Monday, October 27, 2014

a cheap copy of switzerland

Mestia from the ethnographic museum
There are some surprisingly good things about Mestia, though the renovated main square is not one of them as I mentioned at point in the last blog. Much of the town is still old, dotted with ancient defensive towers that the Svans have been using to protect their families and livestock for a thousand plus years. The town extends around the valley, some of it yet invisible from the first parts of the city. There's also an extensive ethnographic museum in a newly built building overlooking the towers - it's much better done and organized than the one in Tbilisi even, so definitely worth a visit.

My original plan was for us to drive a short way out to Zhabeshi and then hike back into town, taking a full day of just soaking in the beautiful mountain landscapes, with the towering Tetnuldi (16,319 ft) at our backs and the even more impressive double jagged razor of a mountain, Ushba (15,453 ft) at our front. Those altitudes seem impressive as they are, even to a Coloradoan, but even more impressive when understanding that Mestia itself isn't that far above sea level, resting only at a lowly 4,921 ft. For an Americans, an easy reference is Denver. Mestia is lower than Denver, and much closer to mountains that are taller than anything in the Rockies. This makes for a complete feeling of isolation and claustrophobia in these valleys, since everywhere are walls of stone and impossibly steep forests.

This intensity of landscape though is what makes it all the more beautiful as well, and which also served as a natural protection against foreign invasion, making Svaneti the safest place to keep ancient Georgian treasures. Of course, rather than defending against invaders, Svans found that they had to constantly defend against each other, being a fiercely territorial and sensitive lot of people, a magnified Georgian race, so to speak. Strabo, the Greek geographer, wrote in his Geography, of a people who he called the Soanes (most likely the Svans), that of the people in the Caucasus, the Soanes were "the foremost in courage and power." This was the land where the golden fleece, of Jason and the Argonauts fame, as Strabo continued (and as well can be further read about in the ethnographic museum): "It is is said that in their country gold is carried down by the mountain torrents, and that the barbarians obtain it by means of perforated troughs and fleecy skins and that this is the origin of the myth of the golden fleece."

My family and friend weren't really up for a day long hike, so then we opted to drive up to the much closer Tsvirmi, though we found the prices to drive there and back were the same as Zhabeshi, about a negotiable 100 GEL, as Tsvirmi is nearly a straight up drive, whereas Zhabeshi is horizontal. But if one is to be seen, Tsvirmi has a better view and more archeological sites, though neither really lack in Svan towers and ancient ruins mixed with some modern houses, if that's what your after.

Our host at Sana Guesthouse hooked us up with a driver, his childhood friend, to get us there. He drove us in a new four wheel drive van that seemed to be a cross with a jeep - a necessity driving along the old horse roads of Svaneti. Unlike our last driver, who taunted us with terrible Russian and Estonian music playing non-stop on his video player, this Svan driver had a much more refined taste in music, playing Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen. Not sure how a Svan got interested in that music, but it was a great relief being able to listen to excellent music while traipsing around Upper Svaneti. 

The main highway now is almost complete to Zhabeshi, but further out, you need a car that can take rougher roads (read my much older blog series about that). When we met him, he told us the prices and said, "Why not just go all the way to Ushguli? It's 200 GEL there and back, and if you only come to Svaneti only once, then you have to go there." He is right, of course. Ushguli is the most expansive of the ancient Svani cities, and the most undisturbed, as it also is, in second place to Adishi, the most remote. It served as the ancient capital of Svaneti, where the kings and queens of medieval Georgia had their summer residence. After some discussion, we opted to go there.

Ushguli, near the ethnographic museum

View of Ushguli from the black tower
In Ushguli - which is actually a collection of four villages - we visited the ethnographic museum, which is itself in a tower, each floor holding various religious treasures. The museum's collection itself isn't that noteworthy - the better items have been removed to the Mestia museum - but what makes the museum a must see is that it itself is in an ancient tower! With terrible carpeting! After this, we saw the Lamaria Chapel and monastery, which is up on a hill overlooking Ushguli and completely overwhelmed by Mount Shkhara. Then we went to a local cafe - Ushguli is surprisingly full of them, a few more are added every year - and got my folks converted to the joys of ostri, a spicy Georgian meat stew. 

We got back from Ushguli with still some daylight left, so my friend Joseph and I decided to walk through Mestia, away from the vague disappointment we felt about being close to Seti Square. The further we got, the more satisfied we got, as we discovered a renovated part of town, Lanchvali street and its surroundings, that - instead of tearing apart the old and building something completely different - renovated the old parts and made them modern. That is to say, they were cleaned up and made whole, with electricity and all that jazz. The towers loomed over us at every turn, and there was even one tower open to the public, with a rooftop hatch at the top so you can come out and sit on the roof. Seeing this part of town refreshed my idea of Mestia, and if renovations of that style continue throughout the town, it will be an amazing place to visit.   

View of Lanchvali Street

View of the public tower
Svans, if you're reading this, forget Seti. Grow Lanchvali.

With the growth and spread of the style of Lanchvali street, adding some restaurants, cafes and maybe a bar with some live Svani music - you know, just some old guys singing accompanied by a pandori and a drum, later another bar with live rock music - then you'll have something to compete against Switzerland in tourism with. Tourists don't don't come looking for a cheap copy of Switzerland, tourists come because they want to see a healthy and vibrant Georgia. Grow your culture, don't sell it out.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Svaneti: a brief introduction

Many of the most beautiful places in the world are also some of the hardest to get to. As though Georgia weren't hard enough to get to from the Western world (only the terrible and infamous Wizzair offers anything affordable from Europe, and from the States you can forget about coming cheaply), the Georgians decided to put their best regions behind the cloaks of exotic mystery that lie behind insurmountable mountain passes. But then, part of the allure of Svaneti isn't just the beautiful mountain panoramas, ancient ruins or dauntingly pronounced name, it`s also the way there. Both the journey and the destination are wrapped up in one single package of adventure.

The Inguri River
Svaneti is inhabited by a people called “svans” (pronounce “swan” like a German and you’re close enough). They’re known for extremism, thinking slow, cutting a guy for looking wrong at his wife or sister, and having their own unique language, though in the same language family as Georgian. Being high up in the mountain passes, it’s also one of the “purest” of the Georgian stock, rarely being successfully invaded or conquered, and has often in the past led a somewhat quarrelsome existence with the Georgian “mainland”, though at most times did serve some sort of servile role to the crown of Georgia, and always served as a sort of religious escape, even to the extent that the Georgian kingdoms often stored their religious treasures there during times of trouble. The famous Georgian king, a woman named Tamar, even had a summer residence there, in Ushguli, keeping them loyal to the crown with her yearly visits.

Though there's a new road to Svaneti, no one can yet rightly call it accessible. And maybe Svaneti should never be easily accessible, as it might dilute the austere and traditional Svani culture that still exists there - though it is certainly in its death knells, the last battles of this survival against the beast of globalization are being fought in the streets of Mestia, the capital. The road there is three hours up from Zugdidi, with only nearly broken down marshrutkas making the way (20 GEL each), or Megrelian taxi drivers eager to make a deal (100-150 GEL for the car). And of course, that's from Zugdidi, one has to get there as well, and the only way for that is by marshrutka from Kutaisi or Tbilisi, or by train. I've discussed well enough in this blog the thrills of both of these methods of travel. All of this, sadly though, means that most visitors to Georgia are forced to miss Svaneti. But again, maybe that's better for the Svans, since tourism has a way of destroying some cultures. And anyways, who really wants to be inundated with tourists? It's of course a trade - tourists mean money and development, but it also means an endless flow of annoying entitled people who often don't really care about your environment or culture.

The road to Mestia
The road to Mestia is beautiful. There are no other words. It starts in the lowlands of Samegrelo, right near sea level, following up the sometimes broad, sometimes raging, Inguri River to its highest point at the summit of Mt. Shkhara, some 17,000 feet up. The Inguri is dammed in the middle point by a gigantic hydro-electric plant that is one of the largest in the world. It also serves as the border between the breakaway region of Abkhazia and Georgia proper, and as such is lined with troops and sharpshooters from both sides. When our taxi drove us, access to the sight of the dam was closed as someone had just been shot. The zone is one of the older "frozen conflicts" caused by Russia, forgotten by most of the world as Putin has now stirred up trouble closer to Europe's heartland.

Mestia is an odd town. On my first visit, I hated it. The center had been wrecked by reconstruction, many of the older, architecturally relevant buildings had been torn down and they had constructed something that looks like a loose mockery of Aspen, Colorado, which itself looks like a loose mockery of Switzerland. When I told my then host, who was of the family responsible for the construction, the Japaridzes, how I felt, he was naturally angry. "Maybe we want to look like Colorado," he rebutted. And in his rebuttal, I could hear what was tacit, the thought "because we are backwards and you are forwards." He could never imagine how all those people of Colorado simply dream of a place like his, of historical buildings that date back thousands of years, of their own historical root of architecture and culture. We Americans have to constantly invent new things in order to define ourselves and can sometimes cause the lack of a real concrete definition. It’s no shame to already have a defined culture, and it’s no shame to redefine that culture, just be sure to keep standing on one’s giants and to keep building upward.

Colorado or Svaneti?
Today, those buildings are all finished and most of the construction downtown has waned. All of those new buildings are, for the most part, empty, except for a token amount of restaurants and bars - about three or four total. Some of the construction mysteriously lags onward, but it's been cleaned up and organized much more than since last I was there. Not exactly progress as promised, but still, progress. There’s no place for breakfast, and only a Baltic/Ukrainian owned bar for after hours partying, but the interior there completely lacks inspiration, so that’s not even that worthwhile a visit. There’s another place on the wretched main square - Seti square - called Laila, but with the absurd tourist prices that’s hardly worth a visit. The better food can be found on down Stalin street, in one of the newer buildings. Not really sure the name, but it’s definitely got solid khinkali, and good Svan specialties like kubdari (meat pie) and chvishtari (corn bread made with cheese) and beer not at exorbitant tourist prices. Also was recommended by our host at the guesthouse, and I only personally witnessed Georgians eating there, so must be legit.

This time I had come with my family and my friend, for a short stay of three days, though two of those days were a bit taken with traveling there and back. So really, just one whole day, which isn't at all enough for visiting Svaneti, but again, you take what you can get. We stayed near the center of town, at the Sana Guesthouse (30 GEL per room with two or three beds per night), right up from Seti Square, the aforementioned ersatz Swiss section of town. The Sana is a nice place, or going to be nice place - the owner constantly working on some improvement project, so this is a gaurantee. The bedrooms are all quite comfortable, but the lounge room isn't quite finished, still in need of some paint on the walls. The bathroom is nice, along with a balcony with a nice view of the town, especially perfect for long talks at night with beer, which is how my friend and I passed our evenings.  

Monday, October 13, 2014

I'll be your lover on the line

(cont'd from last week)

My first steps into the wagon were like entering a sauna, an experience I normally enjoy, complete with booze, birch branches and the cold pool. But here was different, here the humidity was not pure spring water rising from the bosom of our fair Earth, but rather sweat dripping from the pours of an angry Russian lady who was busy arguing with another conductor about allowing her screaming and whining child to ride free. It was from the sweat of the three Adidas-decked "athletes" drinking beer and laughing in the first cabin. It was from the sweat of the running and screaming children, who were back and forth wrestling up and down corridor. All the annoyances of Eastern European train travel combined. Except for gypsies. At least there were no gypsies.

Wait, those are gypsies! Too bad there weren't any gypsies then!
Once we got settled, the chaos died down a bit, but the heat didn't. It robbed everyone of the will to live, and came something akin to the ill-fated sauna contests of Finland, where the winners are determined simply by who is the last man standing. Most people were hanging out the windows, trying to breathe, but the sadistic conductor, ever with inspiration from the Marquis de Sade himself, kept returning and yelling at people to get back in their cabins. Then he would close the windows to keep the heat going. As if to add on the top a little bit of icing of hope - so that he could later crush it - he reassured us that the air conditioning would come on as long as the windows were closed.

And the air conditioning came on.

After we were soaked in sweat and the room was dripping, the air conditioning slowly began its labor. At first it wasn't felt, but like the outbreak of a terrible plague, it was on us before we knew to take action. For some reason, the train conductor decided not to hand out blankets - blankets can be expected in trains across Europe - and just left us with a pillow. We slept in our wet clothes which soon became traps of ice and chill. Several times during the night, when I would wake up, I thought I could see the frost from my breath. The experience seemed to replicate that of someone dying from influenza - intense heat one moment, intense cold another, never feeling the same temperature, never comfortable, and too weak to do anything about it. It was a replication of an experience that could be described as the opposite of awesome.

At last the train arrived in Zugdidi. None of us had slept any and we left the train like miscarried babies, shuffling our feet in a world of such light that we weren't yet prepared for, confused by the new reality that had descended upon us. Even harder yet - no one was speaking a language any of us knew. Here they spoke Megrelian (fun fact: when Russians say "Megrelian", they add a mysterious "n" saying "Mengrelian"), which was, of course, not at all related to Russian, and though a Kartvelian tongue, has very little to do with Georgian. Though at least everyone speaks Georgian just as fluently, they like to collaborate behind your back in Mengrelian.

I went directly to the restroom after our stop. The bathroom structure seemed to come out of Sleepers, something like Woody Allen might picture the future of public toilets. The outside was like a dome with small little pods connected to it, and it was all painted bright blue (forty years ago, now it was painted a dirty and chipped not-so-bright blue). I walked in and found myself in a dark, circular room. There were no sinks here, no thought of sanitation. Instead I found myself in a kind of fecal panopticon, where I could see all those using the toilets around me. The toilets themselves were squatters, which meant that several were occupied with men squatting down. They seemed to me to have the same glazed over look of concentration that cats or dogs have when they empty themselves. In that moment, the ultimate illumination of how basically animal we are was summed up to me. Why even bother with this podlike concrete creation? Why are we not all simply shitting in a field without shame or embarrasment? Was our first sin, our original sin, not that of pride, but rather of claiming that we were ever anything more than mere animals? And we pretend ourselves kings over nature, sitting on porcelain thrones, wiping ourselves with feathery, triple-ply toilettes.

I left my existential crisis in the bathroom and joined the others. We walked over to the marshrutka stop, which was also crowded with taxis. None of the marshrutkas were the modern ones I had seen years ago. All of these seemed the typical white, aged Ford Transits that seem to be moments from breaking down and rolling off a cliff, with the cigarette smoking driver deftly rolling out minutes before take off, shrugging and getting another beer with his comrades.

My mother, from her last trip to the Caucasus, had been wise enough to develop a fear of such machines - whereas I take some sort of weird, masochistic pleasure out of them, especially when a beer is in hand. They're like riding a motorcycle, except there's absolute zero control of your fate, there's no comfort, no wind, and well, actually it's nothing like riding a motorcycle. No, it's more like riding a cattle car to a concentration camp. There's nothing fun about it. There's heat, chickens, puking babies, and bad Russian pop music - that's what always comes to my mind when I think of marshrutkas.


My mother wanted to avoid them, so we opted for one of the taxis. The first guy offered us 100 lari. That sounded good for a two-and-a-half hour drive into the mountains.

"Okay, let's go."

"No, I don't feel like driving. If I were, that would be the price. Go with him."

He pointed me to a smiling, gold toothed man. "120," he said.

"But that guy just said 100."

"He does not have a TV, I have a TV," he said, pointing inside his 15 year old Chevy station wagon at the television that was installed on his dash. "It is luxury."

"Er," I said. "100?"

"120, no less, have TV." He then addressed all the other drivers in the area in Megrelian. There seemed to be some consensus that nobody would take us for less, and that it would be him taking us. I began to see the futility of it.

"What is he saying?" my parents asked.

"He wants 120."

"But you said the other guy wants 100. Can't we go with him?" my mom asked.

"No, apparently not."

"Why is he wanting 120?" my dad asked.

"He has a television. Look," I looked around at all the drivers watching us, realizing our fate was sealed, "I think we'll just have to accept the 120."

In the end, the extra 20 for the television was worth it. On rotation was a music video of the highest class and quality, and without that ride I would have never been exposed to this Estonian music sensation, which played on repeat no less than twenty times:

So remember, when in Georgia, if you're offered a ride for 20 more lari than necessary because of a television, you say yes!

Monday, October 6, 2014

the way to the west

My family and friends were gathering for my upcoming wedding. Again came my parents to Georgia, a country they didn't really think they would come back to (the last they were in the country was four years ago). Also came my best man, Joseph, who was also visiting a second time, though he had just been there only one year ago. I had arranged so that they came within an hour of each other, so I didn't have to take too many midnight trips to the airport - Tbilisi planes infamously operate in the middle of the night and early in the morning; it's a lucky man who comes or leaves at a normal time of day. But then, no matter what, the layover in Turkey will be from 4 to 7 hours anyway, so it doesn't matter too much, your sense of time will be jacked. I bought some beer, found Joseph, and we spent a couple of hours drinking said beer in the parking lot, waiting for my folks.
Vake Park, image from wikimapia
We spent the first few days in Tbilisi sweltering. Tbilisi in August is an oven. A terrible oven that's on really high. The only thing to do there is to sweat and suffer and to drink beer. There's no air conditioning in most places, so there's no real relief to be found anywhere. Only suffering or hot pants yoga, but I, the existentialist that I am, am not so much into hot pants yoga. This is a pity, living in Tbilisi as I was, in August. So we opted to drink beer. The best beergarden in Tbilisi is at Vera Park, just through the tunnel from the Philharmonic. There you can find a variety of places, whether you prefer to people watch, to sit in nature, or to enjoy your time next to the plaza fountain where children are constantly running and playing. Fun for the whole family.

Our plan was to go to Svaneti by plane or by train. There was a new plane service by Vanilla Sky (a comforting name, if anyone's seen the movie), that had started up earlier that summer, flying small planes out of a field near Mskheta. The planes leave in the morning of every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The train service on the other hand would be overnight and arrive in Zugdidi, transferring to marshrutka or taxi to get to Mestia in Svaneti. 

The last and most terrible option would be to drive ourselves. The drive there is quite gut wrenching, complete with all the winding roads, two narrow lanes through mountains and Georgian driving that resembles more of style of stock car racing found on games like F-Zero or Mario Cart, complete with rockets, banana peels and launched turtle shells.

We wanted to take the plane, so I looked at the website online. It didn't accept any payments and there wasn't any place to send for reservations, so I decided to visit the office, which is on Maidan. I sat down with the agent and started to inquire about booking a flight. 

"Sorry, the seats are all booked through three weeks," she told me.

"Er," I said.

"Here's a card with our correct number, the one on the web page isn't correct. You can call us there for future reservations."

"Er," I said. What I was thinking was - if the number on the web page was not correct, and there was no email or anything on which to reserve the tickets, how on Earth were they all booked for the next three weeks?! I unfortunately didn't keep the right number, so I can't pass it on to you all here.

This meant we would take the night train. I hadn't taken this one before, so it was still a fun and new experience to me. This and thank God I bought some vodka, were the exact things I was thinking to myself as my parents, Joseph and I were sitting in a train cabin that night. 

When we first came down from the train station to the train, I didn't think the train was overly bad. It sat there, a gigantic iron hulk, bemoaning its fate of movement, eating up its passengers in the same lugubrious way Georgians eat up their food at a supra table. We had booked our tickets online through the Georgian Railways site, so we didn't need to wait at the chaotic ticket windows above and we could just hand the slip to the train conductor. 
The Tbilisi main rail station, image from 

Joseph looked at the train and the station and commented, "Usually there's some sort of romanticism in riding trains. Not here." 

After giving us a grim look, and Joseph and even more particularly grim look, the conductor let us all on board.

(cont'd next week)

Monday, September 29, 2014

how one became an alpinist

The gondolas and the black waters of the Qvirila River aren't the only things to see in Chiatura, which again expands my faith for Chiatura to have at least some tourist traffic in the future, with the right planning. The first stop was Mgvimevi Monastery, which lies a 15 minute walk north from the center of Chiatura. The stairs that lead up to this cliffside monastery were hidden among a construction site, a candle and ikon shop, and a house. There's a small sign marking the ascent, but little more than realizing you'll have to go straight up to get to the monastery. A small cable car sits above the shop, used to carry supplies up the monks that live above.

Mgvimevi on the cliff, looks steeper IRL
Despite being impossible to pronounce, Mgvimevi hosts a cave chapel and a large number of beautiful carvings chiseled into the stone walls of square chapels carved out of the rockside. The monks remain out of sight, leaving only old ladies to tend the candles and mop and to allow you for your own contemplation in a cave. There is continued construction behind closed doors (that further church in the picture), winding around the cliffside - but no worries, the main part of the monastery is from the 13th century, though the carvings and outer structures seem to be more recent, so if it's ancient dwellings you're after, this still suffices.

Mgvimevi monastery
 When we finished our sightseeing in the main part of Chiatura, we had to get a taxi, since the last three sights weren't exactly convenient. First on Ben's list, was to see the house museum of some Japaridze fellow, who was a world famous mountaineer or something. I'm not sure, I had never heard of him, but he was famous among those in the know of the Georgian alpinist community. The house was in the nearby village of Khreiti and was not at all walkable, having to ascend above the canyon and then down into a neighboring valley towards Racha. The other two sights, the Katskhi monastery and pillar, were both easy stops along the way to Kutaisi, where we were staying the night, so we decided to just negotiate with a taxi driver and worked a large, possibly mentally handicapped guy for 80 lari. I had thought that was steep at the moment, but then realized what a trip Khreiti was.

The road to Khreiti was more of a rocky trail, with the driver's VW Golf sedan barely making it over some of the holes and humps of the road. Though the driver knew that the Japaridze house museum existed and was in Khreiti, he didn't precisely know where either was. We drove on the trail for nearly an hour, continually stoppig for directions, and the finally he let us off at the base of a hill, where the road went straight up and was impossible for the Golf to make. "There," he pointed up, "the museum is that way, 1 or 2 kilometers."

A city street (and pig) in the village Khreiti
Up the hill we went. After about one or two kilometers of going up and completely understanding how this Japaridze became an alpinist, we came to a village. The forest broke for houses and small farms, where the style of life hadn't seemed to have changed for hundred of years - not even most cars were accessible here, though occasionally an old Soviet UAZ could be found. We had to keep peering into people's garden to ask for directions. Always, "Oh, it's just around that corner," or "It's just around this corner." No surprise to anyone that two foreigners were looking for it, must have happened all the time.

After turning enough corners, we were nearly sure we were lost and that this museum only existed in some dual, metaphysical plane that overlapped on top of our reality of Khreiti. But then a boy showed up and brought us down more twists and turns and finally to the house.

The Japaridze House Museum
The house itself was in the old Georgian style, with a stone first floor for wine storage and a second floor made of wood, with a large balcony to enjoy the mountain views. As Ben began to climb the stairs, a drunk guy stirred from a nearby bench and yelled at us. "No, no, no! Not allowed! It is closed."

Ben backed down and we examined the building further. Outside was a poster that advertised a festival from 1988. Through the windows of the first floor, there were stacks of furniture in disarray. The last time anything appeared to be touched seemed to match the date of the poster.

As we walked back in defeat, Ben noted, "Everyone knew of the museum. They all led us here, but no one bothered telling us it hadn't been open in twenty years."

"I wonder if anyone even knew that it's been closed," I said. "I mean, it can't be a museum that's really visited that often. Though it is strange how no one seemed it strange we were asking about it. Like people come all the time to visit."

Katskhi Monastery
We reunited with our driver and went on to the Katskhi monastery, again, just on the roadside to Zestaponi. We stopped and had a look. The monastery church was interesting to me due to the shape. It was an hexagon, which was altogether unusual in Georgian religious architecture, the only churches I had seen or heard like it were in Armenia and Oni, though both of those had long since been in ruins. It was built in the 10th century AD, and covered in ornate carvings, the like of which are barely seen anymore in Georgia, but probably covered most of the older churches prior to earthquakes and Mongol, Persian and Turkish invasions.

When we got back to the car, the driver started complaining about the price. "It should be more, gas is so expensive and it is hard to get to the pillar."

"The pillar is on the way and we already paid you and agreed!" I said back. I started getting a sick feeling in my gut, the feeling of utter disgust I get when people go back on their agreements, or when taxi drivers start complaining about their previously agreed fare. The man became less of a man to me, and seemed more like some miserable mass of talking bile and compost. Such is how I feel of weaselly drivers. But I stuck to my guns and refused to change price. Likewise, he refused to stop at the pillar, even for a view, despite it being on the road to Zestaponi. So we missed that sight, though we did get a peak of the pillar from the windows of the speeding car.

In Kutaisi, we stayed at a hostel, Hostel Mana (33 Tabidze, +995 598 7477 44, 20 euros for a private room), that was more of a guesthouse than a hostel. It was run by an amicable, middle aged man who seemed more than happy to have our business. The only problem with the place was the locked front door and lack of key, which meant if we had come home late, he would have to get up to open the door, though he didn't seem to mind when he did have to do that. The place was also hot, but there was a fan in our room, so it wasn't so bad.  

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.