Sunday, June 21, 2015

and a pinecone for dessert

Adventures in Borjomi, Vardzia, and Akhaltsikhe 

This weekend I took a trip out west-ish to the Samtskhe-Javakheti region of Georgia. The places I visited are right on the border with Turkey, and the region is known for its low, panoramic mountains covered in dark forests full of evergreen trees and animals such as bears, deers, lynx, and foxes.
Yes, I went by myself, as every single person has asked me with shock...I wanted to go, and wasn't willing to waste one of my very few weekends I have left in Georgia to wait for one of my friends to be available. Plus, I like traveling by myself- freedom to do anything I want, make my own choices, be on my own schedule, and more maneuverability. 

I set off from Tbilisi on Saturday morning, and got a marshrutka to Akhaltsikhe. It was three hours of very hot, sweaty, bumpy roads, but the views were gorgeous and serene. Thankfully, the marsh wasn't that full. It was just me, a few old ladies, and three young hooligans. About halfway through the ride, one of the hooligans offered me a bottle of ice water, and I couldn't resist...which opened the floodgates of communication. The young guys constantly asked me to translate every English song that came on the radio, asked me about America, about my impressions of Georgia, invited me to shashlik and birthday parties, and bought me ice cream at the rest stop. Although I kind of just wanted to listen to my music and watch the countryside shoot by, it was a prime example of Georgian friendliness, and I can't really complain.
check out the holes in the rock- caves!

As soon as I got to Akhaltsikhe I immediately jumped into a taxi to Vardzia. For 40 lari ($18) I got a round trip to Vardzia (about an hour away), the driver waited for me to explore, plus a stop at Khertvisi Fortress and photo ops. 

Vardzia is an ancient cave city, built in the 12th century by Georgian King Tamar (a woman who gets the title of King because she was so bad ass). It has a long, complex history, and is currently home to monks! It's gorgeous and intriguing- hundreds of small caves hewn into sheer cliff faces, scattered all over the side of a mountain.
looking out from Vardzia

a tree inexplicably covered in chewed gum

locked door to Ananuri Church at Vardzia

Church of the Dormition- paintings from 12th century 

After Vardzia I stopped at the deserted and beautiful Khertvisi Fortress on the road back to Akhaltsikhe.

Khertvisi Fortress

Cows coming home for the night in Akhaltsikhe

Back in Akhaltsikhe, I needed to find a place to stay the night. I just wanted a cheap, simple guest house, and the taxi driver said he knew one place (which seems strange to me since there are like 30 hotels in this town), so we ended up at a small hotel on the edge of town. The proprietress, Lia, showed me one room that was fine, nothing fancy, but she wanted 50 lari for it...I made it clear that I wasn't able to spend more than 20, and went to leave, but instead she showed me a different room in the back of the building. It was weirdly isolated, located on a balcony above a yard filled with wet dirt and old tools, but it was clean enough and I was exhausted, so I agreed.

After a power nap, I went out to explore the town. I crossed the street to a little store, and asked a guy standing on the curb which direction was the city center. Long story short, I ended up in a car (with a half-shattered windshield and ripped out stereo system) with a random guy driving me to the city center, since apparently it was too far to walk. He offers to give me a mini-tour, so we circled the very small city (30,000 people), and he pointed out the sites. Then I asked him to point me to a cheap restaurant, and he did...but he also joined me. Most awkward meal ever. He literally ate one cucumber slice, and I scarfed down salad and shashlik and limonati as he just kind of watched...he asked several times if he was bothering me, but he was so nice, how could I tell him to leave me alone? He was very interested in America, so we chatted a bit, but it was mostly just me eating and pretending to be very occupied with my phone. 

My dinner partner dropped me at my hotel, and I extricated myself from his company. I ran into Lia on my way to my room and I mentioned that I planned on going to Sapara Monastery the next day- and of course she knew a guy. Turns out her nephew speaks really good English and has a 4-wheel drive and will take me to Sapara and give me a tour for only 5 lari ($2) more than a taxi would cost! 
I basically said give me his number, I'll think about it, but suddenly I'm sitting down, given coffee, and in less than 10 minutes the nephew, Davit, is strolling through the door.
Turns out that Davit is actually the bomb. He studied sociology in Ukraine, and we had so much to talk about! It was already around 10 pm, but he took me out to Rabati Castle and the little man made lake in Akhaktsikhe. We agreed to go to Sapara the next day, and he would only charge me for gas.

In the morning, Davit picked me up and we decided to add a stop to the tour and headed up Abastumani- a resort town from the Tsarist era that has largely fallen out of popularity and the guide books. Nowadays, most tourists are Georgian. The town was quaint and peaceful, and we drove up the the still-working astrological observatory for some gorgeous views of the surrounding valleys and a super sketchy cable car with mechanics from the 80s. We took a much needed coffee break and then headed onward to Sapara Monastery

Sketchy 1980s cable car control room at Abastumani

Cable car route...aka risk your life

Sapara was as gorgeous and spiritual as everyone says, and the road really was as terrible as everyone says. After exploring the 9th century complex, we just sat in the sunshine on an old wall overlooking the city and mountains and valleys. It was quiet except for the sound of the river bubbling right below, but invisible through the trees. I could have sat on that wall for hours. 
Davit on the wall

me on the wall
Everything ended up costing me 30 lari, I have no idea how that would compare to a taxi, but I think either way it was worth it to get the company and conversation of Davit! We talked a lot about Georgian culture and social issues and my research. It was a very cool day!

The only picture I took of Sapara...oops
My next stop was Borjomi. 
Adding Abastumani to the itinerary took some time, so I only had about 3 hours in Borjomi, but I think I saw everything I wanted to. You could definitely spend 2 or 3 days in the town, just relaxing and "taking the waters" and such. There are also several hiking and horse trails through the Park. With a population of just 14,000 Borjomi  is even smaller than Akhaltsikhe, but having been a resort/spa/sanatorium town since the late 1800s, is much better suited to tourists. Borjomi is famous for its mineral water, exported all over the world, and especially popular in the former Soviet Union. The water is a bit salty and sulfuric, but apparently chock full of beneficial minerals and nutrients, and has won several international awards.
Empty bottles for sale to fill with spring water

Filling bottles

Borjomuli River

Interestingly styled facades in the newly renovated town center

Cable Car in Borjomi city park

Borjomi City Park

I actually thought the Akhaltsikhe/Abastumani area was more scenic than Borjomi, but both are ringed by these heavily forested mountains, speckled with rocky outcroppings- neither place disappoints on that count. 
The marshrutka driver dropped me off close to the city park, one of Borjomi's main attractions. The park is huge, and well kept. The atmosphere is 1950s carnival meets tsarist sanatorium meets iPhone era. There are several carnival games like 'knock down the bottles' and 'shoot the water gun' as well as a Ferris wheel located at the top of the cable car. The cable car is a bit less sketchy than the one at Abastumani (AVOID THAT), but has spectacular views of the landscape. Apart from the Ferris wheel and a restaurant, there's really nothing at the top except for groups of screaming school children. It's a strangely captivating time warp, and for your sake, dear reader, I wish I was a better photographer...unfortunately you'll just have to take my word for it. I particularly enjoyed the pictures from the early 20th century, showing pre-Soviet aristocrats enjoying the resort. 

Pics from the early 1900s
After my stroll in the park and sampling the medicinal Borjomi waters, I stopped for lunch at a "restaurant" that was just in a house owned by two old ladies. They also sold me a jar of pine cone jam, a local specialty. Pine cones do not taste great- woody and kind of minty and bitter, but apparently they cure sickness and I've had a cold for the past two weeks so I'm willing to try anything at this point. During lunch I was playing with their adorable granddaughter, who was baffled by my stupidity as an adult who can't speak Georgian, and the women decided that since I'm good with kids, I must be ready to get married. The typical series of questions ensued- you like Georgia? You like Georgian food? You want to stay in Georgia? You must marry a Georgian man. Then, when they saw my cross necklace, their excitement went into hyperdrive. They got so excited that I am a kargi gogo (good girl) that they started thinking of who in Borjomi I could marry, and they were about to call people to come court me, but I managed to escape by saying I had to catch a marshrutka back to Tbilisi, but promising that next time I'm in Borjomi I will go back to them and let them find me a husband. So I can never go back to Borjomi. Georgia is always an adventure!

Other things to do in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region include: The Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, the Mtsvane (Green) Monastery, Bakuriani ski resort town, Zarzma Monastery, and the Armenian towns of Ninotsminda and Akhalkalaki. 

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