The road to Ushguli made the road to Mestia seem tame and sane. Only 40 km, but it takes nearly 3 hours. The road paralleled the river much of the way. Ludicrously deep and steep gorges. A river that, as near as I could see, never had slow or calm places. It was roaring rapids the whole way. (This led to the idea of “Zorb”ing your way down the river. An idea so insane a Kiwi has to go to Ushguli and start up the business.) [So long as there is someone to put up a little votive shrine box for them, after the river eats them. -T]

The mountains seemed to be made mostly of slate in the area, but the thrusting earth had pushed it nearly vertical. Impressive, but prone to splitting and dropping multi-ton chunks on the road. There were plenty of places were the driver would not stop the vehicle.

Ushguli probably has not changed much in the last thousand years. There were no soviet-era ugly concrete buildings. While there was power to the place, most houses did not have running water. The houses were all made from piles of slate, sometimes with an iron-sheet roof, other wise a (surprise!) slate roof.

Ushguli also had some of the biggest towers we saw, with up to 6 firing loops per side (most of the towers in Mestia had only 3 per side).

Some of the smaller villages we passed on the way up had been partly deserted, and some of the towers had fallen into partial ruin. We heard how about 15 years before an avalanche had killed 70 people in one village (though all the towers survived intact), and after that many people started moving to the lowland cities. Life up in those mountains would be hard. The summers short and cool, and the winters long and fierce. Snow measured in meters. Permanent shaded ice in places through the summer months.

In Ushguli we had the opportunity to walk to the foot of a glacier. We had only made it a few hundred meters when rain started. Icy wind+rain was not a nice combo, especially since only Jaroslav had a rain coat with him. We went back to the van to eat our bag lunches out of the weather.

While we were eating a dog ambled up to beg for food. No normal dog. This was a wolf guard. It looked like a bear’s-head on a dog’s body. With a big spiked collar. And there were fighting scars down one side of his muzzle. Renata tossed him chunks of khatchapori out her window. We joked with Renata that the dog had now learned she was a source of food… one way or another. She insisted he was a sweet dog, but we noted she never rolled her window down very far!

In theory the road does extend beyond Ushguli in a long loop through the mountains that takes you back to Kutaisi. Later in Mestia we caught up with the nice German fellow on the motorcycle. He tried to take the route. Even with his specialty off-road motorcycle he had to turn back after 2 km.

There are plenty of villages in Svanetti that are accessible by donkey only.

With translation help from Renata, we arranged to rent some horses for a day of riding on Sunday the 13th of June. We found out later that this was a bit difficult for them to arrange, as the owners wanted to use them for for farm work that day. Eventually two horses were delivered, a gelding and a mare- with a very young colt at foot. At first they wanted to take the colt away, but he was too young. After much attempted communication and gesturing, we arranged to take the colt along, and just keep the pace nice and slow. Turned out that was not a big problem, the horses seemed to have two basic gaits, mosey and amble.

They were pretty bomb proof ponies though (yes, definitely ponies, maybe 12 hands, and slight of build). But they were tough little buggers, in those mountains you would have to be. And the saddles were pretty tough too. Home-made affairs constructed of tube steel and ply wood. With sacks of padding tied on with string. We ended up alternating riding for 15 minutes, then walking for 15, so that the saddles did not make our butts fall off. I was also sure to stop frequently so that the colt could get a good feed. [And the occasional nap. -T]

As we left the edge of Mestia we picked up our regulation “look after the tourists” dog. It would follow us for the next 5 hours, until we returned to town when it promptly went its own way. [This one got some of the tasty lunch Laura packed for us. -T]

We rode north up a valley, following the larger river. There was a glacier somewhere up there we could visit. The mountain was technically Russian territory, something that made the locals sad because one the best views was in foreign hands.

By the time we reached the place where the valley split, and a pedestrian bridge crossed the river, it was 1PM and we decided to head back. The Georgian Military border guards on the far side spotted us, so I waved. That seemed to satisfy them. We had our passports with us, as the guide book warned that the glacier we were heading towards was right on the border, and you might get your papers checked.

On the way back we saw a military helicopter (Hip-C) land at the little airport, and 3 stereotypical black SUVs ride into town. We learned later that the visitor was a VIP, an investor along with the minister of finance, to talk about building a ski resort. The one fear is that because there are not building codes to preserve the “character” of the town, new hotels could ruin the look and feel of the place.

I was amused that most occupants of the tinted-window black SUVs either waved or honked their horns at us as they drove by. Some combination of being obvious tourists plus a cute little colt. [Plus the fact that they were all really excited to have the foreign investor keen on Mestia. -T]

Not every vehicle in the motorcade was a nice SUV. There was one fellow in a 4×4 Lada. As he drove along the bonnet (hood) flipped up on him, blocking his view. He ended up “repairing” it by jumping up and down on it for a few minutes, until it stuck down. Wish we could have filmed the whole thing, but we did not want to be rude. It was a classic moment, though.

That evening, again thanks to the translation help of Renata, we learned a great deal more about our hostess. Apparently Svaneti, being remote and mountainous, tends to be more conservative than the rest of Georgia. Many women lead a more cloistered life. Not so our hostess. She is an MD. The anesthesiologist for the little local hospital working 4 days a week. She works as an ambulance officer a few shifts a week. She runs her guest house/B&B. At 6AM every morning she is out selling Marshrutka tickets, as part of the bus business with her brother and husband. That evening at 9PM as we returned from our evening walk we saw her across the street, holding a cow by the horns, to help her neighbor with the milking. She never stops.

(Aside, Renata was laughing and laughing at one point because she had never seen the literal meaning of “until the cows come home”. In Mestia we got to watch each evening at dusk when the cows would come back into town, and then split up with each cow heading to its own home to be milked. They all know where they live.)

After dark our host and hostess took us for a little drive up the hill to give us a view of Mestia at night. The government has paid for spotlights to illuminate the towers at night. There is apparently a plan to bring in a professional lighting designer to make the illumination much spiffier- though not as garish as the Tbilisi TV tower, they assured us! We also got to see the full dark sky, deep in the mountains. Very, very impressive. Though weirdly enough, now the northern stars look alien to me. Having spent the 16 years before moving to NZ in big cities (Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago) I had seen very little of the night sky, for a very long time. Now I can see the milky way most any clear night here, so I have come to know the southern stars.

Part 10: Kutaisi, Mestia

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]
It makes your clothes cleaner, honest.

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.

Giorgis house, with the vineyard out front.

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.

An inset in the garden gate of one of the houses near the guest house.

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]
Sliver of the Kutaisi market.

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]

Outside the original entrance to the compoung, it is now all roses and grapevines.

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.

Do they still put flowers on the grave of, say, Edward II, or Richard I? Door brought back by Demetre I, after he took Ganja from the Persians in 1127.

[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]

The 12thC Cathedral of the Virgin, and the 13thC Church of Saint George. The strange little Church of Saint Nicholas, built over an arcade. All that is left of the academy itself is ruins, alas.

[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.]

The top half of this is actually a mosaic, Byzantine in technique but Georgian in style. The saints and kings are neat, but the donor portraits on the lower levels are often more interesting, I think. I love the almost Art Deco style of this one.

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.

Bagrati Cathedral, built 11thC, blown up 17thC, rebuilt 21stC.

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]

One of a pair of gazebos flanking the big mysterious building shell. That little shack, and a single hangar are pretty much it for infrastructure. The plane we didn't get on.

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”!

Our trusty steed. How many people would *you* stuff into one of these?

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]

A tamer stretch of road.

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]