Georgia

I’m sick, I’m tired, there is no electricity, and there is no water, but I’m happy! Why? It feels so great to be at home after my first vacation out of the country.

Here is the overview of the trip. If you are not a fan of reading, just see this part, look at the photos, and move on to the next website of the day. I will give the detail below.

Sunday, April 10th – 8:30 a.m. Marshrutka to Yerevan. Get out and walk to Solak. Visit. Solak to Charentsavan via 1:00 Marshrutka. Charentsavan to Yerevan via Marshrutka. Arrive in Yerevan at 2 something. Depart Yerevan via train at 9:00 p.m.
Monday, April 11th – 7:30 a.m. arrive in Tbilisi. Visit.
Tuesday, April 12th – More visit.
Wednesday, April 13th – 9:00 a.m. marshrutka to Gori. Hire a taxi/guide to take us to other sites around noon. Return to Tbilisi in the evening.
Thursday, April 14th – More Tbilisi.
Friday, April 15th – Depart for Yerevan via 8:30 a.m. marshrutka. 5:30 p.m. Vardenis marshrutka. Return to site at 8:30 p.m.

Sunday
From the outset, I was more excited about visiting Solak than I was about visiting Georgia. This time I would visit with Aga which was pretty fun. Since the grandma is half Russian, she really enjoyed speaking Russian with Aga. I felt bad because we had to walk through some serious mud after getting out of the marshrutka on the highway. It was also raining and windy, pretty much the worst possible weather for walking into the village. But we made it! We had coffee, chatted, and then ate some delicious homemade cheese, lavash, and potatoes before going. There were a couple funny moments for me. One was having a Russian conversation translated for me into Armenian and actually understanding it. The other was our discussion of languages, where the grandma said something like, “English: th, th, th! French: gh, gh, gh! Armenian: kh, kh, kh! But Russian? It’s nice!” They went on to explain that Georgian, which we would soon discover, is a language that requires a potato to be stuck in your throat. We also made fun of the Georgian alphabet together, which Armenians love to do, because Mesrop Mashtots created the Georgian alphabet after the Armenian alphabet.

After the Solak rendezvous, we went to Charentsavan in order to get to Yerevan. In Yerevan it was raining of course. First we had to buy our train tickets at the station. Then we went to a place called Jazzve (a coffee house) to meet an Armenian friend. Then we walked around a bit more before coming back to the station for the train.

This was my first overnight train ride. The first thing we noticed was the Armenian music blaring from all the speakers, and then we noticed the heat wasn’t working. Hmmm. We were in a four person open compartment with sleepers. The train seemed pretty empty, but then some Anglo guy came up and asked if we spoke Russian in Russian. His gray hair said he was in his 40s, but his face said late 20s. It turns out that he was a German living in Swansea, Whales (and he was in his early 30s). It was cool because when he spoke there wasn’t a hint of a German accent. I really would have believed he was British if he told me. Only when he said a view words in German did I believe his heritage. The guy was on his way to Iraq. It was nice to meet a fellow traveler and also to have someone cool in our compartment as opposed to the Armenian man who snored all night in the next compartment.

The train ride was 12 hours long. There was no food service. We brought some food and wine and enjoyed that along the way. Unfortunately, most of the ride was in the dark so there was no scenery. We went to bed around 12 only to be woken up a few hours later by the Armenian border authorities. Then a couple hours later it was the Georgians’ turn. That equated to a pretty shitty night’s sleep to begin the travels, but oh well.

Monday
We arrived in Tbilisi pretty early. In fact, we took the metro to the center and it was devoid of people. Feeling pretty tired, greasy, hungry, and needing a nice bathroom, we found a restaurant for breakfast. My first food in Georgia was a pizza-like khachapuri with cheese and egg, slightly reminiscent of French toast without syrup. It was pretty good, but I didn’t know how much better it could be. After breakfast we headed to meet our couch surfer and drop off our bags.

Her house was a bit of a walk, but the place itself was pretty sweet. 2 stories, 2 bathrooms, and much nicer than anything I’ve seen in Armenia. She was a former EVS volunteer from Romania. Her roommate was a dude from Kansas doing freelance journalism. So, it was an interesting duo. As my first couch surfing experience, it was really cool. I felt a little weird just coming into these peoples’ home, but they really welcomed us nicely. Plus I brought them some 5 year Ararat cognac as a gift, which doesn’t hurt! Couch Surfing was a great way to really feel like you are living in the city, meet some cool new people, and also save some dough on lodging.

After meeting our hostess, she took us to her University to show us around. It was pretty interesting to see this university, which resembled more of an office place inside than a university. We walked around amongst a swarm of young Georgians. The differences between them and Armenians were quickly apparent. They aren’t as homogeneous. Many of the girls have light colored eyes and lighter colored hair. The fashion is quite different. You don’t see stiletto heels and pointy black shoes everywhere. The boys love to have long hair. The girls don’t cake the makeup on quite as heavily. Both sexes seemed more attractive too. Most of all, there was little to no staring during our whole trip. Now that was a vacation.

After the university tour, I was feeling pretty tired. We took a bus up to the top of one of the hills where there is a huge broadcasting tower and ferris wheel. On the ride, we drove through Old Town, which is just as cool looking as everything said it would be. There was so much flavor and character in the architecture that you just don’t find in Yerevan. I was groggy on the bus ride, but quickly got my second wind when we got to the top of the hill and the sun came out. It was like an off-season amusement park. There were gardens to walk through and benches everywhere. We strolled through the park and found the ferris wheel. And yes, for the first time in my life, I rode the ferris wheel. I must admit that I wasn’t 100% comfortable, but it was easier than taking the man lift at ADM for the first time. The funniest thing, besides my fear of heights, was that the wheel was completely empty, but the operator’s booth had 4 workers inside. Classic post-Soviet efficiency right there!

Following the “Eye” of Tbilisi, we found a bench and had some wine in the park. It was great as the sun was shining and there were people out and about. We returned just in time to take the bus back to the center.

From there, we did what any American would do when faced with the Golden Arches for the first time in almost a year: we ate McDonald’s. Double cheeseburger, fries, and the first fountain drink since crossing the pond. It was delicious of course, but also left me kind of glad that I hadn’t eaten it in 10 months. After reading Fast Food Nation, I shouldn’t even want to come close to the place. But what can I say? I’m American and have already been indoctrinated in the WacArnold’s lifestyle. It was odd to see the Georgians enjoying it. I don’t know why. I could tell it was a destination for them, kind of a treat…just like it is for so many of us (especially when we are younger). I can’t help but wonder if it’s a good thing or a bad thing.

It is what it is

Post-McDonald’s we went in search of a place to have a beer. After a lengthy search, we found a place that had a pretty odd vibe. It was part night club, part restaurant. Big red booths were placed around a wide open area and an elevated section with a small stage and more booths. We weren’t feeling it, but then a band took the stage. They looked like a bunch of Georgians who just walked in off the street. There was a bass guitar, accordion, bongo, and a couple other guys messing around warming up. I thought nothing of it, but then when they played their first song I was amazed with the energy and emotion coming out of their music. It was noticeably more upbeat than Armenian music. There was no duduk, which despite its uniqueness, I often find annoying. Instead, there were two men belting out incredible vocals, often harmonizing together. That, mixed with accordion and a pounding beat made for a real special musical experience that I won’t soon forget. Something like this, but more energetic:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EDckWEoVmns&feature=related

Finally, we returned near the uni to meet our hostess and some of her students for Georgian pizza. The restaurant was impressive, so we made a note to return the next day for breakfast. We headed home, had a bit of the cognac with the hosts, then went to bed exhausted.

Tuesday
The weather was not really cooperating with us at this point. Another rainy day ensued, and I was saved again by the Marmott jacket sent by Mr. Yorke. First up was an amazing khachapuri breakfast at the restaurant. I couldn’t believe how delicious it was. It’s basically bread that is outfitted into a boat-like shape. In the middle you can get a variety of things. The traditional one is with cheese, eggs, and butter. The size is pretty incredible. The large is big enough for 2 people easily. And at 8 lari, it’s pretty cheap (that’s about $5). On this day, we split one that had cheese, peppers, and tomatoes, making it a very pizza-like way to start the day, which is always okay by me. I am convinced that Americans would really take to khachapuri. So much so that I could see myself opening a Georgian-style restaurant someday just to share this amazing food with the people who would really know how to eat it!

Tell me you don't want to just dive in! OMG

Next up was seeing the city. We went to the old town and walked around a bit. We crossed the river and headed towards the biggest church in Georgia. I believe it is the 3rd biggest church in Europe. Of course, it can’t compete with our mega churches, even if those are sometimes converted office buildings/Wal*Marts. The church was impressive on the outside, but the inside was a little empty. You see, there are really no rooms inside. It’s one big area filled with relics and paintings and stuff. No pews like we have. So it’s really just a pretty big room with a massive ceiling. But it lacks the stained glass, frescoes, and other character you can find elsewhere.

Big enough to house Sally Struthers

We continued walking around and eating street food. We dipped into an Armenian church, which though diminutive, had a choir practicing in the balcony (first time I’ve seen anything like that in the Caucasus), which gave the church a beautiful atmosphere. Then we found a café. We wanted hot chocolate even though it wasn’t on the menu. They improvised and served us a melted/liquid chocolate bar in tiny coffee cups. Interesting to say the least!

Old Town: Feel the charm

That night we ate at our hostesses house, as she prepared for us a wonderful Romanian dish. I have no idea how to describe it. There was a big pot, and inside she baked a mixture of corn flour, cheese, and other stuff. It was pretty good! Knowing that the next day would be an early one, and the fact that it was still raining outside, we decided to have an early night.

Wednesday
We went off to meet Aga’s EVS friend (also from Poland), who took the train in to meet us and go on a trip. Our destination was Gori, a nearby town famous for being the birthplace of Stalin.

The trip offered me a chance to see something outside of the capital, which is always good. I was impressed with the highway system, which is several notches above what you’ll find in Armenia. But soon we ran into snow and I feared the day would be another weather nightmare.

Gori was a pretty nice place. It’s supposedly 50,000 people. There is an ancient castle in the middle of town. We scaled up the old stone steps to reach the castle grounds. Once we breached the walls, tremendous wind was waiting for us. The top of the castle was just a large green area from which you could see the city over the stone walls. I don’t think I’ve ever been in such a windy situation! We didn’t stay long since it was cold and uncomfortable up there.

Gori from the castletop

Then we went to the Stalin museum. It was a pretty cool place, if you’re into that sort of thing. Lots of great pictures and artifacts from his life. They even had his death mask, which was a bit creepy to see. There was also a very feminine fur coat on display, given as a gift, which according to the tour guide, “he never wore.” Yeah right! There was also Stalin’s personal train wagon. We saw the inside and all the nice amenities he had. It was nicer than our train from Yerevan, that’s for sure. He even had a early-model air conditioner in there. Finally, there was his original house. It’s funny because the rest of the neighborhood has long since been destroyed. But his house remains, protected by a bigger structure. The house was like one of those prairie homes you see that is just one room and you wonder, “how did they live here?”

I aspire to him only in the realm of moustaches

At the museum we randomly met a Georgian taxi driver who was there with a Brit. He offered to take us with them as he was a tour guide. It actually worked out great. After Gori we went to a church in a river gorge with some nice frescoes. Then he drove us to a cave city in a river valley. Finally, we went to the former capital of Georgia, which has a couple really nice churches. He drove us back to Tbilisi and we said goodbye.

We had dinner with Aga’s friend and then she went her separate way. Our next mission was to find homemade Georgian wine, which is harder than it sounds in a big city. After a bit of walking, we were successful. It was getting dark, so we headed towards an old fortress on the hill for a great view of the city. Tbilisi at night is a mix of glowing orange lights which is really something special. We got up there just in time to see the turquoise sky putting the sun to bed. The wind was fierce, so we only stayed for a few minutes, but it was one of the best views I’ve had in my life and won’t easily be forgotten.

Unforgettable

Thursday
We started off the day right with one more khachapuri breakfast from our favorite restaurant. I began plotting schemes for stealing some Georgians for use in my new restaurant back home.

The afternoon was spent wandering around and finally enjoying some warm sunny weather. There was a great park where we had ice cream and did some serious people watching. We also stopped in at the office of an organization that is hosting an international weeklong workshop in Batumi. Aga is a leader for the Armenian delegation, so there was some business to take care of. Several of the next hours were spent greeting the 3 Armenians who arrived in Tbilisi and escorting them to the office.

That night I was booked at a hostel, so I made my way there to check in and take a shower. It was a day full of walking so it was great to finally take a small breather. Then I met back up with Aga and we strolled around a bit before she had to go back to the office with her people. I walked her back, said goodbye, and then took a nice long slow walk through the heart of Tbilisi for the last time. The city was going to sleep, you could feel it. The glow of the streetlights guided me home as I listened to music and soaked it all in.

Friday
I got up at 6 a.m. I exited the Hostel, not feeling so hot after a week of walking around in the cold and rain. Not knowing Georgian or Russian, I was a bit nervous about finding the bus station I needed. I flagged down the first crappy taxi I saw (something about the Mercedes taxis, I just think they’ll charge me more). I said to the driver, “English? Hayeren (Armenian)?” He nodded yes to the English, so I said where I wanted to go and asked how much. He told me with his hand, 5 lari. Okay. Then he motioned for a gate and said 1 lari. I said, “Okay, khntir chka”, which is “no problem” in Armenian. Now he realized I spoke Armenian and it turned out he did too. Something about my initial question didn’t register I guess. So the fact he was Armenian made things a lot easier. We got to the bus station and the Yerevan marshrutka wasn’t there yet. But there was a guy in a van who said it would be 40 lari to Yerevan. I knew the marshrutka should be 30, so I said no. Then he said 30 lari. I said no again. Then he did the WTF thing with his hand as I got out of the taxi and waited for my marshrutka. It soon pulled up and I got my choice of seats. I chose the front so I could see the country. Since it is a big trip, the marshrutka doesn’t leave until it is full. I arrived at 6:45 and we didn’t leave until 8:30. The last 45 minutes or so of waiting was spent with 1 empty seat!
6 or 7 hours later we were in Yerevan. I made my way to the PC office as I thought I had a meeting. But it turns out I wasn’t needed at the meeting, since it was to prepare training materials for the training I will be participating in. So I had some shwarma and Mountain Dew, talked to some volunteers, and went for a beer with them. I had planned to stay overnight in Artashat with another PCV, but those plans were dashed once I didn’t need to be at the 2 day meeting. I went home to Vardenis, which felt great since I was pretty sick the whole day. 9 hours in marshrutkas – a new personal record for 1 day.

So, that’s what I did. What did I think? Georgia is definitely more Western than Armenia. You can see and feel an openness that doesn’t exist here. The people are just as friendly and willing to help. Their cuisine is ridiculously based on bread, but their bread is delicious. I didn’t get to drink as much wine as I wanted, but what I did have was great. The sights were great, but I can’t say I haven’t seen more awe-inspiring things in the States. How can I compare a capital city in the Caucasus to Yosemite? The church I saw in Vienna blows all the other ones out of the water, even if they are from the 5th century. But I am very glad to have gone there and experience something new. If anything, these people have more in common with Armenians than they would like to admit. Sure, they are completely separate cultures and nations, but you can’t take the Caucasus out of them. The city was more beautiful than Yerevan, more spread out, and generally cleaner. But there were many beggars everywhere (Yerevan has almost none). Especially disturbing were the young Gypsies (I hesitate to say that b/c I don’t want to lump all the people into that ethnic group which has more than its share of stereotypes, but they were darker skinned and looked like…Gypsies) that were obviously told by their moms to lay in the middle of the sidewalk to look extra pathetic. Multiple times I had a small girl come up to me and grab me, tug at my arms, and follow me. The women were beautiful and free. The men were handsome (I think?) and a bit on the full side of the self-confidence meter. It was similar to Armenia in so many aspects that I would really have to spend quite a bit of time there to discover the true differences. Tbilisi is a nice place, and I’m glad I went.

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4 Responses to “Georgia”

  1. Ben Says:

    Kevin,

    You look good in that jacket son!! I wonder if Stalin wore Marmot? It’s always so good to hear your stories of adventure. I will be your first customer in the Georgian restaurant and will be ordering one of those bread-bowl looking things that look absolutely breathtaking. Anyway brother, so great to hear your doing well despite your illness/sleep deprivation. Take care of yourself buddy!!

    Ben

  2. icenugget Says:

    I’m pretty sure Stalin invented Marmot. The hood on that thing is so quality. Somehow it manages to cover my head despite my really long neck and oversized head. As always, thanks for reading brother. Crazy that about 2 years ago you were coming home from Bolivia!

    PS – I want to learn Spanish when I get back.

  3. Peter Says:

    Dude,

    Long and great post! Couple thoughts/questions

    1-Why is the train ride so long? I checked and the two cities are 107 miles apart (psst that’s 170 km for you you eurofreak!) I’m sure the mountainous terrain accounts for much of it but a 10 hr + ride? Perplexing..

    2-Do you look at the feeling more comfortable in Georgia thing as a positive or negative in terms of the bigger picture of your experience? Does it make you wish that you had been selected there instead (like you had originally hoped) or are you glad you have an experience that is much more different than the states? Not trying to make you feel bad here – just asking 😉

    3-Gori, the birthplace of Stalin? I think someone might have just worked their way onto the terrorist watchlist. That photo of you needs to be your fb profile photo yesterday.

    4-“We got up there just in time to see the turquoise sky putting the sun to bed” wow dude. Methinks I just heard Zeus chuckle from above!

  4. icenugget Says:

    Peter,

    Good questions…

    1. The train ride looks kind of like the Snake River if you plot it out. First it goes north to Gyumri, then straight east through mountains to Vanadzor, then finally onward to Georgia. Throw in a couple border stops where we crawl along and you have a 12 hour train ride!

    2. I wouldn’t say I was more comfortable in Georgia. Maybe the post came off that way, but I would say that’s because I was on vacation in a capital city spending money and doing new stuff. Actually, in many ways I was more UNcomfortable there. One thing I didn’t touch in this writing was the language barrier. I hated not being able to talk to the Georgians in their own language. I had to rely on them to know English, which is not a good feeling. But to answer your question, I am 100% happy that they chose me for Armenia. It feels like my 2nd home. If I was in Georgia, I would probably be in a village or small town, which would end up being similar to my experience here. The capital cities in both places are truly separate “countries” in so many ways.

    3. I strongly considered that pic for FB, but decided against it since Stalin is way more prominent than I am! I should have arranged it so I was much closer to the camera.

    4. Wait, huh? Why is Zeus chuckling? Is he laughing at my calves? That’s the hardest place to add mass!!

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