A Travellerspoint blog

"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)

Cooling My Heels in Yerevan

When a Holiday can mess up a holiday

sunny 89 °F

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View from The Cascade, Yerevan, Armenia

I had my best marshrutka raided the trip so far, on my way from Vanadzor to Yerevan, Armenia. The seats were comfy, it wasn't full, and we stopped topick up only 1 person during the two hour ride. Since the marshrutka pulls in at a bus station far outside of the center of town, I splurged on a cab ride to my hostel. As it turned out, the cab driver ripped me off...the hostel manager said I should have paid 1,000 dram ($2.50) not thr 2,000 ($5) I paid. Anyway, the owners of Penthouse Hostel are very nice and more than willing to help you with any travel arrangements or questions. By the way, it is called Penthouse because it is on the top floor - not because of any naked women inside!

My private room was a definite step down from Maghay B&B, where I stayed in Vanadzor. This makes two "highly rated" hostels (by Lonely Planet) that I have been less than impressed with. I was not crazy about Old Town Hostel in Tblisi, Georgia, either. I am paying $30 a night for my private room here. You'd think for that amount they could find sheets and mattress covers that fit the mattress - not fall several inches short all around. Or you'd think they could splurge for a chair, end table (or Heaven forbid) a desk. Heck, the room doesn't even have a trash can. There are all of two shared bathrooms for what lookalike a good 20 people staying here. I have half a mind to go back online, find something better, and check out of my penthouse.

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The Cascade, Yerevan, Armenia

Anyway, enough whining about my accommodations - I have obviously outgrown the hostel. So, after unpacking, I took off to explore Yerevan. I had a few museums I was interested in seeing, along with other sights. Tomorrowi am meeting up with a friend of a friend who is working in Yerevan. I have been corresponding with Sigrid on Facebook, and she's been a good source of information. She has a long weekend because it is a national holiday. I quickly discovered the holiday meant the banks were all closed...and guess what else? The museums! So, that shot my day's plans all to Hell! So, I spent the day wandering the streets, people watching, and getting the lay of the land. The one thing I was able to check off my list was to visit The Cascade. This is a huge staircase like structure with fountains and pools on every level...except the fountains weren't running today. Maybe the water was on holiday, too? The view of the city from the non-cascading Cascade was pretty nice. You could see the twin peaks of Mt. Arafat - where the bible says Noah's ark landed. Arafat is a kind of a sacred mountain to Armenians, especially since it is across the border in Turkey.

My climb up and down the stone Cascade was hot...the sun beat down on the surface of the rock and reflected waves of heat back at me. Had the fountains been running, it would have cooled it down, but no such luck. From there, I sought shade in the park around the Opera House. I downed an iced tea and bought another bottle of water to replace the moisture in me. I meandered down the pedestrian street between Opera Square and Republic Square - where many government agencies (and closed museums) are located. I bought an ice cream cone and generally had a low key, relaxing day.

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Republic Square, Yerevan, Armenia

In the evening, I hoofed to back down to Republic Square to watch the "singing fountains." it is essentially a sound and light show using the fountains and various music. Reminded me of the fountain show at....is it Bellagio in Las Vegas! Anyway, Yerevan is a very pleasant walk able city. I don't think I'd want to spend 4 days just walking around it. We'll see what tomorrow brings...hopefully more interesting things to do and see...

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Singing Fountains in Yerevan, Armenia

Posted by world_wide_mike 12:49 Archived in Armenia Tagged cascade yerevan armenia Comments (2)

A Castle Named Lori

How I spent 4th of July in Armenia

sunny 79 °F

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Armenian bus - notice the natural gas tanks on top to power it

I had an extra day in Vanadzor and was trying to figure out what to do. I hadn't originally planned on hiring a car and driver, so I'd budgeted two days to see the monasteries I did yesterday. Lori Berd had intrigued me, so I picked that as my day's activity. No, that's not some Armenian lady. "Lori" is the region of Armenia that I was in, and "Berd" means castle in Armenian.

I decided to go cheap today (okay, no sarcastic "today?"...!). That meant public transport. For me, the jury is still out on the Armenian people. For every friendly, helpful person there seems to be a liar, scammer or just plain indifferent Armenian. I made it to the bus station about 10 minutes before the bus was to leave and looked around for one with my destination, Stepanavan. While I was looking, an older man came up to "help" me. I told him I was looking for the bus to Stepanavan. Of course, he replied there were no buses - only taxis. This is despite the town's own website listing the times, my guidebook and my B&B hosts. In fact, EVERY public transport I've taken in Armenia and Georgia except for one, somebody is there to lie to the foreign tourist and say they don't exist. And this from two supposedly incredibly welcoming nations.

To show the other side of the coin, I ignored the liar and went inside to the cashier. He said the next one was 10 am, but when I asked about the 8:30 one, he pointed me to the next window. A man who'd been watching me butcher his language helped me find the correct window. The cashier sold me the seat, looked at his watch, and got out of his booth and walked me to the bus. See what I mean? Well, that type of contradiction keeps on happening. When I got to Stepanavan, I decided to visit the self-proclaimed "friendly and helpful, English-speaking staff." I walked in the door and seeing what looked like just an ordinary business office, I asked in my pidgin Armenian if it was the right place. The man and woman did all but put their hands up in front of my face and told me to cool my heels in the hallway - apparently the friendly and helpful English speaker wasn't there, yet. I waited in the hallway, which had no chairs or anything to sit on, for about 20 minutes. I finally grabbed one of the Information Center's card which were in the hallway and opened the door, again, asking "open?". They furiously dialed somebody up on the phone, who told me the English speaker would be there in five minutes. I went outside to the little park nearby and gave them 20. When I returned, Mrs. Friendly & Helpful STILL wasn't there. I twisted their arms to give me one of the free maps they brag about on their website. Of course, it was all in Armenian. To be honest, I don't know if they have English language maps, but that is the implication on their website.

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Entrance to ruined fort Lori Berd, Armenia

Disgusted, I left and went to snag a taxi to the castle. My feet were still a bit sore, so I decided to taxi the 2.7 miles out and walk back. I'm getting better at communicating with my dozen or so Armenian words, so had no problem getting the taxi driver to understand and also agree to what I'd read was the going rate (1,000 dram or roughly $2.50). I paid close attention on our route so that I could find my way back.

We arrived at the castle ruins with the sun shining under gorgeous blue skies. Lori Berd is even more ruined than Tmogvi, in Georgia. It is on a wide plateau with one side perched on the edge of a steep-sided river canyon. I began my explorations, just a bit disappointed. From the guidebook description, I was expecting it to be more imposing. Entering the arched gateway, I walked along the crumbled walls. Being a history buff, it is really hard to not get jazzed about poking among the ruins of a more than 1,000 year old castle! I reached the corner of the front walls and looked down at the river canyon. It was beautiful, with steep green sides and remnants of walls seeming to peek over the lip of the cliff at the rushing water.

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River gorge near Stepanavan, Armenia

There were a few ruined buildings that I explored, too. One was obviously the castle chapel, and the interior arches reminded me of the monasteries from yesterday. For anyone reading this and planning their own trip to Armenia, I would say in hindsight that there really isn't enough at Lori Berd to justify a special trip. There was one more part df the site to check out, though. In another river gorge on the opposite wall is a humpbacked medieval bridge still standing strong. A rough trail leads down the steep canyon to it, and I shouldered my bag and began to descend. At times I wondered if the trail would peter out like the one at Tmogvi. It didn't, though. After about 10 minutes of playing mountain goat, I was standing on the solid bridge. Of course, I had to cross my arms and channel Monty Python, "None shall pass!"

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Humpbacked medieval bridge near fort Lori Berd, Armenia

It was a pretty little spot down there. So, I broke out one of my cliff bars and had my own 4th of July picnic. The scramble up was mostly uneventful, except something either stung my shin or I was jabbed by stickers fairly thoroughly. There are no marks, but it still stings a bit. I began the nearly three mile walk back, stopping to chat with some Armenian farmers, and to take pictures of a village cemetery. I had to cool my heels in Stepanavan for an hour and a half until the next bus. So, I visited the museum to local Communist hero Stepan Shahumain. And yes, that IS how Stepanavan was renamed in his honor. The most interesting part of the museum is they have preserved his house completely and essentially built the museum around it. So, it is a house inside a museum, along with other relics of the city's past. Armenia does not demonize communists the way the West and other parts of the world do. There are monuments in every town to them, as well as post-soviet monuments done in a very Soviet style.

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Ruined chapel inside medieval fort, Lori Berd, Armenia

Eventually, it was time to head back to Maghay B&B in Vanadzor - which has been my favorite place I've stayed so far. If you visit Armenia, I highly recommend staying here and visiting the monasteries of Debed Canyon. As for Lori Berd...well, it is a cool,way to spend an hour or two if you're here. I just wouldn't make a special trip for it...

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Worldwidemike on the medieval bridge at Lori Berd, Armenia

Posted by world_wide_mike 09:23 Archived in Armenia Comments (0)

Space Truckin' in Debed Canyon

Drizzly day in a land of monasteries

rain 65 °F

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Debed canyon, Armenia

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.

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Akhtala Monastery, Armenia

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.

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1,000 year old frescoes in Akhtala Monastery, Armenia

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.

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Haghpat Monastery, Armenia

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.

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Graveyard crowding close to Sanahin Monastery, Armenia

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.

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7th century village church in Odzun, Armenia

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)

Cave Men of Georgia

Mickey and Lessie, where are you?

sunny 85 °F

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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.

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Scenery from hike along trail to Vardzia, Georgia

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.

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Cave city of Vardzia, Georgia

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.

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Fresco of King Giorgi and his daughter in church at cave city of Vardzia, Georgia

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.

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The nunnery at Upper Vardzia, Georgia

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!

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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)

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.

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View from across the river of Tirebi Guesthouse and it's farm

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.

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Looking up at the ruins of Tmogvi Castle, Georgia

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.

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Ruins of Tmogvi Castle in the rugged hills of the Mtkvari River valley

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.

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10th century Kherivisi Fortress, Georgia

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)

Deep into the Wooded Mountains

Akhaltsikhe and Sapera Monastery

sunny 81 °F

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Scenery on drive through wooded mountains to Sapera Monastery, Georgia

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.

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Sapera Monastery, Georgia

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!

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Sapera Monastery, Georgia

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...!

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Detail of carving above entrance to Sapera Monastery, Georgia

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.

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12th century Akhaltsikhe Castle is undergoing extensive reconstruction in Georgia

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....

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Reconstruction of buildings inside Akhaltsikhe Castle, Georgia

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

Near-disaster on Day 1

When it rains, it pours...

rain 75 °F

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View of Old Town Tblisi with Nariqala Fortress in background

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!!

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Detail of fresco on church in Tblisi, Georgia

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)

Planes and airports, planes and airports (repeat)

Loooong two days of travel ahead...

So, the big day has arrived and I'm finally on my way to the Causcasus. Right now, I'm sitting in the Philadelphia airport after the shortest of the flights I'll be taking. Here's my travel schedule:

Tuesday, 1:30 USAirways flight from Columbus - Philadelphia
Tuesday, 6:15 USAirways flight from Philadelphia - Zurich
-- I get in at 8:25 am on Wenesday morning.
Wednesday, 1:20 pm Ukraine International Airways flight from Zurich - Kiev
Wednesday, 8:30 pm Ukraine International Airways flight from Kiev - Tlibisi
-- I finally get in at 11:55 pm Wednesday night. The place I'm staying is sending a driver to pick me up at the airport.
It costs about $5-10 more than a taxi, but will be worth it, I feel. That way I *know* someone will be expecting me there. if I weren't getting in so late, I probably wouldn't worry about it. Arriving after midnight in a strange city where I don't speak the language seems to tell me it's worth it.

This is going to be a long two days, I'm sure. I have my new ipad to entertain me in places like this with wifi. I'll try to sleep on my overnight flight to Zurich, but I'm not always best at doing that. Well see...

Feel free to leave comments on my posts. The way the blog is set up, I have to "approve" comments. So, it may take a day for the to show up here, but they will. From this point on, I promise my posts will get more interesting! Oh, and if you "subscribe" to the blog, you'll get emails when I put up a new entry.

Talk to you soon...!
worldwidemike

Posted by world_wide_mike 13:17 Comments (4)

Have hat, ready to travel!

Worldwidemike, version 3

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One of my traditions over the past couple decades of travel has been wearing a personalized "Worldwidemike" hat. I just had this one made at Easton yesterday. My previous WWM hat was pretty sweated out and was a little worse for the wear. I thought I'd go with a black one this time. I think it looks pretty cool. Others may think it's weird having a hat with your nickname on it, but hey! Others think it is weird I'm going to Georgia and Armenia in the first place!

Speaking of my destination, Azerbaijan has been officially trimmed from the list. I simply don't have enough time to secure a visa for my visit. I was hoping the embassy in Washington D.C. would let me show up in person and apply and get it in the same day. That's what I did for Mali, Syria and other countries who have restrictive visa policies. Azerbaijan apparently does not do this, and you instead have to wait 10 business days for it to be sent to you. That was cutting it too close for comfort, so I've decided to put a visit to the country off to another day.

The good part is that this lets me spend more time in both Georgia and Armenia. There is so much to see there. I'm really excited about this trip. One thing I'm trying to do is be more "21st century" with my travel preparation. I've used Facebook to contact people in Georgia and Armenia to have them answer questions I have. I'm still debating whether to take an iPad or iPhone with me. There is an app that translates what you want to say into Georgian or Armenian -- writing it out in their Cyrillic script, showing how to pronounce it, and even saying it for you. Not quite the Star Trek universal translator yet, but it is getting closer. And needless to say, I don't speak a word of either language, yet!

Next, I'm going to try to "email update" feature of this blog. Apparently, I can send an email to a certain address and it automatically updates this blog with what I send. I want to see how it works before I leave, so expect that to be coming shortly. I am now less than 2 weeks away -- so I'll soon be updating from the road!

Posted by world_wide_mike 10:54 Comments (0)

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