Georgia; a Tale of Mountains, Monsters and Maja’s Apartment

On our Pan-American trip we could cover several hundred miles in a day, because basically there are a lot of wide open spaces and a long way between points of interest. To date, on this Ride East, we’re lucky if we cover more than a hundred miles between stops; there is just so much crammed into these amazing countries we are travelling through.

From the derelict villas of Tskaltubo, we set off on the next leg of our journey through Georgia to visit Borjomi National Park. We took the main east-west highway as far as a crazy pell-mell of a roundabout in Kashuri. The driving remained atrocious with drivers expecting us to get onto the hard shoulder to let them by and then getting really irritated when we declined, flashing headlights, sounding horns and so on. To yield would have resulted in us getting driven off the road altogether so we held our line until it was safe to permit an overtake.

Off the main highway the road took us into mountain country, chasing a broad river hack deep into the terrain. Borjomi was another jewel in Georgia. A spa town made famous by the Russian Romanovs who patronized it to the extent of building a palace here as a summer retreat. In places it felt like Matlock Bath, with everywhere overlooked by tree-covered, steep canyon walls and rocky outcrops. You can still bathe in the hot sulphur springs, as the Tsar and his entourage did and Borjomi water is bottled and sold across the world as a healthy, invigorating mineral water. It certainly has a bite to it unlike any other bottled water we’ve come across.

We spent a glorious sunny day following a well-marked adventure hiking trail that ran through a somewhat disheveled amusement park at one end of the town, then led us past the Tsars sulphur-springs, to a hot clamber up and out of the valley for beautiful views back down over the town and the surrounding mountains. For the whole day we wandered alone, both of us silently pondering our contentment with the world at the moment.

We used Borjomi as a base to strike out for the town of Gori, birthplace of Josef Stalin. The humble cobblers house where he was born has been enshrined in a marble columned vault set in a small park in the city centre, which also contains Stalin’s personal railway carriage and a museum dedicated to Georgia’s most prominent son.

But first some lunch… Leaving the bikes, we wandered off on a lap of the park perimeter looking for a bite to eat. There were one or two snack bars but they were full and looked a tad unappetising. An old taxi driver with weathered, leathered face and drooping silver moustache had been observing us. “You two motosyklistas? You want coffee? Something to eat?” he asked perceptively. He then locked up his cab and led us away from the park to an amazing underground restaurant, where we had one of the best lunches of the trip to date dining on beef kebab and a plate of Khinkali; deliciously juicy Georgian dumplings stuffed with a choice of herby meat, mushroom, potato or cheese fillings. We washed this down with some cream soda lemonade. Georgian bottled lemonades are quite simply the best and most refreshing soft drinks on the planet!

The Stalin museum; a collection of dimly lit rooms containing mostly black & white photographs, a few paintings, some documents and letters and one or two artifacts outlining the life of JS. It charted his rise from humble beginnings in the enshrined cobblers house outside, through dismissal from a seminary (it didn’t explain why) and his evolution into reactionary politics showing his multiple arrests and banishments in Tsarist Russia. Suddenly he is at Lenin’s side through the revolution and then he has taken over as grand-supremo on Lenin’s death. Ultimately he leads Russia to victory in the Great Patriotic War, his crowning achievement, and then in 1953 the man is dead and we enter a small room in the museum where his death mask holds centre and you have to walk around it to exit into a few remaining galleries mostly containing gifts to the great leader from other countries around the world.

Outside we asked ourselves “have we really just walked round a museum dedicated to one of history’s all-time-greatest-mass-murderers?” No mention of the mechanics of his climb to power, ruthless disposal of all opposition, murder of millions through forced collectivisation of the kulaks and let’s not forget the military purges that decapitated the Red Army to the point where the German invasion was a pushover that took four years of brutal combat to counter and eventually win through. Then there was his disastrous personal life. His first wife committed suicide and during the war Stalin refused to exchange captured German General Von Paulus, who had surrendered at Stalingrad, for his son who was a prisoner of the Germans and subsequently died in captivity. Finally his daughter who upon his death defected to the US denouncing her father and all his actions. After his death the Soviets decided maybe he wasn’t such a great man after all and had his body removed from the Lenin Mausoleum.

The entire museum was a somewhat sanitised view of a monsters life but then again it was a similar story a few years ago when we visited Graceland and found no mention of the King’s substance abuse or his road to ruin. I know, I know; Elvis was in the long run a good guy and maybe this is a poor comparison but I’m just saying how both places are celebrating the rise of a local son. With Elvis his legacy is all around; he is the acknowledged ‘King of Rock and Roll’ and he had a huge influence on probably everything we listen to in modern music today. In Stalin’s case, a scant look around outside said more about his legacy; Georgia departed from the Soviet Union upon its break-up and is now eager to join both EU and NATO. Walking around the park we found a couple of seedy looking strip-clubs and an ATM. At the ATM I withdrew some cash… the ATM paid out in US Dollars.

Our last stop in Georgia was the capital Tbilisi. We pre-booked 5 nights in the city centre ‘Sololaki Guest Apartment’, which offered private parking for the bikes. GPS took us directly into the city and straight to the door; or should I say the place where there had once been a door. We pulled up at the rather grand portico of a huge and crumbling apartment block. I say grand but that was perhaps a reflection of former days… Now the front doors were missing revealing an unlit interior hosting a broken stairway, the floor all covered in a thick layer of dust and cigarette butts. We called the owners and a few minutes later the caretaker, a lovely lady beaming smiles called ‘Maja’ appeared to let us in. The stairs led to a courtyard that was at the same time crumbling and overgrown and we were shown to a scratch-paint door. After some fumbling with a key to unlock the portal we were introduced to our home for the next five nights; a suite of enormous rooms, two of which hosted sagging double beds, another with a decrepit four-ring gas cooker and refrigerator of equal vintage and a cavernous living room that was furnished with a good few dozen empty wine bottles (all tastefully arranged, to which we would certainly add a few more…) and a suite of disparate chairs and sofas.

The owner was clearly an artist and the place was littered with works of their art along with dozens of Georgian books and magazines. Busted ancient window frames had been hung around the walls like empty picture frames and another wall was host to the remnants of a broken dining chair. Empty corners were populated by entire branches lopped off some hapless tree, but I guess they filled a space. Finally there were the bathroom facilities. At the back of the kitchen a doorway led to a small compartment that contained in turn, a wash-hand basin, a bath and a washing machine. The latter was modern but the first two were of a similar vintage to the kitchen hardware. We later noticed that the washing machine was plumbed into the bathroom plumbing and drained via the bath! And so to the toilet; the WC was literally in a closet. What we thought was a floor to ceiling cupboard actually had mostly dummy doors but one was functioning and this opened to reveal the loo!

We looked at each other and first thoughts were an incredulous ”what the hell?” As we studied the high ceilinged rooms of what had obviously at one time been a grand residence, a quick scan around told us that the place was clean, not smelly and its location, just off the city centre, would suit us fine. Further the bikes were stabled at Maja’s round the corner, out of sight in a private courtyard. The place had a tremendous sense of ease and peacefulness about it and it proved to be a great fitness retreat. Maggie found the solitude of the enormous front bedroom, illuminated by tree-filtered, early morning sunlight, to be one of the most sweet and inspiring locations she’d ever known for practicing her yoga.

Parking up the bikes with Maja, we noticed a Yamaha Tenere parked outside one of the residences. The racket of our arrival into the small courtyard brought us an introduction to a fine young gentleman named Kosta, owner of the Yamaha. We spent a beery evening in a local pub, where he entertained us with tales of life in Georgia from the Soviet era, through independence and on to the civil war, with Russian tanks on the street corners as recently as 2008. They were, for us, unimaginable times; the collapse of the Soviet Union, the disappearance of regular money and wages, massive and sudden unemployment while factories closed and everyone tried to figure out what was going on. Then the rise of criminal elements, ever ready to exploit the situation and take control of basic commodities and movement of people around the city. Add to this the opportunity for the South Ossetian / Abkhazians to split from Georgia and they were chaotic times indeed. In one harrowing tale Kosta told us how his father and uncle were captured in their car by gangsters and taken to the local cemetery for execution. Shallow graves were prepared and they only avoided death through the fact that they happened to share the same surname as another well-known criminal (they lost the car mind).

Our visit to Tbilisi was certainly memorable. It’s a great wee city in that you can hoof it around most of the attractions in a day or so. Add to that fantastic food, great beer and wine to die for and it’s a must see place. But time was moving on; we had an appointment to be at the Iranian border in just under a fortnight’s time. But before that another treasure awaited; Armenia…

The photogallery for this Blog Post is at ‘Georgia Part 2′

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Georgia and the Ginger Cows

Crossing the border into Georgia was a quick formality; 10 minutes to exit Turkey and thank the smiling customs officers for their lovely country, then a short queue where we were questioned by two Georgian uniforms; when we explained our purpose they moved us to the top of the queue. Five minutes later we had a one-year tourist visa for Georgia and were waved on our way by more smiling officials. I hope all future borders are like this one!

Given that we’d only decided to visit Georgia last week it was a place we knew very little about and consequently had almost zero expectations, which we have found, in the past, to be a good thing. It was our first ever visit to a former USSR Socialist Republic and the only famous Georgian we knew of was Josef Stalin who was born (we learned) in the appropriately named town of Gori. We weren’t even sure if the country is in Asia or were we going back into Europe? According to a BBC article “One definition of Europe marks the Caucasus Mountains as its border, putting Georgia firmly in Asia. Other definitions place the whole Caucasus region, including Georgia, in Europe, which is where most Georgians feel it belongs.” Indeed the EU flag is prominently displayed at many public buildings and this is probably more of a statement that they never want to go back to the Soviet times. My favourite description of Georgia is that it is like a little balcony of Europe, overhanging into Asia.

The change in the country beyond the new frontier was immediate. Gone were the mosque and the minaret, the glittering red flags and (thankfully) no more trash and landfills. Georgia welcomed us first with huge flashy billboard ads for casinos in Batumi, our first stop and then proceeded to try and kill us with multiple attempts on our lives by the most maniac drivers we’ve come across anywhere. Okay, okay, we knew the driving would get worse as we progressed east and I’m sure this is not a patch on what we’ll encounter in India but it’s still a shock. We were not required to purchase bike insurance at the border because there isn’t any. While we’re on the subject, Georgia has only recently introduced a driving test; prior to this anyone could ‘have a go’ and boy does it show.

The result is mayhem on the roads. Everyone just goes for it, full throttle, taking advantage of each and every opportunity to make progress as fast as possible. There are no rules on the roundabouts where ‘who dares wins’. Most of the time it sort of works but impatience is deadly and we’ve had ringside seats to a number of breath-sucking, suicide overtakes; flash cars overtaking at high speed approaching the brow of a hill or a blind bend. You just know if anything is coming the other way, then there is absolutely nowhere to go and a horrific accident will result. After a few days we saw our first ‘aftermath’ on the road to Gori; a Toyota Landcruiser that had been in a head-on, police everywhere trying to clear up the mess. The car looked brand new and it had been folded in half such that the front wheels were tucked under the belly pan, touching the rear wheels. Everyone slowed down to have a look but then a few miles up the road they’re all at it again and obviously the sight of the recent carnage has given no cause for any moderation of driving habits.

Georgia we also discovered is the land of the Ginger Cow. There are thousands of them and they are everywhere. Now I like my cows; big bright-eyed bovine things with pretty lashes, giving us all that lovely dairy product, beef and leather. And who doesn’t like the sound of a Moo? But here in Georgia these rusty moos are free to roam, turned out onto every street, road and major carriageway. As if the nutters in the cars aren’t enough to contend with we’ve also got these dandering cows adding to the list of road hazards. Occasionally they will be tethered outside a property so they can graze the grass frontage. Unfortunately this means they can wander just about half way across the road, tether now taut, ready for the unwary…

If I had to sum up Georgia and our time here in one word, that word would be ‘incongruous’. Everywhere we have travelled we have met the unexpected and seen sights that have baffled and bewildered, which all makes for a fantastic travel experience. The first incongruity was Batumi; sizeable city on the Black Sea coast and our first stop in from Turkey. Former Soviet republic, casinos? We were expecting something slightly run-down and seedy, possibly rendered in concrete and block. We were met by a monstrous skyline of impressive modern skyscrapers and towers and there has clearly been a lot of investment here with all the major chains present; Hilton, Radisson, Crown Plaza etc. The architecture is certainly love-it-or-hate-it but it is an impressive sprawl. The culture shock on arriving from Turkey was a giant leap from bygone biblical to the latest Las Vegas.

We decided to spend an extra day or two meandering the high-rises and enjoying walks along the newly built ocean boulevard. Batumi also has a beautiful old town; once again that incongruity with the rest of place. Within a few blocks we’d parted Vegas and were now wandering downtown New Orleans or possibly even Havana with a neat grid of balconied ancient housing running down to the sea in sun-scorched streets, a bit run down but so full of character. Finally down by the harbour a modern art installation; ‘The Lovers’. A huge pair of statues of a man and a woman rendered in slices of stainless steel and mounted on two gear wheels such that both slowly rotate. At times they were moving away from each other until they stood remote, facing apart, irreconcilable and looking in opposite directions. But then they would gradually come together again and when they did their bodies met, at first in a kiss, then merged until they became one. It was at once a very graceful and clever piece of sculpture.

Leaving Batumi we said farewell to the Black Sea and rode east across the country. Our next planned stop was Kutaisi, Georgia’s second city, but in the absence of clear street signs we couldn’t locate our intended accommodation. A foray into the manic traffic of the city centre failed to yield a suitable alternative so we set GPS to take us to a nearby town called Tskaltubo, purely on the grounds that there seemed to be a lot of hotels there and on the map it looked like a gateway to the mountains.

Once again Tskaltubo would prove to be totally different to anywhere we’ve ever been. The town seemed to be laid out in a vast parkland with fantastically wide meandering avenues, the sort you could maybe drive a May-Day parade down. GPS led us up one of the tree-lined avenues to a hotel, which turned out to be a derelict villa. We rode in through the broken gateway to find a paved courtyard whose sole occupant was an ancient rusting car laid up on blocks with wheels missing and open bonnet. The windows of some of the rooms were broken but it was clear that people were squatting here. We did a quick U-turn and left. The next ‘hotel’ was the same; another derelict villa with bed-linen airing from weed encrusted balconies like so many grey flags flapping in the wind.

On our next lap of the town we discovered a spick and span 50’s-style spa-sanatorium that wasn’t derelict but had us now wondering if we’d travelled down some time-hole. We finally found a small hotel (the Argos) with a friendly receptionist and booked in for the night as it was getting late in the afternoon. In its heyday, Tskaltubo was a famous spa resort and one of Stalin’s favourite holiday spots. In fact a lot of the senior party members and military leaders had villas here and the place was frequented by over 100,000 visitors every year; last year it had 700. Since the demise of Stalin the place has fallen out of favour and the villas gone to ruin. The ‘squatters’ we’d seen turned out to be former refugees as the place was used to re-house thousands following the genocide that took place in the war with the north-western province of Abkhazia in 1993.

Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, Abkhazia (and also South Ossetia, another province within Georgia) saw an opportunity to once again stake a regional claim for independence. It led to open war and ethnic cleansing on an unimaginable scale for these recent times. In one city alone, Sukhami, 10 – 15,000 Georgians were brutally murdered in a two-week killing spree and the net effect of the war has seen the displacement of some 200,000 Georgians forced to flee the province. The recent history of Georgia is a sad story indeed and today the country appears to have lost both Abkhazia and South Ossetia to separatists backed by Russia.

From Tskaltubo we took a short day trip into the nearby mountains to visit ‘Prometheus Cave’. In Greek mythology Prometheus was a Titan who, feeling sorry for the newly created naked and vulnerable human beings, bestowed upon them the gifts of fire and metalwork to help them in their struggle through life. His action angered Zeus who had Prometheus chained to rock in the High Caucasus Mountains to be tormented each day by an eagle that tore out and ate his liver. The liver grew back in the night but the eagle always returned to devour it afresh in the morning. Legend has it that the place where Prometheus was chained is on the high peak of nearby Khvamli Mountain so from this local association, the name has been bestowed on the cave, which was only discovered in 1984.

On entering the cave we followed a path for over a kilometer that led us through an underworld of every size and form of stalagmites and stalactites imaginable. In places they have melded to create vast cascades of stone curtains and tapered organ pipes, gracing the rock with fluidity in its form. Narrow corridors and channels linked a series of some sixteen larger caverns and a guide led our small visitor party through, explaining each form and feature in a muted voice appropriate for this reverend place. The exit route was more magic as it involved an underground boat trip that led us once again into the daylight.

Prometheus Cave was one of those places where you emerge a lot calmer and refreshed than when you went in. There is something special about entering these vast dark spaces, your mind processing the vision of the alien speleology on display, the pin-drop silence interrupted only by the sound of your own breath as you take in lungs full of chill pure air and stand open mouthed in awe at the majesty all around. In fact, road chaos aside, this is probably a good summary that would fit the whole country of Georgia itself. It really is a magical land and certainly ranks as one of the best diversions in all our travels (and we’re only half way through…!)

The corresponding photo-gallery for this blog is Georgia Part 1