Tuesday, September 23, 2014

the disaster porn of Chiatura

My wedding was approaching. It couldn't have come quick enough, since I hated to be away from the sweet arms of my love. She had to go to Prague for the summer, where we would share our mutual home after the wedding. But for the time being, I was stuck in Tbilisi, working as much as I could to save money for the wedding and/or move and/or period of unemployment I could look forward to after moving.

Sign reading "Chiatura" in Georgian and Russian
The wedding festivities would begin with my parents and my best man coming to visit, one and a half weeks before the wedding itself. But first, I had one last trip with Ben to attend to: Chiatura.

Chiatura first came into my radar when I was reading Simon Montefiore's half-adventure, half-history book, Young Stalin. If ever you want to read an Eastern European history book that somewhat resembles a Western flick about an evil version of Jesse James, check that one out. But anyway, after many of Young Stalin's bank robbery schemes, he would take his bags of gold by donkey over the mountains to the small mining town of Chiatura, which was, in 1910s Georgia, a Bolshevik stronghold. The people of Chiatura were rewarded for their fidelity too: under Stalin, development soared, with electrification, a road link to Tbilisi, and new housing blocks piling up. It also soon became the Manganese mining capital of the world. The more than unique thing about this canyon community, besides the Manganese mining, is how many of the city outlets and work areas are connected by a network of gondolas.

One of the gondola stations in Chiatura
It was the gondolas that led me to really want to go to Chiatura. This article from the Atlantic and this one from the Daily Mail on the things went viral, talking about how rusted, old and dangerous they were and how they hadn't been updated since their construction 70 years ago. It also wrote that the town Chiatura itself was somewhat of a post-apocalyptic nightmare community, and that heading their might get you killed via pollution, frog plague or whatever have you.

The road to Chiatura was under renovation. For the most part, most of it has been fixed up and smoothed over - we'll see how long that lasts, due to the nature of Georgian road construction, but at least someone is trying. The road itself is riddled with scenic outdoor cafes, snuggled amidst the forests and brooks that litter the Shida Kartli and Imeretian countryside. When the forests end, rolling hills take over, with the vaguest outline of the towering Caucasus in the distance. Most of the hillside lies mysteriously unused, as it seems to be premium farming land, but for the proximity to the disputed territory of South Ossetia just nearby. Finally, after entering well into Imereti, the road descends back towards the main East-West highway, following a sharp and huge canyon, not so grand as America's Grand Canyon, but big enough to mystify any common viewer, and steep enough to send any cliff climber into spasms of ecstasy. If you go to Chiatura, forget going for a dilapitated town, go for the countryside, preferably with a car of your own so you can take as much advantage as you can.

Chiatura's bazaar district on the bank of the Kvirila
In fact, contrary to what that aforementioned article hints at, Chiatura is quite a nice little town, once you get past the complete black waters of the lazy Kvirila River that it traverses. The river is black from some process of the Manganese mine, and littered with Coke and lemonati bottles and cigarette packs, but that latter part is to be expected in any Georgian town. Besides all that, the center of the town shows some beauty, and perhaps even potential for tourism. The buildings are a mix between the grand Soviet styles and the more blocky housing units, but most are painted and fairly nice looking. We stopped at one hole-in-the-wall cafe that was on the park which served as a boardwalk along the inky river. They served a kebab that came in a soup - which ended up being quite amazing and spicy. We also had some Imeruli xatchapuri, which was again better than most places I had tried in Tbilisi.

From the cafe, we went to find a gondola, which wasn't hard to do. All you have to do is look up and follow one of the lines that hang over the skies to its base and there you can find your Soviet-era pot of gold. Some of the lines have been retired from lack of use - more than half the town is a ghost town - but there are still many that continually function. They operate on a "jig back" system, where there is one car for each way and they run on the same line; as one car goes up, the other goes down. We walked up to one, where three guys were sitting on the bench. Assuming they weren't the workers, I asked in Georgian, "Where is the operator?"

"I am the operator," one of the sitting guys said.

"Oh," I said.

We stood silently. They sat silently.

"Can we take a ride?" I asked.

"Yes," he said. He still didn't move.

"Good," I said, trying to figure out the trick to this exchange. "How much does it cost?"

"It's free."

View from the gondola
We decided we should just get on, and maybe the guy would do whatever it was he had to do. And he did. He stood up, rang a bell and sat back down. The gondola itself was a blue box, not unlike Doctor Who's TARDIS, but instead of flying through space and time, this thing flew up the cliffside, in about the same wibbly wobbly manner. However, I was a bit disenchanted. The construction, though clearly old, looked solid, and nothing about the trip seemed dangerous or even that exhilarating, except the fact that you were hanging by a steel thread some 500 feet in the air. But fear of heights aside, it wasn't really that big of a deal to worry about, or to write an article commending the bravery of the author on.

Cross marks the spot where there should be a cafe
At the top of the gondola was a big patch of dirt, a block of apartments, and a road block, behind which was some operation going on that was probably linked to the mines. There was also an amazing view of Chiatura, and a great place to at least put a beergarden, of which there was none. In fact, the most terrifying thing in Chiatura is the locals lack of vision when it came to the beauty of their landscape and the tourism potential. This is something Ben and I discussed, as well as the failure of that article to accurately portray the town.

View of the left bank from one of the gondolas, another gondola can be seen

The article showed a common tendency in media today, to show that the photographer or writer was in much more danger than they were in reality, whether it's showing the gondolas of Chiatura, the riots in Turkey or the streets of Detroit. Ben called it, "Disaster Porn," when the writer wants to portray himself or herself as some brave adventurer, spurred on by a crowd of armchair readers too lazy or ignorant or inexperienced to know that much of the world isn't actually that dangerous and most people in the world are simply people trying to get by.* It's a secret that most travelers don't want to let out, because then all that mystery we create at a bar while trying to pick up women just drifts away like a puff of smoke from a nargile out the window of a seedy Arabic cafe filled with sheikhs and businessmen. The truth makes some disaster seekers ever more disappointed and ever more willing to take real risks, until they end up backpacking on the borders of Iran and Iraq and sent to an Iranian prison, accused of spying. What Iranian officer could ever believe that, "Well, we were just looking for adventure" could actually be the truth? People who live in the bonafide dangerous areas, or those who have had to deal with the real dangers of life, are probably hugely confused by disaster porn and its pornographers. And when reading disaster porn on the net, one should remember that it has about as much to do with real disaster as porn has to do with real sex, that is to say, about nothing.

Spot the gondolas!



*With a great number of exceptions.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

and down the mountain

"There's the trail!"
The trail wasn't at all visible from where we were, not even a cairn marked where the ascent should begin. Hikers just have to press on into the gully until the thin shale trail that passes through the green is seen. Bees hovered about, exploring their new guests as we sat in the sweltering sun. It was a huge difference in temperature and it wouldn't get any cooler from there on out.

We found ourselves in a valley, with one side a steep slope and the other a steep continuous mound that wound side by side with the trail. As the trail went on, Ben continued to get more and more nervous about missing the lakes - the main site to see on the trail. He stopped us and decided to climb up the mound. "Nope, nothing," he reported.

"I told you it's further down," I said, pointing at the map that was unfolded in my hands.

"I just don't want to miss them," he said.

"It's pretty well traveled, the trail should be obvious enough. You heard how everyone we told that we were taking this trail told us about the lakes. We'll see it."

The Abedulauri Lakes(?)
The trail to the lakes was obvious and well marked, too. When we came upon them we found the two at the bottom, and further on, we followed the trail on towards the left to find the third. The two at the bottom were a very strange blue tint. We sat on the small bridge that divided on them and regained some strength. Or at least Ben did. The third lake we didn't stop at, but continued on the trail which led us onward to Roshka.

The third lake
After about two hours of hiking, we finally spied Roshka through the hills, snuggled down in the valley at a point in the river where it became a strong set of rapids. Ben's energy jolted up, "There must be beer there!" and he started at a quick trot down the mountainside. I myself was sore and aching, with blisters on every corner of my feet, limping down and constantly yelling after Ben to slow down. We came through a gauntlet of cattle, dried mud and shit all across the meadows that we had to tread through, him far ahead of me and me passing all sorts of farmers and monks, listening to their exclamations of how these foreigners know Georgian. "Sorry guys, can't chat, gotta go, my friend wants beer," I kept having to repeat like some ancient prayer said in whispers at a monastery.

And at Roshka, we discovered there was nothing there. Just some houses, but no cafe, not even a shop. Questioning a drunk local, we discovered the next shop was fourteen kilometers away. Deciding at ask about our route to some decidedly less drunk people, we learned that the trail would go on for only 5 kilometers before hitting the village of Barisaxlo, which was our goal. We decided to go for it, despite only having 2 hours of sunlight left. "5 clicks, that's not far," we thought.

The map also represented something that was "not far". After one hour of hiking, it seemed we would be approaching the main highway from Shatili to Barisaxlo (by main highway, I mean, of course, a dirt road). What was not shown on the map nor told to us by our friends who had told us the distance and then climbed in their Land Rover, was that there was a set of switchbacks that would add another hour and a half on our hike. One switchback after another after another, taking us down at least one thousand meters in elevation. As the darkness ebbed ever onward, we thought we would never make it down. On the last five switchbacks, we were practically running, hoping that at the bottom there would be some place to pitch a tent.

At the bottom was a sheer cliff on one side going upward, and a sheer cliff going down to white water rapids on the other side. No place for a tent. So we had to continue on, walking on the side of the mountain highway. No cars passing, except occasionally going the other way, and no other sign of life. At some point I called out to Ben, "I'm at my limit man, I can't go any further. Look, there's a small area there we can pitch our tent on."

The area in question was thankfully at the bottom of a not so steep slope. We could hear the occasional rock clatter down the cliffs nearby, but were too tired to care. We tossed away several rocks, trying to make a decently comfortable place for the tent. We pitched it and crawled inside, quickly falling to sleep from our weariness. "My only concern," Ben said before we passed out, "is being so close to the road and some drunk Georgians disturb us or crash into us." A roadside shrine for the dead was not an uncommon sight in the mountains of the Caucasus.

About an hour into our slumber, lights began to flash into our tent. And there were voices. Polish voices. Poles had stumbled onto us. I unzipped the tent flap.

"Hello? You guys need help?" I asked the two Poles standing before me. They were a guy and a girl, as confused as any Pole ever is.

"It is a good place to camp?" the man asked in English.

"We're camped here," I replied. "It's not ideal, but all we could find."

"Maybe you know how far the next village is?"

"Some guy 20 kilometers ago told us it was 5 kilometers," I said, shrugging. "We have a map, if you'd like it."

"We have the same one, I don't think it's accurate."

The girl chimed in, "Maybe it's not such a good place to camp. We saw some rocks falling back there. I don't think we should camp there."

"Rocks falling where?" I asked. "Where there's a cliff?"

"Yeah, there was a big boulder there, it fell on the road."

"Exciting. But we're not under a steep cliff and we're not moving. There's enough room for another tent if you want. But if you don't, good luck."

They moved off for a few moments, whispering to each other and arguing. No doubt the girl was going on about falling rocks and the guy was going on about the fatigue that both Ben and I were feeling that drove us to strike camp in such a spot, falling rocks and all.

They came back with their consensus. "Okay," the guy said. "We will camp next to you, if that's okay."

"But still, it's not safe, there are rocks," the girl said, as if to formally log her objection.

It took them nearly an hour of throwing rocks, flashing lights, clanking poles, zipping un-zipping and fucking to finally finish their process and be silent so that we could continue sleeping. We finally fell asleep.

And then the bright lights. And the yelling. And the loud bass beat of a Russian pop song, amplified by millions of decimals through a subwoofer. Both Ben and I woke up immediately, expecting a car to come crashing over us and into the mountainside. But nothing. Then our next fears came to us, that a bunch of Georgian guys would run out with tchatcha in hands and force us to drink until we passed out and secured our fates of having a hangover in the morning.

But then there was silence. It's always quietest before the storm I couldn't help but to think. But then there was nothing, and nothing. I stayed awake for another hour fearing what never came to be.

The next morning, we packed up the tents before the Poles woke up. We continued our hike, wanting to make it to Barisaxlo before the bus came through. Five minutes from where we had camped, we found some perfect sites for setting up a tent, none beside the road or against a cliff, with the danger of huge rocks smashing into our heads. One place a beautiful scene along the river, another a strange, surreal and abandoned Soviet mining and/or tunnel building site.

The Soviet "drilling large holes" camp

In Barisaxlo, we found the town center, which consisted of a tree with a bunch of trash and a small shop that sold beer. The shop opened at nine, so we had a quick Xevsuruli, the beer brand named after the region we were in. The bus came at about 9:30 and took us at a somewhat slow pace - it was a 30 or 40 year old bus - back to Didube station in Tbilisi, for only 5 lari a person. We were quick to go back to the apartment, shower up, and find a khinkali bar to settle our tired bones and growling stomachs.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

over the pass

The pass is to the left
Ben and I woke in the morning, ready to tackle the pass. From the base camp, the trail curved to the left of jagged Chauxi, following a stream, where at several times the trail seemed to split into pieces, crossing the fast flowing brook or simply staying on one side. We opted to stay on one side, which brought us up the face of a steep hill. "When I was here with Moomoo and Enda," Ben recalled his last attempt at the trail, "we got lost wandering back and forth across the stream. Then we rejoined the trailI I think just past the waterfall, but then it just ended, anyway, there was snow everywhere." We stayed true on the trail, which took us past the waterfall and then over the river, to rejoin the other trail strands. We saw the probable spot the trail would take us, which looked like a series of switchbacks on shale rock that snaked up the rocky pass. But as we got closer and closer, it began to look more like a trail made from runoff rather than the feet of men, though it could have been both.

I became anxious. I didn't really want to attempt something where an alternative would have been easier. So when we came to the part where the trail ended, and it indeed did end quite abruptly, I started looking around.

"That's where we went," Ben said, pointing at the switch backs. I was not so sure, especially after hearing his story. When they had got to the top, they were lost in feet of snow. Moomoo had been yelling at them to press on, calling them pussy Westerners, that she had traveled the world. But neither Enda nor Ben wanted to scale down the sheer, frosted cliff that was below them. They convinced Moomoo to turn back, though with her constant haranguing, until her ill-fitting boots had caused so many blisters that they were forced to carry her. Which shut her up of her complaining. But it was reasonable that she was mad, since the trail defeated her once again, and only in the matter of a few months.

"Look," I said, after a few minutes of catching my breath and taking in the surroundings. "That just might be a trail marker." I pointed to a stack of rocks that could have been a cairn. We hiked up to it, and sure enough, it was. And there was another, and another, snaking up a slope that seemed much less steep and ferocious as the one we had assumed we had to take.


Hiking up the pass
There was a small stream that slowly trickled down the mountain, which is where we decided to refill our water. We scrambled across the shale to get there. When we turned back, I started looking down, realizing just then how steep of a cliff we were scrambling across. Ben easily and swiftly darted back across, regaining the trail, but I was caught by a wave of vertigo and heavy breathing. I plopped down on my butt and slid myself over to the trail, one to prefer shame to what I felt was imminent death.



Ben and I at the top of the pass
Another thirty or so minutes, we gained the pass. On one side of us was a row of knife edged peaks, forming the border between Georgia and Ingushetia. To our back was Kazbegi, towering over everything near it, and onward were the wild summits of Tusheti, which was dotted with ancient villages full of defensive towers, not that dissimilar from the more famous Svaneti towers. Ben had been up Kazbegi, and as we sat on our vantage point resting and eating nuts, he recalled the time to me, telling me about how they had to wait out the weather for two days at the camp next to the glacier. The first night, the wind was howling so strong and nearly ripped out their tents with him and Enda in them that they had decided to rent floor space in the camp house on which to sleep. Kazbegi was always a crapshoot, as I've heard different results from different people about it. Ben and Enda went up its steep glacier only successful with the help of a guide and ice picks, having several times to fall on their ice picks to keep from sliding down. Another friend, in better weather, went up with no gear at all and did quite fine. Mountains are things of great mood, sometimes easy on you and sometimes hard, and ready to change at their finest whims. In other words, it`s an easy thing to compare mountains to women, to such an extent that Georgian poetry is full of the comparison.

We continued to follow the cairns a bit further up, on top of a the mountaintop covered with shale. When finally we ascertained that at some point there should be a way down, we were left to another hard scan with our eyes. All we could immediately tell were steep cliffs, the wind ripping up dust and scowling out curses at us. I edged up to each place that could have been a trail, and decided it couldn't have been, and at last Ben and I came to some sort of agreement. There was a very tiny sliver of a trail hugging the steep shale mountainside, and that must have been the way down. So we took it. 


The way down
The trail was somewhat incredulous, and I decided the best way was to simply not stop. The slower you went, the more likely you'd lose balance and fall, the same principle as a bicycle or motorcycle. Soon the trail turned from something somewhat stable to an all-out shale slide, with each step taking us three to four feet down. After an hour of this, we had made it to the bottom, knees aching and boots full of rocks and pebbles.

Monday, August 18, 2014

strangers on the road

Juta
The Juta-Roshka trail had been taunting my friend Ben for years. Even though he had been able to break on of Georgia's more nearly insurmountable peaks, Kazbegi, he wasn't ever able to take this much lower situated pass. We had first discovered the beauty of the place during a short visit to Juta, wanting to spend some time in the mountains near Tbilisi that wasn't Kazbegi. But we had only hiked to the base camp of the peak, since we didn't know enough about the country. My Chinese friend Moomoo also attempted the trail but could never manage it. On her first attempt, starting at Roshka, a blizzard and lightning storm hit her and as largely unprepared as she was she was forced to spend the night under a rock and then crawl back to Roshka. She would later tell us about the storm, "There was pink lightning!" As if it were some vision to her of her ancestors challenging her to make the hike. The next month, she went with Ben and another friend, and they were surprised about how heavy the snow still was in July, snow which had covered and hidden the trail up and down. Despite Moomoo's furious protestations - "I must finish this trail!" - they turned back down and returned to Juta.

Ben and I prepared. We found a topographical trekking map (available at the GeoLand shop in Tbilisi), picked up a compass at dry bridge, and packed some five pounds of nuts, snickers and apples to munch on for our three day journey. We decided to start on the Juta side - which I'd recommend to everyone who chooses to take this trail. 

The marshrutka from Tbilisi can be found at Didube, the dirtiest and most terrible of bus stations in Tbilisi. The marshrutka is typically packed, smelly and with little room, but at a cost of only 10 lari. For 15 lari you can find a shared taxi that's infinitely more comfortable, which is how we ended up in the company of four Poles who wanted to stop and spend great deals of time at each tourist spot on the way to Kazbegi. 

I told the driver several times (in Georgian no less) to drop us off at Sno valley, just over the pass. "Yeah, yeah, of course," he kept repeating. But as we made it past the eternal construction zone on the pass leading to Kazbegi, he only picked up more and more speed. We recognized the shop that marked the valley coming closer and closer and yelled for him to stop. Completely unprepared, he slammed on the brakes and veered the van a bit off road so traffic behind him would miss him, which also brought us into the midst of a herd of cattle - cows, not being the smartest of animals - or perhaps being quite a fiendishly evil animal - seem extraordinarily fond of roadways, and especially bridges.

Sno
We made it to the valley though, and proceeded onward towards Juta. Our original plan had been to get to the entrance of the valley, then find a taxi, get to Juta, and then start hiking and conquer the pass by the evening. However, with all the touristic dallying we were left to do along the way, we had to make a judgment call. Starting at 2:30 pm at Juta, it would mean that we would be already late in the day hitting the pass, at perhaps five our six, which is usually when the high mountain weather settles in. And if we got over the pass too quickly, then we'd be left with nothing to do on the third day. We decided then to save our money and skip the taxi, going by foot up Sno valley, passing through the three old villages which dotted the way, the most interesting being Sno itself, the hometown of the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, and also the site of an old medieval fortress with similar medieval looking houses and a newly built church.

At this point, my camera ran out of batteries and we were able to find a small shop on the opposite end of the village. She had batteries, but as I later found out, despite being size AA, they were strangely too small for the camera. But I can only wonder what the old lady thought when two obvious foreigners came in speaking Georgian. A smile came up on her face, and probably for the first time in her life she was able to communicate with foreigners - an unlikely sight to begin with in this part of the village - in her own language. I've noticed that in Tbilisi most people could care less about your linguistic efforts to hit at their unconquerable language, or they become overly enthusiastic and treat you like a dog, but in villages they have an honest humility and graciousness towards any of even the most meager of attempts.

Exiting Sno, we were hailed by a man coming down from the side of the mountain, from I assume his house. We addressed him in Georgian and he replied and spoke in Russian, telling us that he was Russian, so why not speak in that. "Where are you from?" he asked.

"The States," I answered in Russian. "You?"

"I am from nowhere. Everywhere. Here there. You know. I came from Russia years ago and decided to stay here. I like it here." As he spoke, I glanced at the faded blue ink tattoos that crawled up his arms. Spider webs, spiders, a crucifix, some words too faded to read. The blue ink was a tell tale sign of Russian prisons, where they make ink for tattoos using the rubber of boot soles.

"Where are you headed?"

"Juta."

"Ah, Juta. Everyone's headed to Juta. Americans, Israelis, Poles, Russians, Germans. Why Juta?" He shrugged. His implication was clear, that he knew Juta was a beautiful place, but don't you see, this also is a beautiful place.

"Listen, brothers, I need two lari to get a drink. Can you spare some money?" I had no change on me, Ben only had about 80 tetri. He looked at his hand after counting it and grunted. "This isn't two lari. I can't get a drink with this." He looked on the verge of giving the money back. But at last he decided to keep it and then gave us his parting words.

A couple of hours later - for a total of 3 and a half hours - we made it to Juta. Just above Juta, there's a cafe and campsite called Zeta, where we decided to break for dinner. The food is all pre-prepared and the beer comes out of plastic bottles, and it's all a bit pricey, considering the nearest store is about a 3 hour hike away and they had to bring their supplies up by horseback, the price wasn't too upsetting. The interior of Zeta was blank and in a manner that they welcomed people to write on them. It seemed most people were from Poland, as the writing was mostly in Polish, including a sketch of a mountain with the Polish flag on top - not quite sure what they meant by that.


From Zeta, it was another two hours hike to the base camp, which was snuggled under the jagged Chauxi peak, which like a spear stuck to the heavens, thrust up by Hades as an attack on Apollo, who sped across the sky on his flaming chariot. The surrounding valley was steep and nearly un-climbable. Groups of mountaineers and tourists were camped in various places in the meadow. Some were going to take the mountain itself, while other tour groups were going to take the lesser technical peaks in the range. We found a decent place near the roaring stream and made our camp.

Monday, August 11, 2014

A fair look at Kutaisi

My initial introduction to Kutaisi had met my low expectations. Leave it to say, I didn’t think the rest of the trip would be that great. When the office worker asked me to accompany her downtown - I thought we were downtown! what she meant was the old town - out of boredom and only mild interest I accepted. My students also offered to take me to the main tourist site, Bagrati, on my last day. So at least I would see something of interest while I was there, and Kutaisi - outside of the working view - wouldn’t be a complete waste of my “cultural” time spent in these last few weeks of Georgia.

A street in Old Town Kutaisi
The office aid had to buy some ink for the computer, so I went with her to the office shop. We hopped on the line 1 bus (which goes at least from McDonald’s to the Old Town, passing the scenic palm tree lined street I mentioned in the last blog) and got off just at the start of the Old Town. There was clearly a lot of money spent in revitalizing the Old Town recently. The Parliament had moved to Kutaisi a few years back, and in some attempt to make the town comfortable enough to house the Georgian elite, or at least to feed the Georgian government elite, new pavers were cast, new surfaces put down, and the storefronts painted and repaired. It is actually all quite nice now, with none of the Potemkin village feel that one gets from a walk down Aghmashenebeli in Tbilisi or from the streets of Sighnaghi. Indeed, the renovations in Kutaisi seem to be just a bit more locally lasting and in touch with the city.

Buildings hanging on the Rioni
Since the renovations, Kutaisi’s inner city is crowded with restaurants and beer gardens, some which also line the Rioni River, which lazily makes its way through the center of town. A look at the houses and hotels hanging off the river gives one a sense of what Tbilisi had looked like before the Soviet Union had tore up the center to make highways for the ease of traffic flow. The way that Georgians seem to excel at making buildings hang off impossible places is what inspires me the most about Georgian architecture. Never mind the nervousness that it also inspires me, knowing the modern building standards in the country.

The crown of the Old Town is the fountain, which is in the center of the traffic circle in front of the Opera House, itself a handsome building. The fountain, a cornerstone of development during Mikheil “Fontanadze” Saakashvili’s reign as President, has various ancient Georgian symbols in gold plating circling the center - rams and bulls face outward, protecting its core of water, while streams come forth from between the figures. The statues are replicas of actual artifacts found in the area from the Bronze Age. Visible peaking up behind the fountain and the Opera House is the giant Bagrati Cathedral, which seems to be visible from almost every point of the city, as adding to its enormous size, it’s built on the main hill of the city, where also was once the main fortress of the ruler of the land.

The Fountain of Kolkhida, built 2011 by Davit Gogichaishvili, the Opera House and Bagrati in the background
I was hungry, so I invited the office assistant to dinner while we were there, so she showed me to a restaurant right new the fountain, Baraqa. I took the menu and found something I had never seen before - Abkhazuli xatchapuri (Abkhazian cheesebread). I consider myself something of an expert on xatchapuri, eagerly devouring any before me and having tried every xatchapuri known to any Tbiliseli, and this was not on that list. So I insisted on ordering it. What came out was something like an Adjaruli xatchapuri, a boat of bread with cheese, egg and butter in the center. With the Abkhazuli xatchapuri though, the egg was lacking. It was a seriously delicious meal though, and I think that for any xatchapuri fans who find themselves in Kutaisi, they need to head to Baraqa. Actually, including the taste and size of the salad, I’d have to say that it ranks among one of my favorite restaurants in all of Georgia. Definitely worth making a pit stop that includes more than just McDonald’s.

Abkhazuli xatchapuri at Baraqa

The last day, my students - a group of 8, very friendly young women - took me to Bagrati to show off the crown of Kutaisi. Bagrati, or the Cathedral of the Dormition, was built under the order of King Bagrat III back in the 11th century, and was in vastly deteriorated form when the Soviet Union fell and the property was returned to the Georgian Church. 

Cathedral of the Dormition, or Bagrati, in Kutaisi (11th cent)
Here, at the cathedral, my new enthusiasm for the city wavered a bit. I’ll have to admit that Bagrati is a huge cathedral by any standard, and that once upon a time, the gigantic construction must have also had some sort of airy, mystical allure to it. But not so much now. The renovation of the building has been somewhat caught in a tempestuous scandal, especially as UNESCO threatened to remove it from the cultural heritage list, as it reared dangerously close to not looking very much like the original structure. Much of the building now is new and whitewashed, bearing none of the regal glory that the building had centuries before, lacking most of the finely carved and detailed walls that now only are born on two or three columns. 

I’m not sure if it’s simply the lack of skilled stonemasons in modern Georgia, or if the thirst of new and modern made those in charge of the renovations simply overlook what makes a church great. And so I think, insofar as churches in Georgia go, Bagrati falls into a place of now un-noteworthy sites (unless you happen to be in Kutaisi, then you might as well see it). See Svetitskhoveli or Alaverdi if you want huge, mystical places. Bagrati remains a controversy, and not at all mystical. But then, the inside is still under construction, and that undoubtedly has created a bias on my experience. But from viewing the place, I’m left with the feeling that, had the building been left in disrepair and collapse, in the condition that it was in, there would be still more of the feeling of God than what I get with its renewed state.

After Bagrati, the girls took me to another restaurant in the Old Town, called El Paso. Here I thought I was lucking out and there was a hidden gem of a Mexican restaurant in this unlikely corner of the road. But despite its strangely Hispanic name, El Paso is actually - surprise! - a Georgian restaurant. With really delicious khinkali (Georgian dumplings). Which falls possibly second in my best tasting khinkali in Georgia list. So hit Baraqa on your way to Svaneti and El Paso on your way back. You’ll thank me for that advice. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

An unfair look at Kutaisi

I was never really interested in Kutaisi. There were some sites there that I wanted to see, sure, but the city itself had never held any allure for me. It was simply a pit stop on the way to Batumi or Svaneti, a place with a McDonald’s and a free restroom, a break from the endless scattered hammock and honey bread stands that ranged across the valleys and mountains of the Georgian East-West highway. And then, there was the recent occurrence of a guy from Kutaisi swindling me out of 300 lari, which really - and unfairly - sealed my disinterest about visiting the city. But then most Georgians did go on to tell me that Kutaisians really are all a bunch of thieves, so the stereotype can’t be blamed on me.

It shouldn’t be any surprise that when a work opportunity arose for me to go there for a week, I wasn’t overly excited about it. It was just about my last week in Georgia, and I had much preferred to simply stay in Tbilisi, visiting friends and drinking away my last moments of life in that sweltering heat. I was thinking that now my last week would be spent sitting at McDonald’s, without much else to do. At least I was assured that there would be air conditioning in the classroom.

We first arrived in Kutaisi at night. I was shown the school where I’d be conducting the training, and then brought to a guesthouse - I had previously thought I was going to stay at someone’s house, so this was already looking a step up. But the guesthouse was in the main park on a hill, and not having been to Kutaisi before it would have been nearly impossible to find the school again without having to take a taxi, which wasn’t something I’d prefer doing

View from the school
Having only known about Kutaisi from visiting the McDonald’s, I thought that was the center. So to find that the school, and my now hotel were near there, I was happy with that. There’s got to be some other cafes in the center of the second largest city in the country. That was my hope. The rows and rows of block apartments that I passed didn’t look overly promising, but then, well, block apartments never do. The hotel that they eventually put me up at was the MaxComfort, quite near the school. And by the time we got there, a blackout had seized the entire country, so everything was in darkness, and I couldn’t really tell what kind of neighborhood we were in. Even the water at the hotel was out, so it wasn’t a good start.

The first day I went back to the hotel, with too much preparation work yet to do. This wasn’t so bad since the hotel, the MaxComfort, had air conditioning. The second day, I went home, took a nap, and at seven decided to go for a walk around the area. I found this pristine street, in the pic below, lined with palm trees - which I don’t think are native to the area - which looked curiously out of place. On either side of the palm treed avenue, there were towering block apartments, grey and drab and crumbling. The palm trees were nice, the sidewalk in the middle was nice, but the rest was left to disrepair. Like the rehabilitation that planted the trees had forgotten about the “habitation” part of that word. Oh well, baby steps.


But man, it was hot as those palm trees suggested and I was mighty hungry. So I tried first a bakery to get some cheese bread. I walked in, the old ladies there were busy cooking and bringing stuff out of the oven. One was holding a xatchapuri - a Georgian cheese bread.

“You’ve got a xatchapuri?”

“No,” she said, holding the xatchapuri.

“You have any food?”

“No,” she said, still holding the xatchapuri.

“Oh,” I said.

She muttered something, put the xatchapuri in a pan and continued cooking.

Okay. So I left, and found another window, but they told me that seven o’clock was very late and they were closing. Polite enough though. Though they also had some xatchapuri and lobiani sitting in their windows. Then I looked up, hey, there’s a pizzeria!

I walked into the pizzeria. Two couples were seated at different tables, both eating actual Italian style pizzas. Usually pizzas in Georgia are inexplicably smothered in mayonnaise, making them nearly inedible to anyone who’s not Canadian. The “white sauce” on these was actually cheese! And it smelled amazing. I was now a little closer to satisfied.

“Do you have a menu?” I asked in Georgian. At one of the empty tables, there was a menu. I was reaching for it, just as I heard, “No.” “No menu?”

“No menu.”

“Oh. But I can read Georgian.”

“No menu. We don’t have anything.”

“I can wait,” I pleaded. My stomach was rumbling quite audibly at this point.

“No. We don’t have anything.”

“You don’t have food?” I said. I was now looking at the pizza on the peoples’ tables. They had food. They HAD food! THEY had food! Why couldn’t I?

“No food.”

“No pizza?”

“No food. No pizza.”


I left. Completely bewildered. What was with these people? Kutaisi was living up to what I had expected of it, that was for sure. So I went by a shop, bought some yogurt and went back to my hotel room, in the comfort of air conditioning and Russian pop music videos.



Stayed tuned next week for "A fair look at Kutaisi."

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Men with hats

Many people ask me why I'm so inclined to wear hats. It's usually after they take my hat and start trying it on for themselves, wanting to be a [person] with a hat, just like me. Everyone has to try it on, run to a mirror, giggle, and insist on wearing it for the rest of the evening, despite the sweat that has soaked into it, turning the beige straw into something more brownish or dirt colored. But they don't care - I guess that's just the price for being as bad as me. But here I've come now, reviving the old blog, to answer that age old question of my jealous beer drinking brethren, or of my curious students, or of the occasional passerby who gives me an awkward glance. Why do I wear a hat?

What coolness the accordion doesn't provide, the hat does
There are many reasons for my covering my head with something so cool and stylish like a broad rimmed straw fedora or a narrow rimmed trilby. And not numbering among the reasons is that I'm bald. Because I'm not bald. Though many people, after uncovering my crown, gasp in shock at my full head of hair - my hair is so thick that when I grow it out, which I never do, I can be a proud bearer of a whi-fro, rivaling any of the funkiest black brothers from the 70s in my follicles' denial of Newtonian physics. So now that I've got that out of the way, might I continue.

1. Birdshit.

Despite how fashionable my headpieces are, the real reason that I wear hats all the time is to guard myself from the near constant bombardment of feces that befalls me when I walk outside. One week, back in Denver, I was literally shat on by a pigeon every day of the week. I don't know whether it were a singular pigeon who found my cranium to be so tempting and hateful a spot or whether it was a whole flock of those scumsucking loungers of city statues that were playing some sort of fierce-some and cruel avian joke. But after that week, I vowed two things: to always wear hats and to always hate pigeons. I am somewhat often lax on the latter, but on the former I still head on strong.

2. The sun

This should go without saying. I have sensitive eyes that are prone to aching and causing headaches if light is bothering them too much. So sunglasses and hats seem to be an easy solution for that. When it is sunny outside, only a fool doesn't have something to shade his eyes. I am not a fool, though I do seem to be surrounded by such. People look at me funny for wearing a hat, but I return that look - "Why aren't you wearing a hat?" Why, if the sun were in their eyes, and also it's probably a high possibility that other pigeons are shit-stalking them as well, indeed, what kind of fools am I surrounded by? Of course, this is a good reason to wear a hat during the day, so for the night, I still refer to reason number 1.

3. Bank robbing

A hat is a good disguise. When you always wear a hat, you become known as "the guy with the hat." People recognize the hat - they don't really recognize you. When they see your hat in the bar, they know that you are there. When you don't have a hat on, it's like you've turned invisible. I've noticed this at several places of work where I have to pass through a security detail. On days I wear the hat - no problem, "go on through, sir." I don't even need an idea. But on days without a hat, there's always a full on body search.

Additionally, and certainly more forward thinking, becoming known as the "hat guy" will be of massive advantage to me when I do start up my time as a career bank robber. All the security, police men and journalists will be focusing on my hat - and my beard for that matter. And what would be a better disguise than to ditch the hat, shave and throw on some glasses? Nobody would know me then. Except for maybe the pigeons.

4. Cigarettes

I live in Tbilisi. It's possible that 98% of the people above the age of 12 smoke cigarettes. It's akin to the 1960s in the USA, except now they know without a matter of doubt that cigarettes leave your lungs to look like moldy, spoiled apples, soft and mushy to the touch, left in the sun for a year, with maggots breeding and dancing in the saucy leftovers.

But anyway, these things are besides the point. The point is that everyone smokes. And if you manage to meet a Georgian who doesn't smoke, it's likely a woman who's lying to you and smokes in the kitchen, too scared of all the shame that accompanies the smoking of a woman. As we know from experience in the States, women who smoke are all loose and evil and devoid of morality, unfit to be mothers and are not good Christian women. Or something. But again, I digress.

Tbilisi, along with being a city of walking chimney stacks, is also a city of mid- and high-rises and people who don't give a shit about each other. People stand on the balconies, looking at the other gray towers surrounding them, wishing for a life in Europe - but a Europe preferably without the gay people - and smoking cigarettes. When they're done smoking, they fling the cigarette off the balcony, letting that red ember fall and fall into oblivion - onto the street really, but their attention has worn off by that time. And herein lies my last reason. Every time I walk near a mid- or high-rise, I see one cigarette falling in front of me, to the side of me, or have one bouncing off my hat. If I didn't wear a hat, I don't know just how many cigarette holes I'd have burned into my skull, like the victim of a mad scientist performing test lobotomies.


So there is a non-exlusive list of three reasons why I wear hats. There are some I'm not mentioning, like their amazing sex appeal - especially now that I'm a taken man, sorry ladies - and there's also the fact that I usually stash weapons, prophylactics and bribe money under the hood - just in case. Or maybe I don't.