So, there's some really safe stuff here, right?
I am a big fan of the interesting Georgian alphabet... if only I could read it!
I left off between countries - a strange place indeed to be waiting around...
Time zones, languages, climates, cultures, and dogs were are swirling together there in between Anatolia and the Caucasus, Europe and Asia (or perhaps Asia and Europe?), the former Ottoman Empire and the former Soviet Union, the day and the night, the Lira and the Lari, and a bunch of relaxed guards who were almost as confused about the fact that we were there as we were confused about where "there" actually was... or something like that. If eastern Turkey is at times a strange place, Georgia is even stranger, and this was evident before our passports were even stamped.
We spent a fair bit of time waiting around after immigration and before customs because the X-ray machine operator was somewhere else eating... apparently several courses, very slowly. Why the other guards couldn't just check our bags by hand, I am not sure. Anyway, this gave us time to play with the puppy that had shown up, to sit on the X-ray machine, to test out a few Georgian words in our guidebook, and to try to pronounce our planned destination: Akhaltsikhe, which I don't believe
will be taking too much business away from Cancún as a spring break destination anytime soon (we didn't see a single MTV camera, although there were plenty of drunk people there).
There was some confusion about how we would get to Akhaltsikhe as our last driver in Turkey had called his friend on the Georgian side who had not showed up, but some of their mutual friends were there (either working or just hanging out, I'm not quite sure) and insisted that we wait. Meanwhile, a man with a 80's-movie-mad-scientist-school-teacher haircut offered to take us free of charge on his bulldozer, an idea that I was particularly pleased with. After we finally cleared customs our jolly schoolteacher drove us only from the place we were waiting to the last gate, a distance of about 50m, or so. He also took us in his truck, not on the bulldozer - we settled for just looking at it. I think he really enjoyed our 2 minutes together.
Outside the gate, we found our other driver's driver friends, their van, and the rural countryside. We had different ideas about what would be a fair price for transporting us the 20km or
Marshrutka to Vardzia
I eventually found the right marshrutka using the Georgian alphabet key in my guidebook. Of course, this was a different spelling than the one listed in the book as there is more than one way to write "dz"
so to Akhaltsikhe. As we patiently argued, Gwen Stephanie's Woohoo-refrigerator song was blasting in the background from the van radio (likely the most well-maintained part of the vehicle).
I sat up front with the driver and his associate while the ladies piled into the back. The associate spoke fluent Turkish, though he unfortunately did so at close range with breath that could kill a flock of horses. At one point he called me a "Turkish Pasha" because I was travelling with three women. I sarcastically assured him that yes, my life is very decadent indeed.
We were dropped off at the Meskheti Hotel (as far as I can tell, nothing in the Georgian language is easy to pronounce and most words/place names seem to involve the clearing of one's throat. One exception to this is "hello," which is "gamarjobat," which sounds to me like "I'm a robot." This was the clear winner for this entry's title over "Georgia On My Mind" and "Back in the USSR"). Hi ho.
Yes, the Meskheti. The hotel is one of many formerly-grand, Soviet-era "Intourist" hotels still (sort of) operating in Georgia. This one was run by a fierce babushka who gave
auto parts store.
we drove past this auto parts store on the way out of Akhaltşikhe...
us the warmest welcome she was capable of along with a long list of instructions in Russian (the language that people who don't speak Georgian are supposed to understand). After I explained that I only had Turkish Lira, she marched me immediately down the road and around the corner to the ATM. She could not have possibly been any more fantastic. Right on!
Across the street from the hotel, we ate a dinner of cholesterol and fat, with some fried cheesy stuff and beer thrown in to make it healthy. We walked the town a little bit, finding only dark, creepy streets and gambling establishments. So, we went back to the hotel and hung out while Jen admirably worked on her paper - about the last thing I would want to do on the first day in an exotic, foreign land.
We breakfasted at the same place that we had clogged up our arteries the night before as Cancún, I mean Akhaltsikhe, is not overflowing with dining options. We had desserts and espresso. I bought two loaves of raisin bread and two bananas and parted ways with the ladies, who were headed up to Tbilisi - the lovely,
Georgian marshrutkas are not the luxury vehicles that one might expect to find...
quirky capital. I had plans to visit Vardzia instead, thinking it would be closer to Turkey on my way back. Hahahahahahahaha...
The ride to Vardzia was stunning and reasonably pleasant, aside from a flat tire about halfway through the trip. Approaching our destination, the surrounding mountains grew larger, rockier, and more imposing. We passed a handful of tiny villages, rounded one final curve and I saw the cave city displayed dramatically across the face of a steep mountain.
As I was the only one left in the marshrutka and the driver seemed unsure of what he should do with me, he dropped me off at the entrance to the site itself. During the ride another passenger had told me that there were no hotels in Vardzia, something that I had been told in Akhaltsikhe as well. The man at the gate seemed confident that this was not the case however, and he pointed to a building across the river.
I walked over and found the building protected by a mean dog. I eventually subdued it enough that it let me walk to the door, which was padlocked. The second story of the building appeared to have had
at least it was a pretty place for a flat...
windows at some point, but they were no longer there. It sure didn't seem to be the palace that was the Meskheti. I had my doubts.
I sat on a nearby rock and shared a loaf of bread with the dog. It no longer viewed me as an enemy but as a really cool best friend. It was some good raisin bread. After a half hour or so of waiting I was ready to just go wander the cave city with my backpack and come up with an alternative plan later. As I got up to leave, a young Georgian man showed up and unlocked the hotel.
I was given a reasonable room, but the key to it only locked the door. Call me fussy, but I like to be able to unlock it as well - so, I opted for just leaving it unlocked. I asked dude if I needed to give him my passport information or anything for checking in and he sort of shrugged that off as being excessively formal - putting my bag in the room was enough.
So, I walked back to the cave city and found hours and hours worth of
sign for the hotel
how did I ever miss that?
exploring in one of the larger adult playgrounds I've ever set eyes on. The hundreds of caves at the site were carved in the 12th century. They supposedly are 13 stories in height, though I'm not sure how exactly this number was determined. A large section of the site, including the largest cave church that I've ever seen, are still a functioning Orthodox monastery. A service of some sort, involving lots of incense, was taking place, so I only peaked briefly into the church. I then saw, well, more caves and eventually came to a very long stairway down out of the far end of the city.
After being thoroughly blown away, I returned to the "hotel" and discovered that dude actually knew less Russian than I did, meaning that I was not in for an evening of deep conversation. With hand gestures I agreed to eat dinner later on, whatever that would be. In the meantime I decided to walk to the valley.
Vardzia seems to be populated more by cows than by people. Some of the cows walked right up to me, behavior I've not grown to expect from animals that are generally rather timid. If
cows are capable of being curious, then I guess these cows were curious. Finding myself in a countryside full of funny cows, after a afternoon of exploring caves in which men live and work, it started to feel like I had stumbled into a Gary Larson cartoon.
My biggest mistake of the day was forgetting to buy another bottle of water in Akhaltsikhe. I had a half a bottle that I had been rationing all afternoon and there was no shop in Vardzia where I could buy another one. I've been ambitious in the past with tap water, but this really did not seem like a good place for being brave about water. I went back to the "hotel" for "dinner," which was a pile of tiny, fried river fish and some fried, flavorless potatoes. The only beverage options were super-sweet cherry juice and vodka. I drank plenty of the former. I tried to drink a shot of the vodka and found it to be, well, not for beginners - I think it would be useful for cleaning something, but I couldn't manage to drink it. I sipped about a third of a shot and it nearly came right
back up (West Virginia 'shine is much smoother).
So what does one do in the evenings in Vardzia? Well. I played nard (Caucasian backgammon) with dude, as he flipped through the Turkish, Russian, and Georgian television stations. This got old quickly, so I turned in early and had a long sleep.
Breakfast looked mysteriously similar to dinner. I settled my bill, said goodbye to dude and the dog, and hopped on the morning marshrutka out of "town." The driver gave me three yellow apples after I had taken my seat. I had no definite plans, other than to get back to Turkey somehow, and to Trabzon by Sunday evening. On the way back to Akhaltsikhe, the driver stopped ever three minutes or so to drop something off or to pick something up. It seemed to be a very complicated system of deliveries, involving lots of plastic bags and boxes hidden in all corners of the vehicle.
After arriving at the Atkhaltsikhe bus stand I ran to the nearest shop and grabbed a bottle of nasty Georgian sodium mineral water. My next step was to find a way west to Batumi, as I decided that going back via
Kars would be too far out of the way. I tried my best to figure this out for twenty minutes or so and then heard somebody calling my name (!).
I had met Nitivia in İstanbul, in January, through Sercan and Jaki. She is a Peace Corps worker in Georgia and was headed to Vardzia with two other Peace Corps friends for the weekend. Unfortunately there was not much time for catching up/making new friends, but they were able to help me with my plans for going to Batumi, which was about 80km or so to the west (it would take me 8 hours to get there). Unfortunately, there is no passable road covering that short distance, so I would have to go via Khashuri to Kutaisi, and from there find onward transport to Batumi. They put me on the correct "marsh" (that's so hip) and bid me farewell (Thanks guys!).
The Kutaisi bus terminal was an exotic, funky zoo of activity, which I foolishly failed to photograph as I was too busy looking desperately for a toilet, which I never did actually find. A man in a red sweater found me, however, and learned that I wanted
to go to Batumi. I thought he either worked at the terminal or drove a "marsh." Ten minutes later he found me again, with a young man who spoke Russian and could explain that the three of us would go together to Batumi in red sweater guy's car, if I wanted and if I could come up with 10 Lari (about 6 USD).
Red sweater guy seemed cool enough, so I said "da, pashli" and we were on our way. It was a frantic thrill ride. He turned out to be a smoking, swerving, passing machine, and at times he reached speeds of 160kph! We stopped at a petrol station along the way and I finally was able to find some relief behind the building. We reached Batumi quickly, and miraculously in one piece. The young guy got off on the city's outskirts. I had no intentions of seeing any of the city. (After finding live mice in the bed I was in two years ago in Batumi, I didn't have much interest in staying there a second time.)
Despite the hassles, I really do enjoy Georgia. It is a small country with an enormous amount of fun
Church of the Assumption
the church is in the middle of the cave city
and surprises to offer to visitors. People are warm and friendly - even the hotel babushka, in her own way. I wish I had had more time to deeply explore the country.
I learned at the very end of the ride that red sweater guy actually knew some Turkish, so I was able to explain my plans to go on to Turkey. Rather than just dropping me off at the marshrutka stand, he honked at a bus departing directly for Ankara and yelled something to the driver. This saved me ping-ponging back and forth with different types of transportation to the border, from the border, and so on until I reached Trabzon. I was given a fair price for my ticket all the way there.
Before I knew it we were at the border, which was far busier than the one we had crossed two days earlier...
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