I recently went to check out the Republic of Georgia with friend. It had been on my radar for a short time only really- maybe 3 years. During my time as a Fellow in Bahrain I spent some time traveling around for conferences with other Fellows in a/the general region, of sorts. One fellow Fellow I met was working in the Ukraine. We kept in touch (ah FaceBook, you are good for that endeavor indeed), and he is now in a position in Tbilisi, Georgia.
I somehow managed to remember this as I was contemplating the reality of a winter visit to Georgia earlier this year. It was a quick decision we made. Da Jel and I simply jumped on the best priced ticket we could find and jetted over there during a (winter) break from the university. Of course my friend that works there was on break as well and out of the country, so that didn't work out.
Friends here in Istanbul, who previously traveled to Georgia , had good reconnaissance reports to report back on. One of these friends is the same who years earlier went to check out Tunisia with another friend of mine. I ended up moving to Tunisia a few years afterwards, inadvertently. So, I guess this is to say that I take the travel/living advice of friends quite seriously. I'm here in Istanbul living/working because of another friend, from years back- like early-college-days-years-back times. She was also with the other friend checking out Tunisia, who is the same person that checked out Georgia... Synchronicity much? Enough with the magical juju!
There's something to be said on the beauty of the randomness of life unfolding and the patterns you can identify along the journey to make (your) meaning out of, and attempt to tell the story about these collected images and thoughts and weave them all into text. THIS. This is what I find so compelling and challenging about keeping a blog.
Back to the story...
We only had 8 days so decided cruising to two different places would be ideal. I'm not the type of traveler to be moving so fast from place to place (speaking of which, I just got back from Sicily; a whirlwind trip with 5 of us ladies in 1 car circumnavigating the island, which is considered, by me, to be moving so fast from place to place.... But I'll save that nugget for a future post as it was unique and wacky enough to deserve the spotlight ).
But I digress...
Back to January... Tbilisi and Kazbegi won out; Tbilisi for obvious reasons of being THE big city; Kazbegi as a side nugget for a few days. I took the recommendation of my friends and secured us a place at Irakli's quaint, if not charmingly dilapidated, bed and breakfast in the old section of town.
*Georgia is a "hidden gem" y'all*
Tbilisi is a city worthy of a week's worth of attention I would say. I felt like I got to know this city a fair bit in my time spent there. From what I saw, I liked. The vibes were good. At some point, as always when I travel, I try to imagine myself living in this place. It seems a livable environment for sure. We took in all the typical historic sights we could, as well as a few beers, a puppet theatre, quite a lot of Georgian wine, and a few carpets to boot.
There is a bit of 'unusual' Tbilisi to experience as well. I enjoyed having the ability to unwrap a little bit of the 'surface' of Tbilisi and delve deeper into its bowels to find inner beauty; the subdermal tissue of Tbilisi's outer skin, I like that! Rewards ensued.
I will confirm one thing, which I originally had mistaken as being an urban myth or funky legend of sorts... At the Georgian passport control inside the airport they definitely DO give you a bottle of Georgian wine- after you pass and get the go-ahead with your passport that is. A cool welcome wagon offering for sure. I mean, in Hawaii you (used to) get a (flower) lei upon arrival at the airport, but WINE! Winning.
We met "The Dude" at Irakli's place. Irakli himself is a kind, cool, helpful guy that is helpful enough and around enough to either help you out, or to just let you alone to do your thing with no pressure or vibes. The Dude ended up traveling with us to Kazbegi. Da Jel and I wanted to head to Kazbegi 1 or 2 days earlier, but the road was closed due to winter snow conditions. By the time the road finally opened up to Kazbegi, it was the same day that The Dude was going so we trotted off all together.
NOTE: sounds of fireworks going off somewhere in a nearby neighborhood have been going off for about a minute now... Weird.
Da Jel and I had a typical travel-to-bus-station experience 2 days before... We had arrived and immediately were set upon by shit tons of men trying to get us to get into their bus or taxi or service bus or car or whatever to take us to Kazbegi. I think we managed to get into a total of 3 different rides going to Kazbegi before we were (finally) told that the road to Kazbegi was closed due to heavy snow pack...Defeat: Kazbegi = 1 Da Jel & I = 0
Expecting to return in defeat, we headed to the bus station one morning. We had heard these possible road closure rumors from Irakli, our host, but these crazy men now kept telling us that the road was open...What a kerfuffle. In the end it was amusing. Headed back to Tbilisi and Irakli's place, we formulated Plan B, getting extremely tipsy on local brew and purchasing Georgian carpets... More on that later.
Okay catching up again: The three amigos are heading out on a new adventure. We get to the bus station and, this time around, immediately know which bus is the RIGHT bus to Kazbegi. Phew. We bought some nuts and stuff to get us through the 5-hour ride, and we were on our merry way in a van packed with people.
Bus stations are always great places to observe people, of course. That we did, just as surely as people were observing us. Three haoles. Three yabanci. Three foreigners. Sticking out like sore thumbs we did. Dude was super tall too so that in itself brings attention, as well as 2 chicks traveling.
THESE. These are the moments when traveling that I really identify with this wanderlust; this desire to always feel the transformation. The pulse that satisfies, really satisfies the (my) soul. Being in a new, foreign environment, not knowing the language but for a few (meaningful) words, negotiating your needs and all the thoughts/feelings/energy that goes into that endeavor- all this is why traveling is soul food needed for metamorphosis.
NOTE: I'm trying to stay focused here on this story-line, but the little details keep popping in my head like meteors hitting the ground and exploding... so my pen does the same every time another exploding meteorite memory sideline tries to upstage my main story-line... Geeze...
Our little minibus was packed. The Dude was totally stoked he had scored the primo seat next to the door - yielding greatest leg-room measurements by his standards. I plugged into my headphones and tuned into Snoop Dogg's GGN Podcast, which I can definitely say has been in my top 3 podcast choices for about 10 months now. Here's a little fun fact to throw at y'all: This podcast is what I am usually listening to while traveling to work on the service bus in the mornings. Kinda makes me smile...and crack-up.
So... soon the city imprint diminished into the back of the van's windows. We were now climbing into the hills, foothills and soon enough towering mountains. The terrain seeped into my body, filling me up with thoughts of what to come; what smells, what sights, what experiences would Kazbegi hold for me, for our little motley crew.
I felt as if I could see oxygen. Rarefied air, white landscape with a crystal blue sky, dazzling sunlight- a trifecta of mysterious perfection for me, as I don't frequent these images together so much. Intrigue ahead!
Already I felt I was changing. The altitude seeped in through cracks in my persona; an uplifting feeling. I thought about my yoga practice, how I train my body, through various yogic postures, to accept these contorted positions by breathing deeply into them- each one of them. I wanted to breath in Kazbegi as such, this I knew.
|Georgian home altar|
Irakli found us a host(ess) to stay with in Kazbegi. Just before nightfall the minivan parked. Our odyssey was over yet just beginning. Our hostess met us and drove us back to her family home, just up the hill a bit. No sooner than we entered her home and freshened up, a full-scale dinner commenced. We graciously dug in. I believe Georgian wine and brandy appeared and soon enough we all scurried off to pass out. Da Jel and I had a charming, rustic room full of ornate, en-glassed glass cabinets filled full of Georgian treasures, curio or tchotchke. Soon we would find out that the entire home is an ethnographic museum of one family's existence here in Stepantsminda.
|first glimpse, up in the Caucasus heading towards Stepantsminda(Kazbegi)|
I felt like I was in some fairy-tale; going to sleep in a bed with covers so heavy (and warm) that the weight of them in itself put me to sleep. That warm, comforting heaviness. What I woke up to I still visualize in my mind and come up with the cliche term mind-blowing landscape. But, it was cold... But it was cozy and warm inside. I wondered about the eventual transition to outside...
|woke up to this|
Man was our hostess a great chef. We ate so much and so well in those 2 days/2 nights... I might add that they were freezing cold days and nights. Our main task was to climb this mountain (joking I'm not) to this isolated, lonely monastery (Gergeti Trinity Church). We were knee deep in snow traversing the lower portion of the mountain by the time we realized that we had to turn back and would never make it up there... We had a crazy pack of dogs following us on our journey which at times made it very difficult to put one foot in front of the other on narrow portions of the path.
|Kazbegi, a river runs through it|
|starting off on our bi-pedal odyssey...|
|a bit chilly in the morning, but not bad|
|in Kazbegi town|
Tested we were. We gave up and passed the dogs, random cows and other obstructions (like getting lost in the maze of village houses where we couldn't tell if we were in their back yards, their front yards, or still on the trail) until we were back in the town- about 200 meters or so of loosely placed typical village businesses.
|thinking we were going to be able to traverse the mountain to get to the treasure...|
Okay so I need to stop and explain where Kazbegi is. It is called Stepantsminda and it's in the on the E117 military highway. It's right on the border with Chechnya. The area is famous in spring and summer for hiking up in the mountains, and to this damn monastery- which you cannot get to in winter...
Anyway, we managed to keep ourselves entertained with our failed mission, drinking Georgian brandy, coffee, weird sugar drinks and such. One night we walked up in the freezing dark cold to this hunting-type lodge place behind where we were staying. It was really swank and classic. We sat at the bar and drank and likely told tall tales to each other- heehee.
We were a bit worried the weather would worsen so made an executive 3-amigos decision to leave as soon as we could the next day, as no one could afford to get stuck up there and miss flights, etc. Thinking about being stuck up there reminds me about being stuck in winter on the border of Argentina with Chile with Mr. Ed years back. Again, foul weather kept us in Uspallata for a few days, camping our in our rental car. Good times those. I recall going snowboarding one day at the small skihill in that area, as it was right on the border so we would be able to see when we could get outta there.
Ahem... back to Georgia, again. We got back into Tbilisi and back to Irakli's again for the last few days, which included checking out the outdoor ethnographic museum, the National Museum, hiking up to Mother Georgia monument, taking a telefrik and visiting yet some more churches, etc.
Definitely good times traveling through that country. Enough that I would certainly return to check out other parts of the country as well as head back to Tbilisi. Hidden gem indeed.
And now may I present to you all, the Republic of Georgia through my lens...
|can always find felines in any foreign land!|
|one of many Georgian churches in Tbilisi|
|in the hood|
|meandering in Tbilisi|
|around the corner from Irakli's place|
|art is everywhere|
|downtown along the main drag|
|every great city has a great bookstore, or two|
|interesting architecture, both modern and historic, in Tbilisi|
|more churches, more candles, more walking|
|The Dude can be found everywhere|
|puppet theater! We went and saw "Ramona"|
|some strange amusement park|
|lots of great walking to be had in Tbilisi|
|all we need at this closed-down amusement park is a random clown right about now|
|local style, always|
|typical street scene|
|bus station in Tbilisi. Adventure ensues|
|got talked into this one... random cafe in Kazbegi where we sulked due to our failure to traverse the mountain completely|
|trying it out for a spin- at our homestay in Kazbegi. As I said, loads of curios in this house, as well as Georgian brandy|
|soaking up luxury at this mountain hunting lodge
(Rooms Hotel Kazbegi)above our homestay
|walking back tipsy (okay, drunk) from Rooms Hotel Kazbegi|
|more religious worship|
|some religious inspiration|
|love it! Mother Georgia graffiti|
|wine cave we frequented one afternoon in Tbilisi|
|I bought this after our trip to the wine cave...|