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Entries about caucasus

So Where are Georgia and the Caucasus?

A Map showing Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan

Even if they have heard of them, most people would have a hard time pointing out Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan on the map. So, I thought I'd paste a map here showing where it is in relation to the Europe and Asia.

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Posted by world_wide_mike 11:51 Tagged map georgia azerbaijan armenia caucasus 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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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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Posted by world_wide_mike 07:04 Archived in Georgia Tagged georgia caucasus svaneti mestia ushguli Comments (0)

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 his favorite U.S. president

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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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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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)

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