Friday, April 26, 2013

Georgia

Like many bordering countries that do not have the greatest relationships with their neighbours you always get mixed information about your next stop that has you planning how to leave the place before you even arrive.

And so I hoped on the bus to a destination where the only thing I knew was that they had a love for kidnapping foreigners and holding them ransom, which a recent google search shows that my Russian friends were not lying at all. Oh, and I discovered that I had also chosen one of the more dangerous days to cross the border. The day of the Georgian government elections.

Relationships between Georgia and Russia have been tight and with the new elections going on just across the border I was faced with a nice little surprise as I tried to cross. Russian tanks were ensuring the “border’s security.” I felt especially annoyed at this when my friend Darcy told me that as I was being greeted with Russian military, he was welcomed warmly as he stepped into the airport in Georgia and was given a complimentary bottle of delicious Red Georgian wine upon arrival. I made sure I had at least half the bottle.

After crossing the border into Kazbegi I was met (or rather victimized) by a rather large bosom-ed woman, with a rather impressive mustache for someone of her gender, a surprisingly low voice that didn’t seem like it belonged to her and a very strong grip giving any poor tourist no choice but to follow obediently to see her home at the top of the hill. I hoped that her hospitality was as keen as her enthusiasm.

I was joined by a lovely middle aged Japanese lady I had befriended at the border and after we were sucked in to this lady’s home, we both were trying to plan how to get out as soon as we could. She was suffocating, watching our every move, making sure we didn’t take a shower or use anything but the bed that we were paying for. I later snuck into the shower not just for my sake, but the good of everyone standing within half a metre of me. She then proceeded to break in the door to try and drag me out, bellowing abuse in the voice that was summoned from the very depths of her soul and sounded like someone had possessed her.

We snuck out early the next morning before we had to see her again.

Following the crazy Georgian man/lady back to his/her house
Right before we ran away
As things usually do whilst travelling, you meet amazing people in odd circumstances. After escaping the lady’s house to withdraw money from the nearby bank I met the friendly Bank Manager, whose name I am ashamed to admit has since escaped me. After talking for 20 minutes he invited us to his home to spend the night, cooking us dinner, buying us bread for the road and giving me a great book on Georgian Architecture.

The beautiful Kazbegi Landscape:








Trekking up the mountain in Kazbegi

So we fare welled the beautiful Kazbegi with its amazing Church topped mountains, gorgeous rose bushes in bloom and friendly (and not so friendly) locals and made our way to Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. It was here that I met up with another traveler who I had met in Kyrgyzstan, Darcy. A Melbournian making his way from Kazakhstan to Scotland, one of the very cool people I met at Sakura Guest House in Bishkek.

Instead of a typical friendly greeting, I stabbed him with my backpack. Yep, that’s right not only does my backpack have the ability to carry all my stuff, but it also doubles as a weapon. It wasn’t a feature when I first bought it, but due to the fact that it was $20 from Nepal, and also that it had been through a hell of a lot hitch hiking, on boats, motorcycles, trekking, trains, buses, flights etc it was looking a little worse for wear. There were two metal poles protruding from the top sharp enough to slice through, well Darcy’s skin.(The wound didn’t decide to heal until we eventually parted ways many months later- sorry).

Tbilisi seemed to lay out a welcome mat with a VIP walkway when I arrived. The sun was shining, there was a Tbilisi festival on whilst we were there with overflowing wine barrels, ripe fruit, amazing food, singing, dancing, smiling faces and more importantly men who weren’t scared to sport a little facial hair, of which I had missed so much in Asia (yes, I am a sucker for beards).

Tbilisi festival that was happening when I was there
Hanging out with a shop owner in front of his Georgian snacks stall



Locals enjoying the festivities having a picnic on a raft in the middle of the river 
Tbilisi is a city I would love to go back and visit. The city is divided with a beautiful river and steep slopes on either side, so a short walk up either side will give you amazing views of churches, apartments, parks, public spaces, cobbled streets and monuments. I had finally reached a city where there was cheap and efficient public transport where when I asked for a guy to help me buy a ticket, he handed me his own and escorted me to my hostel. Yes, Tbilisi I’ll be back!

Whilst at a hostel I met two nice Israeli guys who had hired a car and were driving up into the Georgian mountains, offering a spare seat (and one for Darcy as well) which I couldn’t refuse. So after a rather big night enjoying local Georgia liquor courtesy of the guy running out hostel, we clambered in the back of the car ready to climb some mountains and see some amazing scenery.

Excited we set off, windows down, sun shining, bopping our heads and singing along to Hotel California dreaming of the beautiful mountain range we would be climbing in the next few days.

About 3 hours into the trip, the car overheated or something (that was the “explanation for girls” given to me). So it broke down leaving us to fill up the what-ya-call-it with dirty cloudy water from a nearby lake some livestock were bathing in.

Turned the keys and luckily the car started again.

“Welcome to the Hotel California…” Back on the road again.

“We haven’t had that spirit here since /CUT/ Welcome to the Hotel California…”

Next problem and one that still haunts me to this day. The only CD that we had in the car was a mix of Afroman and Hotel California, and it was scratched. It would only play the first 30 seconds of a song before skipping and jumping onto the next. This meant that our four days spent stuck in a car from the early hours till night time were spent wondering what Afroman may have been able to accomplish had he not always “got high”. Nothing- we decided.

Slight problems with the car saw us getting stuck a total of four times. Twice overheating, the tyre burst, and stuck in the mud a couple of times where we had to wait for kind locals to come and help us out.

But the views were worth it! The mountains views were jaw dropping. The trees were a range of shades of autumn colouring the valley in bright oranges, reds and yellows. In the distance the mountain peaks showed signs of fresh snow, threatening winter was coming. Switch back after switch back we had our faces pressed against the glass marveling at the scenery around us.

One of the hazards of driving in the Georgian countryside, packs of goats, sheep, horses and the shepards take up the whole road leaving us to push through them hoping to not create any road kill!
The top of the mountain, icey roads and stunning scenery
The further we climbed, the less populated the towns became and by the time we almost reached the top the towns were empty. Winter was coming and the locals were all moving to warmer areas, abandoning their houses and towns. Luckily when we reached the top, were met the “town manager” who was leaving that day, but due to the Georgian’s incredible hospitality he agreed to let us stay at his place for the night, leaving instead the next day.

Inside a local's house as we stopped for tea in a deserted little town. He was the last in the village to leave for warmer areas before the winter cold came in and was nice enough to offer us some tea and a fire to warm up before we explored the deserted town.
That night we had a huge feast of, well, I can’t really remember. That night was little cloudy due to the Manager’s extreme enthusiasm for speeches and toasts, which resulted in a lot of drinking.

Each speech would be an intoxicated mumbling of seemingly very important and emotional words (all of which were in Georgian) when he would finish with “Harasho! Harasho! Davai! Davai!” “Good! Good! Come on! Come on!” “DRINK!” and with his watchful eye he would scan all of our glasses making sure that we indeed were being polite guests and acknowledging his toasts fully (as in finishing shot glass after shot glass of rather strong Georgia liquor) even though we understood nothing of what he was saying but “DRINK!” and even then we wish we didn’t know it.

Even if we had to travel all the way down the mountain the next day on those narrow and dangerous roads with steep descents and rock slides, severely hungover, it was a really nice end to the trip.  

But, I can no longer listen to Hotel California or any of Afroman’s creations.

Arriving back exhausted to Tbilisi, it felt like returning home and we wanted nothing more than to have a quiet night to recover. But it just doesn’t seem to be possible in Georgia. If Georgians are known for two things it is their wine and their hospitality, and as I have learnt these two go perfectly hand in hand.

We were treated to yet another night of Georgian generosity, and yet another following morning nursing rough headaches, with no one to blame but ourselves. This seemed to become the norm.

It was eventually time to move on. We sadly farewelled our Georgian friends in Tbilisi and feeling rather delicate set off in search of the famous hot springs we had heard about, excited and hoping they were just as good as the ones in Kyrgyzstan.

Joined by a Dutch journalist, who was cycling across to China through the silk roads, and a nice Danish guy, with two tents and some cooking pots ready to camp out for the night next to a hot spring in Borojomi. We arrived in the town knowing of these supposed hot springs but not knowing where, so we walked around all day with our backpacks trying to find them in different corners of the town and its surroundings. Eventually as the sun had set we gave up, getting ready to pitch our tents in the public path.

By chance a group of Georgian guys our age happened to walk past and were heading to that exact hot spring, so we joined their group and hiked another hour and a bit into the forest some more arriving finally at a perfect camping patch, right next to the hot springs! 




Once again Georgian hospitality bought another long and booze filled night under the beautiful starry sky, roasting vegies on the fire, whilst relaxing in the hot springs. Perfect!
Working our way on the route across to England Darcy and I set off again one step closer to Turkey stopping in at the beach town Batumi.



As we grew closer to the sea I could smell the salty water and this immediately put me at ease. All those days in the sandy deserts of Kazakhstan, the vast steppes of Mongolia, the harsh high 40C days in China and the moment had come that I was waiting for, stepping onto the beach by the Black sea.

Here we stayed in a dingy hotel that was probably more of a brothel pay by the hour set up. Sticky sheets, red light inside, interesting women hanging around the lobby, after spending one night trying not to touch anything in the room we were ready to move onto the next country of our list; Turkey.


View Georgia in a larger map

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