In the past week I’ve taken a bus, a mashrutka (Georgian mini-bus), a train, a metro, two taxis, a private rented car, another metro, another train, two more marshrutrkas, two dolmus (Turkish mini-bus), and a final bus, all in the effort to make my way to Georgia and back during our Kuban Bayram days off. Navigation badges were awarded!
Janesh and I made our way from Erzurum to Batumi on Friday morning. We ended sitting next a witty British English teacher on the bus to the Georgian border. He is taking a trip “all the way round” the world in the next year after saving up his earnings for the past few years. Upon arriving in Georgia, the three of us found a hostel near the beach. One of the Georgian girls at the hostel took us to a friend’s shop to buy a beer. Apparently, in Georgia, a beer means 2.5 liters. Beer and the beach!
We met two fellow Fulbrighters at the hostel, as well as a few Polish guys and a French guy. We all ended up walking around town, drinking our big beers, and eating Georgian street food, including Kachapuri, basically a bread bowl that is filled with cheese, butter, and an egg. Georgia… its a delicious place.
Saturday, we walked all around Batumi, checking out the old churches and crazy new architecture of this tourist town. In the past 10 years Batumi has become a sought after Russian tourist town and it shows in some fascinating ways. For instance, the Batumi sky line, from outside the city, is a mini-Miami. Up close though, you realize that many of the largest, most impressive features are shells waiting to be filled with offices, apartments, shops, etc. The older parts of the city still boast some charming cobblestone streets with ivy-laced 2-3 story buildings full of coffee and wine shops. As the summer tourist crowd wasn’t filling the streets or beaches with liveliness, Batumi definitely had the feel of an off-season tourist town.
We’d intended to take the night train (complete with beds!) to Tbilisi, but found our mid-afternoon that the night trains had stopped running on October 2nd (it was October 4th). No one we talked to new why they’d stopped, but we hurriedly changed our plans, bought late-afternoon train tickets, and hopped a mini-bus to the train station, about 20k outside town. Almost as soon as we boarded, we realized there were three other American’s sitting near us. They ended up being Peace Corps volunteers from Azerbijian who were taking their last days of vacation in Georgia. Sitting in between us and the other Americans were a few rows of Georgian teenagers. The Georgians had brought a guitar with them and nearly as soon as the train left the station, they began to play. The 5 hour train ride was full of broken exchanges in English and Georgian with some Azerbijiani, French, German, and Turkish thrown in. The teens played us all sorts of Georgian folk songs and even showed us folk dances in the aisles. The other passengers had mixed reactions. Some took pictures and sang along while others moved off to other train cars. We, the lowly North Americans, felt our lack of shared culture across our vast country. The only song that we all thought we might be able to sing was the National Anthem and that was, well, not going to happen. I suggested Dylan but the younger crowd wasn’t sure they knew who he was. Ah well.
We reached a hostel in Tbilisi with the help of our new Peace Corps friends. And it was a beauty. Cheap, centrally located, great beds, free breakfast. Hallelujah! We bar hoped a bit and saw some of the city at night. Stunning.
Sunday, the Fulbright crew climbed up to the citadel, some old city walls and an ancient church which overlooks all of Tbilis. We climbed around and communed with the ancient stones. No, but really, I introduced myself to this old gentleman who was carrying our a thick stack of manuscripts and he turned out to be the head of restoration for churches in Georgia. He showed us the 13th century foundations of the church and walked us through the renovations that he had designed and planned. He also took us up to the lookout over the entire city so that he could point out all the other churches he’d worked on. People are fascinating. I also, after donning a kerchief, went into the Orthodox church while they were having morning prayer. The incense and the Byzantine art and the soft droning songs all melded into a pretty magical sensory experience. Of course, all the little children, dogs, and cats sprinting around also added a pretty contexualizing touch.
We spent most of the day walking around the old city, an area that has had little improvement or change in the past few hundred years. I ate the best falafel of my life under a balcony of a little cafe while it rained in the street. We walked to the new Trinity Cathedral where the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church happened to be preaching. Due to his presence, the area was packed with locals and tourists. The Cathedral is gigantic, nearly 100 meters tall, and, in the style of the area, has an extremely exaggerate vertical effect. Walking in, you can’t help but crane your neck to try to see the top of the 98 meter cupola. After our city ramblings, we managed to make our way back to the hostel where we met a different group of Peace Corp volunteers, a Kiwi programmer, and three girls from Munich. We all ended up getting Georgian food together for dinner (Kinkali! Little dumplings full of bullion and spicy pork), going to a wine shop to taste the famous local wines, and spending a few hours on the hostel balcony swapping stories. Travel has that key communitas effect of liminal experiences. No one is in a safe or stable spot, so your ability to interact (or your need, perhaps?) is heightened.
Monday was the best day of the trip, I’d say. We had gotten a deal from a tour company to drive us out to the Kazbegi area and the town of Stepantsminda. The town is only 15k from Russia… probably the closest I’ll get for a long time! Our driver let us stop at any number of crazy beautiful spots along the way. We got to see the Zhinvali Resevoir, a damned lake that provides over 90% of the drinking water for Tbilisi. The water was mirror smooth and reflected the surrounding mountain peaks with impressive clarity.
We also stopped at Ananuri, a medieval fortress, begun in the 13th century and finished in the 17th. I climbed up through the ruins to the top of the watchtower in order to look over the three churches and the ancient fortifications. Some random Korean guy and I helped each other climb up the parapet so we could snap a few pictures of the mountains.
We reached Stepantsminda, bought a sausage roll from a street vendor and debated trying to climb the 7k to the Gergeti Holy Trinity Church. Our guide tried to tell us we did not have enough time, but the weather was so beautiful and the trail looked clear. Eventually, we agreed to drive to the top after a German couple told us that it took them 4 hours to summit. They were definitely more fit than us and better prepared, so an off-road vehicle it was for the kachuprui-stuffed Americans. Ah well, the ride to the top was a story in itself. The ash and birch trees were in full fall colors and the Kazbek Mountain kept slicing through the thick clouds. And then, Gergeti.
I didn’t want anyone to speak once we got near the church. Most of the other Germans, Koreans, and Russians seemed to agree and muttered to each other under their breaths while staring at the mountains. Gergeti was built in the 14th century and the interior is no bigger than my one-bedroom apartment. Standing in the threshold, tying on a head-scarf, a wave of burning incense barely preceded the heat from the wood-burning stove which crackled with odd ferosity in the otherwise silence landscape. Our driver had slipped me a lari and asked me to light two candles for him in the church. I bought the candles and two sticks of incense and tried to decide which of the saints painted on the walls had the most arresting gaze. Saint George, with his gold-gilded sword, and Mother Mary, staring listlessly at her ascending son, won the day. Maybe that odd combination of a warrior’s stance and submission to the unknown defines my place right now.
The rest of Georgia passed in a blur. Buses, train, marshrutkas, dolmus. Oh and the entirety of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” and the first 300 pages of “Cryptonomicon.” And, of course, a billion thoughts about Orthodoxy, ordinary life, saints and devils, Peace Corps, Fulbright, Heifer, and young travelers on pilgrimage to who knows where. We made it “home” after 14 hours of rolling wheels. Erzi definitely grew on me while I was gone.