A Travellerspoint blog

July 2012

Tblisi and My Taste of Georgia

End of a monthlong trip

sunny 90 °F

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Former Georgian capital of Mtskheta

The journey from Svaneti - high in the Caucasus Mountains - to Tblisi was a long one full of beauty, boredom and frustration. After way more hassle than should have happened, our previously arranged cab ride to the town of Zugdidi was under way. The hotel forgot to arrange it when we requested it, and had trouble finding someone to do it for the agreed upon price the next day. The drive itself was gorgeous, though. For most of it, we paralleled a wide, chalky green river lined with towering limestone cliffs. Beyond the hilltops was the breakaway nation of Abkhazia - formerly part of Georgia. Once in Zugdidi, we had about five hours to kill before our overnight train to Tblisi. We found a restaurant with wifi and seized the opportunity to update our blogs and such. The train ride itself was a perfect example of why the Soviet Union was such an inefficient nation, doomed to fail. Our Soviet-era train was equipped with first class cabins, one of which we'd booked. They had air conditioning, so the windows were designed NOT to open. The only problem was the AC kicked on only at the train's highest speed. And our route was designed to stop every six minutes or so at the next Podunk town. So, the AC rarely kicked on as we were always accelerating from a stop or decelerating for one. Our cabin was a first class sweat box.

Back in Tblisi, we were dragging a bit from lack of sleep in our sleeper compartment. So, we took it easy, seeing the sights of Tblisi. It was a Sunday, so many of the churches we visited had services going on. We also walked through the riverfront park, saw the gilded Presidential Palace on its hill, and walked across the lit up, techno Peace Bridge. We wandered through bits of the Old Town I had not visited on my first stop. We saw the medieval town walls, the funky Clock Tower and more churches - including one from the 500s A.D.

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Worldwidemike and a statue of U.S. president Ronald Reagan in Tblisi

We continued the historical theme with a visit to the State Museum of Georgia. The jewelry and relics from the pre-Greek, Greek and Roman periods were amazing. The displays were all in English, Georgian and Russian. The artistry of the people with gold was exquisite - tiny, gold lions, ram's head bracelets, turtle pendants - all were done with beauty and style. The other part of the museum dealing with the Soviet occupation was really interesting, as well. I had not realized how deliberately the Soviets had set out to destroy Georgian culture. There were copies of Soviet orders to target and eliminate Georgian aristocrats, church leaders, artists, poets, academics - anyone who could preserve, lead or speak for Georgian culture. Truly, as Ronald Reagan once put it (and there is a park bench statue of him in Tblisis), it was an evil empire. I realize those of Russian descent may be offended by this, but the facts in the museum speak for themselves. The world does not call what they did in Georgia genocide, but it is only one step down from what the Armenian Genocide Museum documented in Yerevan.

The next day would be my last in Georgia. Jenny had asked that I save the day trip to Mtskheta until she arrived. The marshrutka ride to this former capital of Georgia was a quick 15 minutes or so. There were a trio of churches or monasteries we wanted to see. The minibus dropped us off right in front of the first one, the nunnery of Samtavro. The main church was built in the 11th century. The nuns meticulously clean and polish it every morning. They scrub the marble floor by putting steel wool on their shoes and buff the stone until it shines. Unlike in some churches I've visited, where the patrons or nuns or monks seem to tolerate your presence at best, the nuns here were different. One old nun found out what language we spoke, then grabbed one of the younger nuns who spoke English and made her translate the story of the church for us. Both were very sweet and seemed genuinely glad we visited. One of the more interesting parts were two stone sarcophagi where the king and queen who built the church were entombed. The carvings on the white stone told the story of their lives and death. Within the walls of the nunnery, there was also a late medieval bell tower and a tiny church built in the 4th century. St. Nino herself is supposedly buried beneath the church.

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Tiny 4th century chapel at Samtavro

Next, we walked to the cathedral in Svetitskhoveli. The walls surrounding it are impressive, with towers and ornately-carved gates. There was a large crowd of tourists, here, unlike at most places I've visited in the Caucasus. The cathedral inside was massive - every bit as soaring as Alaverdi, near Telavi, Georgia. Surprisingly, you were free to take photographs - even of the centuries old frescoes. The decoration inside the church was thrilling, and rivaled the intricate carving on the outside. We circled it from the outside, too - enjoying the peaceful pine trees and grape vineyard.

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The interior of Mtskheta's premier attraction, the Cathedral of Svetitskhoveli

For the next part, we needed to hire a taxi. We wanted to visit a picturesque castle ruin on the outskirts of town, a palace for the Greek era and of course, what most people come to Mtskheta for, Jvari monastery. We knew the supposed going rate for Jvari, and decided we'd pay 10 lari more to include the other two sites. Amazingly, that was the same rate our taxi driver proposed, so we were off with none of the normal price haggling. There wasn't a lot to the castle, but it was perched on a hill above town, and hey! It was a castle...who can resist a crumbling castle ruin with a great view?

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Castle ruin on the outskirts of Mtskheta

We were both surprised and somewhat disappointed by Jvari Monastery. It is billed as one of the top sites of Georgia. Compared to other churches or monasteries I'd visited on this trip, though, it was very small and plain. It's most impressive aspect is its location on a steep hill overlooking the countryside for miles around. But once you're at the monastery itself, it is not that stunning. Jvari is also known for the carvings on the outside of the octagonal building. One wall of those were being restored and was covered by scaffolding. The carvings that were visible, except for one of two angels over the entrance, were very worn and hard to make out. A potbellied monk dozed at the desk selling icons and candles to light in the chapel. He got up for a breath of fresh air as we exited, so I snuck a picture of him contemplating the view.

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Georgian monk at Jvari Monastery

The final trip to the Hellenistic (think Alexander the Great) era palace of Georgia's Iverian kings, was a wonderful surprise. Expecting little more than a field with piles of stone, we found an excellently signposted and explained site. There were two Roman style baths, a temple, palace, burial sarcophagus and more. It stretched out across the hillside opposite from Mtskheta, giving wonderful views of the town as well as Jvari monastery. We were the only ones there, too. No other visitors, no staff manning the site - just us and what was obviously a labor of love for some historian or archeologist.

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The ruins of Amarztsikhe-Bagineti in Mltskheta

Later that evening in Tblisi, we went down to the riverfront park to take some pictures of the city lit up at night. The castle's yellow stone glowed in floodlights, but it had a hard time competing with the gaudier, flashing lights that bedeck the city like a Las Vegas Christmas tree. The peace bridge is a flood of tiny white lights, while a TV tower atop a nearby hill shoots pulsating green laser beams skyward. Tblisi even has a lighted fountain show like Yerevan. We joined the throngs by buying an ice cream cone, and I savored the tang of black currant on the walk back to the hotel.

It was the end of my monthlong journey in Georgia, Armenia and Karabakh. I had seen many amazing sights over the course of the month. Some images, like the 360 degree panorama of mountains and hills in Svaneti, I know will linger for years. The serene monasteries atop hills, the stone Svan towers rising specter like above rustic villages, and the incredible rumpled landscape of the Caucasus, are tastes of the world that I can still savor in my mind like my black currant ice cream.

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Jvari Monastery overlooking the Hellenistic era ruins of a Georgian town

Posted by world_wide_mike 11:14 Archived in Georgia Tagged georgia caucasus mtskheta samtavro svetitskhoveli jvari amarztsikhe-bagineti Comments (0)

Visual Symphony in Svaneti

Natural and man-made beauty

sunny 85 °F

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View of Svaneti from our flight in

This was going to be the highlight of the trip. I'd been telling people I was going to the "Caucasus mountains nations of Georgia and Armenia." Well, now I was finally heading to the Caucasus mountains themselves. The trip there depended on a 17-seater flight that had a reputation for canceling. You can get there by a combination of overnight train and marshrutka mini-bus, but that takes almost two days of travel. To save time, the idea was to fly up and do the train back.

We took a cab from Telavi to the airport rather than the marshrutka. It is little over an hour, and the price was reasonable ($40 for the two of us). A short time after we arrived, they made an announcement that our flight was delayed three hours. Fearing the worst, I began to make backup plans to get there by ground if it canceled. No need to worry, though, as the cloud cover in Mestia lifted sooner than they guessed. They were checking us in just two hours after they'd announced the delay. Once on board the tiny, twin-engine turboprop (De Haviland 6, for my airplane buff friends), we chatted with the captain. He was Canadian, like the plane, and had been hired by the Georgian government to fly the route. He was very interesting, and had spent much of his life flying polar routes for his company, Ken Borek Air (which is what most of their business was). The flight up was spectacular, as we cruised at only 10,000 feet. We watched the terrain steadily climb upwards until we all began gawking at the jagged, snow-capped peaks the plane was banking around. It was a picturesque way to begin a three scenic days in Svaneti - the name for this region of Georgia.

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Mestia's Svan towers - 12th century defensive fortifications

Neither of us were very thrilled with our guesthouse. Once again, a highly recommended Lonely Planet accommodation was lacking. The room was stale and musty smelling. There were (of course) too many guests for the number of restroom/showers. And the water had a tendency to simply go out. No water to flush the toilet, wash your hands or take a shower. I understand that this is a small town in the Upper Caucasus, and that a certain amount of "roughing it" might be required. So, we decided to stick it out. After all, the host Roza was friendly, helpful and spoke English (apparently the only three qualities needed to secure a LP "highly recommended" rating!

With our delay, we had lost a good chunk of sightseeing time. We adjusted our schedule, deciding to just explore the town today, do our day trip to the UNESCO world heritage village of Ushguli tomorrow, and our hike on our final day. The tourist information office was moderately helpful, but had no useful maps of either Mestia or hiking trails. Mestia is incredibly scenic, and it was great just to wander around the small town. Unfortunately, like Telavi, it is essentially be reconstructed right now. The sound of electric saws, hammering and huge construction vehicles is a constant buzz and occasional roar. I've decided that Georgia is going to be an awesome place to visit in two years! Although we weren't crazy about our room, one advantage of this type of accommodation is you meet and befriend other travelers from all over the world.

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Ushguli, UNESCO World Heritage site

One key meeting was with a Ukrainian couple who agreed to join us on our one-day excursion to Ushguli. The price for the car and driver was "per car," so this cut our cost in half. The drive was along a rutted, muddy "jeep road," and dove deep into the mountains, hugging cliff faces, fording streams and jostling us about in the small jeep like a blender on four wheels. I say "small" because they sent a 4-seater for our trip with four tourists and a driver. Those of us in the back seat were crammed in...I think our rear end width exceeded the seat width!

All of us were awestruck when we arrived in Ushguli. The village has more than 20 Svan towers, and looks straight out of the Middle Ages. The stone towers are three stories tall, and were built by extended families as safe points during enemy raids. They loom up all throughout the town of single story, stone cottages. They are four sided and taper to the top, where they widen out into a fighting platform with a wooden roof. There are no doors on the ground level. Ladders would be removed once all the family and valuables were safely inside. Arrow slits allow them to cover neighbor towers, as well as fight off attackers. As we drove slowly into town, I knew the village would be a sight I would always remember.

Ushguli's setting matches its striking look. The village is nestled amid high hills with an outstanding backdrop of snow-capped mountains. It is reputed to be the highest inhabited village in Europe. A rushing mountain stream races through the village, bordered by colorful Alpine meadows. We spent the first part of our 3 1/2 hour visit finding scenic vantage points to photograph the village. Cows, pigs, chickens and dogs wandered by as we went on to poke our way through Ushguli. We stopped in a couple of family-run museums, including one housed in a Svan tower. We worked our way through Ushguli's lower, middle and upper clusters of buildings. Once beyond the village, we climbed a hill with a majestic view of the snow-capped mountains. The mountains peaked through a wide gap between two, grassy slopes. Far away, we could see cattle grazing on the slopes. Nearer, horses cropped the grass or nuzzled one another. A steady breeze blew across the grassland as we ate a impromptu lunch of Cliff Bar and a bottle of water.

Our time in Ushguli went quickly, and soon were were bouncing our way back to Mestia. For our third day, we had decided to escape the stuffy guesthouse and splurge on the town's nicest hotel. Built on a slope above the main part of Mestia, it did not disappoint. We had a clean, Western style bathroom, balcony, and cozy comfort. Of course, at $100 a night, it should be awesome. We had paid only $12 each for Roza's Guesthouse.

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An easier portion of our Mestia hike

Our plan for the day, once we'd checked in and spread our stuff out in the closet and drawers (our room at Roza's had a closet, but it was full of the family's winter clothes!), was to do some hiking. The destination was a hilltop far above town, marked by an iron cross barely visible from below. The tourist information office and guidebook said it was a four-hour hike, round trip. I have a bad tendency to lose trails, but the directions in the guidebook and Jenny's ability to spot the "blazes" - yellow and white marks on stones and trees kept us on track. It was a very hot, cloudless day. Even in shorts, I was quickly soaked in sweat. The trail was steep - incredibly steep, in some places. Eventually, though, it linked up with a jeep track. From there on, the walking was not only easier but much more scenic.

As we hiked, we'd been catching glimpses of the town spread out beneath us through the trees, as well as majestic mountains. The trees thinned out and we were walking through Swiss-style alpine meadows. More mountains began to appear as we steadily ascended. Almost three hours after we began, we finally trudged the last few yards to the cross. We were wrapped in a gorgeous, 360 degree panorama. On all sides, rocky mountains, glaciers, forest-clad mountains, and meadows bright with flowers encircled us. The view was stunning, and everything I was hoping to see in the Caucasus. Even the persistent flies that had buzzed us for the last hour seemed to disappear. We were left with beauty all around, and just as our legs basked in the rest from climbing, our souls drank in the sight.

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Svaneti scenery from our hike near Mestia, Georgia

Thinking that nothing would surpass nature's beauty, we were given another gift that evening of man's ability to impress. As we dined on the hotel's terrace, we were able to see the entire spectacle of Mestia's more than 30 Svan towers displayed below us like a necklace of yellow stone. The view from the hotel was superb. It only became better as dusk slowly descended on town. Floodlights blazed out to strike a peach-colored glow from the thousand year old stone sides of the towers. Once again, I knew I was seeing a sight I would always remember. Nighttime gave a new dimension to the beauty of the Svaneti landscape. Somehow, modern electric lights, when combined with medieval stone work and God's age-old landscape created a symphony that struck chords in all who saw it. I'd come to Svaneti hoping it would be the highlight of the trip, and it did not disappoint.

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Svan tower slit up at night in Mestia, Georgia

Posted by world_wide_mike 07:04 Archived in Georgia Tagged georgia caucasus svaneti mestia ushguli Comments (0)

Land of Monks and Winemakers

Not all smooth sailing in Telavi

sunny 90 °F

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View of Telavi valley from Nekresi Monastery

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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Dzveli Shaumta monastery near Telavi, Georgia

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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Akhali Shaumta nunnery near Telavi, Georgia

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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Ikalto Monastery near Telavi, Georgia

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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Alaverdi Cathedral near Telavi, Georgia

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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Gremi Castle near Telavi, Georgia

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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Nekresi Monastery, near Telavi, Georgia

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)

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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Ruined building in cave city of Uplistsikhe, Georgia

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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Medieval castle on a hill in the center of Gori, Georgia

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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Stalin's bulletproof train from WW II, at the Stalin Museum in Gori, Georgia

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

A Rainy Night in Georgia

The good and the bad of international travel

rain 90 °F

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Cool bridge in Tblisi, Georgia, that is lit up at night

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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View of Tblisi from atop the Cable Car stop

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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Nariqala fortress, Tblisi, Georgia

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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Mother Georgia statue watches over Tblisi from high atop a hill

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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The Mtkvari River cuts a steep gorge through Tbilisi, Georgia

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

End of Armenia

My last 3 days in Yerevan

sunny 82 °F

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Medieval illuminated manuscript in the Yerevan manuscripts museum

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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The Manuscripts Museum in Yerevan, Armenia

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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Cuneiform tablet in Armenia's State Museum of History

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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Ruins of the bronze age Urartu citadel, Erebuni, Armenia

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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The Blue Mosque in Yerevan, Armenia

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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The Genocide Museum, Yerevan, Armenia

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 Holiday From My Holiday

Day of rest at the trip's midpoint

overcast 75 °F

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View from Shoushi's town walls

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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Town walls in Shoushi, Karabakh

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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Museum covering the Karabakh War

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)

To Be A Country, Or Not To Be

All about Karabakh, hostels and its tourist sights

sunny 82 °F

How small should a country be and still be an independent nation? The Vatican City is technically its own sovereign state and the smallest country in the world. San Marino (inside Italy) and Andorra (between France and Spain) are relics of europe's medieval past, when dukes, bishops and other nobles ruled their own little realms. Since the middle ages, though, the trend has been towards larger nations composed of people with a common culture or shared identity.

However, this trend has reversed in the last few decades. Bigger countries are splitting apart because ethnic groups within them feel they deserve their own state. Historians are calling this "balkinization," because the best example was the split of Yugoslavia on the Balkan peninsula. Once it's strong dictator Tito died, the police state which kept all the different ethnic groups in line crumbled. So, we now have a Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Macedonia. The Kosovo region of Serbia is next in line to become its own tiny state.

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Tank monument to the Karabakh War

When the Soviet Union began to unravel, different ethnic groups began to demand borders be redrawn. They wanted to piece together areas where they were the ethnic majority and create their own state. Which is why the country I am in right now is one that no one else recognizes. To be honest, I came here only partially to see the sights. I also wanted to feel the vibe in a country that no one else believes should be independent. Where I am is called Nagorno-Karabakh, or just Karabakh for short. The region was mostly ethnic Armenians whose land wound up inside Azerbaijan when the Soviet Union collapsed. Their declaration of independence from Azerbaijan brought Russian and Azeri troops to put down their revolt. The Armenians took to the hills and fought back with hit and run raids. Karabakh is essentially one rumpled, green mountain range, so that made it difficult for their enemies to hunt them down. Soldiers from Armenia eventually helped their brethren, and the two chased the Azerbaijani army out. Ethnic Azeris fled, too, fearing reprisal by the victors.

A cease fire was signed 20 years ago, but to this day, no one recognizes Karabakh as independent. Armenia is leery of annexing it, for fear of provoking another war. Karabakh's flag shows what they would like to see happen. It is the Armenian flag with a small triangular chunk separated by a boxy line. The two parts would fit perfectly if the boxy line was erased and the two parts joined. Clever psychological ploy, eh?

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The view from Gandzasar Monastery, Karabakh

I arrived on a seven hour marshrutka ride from Yerevan. The first 3 1/2 hours retraced the route we took for our Tatev tour, yesterday. It was once we entered Karabakh, though, that the scenery went from being nice to awe inspiring. Toss a green blanket over an irregular pile of rocks, then shrink wrap it around them, and you have an idea of the topography. Decorate the blanket with thick forests, and toss on top a spaghetti strand of asphalt that switchbacks its way across the slopes in a way that curves insanely enough to make even a veteran race car driver dizzy. Our driver, like all Georgians or Armenians it seems, attacked the curves with a passion, passed up anyone who wasn't moving at appropriate breakneck speeds and had even the Armenian passengers yelling at him for his driving. I kept my eyes glued on the scenery, a tactic that has worked well to cut down on the stress this trip.

Once in the capital, Stepanakert, I had to take a bus to the hilltop town of Shoushi where I'd arranged a bed & breakfast. The host is a Frenchman who married an Armenian wife, and has become an enthusiastic supporter and organizer of tourism in Karabakh. After the unsatisfactory lodgings in Tblisi and the hostel in Yerevan, I admit I was a bit worried what his place would look like. Well, picture a "fixer upper" apartment, with walls, plumbing and electricity all in various states of repair. Picture the apartment inhabited by the opposite of a "neat freak." Quite simply, it was worse than either Old Town Hostel in Tblisi or Penthouse Hostel in Yerevan.

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Stepanakert, capital of Karabakh

I guess it is time to give you my take on hostel or budget traveler lodgings. The young, twenty-something backpackers seem to seek out places run by friendly, helpful people who exude a certain vibe - a "coolness." They become fiercely loyal to these new friends and excuse any shortcomings of the facilities, often staying there for weeks on end. I've been exchanging pleasant emails with the owner of Penthouse Hostel, who was worried when I left after just one night. She admitted her place is often crammed with people happy to spread their sleeping bags on the floor just to be able to stay there. Young backpackers like this aren't concerned (like I was) with sheets that don't cover the mattresses, long waits for the bathroom or shower, and a lack of things like chairs, trash cans or night stands. They want to be where the cool travelers are.

I also like friendly, helpful hosts who can assist you in seeing their country. However, friendly hosts do not excuse inconvenient bathrooms, dirty floors, unacceptable beds, and a lack of simple things like a place to hang your clothes or a chair or desk to sit in. Maybe its because I'm 49, but I'll sacrifice the "cool" for comfort and cleanliness any day. So, to cut my rant shorter, I switched rooms once again. For $5 more, I got all of the things that my "B&B" lacked. Armen, who ran the B&B, still helped me set up a tour with a taxi for the next morning. He gave me suggestions on what to do, and did not seem at all put out by my decision. During the tour itself, he rang up the driver on his cell phone to make sure everything was going okay.

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D'oh! There it is - Tigranakert!

My first stop was the ruins of Tigranakert - the capital of the Ancient Armenian kingdom during the Roman period. As we pulled up, I was jazzed to see an archeological dig in process. The archeologist stopped what she was doing and came over to talk. She was excited that I knew the story of ancient Armenia and that I was a history teacher. She explained what they were working on right there was a 5th century A.D. Christian basilica, or church. She told me how to get to Tigranakert, which was apparently on the other side of a steep rocky hill she pointed out. I had worn my tennis shoes, not thinking hiking was in store, but gamely set off by myself uphill.

The first thing I noticed was it was beastly hot with the sun beating down on a shadeless hill. Like all paths I seem fated to follow, it faded in and out. She had been vague about how long it should take me. I kept thinking I was just about to crest the hill, only to see it keep going up. Finally, after 45 minutes, I knew something was wrong. The top of the hill was still not in sight. And I remembered her saying something about the path going to the right. The one I was following kept going up and up. I was completely soaked in sweat. I didn't want to give up, but decided to turn around. And that is when I saw it! I had hiked right past it and didn't recognize the stones as belonging the the city ruins. But up here, way above it, I could see its outline clearly. I plodded downhill snapping photos along the way. I was stunned that I could possibly have walked right past it. Tunnel vision may help you concentrate on an ill-defined trail, but it sure can make you miss things!

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The 17th century fortification at Tigranakert

I finally arrived at the bottom of the hill and took pictures of the 17th century castle-like fort. The Tigranakert museum was inside and I quickly paced through it. My clothes hung wet on my body and I felt drained. Strangely, I ran into our guide from the Tatev tour the other day. She was leading two tourists through the museum. They had no interest in tackling the hill to see the ruins - my appearance probably reinforced their decision!

The other main stop of the day was the monastery at Gandzasar. It was about a 40-minute drive there. The breeze flowing in through the window, along with downing my water bottle, began to revive me. The rolling farmland we'd been driving through grew steeper and more wooded. It looked like monastery territory. Part of being a monk is withdrawing from the daily life of the world. So, the more remote and inaccessible the spot, the better to contemplate God. Armenia's monks chose gorgeous sites - usually high atop hills - for their monasteries.

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Gandzasar Monastery

Like at Sanahin in the Debed Canyon, graveyards crowded around the monastery walls. It is as if they sought out ground made holy by the monks to improve their chances of getting to Heaven. The main church was intricately carved on the outside. Figures of angels, lions, crosses and more marched all around the circular central tower. There were only a handful of other visitors, proving to me that Karabakh is off the beaten path. This monastery is the country's number one sight. What I had originally thought was a tour group of students turned out to be actual students at the school attached to the monastery. This gave it a breath of life, I thought, and is a great idea. Why not have students learn at the site of one of their more important centers of learning and culture?

The ride back to Stepanakert was uneventful. The driver dropped me off at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs so I could get my visa for the country. It had been closed when I arrived on Sunday. After that, I had lunch, found the hotel where I'd be staying when I moved down from Shoushi tomorrow, and generally walked around enough to re-aggravate the blister on my right heel. Tomorrow, I promised myself, would be a day of rest. There were only the medieval walls of Shoushi and the Karabakh War museum that I wanted to see. At about the halfway point of my trip, I felt I deserved a restful day!

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Detail of carving over entrance to Gandzasar Monastery

Posted by world_wide_mike 10:54 Tagged monastery karabakh tigranakert gandzasar stepanakert Comments (2)

Mystery Holiday in Armenia

On the "wings" of a tour...

sunny 79 °F

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Armenian girls intraditional dress prepare for a religious cermony at Tatev Monastery

So far, Armenia's mystery holiday had caused me nothing but grief - closing the museums I was looking forward to visiting and turning The Cascade into a waterless oven. Today, though, it was working out for me. Sigrid was able to do a day trip from Yerevan with me. She had been wanting to visit the monasteries of Noravank and Tatev since she'd been there. With only three weeks left in her journalist assignment, she was running out of chances. She found a tour company that would take us to those places plus Zorats Karer, a Stonehenge like stone circle that was on my list.

There were 15 of us in our tour bus, along with a guide and driver. Most of the tourists were Armenian or visiting Armenian-Americans. There was also a German lady (who was also working in Yerevan) and her mother. The guide promptly launched into lengthy commentary as we got underway. She would say her spiel first in Armenian, then in English. As a teacher, I thought it was funny that she didn't put up with people in the bus talking while she was. She shushed Sigrid and I, along with a family of Armenians.

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Noravank Monastery, Armenia

Our first monastery was set high on a hill of red stone. The two churches were both constructed with local stone, which gave them a warm red-gold glow as the morning sun struck them. The sky was a bright blue, combined with our lofty location, made for an amazing panorama. The churches were intricately carved, and the guide pointed out significant points. For example, Christians do not usually depict God's face in art, but above one of the doors was a bearded, patriarchal looking God bestowing a blessing on all who entered. Rich, detailed carvings covered both inside and out. As I'd seen in the monasteries of the Debed Canyon, many people were buried inside and outside the church. You often had to step on their tombstones to enter the doorways. She pointed out lions on some of the tombstones, which in Armenian tradition meant the man was a warrior who'd died bravely in battle.

One church had a second story chapel you had to climb steep, narrow stairs to reach. The stairs and area around them were intricately carved, so tourist were lining up to get photos of the posed atop the staircase. When there was a break in the action, I asked Sigrid if she wanted her picture atop the stairs. That was when I found out she was afraid of heights - which would come into play l later in the day. Unlike most of the monasteries I've visited in Armenia, the second story chapel was bright and airy, it's dome pierced by opening to let in light. Out tour gave us an hour at Noravank, which we appreciated. I am not a fan of guided tours, normally, but I never really felt rushed on this one...which would ALSO come into play, later!

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Wings of Tatev cable car to the monastery

Next up was a lengthy drive to Tatev. Up until recently, Tatev was simply too far south for day trippers to visit. It is reached only winding mountain roads with switchback after switchback. Well, in stepped a Western European consortium headed by the Swiss to rescue this situation. They built a cable car line nearly seven miles long that floated over the final two steep mountain valleys. That seems all in good on the surface. More people will be able to visit this historic monastery perched on its cliff edge. There was only one problem with the master watch makers' idea: there are only two car on the line, each holding 25 people. The journey takes 11 minutes. So, if there are 50 people in line in front of you, you're waiting about a half hour. What if it is a special, mystery holiday and hordes of Armenians decided that makes it a perfect opportunity to finally visit Tatev? And what if your tour company decides the now overloaded and swamped restaurant at the cable car origin is where the group will have lunch? Hmmm...of all the things for the Swiss to NOT factor in - time!

Sigrid, the Germans and I had decided to skip the overpriced restaurant and head straight to the cable car (called the "Wings of Tatev"). So, while the rest of the bus was waiting to be served their lengthy, four course lunch, we waited nearly an hour and then rode the cable car over. Of course, we had to fight off the voracious Armenian line jumpers (old ladies are the worst, by the way). Eventually, Germans, Italian and American flared our elbows and formed our own line version of NATO to hold off the ravening hordes of line jumpers.

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Tatev Monastery, Armenia

Once finally in the cable car, Sigrid's fear of heights kicked in. She was brave, though, and didn't let out a peep when we crossed the two mid-point towers that buoy up the cable line. Once you pass the tower, the cable car momentarily becomes a roller coaster picking up speed as it zooms downward. The view that I could see was spectacular, but we were jammed in like sardines. Today was when I learned not only do Armenians have a different alphabet, they count to 25 differently, too. We had more than 30 squeezed aboard.

Tateve was interesting, but both Sigrid and I felt other Armenian monasteries are nicer. The location is spectacular, true. But the ruins themselves were less impressive than others we'd each visited. Have I become jaded and "monasteried" out? I don't think so. I loved Noravank. Anyway, Sigrid and I took our time, knowing the rest of the group was far behind us, as the line had gotten worse by the time we boarded our cable car. Nevertheless, we both began to get nervous when the t of our group didn't show up. Finally, fearing the worst, we decided to head back. As we waited to board, we examined each group debarking, but didn't see the others. When we ourselves got offon the other side, we did not see them waiting in line. Had they given up and left without us?

No, of course not. We found the Germans already on the other side and they explained that the rest of our bus had been going over to Tatev while we were riding back. So, the four of us sat down and waited. It was a beautiful, cool summer day, so we didn't mind waiting. At first. Cable car after cable car returned without the rest of our group. We continued to wait. It was a full two hours before everyone from our tour bus was back from Tatev. I gave the guide a little feedback, saying they should find a restaurant that didn't have the potential to be overcrowded like this for their lunch stop.

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Look like Scotland? Sure did to me!

Of course the long wait made everyone less enthusiastic about our final stop, the Armenian "Stonehenge." It was built around 1500 BC according to archeologists. There's a humorous (for visitors) thing that goes on when you visit Armenia. Everything happened first in Armenia. So, even though Zorats Karer is an estimated 1,500 years younger than Stonehenge, our Armenian guide claimed it predated Stonehenge. What's more, she suggested Stonehenge was built by Armenians who'd immigrated to Britain! Whatever it's age, I'm sure it was just a pile of rocks to many in our bus. To me, a history buff and teacher, it was great. Many of the stones have holes drilled in them by the builders to line up with stars. It is for this reason, it is considered an astronomical observatory by many. Just as Stonehenge was built to foretell each season, many think Zorats Karer did the same.

Once we finished our visit, all that was.eft was the long, three and a half hour drive backup to Yerevan. Although others slept, Sigrid and I filled the time talking about our lives, plans and goals. She is a very driven young woman who should go far in the world. After she finished her journalism job inYerevan, she has a fellowship in Germany next. She's weighing her options to either pursue a journalism career, or one in a more international role like with the United Nations, USAID, etc. My only disappointment was she didn't buy my Loch Ness monster story - everyone normally gets goosebumps on that one!

Though it was a long day, Sigrid and I saw many cool sights and had a great "mystery holiday" weekend together.

Posted by world_wide_mike 11:41 Archived in Armenia Tagged monastery stonehenge armenia tatev noravank zorats karer Comments (0)

"You can't always get what you want..."

Travel is a road, and all roads have bumps

sunny 90 °F

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Mountain scenery, Armenia

Much as we would love everything to go perfect and exactly as planned, that's simply not life. My time in Yerevan is an excellent example of that. As you know if you read my earlier entries, the museums are all closed for the 4-day weekend. My hostel sucked, though I must admit, travelers much younger than me raved about it. I hated it so much, though, that I stayed up late and found a hotel to stay at for Friday and Saturday. So much for the bumps, now let's hear about the good places that the road of travel takes us.

I met Sigrid this morning outside of my ex-hostel. I explained that I'd checked out, and she letme stow my backpack at her apartment while we went sightseeing. It was great having a local to help get around the city. Sigrid is a U.S. and Italian citizen working as a journalist for the summer in Yerevan. She speaks good Russian, which in Georgia and Armenia, is the best "other" language to speak. We never got ripped off by the taxis we took today with Sigrid along! Anyway, we'd planned on seeing the Armenian Genocide Museum together, along with the "Mother Armenia" statue that overlooks the city from a hill not far away from where I'd been staying. I was worried the museum would be closed, but she'd checked the website which said it would be open.

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Eternal flame at Genocide Museum in Yerevan, Armenia

We taxied from her place to Victory Park, where the statue is located. It is also the scene of a half-derelict amusement park. Sigrid was reminded of "I Am Legend," while I channelled Mad Max. We found the statue (harder than you think, because the park is forested) and snapped some photos. We were both drawn to the panorama of the city spread out beneath us. As a bonus, Mt. Ararat was "out." those who have been to Seattle or similar places will understand how a looming snow-capped mountain can managed to be cloaked by cloud, smog or heat haze for a good part of the year. Then you wake up on a clear morning and say, "Wow!" After some photos, we circled Mother Armenia, and I took pictures of the Soviet tanks for my military history friends. I joked that my buddies could rattle off which tank it was, but the best I could do was it began with a "T."

From there we descended into town via the Cascade, which I'd visited yesterday. Still no water, still baking hot. I was reminded of how I once visited Monte Verde Cloud Forest and managed a sunny day! After a stroll through town, we caught a cab to the Genocide Museum, which is also outside of downtown Yerevan. Guesssss what? It. Was. Closed. Sigrid felt awful about it, but I suggested we check out the monuments outside the museum while we were here. For those who don't know what the Armenian Genocide was, here's a quick summary. Following WW I, Armenia became independent, again. They'd been ruled by the Turkish Empire for centuries. With Turkey one of WW I's losers, they tried to reclaim their ancient and medieval kingdom. Turkey and Russia decided that it wasn't in THEIR best interests, and essentially split it up. The Armenians fought for their freedom, which Turkey countered with a brutal genocide on Armenians living in their lands. Best estimates by historians are that one to one and a half million Armenians were slaughtered by the Turkish authorities. It is a crime Turkey still refuses to acknowledge, today - much to their shame.

We visited the eternal flame burning in honor of the dead, along with the trees planted by courageous world leaders who spurn Turkey's heavy handedness to deny genocide. Our own President Obama still tiptoes around the issue and uses words like "massacre" and "atrocity" but lacks the guts to say "genocide." This museum tells the facts of the event, and I was really disappointed to not get a chance to see it.

Sigrid and I had abut of an adventure getting back to the city (we hadn't paid our taxi to wait on us), but made it back. We split up - me to check in to my new hotel and her to work on visas for her upcoming adventure in "the Stans" (Uzbekistan, Kazakistan, etc.). I thought it was interesting that her destination - which she leaves Yerevan for at the end of July - was one of my potential choices for this trip.

My new hotel, which appears to be a venture by the American University of Armenia, was perfect. I felt my stress melt away as I unpacked in the small, but fully "Western style" hotel. I asked the receptionist if the hotel arranged trips to nearby sites with taxi drivers, and she said yes. She negotiated a great rate for an excursion to Garni and Geghard - two prime sites on my list of things to see in Armenia.

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Greek-era Garni Temple, Armenia

So, for $20 the hotel had set me up transportation to the two sites, which are a serious distance outside of town. Garni is a 1st century BC temple from the time when Armenia was a buffer state between Ancient Rome and Persia. Both sides wanted Armenia on their side, but wanted Armenia weak and willing to do their will. Garni's temple is a small, Greek style temple, but set on a drop-dead gorgeous hillside. I circled the temple like a shark, snapping pictures. They had some really good "Gladiator" style theme music playing on speakers. Like all ancient sites, it was right up my alley. I had a great time experiencing it - even though there isn't uh to explore. The temple is in great shape and been fairly extensively reconstructed. So, I enjoyed it.

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Geghard Monastery, Armenia

Next up was Geghard Monastery, set in an even more drop-dead stunning wooded canyon. Some do it is carved directly out of the rocklike Varrzia in Georgia. Other parts are free standing churches, like Haghpat and Sanahin. It was a popular place, and fairly packed with tourists - most of them Armenians. I had a great time, exploring the different buildings and caves, shaking my head and saying "wow!" time after time. The intricate carving on the walls, pillars, and altars was amazing. By the way, my taxi driver never made any attempt to hurry me along, instead kicking back and relaxing while I explored. so, I took my time, took photos, and generally absorbed the incredibly cool medieval vibe of the place.

So, my day showed that there are always ups and downs when you travel. Meeting and talking travel with a kindred spirit like Sigrid would have been the highlight of any day. Pairing that with two awesome ancient and medieval sights made a day that started out bumpy end spectacular. And of course - having a nice hotel room to go back to doesn't hurt, either!

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Carved stone katchkars at Geghard Monastery, Armenia

Posted by world_wide_mike 11:43 Archived in Armenia Tagged temple monastery garni geghard armenian_genocide Comments (1)

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