Tblisi and beyond

Apologies for the month-long delay in posting the next entry.  Mostly a reflection of lack of internet, need for sleep due to nights filled with honking, barking dogs, and drunken shouting.  What I wouldn’t give for a good night’s rest.  I will attempt to reconstruct my first few weeks.  I arrived in the Tblisi airport on Thurs May 7 at 5pm or so.  I was greeted at the airport by Max, a Nigerian who is currently studying at the technical university.  He has been working with the Georgian consulate to relax the immigration policy toward Nigerians to encourage students to attend Georgian universities.  I stayed for 2 days with he and his cousin.  As usual, it was culture shock: no lights in the apartment hallway, broken concrete outside (careful where you walk), loud pounding from the floor above.  Within an hour of arrival I lost my ATM card in a Bank of Georgia ATM machine (I had to call daily and it took a week to retrieve the card)  I didn’t know for certain that the machine ate my card, as I hadn’t seen it happen.  But suddenly I was without a card and could only trace it back to this event.  After worrying a bit, I was told it wasn’t a big deal (from my perspective, it was – I might have to have another card shipped, which would take 7 to 10 business days). I did my best to set aside my anxiety and wandered the chaotic streets near the apartment, exchanging some USD that I’d brought just in case and walking to the hippodrome (a bike racing track) that had seen better days.  It is now subsumed in weeds, though there is a nursery in the center (seemingly unattended).  I quickly learned how dangerous it was to cross streets in Georgia, and pulled my calf dashing across a large intersection. I found a used clothing store and made the mistake of taking on more clothing (which I later put near a trash bin, which is what people do here if they want to give something to the poor).  Odd custom, but there aren’t Goodwills and the like here.  My Nigerian hosts told me about their discomfort in walking down the street or taking public transit (everyone stares at them).  I understood – though I am white, people know I am a tourist, and stare at me incessantly.  I have gotten used to avoiding people’s gazes and pretending to be interested in something else, but it still bothers me.  The Nigerians always take a taxi to avoid being stared at.  After a day of this, I could understand their plight. Saturday I rose and packed, then made my way to Didube, the metro station where marshutkas (small mini vans) dash to various parts of Georgia.  I was headed to Mskheta, the old capital of Georgia till 6th century AD and only 10 km from Tblisi.  I felt like I was in another world.  It was quiet (the old town sits along the confluence of 2 rivers), and I was met on foot by Luka, the couch surfer that I would stay with for the next 3 days.  Sadly, we were in the house of his recently deceased father, who died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 48.  Apparently he was a very good man, and very devout, and Luka has become the most devout orthodox I have met.  He had no time to spend with me, as he needed to attend 3 hour mass on Sat and Sun (with a half hour walk to and from), and then study for his classes at university, as well as practice guitar.  I went with him to church and was very impressed by the beauty and immensity of the basilica – apparently it is one of the oldest in Georgia.  I loved the polyphonic singing done by both a female and male choir that alternated singing prayers during the mass. I liked not knowing the meaning of the words and simply listening to the sounds.  I really like the sound of Georgian – I have learned enough for very basic communication, and have a cheat sheet to help remember basic phrases. I explored Mskheta for 4 days by foot. One day I headed past the church where St Nino is buried.  St Nino is the woman saint who came from Capedochia, Turkey (sent by St. George) in the 4th century to convert the heathens of Iberia (currently eastern Georgia).  Apparently she caused lightning to strike their idols (statues of the sun, moon, and other gods) on a hill, and scared the pagans into submission.  She is associated with the Georgian cross made of 2 grape vines tied with her hair, now a symbol of the Georgian orthodox church. The small church where she was buried was constructed in the 10th century. Up the hill past the church I found a beautiful cemetery on a hill at the edge of town, common to all cemeteries in Georgia and Abhazia. On the walk back to Luka’s father’s home, I saw many homes over years old and the remains of an old fortress overlooking the confluence of 2 rivers and built in the 6th century by a nobleman. Not discouraged by the rain that has deluged Georgia ever since my arrival, Luka planted vegetables and has many fruit trees and grape vines draped over the yard.  This is a Georgian and Abkhazian tradition that extends back centuries, and many households makes wine from their own grapes. The best wine is supposedly produced in Kakheti, east of Tblisi. That evening Luka and I discussed politics (both Georgian and American), Georgian orthodox religion, and traditional Georgian song and dance.  In addition to studying physics at a university in Tblisi, he busks (plays guitar on the street) and gave me a sample of his covers and own material (including songs from Cold Play). The next day I walked through his village on the way to Mshketa and met a very friendly Georgian man. He was very happy that I was American (I’m not used to warm welcomes) and invited me for food and wine (and chacha, distilled wine which I would term Georgian moon shine). We had a mini supra (table in farsi), with chicken from their yard, eggs, homemade cheese (seer), and bread. I wasn’t able to finish the chacha that he kept pouring with every toast (gamarjoss is “cheers” in Kartuli), while he was downing shots with ease. He eventually dismissed me in disgust with a wave of his hand as if saying “this American is not worth their salt”. They gave me a bag of their own eggs and sent me on my way. In the not so distant past, a guest was seen as sent by God and was highly honored.  I then walked into Mskheta and met a lovely man whose father had been a renowned artist and loved horticulture. Though we couldn’t communicate with words, I was able to glean that his father had designed and landscaped the beautiful and wild yard which he invited me to walk in, as well as building several hot houses where he planted seedlings that he later transplanted to his garden. Reluctantly, I left Mskheta for Tblisi, where I met Elvin, a couch surfer host who put me up in his roomy one-bedroom studio. He is very generous in trying to accommodate as many guests as possible, and is extremely busy with his own medical equipment business.  He was born in Azerbaijan and later moved to Georgia (and Turkey) and speaks at least 4 languages. I had the opportunity to join he and some friends for a very intelligent and progressive conversation over a delicious meal served at his doctor friend’s home. They were well-versed in American politics and history and offered very sophisticated analyses of Obama’s presidency. We had a very nice breakfast at a place near his work where we ate matsoni (traditional yogurt) and sweet breads and tea. Two days later I left Tblisi for Borjomi and Bakuriani. I felt a bit pressed as the couch surfer I was going to visit said he only had time for 2 days. I liked the village he lived in, Likani, which is 3 km or so from the largest national park in Georgia. I tried hiking 2 separate days but was daunted by the extremely muddy track. I was unable to walk for more than a few steps without getting covered in mud, and eventually gave up. The trees and vegetation created a magical forest that I imagined was filled with “little people”, as my Irish grandmother would call them. I walked from Likani to the small town of Borjomi along the Mtkvari (Kura) river.  Along the way, on the riverside, I spied a beautiful, large dacha used by Russian nobility starting in the early 1800s when Russia first occupied Georgia. They built many dachas in the most beautiful areas of Georgia and Abkhazia, including in Borjomi, Sokhum, Pitsunda, Gagra, and Lake Ritza, to name the locale of a few. The ethnographic museum in Borjomi housed an interesting collection of finery (including china and table ware, statues, lamps, clocks, and furniture) from the period when the Romanov family (Czar Nicholas) used the dacha as a summer retreat.  The museum also featured typical Georgian clothing, cook ware, and other traditional household items from earlier times. After getting my fill of the museum, I walked to Borjomi Central Park, and stopped for a bite to eat at a very fancy cafe (the nicest I’d seen on my trip).  It was on par with any cafe on University Ave in Palo Alto, but relative to all the cafes I’d seen in Georgia, it blew my socks off.  To top it off, the bathroom was clean and modern.  I had a very nice conversation with Roman, a Slovakian hiker who told me a bit about his travels in Georgia and filled me in on good places to see in other parts of Europe.  He encouraged me to visit him in Bratislawa, and I left him feeling good about the world and travelers.  From there I proceeded into the park dedicated to Borjomi mineral waters, and read the seemingly legendary descriptions of the healing properties of Borjomi water supposedly discovered by Russian soldiers.  I’m sure this is soviet propaganda, as undoubtedly the Georgian people of the region were aware of the remarkable effects of this highly mineralized water.  Most Europeans are crazy about mineral water and believe that drinking and bathing in such waters cure all maladies.  I took a big gulp from the fountain and almost gagged due to the high sulfur content. The park was filled with cartoonish soviet-era characters covered in colorful mosaic tiles.  I walked along the river and admired the beautiful trees and vegetation, stopping when I was unable to continue on the muddy track. The next day, I took a marshutka to Bakuriani, a ski resort town about 30 km from Borjomi.  It seemed relatively deserted, and I made some inquiries into the price of accommodations: 15 Lari for a nice small hotel (about $6 USD). The town appeared to have been a traditional village until recent modernization resulted in the building of over 40 hotels, mostly incomplete (large pillars of cement and rebar littered an otherwise beautiful alpine valley).  I walked along the outskirts toward the forest and met a very kind older gentleman who took me on a walking tour of a beautiful forest that he had apparently planted with his own hands (again, we had no language in common).  As he pointed out stones and trees that he had lovingly placed,  I was deeply moved by his love of the land.  It stood in stark contrast to the seeming uncaring attitude that most modern Georgians seem to have about litter and pollution.  On the way here, for example,  I’d seen a huge garbage dump right on the bank of a beautiful river.  I later found that this was standard operating procedure in Georgia (most of the garbage I’ve seen in Georgia and Abkhazia have been either on the banks of a river or in the forest over the side of a cliff). I vowed to return to this mountain town and returned to Tblisi, this time heading for a couch surfer from the US who lives with his Georgian partner in a central part of town. I spent a very interesting 3 weeks with Kevin and Beka, and had the opportunity to meet several lovely travelers from Canada, Germany, France, and the US while there.  I exercised my counseling skills (they requested that I facilitate helping them make a relationship agreement); trekked up and down Rustaveli Ave, the posh main boulevard filled with neoclassical gems including the Turkish-influenced opera house, parliament, noble mansions, and several national museums of art and history; went to the national gallery, home to Colchis gold (“Colchis rich with gold”, a popular expression of Greeks nad Romans in describing the people of western Georgia and Abkhazia); admired the works of famous Georgian painter Pirosmani (from a poor family in Kakheti, taught himself to paint); and attended the 26th annual independence day (from Russian occupation) day on May 26, commemoraating the day the constitution in 1918.  Sadly, their independence was short-lived – Russia invaded Georgia in 1921 claiming that guerrilla fighting made it necessary for them to retake the country.  It was only during perestroika in 1992 that Georgia finally gained its independence, and some claim that even at this time the president (Sheharnadze) was under Russian influence.  In 2008 Russia invaded South Ossettia, previously part of Georgia, and Georgia lost that territory and an area near Gori.  Adjara also tried to get independent of Georgia but was unsuccessful. On this 26th anniversary of Georgian independence, the main boulevard in Tblisi, Rustavelli Avenue, closed to vehicle traffic, was filled with throngs enjoying the sunshine and eating ice cream.  The street was lined with governmental agency and NGO booths handing out information and freebies.  Georgian military flew fancy jets spraying colors in the sky and showed off their latest tanks and armored vehicles parked in Freedom Square for photo opps.  I took the opportunity to talk to staff from the Ministry of the Interior and Specially-designated Protected Places about environmental issues, especially the issue of litter and the need for adequate landfills.  Staff told me that funding was very minimal, though growing every year, and that they were not able to address the need for landfills.  I also spoke with a professor from San Diego State University who will be teaching physics this fall in Tblisi as part of an exchange program set up under President Bush in 2004.  Later that evening I met 4 lovely Iraqi women who are students at University of Georgia.  Teary-eyed, I told them how sad I was about the US war in Iraq, ee specially the destruction of Falluja (one woman is from Falluja – her parents are still there). We walked down the now pedestrian only Rustavelli Ave, and they treated me to ice cream at Luka Polare.  On the way back, a few Georgian guys hassled NamRiq and her friend, and I essentially told the guys to back off.  They left well alone and the girls thanked me.  I felt a bit like a super hero that night, when afterward I pulled two gypsy kids off an Asian and African mans’ leg.  The kids were spitting mad, and I walked away feeling afraid for my safety.  I’d seen this trick before in the old town, where street urchins (in this case, gypsies – not sure how they came to Georgia) would wrap their arms around a tourists’ leg and extort money from them.   I fell in love with Georgian Open Air Museum of Ethnography, founded by ethnographer Giorgi Chitaia in 1966.  It is essentially a historic village populated by buildings moved there from all main territorial subdivisions of Georgia. The museum occupies 52 hectares of land and is arranged in eleven zones, displaying around 70 buildings and more than 8,000 items. The exhibition features the traditional darbazi-type and fiat-roofed stone houses from eastern Georgia, openwork wooden houses with gable roofs of straw or boards from western Georgia, watchtowers from the mountainous provinces of Khevsureti, Pshavi, and Svaneti, Megrelian, and Imeretian wattle maize storages, Kakhetian wineries (mariani), and Kartlian water mills as well as a collection of traditional household articles such as distaffs, knitting-frames, chums, clothes, carpets, pottery and furniture. Chitaia enlisted the help of other ethnographers to physically move buildings and household items from various regions of Georgia.  Guides explain the daily life and customs of old Georgia, but most don’t speak English. On my third visit, during which the area of Abkhazia was being celebrated, I met a German girl named Lucy who was kind enough to translate the German guide’s information, and invited me to join their tour.  Afterwards, her family took me to enjoy Luka Polare gelato on Aghmashenebeli Avenue, a posh boulevard that was renovated under Sakashvili.  If you only walked this five block section of Tblisi, you’d think you were in London.  But it’s definitely a thin facade, as for example buildings on street corners would only be painted on the side facing the post street, not on the side street. Luka seems to have a monopoly on gourmet gelato in Tblisi.  Georgians love gelato, perhaps partly a reflection of the diverse demographics here (perhaps from Silk Road days): Armenians, Greeks, Turks, Azuris, Persians, and Jews, among others.  I’ve tried multiple flavors, including sea buck thorn, lavender, and red currant.  He has 6 or more locations in Tblisi, and personally supervises each of his stores (I saw him at his Pekini Street store chiding a street urchin for hassling his customers).  At 2.50 Lari/scoop (a hefty 1.20 USD), it’s pricey but worth every penny (from the mouth of a professional taster :>).  Lucy, the German girl I met at the ethnographic museum, is volunteering for the summer at a German NGO in a small town south of Tblisi as a German language teacher.  She said that she doesn’t feel like she’s made a big difference in the lives of many of the young Georgians that she teaches.  We met at the Linnville Cafe in Old Tblisi, a funky artsy cafe with a crooked staircase, antiquated lamps and furnishings, and good homemade limonada (traditional Georgian compote, or sweet drink).  Like the rest of Old Town, it’s crumbling as we speak.  Many people live in buildings that are crumbling around them and look like they were victims of several violent quakes.  Street-side, I saw countless hallways with gaping holes where the stair would be.  On my walks in Old Tblisi, I wandered down narrow cobbled lanes and found unexpected treasures like the old synagogue (Georgia was said to be very accepting of Jewish immigrants who claimed not to have experienced anti-semitism here), the old 4th century Georgian orthodox church on the street next to the river, and the botanical gardens which was founded as royal gardens in 1625.  The garden was pillaged during the Persian invasion of 1795 and revived in the early 19th century.  In 1932 and 1958, the territory around the former Muslim cemetery was included in the botanical garden. Several graves have survived, however, including that of the prominent Azerbaijani writer Mirza Fatali Akhundov (1812-1878). The central entrance to the Garden is located at the foothills of the Narikala Fortress. I also walked on the other side of the Mtkvari River which runs through the center of Tblisi (located in a canyon) along the posh Aghmashenebeli Avenue and beyond, surprised at how quickly decayed homes and potholed roads replaced the glitsy facades of classical and neoclassical buildings.  I wandered along the touristic part of Old Tblisi, a narrow lane one block from the river lined with cafes, galleries, a very old church, and an out of place Swiss looking clock with dancing puppets that rotate on a carousel at the top of every hour.  Unfortunately, I missed the Swiss clock show (by only one minute), but did purchase a ticket to see the Gabriadze Theater, a puppet theater.  Cheerful, red-trousered Khecho, a puppet from the 1978 experimental puppet cinema piece, Dreams in Kodjorsky Forest, helped persuade local authorities to create the theater.  On the eve of the Tbilisoba holiday in Tbilisi, city officials resolved to give half of a building that was under reconstruction for the future puppet theater. The other half was owned by a restaurant. The door between the two premises still remained. The owner of the restaurant kept the key, since, he said, the theater “would only be a temporary operation”.  The tiny hall’s seating capacity was only 45 and the stage was just 15 square meters. The theater team procured velvet for the curtains, a stage box, cement and building materials. The marionettes and the scenery were all made by hand. “My role was similar to Robison Crusoe’s. Just like him, I was building my boat – a very stimulating and exciting place to be!” says Gabriadze.  When it came to choosing the plot of the first play, they decided on a combination of The Lady of the Camellias, the immortal novel by Alexandre Dumas, and Verdi’s magnificent La Traviata. The resulting play, Alfred and Violetta, is set in the 1970s in Tbilisi. Distinguished actors like Ramaz Chkhikvadze (Nevermore), Erosi Mandjgaladze (Germont) and others voiced the characters.  The 1981 premiere had a full house. The opening night was attended by Eduard Shevardnadze, then Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Georgia, and Members of Parliament, foreign guests and diplomats.  The first show was an enormous success, warmly applauded by the audience. Rave reviews about the wonderful Georgian puppet show appeared in foreign newspapers. The theater survived, and the door to the restaurant was boarded up for good. I also walked to the huge cathedral that Sakhashvili had built in the early 2000’s.  Its size rivals Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican in Rome.  The priests seemed very well off (I saw several with a driver headed through the gilded gates in a large BMW), and I was awe-struck by the church’s wealth (precious stones, gems, and expensive jewelry) that was displayed in the icon cases.  Apparently there is a very old tradition in Georgia of donating precious items to the church.  At the ethnographic museum in Mestia, Svaneti, for example, I saw a beautiful ornate silver pitcher that had been donated to the church in Ushguri (probably the Lamaria complex) by none other than Queen Tamar herself.  Many “casual finds”, as archaeologists sometimes call items found by locals (not professional teams), were also donated to the church, many of which I saw in the old tower in the “province of Ushguli.  These included glass bracelets, small bronze zoomorphic figures (deers, rams, horses, among other animals), Neolithic arrowheads and stone tools, and more recent household items like water and wine pitchers and serving gourds. Now a short biography of Tamar the Great, as she was commonly known.  Born in 1160, she reigned as Queen of Georgia from 1184 until her death in 1213, presiding over the apex of the Georgian Golden Age.  A member of the Bagrationi dynasty, her position as the first woman to rule Georgia in her own right was emphasized by the title mep’e (“king”), commonly afforded to Tamar in the medieval Georgian sources.Tamar was proclaimed heir and co-ruler by her reigning father George III in 1178, but she faced significant opposition from the aristocracy upon her ascension to full ruling powers after George’s death. Tamar was successful in neutralizing this opposition and embarked on an energetic foreign policy aided by the decline of the hostile Seljuq Turks. Relying on a powerful military élite, Tamar was able to build on the successes of her predecessors to consolidate an empire which dominated the Caucasus until its collapse under the Mongol attacks within two decades after Tamara’s death.  She was married twice, her first union being, from 1185 to 1187, to the Rus’ prince Yuri, whom she divorced and expelled from the country, defeating his subsequent attempts at coup. For her second consort Tamar chose, in 1191, the Alan prince David Soslan, by whom she had two children, George and Rusudan, the two successive monarchs on the throne of Georgia.Tamar’s association with the period of political and military successes and cultural achievements, combined with her role as a female ruler, has led to her idealization and romantization in Georgian arts and historical memory. She remains an important symbol in Georgian popular culture and has been canonized by the Georgian Orthodox Church as t the Holy Righteous King Tamar (Georgian: წმიდა კეთილმსახური მეფე თამარი), with her feast day commemorated on the 14th of May. One Sunday, Beka and Kevin (my couchsurfing hosts in Tblisi) took me and a couple (Canadian and German) to a wonderful inexpensive soviet style restaurant serving traditional Georgian food.  My favorite dish was eggplant and chicken cooked with wonderful spices topped with walnut sauce.  We gorged ourselves and only spent 8 Lari (about $3) each.  What I wouldn’t give for a restaurant like that near my house!  From there we went to the bazaar, more like an open air market filled with honey, spices, “Georgian snickers” called churchkhela (a traditional power food made by dipping a string into a batter of pressed grapes and juice and usually filled with walnuts or pistachios), all manner of nuts and dried fruit, and an assortment of freshly butchered meat.  The Georgians, impressed with the lovely blond Canadian girl, gave the couple some honey, while Kevin bought spices from an Armenian woman who calls him “my beautiful boy”.  We brought a variety of veggies and fruits, and then made our way to a park on the river’s edge where hipsters, hippies, and skate punks hang out on Sunday afternoons.  It’s called a flea market, with mostly young people selling everything from homemade treats and fruit drinks to carved handicrafts, macrame, and other unique gifts.  It’s definitely the hangout for the hip Tblisi crowd.  From there, we walked across the river and the old town to the area of the hamams (Turkish baths) along the river leading to the botanic gardens.  We climbed the steps to the Narikala fortress, and admired the huge statue of the mother of Georgia that looms large over Old Tblisi.  I think she looks a little like Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raiders ;>.  She’s holding a cup in one hand and a sword in the other, supposedly representing both her hospitality in welcoming guests and her ferocity in fighting enemies. Interestingly, the home of the recent prime minister of Georgia, who is worth over $6 billion USD (made in Russia according to some sources), is an ultra modern building (think Bladerunner) a few paces away from the mother of Georgia.  An odd pairing. We climbed more than 100 steps through a small pine forest toward a small village in the hills above Tblisi.  After asking a resident for directions, Kevin led us the rest of the way to Mtatsminda Park located on Mtatsminda Mountain 800-meters above the city.  The park (known as Bombora) was built during soviet occupation of Georgia in the 1930s and covers more than 1 sq km. Attractions include a flume ride, a huge ferris wheel the size (and speed) of the eye in London, numerous children’s rides (including a really cool haunted house that even I could handle) and a roller coaster that even has a loop and double corkscrew.  Originally, the Tiflis Funicular railway was constructed in 1905 to develop the uninhabited Mtatsminda plateau that overlooks the city. The railway carriage accommodated up to 50 people and the journey time was 6 minutes. The Tiflis Funicular Railway Vaso Kvavilashvili, the first locomotive-driver of the Funicular recalls: “At first people feared that the rope might break and they did not want to climb into the carriage. People were brought in coaches, were paid money, and were urged not to be afraid and to get into the carriage. Later, when people got used to the railroad, there was a long line for tickets.” Inside the Funicular Station Building Exterior of the Tiflis Funicular Station Building Early 20th century photograph of the Tiflis Funicular Railway The popularity of the Funicular was further increased when an entertainment and leisure park was constructed on the Mtatsminda plateau in the 1930s. In the days of the Soviet Union, Mtatsminda Park was the third most visited public park in the USSR, Gorky Park in Moscow being number one. mtatsminda-park-tbilisi The Funicular Railway underwent several reconstructions until being replaced in 2012 with modern equipment and carriages. New Tbilisi Funicular Railway We ate the best krinkle I’ve had yet at a nice restaurant in the park.  Krinkle are traditional Georgian dumplings of a sort filled with a mixture of juice and meat.  The restaurant was surprisingly inexpensive in spite of its beautiful view. After a nice walk and a funky haunted house ride, we took the funicular down the hill and walked back to their apartment. I took several other interesting walks in Tblisi, including to Lisi Lake (the most nature I’d seen in Tblisi, complete with a large pine forest on one side and above the lake), to the zoo (which ended up getting flooded less than a month after I’d been there), and to Tblisi Sea, a large reservoir on the edge of the city that features a huge monument “History of Georgia” built by the Georgian sculptor Zurab Konstantines dze Tsereteli (Georgian: ზურაბ კონსტანტინეს ძე წერეთელი). History of Georgia Monument The monument chronicles Georgian history. The top part of the 30 meter tall columns feature kings, queens and heroes and the bottom part depict stories from the life of Christ. History of Georgia Monument Depictions of the life of Christ on the History of Georgia Monument

I love museums, and didn’t miss the chance to see the Georgian National Museum featuring the long-term display of Georgian art from the early 20th century, an excellent introduction to the fascinating art history of the Former Soviet Republic. The exhibition itself isn’t vast, but it can certainly boast quality over quantity.  The exhibit begins with Niko Pirosmani, whose primitivist style and childish naivety inspired the master of modern art, Pablo Picasso. Pirosmani, a self-taught artist, drew influences not only from Georgian folk life, but also from the classic frescoes from Georgia’s artistic golden age of the 13th century. As an artist, Pirosmani’s work is difficult to curate since the chronology of his paintings are unknown, but that hasn’t stopped his naïve images of animals and daily village life from becoming iconic throughout Georgia.  The Georgian Dadaist, Ilia Zdanevich, collected Pirosmani’s works, and his paintings were exhibited with the avant-gardes in Moscow.  Pirosmani crafted his own technique of painting oil on cloth rather than on the traditional canvas.  Most of his themes elaborated on Georgian culture, while his primitivist style inspired the neo-primitivist Russian artists from the era known as the “Great Experiment.”  There was also an exhibit of sculptor Zurab Tsereteli’s monumental works.  He is an artist of grand proportion, very popular with the soviets with their love of huge statues.  His work is everywhere in Russia and Georgia.

I also spent time in the Museum of Georgia, which houses an exhibition of Georgian weaponry from the past, an amazing gold exhibit from the Colchis people, and an archaeological exhibit from neolithic times to the recent past.  I was amazed at the beautiful gold and silver objects, often zoomorphic and ritual in use, housed there.  The Colchis and other tribes created intriguing ritual rings that looked more like metal spirals, fibula (pins for their cloaks?), and geometric designs especially featuring spirals, linked spirals, sun wheel patterns.  I went to a nice cafe/bookstore that housed a good selection of books in English where I bought a small blank travel journal to replace the one that I’d inadvertently washed.  I met a lovely woman and her husband while walking at Lisi Lake with whom I communicated in French (neither of us had spoken French for years).  She’s a teacher at a local high school and invited me for tea and cake to her home.  We looked at photo albums of her children and drank tea, after which they gave me a ride to the metro station.  The metro in Tblisi is similar to that of Yerevan and other Soviet construction – incredibly deep with long speedy escalators.  I think Russian soviets were dwarves in another life ;>  The escalator is so dizzyingly long I have to sit down on the descent to avoid vertigo.

I thought I’d never leave Tblisi at this point.  I had originally planned to stay for perhaps a week in Georgia, and ended up staying 3 weeks just in Tblisi.  The catalyst to get me on moving on was my application for an Abkhazian visa, which was accepted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on July 1.  I decided to first head to Stephantsminda in the Kazbegi mountains, a beautiful village set in the North Caucasus about 100 miles north of Tblisi.  On the marshutka ride up, I was lucky to meet a very friendly Polish guy who worked in international relations between Poland and other EU countries.  He was very helpful and fluent in Russian, and could easily communicate with the people who had guest houses in Kazbegi.  After some drama (we were aggressively pursued by one hostel-owner who practically abducted us, but we decided after looking at the place that we needed to find another), we found a nice place to stay at Maya’s Guest House.  Maya caters to Polish people, and was very kind.  She cooked a wonderful supper, and I loved the view that I had of the mountain from my room.  The house was old and furnished in the classic Soviet style: high ceilings, decorative moulding, and a large armoire filled with delicate china.  I felt like I was on the set of Anna Karenina, though not as wealthy. The next day, David (my new Polish friend) and I set off to hike to the church on the mountain, approximately 1000 meters (3000 feet) higher than the guest house.  We were greeted with gray skies, rain, and sleet/snow as we climbed, and after getting to the very old church (probably built in the 4th century) in time for mass, we decided not to continue further to the glacier.  It was interesting to observe the beautiful old stone church during mass, with some of us there as pilgrims up the mountain, and others there as devout Orthodox Christians.  As usual there was haunting polyphonic singing, and at the end we received a benediction from the priest in the form of water sprinkled over our heads. I was given some dirty stares by the staff person, perhaps for having the audacity to wrap a skirt around my hiking pants and to wear flashy purple Asics with a flowered kerchief over my hair.  A sore sight for the fashion police, no doubt.  I’d previously been yelled at by a woman near Old Tblisi for entering the church with pants, which is another no no for women.  You must have a full-length skirt, a scarf covering your hair, and preferably long sleeves.

After a long descent, we ate a wonderful Georgian meal (complete with aubergeen, or eggplant roasted with walnut sauce, one of my favorite dishes), and wandered around the small village.  The next day my friend departed, leaving me to wander on my own.  I visited a fancy hotel overlooking the valley and church called “The Rooms” hotel and had a latte on the terrace, then hiked up to another church behind the hotel.  I later led a Russian family up to the church – they were hiking and got lost, and wanted to see the view from the church.  It was open and we went into the small chapel surrounding by small wooden sheds.  I loved the birch and pine forest buffering the area, and sat there imagining that I was in the Swiss alps.  I also went to Stephantsminda Historic Museum, located in the memorial house of the Georgian writer Alexander Kazbegi (1848-1890). Together with the library and personal belongings of the writer, the museum houses ethnographical artefacts typical for the region, archaeological exhibits, religious relics, as well as books and various works of local artists and Kazbegi.  I had another good meal and went to sleep happy with the view of mountain out my bedroom window.  While there I learned some Kartuli (Georgian language) from Maya, and started a small dictionary of basic phrases.  But I wouldn’t be using Georgian again for some time as I was headed the next day to Abkhazia.

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5 responses to “Tblisi and beyond

  1. Wow, quite this busy body of travels Lisa. The cultural gawking sounds like a strange thing when compared to the immense diversity we have here. I can sort of see the oddity for the locals as they probably don’t have very much multi cultural exposure. Really enjoy reading your exploits and the non-separatist tourist, vantage point. You really live the sociologists ideal exploration. Your cultural indoctrination through participation must open worlds of insight and experience for you and those you encounter. Hope you are able to find a quiet place to replenish your energy and keep you strong for your journeys. Safe travels and much admiration.
    -Thomas

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  2. So much great stuff here! And now so many new places I never knew existed that I feel a desperate urge to visit – I had no idea Abkhazia even existed. Thank you for sharing this gorgeous narrative with us…

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  3. Finally, I’ve found your blog Lisa! Excellent job done here!
    “David (my new Polish friend)” who was/is actually Tomasz:-) Indeed, my Russian is even better since then while I have been attending Russian classes since last summer.

    Best from sunny Warsaw,
    Tomasz

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