Mountaintops of Mestia

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Here’s a little map of the journey so far. J is where we’re headed now.

First, we had to spend a night in Kutaisi before going directly to Mestia. Nothing really absurd happened on this day, other than us cooking for the FIRST time this whole trip. Usually, when traveling, hostels have a kitchen so it’s just nice to cook now and then and save some money. But the hostels and guesthouses we’ve found have been cheap, but also severely lacking in public kitchen space. Also, the food is extremely cheap and delicious so it’s hard not to just be lazy and eat out or “explore the local cuisine” (even though every Georgian restaurant has the exact same menu).

Cooking is so much more than an effort to save some money, and on a long trip its surprising how much I miss the community of shopping for groceries and cooking with another person. We stay moderately lazy and buy an extremely spicy and salty sauce from the market, which we decide will make a nice pasta base. Then to even out the spice and salt, we add in some fresh cucumbers and tomatoes. The combination was perfect and ended up costing maybe $1-2. This allowed us to justify a trip to our favorite bar in Kutaisi, Prague Bar, which still has the cheapest beers we’ve had in Georgia at $0.60. It’s kind of nice, as both an angry looking Russian couple and a hoard of Croatians are dining next to us. It’ a good day to just relax.

The next morning, we head to the bus stop to find the marshrutka to Mestia. This is a long ride, and they don’t leave very often in the day so we have to catch the 9:00 ride. The driver is about our age, and he’s pretty nice compared to the overweight, continuously angry marshrutka driver that’s the norm in Georgia. The ride north up to Mestia (მესტია) takes about 5-6 hours through some extremely snaky mountainous dirt roads. I get the feeling our driver is bored of driving us, and is just flying through the turns at light speed with complete disregard for the loose contents of our stomachs. We all hold plastic bags, just in case, but everyone’s breakfast stays where it should be.

There are only three Georgian’s in the car, everyone else is apparently from Berlin. There’s a lot of German being spoken in the car, which is perfect because Mestia feels rather Swissy. We arrive on cobblestones, surrounded by small buildings made of hard river rock. Cows walk through the streets with their cowbells dingling wildly, and I half expect to see a yoddler on a hilltop or witness the filming of a Ricola commercial.

The first stop is a little coffee shop run by Ukrainians that tailor to our Western wallets. They make deliciously European priced coffee, and I’m instantly aware that this is a wee bit of a touristy place. It’s not so different from Kazbegi in this regard, as it seems the tourists love to flock to the mountains. Yet the coffees are delicious, and they’ve made windchimes out of used cups that quickly tink away as the breeze moves by.

Walking to our guesthouse, I’m allured by the smell of something amazing. The smell of freshly baked bread. I stop in where the smell emanates from, where a man is profusely sweating while holding two long wooden spears. He stands above a giant earthen mound, and I approach amazed without even asking for consent. The mound goes down several meters, with a burning red hearth at the bottom. Flaky oval shapes are stuck are stuck to the wall, and as I peer in he stabs one and puts the burning hot bread in my hands. “1 lari” ($0.40) he says as my hands scorch under the heat.

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As a man constantly baking and culturing my own sourdough, I find this baker more fitting of stardom than anyone in pop music. He works wonders. We walk and I eat almost all of it before making it to our guesthouse. The town is covered in these little towers which were made 1000 years ago as watchtowers to defend against Russian invaders. Now, families nonchalantly put their grain in their 1000-year-old tower attached to their house.

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It’s a bit of a wander through cobbled streets and cows, and we end up in someone else’s lawn asking for directions before making it.

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I didn’t end up taking a photo of our place because it was a bit weird. We show up and the owner says she can only take us for two nights, even though we had booked three. She says we can stay at her neighbor’s house, and we agree as it’s probably an interesting experience. We ask to borrow the kitchen, and they say sure but say so under hesitant breath. We wander back to town and buy some fresh goodies, which are horrendously expensive this far North. It’s about the same to buy fresh produce as it is to eat out in a bigger town here. But we do anyway and head back to the house. The kitchen is covered in dirty dishes as if nobody has done the dishes for over a week. The owner and what I can only assume is her maid quickly clean up, and we sit and wait. It certainly feels like we’re intruding, even though we’re just making a salad. But it’s a weird way to get off with the host of the guesthouse.

The next morning we wake, and the maid gives us a bit of cake for breakfast. She’s fluent in German, and it’s strangely relaxing to speak to a Georgian in German rather than Russian. The goal of the day is to hike the nearest mountain, where there are some glorious views and the beginning of a famous hike to some glacial lakes. The hike is straight up for around two hours, Ivana is wearing converses and she’s hating it. Several days of hiking didn’t justify bringing mountain shoes, so we just brought what was comfortable enough. In my case, tennis shoes, which are totally fine. I find a big stick and start breaking it down as a walking stick. All of a sudden, like something out of a fairy tale, a wandering babushka appeared. She’s wearing and beige skirt, pink shirt, white bucket hat and what appear to be sketcher’s shape ups. In her hand, a walking stick worthy of Gandalf. Some serious spells have been cast with that thing. She’s thumping by at a fast pace, and as I stand up from my walking stick to say “gamarjoba”, she hands me her perfectly toned and sanded down wizardly staff to me without saying a word. I say “Wow, modloba!” to which she responds, “Kukubu?”

“Excuse me?”

“Ne, kukubu??” while making horns on her forehead with her fingers.

Either she’s asking if we’ve seen the devil or if we’ve seen her cows. As we have seen neither, we shake our heads and she keeps thumping along down the path. New staff in hand, we venture on.

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The hikes a challenge but we work our way up and eventually make it to the top for a picnic and mountain watching.

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Mountains as far as the eye can see. It’s a bit too cloudy today, and we can’t see the nearest massive peak, Mount Ushba, but this view will definitely do for now. We sit and enjoy, and eventually start the descent as some ominous clouds begin to build overhead.

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As is ritual after a hike, we grab a beer on our way down and enjoy a relaxing evening.

We wake up with sore butts and decide to have a chill day without straight upwards hiking. We see some ski lifts on the other mountain and decide that’s our goal. Along the way, we find the Regional history museum. Here they tell tales of how locals inspired the tale of the Golden Fleece, as early gold panning was done with a sheepskin in a basket.

We take the ski lift up, and finally, the clouds have cleared enough for us to see the fabled Mount Ushba.

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It feels a bit like I’m looking at Mount Everest. Just a gigantic peak appearing out of nowhere. We brought some seeds, and just watch Mt. Ushba and catch the last ski lift down before closing time. We have to leave our guesthouse and stay with her neighbors, so I pay and when I go to shake her hand she just awkwardly stares at it and moves out of the room. I didn’t realize I would have created a faux-pas but thinking back on it now that was probably a rude gesture in this part of the world. We move past the incident, and the German-speaking maid takes us across the street to our new spot. I’m not sure why we have to move, but it looks like our host is packing stuff into several cars so I won’t ask too many questions.

The new place is literally in someone’s house, and it feels like there are maybe five generations living in it. Babies, baby’s babies, adults, babushkas, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the babushka’s babushka was up in the attic making a rug on a loom. It’s all very strange, but the bed is comfortable and we have to get up early anyway.

We only have three days left in Georgia. We were originally planning on going back to Kutaisi for the ‘safe’ option before taking our flight back on Saturday morning at 5:00 am.

But screw safe options.

The next morning, we get on a bus to the Black Sea coastal town of Batumi. It’s time to see the Black Sea.

 

Sneaky Cows in Kazbegi

It’s about 6 in the evening in Tbilisi, fresh off the train and we have to get to the Russian border by nightfall. Of course, had we arrived at 9 am we would have had an easy journey, but now everything is rather last minute. We look around the hectic marshrutka station for someone going to Stepantsminda (სტეფანწმინდა) (also known as Kazbegi) right up next to Russia. The marshrutka station is eclectic as buses don’t have too much organization and just park where there’s space. There’s a lot of them too, which makes the hunt difficult. We can’t find anything, but a taxi driver from Armenia gives us a decent price so we take it. It’s late, and we figure all the marshrutkas have left. The drive takes around four hours through the stunning Georgian military road, weaving through soaring peaks and shepherds herding their flocks. We make it a little after nine, to the mildly touristy town. It’s dark and we haven’t had a meal in a day, so we wander around but no one seems to have an open kitchen. So we buy some bread and sunflower seeds and settle into a bar for a beer. We also have our first shot of chacha since the airport shuttle driver gave us some of his homebrew. Chacha is the leftovers of winemaking, and locals make a concoction reminiscent of vodka that’ll probably make you blind if you have too much. It’s cozy, and at about midnight we head to the hostel on the outskirts of town to settle into bed. It’s a chill place, with hammocks and seating area around a fire. We booked a little private shed with a bed in it for an awesome price, so we’re pretty happy. We arrive to see some Russians sitting around a boombox having a little party.

“My friends! No speaking English good, but come chacha!” One of them shouts as we enter. Can’t pass up that opportunity. They’re three Russians on a road trip to who knows where, and they’re extremely friendly despite no speaking English good. They regale us with tales of surviving in Russia, mostly by using Google translate on our phones. Chacha flows with the time, and three hours later the chacha finally hits all at once. Luckily the Georgians love sparkling waters packed with minerals that are fantastic hangover killers, so I chug a bottle or burning bubbles before stumbling into bed. 

The next day I wake about 7 and stumble out to this.

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We arrived so late that we haven’t gotten a proper look at the surroundings. It’s immensely beautiful. My head hurts, but who cares when you have a view like that. Our little cottage looks great, and we hydrate a bit and chill in the hammocks.

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We have what I call a “Colorado hang-over cure”, where you hike and grab a beer on the way down. That little church in the middle left side of the photo is our destination. The hike is straight up hill, and Ivana had a bit too much chacha last night for it to be an enjoyable walk. IMG_4439.jpg

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It takes a little while but we finally make it up to the top, where a bunch of taxis and tourists kind or ruin the mystical hike up. But it’s still a good spot, and we stop for a picnic.

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Little did I know, we were being hunted. A sneaky heifir approaches.

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Not today, Bessy. Those cucumbers are mine. I shoo it off and then take a billion cow photos.

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Who could be mad at those flawless eyelashes? Not I. We wander into the church, through crowds of tourists. Inside a mass is going on in candlelight, and it feels like a legitimate experience as priests chant as candlelight dances over faces of saints. Priests in Georgian Orthodox churches are really attentive. In Western churches, I never see priests just walking around and talking to people. They’re always off somewhere doing priest things. But here, priests are out walking about, talking to people and cracking jokes. I appreciate how open they are. They also have beautiful beards.

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Photo cred to Ivana. This one’s just enjoying the perfect view. The church is beautiful, and the views in every direction are equally stunning.

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We head back down the craggy hill and relax a while, watching the mountains. I’ve missed them so much after spending so much time in Denmark, otherwise known as the flattest country in the world. Being in the mountains constantly reminds me how much I need to live in a place with more altitude.

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Everytime I look up, the view gets more dramatic.

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We were initially planning on going to Armenia after this stop. But Yerevan is a solid 6:30 hours on marshrutka from Tbilisi, and there’s just too much to see and do in Armenia for us to be able to give it justice in our given time frame. So, we replan and play it by ear. There’s a little town just 20 minutes outside Tbilisi called Mtskheta (მცხეთა) (pronounced M-t-s-HEh-ta, with a proper throat clearing HEh). It was once the capital long long ago, and thus houses a monumental cathedral to oogle at. IMG_4467.jpg

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Other than the church, there isn’t too much to say about the town. It’s certainly cute but not much more than that. I’ve been thinking a lot about the people here, and what it is that makes them special. They’re easy to smile, welcoming, and extraordinarily confident in themselves. All the Georgian youth I’ve met have been so interesting, and they all work really insane personalities. It’s amazing to me that Georgia doesn’t receive so much hype in other places. It’s certainly cheaper, cleaner, friendlier, and dare I say prettier than many Western European spots. So it’s amazing that there still aren’t so many tourists. But that of course, is probably a good thing. I’ve been wondering what travelers can offer the locals. Travel and tourism are inherently privileged activities. Especially here, where everything for Westerners is so extremely cheap while locals can struggle to survive. I think for some, it’s just enough to meet and talk with foreigners. A lot of Georgia’s youngin’s have been so welcoming and curious about our lives and so willing to share their world with us. I suppose it’s the same when I meet tourists in my home. Often times, just hearing their story is enough to make me happy. But everyone here is willing to give you a smile, especially when you say hello in Georgian (gamarjoba). They seem genuinely happy to see tourists here, and willing to share their world with those that choose to come to share it with them. In Morocco, for example, it often feels like every tourist is looked at like a walking wallet. Here, it feels like they just want to make us fall in love with the Georgia they live. Is that an adequate exchange for the locals? To simply enjoy oneself, say hello and cheers once in a while, and smile back? Hard to say.

Fifty Shades of Sweat

It’s eight o’clock at night, and we’re boarding a train to Baku. The train is a literal sauna, having been left in the sun all day long. We wait outside and add another addition to the slav squat catalog. People are already taking their shirts off and getting drunk all over the train, as it must be around 110 degrees in here. The train leaves, and we huddle around the windows that can only be opened a sliver to sip sweet air from the Georgian steppe. It’s unreasonably hot, as the train was made during the 90’s and offers a pretty limited cooling system. We ride with this for about an hour, when we get to the Georgian border. It’s pretty relaxed, as a Georgian police officer comes to every cabin and collects passports. He then goes back into the border office, stamping all of them and returning them. The whole process takes about thirty minutes, but luckily they let us sit outside and stargaze while they work.

We have to board the sauna train again for about thirty minutes through no-man’s land before getting to the Azerbaijani side. This is a bit more stringent. An officer comes around, collecting passports.

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He then sets up shop in the stewardesses cabin, and calls everyone in one-by-one to take a photo and have their information typed up. He stamps the passport, and we return. Then a man comes by to check our cabin for anything hidden, and keeps moving on. Then another man comes in and asks “American. Armenian?” I shake my head. “Have you been to Armenia?” I shake my head again. Azerbaijan and Armenia are in a ceasefire over their border territories, and travel to Azerbaijan with Armenian passport stamps is strictly prohibited. All the while, I’m sitting in a heated box sweating beads wishing I could have a plunge pool to hop in. It got pretty stinky. The whole Azerbaijani check took about fourty minutes, at which point they finally let us out to relax for another thirty minutes in the midnight breeze. Sweeter air has never touched these lips. We eventually have to get back on, and the train begins again. The faster it goes, the more the air conditioning works. So eventually it cooled down, allowing us to snuggle into the cots for a nice night of sleep. When the sun eventually shines through, we find ourselves on a train through mars. 

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IMG_4356.jpgWe pass oil fields, broken villages, and seas of sulfur before eventually arriving in Baku at 9 o’clock. Azerbaijan’s nickname of The Land of Fire is aptly named. It’s a billion degrees here. They also continuously show off fire with their Torch towers, which can be seen from almost anywhere in the city.

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We find a little cafe to get some tea and bread for breakfast, and I get something called kükü which is just an herb-stuffed omelet. What kind of herbs? Every herb. Our waiter is a little bit too accommodating. I can’t honestly tell if he’s legitimate, or if he’s just trying to get the tip. But he’s got a cute smile so I can’t really judge him that much. After eating, he stops by with a flame shaped flower, giving it to Ivana saying “A gift.” Not only am I jealous of his smile, but he’s also given flowers to Ivana before me. Embarrassing.

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Fresh. Near the flame towers is a flame monument with an eternal fire that never runs out. We visit both, and grab a chance to take part in our slav squat and invisible selfie series.

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I really adore the flame towers. The come out of nowhere in a really tasteful way, and it’s, of course, a lot better than having a big ugly block skyscraper. Below is a mosque, offering a chance to see the Azerbaijan that was and the Azerbaijan that is.

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Azerbaijan has had a flood of oil and natural resources for a little over a century. This, as you would expect, has created a large gap in wealth as you see in most other Middle Eastern countries. People sit in the dirt on arid streets as golden Mercedes drive by. But Baku is an extremely clean city, perhaps more clean than a lot of Western European capitals. I saw one window being washed by three women at once. People are continuously sweeping streets or hosing them down, and in the main streets it’s hard to find a single piece of garbage. However, wander off the main promenade and one will find some pretty bad infrastructural problems. Giant holes in the sidewalk, broken pipes, and garbage strewn here and there. Along with that, roaming power outages occur often, at least when we were there, and one even lasted from midnight until about seven in the morning. Baku accommodates a lot of foreigners, mainly businessmen who are in town for an energy conference or work for an oil company. We saw many American businessmen look at us and wonder “Why are you tourists here?”

Fair question, good sir.

For the whole day, I was in a bit of a rotten mood. It was extremely hot, there wasn’t much to see, the food was underwhelming, and everything is extremely overpriced (on par with European costs). We packed ourselves into a steamy subway, and I wondered why I had even come here. We get off and wander up stars, and there I see a majestic hologram standing on the horizon. Like a mirage of a giant migrating sand dune, we approach Zaha Hadid’s epic Heydar Aliyev Center.

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It’s larger than I ever could have anticipated, and looks like a piece of special effects rather than an actual building. But we get closer, and I touch it’s tan walls and realize the megalithic structure is more than just an image in an architectural magazine. Every angle is perfect, as we almost religiously circle the structure twice. It’s exquisite, and I’ll let the building talk for itself.

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We sit in the grass and walk the colors dance along as the sun goes down, and let the night light take us over. I was so cranky before this point, but the cool air and Zaha Hadid made the trip feel worth it. Part of me feels like I’d be more impressed by this building than by seeing the pyramids. But that’s probably a little ignorant, I haven’t been to the pyramids yet so I’ll let you know when I get there.

The world cup is on tonight, meaning locals are packed into bars. We find a little one with extremely cheap beers and settle in watching Japan-Belgium next to a table of Japanese tourists. We celebrate and say “Konpai”, then cry together in the last minutes as Japan loses, but I feel like it was a good way to spend a night. My appreciation of Baku was certainly heightened just by its architectural wonder.

We get back to the hostel, and the power instantly goes out. The room quickly heats up to the same temperature as the train, and we sleep in a sauna once again. The air conditioning finally comes back on at around seven and we get a few hours of non sweating sleep. I do sleep a lot deeper without air conditioning though. It’s like my body just shuts off from the heat, which I guess is nice.

We were planning on staying another day in Baku to go visit Gobustan’s petroglyphs in the south or a Zoroastrian temple in the East. Tours were a bit too expensive, and the heat combined with our general attitudes have changed to the point where we decide to get on the train that evening. We head to the train station to grab a tea and wait for our chance to buy a ticket back to Tbilisi for the following night.

It’s even hotter today, the kind of heat where you’re worried your eyebrows may catch fire. We don’t see much, but we wander around trying to find redeeming factors other than the Heydar Aliyev center. When reading blogs, I was excited by all the lovely words people had said about Azerbaijan. They said it was the cheapest and nicest place in the Caucasus. Not the case. Dinner at a local hole in the wall still cost us about twice what it would in Georgia. As well, toilet paper is hard to come by. Spray hoses are in fashion in the land of fire. On paper, it makes sense. If I had a dollop of excrement on my face, for example, I’d wash my face with hot soapy water. I certainly would not wipe it off with paper and consider it clean. Maybe a combination of the two. I’m not opposed, as I do enjoy a refreshing bum rinse every now and again, but do I feel like my freshest self? No.

People are on polar opposites of the scales in terms of friendliness. Either they seem to hate your guts, and anything you ask is ridiculous or nonsense to them. Perhaps they’re shy about their language, or still aren’t used to tourists. But I still do certainly get a lot more scorns here than in other parts of the world. On the other end, some people are so extremely courteous to the point when you question their sanity. For example, the guy who gave us the plant. Or a coffee barista who wanted to make sure he made it just right for us, giving us a sample of the beans and making sure everything was perfect. Or a cucumber salesman who gave us extra cucumbers. Then there’s someone who got mad at me for ordering a black coffee, yelled at his employee, and proceeded to take fifteen minutes to make it. But I certainly can’t judge an entire country off of one city, especially the capital city. But Tbilisi certainly offers a better glimpse of Georgian life than Baku does for Azerbaijani. The culture is awfully perplexing to me as well. More so, the lack of it. There doesn’t seem to be any offerings of ‘Azerbaijani’ culture here. The language is similar to Turkish, and they seem to want to rule the country like a rich oil Gulf state. There’s nothing unique about the city, other than the few works of extraordinary architecture. But I digress. 

If we had had more time, I would have loved to go to the mountains by Russia. The only problem is it seems a bit more difficult to travel around Azerbaijan than Georgia. When we get back to Tbilisi, we plan to take a marshrutka to the mountains. They run at almost all hours of the day, and cost about $6…so it’s fairly reliable. In Baku, we could have paid a driver to take us up to the mountains, which would have cost about $100. It’s too bad I couldn’t have given the land of fire a more fair chance to win my soul, but I’m still glad I made the journey. The train rides are kinda fun and include a free sauna. The culture is mainly Turkic, but their oil money makes them turn a bit South culturally. As well it’s just an odd place to end up.

But I’m excited to leave. I haven’t felt this excited since I was in Punta Arenas in the very most southern tip of Chile. I had three days there, where there was nothing to do and no one to talk to and people would look at the Gringo and wonder “Why?” With that, we board the train and head to Tbilisi.

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The train leaves and everything is fine. The air conditioning is working decently smoothly, and we leave twenty minutes behind schedule…pretty decent for this part of the globe. But we seem to be stopping every twenty minutes for no apparent reason. We think nothing of it, and tuck in for a good nights rest. We wake up around eight in the morning, realizing we should have past Azerbaijani border control an hour or so ago. Then we realize we’re nowhere near the border. The train’s continuous stops add up, and we’re drastically far from arriving at the scheduled 9:30 time. We settle in, read a bit, and just thank the stars that there’s air conditioning. At about two o’clock, we still haven’t reached the border. I get up to go to the bathroom and find our train cart bathrooms are full. Therefore, I go to the next car to use their bathroom. Standard procedure.

Not the case. That cars attendant sees my tall white face and shrieks “Ne!!!” and shouts a whole lot of jibberish at me that I can only understand as “stay in your own god damn car, idiot.” I say our bathrooms are full, to which she pushes me out of the cart and walks me to our bathroom. I offer her to open the door, to which she discovers it’s locked. “That’s what I said, ya crazy hoe…” She pushes me into the corridor and follows me down the hall to the next bathroom. Now, this bathroom is vacant…so she screams at me for a little while longer while I pat my hands in the air saying “chill, goddammit chill I really gotta pee and you’re rambling isn’t letting me.” She decides her screaming isn’t getting through to me, so she starts screaming at my cars attendant. Our attendant, tired and sad and probably sore in her feet gives me the look of a woman who just can’t give a shit anymore. I blink at her and say “Sorry,” and go and do my business.

We finally arrive at the Azerbaijani border an hour later, to which they do the same procedure as arrival and turn off the air condition. This time, it takes twice as long as getting into the country (not sure why) and we finally get off and going around 4:30. We reach the Georgian border and get through it all in a pretty long time as well. All in all, we didn’t arrive in Tbilisi until about 6 in the evening. That’s a good nine-hour delay. Endless fun, in the Land of Fire.

Toasty Tbilisi

Today the plan is to get to Tbilisi. One can do so by train or by bus. Train, may take about seven hours while the bus will take four. What’s the catch? The bus, or Marshrutka, is really just a mini-van being piloted at insane speeds by the angriest men alive. They also don’t have a specific departure time. We arrive at the station after picking up some veggies and find out we’re the first ones to show up. So we sit in the shade and wait for maybe thirty minutes until enough passengers arrive for us to make our voyage. It’s about 98 degrees today, and the bus is hot. We stuff ourselves in with some teenagers and babushkas, sweaty but excited to see Tbilisi. The babushkas instantly complain that there’s no air-conditioning in the bus. The bus driver, a little bit defensively, says something that seems like “no, it’s not working”. The babushkas and some teenagers prod a bit more, asking for air-conditioning for several moments until the driver suddenly erupts, turning on the air conditioning in a fury while screaming some nonsense at everyone. He keeps going for a few minutes, until his bald head turns so red it almost starts to steam. He turns the air conditioning off again five minutes later and has some little screaming arguments here and there for the next thirty minutes. After realizing that he’s been yelling at little old ladies for thirty minutes, he removes his sunglasses and crosses himself three times. We just sit there, almost in shock but honestly, a little bit entertained by the ruby headed driver.

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We arrive in Tbilisi around five o’clock, just when the heat is finally starting to cool down. A quick ride in the surprisingly modern metro gets us to downtown, where we get to our hostel. I usually find some insanely cheap deals on booking.com, but there’s usually something off about it. Generally, it’s a hostel owner that needs to get rid of some rooms. In this case, we have an entire basement to ourselves for about $15 per night. Perfect for the heat. Pretty hungry, we find a local place to get some food. Most restaurants in Tbilisi offer the same food in a similar locale. They’re usually underground, have waitresses that are fed up with life, and have an owner that’s pretty grandiose. They stand behind the refrigerator, peering at everyone while expediting meals and dealing with money. For our meal, we have free entertainment as two Russians get drunk behind us by singing in between shots of chacha (local vodka).

It’s the kind of thing you romanticize every bar to be like, just some really talented folk musicians getting drunk in the corner playing around with a fiddle or a piano. After the meal, we wander around the nearly cooled down Tbilisi to view its sights.

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Downtown is extremely modern and decently well kept. The building sizes are only a few floors, and most of them have intricately designed balconies. It’s a bit like New Orleans, but just a bit more run down. It’s great for a stroll, and I inevitably start doing that thing of “Oh, I can live in that apartment and put these plants out blah blah blah…”

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At some point, we look around for some beers and randomly stumble into a little bar near our hostel. It’s neon pink sign convinced me in, and we were instantly greeted by two drunk Georgian girls. The bar was nearly empty but obviously hipster. There were avocado seeds growing out of shot glasses, old Russian posters, succulents, and everyone had chopsticks holding their hair. Not even fancy chopsticks. The bartender pours us some beers and a round of shots, and we get to know each other. The two girls, Sal and Katja, are both in their early twenties and love talking about how beautiful Georgia is. They give us some tips on what to see, and we talk about how much we love Berlin and cheap beer. A new bartender walks in, with a big bushy beard and long hair being held by a (nicer) chopstick. Some Russians then wander into the bar, and Sal decides it’s time for all of us to start playing UNO. Nobody knows the rules, so most of the time it’s just “Why can’t I play that?!” and “You’re making rules up”. I’m amazed by how the Georgians are able to talk to us in English and then instantly go into Russian, then talk amongst themselves in Georgian. It’s the kind of fluid polyglot life more people should live, in this time where English is a pretty spoiling language to speak natively. But these are the first Georgian’s we’ve met that speak really fluent English, so it’s nice to finally meet some locals our age and compare life.

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I think they’re all kind of tired of Tbilisi life, and have dreams of moving to Western Europe. But life is reasonably laid back in this city. They invite us to the next bar, and we stuff six people into a taxi and get there. It’s a bar in Dadaena park, and it looks like just locals here. At this point, I’m a bit too tired and over-UNO-ed to socialize further, so we have a beer, say goodbye to the lovely Georgians, and wander back home.

Our cave hostel means that we get no sunlight, and we wake up a little bit too late. Regardless, we go for a wander. We have two days to wander before heading to Baku in Azerbaijan, so we decide to have a reasonably relaxed time. In Georgia, the perfect late breakfast is a khachapuri. This time, it’s served like a bread boat.

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Yes, sweet sweet child, your eyes do not deceive you. That is bread filled with melted cheese, butter, and an egg cracked on top. And it’s every bit as delicious and sultry as one might expect. There’s just enough bread to sop up all the goodies, and I quickly have a clean plate. We walk around the park we had just had a drink in last night, and where they also have a massive flea market. This is the perfect market for anyone into Soviet memorabilia. Ivana gets a fancy chopstick for her hair, inspired by the new style. It probably won’t take me long to find one either.

It’s a bit too hot to get really into sightseeing, so our two days were spent wandering the city in the cool hours and exploring as much as possible. Tbilisi is a very relaxed city and reminds me a lot of Tirana in Albania. Green giant trees line the streets, and the architecture suggests that there has been a good sense of life here for hundreds of years. EU flags adorn many public buildings, and I see the NATO from time to time. It seems a bit risky to look West when Russia is looming above, but the Georgians seem to be steadfast in their aspirations of Westernization. Already, it’s a lot cleaner than a lot of European cities. The people are far more friendly, and the food has a lot more to offer than some more (Northern) European countries. Culturally, Georgia is very Western. They are one of the oldest Christian nations, one that did not lose its traditions during the Soviet epoch. But their geographical placement makes them more of an Asian nation, placing Georgia in a bit of a predicament.

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Now that we’ve seen Tbilisi, it’s time to move on to Azerbaijan. As Azerbaijan needs a visa for entry, this is the only part of the trip that has been planned. We leave Tbilisi on a night train and get to Baku in the morning, and what lies ahead on a thirteen-hour train ride is completely unknown.

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Smile, Kutaisi

Guys, I’m tired. I haven’t had more than a bus seat and a cold floor to sleep on for two nights, and I haven’t showered in three. It’s pretty great, honestly. Something about being tired and stinky has a nice charm to it, especially when you spend a semester showering and sleeping eight hours a day. It’s a nice way to remember how lucky I am to have a bed and a hot shower to go to every night. With this in mind, we hop off the Wizz air flight from Vilnius and step into the 90+ degree inferno of Kutaisi (ქუთაისი). I’m going to include the Georgian translations for things here, not because I know how to pronounce it or anything but because I think it’s one of the pretties alphabets I’ve seen. Ivana says it looks like butterflies, and I say it’s like grape vines. Either way, it’s an airy way to write any language.pic

It’s hot here, hot I haven’t felt since I was back in Denver last summer. But regardless we get on a little mini-van bus into the city, as the driver drives at ungodly speeds avoiding cows and pedestrians. The Russian woman in the front seat keeps gasping in disgust and fright, to which he daintily pats her knee as if to say “I got this, darling”. We get to the city, a bit overwhelmed by the heat and language and difference of everything. One of the reasons why Eastern Europe is so fascinating to me is because of its extreme difference to my own culture. I feel much more at ease in Asian countries than I do in Poland or Lithuania. Perhaps this is because of all the Vietnamese or Korean or Japanese culture I was exposed to as a child, compared to the nonexistent Eastern European culture I had access to growing up. Either way, being in these countries is usually a real culture shock for me which I don’t experience often anymore. Coming to grips with this, Ivana and I begin wandering the city to see what it offers. There’s a huge fresh foods market, which we stroll around to buy tomatoes and cucumbers and fruits. A woman hassles us to try some walnuts covered in fruit syrup. I’ve had them before in Turkey, so we say we want a couple. She responds by filling the entire bag full, to which we take out three and say that the three we are holding will be plenty. She gets mad and asks for six lari, about two and a half dollars. I know this is far too much and give her a price of 3 lari. She gets extremely mad and starts yelling, to which I give in and giver her a 10. She doesn’t have four lari hanging around, so she has to give me five back. This makes her even more angry, and I’m sure she gave us plenty of Georgian curses and swears upon all of my future children. But I’m pretty happy, I only had to pay five lari. We get to a park and start eating, and find our walnuts filled with mold, and the ones not covered in mold are too hard to eat. Shame, I should have given her even less.IMG_4299.jpgI know they look like dripping intestines or a sex toy, but they’re pretty tasty when not filled with mold. After our snack, we hike up to Bagrati Cathedral and stumble in on a baptism. The priest is speaking at speeds faster than the speed of light, and the baby wails as cold water is dribbled on his head. His family members are all smiling in happy, as the baby screams in confusion. It’s a strange sight, but it’s good to see some culture. Bagrati was built in the 11th century, and features some really amazing carvings from the era. 36391963_10213978668599336_2806702286884044800_nPhoto cred to Ivana.

It’s also a good place to grab some shade and look at the city. It’s getting late, and the heat is getting to us so we head back into the city to wander around the Jewish quarter, which has some great buildings in it. 36321820_10213978666879293_4248122001803182080_nPhoto cred to Ivana

After wander for an hour or so, I decide I can’t put up with my hunger and I had to eat. I had heard so much about Georgian food is famous all over Eastern Europe, so I was trying to save myself and my hunger as long as possible before devouring a mass amount of Georgian food. We stop at a restaurant called Prague bar, and I get the two dishes I’ve been looking forward to most: Shashliks and Khinkali.36296936_10213978666079273_1115888101852446720_n.jpgShashliks are pretty simple, and I had my first batch in Latvia with our couchsurfing host (check out my earlier post), but it’s even better in Georgia. Ivana is a vegan, so she ordered the little plate of marinated carrots and eggplants and a delicious smoosh of spinach, onions, dill, and spices. It’s a pretty delicious vegetarian option. Now I want to get to the Khinkali’s…the oh so amazing Khinkali. I’m going to New York this summer, and one of the things I’m looking forward to most is the Taiwanese soup dumplings. This is Georgia’s answer. Gigantic soupy balls of love are twisted so delicately to make a dumpling of culinary perfection. It’s extremely messy but so so good. I eat ten without blinking, and could probably eat more if you put some in front of me. It was so worth the wait. We sit and enjoy the finally cool weather, sharing a beer and watching the world cup. Our host at the guesthouse we’re staying in offers us a bottle of his homemade wine, to which we cannot deny and thus talk with him for an hour or so in Russian about Georgian sights and life. He’s a nice guy, but we have to talk through Ivana if we want to as something to the other. The wine is good and strong, and we head in for a knockout of a nights sleep.

Two days of no sleep add up, as the next morning we look at our phones….and it’s three o’clock. Sleep well deserved. It’s also shaping up to be 100 degrees today, so a siesta into mid-afternoon doesn’t sound like a bad plan. Breakfast is a khachapuri, had at a cafe in the central park of Kutaisi. It’s like a pizza, just with no toppings and filled with cheese. Salty, Georgian cheese on crispy bread is a good four o’clock breakfast.IMG_4307.jpgEven though its 100 degrees today, there’s a warm breeze that makes it feel a lot cooler than yesterday. That’s pretty lucky for us because we’re still both getting used to the heat. After my khachapuri snack we head back to the market for some fresh veggies to fill Ivana’s vegan soul. Mounds of perfectly fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, apricots, walnuts, all for about 2 bucks. IMG_4308.jpgToday feels far less overwhelming than yesterday. Maybe it’s because I’ve finally slept, but all of this market hustle doesn’t have as much bustle. It’s good to feel like I’m adjusting a bit to this environment, and hopefully, I can get a bit more to terms with it. My Georgian language is extended to hello (gamarjoba), thank you (modloba), delicious (gamrielia), and beer (ludi)…and that’s about it. It’s a tough language, and nobody here except for young waiters speaks any English. With fresh veggies, we head to the botanic gardens to savour our fresh produce delights. IMG_4311.jpgPretty exotic and offering some shade from the heat, the botanic gardens is a great picnic spot. 36338106_10213981888279826_5219573080795381760_n.jpgWe then head back and wander around the city, stopping into a garden restaurant with a good view of some graffiti. Some armored cars pass by, and it reminds me that theres an ongoing conflict occuring with Russia…but then again most countries have some sort of security control rolling through the city. When I was in Lithuania, there was a gigantic fleet of Polish troops coming in due to a NATO training event. It’s commonplace, but it’s still a little eye-opening. 36324076_10213981887879816_5456321474971303936_n.jpgWe stop in for some mighty fancy tasting pickles and a dumpling soup that kind of tastes like sick person soup. But not in a bad way…the kind of sick person that your mom makes when you have a cold that warms your soul a little bit. It’s a good kind of sick person food, and I eat every last drop. IMG_4316The power goes out for about 30 minutes in the entire city, so this soup picture is taken by romantic candlelight. IMG_4317Neither of us is really tired, but a day of endless wandering is exactly what we needed for our travel-weary souls. Tomorrow we’re heading to Tbilisi, which we be a (hopefully) three hour trip via a Soviet mini-van. It’s also shaping up to be 100+ degrees for the next few days in Tbilisi, which should prove to turn us into soup.