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Georgia

Walking around Tbilisi

Tbilisi, Georgia

Today, we had a bit more time to stroll through the market that had been built up around the central bus station and its metro station. Dozens of sales tables were set up under tarp tents. They sold everything from produce and nuts to shoes and plastic toys (probably made in China). I suppose if you need to pick up anything on your way home, it would be very convenient.
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Last night, the city tour guide gave us some good advice as to what to go see today. So, we started at Marjanishvili Metro and walked down the street towards the Dry Bridge area. The street has been recently renovated, so all of the buildings are pretty pristine-looking, at least from the outside. The street is a pedestrian street, so we were able to walk right in the middle and take in the architecture. Most of the businesses were closed at this hour, but some of the shops and bars looked like they would be interesting places to visit when open.
At the end of the street, we started to see some of the Dry Bridge Flea Market. People set up tables and blankets all along the bridge, selling items typical of any flea market- old dishes, clothes, knicknacks, and other household goods.
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The flea market ended at a pretty park.
From there, we somehow stumbled upon a flower market. While small, this flower market had tons of bright, fresh blooms in a surprisingly wide variety. This was not a place where all vendors carried the same items.
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We walked back up past Liberty Square, where we had been last night, and followed Rustaveli Ave back to that metro station.
On the way, we passed the National Museum and went inside.
One of the first exhibits we saw was one of the best. Since the Dmanisi men were found in Georgia, the museum had a great exhibit showing the family tree of the different related humanoid species. The display had skulls placed chronologically and listed by site, so that you could walk through them and see how skull size and shape changed over the millennia.
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Further exhibits were somewhat less exciting- taxidermied animals, some minerals, old art from locations not related to Georgia. They did have some more interesting and relevant artifacts that had been dug up in Georgia and showed how Georgia was a crossroads influenced by many surrounding cultures like the Greeks, Romans, Persians. Also, they had a room full of Soviet Occupation history, showing lots of pictures and artifacts related to the people who were executed by the Soviets for political reasons. Overall, we spent quite some time there, and I recommend it.

For lunch, we stopped at a grocery store and bought a bunch of pre-made deli salads. Nothing was particularly great or particularly bad, although I was amused at how the "Russian Salad" here is exactly like the "Russian Salad" at the cafeteria at work, except that it has a bit more dill in it.

That was all we had time for today, so we went back to the hotel to pick up our stuff and get a cab to the airport. The cab ride was interesting. First, the cab driver (called by the hotel) told us an amount that was less than what the hotel told us- great. Then, he bundled us into the car and set off before we could even get buckled. I was struggling to get my seat belt unstuck from in between the seat and the edge of the car. Fortunately, we pulled over to fuel up.
His car ran on natural gas, so we had to get out of the car in order for him to fuel up. When it was time to pay for the gas, he came to me expectantly and told me he needed payment. So, I paid him for the ride to the airport then, even though you're usually not supposed to pay until the end.
Then, I pointed out the seat belt that I was struggling to pull out. He tucked it back in so that it wasn't sticking out and ugly.
No, no. I expressed that I wanted to use the seat belt. I wasn't telling him that the loop looked ugly.
He assured me that it was fine not to use a belt.
No need. No need.
No. I've ridden in cars here. I would like to use the seatbelt, since it exists. Please.
Finally, he pulled the belt out, although his face said that he clearly thought I was crazy for using the belt.
We made it to the airport just fine, ending our Georgian Adventure on a positive note.

Posted by spsadventures 03:10 Archived in Georgia Comments (0)

Another long hike

Stepantsminda and Tbilisi, Georgia

Per my Strava, yesterday we walked 8.3 miles (13.4 km) total with a change in altitude of 2687 ft (819 m) in each direction. My legs were sore.
So, today, we decided to hike some more.
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We saw on our hiking map that there were some nearby fortresses and waterfalls that had been recommended by the guy at the info station. We decided to try those.
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The walk was much flatter- only 919 ft (280 m) in total altitude change. But, it was longer- 10.3 miles (16.5 km). The scenery was different as well. Instead of hiking up through the mountains, we stayed in the valley below. While we could see the mountainous backdrop all around us, our immediate scenery consisted of grassland covered in tons of wildflowers. It was broken up by streams running down from the mountain, and a village or two.
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Despite the intensive ground cover, it was quite a dusty hike.
When we made it to the first site on the map, we realized that they were mostly just ruins. Although there was a sign out on the path in English, Georgian and Russian to explain what they were ruins of.
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The second site was another set of ruins, but we also got a nice view of some waterfalls.
Then we turned around.
Unfortunately, we decided to try a different path back. This particular path worked just fine until we got to a stream that wasn't really crossable comfortably. We followed the stream for a while to see if there would be a crossing point, and then realized that we better go back to the same path we took to get out to the ruins.
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Eventually, we made it back to town in order to grab our stuff and get the bus to Tbilisi.

Except, the buses here are the kind that arrive and wait until they're full before they leave. There was a taxi driver who was willing to drive us to Tbilisi for only twice what the bus costs ($8 instead of $4 per person) and he was leaving NOW. We crammed into his car and went to pick up 2 more people, then headed out. They additional people we picked up blabbed with him loudly in Georgian the whole way.
He was not a better driver than the tour guide from the first day. He still drove super-fast, passed when there was very little room to, and in many cases he pulled out to pass and then had to slam on the brakes and move back in because there was somebody else close in the lane. He took the turns just as fast.
Except for one turn, where he pulled over, popped out, and grabbed ice cream cones for himself and the other passenger. Yes, he continued to drive while eating ice cream. When he was done, he answered a few calls while driving like crazy. Nothing happened, but i was thankful for my seatb belt anyway.

When we finally got to Tbilisi, he dropped us off at the bus station and we went to look for our hotel. We didn't know what time we'd finish hiking and get in, so we had booked a hotel right by the bus station. After wandering around the street next to the station for a bit, we realized that the hotel was AT the station.
Here was this clean, fancy 3-star hotel with chandeliers, plopped down in the middle of a busy, dusty, noisy bus station. It wasn't the best neighborhood, but the hotel was quite nice, the location was super-convenient, and the price was very cheap.

After showers, we walked all of 2 minutes to the metro at the bus station, and picked up a super-late (post 5pm) lunch along the way. Again, there's a lot to be said for the convenient location of the hotel.
We metroed to Liberty square, where we met up with the guide, Tamar, from Tbilisi Free Walking Tours. The tour was a really good introduction to the city. I highly recommend it.
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We saw the seminary where Stalin studied religion (and dropped out). We heard some of the history of how the city was founded by a hunter who lost his falcon. We walked through a bunch of streets that were old, and some renovated. It was neat to see the different architectural styles and what the Soviet occupation did to the old mansions.
We got a chance to see the famous clock right at 7, when not only does the little puppet man come out to ring the chime, but they have a little show at the clock as well.
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We saw the famous bridges, palaces, and fortresses around town. All the while, the guide was explaining the significance of these structures to us and giving us suggestions as to what to see more of, how to dig deeper into the city, and what was worth spending a little more time on.
One aspect I really enjoyed was the explanation of why a lot of the newer buildings are all glass. Basically, the government is super-transparent. Georgia has a very low rate of corruption (I'm jealous) and the government buildings are all built transparently to symbolize how transparent they pride themselves on being.
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The tour ended near the baths that were the original site of the original Tbilisi, where the falcon was lost by the hunter.
Not too far away, we saw a restaurant, Alani, that the guide had recommended. They had typical Georgian food as well as folk dancing and singing. The lady who was standing on the street, trying to attract guests assured us that they took credit card, so we went in.
The dancing was lots of fun.
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The food was generally very tasty. We tried Pkhali, a ground-up spinach appetizer that was decent. The wine, which Georgia is famous for as they have the oldest proven wine production, was also good. But the Khachapuri (I got the traditional boat-kind) was amazing. Basically, it's a bread boat filled with melted cheese, a runny-yolk egg, and then they throw some pats of butter in there to get all melty. It was probably the best thing I had to eat the whole trip. My partner got the Shkmeruli chicken (chicken in a garlic broth), but he liked the khachapuri better as well.
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At the end of dinner, we tried to pay with our credit card. We had both separately asked the lady on the way in and received a confirmation that they take cards. They did not. I enjoyed more show while my partner ran upstairs to the ATM. We were pleased with the food, but not so much the trickery. Really, we would have just gone to the ATM before sitting down if they had told us we needed to.

Having walked a ton yesterday, a ton earlier today, and then another 3 hours on the walking tour, my feet were dead. We gave up on more exploration for the evening, and returned via metro to the hotel.

Posted by spsadventures 10:28 Archived in Georgia Comments (0)

Up Up Up

Stemansminda, Georgia

sunny

This morning, we had hot water for showers and gas so our hostess could cook breakfast. Breakfast was relatively simple- meat, cheese, bread, and a pan fried bread with cheese and potatoes inside that she had clearly made from scratch that morning. It was very tasty and filling. We couldn't finish it all.
We packed our daypacks for the hike and set out to Gergeti Trinity Church, a small monastery up at the top of a mountain that looks over the town.
It's on the top of the left mountain in the picture below.
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Yesterday, we talked to some other tourists who had come from there. They said it was about an hour and a half climb and that there were places you might need to use your hands to scramble up.

We didn't experience that. The trail we took was steep, but hands weren't needed. We crossed the bridge in town and started to follow the signs to the church. They sort of end in a dirt field labeled "parking lot," but a trail picks up from there. The trail is not marked at all, except with piles of horse poop. We just followed the other tourists, but there weren't really forks or anything that might send you on the wrong trail.
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On the way up, the trail passes right next to one of those "Gondor towers" we saw so many of yesterday. I appreciated getting a good look at it up close. While the well-built stone structure was impressive, I wonder how much maintenance it takes to keep the plants from devouring it. Lots of pretty flowers grew out of the walls.
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It ended up taking us 2 hours to get to the Monastery. We did pass some people along the way, but more passed us. Since we are relatively experienced hikers, I was wondering if the altitude was affecting us. We just got in yesterday, and even the town is almost 2 km up. To go climbing on our first day may have affected our speed. I would suggest planning a minimum 1.5 hours, but know that it could easily take more.
The church is actually somewhat plain for an orthodox church, but it has a great view of the town and of the mountains beyond.
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In order to go inside the public part (you can't go in the monastery part), ladies are supposed to wear a skirt or dress. If you didn't bring one or a shawl that you can wrap and use as one, they have a basket of wraps you can use. Apparently the "modesty" rules here say that a shortish skirt is more modest than long pants.
Inside, the church is relatively dark, probably to protect the paintings. The church is decorated very typically for an othodox church. It wasn't particularly special as far as i could tell, but it was cool to see the monks hanging around. The view from the church was amazing though.
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After we saw the church, we kept climbing upwards some more. We followed the path to Gergeti Glacier, although when we stopped, we were still about 2.5 hours of hiking away from the glacier itself. While there had been a few (although not many) trees on the way to the church, there were none past it. Nothing large grows this high up, although there were plenty of short plants and some really neat wildflowers.
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The church faded into the distance until it was as far below us as the town had been below the church.
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We took a break at the "top" for us, and ate our picnic lunch of cheese, bread, and some of the other items we bought at the fortress yesterday. We were up in the mountains, without other humans in sight, just enjoying the seclusion and nature.
But then it was time to turn back.
We hiked back down to the church, which was much faster than hiking up. We ended up taking a different path down from the church than we took up to it. This must have been the path they told us about yesterday. This path was very steep and gravely enough that the going was slow. But i was glad to be going down and not up.
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Towards the end of the path, it took us over a rubble pile and then through some side entrance into town.
We made it back, exhausted, stinky, and really glad to have done that much of a hike.

After much-needed showers, we headed out to one of the 3 restaurants in town for dinner. We picked on randomly, and I'm hoping that we picked wrong for the sake of the town. The food was ok, although not very exciting, but the portions were TINY, especially for the price. We started out with traditional eggplant rolls (Badrijani Nigvzit) and some rice. Then, we got some sausage log things, and were waiting for my meal until we realized that the rice was supposed to be my meal and wasn't just something that came with the eggplant. So we ordered lobio (beans in a tiny ceramic pot). Nothing was bad, but nothing was great either. There may have been a bit too much dill, but since it was lacking other flavors, that was all the excitement there was. For these few tiny dishes, we ended up paying more than for the huge more-than-we-could-possibly-eat lunch the other day. It's a good thing I wasn't so hungry.

Posted by spsadventures 09:38 Archived in Georgia Comments (0)

Welcome to Georgia

Stepantsminda, Georgia

sunny

This morning, we arrived after an overnight flight to Tbilisi, Georgia. It took all of 5 minutes to get though immigration and customs since we didn't check luggage. The ATMs were super convenient, although like most ATMs, they only give big bills. The wifi is truly free and accessible, so we were able to message our guide and say that it was time to come get us.
Roma, our guide, picked us up in an old Mercedes van. Even though they drive on the right side of the road here, his van was set up for left-side driving. We were extra cautious throughout the day when exiting, and I hope he was extra cautious when passing. The other thing we quickly learned about his vehicle was that it can run on gas or gas. That is, natural gas or gasoline.
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We stopped off at a natural gas station where they filled up the canister in the back of his van the same way you'd get gasoline filled up, more or less. Apparently that's normal enough here that they have gas stations for it. He explained to us that his van can switch fuels easily, depending on what is available in the area, but also he can manually switch it if he's going up a mountain, as gasoline gives better pickup.
As we drove towards our first sight, we passed through Tbilisi and got an idea of what the city is like. Then, we passed down roads that were more "country." Every few meters, there seemed to be another roadside fruit, vegetable, and wine stand. The wines were these very dark homemade reds, packaged in 2-gallon water jugs.
Soon, our guide announced that we were on the famous Georigan Military highway. This road is one of the oldest in the world. It used to be part of the silk road, bringing goods from east to west. Then, in Soviet times, it brought trade from Russia to Georgia. Now, it is still a major artery.
Trucks flow through here, bringing goods between Armenia and Russia. Also, we saw signs of a few pipelines. Azerbaijan sends their natural gas over to Turkey through Georgia and Russia sends theirs to Armenia through Georgia. Talk about the perfect location!

Our first stops were by the Zhinvali dam. This dam stops up a river so that Tbilisi has drinking water. When they built it though, there was an old village located where the water would flood. The people were moved, but they didn't do anything about the buildings, so they're still under there. Supposedly you can see the building tops when the water is low. I bet it would be an awesome place to SCUBA dive.
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The scenery near the dam is amazing. Everything is so green and mountainous. We really enjoyed just sitting there and taking it all in.
On the way, we passsed several statues and monuments. One that really stuck in my mind was right near the dam. The most famous Georgian king, David, was defending the country from somebody and near the location of the dam, several hundred Arabs helped him, but died. So, they put up a statue there to memorialize those who helped.
The other item I noticed along the way were these old stone towers. The guide told us that they were thousands of years old. Just like in Gondor, the towers were spaced sight-length apart. When somebody would try to invade, a fire would be lit in one and the rest of Georgia would pass the information on. He said that within a half hour of an invasion, all of Georgia could be alerted. Today, they're not in use, of course, but also a lot of them have been lost to the years.

We stopped at Ananuri Castle as well. This castle was Georgian for a long time, but then taken over by the Soviets to use as a way of guarding the nearby territory. It is mostly just a bunch of semi-ruined stone that is climbable, but the church inside is nice and the views are nice as well.
The church is typical of any orthodox church in that the walls are covered in religious paintings. Candles and candle holders abound. There is no stained glass, but the stone carvings show quite an interesting style. At the entry, they show a dress code, which includes covering women's heads. They provide cheap scarves that are in constant reuse and touching who knows what kinds of dirty heads. Just hope nobody had anything contagious.
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The tower is climbable. You have to climb a bit just to get to it, but then it's only 40 steps to the top. However, the steps are steep- at least twice as tall as normal ones, maybe more. Also, at one point, you have to cross an internal room to get to the rest of the steps. The floor is made up of round logs placed side by side, but not held in place by anything except that they are packed in tightly. But one is missing, right where the tourists pass, so it's actually quite easy to slip a foot through to the floor below. The window slits are small, and you have to really get up against them for a good view. Even at the top, the walls are high and there is only one window with a view. But it is an amazing view and totally worth the climb.
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The parking lot for the castle is lined with vendor tents. They sold Georgian fur hats, shot glasses, food, and other tourist junk. I was interested in the food, even though I knew that this was an overpriced tourist trap. We ended up getting some smoked cheese in a braid, some dried fruit leather (Tklapi), this neat stick candy I had heard about (Churchkhela), some green tomatoes, and a smaller bottle of the homemade wine. (Not a multi-gallon jug, "only" a liter.)
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The wine was horrible. It was still fermenting and bubbly. But my partner just kept drinking it anyway. The cheese turned out to be very salty- much more than I expected or can handle in quantity. The dried fruit was almost tasteless. What we thought were green tomatoes were green plums. But the candy was great! They run a string through some walnuts and then coat it all in some juice so that it solidifies somehow. The outside tasted like red licorice and is very tasty. You can see these sticks hanging pretty much everywhere and I highly recommend it.

For lunch, we stopped off at some restaurant the guide liked. We got more salad, bread, cheese-filled bread (Khachapuri), and pork than we coould possibly eat, plus drinks for only 45 GEL- super cheap. The food was all very tasty and the drink I got was a lemon cream soda local to this area. It was delicious!
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The next several stops were all viewpoints, just to look at some cool stuff/views. But you know that all the guides take all the people there because each one has at least a couple of souvenir stands.
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One was a point here 2 rivers met. The rivers were 2 different colors- one a brown and the other more of a turquoise. Even after they joined together, the main river was still striped two colors.
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The last viewpoint along the highway was a monument to Russian and Georgian friendship left over from the Sooviet days. It's this huge circular wall that as been painted in sections with different styles- quite different. Like the other spots, this one had a bunch of people out front trying to sell crap to tourists. Here, they had honey.
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We had seen lots of honey stands lining the road in this area, and we were interested to see what this was all about. Some of the honey was standard yellow. But there were also jars of white and jars of a golden brown. Turns out, the brown is also chestnut, the white just doesn't taste like honey, but the yellow is very floral.
The other interesting tourist activity they had on-site was paragliding. We saw a few paragliders up in the air, and a representative offered us a chance to join them. (We didn't.)
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The last stop was a spot where the water dragged minerals downhill with it and was forming new crusts of rock.

The whole way, we were subjected to somewhat crazy driving. As mentioned, our driver was on the right side of the car even though they drive on the right in Georgia. I don't know where they get the cars from as I think Pakistan is the closest location that drives that way, and they're not so close. In any case, our guide (and the rest of the drivers) were all speeding along these one-lane in each direction curvy mountain roads. They would regularly try to pass the trucks, only to find out that the cars coming in the other direction had the same idea at the same time. A lot of the passing would be considered close calls elsewhere, but I guess it's normal here. In addition to the hazards of oncoming traffic, there were also plenty of times where cattle blocked the road. They didn't always block it in easy-to see places. Sometimes it was right around a bend that we were taking too fast.
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Another oddity is that the tour guide pointed out these "avalanche tunnels" that are used in winter in order to get through. I'm not quite sure why they wouldn't also use them in summer as they are just an extra lane on the road. But they didn't.
Somehow, we made it along the road.

At this point, we had left the forested hills behind and were truly in the mountains. (Our guide's definition: if trees can grow on the top, it's a hill. If the treeline stops, it's a mountain.) Our final destination, Stepantsminda, is surrounded by mountains that are still snow-capped in June. The town itself is already at an altitude of over 1km, closer to 2. It's a pretty sad town.
It's very dusty and most of the roads aren't properly paved. Cows roam the streets freely, so there is an almost constant dung smell, and a good chance you'll step in some if you're not paying attention. A lot of the yards are filled with trash and junk and random building material. A lot of the areas are pretty run down and clearly not well-maintained. Plus, there are very few street signs or numbers, so it's pretty impossible to find anything.
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I had a map and address, but the guide still couldn't find our guesthouse so that he could drop us off. He eventually called it, and found it in a place that he had already passed. It's not marked with a sign or even a house number, so it would have been impossible to find if we hadn't called and the proprietor hadn't come to the gate.
When we got there, we got some bad news- the gas was out so there was no hot water. The owner offered to us (through the guide) that we could cancel and go elsewhere, but we were exhausted and ready to nap. We decided to chance it and move if it became a problem.
After a much-needed rest, we wandered in to town to see what there was to see. The answer is not much. The town has very few properly-paved roads. A lot are dirt or packed mud. Many are rock, as if the road used to be stone, but was worn away over centuries and dirt fills the gaps.
There are a few minimarkets that sell bottled beverages, snacks, and produce. There isn't a lot of selection, but what they have is very cheap. 22 GEL (under $9) got us bread, cheese, chips, chocolate, 8 liters of water, and some other items.
I wasn't super hungry, and our hostess had prepared a bit of salad for us, so I didn't really need anything else. We went to bed a bit early, but we didn't get a ton of sleep on the planes to get here, and we needed it.

Posted by spsadventures 10:28 Archived in Georgia Comments (0)

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