- First impressions of the capital Tbilisi
- Serious feasts – indulging in Georgia´s outstanding food
- Taking the Military Highway to the High Caucasus
- Hiking around Mount Kazbek
- Moving on – from Gergheti to Kakheti
we are in Tivali now, the biggest village in Kakheti, Georgia´s whine growing region. Since our arrival 5 days ago, our trip has already brought us from the magical capital Tbilisi to the High Caucasus near the Russian border. First of all, I have to explain how we even ended up here: Celia has always had a fascination for Georgia and it has been her dream to go there. With regards to me, I would probably not have come here if it wasn´t for her. However, once we booked the flight and I started to read up on Georgia, I got really excited as it seemed to tick a lot of boxes that I look for on my travels: a great and diverse cuisine, an old tradition for wine, some seriously big mountains and still small amounts of tourism as a result of the 2008 war with Russia. It seems like the right place to go after our trip to Morocco last year and we are really excited.
First impressions of the capital Tbilisi
Our first impression of Georgia was on the plane from Istanbul to Tbilisi (1-4am…). In the row next to us an old man sat down next to a guy our age who he blatantly did not know. It didn´t take even 5 minutes until they started discussing and laughing aloud. By the end of the flight, several rows seemed to be taking part and it was just one loud laughter.
On arrival, the pick up by the hostel we had booked for the first night did not show up, what a surprise, and we had to find our own way to the hostel. This was a great opportunity to answer the question I had asked Celia just a few moments earlier: whether you need to haggle in Georgia. The cab stand had a big sign stating “25 lari to town”. Nevertheless, all drivers wanted 35, explaining to us in incomprehensible language why this was the actual price. Well, they picked the wrong on for their scam. We got to town for 25.
Tbilisi itself is super interesting. I had never seen a picture, never read anything about it and the only vague idea I did had was based entirely on the English series “The Ambassadors”, which describes the everyday life of a British diplomat in a fictive Central Asian capital, with a lot of stereotypes of course.
Tbilisi is set in a valley surrounded by lush hills and with a big river flowing through it. It is a weird mix of old and new, with most houses made of wood and featuring elaborate carvings, beautiful balconies and spiralling staircases. At the same time, the drive to appear modern is evident, with futuristic museums and governments buildings sprawling up like mushrooms and cable cars leading to the top of the surrounding hills, which feels weird, given the poverty and low development levels of Georgia. This contrast extends to its inhabitants: you can see a man standing next to the highway, trying to sell four miserable fish attached to a string while in the centre nouveau riche spend their money on Western cocktails in fashionable bars.
As a visitor, Tbilisi is very welcoming and attractive. Its center is quite small, very pretty and green and you can take the cable cars or even the highly efficient and cheap metro everywhere. Then the people don´t hassle you, and you can even pretend to mingle with the locals, as they do dress and look quite similar to us. The only thing that really struck me in a negative way is the state of most houses. It reminded me of Havana, where people simply do not have the means to renovate and end up living in collapsing houses. We haven´t figured out yet why in Tbilisi so many houses are run down and not kept, and it is a pity considering how beautiful they are and how much work has gone into them.
Serious feasts – indulging in Georgia´s outstanding food
Coming back to the good things, the food has definitely not disappointed: Georgia is famous for its cuisine which despite its proximity to Russia has mostly Turkish and Middle Eastern influences. I was really looking forward to it, especially after our Central American food experience, where the diet consists of rice and beans and beans and rice, every day. And where fruit is exported to Europe and none can be found in the local markets. I can gladly say that in Georgia every single meal we had was amazing, without an exception.
For breakfast, we resort to Georgia´s incredible variety of fresh fruit. During Soviet times, it used to produce the entire fruit supply. Nowadays, it is one of their biggest exports but can also be bought at every corner: five different kinds of cherries (yellow, orange, orange-red, red and black), melons which you can smell from 10 meters distance, peaches, berries, apricots and quite a few fruits that I don´t know yet and will try soon.
The typical snack, and usually our lunch on the go, is Kanchapuri, which comes in various forms but is usually a fluffy and crunchy bread filled with cheese and sometimes eggs (also available with mushrooms or spinach). This is always made fresh and served warm. As you can imagine, it is very very filling. We usually buy one for both of us (40p) and that will keep us going until the evening.
Then for dinner: großes Kino. time for the supra, Georgian for feast. You start with a soup, usually more of a stew, with cheap but delicious fatty pieces of veil, herbs, and some vegetables. This is accompanied by fried aubergine slices with a walnut paste and fresh crunchy bread. Then you move on to khinkali, by far Celia´s favourite dish: steamed dumplings filled with minced meat and coriander. There is a whole technique for how to eat them, and knowing how we Bavarians frown upon people who mutilate our Weisswürschtl, we immediately tried to do it right: pick it at the top, bite a small hole into it, suck out the succulent juices, then eat it from your hand and leave the little top. Five of them cost 1 pound and they are just the best! We are big khinkali lovers. To finish things off Georgians get serious. They put a big log on a bbq and burn one end of it to scrap nice chunks of charcoal off it. Then they put your preference of meat (as a Georgia said to us: you can have ANYTHING on that bbq) in large pieces on a skewer and serve it when it´s just perfect. All of this is flushed down with the very decent lagers and ales that are produced here locally (my guess, as with all great breweries around the globe: set up by Bavarians…). Desert: overrated. Vegetables and sides: what is that? And the best thing about all of this: we have yet to spend more than 5 euros each for a dinner…
Taking the Military Highway to the High Caucasus
I have to force myself to stop writing about food at this point, because otherwise I will not get to what we have been doing when we weren´t eating. After Tbilisi we decided to hit the Caucasus. The so-called Georgia Military Highway that connects Tbilisi with Russia, although relation between the two are tepid at best, but I will write about this sensitive issue in another mail. Anyway, this road leads for 180km north from the capital straight to some of its most dramatic mountains. We headed to the very last town, Gergeti, a small mountain village on the slopes of Georgia´s third highest mountain, Mount Kazbek (5000m ca), The drive was spectacular and given my Nepal experience with altitude buses, this seemed like driving on a German highway, easy going. The typical accommodation in Georgia are homestays. There are no hostels outside the capital and we cannot afford hotels. Many people here just rent a room in their house for 10-20 euros a night. When we got to Gergeti, however, the one guy recommended in the book was, of course, not there. So we ended up with this family who gave us a spotless room with Jesus looking down on us from every angle. And not just Jesus: right outside our window, literally 2m from our bed, the cows were sleeping. Communication started becoming a problem, and we have pioneered a new technique: drawing. Its universal and along with facial expressions and Italian gesticulating it seems to work fine and provides for a good laugh.
Hiking around Mount Kazbek
So we arrived in Gergeti in the evening and it was a nice day. We could see the famous Trinity Church against he backdrop of Mt Kazbek, even though some clouds prevented us from seeing the peak. This is THE picture you get if you google Georgia. Our plan was to spend a couple of days here and do some day trekking in the lush range (1500-3000) underneath the big peaks. Next morning, 6am, even before the cow in front of our window, we got up and made our way up to the church. The weather, however, was not on our side (as it kind of always happens to be the case, remember the snow in sahara…): it was really cold, windy and rainy already in the morning. Most of all, the clouds were hiding all the peaks we came here to see. We quickly decided to make it a small trek, as we sensed that drops might turn into torrential rain and thunder and turned back. Once at the bottom, we took a quick decision and packed up to leave. The weather meant that we would have had to wait 2 days doing nothing just to give it another shot, and it is too early into the trip for this kind of chilling. We would rather hit the Caucasus again somewhere else later on.
I have to think about the Poles we met at 2200m, who had slept up there during a thunder storm and wanted to make it to the next base camp at 3800m today. They seemed not to care about the rain and were what we call a “Kerndlgfuaterter” in Bavarian, so someone who does not whine and is very resistant. Hopefully they will get good weather when they make their way to the top on Tuesday.
One more fun fact about the mountains: there are many stray dogs, or probably sheep and kettle dogs that roam free during the day. Most of them are massive and muscular, probably some form of Kangal. When you walk along the road you will pass many of them and something happened that initially made us, and you know what dog lovers we are, quite uncomfortable: when you pass them, they will wait a second and then start to just walk next to you, sometimes for up to 5 minutes. But don´t think about a nice labrador, think of a muscular husky kind of dog, just bigger. The first time we got a bit scared, but there was not point doing anything, any sort of panicking would have made things worse. If they wanted to attack there would be nothing we could do anyway. But then we realised that once a certain point is reached, often where the next dog waits, they simply turn back. So our theory is that each dog, or couple of dogs, has a territory and that they escort you until you leave it. Still, if you do not like dogs you would be shitting yourself.
Moving on – from Gergheti to Kakheti
Anyway, after out short mountain experience we took the bus back to Tbilisi and then another bus to Tivali where we are now. When I say bus I mean an old sprinter, usually still with some sort of German print on it (Schmidt Gemüseverkauf, Stoller Malerei, etc.). We even managed to watch the Holland match (both of us clearly supporting Holland) and were joined in our 2-1 celebrations by a bunch of Georgians who I am sure betted on a Dutch victory, otherwise their enthusiasm and happiness cannot be explained.
On another note: we found out that we are crossing Turkey during Ramadan. Given that the sun sets around 9pm and we are expecting 40 degrees it should be quite a challenge. We are trying to cut down our breakfast and lunch already to get used to it. But it will be hard and we will do not intend not to drink water. But in the evenings it should be great fun, apparently Muslims go crazy after sunsets during Ramadan.
Anyway, this is all for now. I will write again in a couple of days, with some stories from this beautiful wine region we are at now, which reminds me of Toscana with the Caucasus in the back.