Monday, 10 September 2012


The Samtskhe-Javakheti region in southern Georgia is very diverse, with a lot to offer visitors, though not always first on tourists' itineraries. I was drawn to the area by its proximity to Tbilisi, making it convenient to visit when only in the country for a short period, especially compared to other areas such as Svaneti, Ajara and Tusheti, which are more popular with tourists but also take longer to get to from the capital, whether due to inaccessible terrain or simply distance. I'm not going to lie: there was a part of me that felt that coming to this part of Georgia was a bit of a compromise, and that it would be kind of dull compared to the much-talked-about wonders of Svaneti in the northwest. Thankfully, I was thoroughly and pleasantly surprised by what I found here!

I decided to base myself in Borjomi, a spa town once frequented by the Russian royal family, and popular with Russian tourists throughout the Soviet period. While less rugged and dramatic than the Kazbegi area, Borjomi's surroundings are no less beautiful. The area has a distinctly alpine feel, immediately reminding me of Austria, with beautiful pine-covered mountains all around. Since the collapse of the USSR the souring of Russo-Georgian relations, Borjomi's tourism has suffered, bu the local authorities seem determined to foster a renaissance. All the infrastructure is here for a tourist hotspot, but there is a lack of visitors that I don't think can be entirely attributed to my visit falling at the end of the summer. There's a brand new tourist office, staffed by a man named Artur who exhibits enthusiasm and keenness to help unrivaled by anyone in a similar position anywhere the world over. The small park in the town centre is full of "attractions" targeted at children: trampolines, climbing frames, a paddling pool with water balls on it and a BB shooting range to name just a few; as well as kiosks that sell beer and snacks, and old women selling jewelry, cigarettes and children's toys (sometimes all laid out on one table). There's a large and interesting museum, full of artifacts from the local area and information in Georgian, English and Russian. But despite all of this the town has a perpetually sleepy air, with mostly just locals in the streets: kids running around and playing while old folk just relax and watch the world go by.

Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park
About 2km from the town centre is an entrance to the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, which is the largest national park in the Caucasus and one of the biggest in Europe, with an area of 5300km2 (approx. 7.6% of Georgia's total territory). The park's authorities have put in a lot of infrastructure for hikers and campers, with nine set routes, two of which are day hikes and the rest of which require overnight stays in the park. I did the shortest route, which - aside from a steep ascent at the start - was more of a stroll than a trek, though poor signage and a lack of a real map meant that I did get lost several times. What I saw of the park was all pine forest, and as pleasant as it was, I don't think it's possible to get a proper feel for the environment without spending several days there. The list of local fauna is impressive:brown bears, lynxes, badgers, wolves, red squirrels, foxes, ibexes, chamois and red deer. I wish I had a heroic tale about escaping a pack of wolves or fighting a bear, but all I can rightfully claim to have seen is a solitary squirrel scampering up a tree trunk.

About twenty minutes' drives out of Borjomi and the land transforms completely. The lush greens of the forests are replaced by a barren, mostly brown, semi-desert landscape. Riding shotgun in a taxi through this with the windows rolled down, wind blowing in my face, there's no doubt in my mind that we have left Europe. The driver points in one direction, and says it's that way to Armenia; he points another direction, that way to Turkey. Two enormous lorries drive past, both with Iranian number plates. While in Tbilisi any signs not in Georgian are usually in English, and in Borjomi they're normally in Russian, out here it's not uncommon to see signs in Turkish. Due to Georgia's recent history having been dominated by Russia, and the devout Christianity of most Georgians, I almost forgot about the country's proximity to the Middle East, but here I can really feel it. 

After a few windswept villages we reach Akhaltsikhe, the capital of the Samtskhe-Javakheti region. This is a town with a multicultural heritage. Up until the 1940s it was inhabited predominantly by ethnic Turks, as was much of the surrounding area. These Turks, known as variously as "Meskheti Turks" or "Ahiska Turks", had lived in the area since the 16th century, when it was part of the Ottoman Empire. After the Ottomans ceded the territory to the Russian Empire in the 19th century, these Turks remained and lived peaceably with their Georgian neighbours. During the Second World War, however, Stalin was planning to launch a pressure campaign on Turkey. Fearing that the Meskheti Turks might betray the Soviet Union and collaborate with the Turkish Republic, he had the whole population deported to Central Asia. Tens of thousands died during deportation, and those that survived were never allowed to return to their homes. Today Akhaltsikhe is home to one of Georgia's largest Armenian communities, with a population of about 61% Georgians and 37% Armenians. There's little ethnic tension between the Georgian and Armenian communities here, a fact for which the Georgian government is very grateful; but the authorities fear that if the Meskheti Turks were to return, it would upset the delicate ethnic balance and result in unrest. As a result, to this day no Meskheti Turks have been granted the right to return to Georgia. Despite this refusal to accept back these former inhabitants and their descendants, Akhaltsikhe's main attraction is a remnant of its Ottoman past. The Rabati, the walled old town, has an undeniably Turkish feel to it, and includes a mosque, a madrasah and a synagogue (none of which are still in use). The fact that the Rabati was all recently renovated means that it feels a bit inauthentic, and I imagine it was a lot more atmospheric before, but it's nonetheless interesting to see.

Akhaltsikhe's Rabati
Akhaltsikhe's Rabati

Further south of Akhaltsikhe, right by the Turkish border, lies the region's main attraction: the cave city Vardzia. This complex of caves, carved into a steep mountainside overlooking the Mtkvari River, was constructed in the twelfth century and for hundreds of years was permanently inhabited. Today most of it only exists as an historic relic, but there is a functioning church within one of the caves, and several of the caves (which members of the public aren't allowed to enter) are home to monks. It's utterly surreal to imagine that people ever lived like this, let alone that some still do! There's an almost complete lack of signs or information around the site, which makes exploration all the more rewarding. Most of the caves are only single rooms, a few metres in diameter, but when I happened upon a mysterious tunnel with a staircase leading downwards, I couldn't help but investigate. In the tunnel there were light bulbs on the walls, but no apparent way to turn them on, so I delved down in pitch darkness. After some ten minutes of tense descent, I came out in the large cavern that is Vardzia's church, with natural light coming through its small stained glass windows. While examining the alter, feeling like Indiana Jones, I suddenly heard a noise: a tour group coming from the other entrance! Recalling that visitors weren't supposed to enter the church without a paid guide, I scarpered back up the tunnel I came from, my escape made all the swifter by the fact that when the tour group entered, the electric lights came on!

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Into the Mountains

I arrive at Didube: part transport hub, part market, all chaos. Dozens of cars and marshrutki (minibuses that serve as the main form of public transport in the Caucasus) are parked around the place in no apparent order; countless stalls sell everything from food and drink to toys and brooms; the noise of honking horns fills the air; hundreds of Georgians haggle, socialize, smoke, drink and eat. There is, however, no sign of an information desk or ticket office. With my blond hair, vest top, shorts and backpack I stand out as a foreigner, and am soon approached by an energetic Georgian man who asks me in Russian where I want to go. I tell him "Kazbegi" and he tries to convince me to take a taxi. When I insist that I want a marshrutka, he tries to lead me to two nearby marshrutki, to Batumi and Kutaisi respectively, telling me that these are better destinations. After repeating "Kazbegi" several times, he finally gives in and leads me across the madness of the square to a marshrutka with "KAZBEGI" written on the front: one of very few to have its destination written in the Latin alphabet. The marshrutki have a very sophisticated system of seat reservation: putting a personal possession onto a seat, and leaving it there while waiting outside of the stuffy vehicle. I appear to have arrived just in time, and place my bag on the last available seat. Just a few minutes before the scheduled departure, however, a fat Georgian woman appears. The driver is trying to tell me something in a muddled combination of Russian, Georgian and English. By the time I realize what he's proposing, it's too late for me to protest. A small wooden chair is produced and placed in between two of the marshrutka's proper seats. I have the most uncomfortable journey of my life.

Didube: Tbilisi's main transport hub
The ordeal was worth it though: my destination was absolutely incredible. Kazbegi (which for some reason had its official name changed to Stepantsminda, but is still widely known by its old name) is a traditional Georgian village nestled among the awe-inspiring Caucasus mountains. I actually stayed in the smaller, neighbouring village of Gergeti. My accommodation was a guesthouse run by a lovely old Georgian woman called Nazi (ironically, most of the guests were either Polish or Israeli). In Caucasian villages there are very few real hotels or hostels, so the usual form of accommodation is guesthouses or homestays, whereby one basically stays in a local's home and is provided with authentic homecooked meals. I imagine that this tradition is a result of the region's historical importance as a trade route on the silk road, and I felt as though by taking lodgings in a local household I was following in the footsteps of the countless Russians, Turks, Persians and others who have traversed the Caucasus in days gone by. This particular guesthouse was actually one of the bigger ones: my room had ten beds packed into it, and there were at least four other guest rooms. Amenities were fairly basic, with two tiny shower cubicles and two tiny toilet cubicles serving everyone, and no sign of any hot water. However, with three hearty meals a day included in the price of 35 lari (about £13), one could hardly complain. 

My guesthouse
Neither Kazbegi nor Gergeti has a lot to offer visitors in the villages themselves, rather simply serving as places to stay while exploring and enjoying the fantastic surroundings. Overlooking the villages is the Tsminda Sameba church, an especially holy site for Georgian Orthodox Christians, and just beyond that is Mount Kazbek, the highest peak in the area (and third highest in Georgia) at 5047m. I passed a few wonderful days here, walking around and enjoying the unbelievable views and magical atmosphere. I don't hesitate to say that this is one of the most beautiful places that I've ever been. As such, rather than waste any more words, I'll just leave you with some of my photos.


Small church behind Kazbegi

Mount Kazbek
Tsminda Sameba, which overlooks Gergeti and Kazbegi
View of Gergeti and Kazbegi from Tsminda Sameba
OK so I have an admission to make. When going to visit Tsminda Sameba,
I cheated somewhat... halfway up the mountain, I had stopped to admire
the view, when this monstrosity of a vehicle pulled up next to me; the guy
driving it (a monk in traditional attire, with a full beard) must have thought
I was hitchhiking, because he beckoned for me to get in. Neither him nor
his friend spoke a word of English or Russian, but they did give me a lift
all the way to the summit!

Friday, 7 September 2012

Welcome to the Caucasus: Tbilisi

"What will be your final destination?" asked the old Ukrainian woman at the check-in desk at Gatwick. When I told her "Tbilisi" she repeated the word back to me with a tone of surprise, bordering on disbelief. After completing check-in, her parting words were, with genuine concern in her voice, "You be careful out there." Georgia has managed to garner a somewhat negative international reputation, especially in Russia and her allies. Hardly surprising, considering that the country currently has not one but two Russian-backed breakaway states within its internationally-recognized borders. The open warfare that erupted between Georgia and Russia as a result of this in 2008 is probably the only time in recent history (or ever) that Georgia has been prominent in international headlines. Add to this the fact that the nation's most famous son was Josef Stalin (né Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili) and you can understand why there's a bit of stigma attached to the place.

Some 13 hours on from those ominous words of advice, at 4.30am local time, I finally landed in Tbilisi. During the taxi ride to my hostel, despite my eyes being glued to the window, I could make out little of the city through the darkness. Was I in the heart of some wild, lawless land as had been suggested? The airport certainly hadn't made any such impression: it was much the same as any other in Eastern Europe.

It wasn't until the next morning that I could form any sort of impression of the place. Forcing myself not to sleep into the afternoon, I got up and was pleasantly surprised by a powerful, hot shower. Ready for the day, and armed with the worst city map that I'd ever seen, I set off to explore. I hoped to find the high street so that I could buy a SIM card, but the map was of no use whatsoever, so I ended up spending hours wandering around the Old Town. The Old Town was thoroughly charming and quite fascinating: almost no restoration work had been carried out, so the once-grand 18th and 19th century buildings were in various stages of decay and were still occupied by ordinary Georgians. The general state of disrepair did nothing but add to the character of the place. Scarcely a 20th century building was in sight, and one could absolutely get the feel of Tbilisi as a provincial outpost of the Russian Empire and an important trading town in the foothills of the Caucasus.

As I entered a small park and looked uncertainly at a statue in its centre, an elderly Georgian man started telling me in Russian about who it was of. He asked about where I was from and insisted I sit with him. I cautiously complied and general small talk ensued; I became sure that he was just a friendly old man and not about to con me or anything like that. He asked whether I had been to a sauna in Tbilisi, and when I told him that I hadn't, he told me that I should do, because there I could buy sex: "Georgian, Armenian, Azeri, Russian girls" he listed, as if reading me a menu. Taken aback, I politely declined. "Don't like girls?" he asked, surprised. I told him that I had a girlfriend and moved the conversation quickly onwards. After a bit more small talk, I made my exit, but as I walked away I really couldn't decide whether I had just been approached by a pimp or whether he was just a creepy old guy recommending one of his favourite pastimes.

After this strange episode and a great deal of wandering, I concluded that Kote Abkhazis Qucha was in fact Tbilisi's high street and, marvelling at the unprecedented lack of development or Westernization (most of the shops on that street just sell religious icons) I decided to grab some lunch. After sitting down and ordering a meat pie, a guy sitting alone at the next table asked me in English to join him. I was naturally apprehensive after my last impromptu conversation with a local, but thought it rude to decline. Definitely a good decision this time: this young Georgian man was simply keen to chat with me, to tell me about his country and to hear about mine. Rather than ending in any sort of seedy proposition, our conversation ended in my new friend insisting on paying for my meal and then personally showing me to a store where I could buy a SIM. So this is the famous Caucasian friendliness and hospitality!

When shown the actual high street, Shota Rustaveli, I realized how foolish I'd been to think that the Old Town was the whole extent of central Tbilisi: I was now walking along a very grand, very Western high street, complete with international chains such as Nike, Adidas and Mothercare (I know, Mothercare was a shock for me too). However, halfway along this street, wonderfully incongruously, I stumbled upon Georgia's answer to Montmartre: a section of the street where, sitting on stone steps, artists paint and sell their works (mostly idealized portrayals of Tbilisi's Old Town or quaint rural scenes). For me this exemplified the nature of Tbilisi: carefully balancing the old with the new, the traditional with the cutting-edge. At the moment the balance is healthy and pleasing to a visitor, but with half the city under construction and a rapidly increasing tourist industry, I can't help but wonder whether new money coming into Georgia will be detrimental to their capital's unique character.

It was when I saw McDonalds that I really realized that Tbilisi is not so distant
from Western commercialization 

On my second day in Tbilisi I climbed the stairs up the hill to the south of the city, eventually reaching the gargantuan statue of Mother Georgia that looks over her capital. From here I walked to the Nariqala Fortress and then the Botanical Gardens. The latter is a huge park on the egde of the Old Town, and is a must-see for any visitor to Tbilisi: after paying the 1 lari entry fee and tiptoing around all the digging and construction work going on near the entrance, I wiled away a whole afternoon in this place. I thought Hampstead Heath was good, but this park puts it to shame with dramatic clif faces and a waterfall. Inexpliquably, the park was virtually empty except for a few Georgians picknicking here and there, and one small wedding party taking photos in the gorgeous surroundings. Above all, this taste of nature had whet my apetite for the real Caucasian countryside.

So Tbilisi didn't confirm the negative stereotypes, and definitely didn't put me off the Caucasus region: so far, so good!
I have no idea why the Greek government would own this derelict building...

Botanical gardens

Waterfall in the botanical garden