Off to Georgia (the country)!

bartjeej

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bart
So, after an initial failure to post this (see I am upset), here's my second attempt! :) (update: whew, I managed it!)

This past summer, I finally got the chance to move out of the corporate world and into my dream job. In-between jobs, I had 3 weeks off, so I went backpacking. Having traveled south already, and there not being so much land to the west and north, I decided to go east. Looking for unusual and interesting destinations, I ended up looking at Georgia; a smallish country on the Southern Caucasus, just about in Asia. The plan became to spend 10 days traveling to Georgia overland, using trains, and when I got there, to spend another 10 days exploring the country. Photos were taken either with my phone camera (Samsung Galaxy S5 mini) or with my Fuji X100. IMO, the images get better as I got further into the trip (my photos from Turkey and Georgia are my favourite)

The evening before my departure, I had a stroll through my current hometown, Amsterdam, with my girlfriend. You've gotta spend some quality time before 3 weeks of separation, haven't you?
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Amsterdam summer evening
by bartjeej, on Flickr

On the evening of my actual departure, I took the sleeper train to Munich. I met some friendly cabin buddies, and couldn't resist taking the obligatory "train on the move" picture
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Start of an adventure
by bartjeej, on Flickr

The following morning, I woke up just before we arrived in Munich. Like many German cities, the area around the main train station is a bit dilapidated and poor, with mostly immigrants living there. Getting further towards the old town, Munich starts to match your expectation of Bavaria's capital city: a clean, pleasant, polite, rich city, but still one where people know how to enjoy themselves. Life seemed to be good in the parks...

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München - park life
by bartjeej, on Flickr

... and in the churches, some of which were very richly (and dramatically) decorated:
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München - Asamkirche is lavish
by bartjeej, on Flickr

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München - Asamkirche
by bartjeej, on Flickr

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München - skeletons, angels and God (I assume)
by bartjeej, on Flickr

Everywhere, buildings had painted-on 3D-effect decorations on the outside walls, which I found quite amusing in a city with such wealth and grandeur:
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München - 3D effect
by bartjeej, on Flickr

I did some street photography involving statues:
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München - walking statue
by bartjeej, on Flickr

and I spent a good chunk of my afternoon in a Biergarten (beer garden); it's an exceedingly enjoyable way to spend a few hours on a beautiful summer day. Lots of good (and greasy) food, traditional music, lots of people having a good time, and glasses of delicious beer starting at half a litre... (click the image to be taken to the video)
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München - Beer garden
by bartjeej, on Flickr

Munich is not known for being the hippest city in Germany, but one really cool thing that they have is the river surfing, which happens on a spot where the water being led from the river to the park makes some nice waves:
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München - river surfing
by bartjeej, on Flickr

I spent the evening having dinner and drinks with some Irish guys I met at my hostel. The following morning, after apparently having kept the Irish folks awake with my snoring (the joys of sleeping in a hostel dorm... my apologies!), my 24 hours in Munich were over, and it was time to move on to Budapest.
 
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bartjeej

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The train from Munich to Budapest, by way of Salzburg and Vienna, only takes 6 hours. It's a really nice way of seeing some of Central Europe's grandeur, and enjoying the foothills of the Alps at the same time. I would've loved to check out Salzburg and Vienna too, but I simply couldn't fit it all into my schedule.
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Austria looking tidy from the train
by bartjeej, on Flickr

Despite the Soviet having done their best to concrete-ify it, and the dilapidation that not having quite enough money brings with it, Budapest still clearly shows that it was once the co-capital of one of Europe's great empires.
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Budapest - bridge and museum
by bartjeej, on Flickr

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Budapest - basilica
by bartjeej, on Flickr

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Budapest - riverside chilling
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The parliament building is stunning, located right on the riverside:
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Budapest - parliament riverside
by bartjeej, on Flickr

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Budapest - parliament
by bartjeej, on Flickr

The city had its greatest time of wealth between the 1860's and the first World War, so it's no great surprise to see many art nouveau / jugendstil buildings in the streets:
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Budapest - jugendstil
by bartjeej, on Flickr

Budapest is not only full of monumental buildings, it also has really good food, fun little shops, and great places to go out. I was there 9 years ago, and back then, the nightlife was still a bit stereotypical eastern European; pounding electronic dance music with lots of sleazy girls and boys about. That has changed completely, and Budapest is now a favourite party destination for both western and eastern Europeans; it is full of quirky bars and clubs, and I really enjoyed my time there. Unfortunately, time constraints only allowed me to stay there for 2 days, so I made my way to the monumental train station...
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Budapest - keleti station
by bartjeej, on Flickr

...and got on the night train to Bucharest, Romania.
 

bartjeej

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My trip to Romania started badly, when a miscommunication with the exceedingly friendly Romanian conductor led to the humourless "rules must be followed" Hungarian conductors unfairly taking away one of my 5 days of train travel that my Interrail pass afforded me.

Unfortunately, during the train ride to Bucharest, i was feeling worse and worse. I guess my body thinking "it's holiday, no more work, I can let my guard down", combined with all the train travel, moving around, short nights, the sudden increase in temperature between Holland and Central Europe, my anger at the Hungarian conductors, and being in close quarters with lots of different people, was just a bit too much for my resistance to cope with.

As I got of the Bucharest train station, I was feeling like a zombie, and that didn't really change when I got to my hostel, or at any other point in the following couple of days. In short, I mostly stayed at the hostel trying to get fit, and I didn't see much of Bucharest, let alone the rest of Romania.

What I can say is that the country is much poorer than Hungary or Czech, and is really starting to feel like eastern Europe rather than central Europe. Still, it's called Romania for a reason, and there is a clear link with Italy in terms of language, and to some extent also in terms of culture. The people were very kind, and really enjoyed eating and drinking together, and often appeared to me as supreme bohemiens. Romanians often have a bad reputation in the rest of Europe due to gangs of criminals coming to other countries and stealing everything that isn't bolted down, but in Bucharest, I didn't feel unsafe for a single second, and I only met friendly, kind people.

My fellow travellers in the hostel were also a source of entertainment as I tried to get well again; there was an American hippy Trump supporter, living in Romania and working as a guitar player in a Jimi Hendrix cover band there; a French Canadian visiting as many obscure countries and territories as possible (ranging from Kyrgyzstan and Kosovo to Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria); and a Polish motorcycle backpacker at the beginning of a yearlong trip around the world.

On my fourth day in Bucharest, I did walk around the city center. Despite their similar sounding names, there really is no comparing Bucharest with Budapest. There is an overwhelming amount of concrete, and of the pre-soviet city center, much is completely dilapidated, as if it hasn't seen maintenance in several decades.
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Bucharest - faded glory
by bartjeej, on Flickr

There is an old core to the city center which is quite charming, and has a few buildings in art nouveau or earlier styles, but it's quite small and full of tourists.
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Bucharest - coppper roof
by bartjeej, on Flickr

There was one tiny church - somewhat similar to the one in the photo below, but my phone battery died before I could take a picture of it - that was, to me, the prettiest church that I've seen in years. It was bang in the middle of the stone-only city center, and consisted of a small courtyard with more trees than the rest of the city center combined, a side building with arches providing some shade, a group of statues, and the church itself. The church's interior was filled with wood panels painted with fading images of saints, and the natural simplicity, calmness and modesty of it all was such a stark contrast with the masses of stone, marble and people outside, that I felt something close to a religious experience, which doesn't normally tend to happen to me.
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Bucharest - typical church
by bartjeej, on Flickr

I did go to the Palace of Parliament, the epitome of Soviet dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's madness, and found it to be absurdly large. Then I discovered that I was only looking at the side of the thing, and that the front facade of the monstrosity is larger still. If you consider that the (already suffering) country's economy was basically shut down for a year in order for this palace to be built, you can imagine what a sick egomaniac Ceausescu was.

Outside of Bucharest, there are apparently some very pretty towns with loads of character, and beautiful nature. I was planning to see some of it and then move on to Bulgaria and Turkey, but unfortunately, my 4 days of illness took a big chunk of time out of the 3 weeks I had to travel. So, I decided to fly out of Bucharest to Istanbul, and then fly onwards to Georgia a day later.
 

bartjeej

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Before coming to Istanbul, I thought it would be a pretty city with some beautiful buildings, at a similar level to Budapest. Very shortly after arriving, it turns out I was wrong. Istanbul really is one of the great cities of this world, on a similar level to London, Paris or Rome. If I made one mistake in planning my trip, it was only giving myself one day in Istanbul.

It is located partly in Europe, partly in Asia. My plane landed on the Asian side, but the bus quickly took me across the bridge to the European side again, which is where the oldest part of the city is. After getting off the bus, I chose to walk to my hostel, which is about an hour and a half walking, with my heavy backpack on. I hardly even felt it, and I had a massive grin on my face the entire time. When I heard the muezzin's call to prayer, my "travel high" was complete.

Istanbul is a city with a history to rival Rome's, an energy to rival Paris, and people that are friendlier than either of those cities. With all that Istanbul has been through recently - several terrorist attacks, an apparent coup attempt that happened only a month before I got there, and an influx of refugees from Syria that exceeds the EU's worst nightmares, I still found it to be a very safe and incredibly enjoyable city.

I'd been in Turkey once before, and it was always a patriotic, flag-waving kinda country, but after the coup attempt, the number of flags was just incredible.
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Istanbul - taksim square
by bartjeej, on Flickr

Anyone with a sweet tooth should be familiar with the Turkish treat called Baklava:
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Istanbul - sweet tooth anyone?
by bartjeej, on Flickr

Walking through the city, I was struck by the sheer vibrance and energy, the joie de vivre, the way old and new mingle...

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Istanbul - always lively
by bartjeej, on Flickr

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Fishtanbul
by bartjeej, on Flickr

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Flag-loving country
by bartjeej, on Flickr

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Fishing
by bartjeej, on Flickr

Arriving in the oldest part of the city, you're immediately entering the "grand bazaar". It's the massive old market of Istanbul, mostly covered, and with entire neighbourhoods dedicated to shoemakers, spice-sellers, jewellers, carpet weavers, and so on, all having little shops and selling their goods. It is truly mind-blowing, and it seems to exist mostly for the locals, not specifically for tourists. Thanks to the locals often wearing somewhat traditional clothing, eating their distinctive food and buying their distinctive shoes and lamps, it really feels Middle Eastern, and alive like no major city I've seen in Europe. It has 80% of the medieval character of the Souks in Fez and Marrakech, but thanks to the friendlier salesmen, only 10% of the intimidation factor.
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Istanbul - grand bazaar
by bartjeej, on Flickr

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Istanbul - sugar and water
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Istanbul - grand bazaar carpets
by bartjeej, on Flickr

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Istanbul - evening light
by bartjeej, on Flickr
 
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bartjeej

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After making my way through the Grand Bazaar, I went to my hostel, which had a great view over the Sea of Marmara
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Istanbul - sea of Marmaris
by bartjeej, on Flickr

After the sun went down, I tried to watch some Turkish TV, but that just fried my brain. Even without speaking a single word of Turkish, I could understand that literally every TV channel was discussing either the apparent coup attempt and the politics around it, or religion (meaning, Islam). The party that has ruled Turkey for the past 10 years or so is an Islamic party trying to turn the country away from the secularism promoted by the founder of modern Turkey (Ataturk). Whereas Istanbul is relatively openminded and modern, there are people that really want to turn Turkey into a much less tolerant and pleasant country, which is sad, as Turkey has long been one of the most diverse and tolerant countries in the Middle East.

I spent much of the following morning shopping for some presents for my girlfriend in the Grand Bazaar, but I did make time to pass by the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.
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Istanbul - Blue Mosque
by bartjeej, on Flickr

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Istanbul - Blue Mosque details
by bartjeej, on Flickr

Istanbul started out as Byzantium and was later renamed Constantinople (you might've heard those names before...), and Hagia Sophia in particular is just a mind-blowing example of the level of development that this city had, shortly after the fall of the Roman Empire (Byzantium / Constantinople was the capital of the Byzantine / Eastern Roman Empire for over a thousand years). Hagia Sophia was built as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral, almost 1500 years ago. After the conquest of Constantinople by the Muslims in 1453, it was turned into a mosque by the addition of 4 minarets and by painting Quranic quotes over the Christian imagery. As the mosque was so widely admired, the domed design became the basic feature of countless mosques around the world, even though it was originally part of the cathedral's design. After the secularisation of Turkey, in the 1920's, the building became a museum, which it still is. I didn't go inside as I didn't have the time, but even from a distance, the building is utterly awe-inspiring.
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Istanbul - Hagia Sofia
by bartjeej, on Flickr

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Istanbul - Hagia Sofia
by bartjeej, on Flickr

Funnily enough, the mosque-inspiring Hagia Sophia remained the largest cathedral in the world until the cathedral of Sevilla was built in the 1400's... with a design inspired by (completely different looking) Moroccan mosques!

Unfortunately, I had a flight to Georgia booked in the early afternoon, so I could only stay in the city for about 20 hours. There isn't a single doubt in my mind that I have to revisit Istanbul at some point (hopefully before any zealots in government can return the Hagia Sophia to being a mosque, which could lead to it being closed off for non-muslims). I know that the terrorism hitting Turkey and Istanbul sounds (and is) scary, but there're 14 million people living in this city; even if you are unlucky enough to be in there when something happens, the chances of it happening to You are almost nil. So people, do yourself and the wonderful people of Istanbul a favor, and visit this wonderful city when you have the chance!
 
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bartjeej

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On de descent to Tbilisi airport, all I saw were mountains with dry yellow grass, and distant snowy peaks. Tbilisi airport itself was relatively modern and comfortable, if small. The bus that took me to the city... not so much:
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Tbilisi - airport shuttle
by bartjeej, on Flickr
It was a rattly squeaky bouncy thing, with dry dusty air coming in through the window seals, the dust particles being lit up by the evening sun. In short, I loved it! :D

After a hot walk up a mountainside, I made it to my hostel, which had a really cool, authentically retro atmosphere and a bunch of argumentative intellectuals and wannabe-intellectuals, eternally discussing in the courtyard.
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Tbilisi - hostel view
by bartjeej, on Flickr
There was an English teacher giving courses over Skype while travelling, an American jet fighter technician waiting for approval to work on Saudi Arabia's US-built fighters, an Azerbaijani professor professing his desire for Turkey, Iran and Azerbaijan to merge, and some dedicated hikers from Poland and Denmark, trying to keep a cool head amongst all the bickering about geopolitics and the extent to which the Bible should be seen as the absolute truth. I spent some time listening to the arguments and poking the fire from time to time :daz::sorry:, but then joined the hikers and talked about which mountains to visit. One of the reasons for visiting Georgia, for me, was that it is located on the south side of the Caucasus mountains, just inside of Western Asia, with several unique cultures still surviving in those mountains.

I spent the following day exploring Tbilisi, and found it more interesting than I expected. It's not one of the great cities of our world, for sure, but thanks to a history that involves occupation by the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Mongols, Persians, Turks, Czarist Russians and the Soviets, you can imagine the kind of melting pot of influences have shaped Georgian culture. With Asian dumplings, Russian, Persian and Turkish influenced buildings, an entirely unique language and alphabet, and lots of churches and monasteries to protect their own culture during various periods of occupation, there is something to be discovered around each corner, even if it isn't all as grand as in many other cities.
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Tbilisi - St George, at freedom square
by bartjeej, on Flickr

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Tbilisi - local delicacies
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Tbilisi was founded at the site of a spring leading to a major river. The spring also features sulphur baths, which were what made Tbilisi a stopping point on the Silk Road
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Tbilisi - sulphur bath rooftops
by bartjeej, on Flickr

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Centuries old
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Another sulphur bath shows clear Persian influences:
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Tbilisi - mosque
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But the mosque complex above the Persian sulphur bath shows more Turkish / Russian influences:
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Tbilisi mosque
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Tbilisi - interesting statue
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Many of the churches have towers with conical roofs. The big church in the background is the Basilica of Tbilisi.
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Tbilisi view
by bartjeej, on Flickr
 
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bartjeej

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I'm not sure if this building is more Russian or more Turkish in style, but either way, I loved the colours and the play of the light.
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colorful tbilisi 2
by bartjeej, on Flickr

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colorful tbilisi
by bartjeej, on Flickr

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Tbilisi houses
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I don't think the bus stops have changed much over the past 60 years or so
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Not retro
by bartjeej, on Flickr

The day after exploring Tbilisi, I made my way to the mountain region of Svaneti. It's an area the size of Brunei, or the state of Delaware, but it has only 23,000 inhabitants. Despite the massive number of occupations that Georgia suffered, the harshness of the terrain in Svaneti meant that, until the Soviet occupation, none of the invaders really managed to control the area. As a result, it was the place that Georgians brought their treasures, and it still is a place that managed to hold on to its own culture.

The ride to Svaneti was long; it involved 3 different " marshrutska's", or shared minibuses. I met some lovely Polish students in the second marshrutska, and would meet them again in Svaneti. The driver of the third marshrutska - the one who really took me into the mountains - drove as if it wasn't an old rattly Ford Transit van, but a highly tuned rally car. Suffice to say, I found it terrifying - and that's before he decided to down about a litre of beer at our half-way stop! When we finally arrived at Mestia (the capital of the Svaneti region) he offered me to stay at his guest house, but given the liberties he had just taken with my safety, I didn't really feel like doing him a favour.

The hydro lake in this picture was on the way to Mestia, in Lower Svaneti - as the name implies, before you get to the really high Caucasus. It was really beautiful and had a fantastic shape, and deep, dense forests rising above it. We spent about 20 minutes driving (racing) along its shores, but given the speed we were travelling at, this is the best picture I could manage...
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Lower Svaneti - hydro powerr lake
by bartjeej, on Flickr

Mestia is the largest town in Svaneti, with a few thousand inhabitants. It is unfortunately beginning to be developed, causing it to lose some of its charm...
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Mestia - losing its innocence
by bartjeej, on Flickr

... but at least it has a statue that eh... hmmm... what?
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Mestia - nobody knows
by bartjeej, on Flickr

I loved the Lada Niva's that were all over the place. Simple, small, agile, off-road champions - the perfect car for a place like this.
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Mestia - vehicle of choice
by bartjeej, on Flickr

Svaneti is also known for its hearty, filling food. My favourite was Kubdari - bread filled with cheese and meat. Georgian bread, by the way, is awesome, and they have about a hundred different varieties (including one with molten butter, molten cheese and a fried egg in the middle).
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Ushguli area - kubdari
by bartjeej, on Flickr

More to follow tomorrow!
 

bartjeej

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Mestia has a truly excellent museum, detailing the prehistory, history, customs, clothes and artefacts of the region in a way that would do any European museum proud. The labels are also in both Georgian (which is unreadable due to their own alphabet) and English. That's a common thing in Georgia, by the way - even the bank notes have English "subtitles"! The thing I liked most about the museum, though, was its panoramic view over the town of Mestia:
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Svaneti museum panorama
by bartjeej, on Flickr

You might've noticed the towers in the photo above; they're a sign of Svaneti's violent past. To protect the people against not only invading armies, but also their own neighbours in case of a blood feud, most families built stone towers next to their homes. Many of them are still standing and accessible, and they can be up to 1100 years old.
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More towers is more better
by bartjeej, on Flickr

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Mestia
by bartjeej, on Flickr

For a small fee, you can enter some families' towers. Getting all the way to the top can be a bit scary, with long, wobbly wooden ladders and very little to hold on to in the darkness, but once you're on top, the views are amazing:
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Mestia neighbours
by bartjeej, on Flickr

My original plan was to do a 4-day trek to the tiny town of Ushguli, close to the Russian border. However, since the forecast for the first 2 days had thunderstorms, I didn't want to be out there in the mountains. I know many fellow tourists did go out, but I'm really careful in this regard. So, instead of hiking, I took another Marshrutska van to Ushguli. The dirt road was truly awful, full of big rocks, big holes, deep puddles, big drops on the side, and steep climbs and descents, but amazingly, I did see a Toyota Prius on that same road! After 2 uncomfortable hours (with some very whiny Israeli girls - for some reason, Georgia is really popular with Israeli hikers), I arrived in Ushguli.
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Ushguli
by bartjeej, on Flickr

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Ushguli - riverside
by bartjeej, on Flickr

Ushguli is the final village on the Georgian side of 5,193 meter (17,040 ft) Mount Shkhara, which is the tallest point in Georgia and also forms the border with Russia. Until a few years ago, it lived only off of livestock and what little produce could be grown at this altitude (2,200 meters). Recently, avid hikers have discovered the beauty of the area, and that has given Ushguli a second flow of income. Thankfully, it hasn't lost its agricultural charm yet. There're pigs, cows and goats walking everywhere (and herding dogs all over the place), and about half of the families still rely on agriculture for their income. Horses are still an important form of transport, especially for the cattle and goat herders who take their animals into the mountains.
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Ushguli - old and new economy
by bartjeej, on Flickr

I explored the countryside around Ushguli for a few hours, walking in the direction of Mount Shkhara. The cow paths offered a fantastic view of the village, its church, and the surrounding countryside.
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Ushguli area - church and village
by bartjeej, on Flickr

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Ushguli area - parking lot and petrol pump in one
by bartjeej, on Flickr

Initially, I couldn't even see Mount Shkhara; I could only see the river coming off of its glacier
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Ushguli - enguri river
by bartjeej, on Flickr

There're no roads across the border here, but the owner of the guest house is also a border patrol officer, and apparently there is some smuggling going on. I had no plans to get anywhere near the border; first of all, I'm not equipped or experienced enough to do the serious mountaineering that would require, but also, Georgian/Russian relationships have not really been rosy in the past 10 years or so. There are 2 breakaway regions in Georgia, on either side of Svaneti; Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They had been semi-independent from Georgia since Georgia became independent of the Soviet Union, but in 2008, there was a short war in which Georgia tried to regain control, but assisted by a Russian military campaign into Georgia, they effectively broke away from Georgia. They remain occupied / assisted by Russia (take your pick) ever since, and there is a deep distrust against Russia amongst many Georgians, and amongst the Svan in particular. Adding to the regional sense of joy, the Russian semi-autonomous republics of Dagestan and Chechnya are right across the border, and to the South of Georgia is Armenia, with its well known issues with Turkey.

What's truly amazing about Georgia in general, and Svaneti in particular, is that in spite of the violent history and the highly complicated present, the people are still incredibly generous and hospitable - to an extent I've only ever experienced in Gambia, which is to say, just off the scale.
 

bartjeej

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Just before sunset, the clouds hiding Mount Shkhara disappeared, revealing the majestic mountain wail - its ridge is considered 'Europe's longest, most arduous, and most committing expedition' according to a wikipedia source.
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Ushguli - Shkhara and timber
by bartjeej, on Flickr

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Ushguli - Mt Shkhara and Lamaria church
by bartjeej, on Flickr

After sunset, it was time for dinner at the guest house. One gargantuan dinner later (and they insist on putting enough food for an entire family in front of you, even if you ask for a tiny meal - part of that Svan hospitality), I was ready to go to bed. When I glanced outside, though, that plan got canceled right away; the starry sky was just mind-blowing. Having a sparsely populated area, where even the villages hardly have any street lamps, and at an altitude of 2,200 meters, the sky was perhaps even prettier than it was in the Sahara desert. The guard dogs I could hear barking everywhere stopped me from going outside of the compound to look for further compositions, but I really couldn't complain anyway.
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So Milky
by bartjeej, on Flickr

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Svaneti towers
by bartjeej, on Flickr

The following day, I waited out another thunderstorm (which ended up not coming), and then at the end of the afternoon, I set out to find a spot to camp. I walked about a kilometre out of town, and put up my tent some way below the peak of a hill. I think the view of Mt Shkhara was acceptable:
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Campsite with a view
by bartjeej, on Flickr

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Before it gets very, very dark
by bartjeej, on Flickr

At night, it got pretty cold (as you can imagine), but I couldn't resist opening my tent regularly, in order to watch the spectacular view outside.
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Evening entertainment
by bartjeej, on Flickr
Those yellow dots in the foreground are wildflowers, by the way... no humans between my tent and Russia ;-)

I put up my tent some way out of the village, partially to avoid all of the stray dogs. Halfway through the night, though, I heard at first one, then two dogs near my tent. That was a major bummer, because as much as I loved watching the view, getting bitten for it was not on my bucket list. So, I gave up the night sky photography, and went to sleep...

...until I heard a deep, gruff sound, repeated several times, right next to my tent. With eyes wide open, my mind was racing; the Caucasus mountains still have bears. Could there be one right next to me? I grabbed my puny little pocket knife just in case. If it was a bear, and it was intent on hurting me or getting at my food, surely it would've smelled it and entered my tent by now? When the sound appeared to move away from me, I couldn't resist opening my tent and looking outside... only to see a cow peacefully grazing the grass. The sound I'd heard, was just the sound of grass being ripped out of the ground by the cow! Laughing at myself and my city boy imagination, I looked around, and saw two stray dogs sleeping close to my tent. One of them woke up from the sound of my tent, and I quickly disappeared into it. Throughout the night, I heard the dogs barking and chasing things at regular intervals. When I woke up and carefully got out of my tent, I noticed that they were sweet as puppies to me... but still chased every bird, cow, and other dog away from my tent! Somehow these dogs, which I'd never seen before, decided to adopt me! They even tried to chase some cowboys away, but they threw stones at the dogs and won. Still, I was touched by the unrequested protectiveness of the dogs, and gave them some pieces of sausage. Ofcourse, once I packed up my tent and left, the dogs wouldn't stop following me around...

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Shkhara sunrise / butterfly shadow
by bartjeej, on Flickr

Unfortunately, I didn't have any time left to stay in the mountains, so I took a Marshrutska back to Mestia, and from there, a second one back to Tbilisi. The second Marshrutska driver wanted to wait for more passengers, during which time, I was told, he drank about a litre and a half of beer... good thing I didn't notice before we left. He was driving either like a granny, crawling along, or like a rally driver. Regardless of which mode he was in, he used the opposite lane more than the correct one. None of the passengers were quite happy about it, especially given that we were on a twisty mountain road. But apparently, if you want a Marshrutska van, you have to accept the possibility of him being drunk... after half an hour or so, we heard a knocking sound, and were told that the wheel nuts needed to be tightened... nice! Five minutes later we were good to go, but then after another ten minutes, the sound came back. Every passenger in the van had the same idea: I'm getting the hell out of this van, before the wheel falls off and we fall off of this mountain! So we left the driver to fix the wheel, while we hailed a passing Marshrutska van to take us along.
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Savior
by bartjeej, on Flickr

Unfortunately, that one was already half full, so an American trail builder who had been working here (check out the Transcaucasian Trail if you're an avid hiker - it's an awesome project!) and I had to sit on the floor of the van for 3 hours as it descended the twisty mountain road. Let's call it an exercise in zen...
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Uncomfortable but alive
by bartjeej, on Flickr
 

bartjeej

Hall of Famer
Real Name
bart
After switching to a third Marshrutska van, and some more near-death experiences (my "favourite" was trying to overtake a car, that had its blinkers out to turn left, on the left... we nearly ploughed into these people, and their deaths would've been on our driver's conscience), we arrived back in Tbilisi. We got to a tiny and cheap hostel, and had a few more days in Tbilisi. I marvelled at one of the many, many religious stores selling icons and incense burners...
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Icon Store 2
by bartjeej, on Flickr

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Icon Store, Tbilisi
by bartjeej, on Flickr

... and hiked up a mountain to get a nice view over the city
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Mtatsminda view 3
by bartjeej, on Flickr

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Tbilisi - Mtatsminda view
by bartjeej, on Flickr

In the mean time, I heard some excellent jazz music, and ate some really nice food. I also bought a couple of bottles of wine.
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Qvevri wines
by bartjeej, on Flickr
It's worth talking a little about Georgian wines. This country has the oldest known wine culture in the world (at least 8,000 years old!), and it's quite a bit more robust, or less refined than the European style wines. The grape juice is put in large earthenware vats called Qvevri, along with the skins, seeds and stems of the grapes. This makes for a much more complex, full-bodied taste. I happened to like it, and so did many of my family members, but my wine-loving dad pronounced 'this isn't wine!', so it does divide opinion. After the wine is taken out of the vats, the pulp of seeds, stems and skins is distilled into this horribly strong drink called "chacha". It's often brewed at home, and indeed at one home meal to which I was invited, we drank countless rounds of chacha which was served from a plastic Aloe Vera drink bottle, toasting to the mother, the father, the baby in the village, the weather, your favourite pants, you name it... also after buying those 2 bottles of wine in Tbilisi, the shop served me 2 glasses of chacha, gleefully informing me that it had 70% alcohol (140 proof for y'all yankees)! I threw up from alcohol 3 times in my life, and these 2 experiences drinking chacha account for 2 of those 3 times...

Before going home, I sent out some post cards, and admired the creative postage stamps in Georgia:
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Geoorgia stamps
by bartjeej, on Flickr

On the flight back, again via Istanbul, I got to experience some more Turkish patriotism:
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Somme light in-flight reading...
by bartjeej, on Flickr

... and then I got home, and it was time to start the new job!
 

bartjeej

Hall of Famer
Real Name
bart
Wow, what an adventure. Thanks for taking us along. I doubt I'll ever leave the U.S., let alone go on a multi-country tour.

My pleasure, Tony! From what I gather, the US is a pretty diverse country as well; the non-glamourous parts of the Southwest, for instance, sound fascinating to me (I don't feel any need to visit LA or Vegas, thankyouverymuch). Luckily my girlfriend's mother lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, so it seems a trip to the US is inevitable!

Thanks, for the travel log!

Glad you're enjoying it, Steve! You've seen some fantastic landscapes as well, over in your neck of the woods!
 

kyteflyer

~@¿@~
Location
Newcastle, Australia
Real Name
Sue
You're becoming the Travel Writer extraordinaire, Bart! I really enjoyed your African journey and now this, to Georgia. What a wonderful time you had. Are you going to blog it on Wordpress, too?

Colour me envious. I wish I had done all this when I was younger, but being able to vicariously enjoy your trips.. fabulous :)
 

marlof

Trying to focus
Location
The Netherlands
Real Name
Marlof
My dear sir Bart, you've really outdone yourself. Here I am, dreaming away thanks to your great travel log. Thanks for putting in the effort for a second time and sharing your experiences with us!
 

olli

Super Moderator Emeritus
Location
Sofia, Bulgaria
Real Name
olli
Glad you enjoyed Georgia. A great little place. I remember those Lada Nivas. When our Toyota 4x4 got stuck, it was one of these that picked us up and just kept going.
 

bartjeej

Hall of Famer
Real Name
bart
You're becoming the Travel Writer extraordinaire, Bart! I really enjoyed your African journey and now this, to Georgia. What a wonderful time you had. Are you going to blog it on Wordpress, too?

Colour me envious. I wish I had done all this when I was younger, but being able to vicariously enjoy your trips.. fabulous :)

Awwn thank you Sue! You're making me blush! I do plan to put it on the blog eventually, but first I'll have to finish the report of the Africa trip there - I'm only halfway with that!

As for doing this when young... that does indeed help, as backpacking in these kind of countries can be mighty exhausting and uncomfortable. I don't know if I'll be doing many more of these trips, as my girlfriend is more of a comgort traveller, but I'm trying to slowly get her more interested in uncomfortable but memorable adventures ;)

My dear sir Bart, you've really outdone yourself. Here I am, dreaming away thanks to your great travel log. Thanks for putting in the effort for a second time and sharing your experiences with us!

Thank you so much, Marlof! I'm really flatterdd and pleased to have you dreaming :cloud-9-039:

Glad you enjoyed Georgia. A great little place. I remember those Lada Nivas. When our Toyota 4x4 got stuck, it was one of these that picked us up and just kept going.
Thanks Olli! Do I remember correctly that you and your missus used to live there, due to work?
I rate Toyota 4x4's very highly (Hiluxes and LandCruisers, at least), so to have a Lada Niva come to the rescue is high praise indeed!
 

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