Monday, 4 May 2020

2017 Georgia

9.10.17 Tbilisi

Well, here I am again in Prospero's Books Café.  Two years ago I was here.  Now it seems so familiar, as does Tbilisi – apart from all the building works.  Glorious sunny day, but alas it won't last when I drive up to the Caucasus tomorrow (I love being able to write that…)  Leaving yesterday, with a long, long journey ahead of me, I felt as I did when starting off on my Interrail travels – a sense of how far I had to go.  Yesterday, it was to Luton, then a direct flight to Kutaisi, Georgia's second city.  That was all easy.  The four-hour coach drive here was not.

We left at 3.30am, with about 60 of us crammed into a coach.  Fine, except the seats were so close together – good job I'm not claustrophobic.  I did manage to sleep for an hour or two.  Fortunately, I slept about five hours on the Wizzair flight – I was in row 12, the emergency exit row, and was left along there, so I lay down across three seats.  Plane about 90% full, mostly Georgians.  Great deal – I paid £160 return with all the benefits… Kutaisi airport small, but functional.  Coach service efficient.  So when I got to my hotel at 7.30am, I showered, then had breakfast.  I chose Marlyn Hotel since it is very close to the coach drop-off point.  Aptly enough, by Pushkin Park.  

Eating lunch in the place overlooking bridge and statue.  Busy – I'm in the basement, where even the waiters are smoking…  But cheap and good.  I've been busy too.  Went to Geocell, bought 30 minutes international calls, plus 2Gbytes of Internet for £6.  Took out money, bought maps from Geomaps – hidden away, a rather bare room.  But the best maps.  Then to the central Carrefour to buy water and walnut things - churchkhela.  Since I was carrying a small bag, the security man wanted me to seal it.  He called out loudly "katso" – sounded like "cazzo".  Lots of wine here – Georgian – so I'll come back here on Saturday to buy that, and more churchkhela

Internet connection in the hotel fast, if a bit intermittent.  VPN working well.  I think I've worked out how to get the car out of the city tomorrow.  Various closed roads to navigate, plus the need to make a U-turn…

Tbilisi still beautiful and charming, but I wonder how long it will last.  Lots of building – big shops – and there's a lot of old, rambling houses that are surely going to go.  Sad, but I'm lucky to have seen it before they do.  I imagine outside Tbilisi, things will last longer.  Although the weather is glorious here, sadly seems dismal up in the mountains.  Ah well…

10.10.17 Stepantsminda

Sitting in Restaurant Khada, as I begin the long ascent to Stepantsminda.  Not a good start: Hotel Kazbegi cancelled my reservation – no electricity, they say.  Luckily, I had time to find another – Green Sheep...we'll see if it has the mountain views they promise.  Then to pick up the car at Citadines hotel.  Typical old Georgian crate – 120,000 km on the clock, bits pretty rough.  Hope it gets me there OK…

Then over an hour to get out of Tbilisi – terrible signposting – I ended up on the main road going back into Tbilisi… Luckily, U-turns are allowed, even on a dual carriageway.  Finally got out, in the pouring rain.  Found road to  Stepantsminda.  OK now, moving slowly up and up.  Presumably Jvari pass will be misty, but all part of the fun.  I stopped at this restaurant because it's getting late.  But another reason was the flock of sheep blocking the road ahead of me…

Sitting in Restaurant  Stepantsminda.  Has the virtue of being central, though not very Georgian in its ambience.  Limited menu, but hey… What a journey.  The rain never stopped, but the landscape became more and more majestic beyond Khada restaurant.  The road followed the river, which was low, but wide.  The valley went on and on, deeper and deeper, higher and higher.  However, I soon caught up with lorries – lots of them.  Many from Russia and Armenia, belching appalling fumes, making me feel sick.  I had to have the air conditioning on drawing air from outside, otherwise the glass misted over – adding to rain, constant bends, and people overtaking all the time (even I did a few times).  The real problem was after Zemo Mleta – constant, tight turns – then Gudauri.  Alas, not much to see in the rain at Jvari – just swirling clouds.  But mercifully, once past Jvari, the air cleared and I could make out walls of stone plus brown colouring lower down (ferms?).  In the distance, I could see some of the snow-capped peaks.

Amazing that I am here in the Caucasus.  Even with the awful weather now, definitely worth coming.  My "new" hotel – Green Sheep – is basic but cheap – and warm.  Also has amazingly good Internet – managed to hold Google Hangout with video – impressive considering where I am.

Walked around town briefly – very weird.  Lots of half-hearted building, even more half-ruined buildings – looks like some Tarkovsky set.  Couldn't see Gergeti church, but caught a glimpse when I arrived. Still a few lorries thundering through.  I admire their drivers – bad enough during the day, but at night must be frightening negotiating the unlit roads… Underlines how this is one of the most important road links across the mountains.  In town there's a sign: "Vladikavkazi", reminds me how close Russia is.  Also striking how many Russians here in Stepantsminda – obviously they pop across the border for a few days.  Also in Tbilisi: my hotel was full of them.  Huge lorries still heading for Jvari pass…  The marshrutkas from here are very cheap – only 10GEL for Tbilisi.  Probably a bit of a squeeze for three hours, but cheap...

11.10.17 Stepantsminda

Back in the restaurant for lunch.  Great morning despite the pouring rain when I woke up.  A slightly restless night – woke up so thirsty several times – thanks to too much salt in my meal last night.  No breakfast at Green Sheep, but a kettle and coffee powder.  I bought Danish pastries and croissant (but with chocolate – yuk).  Then out to the Russian border.

Wonderful drive – downhill, which surprised me – I expect borders to be at the highest point.  Little traffic.  Road good but a few rock falls.  Amazing rock walls around valley – nearing Darial.  Road turns to rocks near border – rough for my hired Megane.  Then I hit the queuing lorries.  But I overtook them, and pulled in to the parking by the Mtavarangelazi monastery.  Walked to the border – the alleged shopping centre closed, desolate.  Gravel extraction, whole place grim – but worth seeing…

Now the Gergeti church peeking out through the clouds.  The sun has come out at times - so, lucky really.  Managed to spot the road up – looks very slow and steep.  Not sure my old banger can cope.  May go for taxi…

Walked around the town – everywhere being built, everywhere in ruins, everywhere roads dug up.  Took lots of pix, since I reckon this old town will be gone soon as more people come here.  Have to capture the place.  I'll probably go down the Sno valley this afternoon – reasonable road for most of it, even it rains.  Yesterday, I realised what this journey reminded me of: driving up (in a coach) to Kashmir Valley from the railhead at Jammu.  That constant sense of up, then the tunnel, the bursting out into light… This was shorter, less dangerous, but more personal – I drove.  

To my left, viewed from the restaurant, there are six eagles swooping around the mountain.  I saw one earlier – took some poor pix of it.  Beautiful.  Looks like I misjudged the Khevi Restaurant.  Although dingy from the outside, food is much better than the other place.  

I was lucky today.  As I left after lunch, the sun began to break through.  I drove to Sno valley, and the sun and blue skies became more evident.  Sno valley stunning.  Stopped at the Sno fortress, took pix – so dramatic.  Then drove on, down the increasingly dodgy track.  Ahead of me the snow-capped peaks dazzled and tantalised.  The true scale of the Caucasus became apparent.  One or two taxis with other tourists, but otherwise I had this place to myself – with the pigs, horses and cows.

Thing is, the Georgian telco Geocell has done a fab job.  Everywhere I've been, not matter how remote, signal has been strong and Internet speeds good.  Certainly makes here even more attractive.  As I drove back to Stepantsminda, the upper regions of the mountains to the east appeared – wow, they are tall.  Hope I get to see them better…

12.10.17 Stepantsminda

Awoke to sunshine, amazingly.  Went out and saw the great glistening peak of Mount Kazbegi behind the lower hills.  Today was my chance.  I went down to the Moedani at 9am, hoping to find a taxi.  For once, somebody leapt at me.  So I had to ask: "how much to the church?".  "60GEL" – I said 40, he said 50 – deal done.  It was perhaps over-priced, but I couldn't risk losing this opportunity while the weather was good.  It proved a wise move.

We set off along the road to the border, then turned left up a track.  But this was nothing – at least it was level.  We entered the village.  Tiny streets, full of puddles.  Ahead of us five 4x4s also making the trek.  We rose higher, and the road became worse – muddy, huge puddles.  Then we halted.  A police car blocked the road, stopping anyone going further.  This seemed ironic: was I to get so far, only to be thwarted at the last moment?

But my driver was a typical dammit-all Georgian.  He managed to find a way round the police car – and the other waiting cars – and we continued.  Now the road became seriously bad: it would have destroyed my rental car.  Good call.  Then we found what the problem was – a rock fall, half blocking the road, and a great JCB dealing with it.

To get around the rock fall, my driver went to the edge of the road – with me hanging over the steep drop.  Then he sneaked behind the working JCB, honking furiously.  "Shtraf" – he said, meaning he risked a fine for this; "70GEL". Given his quick action, and the terrifying state of the road, it seemed fair, not least because no one else was doing it.  So when we arrived, we had the place to ourselves.  The odyssey was not finished.  Now he drove across the great churned mud fields – I was sure we'd get stuck, but we didn't.  He was insane, but good at his job.  Finally, we arrived by the church.

What a place. Looking back at Mount Kazbegi, its white snow stood out above all else.  The huge mountains covered in golden foliage/grass, with amazing folds in their surfaces.  Up at the church, a wonderful view of Stepantsminda, the houses looking tiny.  Opposite, the great wall of rock truly grandiose.  Eagles wheeled overhead – a dozen of them.  The wind was forceful, and my hands became numb as I took pic after pic.  But they could never capture the sheer grandeur of the place.  So like the Lake District, but so much bigger.

I stayed up there over an hour, reluctant to leave this place, but my driver was making subtle hints, like following me with his Mitsubishi minivan as I explored the place.  Have to say, this was a doughty little vehicle – truly, this was the worst road I've ever been along – no idea how the  Mitsubishi's tyres and suspension held up.  We were jerked from side to side violently as the wheels went into deep puddles and ruts, or over big, sharp rocks.  We made it down, we shook hands, and I paid the 70GEL – well worth it for (a) making possible a long-desired experience and (b) not getting me killed…

After lunch in the restaurant of yesterday, back, to the room to work.  One of the amazing things here in Georgia is how good mobile Internet coverage is.  So just as I was able to make calls from beside the church, so I have been able to do work here.  Today, I sent off questions to the Polish MEP Michał Boni about copyright…

Then, out for drive.  It was raining again, but it didn't matter – rain and sun both belong here.  I went all the way back to Kobi, near the ascent to the Jvari pass.  I wanted to see what the track into Truso valley was like.  I quickly found it was bad, and gave up any thought of proceeding.  I would love to come back here with a 4x4…

Truso valley looked really enticing.  But I was happy to drive back along the main valley, recapitulating Tuesday's route.  Today I had sunshine and a clearer view of the walls.  I stopped and took pix – of the amazing black, volcanic stream-bed past Kanobi, and the villages perched on the high foothills, all with their tin (?) roofs, a kind of prism shape – very striking.  I started up into Sion to see the church, but a car blocked the way, so I reversed back.  Luckily very little traffic today.  I hope it's like this tomorrow as I begin my long journey back to Tbilisi… But all-in-all, really something I'll remember…

13.10.17 Tbilisi

At Mtskheta's Check-in Garden restaurant, as planned.  Sitting at the back, under an awning, the sun pouring down, the wind rippling the river in front of me.  The nearby cathedral full of promise.

Back in Tbilisi now.  What a ride.  So, when I rose, plenty of clouds, but blue sky over the pass, and the forecasts were good for both the valley and the pass, and so it proved.  Amazingly little traffic on the road when I left at 9am.  It was as if I had a perfect landscape all to myself.  The hills a glorious golden brown, the snowy peaks blinding white.  Everywhere that was safe and there was something to see, I took pix – about 150 during the day.

Up to the pass, stopped at the cross – nothing special.  Then on to the kitsch monument to "Russo-Georgian friendship" – yuk.  But the view from its platform was spellbinding.  In fact, I stayed there about 30 minutes, unable to tear myself away.  Then through the twists of Gudauri – looking really ugly in the sun, where it looked more grim in the rain – then on to the great zigzag descent.  A few lorries, but again remarkably sparse.  Then into the endless, wonderful Aragvi valley – a visual paradise, especially in autumn, with such soft colours everywhere, and the streams gradually gaining force.

Since I was taking much longer than expected – lingering to look – I stopped for a (turkish) coffee about 15 minutes from Ananuri (at Meneso?).  Then went around the monastery there – relatively busy with tourists, but only relatively – a few dozen, nothing terrible.

Then on to Mtskheta, to the Check-in Garden restaurant, found by recommendation of some online comments.  Food good – chicken cooked in milk – location even better – on the banks of the Mtkvani river, glittering in the sun.  Afterwards to the cathedral.  Beautiful and intense, with narrow nave, and lovely stone.  Svetitskhoveli Cathedral a true medieval masterpiece. 

[Eating now in "Tifliso restaurant – not bad.  Nice red wine and veal hot dish.]

After the cathedral, I had to negotiate the road to Jvari Monastery, high on the mountain nearby.  Happily, for once, the roads were well signposted.  The road up very long, the views worth it, though, over the city and the two rivers.  Sun really hot – getting burned.  Then the fun bit: Friday evening rush hour in Tbilisi.  Amazingly, I managed to find the way, avoided hitting anyone, despite their aggressive pushing in.  Had to wait in Citadines forecourt – which is very small, which meant moving the car to make room for others.  Eventually Hertz bloke came and I went back to Marlyn hotel.  A room at the back, but rather nice view of the ramshackle old buildings.  Then along Kote Afhazi Street, after a shower and downloading the pix, to here.  Lovely atmosphere at night – very relaxed and cosmopolitan.

14.10.17 Tbilisi

Sitting in Aripana restaurant on Davit Aghmashenebeli Avenue – which is very lively.  Gorgeous Saturday in Tbilisi.  Ordered kubdari, a speciality from Svaneti.  I earlier went to Prospero's Books for coffee and cheesecake, and only bought one of the three Georgian language course volumes – the others were sold out.  Seems hard to find the others.  Walked across the river to part of the city I don't know – found this great food street.  Went to Santa Esperanza bookshop – which had nothing, but bought Harry Potter 2 in Georgian, only to realise that I already have it, so have to go back and exchange it.  Also topped up the old metro card. Marjanishvili nearby.  The cheese soup tepid, but the cheese balls were nice – a bit like mozzarella.

15.10.17

On the bus, waiting to leave for Kutaisi...

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