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Trip 14 -- Caucasus

Message 2: On that midnight train in Georgia

From: <seth@sethweinstein.com>
Sent: 18 Oct 2012 17:25:00 -0000
Subject: Caucasus update #2: On that midnight train in Georgia

As the legend goes, when God was doling out places to live, he skipped over the quiet and reserved Georgians. When this was discovered, he gave the Georgians his own abode, prettiest of them all. After a few days in the northern mountains, I find little fault with that theory.

It wasn't the smoothest of border crossings. I bought a ticket from Rize, Turkey, to Batumi, Georgia, on the Mahmut bus. The border sprang up suddenly as we emerged from a tunnel, after a two-hour drive along the Black Sea coast. I left the bus with the other passengers and got through the several passport checks quickly, but when I arrived on the other side, the Mahmut bus was nowhere to be found, and I didn't see the others. Taxi drivers tried to tell me the bus had left without me, but how would they know which bus it was?

Finally, after a half hour, I saw the Mahmut bus weaving its way through the final vehicle checkpoints. I flagged it down, but it wasn't the same bus. Its driver also thought the other bus had gone -- how had I missed it?

I had planned to withdraw money in Batumi, 14 kilometers beyond the border, and had no Georgian currency. The driver of this second bus wouldn't take me the rest of the way, but he handed me a few coins for the public bus. It wasn't quite enough, but the driver understood what had happened, and he let me on. This driver helpfully told me what streets we were on and pointed me in the right direction when we reached the city center.

The influence of Russia was obvious in Batumi's architecture, with stately white-trimmed yellow buildings and dull Soviet apartment blocks. It had a seaside promenade and park, fine churches, a giant statue of Medea, a Big Ben-like clock, several casinos (for the benefit of Turks coming across the border), and the new "Piazza Batumi," an immaculate square with a hotel and several restaurants. There's been quite a construction boom of late in Batumi, an attempt to turn it into more of an international center.

Quite surprising for a place that, less than ten years ago, was experiencing rampant corruption, out-of-control inflation, and frequent gas and electricity cuts and was on the brink of revolution!

I found a restaurant with an ear-splitting band and settled in for a dinner of boiled beef, several vegetable salads, a kind of fried pancake, and khinkhali, Georgia's popular dumpling. I ordered four, thinking they'd be small, but they were quite large. The teens at the next table ordered dozens of them, and nothing else -- quite a sight to see the heaping bowls of them all brought out at once!

The Iliko hotel's staff did my laundry for a good price, and fortunately they didn't have it ready in the early morning as I had hoped -- otherwise I wouldn't have met Beata and Kamil on the noon minibus heading up north. They're a Polish couple, she a librarian, he a graphic designer for computer games, and as we got on well and had similar routes in mind, we traveled together for the next week.

Our destination was Mestia in the northern region of Svaneti, home of the notoriously fierce, once feudal Svan people who speak their own unwritten language and live in clusters of homes dominated by medieval defensive stone towers around 28 meters high. Apart from the mystery of the Svan people, the region has incredible beauty, with dramatic slopes of evergreen forest, rivers and waterfalls, and snowy mountains.

It takes a while to get there. The only (navigable) road in is from the city of Zugdidi, two hours north of Batumi and a bit inland. Zugdidi has a lively market, plenty of cafes and restaurants, and at least one Svan tower, so it's a good introduction to the north.

We transferred minibuses for the four-hour ride to Mestia. The area around Zugdidi was full of persimmon trees. Then the road began to climb, past what I thought was a beautiful turqouise lagoon but turned out to be a river, going on for miles -- the associated dam results in hydroelectric power that supplies almost half of Georgia's electricity.

The road continued upward, becoming one of those winding cliffside roads with hairpin turns and signs warning of falling rock. We crossed bridges over waterfalls and looked down into the valley. Cows stood in the middle of the road, or lay down across it, leaving our driver to weave around them. Along the road were shrines in memory of those who took the road too fast or while inebriated. The Svan tradition, apparently, is to gather at the shrine of a loved one, drink chacha (homemade brandy), then carry on along the same road. But maybe the chacha serves a purpose: The 132-year-old woman who died in this area this month claimed that her secret to longevity was a daily dose of chacha.

Midway through the journey, we had a half-hour break. Our driver treated us to coffee and a Svan specialty, konburi, which is much like a quesadilla -- bread stuffed with meat and cheese.

Arriving in Mestia at twilight, I felt as if I had reached the last frontier, a rough town in northern Alaska or Norway. It was much colder here, and the hilltops around us were shrouded in clouds. The town seemed to be just one main street, with little alleys running off it. Dogs, cows, and spotted pigs roamed the street. Buildings were of stone or unpainted wood, giving the place a very rustic feel.

The minibus set us down in the main square, in front of a closed tourist-information booth. There aren't many hotels in Mestia; it's better to stay in a private guesthouse, and the hostess at the restaurant-bar next door helped us book into Nino Ratiani's place about an eight-minute walk back down the main street. Nino Ratiani sounds like the name of an Italian filmmaker, but in fact it's the woman who, along with a few family members, gives hungry travelers beds for $15 per night, or $24 with dinner and breakfast. For our first night, we had the food -- a collection of salads, wonderful bread, extremely salty cheese, and excellent spiced meatballs -- and then went back to the bar, which was alive with a group of about 35 Israelis bellowing out songs I hadn't heard since Hebrew school. When we could finally hear each other, Kamil and Beata told me of the Lebanese clown, complete with unicycle, whom they'd met in Tbilisi. And, inspired by the numerous vegetable stands we'd seen in Zugdidi, they talked of some of the problems with Poland's having joined the Schengen zone (although they haven't adopted the euro).

"Seeing fruit and vegetables like that reminds me of how Poland used to be," Kamil said. "We grow lots of apples in Poland. I used to go to the local market and buy fresh, local apples. They were cheap. Now Poland exports all its apples. I have to go to the hypermarket to buy apples, and they're more expensive, imported, and tasteless. Italian apples are cheaper than Polish apples."

The upside? "But now oranges are cheaper."

Svaneti is terrific hiking territory, and we spent the next day walking out to a glacier, three hours in each direction. We mucked on through Mestias back dirt roads until we came to a bridge, where we picked up another companion: a smallish Caucasian-shepherd mix with a black face, perky ears, a white mane, and a tan and white body. He started following us, and it soon became clear that he was going to join us for the day. We called him Zeus.

We came to an intersection. Suddenly there was a series of yelps, and two dogs bigger than Zeus started chasing him. They were the bullies here, guarding this crossroads, and Zeus wasn't welcome here.

"These dogs are very territorial," Kamil said.

We continued and soon Zeus found us again, having escaped by going around a yard. As we slogged on, he sometimes walked alongside us, sometimes lagged a few paces behind, and sometimes hastened ahead so he could have a little rest as we caught up. Two hours into the walk we had to climb a ladder and descend a series of metal steps onto a rickety footbridge. I doubted whether Zeus could handle them, but he avoided the ladder by going through a fence and walked down the metal stairs with no problem.

Now we were in the most interesting part of the walk, a path up through forest strewn with rocks covered in green lichen and moss. Eventually we came to a clearing, with a view of the glacier ahead. It wasn't like the slabs of packed ice I'd seen and trampled across in Greenland, but it was still quite pretty, like an icy hairpiece on top of the mountain, with the bare rock coming down below. The only thing between us and the glacier was a jumble of rocks, some stable, some loose. We climbed carefully over them, testing each step before committing to it. Zeus, loyal and deft as always, walked calmly along with us. We stopped to rest and enjoy the view, and Zeus curled into a ball and was happy to rest as well. I felt bad that all I could offer him were some of the pistachios I'd bought in Turkey; he spat out the first one I offered him, but then they grew on him.

On the way back, Zeus took the lead, staying 80 paces or so in front of us. Every so often he'd stop and look back to make sure we were following. If we stopped to rest a bit, he did too.

We arrived at the intersection with the bullies. They were there, one big black dog and one tan one. They and Zeus sized each other up. Then they began the chase, around the house along the river. I saw them tackle Zeus. I yelled "No!" and ran after them, but they were all far ahead. I retreated and rejoined the others along the main road.

Zeus strolled back beside us a few moments later. He was bleeding slightly through a cut on his back, where another dog had bitten him. Evidently they hadn't wanted to hurt him seriously, just show him who was king of that crossroads. He had paid a kind of toll for walking through their territory.

We arrived at the bridge where we had met Zeus and perhaps unfortunately, a driver and car were there; he offered to take us back into town. We were tired and this would save about a half hour of walking. But he wasn't going to take Zeus. I scratched Zeus behind the ears and crouched next to him for a moment, as if to show him how sorry I was that we were about to abandon him. Then we got in the car.

I looked back to see the sad sight of Zeus running after us. For a while he kept pace due to the terrible state of the road, but after we passed the airport (with no passenger flights yet, unfortunately) the road improved and he couldn't keep up.

Back in town, we had a solemn late-afternoon lunch, made more somber by the restaurant's almost non-existent lighting. There were long pauses.

"You are thinking about Zeus," Beata said. She was right. Almost a week later and I'm still thinking about him.

There's a happy ending to the Zeus story, though. After lunch we went outside and far away in the distance, we saw him trotting along with other travelers. We didn't catch up to him, but the gait was unmistakably Zeus's. Like most dogs, he simply loves people, and I'm glad he found another group to tag along with.

The buzz among visitors to Mestia concerns how and when they will make the trip to Ushguli, a town of 70 families (300 people) 45 kilometers southeast of Mestia. It's at an altitude of 2200 meters, making it one of Europe's highest towns, and it's consequently much colder there than in southern Georgia.

The common way (other than walking, which is possible via a path through the mountains for two or three days) to get there is to hire a jeep for about $120. So people try to find others to share the cost. The next morning it was pouring, however, and no one wanted to make the trip along the notoriously bumpy road. People at Nino's wanted to wait another day, and in the morning no one turned up at the main square, where would-be Ushguli-bound travelers usually congregate.

But two Israelis, Assaf and Tamar, had rented a jeep, and as the rain stopped at around 10:00 a.m., we set off -- the Israeli couple, Beata, Kamil, and I. Now, 45 kilometers takes less than half an hour on a good road. But this was three hours on the worst long road I've ever been on. The rain -- which started up again shortly after we departed -- made it even worse. We drove over rocks, through pools, and across streams. We struggled to avoid getting caught in the mud, slipping off the cliff, or being washed away by a river. Thanks to Assaf, we made it there safely.

It was well worth it. Ushguli is an exceptionally beautiful place, hemmed in by mountains and still -- except for the soccer on TV -- stuck in the Middle Ages. Farmers bring their cattle high up on the steep, grassy slopes to graze, and then they bring them home at night. There are many Svan defense towers and several churches, including the beautiful 9th-century Lamaria church, with brilliant frescoes. One tower now contains a museum with huge 11th-century silver crosses and other beautiful ancient religious and personal paraphernalia. The town has one bar and restaurant and no bank or gas station. The only navigable road in is from Mestia -- there's supposedly another road back around from the other side, but it's generally assumed to be unpassable.

The town doesn't really have streets, just pathways of dirt and rock where you're more likely to see cows, sheep, goats, spotted pigs, chickens, and dogs than people. After a rain, the pathways become rivers of mud and the excrement of all that livestock. In the winter, it's all buried under at least a meter of snow.

We found the guesthouse of Dato Ratiani, a relative of Nino's in Mestia. They had a roaring fire going and were baking bread -- it seemed they were always baking something. We checked in and met Peter, a student from Montana who'll be (admirably) spending the winter in Ushguli, questioning the entire population on the effects of climate change and analyzing the results. The local population already treat him like one of their own.

There were a few others there, and we had a feast, including typical Georgian salads and beef stew, plus the freshest cheese I've ever had, made from cows milked just two days before. It wasn't salty like Nino's, just simply fresh from the farm. After dinner, we had wine that tasted like kombucha and chacha that miraculously didn't give me a headache the next morning. Every few minutes someone would offer a toast -- to the land, to our mothers, to friendship, to peace. Any excuse for another shot of chacha!

That was the end of a cold, rainy day. The next day was sunny and warm, and we could enjoy Ushguli in all its glory -- the remains of Queen Tamar's summer house above; vast expanses of grassy slopes with cows, sheep, and goats; fresh snow on the mountains along the river farther down; the sounds of snorting pigs and their squealing piglets following them; the mysterious defense towers; and the tiny churches up the hills. We simply walked, sat, and took in the view -- what could be better?

Alas, there are plans afoot to improve the road and build a ski lodge. While a better road would doubtless make visiting Ushguli a nicer proposition, adding to the influx of tourists and distorting the principal industries is bound to detract from the mystique.

Getting back to Mestia wasn't so bad now that the rain had dried up, and, the next morning, we went back to Zugdidi, our trip along the precipitous road delayed for two hours because of a rock slide that had happened overnight. Frankly, I'm surprised we waited only two hours -- no doubt the rock slides are numerous and they have tractors at the ready to head up the highway and move the rocks one by one.

From Zugdidi, we took another minibus for two hours to Kutaisi, Georgia's former capital (a thousand or so years ago), surrounded by mountains and monasteries. It's a pleasant enough town, with good food and a pretty cathedral overlooking the city center, but the real highlight was seeing the nearby Gelati and Motsameta monasteries. Both are perched on cliffs with wonderful views; Gelati has astounding mosaics and paintings, and Motsameta is high up over a gorge. We arrived at both just as weddings were taking place, so we experienced much chanting and celebration.

We split up for the night; I took the midnight (well, 12:05) train to Tbilisi; the others -- Beata, Kamil, and Kristina, a Finn who'd joined us back in Ushguli -- stayed overnight in Kutaisi and took the day train. I didn't do much other than sleep for the six-hour ride, but it was nice to be on a train again.

With lots of hills surrounding it, Tbilisi is a pretty capital, more spread out than I'd like -- I made the mistake of thinking it was one of those cities I could cross on foot in 20 minutes -- but there's a cheap, fast subway (30 cents a ride!) and lots of buses and marshrutkas to make it easy to get around. I made my way to the old town and found Guesthouse Zaira, a place run by a lively woman who used to deal in antique furniture and now spends her time tending to jars of pickled vegetables and giving tourists comfortable beds. She was always offering tea, wine, or sometimes a tomato stew she called "chizhi-bizhi." Then she'd have a glass of beer and say, "Ooh, I'm drunk!"

Highlights of the old town included a hodgepodge of Georgian and Armenian churches, a synagogue, a mosque, and the brick domes of the ancient bathhouses, once the center of social life for Tbilisi women. I took pleasure in climbing up to various viewpoints around the city, such as the remains of the old citadel and the immense new Sameba Cathedral, finished in 2004 and still being decorated inside, though it's got plenty of icons already. It gleams and sparkles and is visible from across the city. I'd love to visit it again in, say, 300 years and see how history treats it.

But the highlight of my time in Tbilisi happened in a room upstairs at the State Conservatory. The school occupies most of a block, and as you walk along Griboedov Street, you hear a delightful cacophony of singers' warm-ups, arias, pianos, and brass. I'd heard that there was a music museum of sorts, and I found someone to let me in.

It was mostly photographs of former classes of the conservatory, plus visiting artists such as Vladimir Horowitz. There were a few photos of Nikolai Tcherepnin, the school's director from 1919-1921 and a grandfather of Ivan Tcherepnin, one of my music advisors at Harvard.

The star attraction, though, was a Bechstein piano once owned by Sergei Rachmaninoff and bequeathed to the conservatory in 1925. And they let me try it! It's beautiful and black, with a deep, mellow tone, not bombastic at all. I was honored to play a few phrases of Mozart and Weinstein (I shamelessly sneak in "The Chagall Suite" whenever I can) on this historic instrument.

I found Beata, Kamil, and Kristina only because Kamil was looking forward to staying in a hostel that charged only 10 lari ($6) per night for a bed, including free wine. So I Googled "10 lari hostel Tbilisi" and that led me to the ambitiously named Hotel Romantik, which is virtually impossible to find from the street -- a supermarket clerk had to show me that the entrance is down an unmarked ramp and under an apartment building. We had dinner one night in their neighborhood, the next night in mine, at a place called Racha (named for, and supposedly featuring dishes from, the province north of Kutaisi). There were plates and plates of food: fried sardines, walnut-stuffed eggplant, seasoned pork patties, pickled pork knuckles, and pickled vegetables, plus the usual suspects of shashlik and kebabs, and wine and beer, all for about $7 per person.

I took a day trip to Kakheti, a lush landscape with pomegranate, pear, and persimmon trees, among others, plus dozens of vineyards -- this is prime wine-making territory. The primary city is Telavi, high up with a view of the mountains -- everything in Georgia seems to have a great view! At the top there are the remains of the old citadel, with a couple of churches, a ruined palace that looks more Arab than Georgian, and a 900-year-old plane tree.

I walked down along the flat highway and sought out a tour and tasting at one of the wineries. Bill Bryson has a bit about not understanding winery visits -- he has no more reason to see the vines his wine comes from than he does the cotton fields his pants came from -- but I like connecting the things I consume with the living beings that bore them. I'd have loved, for instance, to meet the cow that produced that wonderful fresh cheese in Ushguli.

The first winery I came to, Kakhuri, doesn't seem to get many visitors, but I got to the gate just as one of the workers was going in. He had someone else show me a couple of the rooms -- the bottling room and her laboratory, in which she tests the alcohol percentage, among other things. And she let me taste a hearty, sour red and a sugary white.

I spent my last day in Georgia walking along the Mtkvari River in Tbilisi (which also means walking along the highway, so it's not as pleasant as it sounds), seeing a few more churches, and going up to Sairmis Hill, which seems to be the most affluent part of town, with huge, gated houses; in 2001, would-be president Mikheil Saakashvili accused several top officials of building their homes here with illicit funds. And I stocked up for the train ride to Yerevan at two of the city's colorful, fragrant markets: one right by the train station, one way out at the northern end of the main subway line. It was a comfortable, quiet 11-hour ride to Armenia, including a couple of hours spent at the border crossing, and I emerged onto the streets of Yerevan ready to face a new alphabet, new money, and even more mountains.


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