A Travellerspoint blog

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A Holiday From My Holiday

Day of rest at the trip's midpoint

overcast 75 °F

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Today, I am at the halfway point of my month-long trip to Georgia, Armenia and Karabakh. I rented a room in a nice, air-conditioned hotel and gave myself most of the day off from running around sightseeing. When it's done, this will be the 3rd longest trip I've taken in my life, so far. The longest was my six months backpacking through Europe and living on a kibbutz in Israel I did after from graduating high school. Next in line is my six weeks in Scotland with my friends Tom and Russell. So, I wanted to make sure I didn't burn out. The morning I left Yerevan for Karabakh, I had said to myself, "traveling can be hard." So, today is my sunday from my normal go-go-go schedule.

It began with a walk down from my hotel in Shoushi to the hilltop town's old city walls. I found a spot to climb up and strolled along the crumbling, weed-infested parapets. The view of Stepanakert below was shrouded in early morning haze. My feet and pants quickly were soaked by the dew. It was hard to get a good photograph of the walls, but I snapped away, anyway. Afterwards, I paused to look at some of the historic buildings being slowly renovated. All of Karabakh seems to ring with the sound of electric saws, hammering and the grumble of construction equipment. Streets are routinely blackened by 1950's-ish, Soviet era dump trucks spewing clouds of diesel exhaust.

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Back at Hotel Shoushi, I rolled my clothes and stuffed them into the backpack, yet again. Laundry time is coming soon - especially after yesterday's hike to Tigranakert TKO'd a fresh, clean shirt. I dropped off my room key and walked to the bus stop, fortunately catching it shortly before it left. On the winding drive down, I tried to take some photos of Stepanakert spread out below. I doubt they'll come out, though. From the bus station, I took my usual pleasure in saying "no" to the taxi drivers, and hoofed it to my hotel (which I'd scouted out and booked yesterday). I checked in, unpacked, and relaxed for an hour or so.

Once I was done with my Internet work and answered all the emails and Facebook posts, I decided to head out and see the museums I had picked out. The first was the State Museum of History. It traces settlement in this area from prehistoric times to the late 1800s or so. There is a definite attempt to paint the inhabitants as independent and part of Armenian civilization as much as possible. The museum was small, 3-4 rooms, and lit by flickering bulbs that were turned on by older Armenian women who essentially tailed you during your entire visit.

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It was a challenge to find the next two museums, which deal with the Karabakh War against Azerbaijan. One focuses on the missing and dead, and is plastered with photographs, personal possessions and equipment of the fighters who died in the war. The other tries to tell the story of the conflict in general, but there is a lot of overlap and similarity. Looking at all the photographs, I was struck by a couple things. First, many of the fighters looked so young. I swear some could not have been older than 16. Next, in the snapshots of the fighters at the front or taking a break, you immediately notice how tired they all look. War does not follow a 9-5 schedule and seldom gives enough rest or comfortable beds. This fit with what I'd read of WW II and other conflicts. The weariness of the men and women sinks in as you walk along, scanning photograph after photograph.

My final objective for the day did not meet with success. I was hoping to find a cool souvenir shirt, so went shopping along the main street in Stepanakert. As I mentioned yesterday, Karabakh does not get a lot of tourists, so no souvenir market has really sprung up. I was disappointed because I could really use another shirt about now! I probably packed one too few - accidentally counting the one I wear to bed as one of my shirts to wear around. Failing to find one, I returned to the hotel and washed one in the room's sink so I'd have something to wear tomorrow that wasn't too ripe...!

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The rest of the afternoon and evening was spent relaxing, updating the blog, and having a nice barbecue dinner at a restaurant down the street. It may seem like a strange thing to do, to spend a big chunk of the day in a hotel room when you're half a world away in a scenic, interesting place. But I want to give my body a chance to recover. I've been driving it pretty hard the last two weeks. I have a blister that won't go away on my left heel and could just fee my energy level wearing down. So, a mid-trip holiday was just what I needed. And if I'm going to just kick back for the day, I may as well do it in style...!

Posted by world_wide_mike 10:42 Tagged museum war walls karabakh shoushi Comments (0)

End of Armenia

My last 3 days in Yerevan

sunny 82 °F

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I'm sitting in my first class sleeper train compartment from Yerevan to Tblisi. The first class compartments are for two passengers, second class four, and then third class is the ordinary seats you're used to seeing on a train. I wasn't paying much attention when I booked this, though. It is supposed to be the night train, arriving in Tblisi, Georgia, sometime before noon. Sleeper compartments are more expensive, but I look at them as my hotel room for the night. However they recently changed the times and it didn't dawn on me until after I bought the ticket. The train now it leaves at 3:15 pm. This means I will be getting into the train station between midnight and 1 am. So, what the heck am I to do in the middle of the night once I get to the city? I guess I'll find out!

The last several days have been my last in Armenia. I arrived on the marshrutka from Karabakh Wednesday afternoon. For most of it, it was my least comfortable marshrutka ride so far. I got stuck in the back row of seats next to a guy who wanted to spread out half into my seat. I fought off channeling the old days of riding in the back seat of my parents' car to visit grandparents. "Mom! Tony's touching me!" or "He's on my side of the seat, Mom!" Partway through, a passenger got off, though, and I leaped at the chance to move my seat. The ride was scenic - especially Karabakh's portion of hairpin turns and switchbacks. Once again, we had kids on board whose stomachs couldn't take it and they hurled a number of times on the ride. At least the mom was prepared with grocery bags to use as "barf bags"!

I checked into my hotel in Yerevan, sorted my clothes and turned in a huge batch of laundry. I decided to take this chance to wash everything over the next two days. I also went online, caught up with my blog, and got ahold of Sigrid to see if she'd have any time to finally get to the Genocide Museum. By the time I got sorted out, all the museums were closed (most close at 4 pm). I did get to the train station to buy my ticket for this ride. Once back at the hotel, I planned my next day and a half of sightseeing.

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Thursday began with me finally getting to the Manuscripts Museum. The building is a huge, 4-story structure. However, most of it is devoted to preservation and restoration work. Only two rooms of the building are actually for visitors. There was quite a variety packed into those two rooms, though! Everything from strips of birch tree bark with early Russian religious writings through Islamic manuscripts to Renaissance era map atlases. The highlight of the museum is its medieval era illuminated manuscripts. The pictures in them were still bright and colorful. I took numerous photos (without a flash) and no one objected.

Next up was the State Museum of History. I was told "No photographs!" There was an unsmiling Armenian matron on hand in each room to enforce it and redirect you if you appeared to want to explore the museum out of the proscribed order. To spite them, I decided to see the second floor before the third. You are supposed to start at the top and work your way down. It is arranged chronologically, earliest upstairs to modern stuff on the ground level. The second floor, where I started was the medieval and Renaissance era artifacts. Almost none of the information was in anything but Armenian or Russian. It was mostly bright glazed ceramics from Persia or other Middle Eastern sources. Pretty to look at, but not what I'd really came for.

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The third floor had the Bronze Age artifacts from the early kingdom of Urartu. Armenians trace their descent from that kingdom. There were huge, inscribed bronze shields, helmets, axes and maces, and even bronze scale armor. One thing that surprised me was the ritual burial wagons. Theses were not designed to move, but to bury an important person inside. They had two reconstructed from fragments there and I SO wanted to take a picture of them. But Olga was keeping a stink eye on the decadent Western tourist, so I held off. However, when I got to the massive stone blocks inscribed in cuneiform, an Italian tour group provided the distraction I needed. God bless my kin from the "old country," but they tend to travel in packs and make a scene in museums or at historic sights. All of the Armenian former KGB matrons closed in around them like sharks. They were sure they would do something wrong, so I was left momentarily unobserved. My camera was out in a flash, and with my body shielding what I was doing, I snapped a few shots. The Italians made enough noise to mask the "beep-beep" of the camera's auto-focus. Who knows? Maybe after I finish teaching I have a future with the CIA!

The bottom floor was a snore, being mostly carpets with no English explanations. Oriental carpets are neat, but really? How many can you look at? I checked out the gift shop, but didn't find anything interesting. For lunch, I decided to try out a supposedly American style restaurant with free (but weak) Wi-fi. The receptionist at my hotel, Lilit, said it wasn't that good, but it was close and I was hot, so I ducked into its air conditioning. The food wasn't great, so I probably should have listened to her. She was incredibly helpful to me over the course of my two stays there - negotiating my taxi excursion to Garni and Geghard, writing down in Armenian what I needed for my train ticket for the cashiers at the station, and giving me insight into Armenian culture and current trends.

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After lunch, I took the 25-cent subway ride and 1.50 taxi to Erebuni, a hill on Yerevan's south side that contains the ruins of a Bronze Age citadel. My guidebook had slammed the fort's museum, but they must not have visited it since its upgrade. I found the exhibits interesting and thoroughly described in about five languages (including English). Turns out that Lilit had done the Italian translations for the museum in a previous job. There was a reconstruction of a Urartu chariot, along with ceramics, weapons and armor, actual frescoes cut free from the ruins of walls, and more.

The highlight, of course, was the climb up the the ruins of the citadel on top of the hill. Although Erebuni is not the most picturesque set of ruins I've visited,it is always cool to poke around buildings, walls and artifacts 3,000 years old. The walls were reconstructed by Soviet archeologists, who then poured a layer of concrete on top to hold it all together. They're about eight feet high through most of the complex, but I found portions where I could scramble on top of them and give myself a better camera angle. For the most part, I had the entire complex to myself. I took my time, looking out over Yerevan spread out beneath me, and tried to picture it in its glory.

Museums are hard on my back, for some reason. I think it is walking along for hours with a slight hunched over pose to look at items in glass cases. So, three museums in one day pretty much wiped me out.

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Lilit had arranged for my last half day in Yerevan to be less stressful. She said I could stay in my room and not check out until it was time for my train. So, after breakfast, I walked about a mile or so to the Blue Mosque. Built in the 1700s, it is the last functioning mosque in the city. The fiercely-Christian Armenians endured centuries of rule by Muslim Turks, Arabs, or Persians, when there were many more mosques in the country. The mosque's courtyard was a peaceful enclave off of a busy street, with trees and gardens. The tiled dome and minaret were a splash of bright blue amidst the gray and apricot colored stone of most Yerevan buildings. Although the mosque itself was closed, it was neat to wander inside the courtyard and photograph the buildings.

Next, I hopped a cab for my long-delayed visit to the Genocide Museum. When Sigrid and I had tried to visit last week, it had been closed for a holiday. I arrived before it opened and waited around until 11 am. There was a huge group of Americans from various Masonic lodges visiting, all decked out in suits and ties. Although the museum staff tried to rope me into a group tour, I broke free immediately to visit it on my own. The main part of the museum consists of two rows of impressively laid out glass cases with various documents, photographs, books, newspapers and magazines. They all document the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians that was carried out by the Ottoman Turks during World War I. There are reports from ambassadors, military personnel, aid workers, and even official Turkish government drafts that document the atrocity.

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Why did they do it? First off, the Turkish government has never officially acknowledged or apologized for the massacres. This is unlike Germany, which HAS come forward and tried to make amends for Nazi persecution and execution of Jews during the Holocaust. At this time in Turkey's history, it was suffering a long decline from its Renaissance era power. They were losing provinces left and right. They had already lost the Eastern part of Armenia, and the other world leaders were clamoring for them to surrender the Western part so Armenia could have a unified nation. As you can imagine, the Turks weren't crazy about chopping off another chunk of their empire. So, some within the government thought that if it was the Armenians that were the problem, they could solve that. "No Armenians, no problem." So, they sent out their troops to round up all the Armenian men and take them into custody. The Armenian women and children were forced to march out of their villages into the deserts of the Middle East. There, thousands died of starvation and disease. The men, on the other hand, were simply taken to remote locations and shot. The museum documents all this mainly through observers from all nations - European, eastern and American. Although the museum is smaller than the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C.,the effects the same. The thing I wondered after my visit was not how this could have happened. Instead, I wondered how many other times in history did this happen, undocumented, without the modern media of the world to call attention to it? How many other empires and kingdoms have slaughtered people because of their race or culture? It is kind of chilling when you think about. Do those dead photographed and enlarged on the museum walls have countless silent sisters and brothers in mass graves on every continent?

Perhaps this is too morbid a thought to ponder on a sunny train ride through the Armenian hills. It is what the museum made me think, though, which is perhaps the true purpose of these types of monuments.

Posted by world_wide_mike 14:22 Archived in Armenia Tagged museum genocide manuscripts erebuni urartians Comments (4)

A Rainy Night in Georgia

The good and the bad of international travel

rain 90 °F

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So, the attempt to wait out the wee hours of the morning in a 24-hour restaurant was a complete failure. My train from Yerevan had arrived just after midnight, Friday. I knew if I tried to check in to a hotel that I would be charged for the full, previous day. So, my big idea was to hang out in this restaurant that had wireless internet until it was later in the morning. Then, I could swing by my hotel that I hoped would have a room for me (I'd booked Sunday last time I was in Tblisi, but they hadn't responded to my emails to extend it into Saturday, too). So, i really didn't knowing I even had a room.

The restaurant was fine, the Internet was good, and my friends like Steve, Joe, Otis and others did their best to keep me awake as the clock crawled towards 3 and 4 am. I just couldn't take sitting there anymore after 5 am, though. I decided to walk to the hotel and see if they had 24-hour reception and plead my case. It was easy to find, and I wasn't the only one walking the streets at 5 am. There were plenty of partiers making their way home. Everyone had said Tblisi is a safe city, and this was the heart of the tourist district. So, no one bothered me or even gave me as much as a second glance. There were no lights on I the hotel - a small, family-run one - so, I headed towards a tiny park I remembered nearby. I sat on a bench for about an hour before trying again.

This time someone was up, and they let me in. The man at the desk spoke almost no English, but he seemed to recognize my name. He made a point to acknowledge that I would change rooms on Sunday into the one I'd booked for Jenny and I. I gratefully crashed in a bed and slept until about 1030 am. Later on, when I was showered and ready to do some sightseeing, English speakers were manning the desk. I found out they were charging me for the whole previous day, like I'd done so much to avoid. We argued, and they ended up knocking $30 off the rate, which was much more reasonable. Still, it irked me that it was a room they knew they hadn't rented the previous day. Why not let me check in early?

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So, enough about my pinching pennies - or in this case, Georgian Laris. The day was sunny and warm, but I honestly didn't know where I was headed. I had a few things I wanted to do today, so I ambled towards the main square, still half in a sleep-deprived fog. I hadn't made it down to this part of the city on my first brief visit and was surprised how pretty it all was. My impression from the first time was Old Town was very run down and crumbling. This was the spruced up, reconstructed, tourist-friendly part. I noticed the cable cars climbing up towards Nariqala Fortress, and like any history buff, couldn't resist the lure of a cool castle.

The cable car was very slick - air conditioned, smooth, efficient and cheap ($1 or so). Nariqala Fortress looms over the city from a steep hilltop. It's ruins are not that extensive, but enough to poke around for an hour. You can climb the walls, and scramble up hillsides to the fragments of ruined towers. The sun was baking - it was easily 90 degrees. However, the higher you climbed, the more often you were rewarded with a fresh, cooling breeze. It was just the medicine to wake me up out of my stupor. Tblisi looked bright and scenic spread out at my feet, and I took lots of photographs.

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I don't know who had the idea first, but - like Armenia - Georgia also has a "mother" statue guarding the city from atop a hill. Mother Georgia holds a wine goblet welcoming visitors who come peacefully in one hand and a sword in the other, for those who come with ill intent. The statue looks like concrete, but has been carved and painted to resemble steel plating. I was dripping sweat by the time I made my way to the cable car down. I was tempted by the ice cream seller, but figured my fat body was sweating for a reason, and i didn't need to sabotage its efforts to get back in shape! The blast of air conditioning was heavenly, though, as I floated down towards the city.

Next up was purchasing some train tickets for Jenny and I, as well as visiting the Tourist Information Office to answer some more logistical questions. That completed, I headed back to the room for a nice, air conditioned nap. I woke up to the rumble of thunder. Looking at my watch, I saw it was dinner time. I'd already picked out a restaurant earlier, so got myself pulled together and headed downstairs. I decided against the rain jacket, my mind remembering the day's 90 degree heat. I couldn't imagine suffocating in a rain jacket. Of course, the skies let loose a downpour of biblical proportions about 10 minutes after I'd left the hotel. I ducked underneath an overhang by the entrance to an office buildings to wait it out. The wind began to whip and the rain drops crept closer to my feet. I pressed against the glass of the door and felt the latch release. I looked around inside, saw no one, so stepped inside out of the rain.

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Just I case I was breaking office rules, I kept silent and out of sight. Eventually, I heard a chair scrape against the floor and Vasily came around, doubtless drawn by the sound of the driving rain, roaring wind, and the cats and dogs raining down upon the pavement. Outside the glass door, we could see a river rushing down the street. I said hello in Georgian and gestured toward the hurricane outside his door. This was one of the moments that spice up international travel like an unexpected jalapeño. Instead of of ordering me out,Vasily invited me into sit in the office's comfortable chairs. We sat and talked for the next 45 minutes as the rain raged. He had visited the United States twice while in the Georgian army. He apologized for his English - which was fine - and we had a blast, sitting there talking the rainstorm away. Unexpected moments like this, when you connect with someone from another culture, are just as important to travel as soaring castles, serene monasteries and majestic scenery.

I was even more appreciative of Vasily's hospitality when I saw what his job at the "office" was. He was the armory officer, of sorts, for an armed security guard company. His coworkers began to come in, unload their pistols, and turn in the weapons and ammunition to him. If anybody had a reason to order a stranger out into the windswept, rainy streets, it would have been Vasily. Instead, he opened the door and let me witness Georgian hospitality again.

Eventually, the rain died down enough for me to slosh along the irregular, stone pavement to my restaurant. I said my goodbye and thanks to Vasily, and headed out I to the darkness. A bright spot remained inside me. The next time I'm caught in an unexpected downpour, I'll think back to a "rainy night in Georgia," and a stranger who took me in and made my day brighter.

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Posted by world_wide_mike 11:54 Archived in Georgia Tagged town old georgia nariqala tblisi Comments (2)

Day Trip To Gori

A cave city and a leader who belonged in one...

sunny 86 °F

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Cave city of Uplistsikhe

One comparison I'd make between Georgia and Armenia is that Armenia seems more "up to date" and Western. The downtown area of Yerevan is nice, very walk able and has lots of shops and amenities. The Old Town area of Tblisi is more torn up, you have to watch where you're stepping all the time on the uneven and missing pavement, and amenities for travelers are less developed. The case in point was there are a host of competing companies in Armenia offering various excursions to cultural sights far and wide in Armenia. In Georgia, you have to contact a travel agency and set up an expensive, individual tour, or manage on public transport. You can't join affordable, pre-set trips like you can in Armenia.

Which is why I was heading off to the town of Gori in a marshrutka that morning. I had a day to kill, as Jenny's flight wasn't arriving until midnight. I wanted to go to Davit Gareja, an important UNESCO world heritage church and monastery complex. However, at more than $100 for an individual tour, I wasn't buying. In Armenia, Sigrid and I paid less than $40 and joined an 11-hour excursion to three important sights. In Georgia, they just don't have those kind of things set up.

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Countryside around the cave city

So, what was in Gori that made it second choice? Most people think of the museum there to Josef Stalin. That wasn't my primary draw nor my first stop once in Gori. Just outside of town, there is a cave city that was inhabited from prehistoric through medieval times. Where Vardzia was more of a monastic community, Uplistsikhe was a town, in essence. Being a Georgian town, there were churches and chapels, of course. It's focus though was not on religion - but instead on being an ordinary town where some people happen to live in homes dug out of the soft tan-colored sandstone that makes up the hills along the river bank.

Fortunately, the marshrutka driver dropped me off right in front of Gori's Tourist Information Office (across from the Stalin museum). They were incredibly helpful, and arranged a taxi to take me to the site, wait while I explored it, then bring me back for 20 Lari - about $12. I've found that if you can get a local (hotel, tourist office, etc.) to arrange your taxi trip, you get a fair price.

Uplistsikhe was very cool. The site is more spread out than Vardzia was, and even though there were several tour buses worth of people there, I usually explored individual caves or rooms by myself. There are guides if you want them, but I opted not. The map and information boards a the beginning, along with the handful of placards on site, were enough for me. I admit I would likely have learned more with a guide. Just as often, though, I've had them rush me through sites in the past. They almost akways interfere with me losing myself in the history if the place. I've also had them give me less information than was in my guidebook or feed me bogus facts. And since the only thing NOT hit or miss about guides is their price, I usually opt out of having a guide.

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One neat thing was a local group was filming a movie on site that day. They were camped out in one of the really atmospheric caves, with a carved stone column in the center of the room. They brought in props like candles, table, wall hanging, etc. the actors were dressed in medieval costumes and you could see them pacing around prepping themselves for their scene. I ducked my head in to watch one scene and it looked like a neat historical epic. The lead actor, a burly, gray-bearded man who reminded me of Peter Ustinov, was portraying a great Georgian king, I believe. I think it was a community or somewhat amateur production, as many of the actors were very young and their costumes weren't very elaborate. However, I would like to see a subtitled version of it, someday.

My taxi dropped me back off at the tourist office. From there, inset off the climb the hill in the center of town with its medieval castle. It was maybe a 15-minute walk and climb to the top. It was another gorgeous, sunny day. The wind was whipping that day, especially on the edge of hilltops! I climbed around on the walls, patrolled the perimeter of the castle, and looked out over Gori beneath me. Two French tourists visited the castle briefly at the same time, and there were two Georgian policemen on duty up top. Other than that, I had Gori castle to myself. The walls are in partial ruins and you can't climb inside any of the structures, but it had a nice, lonely feel to it. Judging from the empty beer bottles littering the grassy hilltop, most of its visitors we're not tourists, but locals looking for somewhere to kick back.

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My final stop was the much-heralded and way overpriced Stalin Museum. Entrance was more than $10, but it did include a guide. It wasn't compulsory to go with a group, but none of the signs or labels were in English, so I relented. At the beginning there is a piece of puffery that says the museum supposedly looks at both the good (lead USSR to victory over Nazi Germany in WW II) and bad (had, oh, maybe 20 million of his own people put to death) of Stalin. The only things I saw were glorifying him. Here were photos of him as a young Bolshevik revolutionary, there photos of him encouraging the Soviets to persevere in the war. In another room were gifts given to him by other nations in honor of his birthday. No balance was seen at all...unless it was in those Georgian and Russian captions I could not read. Our guide mentioned nothing about gulags, executions by the secret police, or starvation of millions of Russians through forced collectivization of farms. Even the house Stalin was born in is preserved underneath a temple like structure outside the museum. The only part I honestly enjoyed was his armored train he used as a mobile office in WW II.

After the tour, I decided to head to the bus station, and get back to Tblisi. My sense of direction bombed on me and I merrily marched off in the wrong direction for about 15 minutes before I discovered my mistake. I not-so-merrily retraced my steps and found the station, and my marshrutka. On the way out, I'd had to wait 45 minutes before it departed. I got lucky this time and it left 5 minutes after I climbed aboard. I was soon headed back to slightly ragged and run-down Tbilisi. It may not always be pretty, but for tonight it was home.

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Posted by world_wide_mike 10:22 Archived in Georgia Tagged museum castle yerevan stalin tblisi gori uplistsikhe marshrutka Comments (0)

Land of Monks and Winemakers

Not all smooth sailing in Telavi

sunny 90 °F

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The first day in Telavi - Georgia's "wine country" - had not exactly gone smooth. Our hotel did not have our reservation. All the rooms were taken by a Bollywood production that is filming here for a month. Luckily, the desk manager found us a relatively comparable room in a brand new hotel. The main sight we wanted to see today, Batonistsikhe Castle, was closed for renovation. In fact, the whole town is undergoing some serious renovation. All the main streets are torn up, and construction vehicles rumble past all day, blanketing you with dust and diesel smoke. Nevertheless, we poked around town and saw a few things of interest.

The next morning, though, was the heart of our Telavi side trip. We hired a cab (arranged by the same helpful desk manager) to visit six of the region's top sights - monasteries, nunneries, churches and castles. Our driver showed up promptly and we were underway on a warm, sunny day. Our first stop was at a pair of sights, Old and New Shaumta. Old Shaumta is a trio of churches, the oldest from the 400s A.D. All three were of cream colored stone, and relatively small. They were tucked away in a secluded forest and were part of a monastery at one point. Other than one other carload of tourists, we were the only visitors. That same carload was on the same itinerary, and we would bump into them at every stop along the way.

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Down the road was the nunnery, New Shaumta. It was kind of cool, I had to ring this surprisingly loud bell to get one of the nuns to let us through the gate. As we entered the 16th century chapel I heard my two least favorite words when I'm traveling, "No photographs." the reason was the gorgeous frescos covering every foot of the walls and ceiling. The deep blue color and the figures were weathered, but easy to make out. I recognized Gregory the Illuminator, the saint who brought Christianity to the area. Other than the chapel, pretty much the entire place is off limits to visitors. Part of it, I'm sure, is for the privacy of the nuns. Another part was the - you guessed it - reconstruction going on at the site.

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From there, we made our way to my favorite monastery of the day: Ikalto. It was founded in the 500s A.D. by Syrian monks who traveled to Georgia. Tradition has it that they are buried in the main church. The monastery functioned as a university for centuries in Georgia. The ruins of the Academy area dark gray stone, which contrasts with the apricot colored church walls. A wine press and huge, clay amphorae used to store wine are lined up not far from the church. Georgia is known for its wines, and this area has been the heart its wine production since the beginning. All around the monastery complex are one of my favorite trees - tall, thin cypress furs. I love how they look and give any place a classical, Mediterranean feel.

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Our fourth stop was probably the most stunning building I'd seen in Georgia: Alaverdi Cathedral. It is surrounded by medieval stone walls and squat towers. The inside is massive, with huge, soaring ceilings. Traces of frescoes cover nearly the entire inside, some darker and easier to see, others a faint whisper of color on the whitish-gray stone.
This was the type of cathedral that makes your next sore, as you wander around staring upwards at the arches, domes, and decorated stonework. Some of the frescos showed influence from Islamic art, being graceful, geometric patterns in contrasting colors. I overheard a guide pointing Persian style arches to another group. Of course, one bad thing about Alaverdi Cathedral is its "no photography" rule once inside the walls. Rebel that I can be, I did sneak in a picture or two - but not inside. A monk and older lady kept a vigilant eye on us as we wandered around.

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Gremi Castle was on our next and probably most fun stop. You were free to wander around the red brick castle to your heart's content. We climbed towers, explored subterranean passages, admired the view of the countryside, and checked out the interior museum. The castle has one lofty tower and a tall church steeple to give it a two pronged silhouette. As you gazed out over the farmlands and forest surrounding the castle, you could see medieval remnants of churches and watchtowers poking up out of the trees on all sides. All that was missing were trumpet blasts and a column of armored knights clip-clopping into the courtyard.

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We finished off the day with Nekresi Monastery, perched high atop a forest ridge on the edge of the hills surrounding the Telavi valley. You can see it from the distance as a stab of orange on the rolling green hills. It was the only hilltop monastery of the day, so of course, we had to milk that for what it's worth! Our driver dropped us off at the bottom of the hill and pointed out the gate to go through for our climb to the top. It was no dirt pathway, though, but instead a smooth, cobbled stone driveway. We wondered who the lucky ones were that got to drive up. Although it was just under a mile to the monastery, it was a steep ascent, the switchbacks often at staircase height. After we'd gone a ways, a vanload of people chugged by us. The same van passed us going downhill a short time later. Drenched with sweat, we continued to climb, searching out every shady patch of road no matter how small. When the van passed us going uphill, again, we knew we'd missed something. Yes, there were van rides to the top! No one told us, and we didn't see any signs of them when we began our ascent of Everest.

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Eventually, we arrived at the blessed spot...doubly so for us! The collection of stone buildings are mainly from the 800-900s A.D. It was very peaceful there, with gentle breezes sighing through the trees. Far below, farmlands were laid out in patterns of yellow, light and darker green. We explored the buildings, some of which are used for religious art galleries, nowadays. It was a nice way to wrap up the day's sightseeing. The combination of rich, decorated stonework, dark chapels smelling of candle smoke, and a gorgeous panorama of the Telavi valley, seemed to sum up the day. That, and missing the van ride up held true with out not exactly smooth visit to Georgia's wine and monastery country!

Posted by world_wide_mike 11:49 Archived in Georgia Tagged church country castle wine monastery georgia telavi gremi shaumta ikalto alaverdi nekresi Comments (0)

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