A Travellerspoint blog

This blog is published chronologically. Go straight to the most recent post.

Near-disaster on Day 1

When it rains, it pours...

rain 75 °F

5002e83d.jpg

My reentry into the world of staying in hostels didn't go so well last night. Despite totaling maybe 3 hours sleep over the last two days, I could not get to sleep. I was staying in a 6-bed dorm with 5 other travellers I did not get a chance to meet because I didn't get in till after 1 am. I am an incredibly light sleeper, so the noises of people shuffling through their stuff, going to the restroom and so on kept me from falling asleep. Oh, and did I mention two cat fights outside our balcony and the drunken disturbance down the street? Yeah, so I went into Thursday half a zombie.

I'd like to think that was my alibi for the disaster I mention in the title. Somehow, as I was out wandering the streets of Old Town Tbilisi, I managed to lose my passport. Not misplace, or forget where I left it. No,I dropped in the street somewhere. When I noticed it was missing, I retraced my entire morning route. I returned to the hostel and told them about it. Before calling the police, the hostel worker made me empty my pockets and bags for her. When I checked with the embassy, they confirmed someone had found and reported they would be turning in my passport. They called a couple hours later when they had it. I jumped in a cab and raced to get it. In 72 previous countries, I had ever lost either my passport or wallet. Yikes. I'd better get some sleep tonight or this could be a rough trip!!

e55b8489.jpg

So, what did I do and see in Tblisi today? Mainly, I made travel arrangements like purchasing my ticket to Mestia -- the scenic heart of the Caucasus Mts. In Georgia. I checked out hotels for when Jenny joins me in mid-July, and I picked out places to visit. Definitely a "light" day on sights, but a potential heavy-weight disaster. I met a lot of the other travellers staying here at the hostel. It was fun gettting to know them. Tomorrow, I am out the door early to take a marshrutka (shared minivan taxi) to Akhaltsikhe. And yes, I even learned how to pronounce that mouthful of a name. Georgians love their consonants! So far, my favorite is Mtskheta...5 consonants before the first vowel!

Hopefully, I'll have more sights to report on tomorrow, along with no dazed mindless mishaps...!

Posted by world_wide_mike 07:40 Archived in Georgia Comments (3)

Deep into the Wooded Mountains

Akhaltsikhe and Sapera Monastery

sunny 81 °F

19ddd33f.jpg

Today began with my introduction to the main form of public transportation in Georgia - the marshrutka. This is a large van that functions as a bus, going between towns and cities, and even within cities themselves. You don't see Western style buses on the roads much here, but marshrutky (plural of marshrutka) are everywhere.

A quick early morning walk to the metro station, and six stops later, I was outside the main marshrutka station in Tblisi. My guidebook called it "sprawling," and it was that. Not being able to read the Georgian letters - they use a form of Cyrillic, like Russia - I asked around and quickly found my van. The price was less than 14 Georgian Lari, which comes to less than $10 for a 3-hour plus ride.

The scenery steadily became more mountainous as we drove southwest from the capital. About halfway there, we lost the nice, 4-lane divided highway and were reduced to a potholed 2-lane country road. I'd heard Georgian drivers are, well, nutballs behind the wheel. Mine was aggressive, becoming frustrated when he couldn't pass slow, diesel smoke spewing trucks that coughed along ahead of us. I'd made a vow, though, that I would watch the scenery and not stress out about the driving. It worked, and I enjoyed the ride through steadily more mountainous terrain. Ruined castles and towers brooded atop some hills, while on others patches of weathered stone covered in dark green moss peered out from behind the thick coating of trees. I was the only one of a dozen passengers enjoying the view. I was the only traveller to Akhaltsikhe - everyone else appeared to be Georgian locals.

cb5b4a37.jpg

The word Akhaltsikhe has two of one of my favorite foreign sounds that we don't use in English. Make a hawking sound like you're getting ready to spit. That is what the "kh" sound is in Georgian. Akhaltsikhe is lucky....it gets two,hawking spits in its name! Once in town, I struck out along the main drive looking for one of two hotels I'd picked out from the guidebook's description. This was actually one of the few stops I did not reserve a room over the internet beforehand. I did have to ask directions to find hotel Prestizhi, but was glad I did. For $30, I got a great room with balcony, bathroom, shower - and most importantly, all to myself! Last night in Old Town Hostel in Tblisi, I'd conked out early and slept for about 4 and 1/2 hours. Once I woke up about 3:45 am, I never could get back to sleep. Mister Snorer in the bunk below me had his sleep apnea kick in then, and it woke me up despite my ear plugs. I was definitely looking forward to my own room!

27988ad7.jpg

Next up was my #1 reason for coming here: Sapera Monastery. I cut a deal with a taxi driver to take me up into the hills on dirt tracks for 8 miles and bring me back. I didn't know how bad the road was, so now I understand the 25 lari price better. The scenery was stunning. I savored the forests, alpine meadows, deep river valleys and green hilltops while getting slung back and forth in the back of the taxi. Sapera is halfway up a steep slope, and the stone walls and tile roofs of the monastery seem to rest at peace in its remote forest. The oldest buildings are more than 1,000 years old, it is a gorgeous, serene place. My taxi driver accompanied me the whole way, soaking it in alongside me and pointing out places to take nice photos from. You could go inside two of the churches, and the medieval era frescoes on the walls were stunning. Georgians take their religion seriously, and the sparse handful of others there were lighting candles, crossing themselves and bowing. Sapera's monks seemed cheerful. In fact, they would fit right in at any gaming convention with their unkempt beards and quirky humor. It always cracks me up, too, when a monk pauses to answer their cell phone...!

8d9995e3.jpg

Once back, I decided to explore the castle. Akhaltsikhe means "new castle" in Georgian. To give you an idea how old the land is, the castle was built in the 1100's AD. The castle looms over the town on a steep hill. Right now, it is one massive sprawling cot structure site. The government is pouring millions of laris into a huge renovating project. All of the castle buildings and walls are being completely rebuilt to look brand new. There were hundreds of workers cutting stone, driving backhoes and doing every job imaginable. This has got to be the biggest employment source in town, if not the whole region. There is even going to be a reconstructed village at the base of the castle. In about a year or so, this is going to be a cool place to visit! I played nonchalant and wandered in amongst the construction, taking sly photos now and then. My three day beard growth, dark glasses and (I've been told) Georgian features meant that no one stopped me.

b2c18a2c.jpg

Afterwards, a nap was calling to me. Having less than 8 hours sleep over the last 4 days added up, and I conked out in the hotel room for an hour or so. The rest of the day was spent exploring the town and finding cool stuff to photograph. So far, the only wifi I've found is at a gas station convenience store. Hopefully, I'll find a better spot and upload this. Tomorrow, I'm off to a highly scenic valley chocked full of historic sights. Stay tuned for more updates....

81d19af4.jpg

Posted by world_wide_mike 19:04 Archived in Georgia Comments (2)

Storming the Castle

Can worldwidemike surmount the "impregnable" Tmogvi castle?

sunny 82 °F

So yesterday's experience with the marshrutka must have been the Cadillac of services. Today began with a marshrutka ride to my guesthouse that I would be staying at for the next two days. Everything started out normal, though this van was definitely more drab and dark. I should have known this would be a different experience when our driver made about six stops to pick up merchandise to deliver along his route. Marshrutka drivers are more than just bus drivers - they are entrepreneurs. The more cargo they can ram in to supplement the paying passengers, the more they make. About halfway through the route, as more people and cargo was piled on, I honestly wondered if they ever turned anyone away as full. Or 14 passenger van had at least 24 folks squeezed together with chickens, produce, luggage and even a spare tire! I wasn't the only one concerned about our overloaded state. I noticed one lady cross herself and pray after four more people crammed on.

I made it safely and "kind of" to my destination. I'd booked Tirebi Guesthouse (http://www.tirebiguesthouse.com/) online through a company back in the capital. As it turns out, the guesthouse has no Internet, so this third party handles their booking and communicates with them via phone. They did not want to give me their number, though, and insisted the host would pick me upon the nearby village. They wouldn't give me his phone number, though. They wanted me to call THEM, and then they would call him. I told the I would not have a phone, though,and explained which marshrutka I would be arriving on. So, no surprise that no one was there to pick me up. Fortunately, I'd seen the sign for the turnoff for the guesthouse about a quarter of a mile before we'd pulled into the village. I simply had to backtrack and then hike the two kilometers to the guesthouse.

390f1726.jpg

I knew it was also a working farm, but I didn't realize it was "out in the sticks." Guesthouse Tirebi has no neighbors and lives by themselves at the foot of the main place I wanted to see: Tmogvi Castle. I was the only guest, too. My room was nice, with a bathroom and shower - no dorm sleeping, woo-hoo! It was fairly clean, too. Farmer Sergei's directions on how to climb up to the cliff top ruins of the castle were disturbingly vague. I assumed the "path" would be easy to find, though and soon geared up for my climb.

The very minimal path disappeared from time to time,but it wasn't until I entered a meadow of thistles, tall grass and rocks that it escaped me completely. I knew Georgia had snakes, and the rock piles worried me. Sure enough, I did the Heeby Jeeby I Just Saw a Snake dance a few times. I almost turned around. But I would have to recross snakeland to do it. I could see the ruins walls and towers looming above me, getting marginally closer. I finally decided that I may have lost THE path (if there ever was one), but I could do my best to make my own way up. I began zig-zagging upwards, slipping on loose rocks or grass from time to time. After what seemed a long time, I was at the base of the walls.

9a99443d.jpg

One problem, though: this castle was reknowned in the middle ages for being impregnable. The high walls on top of a towering hill made it impossible for attackers to seize. So, just how easy would it be for a 49-year-old history teacher to surmount? Having come all this way, I was determined to try. I circled the hilltop, trying a couple routes but being turned back by sheer walls or dense patches of vegetation that screamed "snake" to me. I did breach the outer wall at one point, but it led to yet another sheer wall. Defeated, like it's medieval attackers, I retreated downhill to a pathway I saw cutting through the valley. I followed it to an actual gravel road, and followed its long loop (threading my way through a herd of cows...thinking, "hmmm,those are male cows - I hope I don't get charged by a bull!"). It soon became obvious this was not the original road I walked to the guesthouse on. It was leading me too far past.

fb8e0800.jpg

Eventually, I found another trail which led me back to the farm. I sank down on a bench on the covered porch, exhausted. Sergei's wife brought me a glass of tasty fruit juice. I savored it, watching Sergei (who speaks as much English as I do Georgian) and his 10-year-old son, Giorgi (who speaks some English) amble up from the river. Giorgi translated my adventures flor his dad. They asked if I was still interested in visiting Khertsvivi Fortress, and I said I was. They let me rest for about a half hour before Sergei and I Jumped into his SUV for the 15 minute drive.

39e41756.jpg

Khertsvivi is a 14th century castle built to guard the junction of two rivers in a narrow valley. It has very eastern stylistic influences, including the triangular crennalations. Although it is unguarded and open to the public to roam, it is more complete than the ruined Tmogvi. We walked around it for awhile, climbing towers and poking into rooms. My body was still feeling my earlier climb, so I wasn't into it as much as I'd normally be. We returned to the guesthouse, where I showered and then took a nap. I'm still feeling the sleep deprivation, apparently. Funny thing, though. Both yesterday and today, when I woke up from my nap, I had no idea where I was for about 10 seconds. I guess whatever dreams I was having seemed equally real to my adventures in Georgia.

I finished off the evening with a family-cooked meal of more food than I could eat in several days. The fried potatoes were excellent, as were the fresh cucumbers and tomatoes. There is no internet here, so I'll send this update later (probably from Armenia on Monday). Right now, my body is telling me to stretch out, relax, and catch up on more sleep!

Posted by world_wide_mike 04:54 Archived in Georgia Comments (1)

Cave Men of Georgia

Mickey and Lessie, where are you?

sunny 85 °F

b2562d39.jpg
Lessie, Mickey and Giorgi

The goal for today was to hike to the cave city of Vardzia. The guesthouse owner had promised me his 10-year-old son, Giorgi, to be my guide for the day. Tagging along were two of his dogs, Lessie and Mickey. I wasn't sure it was a great idea for the dogs, seeing as how we'd be climbing through tunnels and visiting churches. Giorgi was insistent, saying the dogs had made the trip many times.

We started early, 7:30 am, and we're soon hiking steadily uphill. I told Giorgi that without him I never would have stayed on the trail as it disappeared and reappeared. We settled into a marching order, the dogs scouting ahead, and Giorgi pointing out sights. One cool one was a hermit's tiny cave. It had a single, carved stone window that looked up at the looming bulk of Tmogvi castle. I pointed out the route I'd taken yesterday in my only partially successful attempt to storm the fortress. Giorgi was somewhat quiet at first,until I got him talking about his dogs. After that, he chattered away excitedly like only a preteen can. In addition to our companions, Giorgi also had a wolf hybrid, Bimi, who was essentially the farm's guardian. Giorgi was most excited about his dog that lived with his grandfather. Rexi is apparently quite the scamp, winning fights against all comers and devouring the neighbor's chickens.

77bafa2d.jpg

After about an hour of scrambling up and down hillsides, slipping on loose rocks, the trail veered towards the river. Walking became much easier and the dogs bounded through the tall grass hunting foxes or rabbits. The path was so easy to follow at this point, even a city boy like me could do it. The scenery was simply stunning. The steep hills rise up sharply on both sides from the Mtvari river. The bare green hillsides with only sparse clumps of trees reminded me over and over of Scotland. For the past 20 years I have told people how beautiful that country was. So, it was like deja vu gazing up at the rocky hills as we hiked through the canyon.

An hour or so later, a cliff face pockmarked with holes came into view. We could see the cave city ahead. Vardzia is a monastery complex carved entirely out of rock. It was built in the 12th century by King Giorgi III and his successor, his daughter Queen Tamar. More than 2,000 monks lived, worked and prayed here during its height. Many Georgians consider it the spiritual heart of their church -- kind of a rocky Vatican in caves. Although some monks still live here, the monastery was all but destroyed when Persians seized it in 1551 A.D. Georgia has always been on the Eastern frontier of Christianity, harassed and sometimes subjugated by Turks, Persians and Mongols.

c980dc54.jpg

It took about another hour for us to get to the entrance and make the winding climb up to the caves. We tried to keep the dogs on the other side of the gate, but they simply went around and caught up. I couldn't picture them climbing around in the caves, but Giorgi seemed unfazed. Most of the caves are bare with only black, smoke-stained ceilings. Some had shallow holes that were used to store large, ceramic wine jugs. Others had stone benches or slabs for beds. The highlight was when we got to the cathedral. It had a gorgeous carved, wooden door which was promptly used by one of the monks to shut the dogs out. Inside, it was amazing. Colorful frescoes on the walls could be easily seen in the dim candlelight. The paintings of saints, Jesus and King Giorgi and Queen Tamar were almost 1,0000 years old. Georgians are very devout Christians, and the room was filled with men, women and children lighting candles, crossing themselves and praying. Even the army soldiers who were visiting the caves and had been clowning around earlier grew solemn and respectful.

e2275915.jpg

Next, we started to worm our way through tunnels and passages. At times, I had to bend almost double to make my way though the rough, white stone passages. We climbed stairs and ladders, and explored the cave system for awhile. We emerged into the open air high above the valley. We could see the rapids of the Mtvari river snaking between the steep hillsides. The sun beat down on the hillsides making them blaze with green light. It was another gorgeous day, and all of us leaned on the rails and enjoyed the view. Giorgi seemed concerned he couldn't see the dogs, but they came running as we began to descend the ramps and left the caves. We rewarded our long trek and our climb with the lunch Giorgi's mom had packed for us. Strangely, he didn't bring water, so I gave him one of the two bottles I'd brought. I also bought him ice cream, even though he seemed like he was hurrying me through the caves at times.

Sergei had recommended that we visit Upper Vardzia afterwards. Giorgi seemed a bit worried about "big dogs" that lived near the nunnery. He let me make the call, so we been the two mile trek on the road leading to it. A half mile short of the nunnery, we passed a farm which erupted in furious barking. Three large dogs trotted growling and woofing towards us. Our two medium sized dogs chose two dramatically different responses. Lessie took off running and one of the farm dogs shot off in pursuit. Mickey stayed by us, but began whining plaintively. Lessie outran her pursuer and circled back around to join us. The other two dogs approached, but never closed as Giorgio and I yelled at them. The people on the farm watched utterly unconcerned, which bothered me a bit.

This incident spooked Giorgi, but there was little else we could do but press on, as the farm dogs eventually stopped stalking us. Giorgi insisted there was an even bigger dog at the nunnery. He wouldn't take my advice to stay back with the dogs while I went on ahead. When we came to the 1,000 year old church, Giorgi shouted to the nuns. One came over and unlocked the church for us, while another older nun began berating Giorgi for bringing dogs. She pantomimed how they had a huge dog that would rip out Lessie and Mickey's throats. She tossed pebbles at the dogs to get them to retreat. It cracked me up to see a bent old nun with small rock totally cowing two active dogs. As we went into church, Lessie and Mickey huddled under a tree.

78d2f5c0.jpg

When we came out, they were gone. Giorgi said they probably ran down the road. He didn't want to whistle or call for them like usual for fear of the "big dog" (that we still hadn't seen). Once we'd walked a hundred yards or so, he did call for them, but there was no sign of them. As we got further down the road, I asked if we should go back and whistle for them by the nunnery. He said no - they probably went back to Vardzia. It seemed I was more worried than he was. When we got back to Vardzia, still no dogs. In all honesty, this really put a damper on the day for me. I pictured Lessie and Mickey, hiding out in the unfamiliar woods (they'd never been to Upper Vardzia), too afraid to go back down the road because of the farm dogs. I'd been less worried if they were on their own turf, but this was their first time to that place. When we got back to the guesthouse, after a long, footsore trudge back, I was disappointed to see they weren't back. In fact, when I left the next morning, there was still no Lessie or Mickey.

One thing that had shown up, though, were more guests. Yesterday, I was the only visitor. Today, we had three Israeli tourists about my age or older. They were Jews of Georgian ancestry, which led to me experiencing a tradition I'd read about. Sergei joined the guests (myself included) for dinner. He took on the Georgian role of Toastmaster. This man makes long speeches toasting the health of those present and their families. You must not interrupt or talk when he is toasting. This toast is followed regularly with more toasts - to the countries of the guests, to sentimental notions or anything that strikes the Toastmaster's fancy. Shortly, the guests are given opportunities to make toasts. When it was my turn, I asked for a break in tradition. I had one of the others to translate each line after I said it. The gist of it was something like this:

The leaders of the world say bad things about other people of other countries to keep us apart...
The news of the world says things to make us fear visiting other nations...
It is only when we travel that we truly see these things are lies...
It is when we travel we discover that we are really all brothers...
To travel, and to brotherhood!

82231abb.jpg
Me and Bimi - the wolf dog...look at those eyes! Are they a wolf's eyes oe what?

Posted by world_wide_mike 05:20 Archived in Georgia Comments (1)

Space Truckin' in Debed Canyon

Drizzly day in a land of monasteries

rain 65 °F

81025004.jpg

Well, not really - I wasn't in a truck and today's sightseeing had nothing to do with space. Maybe a bit about eternity, but I'm getting ahead of myself. You know how a song gets associated with a place, once you hear it there? Well, Deep Purple's "Space Truckin'" will forever take me back to the gorgeous Debed Canyon and a misty day in Armenia.

After arriving in Armenia the day before, I changed my sightseeing plans ever so slightly. I still wanted to see the UNESCO World Heritage monasteries tucked away in the steep-walled, forested Debed Canyon. However, in light of the day's forecast for rain and the blisters on my feet from my 11-hour hike back and forth from Tmogvi to Vardzia, Georgia, I decided to hire a car and driver. My wonderful bed & breakfast that I was staying at in Vanadzor, Armenia, offered to take me to four of the monasteries for an all day trip. The cost was less than $40, so with the urging of my feet, I accepted.

fcb47e8e.jpg

So, where does "Space Trucking'" come in? Well, my driver was the husband of Maghay Bed & Breakfast's owner, the music lover Ashot. On the drive into the canyon we listened to a steady diet of 60's to 80's soul, but he cranked out the heavy metal rock on the way back. I'll forever remember both of us jamming to "Space Truckin'" as we wound our way along the damp, twisting road, passing slow-moving trucks and splashing through the puddles that accumulated on the rutted, potholed road.

We began our sightseeing at Akhtala Monastery - an off-the-beaten track choice of mine that surprised the B&B owners. When we arrived, we were the only visitors so far that day. In fact, we had to hunt down the local priest to unlock the church so I could see what I came for. Akhtala Monastery is famous for its frescoes - those Byzantine style paintings on the walls and ceilings of many churches in the East. The priest was a fellow history buff, too. We had a wonderful conversation about artistic styles, the significance of the figures depicted, and even why the colors were so vibrant after almost 1,000 years. The priest spoke excellent English and I think he appreciated someone with my passion for history, not the run-of-the-mill "take a picture of me in front of this" tourist! I enjoyed my visit for a number of reasons. Number one, of course, was how amazing the place was. Number two, my driver did not try to play tour guide or hurry me along. He let me take as much time as I liked and wander the sites at my leisure. And of course, number three was the connection with someone from another culture who was on my wavelength. As I left, he shook my hand, blessed me, and said I would always be welcome.

ddf73590.jpg

Next up was the stunning medieval masterpiece of Haghpat Monastery. The drizzle set in as we arrived, but it was a light one and actually added to the mood of the abandoned monastery which was once a center of Armenia's church. Wandering the complex of stone buildings was like stepping into another time. You could almost hear monks chanting as you paced, alone, through soaring chapels and examined intricate carvings. I would have to say Haghpat was my favorite, even though I will always have a special place in my memory for Akhtala's welcome. There were numerous buildings to explore, each different than the last. And if you tired of looking at damp, gray stone, you only had to spin around, and enjoy the panorama of a monastery set on a soaring hilltop. You could put yourself in the sandals of the monks, peacefully overlooking the world spread out beneath them. I watched wisps of gray cloud float up the hillsides on all sides. To me, it was J.R.R. Tolkein's Misty Mountains set in the world of Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose." Although I have never felt the calling to be a monk, it is places like Haghpat that make you understand the spiritual reward of that life.

c7f5f280.jpg

From Haghpat, we drove to Sanahin. Compared to Haghpat's sprawling complex of medieval buildings, Sanahin seemed small and cramped. The most noticeable thing about the monastery is the graveyard stretching up the hill slope above it. The elaborate tombstones range from modern to medieval, it being a special honor to be buried in this 1,000-year-old monastery. In fact, as you pace through the buildings, you are often walking on tombstones. Royalty, churchmen, nobles and saints are laid to rest beneath the floor of many of the chapels. Sanahin also is green with encroaching moss and vegetation, where Haghpat seems more stark and gray.

d782ecc1.jpg

Our final stop was the village church in Odzun, set atop a towering plateau. As we snaked our way upwards, I looked down and saw the Debed river which looked like a tiny ribbon beneath us. It was a shock to reach the top and see flat fields stretching away for miles. I'd expected some eagle's nest of rock, but instead found countryside that looked for the world like any other village you'd find on the plains of Ohio. This was no ordinary village church, though. It was begun in the 7th century - more than 1,500 years ago! It's stone has a pinkish color, and it has huge soaring arches and vaulted interior. The walls are bare except for an occasional carving and one much more modern fresco. Huge stone sarcophagi (caskets) surround the church grounds outside. Strangely, for the oldest of the four, it had a much more modern and airy feel to it.

e1410c2a.jpg

On the drive back to Vanadzor, the drizzle finally opened up into a downpour. I realized as dramatic as the sights were today, they would have been stunning under blue skies and sun. Nevertheless, the fact that the rain held off until my sightseeing was done felt like a blessing. I was reminded of the priest in Akhtala and his gentle blessing at the end of my visit. I was as thankful that the rain had held off as I' had been for his welcome. I know as we age our memories grow misty, but I'll always remember my day of "space truckin'" through Debed Canyon.

Posted by world_wide_mike 10:40 Archived in Armenia Comments (1)

(Entries 6 - 10 of 100) « Page 1 [2] 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 .. »