Saturday, 29 October 2011

Latvia, Georgia and Turkey Pt. 2: Tbilisi, Mtskheta and Kazbegi

Part Two of my Summer 2010 trip




Links to all parts of this travelogue:

Part 1: Riga, Sigulda and Turaida

Part 2: Tbilisi, Mtskheta and Kazbegi

Part 3: Tbilisi, Gori and Uplistsikhe

Part 4: Batumi, Kars and Ani

Part 5: Doğubeyazit, Van and Diyarbakır

Part 6: Urfa, Haran and Adana

Part 7: Ankara and Istanbul

tbilisi map 2

26th July, 2010 – Tbilisi, Georgia
It was dark when I arrived in Tbilisi. There was a funky new railway station (it looks like a giant golden snail!) at the end of the new rail extension to the airport, but no train into the city until 07:20, more than two hours away, so I settled down and continued to read Fury, a hefty novel all about the Holocaust, Jews and Arabs in 1930s Palestine culminating in a showdown during the 1948. I’d started it on the plane to Riga and it was easy reading for a tired man and before I knew it, the Soviets were bombing Auschwitz and my train to the city had arrived.
My first impression of Georgia was not a positive one. On a wall by the trackside someone had scrawled ‘BACK’S TREAT BOYS’. What was worse; the punctuation, the spelling or the taste in music? No, this did not auger well for the Georgians! The other things I could see from the dirty carriage window were none too positive either. A lot of rusty wagons, dilapidated apartment blocks and abandoned factories surrounded by twisted metal and chunks of concrete. The place looked like it had just been through a war. It was only later that I remembered that it just had.
I hailed a taxi outside the Central Station and asked the driver to find me a reasonably-priced place to stay. He recommended a dom (homestay – literally ‘home’), rather than a hotel stating that it was cheaper. Always up for saving money I agreed, and we chatted, him praising me on my (excreable) Russian.
The homestay proved satisfactory, all be it a little more than I wanted to pay at 50 lari per night, but I was tired and didn’t care. It was a strange place, only minutes from the railway station but like a village house, gerry built with a balcony covered in vines. Whatever, I didn’t care; a bed is a bed and I lay down and caught up on some of my lost night’s sleep.
Upon waking I felt dirty and tousled, but I knew the answer to that one. My guidebook informed me that the name Tbilisi derives from ‘tbili’ which means ‘warm’, a reference to thirty hot springs that have provided decent bathing for the locals for millennia. So, off I went on the metro to the old part of town to book myself in for a nice warm thermal bath.
At first though I couldn’t find the Abanos kucha (Street of Baths). I exied the metro at Avlabari then crossed the Mtkvari River, making for the Armenian church which was near to the baths, but then I got lost and ended up climbing up to the Narikala Citadel which afforded spectacular views across the city, (and down to the bath houses which I could now work out how to get to!), but was a bit of a disappointment as a castle and the priest would not let me into the church due to my shorts, (although they’d been no problem in the Armenian church but a few minutes earlier).
Tbilisi panorama from the Narikala Citadel
The first baths that I went into wanted a whopping 60 lari (£20) for an hour’s session. The second – the Sulphur Baths – wanted 30 lari. It was still more than I’d anticipated or wanted to pay, but I really did need a bath and occasionally I will splash out,[1] so I booked a cabin for an hour. The Sulphur Baths were not the best bathing that I’d ever encountered with only a hot bath, no cold shower and the massage only passable, but they were quite atmospheric and most importantly, by the end I felt clean and very refreshed.
Revitalised, I embarked upon a walking tour of the highlights of Tbilisi. I strolled through the Kala District, the old city whose twisting streets climb up the hillside on the left-hand bank of the Mtkvari River. I stopped at the synagogue where I was invited inside by an old man who proceeded to tell me all about Tbilisi’s Jewish community, firstly in Russian and then, when he discovered my nationality, in near perfect English. Apparently, there are about two thousand five hundred Jews in the city today, (and around five thousand in the whole of Georgia); there used to be many more but most have emigrated to Israel. He himself had been to Israel and lived in Beersheva for some months and he was delighted when I told him that I’d once lived and worked on a kibbutz only a few miles from that city. I asked why so many had emigrated and he explained that it was due solely to money, not anti-Semitism. “I can say that anti-Semitism does not exist in Georgia,” he said proudly, “and it never has done. This is a tolerant country.” Now, if only more countries could honestly boast the same thing.
Tbilisi Synagogue and its friendly caretaker
Tbilisi, I was fast discovering, is a strange city, unlike any other that I have ever visited. In parts, (around the railway station and the Avlabari Metro Station), it is positively Third World; chaotic and crumbling, whilst in other areas such as the Kala District it is a hive of repairing and rebuilding, its aged buildings neither European nor Asian. Most of all, it is unlike any other Socialist city that I’ve visited, disordered, its streets veering off all over the place, its buildings all of a jumble, like one super-sized village that hasn’t yet realised it’s a metropolis. There’s some stunning architecture too; old houses with wooden balconies that look like something from the American Deep South, Moorish extravaganzas like the opera house and Stalinist masterpieces like the Parliament Building and Academy of Sciences. All in all, it was a place that I liked but found somehow hard to comprehend and get to grips with.
After the Kala District I walked to
Freedom Square
with its stunning statue of St. George (Georgia’s patron saint, hence the red crosses on a white background on the flag, just like England) which Lenin used to stand. Then I headed along
Rustaveli Avenue
, the Champs d’Elysses of Georgia where the ministries and cultural buildings are situated until I reached the Rustaveli Metro Station, by which time I was shattered and could walk no more, so I returned to my homestay, stopping off at a grocery store en route. Then, after a rest, I dined on sausage and cheese before enjoying a beer on the balcony and reading a bit more of Fury.
My host came up to chat with me and informed me that her son was an architect who designed churches whilst her husband was an artist who’d attained some fame in Soviet times. I told her about my brother and she showed me into her husband’s studio which was full of paintings of quite a reasonable standard indeed.
I then decided to ask her husband about using the internet, (he’d offered it earlier), but he informed me that his son, (who understood how to use computers), was absent but that I should have a beer with him instead. So it was that he took me to his garage, (which doubled up as a bar), and I was bought a glass of Kazbegi, the local lager. The presence of a new face however, was greatly appreciated by the locals and soon the one beer became two, then three, then four, and I was being given a truly Georgian welcome from an out-of-work economist who spoke excellent English, a builder, the archetypical local drunkard who was called Shalva and who did some kind of manual work for a living and ‘The Major’ who had been a major in the Georgian Infantry prior to his retirement and current occupation of drinking in the garage. So it was that I drank away my first night in Georgia talking football, religion, politics and history until I stumbled upstairs to bed.

27th July, 2010 – Tbilisi, Georgia
The landlady at my homestay had told me that if I waited at the bus stop near to the house, then bus No. 150 would take me to Mtskheta, the Vatican of the Georgians, which lies some ten kilometres or so north of Tbilisi, but after waiting for an indeterminately long time no such bus came so I gave up and took the metro instead to the Didube Bus Terminal where my guidebook informed me that marshrutkas (Ford Transit minibuses that seem to be the main mode of public transportation in Georgia) depart regularly to more or less anywhere in the country.
Of all the places that I went to in Georgia, nowhere seemed more Asiatic and developing worldly than the Didube Bus ‘Terminal’. Leave the crumbling concrete metro station (very 1984), go through the underpass full of beggars and hawkers selling all manner of junk from knives to Chinese toys, cheap clothing to cheese, religious icons to CDs of Georgian folk music, then you enter a vast unpaved yard surrounded by tin shacks selling more junk, lined on one side by a rusting, half-built metal barn whilst in the middle scores of marshrutkas with cracked windscreens were dumped. It is more Kabul than Kiev.
The trip to Mtskheta was not a long one, through Tbilisi’s very Soviet suburbs and then the open road. What I’d expected to be a suburb of the capital was in fact very much its own place with a little square in the centre where the marshrutka dumped me. There was a chemist’s on one side and a dilapidated public building on the other with a museum at the end. I tried the museum first but it was disappointing as it was under renovation and so most of the exhibits were locked away and the ones that remained unimpressive and so, after having perused some cracked pots and spear heads labelled in Georgian, I took at look at the public building which may have been a town hall once but now had all its windows smashed. What grabbed my eye though was a magnificent communist-era mosaic across the top which depicted Mtskheta’s history. Many people criticise the style of art under the Soviets, but I rather like it and this was a fine example indeed.
Mtskheta mural
The mural thus examined, I went on to the real business of the day; the Cathedral of St. Tskhoveli, which is the reason why most people come to Mtskheta.
The cathedral is built on the site of the palace of the kings of Iveria, the Georgian state at the time of the Greeks and Romans, and the present church dates from the 11th century. It’s the Canterbury or Vatican of the Georgians and I knew from the moment that I entered its walled compound that I was somewhere very holy. The church was a truly incredible building; its raw stone giving it an earthy, natural feel whilst the colourful Georgians frescos gave it life and vitality, (unlike the generally morbid blacks and golds of the other orthodox denominations). My favourite part however, was a replica of the tomb of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, made for pilgrims who are unable to make the pilgrimage to the Holy City. I wandered around for ages, taking in the atmosphere, watching the pilgrims prostrating themselves before the altar and generally getting a taste of the intense spirituality and religiosity of the Georgian people. All in all, it was one of the most moving religious buildings that I’ve ever set foot inside and the short trip out from the capital had been truly worth the effort.
Me and the Cathedral of St. Tskhoveli
Before returning to Tbilisi, I also had a look around the 11th century church at the Samtavro Nunnery which stands on the site of the very first church in Georgia. Whilst it was pleasant, it didn’t really compare with the cathedral although the tiny 4th century chapel built in the grounds was moving. That was built on the site of St. Nino’s hut which, in terms of religious significance, must make it the most important Christian site in all of Georgia. Although the patron saint of Georgia is St. George, St. Nino is also widely revered and with good reason too, for it was she who brought the faith to the Georgians. Nino was a Cappodachian slave who possessed the gift of healing and after she cured Queen Nana, the queen converted to Christianity. She was soon followed by her husband, King Mirian, who was impressed when Nino destroyed some pagan idols with a thunderbolt and caused an eclipse of the sun. The tombs of those illustrious monarchs are to be found in the nunnery’s church and it is due to the combined efforts of those three that Georgia became only the second country in the world to officially adopt Christianity in 337AD, only thirty-six years after the neighbouring Armenians had chosen the same path.
St. Nino’s Chapel
Back in Tbilisi I decided to look for somewhere to eat so I took a metro to Freedom Square thinking that there should be plenty of places to eat around there. In the city hall I noticed a tourist information centre which I entered and learnt (to my dismay) that there were no buses running from Akhaltsikhe to Kars which was the route that I had planned to take into Turkey, but I also learnt (to my delight) that there were several cheap restaurants in the next street. Information obtained, I checked my email on the free computers there and overheard one very annoying Australian tourist ask the poor girl behind the desk questions about ferries that she couldn’t answer and when he could not get what he wanted, he retorted “Look, you’re a tourist information centre and I’m a tourist and need some information so get it for me!” I felt like going over to him and reminding him that this was not the First World and if he wanted travel with easy answers, he should have taken the backpacker bus around Ireland like so many of his compatriots do![2]
The restaurant recommended by the tourist information centre turned out to be both cheap and marvellous. I tried the Georgian specialities kharcho (mutton soup with garlic rice and vegetables – the same consistency as curry) and mtsvadi (pieces of chicken wrapped up in bacon served in a spicy sauce – again, almost curry consistency). Delicious!
Full up, I decided to go for a short walk to burn off all those newly-acquired calories. Looking at the map I wondered about heading for the Pantheon – some sort of Georgian National Shrine – on the hillside above the city centre and below Mtatsminda, the large hill that dominates the town. On the way I passed the Museum of Money and being a collector of banknotes, I popped in only to be greeted by an extremely enthusiastic curator who was also a devotee of paper money and who proceeded to give me a personal guided tour before presenting me with an official guidebook for free as I left.
My quest to reach the Pantheon however, was far less successful. After tiring myself out climbing innumerable steep streets, the nearest O got was the base station for the communist era cliff railway that led up to Stalin Park on Mtatsminda. There were signs of recent renovations to the station (and Stalin Park was reported to be open again, albeit under a new name), but that was for the future, not now and the trains were not operating when I tried to catch one. Defeated and bitter, I ignored the attentions of a waiting taxi driver and trudged back down those steep streets to the metro.
After relaxing and reading for a couple of hours in my room, I wondered about making good on promises made to the local drinking community the night before in the garage bar. To tell the truth, I wasn’t really in the mood for drinking again, but a man’s word is his bond and I had a feeling that the Georgians would be the kind of people who set great store in promises and besides, one often prays for a welcome in a strange country and thus one shouldn’t begrudge it when it’s offered, so I made my way down the stairs to the garage.
The first glass of Kazbegi deposited in my rotund, designed-for-beer stomach and all my second thoughts about having a night on the ales were banished and I got caught up in the great Georgian craic once again. The crowd differed slightly from the night before – the Major was nowhere to be seen and in his place was a man who looked like a Mexican bandit and acted just as crazily. “He’s a little mad, but he’s a good man really,” explained the English-speaking economist. “It’s just that he loves Abkhazia too much. He took a bullet in the head in Sukhumi and he’s not been the same since.” Bandito grinned wildly and made a shooting gesture at his own cranium so as to reinforce the point. I could think of nothing to say in reply.
We got talking of religion and the Armenians. I’d mistakenly praised Georgia for being the second country in the world to adopt Christianity (after Armenia) to which vociferous protests told me that they were the first as the Armenians were not true (i.e. Orthodox) Christians and besides, they were sure that the Georgians had adopted the faith first. There were discussions about the Trinity, (which the monophysist Armenians do not accept), and the Georgian method of genuflexion which is a very particular art, full of symbolism, unlike the almost casual Catholic way of crossing oneself.
Moving onto the Armenians in general, my Georgian drinking comrades stated that although it was terrible what had happened to them in the past, (i.e. the 1915 Genocide), they were a difficult people to get on with who loved to complain and were obsessed with making money, unlike the Georgians who liked only to have a good time and fight for their land.
As the evening drew to a close, I redemmed myself from my earlier remark by proposing a toast that we meet again soon, and that when we do, both Abkhazia and South Ossetia will be Georgian again. Such rhetoric delighted my hosts and the toast was taken up more enthusiastically than any other I have partaken in.
Drinking in the garage. Left to right: Me, forgotten his name, the unemployed economist
Drinking in the garage. Left to right: Me, forgotten his name, Shalva who is originally from Borjomi, the Man Who Loves Abkhazia Too Much; the local builder

28th July, 2010 – Tbilisi, Georgia
Early the next morning I headed back to the Third World chaos of the Didube bus station where I boarded a battered marshrutka – sporting a windscreen cracked right across the middle – for the mountain town of Stepantsminda, (or ‘Kazbegi’ as it is unofficially called).
It’s not often that I visit somewhere purely because it looks nice; normally sites of cultural, religious or political significance interest me far more, but one look at a picture of the church of Tsminda Sameba at Kazbegi in the guidebook convinced me immediately that this was a place worth making a detour of around a hundred miles each way for. The town sits high in the Caucasus Mountains in the shadow of Mt. Kazbek, Georgia’s most famous and recognisable peak even if she is not the highest. Still, at 5,047m she is no mean mount, beating any other mountain in Europe outside of the Caucasus.[3] In between the mountain and the town, perched atop a much lesser peak although still a very respectable 2,170m above sea level, is the Tsminda Sameba (Holy Trinity) Church, a 14th century beautifully-proportioned building that, with the snow-capped Mt. Kazbek in the background, is an unofficial symbol of the Georgian state.
That it looked incredibly beautiful was my main motivation, but not the only one for I’d also realised that the route through Georgia to Turkey that I’d planned to take was down the valleys and so I’d be missing out entirely on the grand Caucasus Mountains which, after all, are the main attraction of the region. So it was, I considered, that a side-trip up to Kazbegi would be worthwhile, if only to get a taster of one of the highest mountain ranges on earth.
The marshrutka started off at a terrific speed, its driver obviously eager to break the land speed record on his way to Kazbegi. Although not noted for dawdling when behind the wheel myself and not easily shocked by developing world driving, this guy scared me, especially since the only time he took his foot off the pedal was to genuflect at a church whizzing past his windows. Still, what it did make for was a speedy trip and the driving time up to the Roof of Europe was only three hours and that included a thirty minute break!
Outside of Tbilisi, the landscape was uninspiring with ancient churches providing the main points of interest, but after about 30km we passed by the Zhinvali Dam and Reservoir. Big dams rather interest me[4] and this one was both quite an impressive one and quite a late one by Soviet standards, being completed only in 1986 and helping to supply Tbilisi with much of her power and water supply. At the dam head there is a huge and rather strange monument to celebrate the event which consists of an enormous slab of concrete with figures embossed on it and a haircut of enormous steel spikes.
Monument at the head of the Zhinvali Dam
The reservoir behind the dam is equally impressive. Around 10km long, it has two arms along the valleys of both the White Agravi and the Pshavis Agravi rivers and it’s incredibly beautiful, reminding me of similar bodies of water that I’d seen in Albania the year before.
The road that we were travelling along is noteworthy in its own right. Its English name is the
Georgian Military Highway
and it was built as a carriage road back in 1783 by the Imperial Russian Army although there has been a bridle track over the mountains since the 1st century BC. It took over eight hundred soldiers to construct it, but for the Russians it was undoubtedly worth it. They’d begun conquering the Caucasus in 1722 under Peter the Great and in 1769 the Russian General Todleben had crossed the High Caucasus to take both Tbilisi and Kutaisi off the Turks who held them at the time. The opening of a decent road helped them to keep hold of their acquisitions and to expand south in due time to Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Russians were not unwelcome either at the time, for the Georgian kings saw them as fellow Christians come to deliver them from the rule of the Muslims, although in years to come many regretted the building of the road for it thwarted several Georgian rebellions against Russian domination, from the 1846 insurgency by Shamyl to the 2008 war when the Russians poured south through Ossetia and down the Military Highway to take Gori and several other towns in the Georgian heartland.
After the Zhinvali Reservoir, the road began to climb steeply, passing through gorgeous mountain scenery, the like of which can be matched by few places on earth. At Zemo Mleti we stopped for drinks and I bought a traditional Georgian woollen hat, but then we climbed on further, twisting and turning up to the ski resort of Gudauri which, at 2,196m, was the highest point on the journey. Up here the road passed through many concrete tunnels, though these were in poor condition and often the traffic bypassed them on unmade tracks. One assumes that they must come into their own in the winter when the snow really piles up.
Here in the very High Caucasus, the settlements were few and most agriculture seemed to be goat herding. There were also some cattle, and strangely they always congregated on the road bridges causing Speedy Gonzalez to have to slow down, much to his consternation. Another point of interest were the mediaeval watchtowers that one sees occasionally in the region, built as protection against marauders and again, comparisons with Albania came to my mind as her northern mountains are dotted with similar towers.
Soon though, we reached the town of Kazbegi itself where the marshrutka was met by a lady enquiring if anyone wanted a dom. Pleased with my Tbilisi dom experience which had proved both comfortable and an introduction to the local drinking community, I accepted and followed her up a stony track to her home, a large house built in traditional style that commanded the finest view I have ever had the pleasure to view from a room for the night, looking up to the Tsminda Sameba Church and then the snow-capped Mt. Kazbek beyond. This however, was no time to sit around indoors and so after putting my bags down, I ventured out again to explore my surroundings.
A Room with a View, Kazbegi
Whilst Kazbegi turned out to be as stunningly beautiful as I’d hoped it would be, unfortunately it did not live up to my other expectation. Having been overwhelmed by the intense summer heat ever since stepping off the plane in Riga, I’d hoped that a small town some 1,797m above sea level might be a little cooler but, remarkably, Kazbegi was as blisteringly hot as Tbilisi had been. I looked across at the Tsminda Sameba Church and realised that my plan to hike up to it was just not going to happen, as I was still shattered from the walking done in Latvia and my hike around Tbilisi the day before and in this weather I knew I’d be wilting before the first kilometre was completed. Another way up there would have to be found, but that could wait; I would explore the delights of the town first.
Kazbegi is a place of some four thousand souls and was unlike almost anywhere else that I’ve ever been to. Her buildings reminded me a little of those in the Atlas Mountain villages in Morocco but there was still something positively Russian about it all. Like the rest of the Georgia, it was hard to place. Wherever it was, it was not rich. Aside from the main road through, all the streets were unmade and an air of languid lethargy hung over the town as if very little ever happened there. The main attractions for the tourist were the Museum of Alpinism (next-door to my homestay, closed), the parish church and the Kazbegi Museum. The former was a wonderful, evocative place, shaded by trees and with very pagan carvings of strange beasts and men on the exterior. According to my guidebook, religion in the mountains is still very pagan[5] and in this tiny sanctuary, I could believe it although at the same time such syncretism amidst a very forbidding nature seemed entirely correct.
The Kazbegi Museum next door to the church was far more interesting than I’d anticipated. Situated in the former home of one Alexander Kazbegi, a noble who became a poet and a shepherd and who was much loved for it. It was full of pictures of the great man and things that belonged to him. It reminded me very much of the ethnographic museums that litter the Balkans[6] as it had displays of traditional clothing and artefacts, but it was interesting and gave some cultural flesh to the area.
However, the real attraction was the church on the hill, so I went over to a tourist agency and booked a car (for more than I’d have liked to have paid) to take me up to the Tsminda Sameba Church.
The vehicle, when it arrived, was a UAZ-469, the Soviet equivalent of a jeep. At first I wondered if they’d tried to swindle me a little by making me book a far more expensive vehicle than what was required, (I’d expected a Lada), but within minutes of setting off it became clear that they’d provided the UAZ because nothing else would have made it up the road which was one of the most horrendous tracks that I’ve ever travelled along. Soon after crossing the River Tergi we passed through the village of Gergeti which reminded me of the pictures one sees of settlements in the Pakistani and Afghani Highlands with ancient stone houses and goat pens. Then we started climbing up the mountainside, zig-zagging through a forest. We passed several walkers and one group thumbed at us to stop. The driver enquired if I didn’t mind and since I did not, we picked them up and gave them a lift. They were Poles, two men and two women and although a lot fitter than I, they looked absolutely beat and I was glad once again that I had not attempted the hike.
We dropped the Poles off at a meadow just shy of the church where they intended to camp before continuing on alone. The UAZ driver waited whilst I went up to the sanctuary alone. Like its brother in the valley below, it was covered with very pagan carvings, but inside it was very atmospheric, again, like the cathedral at Mtskheta, exuding an aura of very earthy holiness, primitive yet profound. I stayed and prayed for some time in that dark temple before buying a leather amulet of St. Nino from the monk there to protect me on the rest of my long trip.
Outside I felt rejuvenated. The views were magnificent in all directions, up to Mt. Kazbek, down to the town; across to the meadow where the Poles were camping and over to the mountains that form the border with Chechnya and the rest of the Russian Federation. More than that though, here I had truly found what I’d been seeking since Riga, a cooler temperature! Whilst not cold, there was a fresh breeze blowing across the mountainside and it was bearable. I felt alive and I savoured it for a very long time before reluctantly getting back into the UAZ and returning to my homestay for the night. After all, I did not know when I would be able to enjoy such temperatures again…
Mt. Kazbek from the Tsminda Sameba Church. Note the tents of the Poles
Kazbegi town from the Tsminda Sameba Church. Beyond the mountains lies Chechenya

[1] Dreadful pun not intended.
[2] With stops at the Guinness Brewery and Blarney Stone. My friend Paul, who lives within walking distance of the Blarney Stone gets very exasperated about such things and has never once kissed it.
[3] That is if Mt. Kazbegi can be said to be in Europe. The national (and thus the continental) border runs through Mt. Kazbegi and so she may in fact, be Asian.
[4] See Albanian Excursions p28-9
[5] Bradt, Georgia, p.154
[6] See Albanian Excursions p.9

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