Saturday, October 8, 2016

Georgia on my Mind საქართველო ჩემს გონებაშია

Two of my favorite things about Georgia - Khachapuri and the alphabet!
During our recent travels whenever we mentioned we were going to Georgia (the country) people just about swooned. “Oh, you’ll love it. It’s so beautiful - and you won’t believe the food. And the wine - especially the wine.” Okay, good reasons to visit, but we also wanted to tick-off another former USSR Republic and this one had a particularly cantankerous relationship with Russia. That got Michael all excited about doing research and finding out what we could learn during our week in the capital city of Tbilisi. After all, Stalin was born here and until 1991 the country was still under Russia’s thumb.

When we started planning our sweep through Eastern Europe I knew the Airbnb selections were going to be less desirable than those we’ve enjoyed in more popular parts of Europe. And that proved to be true. Everything got a little dingier, a little darker, and the decor got ever stranger. The buildings became more off-putting as well. The good news was they were also becoming more affordable.

A hallway straight from a scary movie...just be brave. There is a nice Airbnb in there somewhere.
At the airport we were met by Teriel, our host Han’s right hand man - a small, wiry fellow of few words - but thankfully many of them English. It turned out that he met most of Han’s guests and also offered guided tours to archaeological sites, monuments and the countryside one of which we accepted, but I’ll tell you about that later.

Coming into the city we were expecting to see some of the beauty we’d heard so much about. But in fact there was very little that was charming. What we did see was an abundance of uninspired Fascist architecture and some neglected facades from the turn of the century. And, imposing statues of men on horses of course. However there were glimpses of new restaurants and shops along the way.

That brings me back to our Airbnb. For the dates we needed there weren't a lot of choices in Tbilisi - especially apartments that didn’t look like Soviet holdovers. But then we found this little gem Bright & Modern in Old Tbilisi.

It really was a nice place, but it certainly had its quirks. First the building. It was just one of many faded beauties waiting for love on a nondescript side street. Once you stepped inside the steel door you were in a dark hallway with a forbidding stairwell - one of the scariest we've encountered. The automatic interior lights had a life of their own so, we learned to have our cellphone flashlights at the ready, day or night. Once we huffed up to the third floor we carefully made our way down a long hallway divided by two sets of doors. It was also dimly lit and came with some serious tripping hazards - and once I surprised a women crossing the landing wrapped in a towel with wet hair. All we could do was stare at each other in surprise.

Getting ready to run the gauntlet.
From a hole in the wall of our building you could buy delicious bread hot out of the oven.
Finally we reached our apartment door. Lately this has become a moment of trepidation - would the place match the listing photos? Thankfully, the flat was cozy and comfortable and Hans has great taste in books! Terial got us all settled-in, although he couldn’t help us get on the Internet or get one of the two the air-conditioning units working. That was unfortunate because it was 100° outside and sun was pouring in from the south facing windows. The kitchens was in an enclosed porch so it was  like an oven - whether you needed one or not.

The kitchen was a fine place to be early in the morning before it got too hot.
It turned out the air-conditioning was seriously broken and would need a repair crew with a crane to fix it from the outside the building. That wouldn’t happen during our stay so we limped along with just the one. And the Internet connection problem had to do with the phone company - also requiring a service call. Fortunately, we were able to use my cell phone's “hot spot” to get on-line and for only $2.00 our Georgian SIM cards came with unlimited data. There were other small issues, but through them all, our host was helpful and attentive even though he was miles away in Austria trying to enjoy a holiday.

One thing we feel strongly about when using Airbnb is that we are partly responsible if things don’t meet our expectations. After all, we decided how much to spend, scoured the pictures, read the reviews and had several back and forth e-mails with our host before booking the place. We also say that a good host can make up for a mediocre listing. And Hans was a great host.

The apartment was full of nice amenities and a great list of neighborhood restaurants and attractions. When the problem with the phone and the air-conditioning arose he offered to let us move to another place and not charge us for the time we’d been there or any cancellation charges. And, he was working feverishly from his end to get things fixed. If it had been any other way, we may have chosen to move.

Now we were ready to begin exploring the city. As always we found a free walking tour, and just like Minsk, it needed to be booked in advance. And also like Minsk, Michael struck up a dialogue with the tour director - a delightful young man named Levan and asked about potential local press coverage. Before we knew it a news reporter and a camera man from Georgia's most popular television station was tagging along as we saw the sights.

The man who called "action" as we walked Tbilisi Old Town.
Our walking tour guide and Georgian entrepreneur Lavan.
 Here’s the end result: Georgia Public Television 1

One of the best parts of the story is the anchor woman's deadpan introduction and the elaborate Georgian text that accompanies the story. This fanciful alphabet was formed in the 5th century for Georgian eyes only - it is nothing but beautiful gibberish in any other country.

What we did see of  the city confirmed what we saw on our drive in - this is a city in transition. Without the oil and gas resources of a country like Azerbaijan it will take more time and more money to restore Tbilisi to it's previous glory. However there is some progress being made in the old town and a few of the Soviet-style buildings have been converted into impressive luxury hotels or museums.

The luxury Biltmore hotel opened the week we were there. 
One of those museums is the Georgian National History Museum and we spend a few hours there learning more about the Soviet era and the freedom movement. There were also some great exhibits from the important findings in Dmanisi where some of the oldest human remains were found just a few years ago.

We met Skull 4 at the Georgian museum - not looking too bad for 1.8 million years old. 
The Dmanisi skull, also known as Skull 5 or D4500, is one of five Homo erectus skulls discovered in Dmanisi, Georgia. Described in a publication in October 2013, it is believed to be about 1.8 million years old and is the most complete skull of a Pleistocene Homo species,[1][2] and the first complete adult hominin skull of that degree of antiquity.

Fast forward to mankind in the 21st century and unsurprisingly Russia’s presence is felt everywhere. For most of the last 100 years Georgia has been under Russian (Soviet) control gaining their freedom like so many former Soviet Republics in 1991. Since then, there have been tensions between the two as Georgia moved too fast towards the West. In 2003 the country celebrated its new direction with the Rose Revolution. Five years later, Russian had enough and made its presence known by invading Abkasia and South Osietta. To this day, Georgia and Russia do not see eye to eye on these disputed territories. These are examples of the disruptive “frozen conflicts” that the Kremlin likes to create wherever possible. Last  summer we visited another one of these in Transnistria (a sliver of land squeezed between Moldova and Ukraine). 

Now that we’d seen the city, we were ready for a day in the countryside. Time to find the magic. Hmm. Probably should have headed to wine country and into the mountains (and probably should have done it two months ago before everywhere was brown and dry) but of course, we wanted to go to the birthplace of Stalin. And since Terial would be taking us, he suggested we venture a bit beyond the city of Gori to see an ancient cave city. It was a hot, dusty day on the road for us. I hope we can visit again.

The extensive cave city of Uplistsike - a great place to hone your rock climbing skills.
The Stalin museum was a great slice-of-life experience. Everyone that worked there had an appropriate scowl and our young tour guide was so excruciatingly in-hate with her job that the walls could have crumbled around her or one of us could have collapsed with a heart attack and she would have continued the tour in her fem-bot Russian-English without missing a beat. We sort of liked that. She whipped us through the whole museum in about 30 minutes with the last stop being a walk through Stalin’s private train carriage. The executive jet of it’s time (Stalin had a fear of flying and was generally paranoid).

And he looks like such a nice man...
Then we were off to one of Terial's favorite destinations, the sprawling cave city of Uplistsike. To reach the best caves required mountain goat climbing skills. And only Terial had them. Michael and I gamely crawled hand-over-hand over rocks and found footholds where we could but this place was not for everyone - I wanted to grab the women I saw on our way out blithely heading towards the first trail in their sandals to send them for a ticket refund - or a change of footwear! It was indeed fascinating but required a colorful imagination to get the whole picture. I’ll let Wikipedia give you a quick synopsis:

Built on a high rocky left bank of the Mtkvari River, it contains various structures dating from the Early Iron Age to the Late Middle Ages, and is notable for the unique combination of various styles of rock-cut cultures from Anatolia and Iran, as well as the co-existence of pagan and Christian architecture.

Our new friend and guide Terial could have climbed all day!
As for the food…personally I found two Georgian specialties that I loved - the first was Khachapuri, the nation's favorite meal. It's made of bread shaped like a life-raft and then filled to the point of capsizing with cheese topped by a soft cooked egg (see the picture at the top of the blog). The second great find was Churchkhela. These travel snacks have been made the same way for hundred of years. Take some toasted walnuts, hazelnuts or dried fruit, string a couple of dozen together on sturdy twine and then dip them like candles over and over again in a waxy mixture of grape juice, flour and other magic ingredients and dry them in the sun. What you have is a chewy treat that keeps in your camel-bag for months. As for the wine - we didn’t have any. Another story, another time.

I really enjoyed Churchkhela. But after reading the recipe it would be impossible to make at home.
While we didn’t really get to experience the Georgian “Wow” factor, we were glad to have seen what we did and make some new friends including Laven, our affable walking tour guide his amazing friend Anna, community activist and Beatles fanatic as well as Terial our trusted “Man on the Ground”.

Saying good bye to Terial - I wanted to keep him!
Our next stop would be Yeravan, Armenia and I’d kept my expectations very low. But it turned out to be another of Mr. Campbell’s good decisions. Okay, once again our Airbnb was less than perfect, but the city was amazing. More on that next time.

Thanks for following along,

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads


  1. I really enjoyed your description of Georgia. That Soviet feeling you mentioned seemed to be everywhere. And your description of the scowling tour guide in the Stalin museum made me smile. I look forward to hearing more. :-)

  2. Goodness. What a different city.

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