A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Bob Brink

The Long Trip Home


View Turkey and Georgia 2023 on Bob Brink's travel map.

May 24, 2023

It was really over. It was time to go home. No more visits to medieval churches, no more mountains, no more great Georgian food. Now it was going to be security checks, passport controls, and hours crammed into small seats on crowded planes.

I had four flights to endure over the next two days. On this day I was flying to Istanbul where I would connect with my flight to London. After spending the night in an airport hotel, I would fly to St. John’s via Halifax, Nova Scotia.

I always sleep badly on the night before a flight (or as I had learned on this trip, a train or bus). I got up early and finished packing but still had more than an hour before Sergio’s wife was coming to get me. The agreed pickup time was 8:00 am, the same time that my hotel started serving breakfast. I had opted for a relaxed departure over a rushed breakfast. I ate one of my last granola bars and drank a surprisingly weak coffee from the room supply.

I checked out at 7:50 am. I looked out and saw a car waiting but was confused when I saw a woman get out of the passenger side door. Maybe that car was not for me. Or was someone coming along?

I walked out and saw it was Sergio’s wife after all. Her car had right hand drive. I had mentioned in an earlier post about all the used foreign cars that are imported into Georgia. This one must have come from the UK.

I had not realized that the airport was only 15 minutes away. There was little traffic going in that direction. Tbilisi International Airport is quite small, much like our airport back in St. John’s.

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I had an envelope that contained Sergio’s tip. Gratuities are expected and although I had not been totally satisfied with his services, I intended to give him one that I calculated to be reasonable, perhaps on the generous side. When he asked to be excused from the airport duties, I debated if I should pay him in person the day before but then decided that I would wait and give the tip to his wife at the airport. I had to assume that he would get it. I thanked her for the ride and gave her the envelope.

I also gave her an envelope that had the SIM card that Sergio had installed in my phone on my first day in Georgia. I replaced it with my Turkish SIM card on the chance that I still had some data remaining which I later discovered that I did not.

The airport was quiet. My flight to Istanbul was the only one leaving for the next couple of hours.

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I had my boarding pass to Istanbul on my phone, but I was connecting to London, and the Turkish Airlines app had not given me a pass for that flight. There was a long line at the check in counters. I decided it was not worth the time just for the boarding pass. I also stayed away from the check in counter to avoid being told to check my bag. I had checked it in Toronto and London, but those were direct flights. Since I was changing planes in Istanbul, I wanted to be sure that my bag was with me at all times.

I had one large Georgian note, 100 laris, that I wanted to exchange and was happy to see an open currency booth. That left me with 17 laris to use for a coffee. There was a Costa coffee next door but saw that their lattes were all over 20 laris. That was rather pricey (over $10 Canadian) and using my credit card would leave me with the Georgian currency that I wanted to spend.

There was a little coffee shop nearby. I inquired about the price of a latte. He told me 31. I expressed my shock, but he immediately corrected himself and said 13. I had my latte.

After finishing my drink, I rode up the escalator where I encountered the first security of my trip. It was not busy. I got the full treatment of a hand pat down, wand, and a check of my computer. Then as I was sorting my belongings, I got an ominous "Don't touch that!" Then was quickly told that it was okay. From there it was passport control where the lady called me up, had me take off my cap and glasses, and look straight ahead for her to do a human comparison to my passport photo. This was my last human comparison. From this point on it would be cameras and technology. She asked me about my boarding pass for my London flight but still sent me on my way.

I did a free pee, my first no charge one in several weeks. There was a Dunkin Donuts in the lounge, but it was too soon for another latte.

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I sat in the lounge and spent several minutes trying to get my second boarding pass. I first tried the Turkish Airlines app and then their website. I did not succeed. I was not impressed with either.

I walked over the gate where I chatted with a man who I had seen being pulled aside at security. His problem was his replacement knee. He and his wife were surprised when I asked if they were Dutch and said that I was the first person on their trip to guess that. Of course, I had to tell them my very Dutch name. Maybe it is time to make that trip to my ancestral homeland.

My hopes for an empty seat next to me were quickly gone when I found a man already sitting in the middle seat, but I was happy to find lots of room for my bag in the overhead bin.

I squeezed into my window seat. I took some videos during take off and then settled in for the relatively short 2.5 hours flight to Istanbul. This was my last view of Georgia.

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I started watching a movie but could not concentrate. Instead, I just listened to music and wrote up my notes. I flipped through the photos on my phone. I had many more on my camera, but these were enough to allow me to quickly do a run through the highlights of my trip. There were many. I had really seen some amazing things over the past month.

I was surprised when they served us a nice lunch with an egg dish.

I was worried about that next boarding pass. I asked a flight attendant who told me that I should look for a ground support person when I got off the flight. I have seen such people on my past flights, but there was no one there when I needed one. I walked until I saw an international transfer area. It was for first class passengers, the “important folks”. Not being important I knew that I could not go in there, but I did ask where I could get a boarding pass and was directed to the regular transfer desk where I was able to print my pass.

I had to pass through security to get into the main departure area. A woman looked at my passport and announced, “Kanada!” Everybody seemed quite happy to see the Canadian and replied with their own “Kanada!” Everybody loved me, or at least it seemed that way until I was put through another session of a pat downs and was sent into the body scan machine. I tried to protest, “But I’m Canadian.” They ignored me and kept on patting.

This was my fifth visit to Istanbul's shiny new airport. I felt quite at home.

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I had bought lattes in this lounge twice in 2019 and been quite disappointed, so I chose a different café where I ordered a large latte (by choice) and a big croissant (only size available, I did not complain). I was quite happy with these.

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The board showed that it was time to go to my gate. I arrived and found it blocked by more security. I had my passport checked three times before I could get inside. Most passengers were then directed to a final line to have their bags searched. A few of us, including another old white guy like me, were lucky to be sent directly into the lounge. He was obviously American. I guess we did not look too suspicious. Or was it just old white guy privilege?

I was taking Turkish Airlines from Istanbul to London, a four-hour flight. In my trip planning I had considered the option of taking the eleven-hour flight to Toronto. I do not like flying but more so detest long flights. I chose this shorter flight and an overnight stop in London.

I had booked the window seat. I arrived before my seatmates and waited to see if I would be lucky and have an empty seat next to me or the next best thing, a small person, preferably female. The two seats were soon filled. I got my wish, a small female, really small. She was only about four years old.

She sat down with her mother. There was a bit of shuffling as a man exchanged seats with another passenger and settled in the aisle seat in the middle section. It was the father, a family of three. They did not ask, but I knew that I had to offer to switch seats.

After moving into the middle section, I remembered why I always preferred aisle seats. They are less claustrophobic with the extra head room and one side open. Then the occupants of the row behind my now vacated seat, two small children, began to scream. I was happy to be away from them. Sometimes good deeds get punished. This time I was greatly rewarded. The only downside was that my entertainment system was not working. I was not too bothered by that, although I did miss following the flight, especially the camera shots from outside the plane.

We arrived on time at Heathrow, and I did the long walk to immigration. I had always dreaded Heathrow immigration. It used to be EU citizens (including the UK folks) going one way and the rest of us going the other. It had taken me at least an hour every time. But thanks to Brexit we are now family and share the line with the UK folks while the EU people go the other way.

There was no line at the electronic kiosks. This time I put my passport in the right way and was successfully screened. I never had to talk to anyone. I found the Elizabeth Line train and after a short wait was quickly taken to Terminal 4. The ride within the airport is free.

My hotel, the Premier Inn Heathrow, was within walking distance. After a bit of confusion, I got directions to the walkway.

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It was a short walk to the hotel. Check in was quick. The room was quite spacious and much nicer that I had anticipated for a budget inn.

On my trip through London at the start of my trip I had been keen to get into the city and had enjoyed a nice meal with my Travellerspoint friend, Sarah. On my way back through I just wanted a place to rest before finishing my trip home.

I went down to the hotel restaurant and ordered curry chicken and a beer. I had begun my trip with a mediocre curry at Peason Airport in Toronto and was ending it with a mediocre curry in London.

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May 25

I had paid for the continental breakfast with my room reservation and arrived just before 7 am. I was surprised that it was not busy. There were decent croissants, fruit salad, and yoghurt. And there was a latte machine. It was one of the best breakfasts of my trip.

I finished packing and after failing at a Facebook post went down to the lobby. I handed my card to a young woman and was officially checked out. I had been quite impressed with the hotel; the facility and services were way beyond what I had expected.

I was directed one level up to the airport walkway. Once there I again took the free train to Terminals 2 & 3.

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It was a short walk up to the entrance to Terminal 2.

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Security was quick. I had made it from my hotel to past security is just over an hour. In the past I had endured long wait times at Heathrow at immigration and security. I might have to reconsider my opinion of Heathrow.

I found my regular café and ordered a large latte and a banana. I decided to use cash and handed over a bill. There was a brief discussion behind the counter. I had handed them 5 Georgian lari. They refused to accept it. Imagine that.

I waited near the door to the B gates since my Air Canada flights always had departed from there but was surprised when the flight was shown as an A Gate. I still had a long walk in the other direction since it was the farthest away.

I had been happy when I managed to get a connection through Halifax on my way home rather than flying to Toronto which was reducing my flight time by a couple of hours. I joined the line and chatted with nice woman who looked and sounded Canadian. But when I said something about Halifax, she told me that she was going to Frankfurt. Whoops, it was not my flight. And she was not Canadian but did tell me that she was pleased to be considered a likely Halifax passenger. I sat down to wait for my flight to begin boarding.

I settled into my window seat. I watched a movie on this flight, Darkest Hour, about Churchill. I chatted a little with my seatmate, a nice lady from the Seychelles.

I was a bit concerned about my flight connection, but we arrived a few minutes early. Immigration was fast. I answered some questions on the electronic kiosk but still had to talk to an officer, so that seemed a bit pointless. I was then surprised to get questions from the customs guy checking bags. The UK had been a lot easier.

I have found Canadian airport security in Toronto to be a real pain. Halifax was the same. I got a chemical swab on my hands and then on my Surface Pro. They hand checked my bag. It was the worst screening of my trip. Welcome home!

Our gate was shown as number 2 which was way down at the end of the terminal. I hurried down and arrived just as they announced a gate change to number 27, all the way back at the other end. It was also announced that my flight was slightly delayed which was not a bad thing since I had a long walk to the other side.

This last flight seemed to be a punishment for having had a great trip. Air Canada had switched the flight to Air Canada Jazz on a De Havilland prop. It was cramped and noisy. Thankfully the torture only lasted a bit over an hour.

Po had brought Zoe along. She was quite excited and jumped into the front seat to see me. It was foggy and rainy, just as bad as the horrible weather that I had left a month earlier. It had been that way virtually the entire time I was gone. It was too late and too wet to take Zoe for a walk when we got home.

May 26

I had been on the move for a month. Every time I woke up I knew where I was. But when I woke up in my own bed it took a few seconds to remember that I was home.

Zoe kept her eyes on me, making sure that I was not going away again. It was still raining, but she insisted on her walk. My trip was over.

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Posted by Bob Brink 17:20 Archived in Canada Comments (1)

My Last Day in Georgia

Tbilisi Tour


View Turkey and Georgia 2023 on Bob Brink's travel map.

May 23, 2023

My big expedition in Turkey and Georgia was almost finished. I was in Georgia’s capital and had one more day of sightseeing before starting my long journey home. I had already spent three nights in Tbilisi while I transited to Georgia’s mountains and wine making area and been totally enchanted by the city’s architecture and atmosphere. Now, on my last day, I was getting a full city tour. I was tired and ready to go home, but I also recognized that I might never visit Georgia again. I could rest once I got to Newfoundland.

I was relieved to be done with long car rides. This would be a walking tour with a bit of help from a cable car, a boat, and a funicular. The latter two were surprise additions to my day.

Sergio picked my up at the hotel and after a short drive, parked along the banks of the river that flows through the heart of Tbilisi. Here it is known as the Mtkvari; in other places it is called the Kura. This had me a bit confused until I realized that they were the same river. The Kura begins in eastern Turkey and flows through Georgia to Azerbaijan and into the Caspian Sea. I had walked along the river back in Borjomi when it was beautiful and wild flowing. The Zemo Avchala Dam was built in Soviet times just above Tbilisi, so it is much calmer as it flows through the capital.

Sergio asked if I wanted to take a boat tour. He also told me that I would have to pay since it was not part of my official itinerary. I had been promised four different boat rides on my tour- in Kolkheti National Park, on the Enguri River, in Martvili Canyon and in the Prometheus Cave, but all four had all been cancelled due to inclement weather or high-water levels. I could have asked, “After four boat trips that I did not get, I have to pay for this one?” But I did not. I just agreed to take the ride.

We boarded a small pontoon vessel.

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I was joined by a family who promptly took over the covered seats, leaving me out in the sun.

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It was early on a pleasant day, so the sunny seats were not as bad as I initially feared. The ride only lasted about thirty minutes. We went upstream for fifteen minutes, turned around, and came back. It was an interesting way to see Tbilisi.

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After checking out Tbilisi from the river, it was now time to see it from the air. We passed some men with captive peacocks on our way to the cable car. They were offering photos to tourists. Some (the peacocks, not the men) looked a bit ragged.

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The views of Tbilisi from the cable car were amazing.
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We arrived at the Narikala Fortress on the top of the hill. Records show the original fortress dates from at least the 4th century. Most of the remaining structures date from the 16th and 17th centuries. There is not a lot remaining structure. St Nicholas Church was built in 1996 to replace a 13th century church that had been destroyed.

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There were great views from here as well.

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A huge 66-foot aluminium statue of Kartlis Deda or Mother of Georgia has stood guard at the top of the hill since 1958, when Tbilisi celebrated its 1,500th anniversary. She holds a cup of wine for friends in her left hand and a sword for her enemies in her right hand. The wine cup could not be seen at the top of the hill but shows on the photo that I took from the river.

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I thought that we would take the cable car back down, but instead took a path and spiral stairway down into the Abanotubani area of Tbilisi. The brick domes are bath houses.

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The area hosted the largest settlement in the Caucasus during the late Bronze Age. According to legend the King of Iberia’s falcon led to the discovery of sulfur hot springs in the 5th century. The new capital of Iberia was soon built on the site and was named Tbilisi, which means “warm place”.

Tbilisi became an important trade stop, but its strategic location led to invasion from the many empires over the centuries-the Romans, Persians, Byzantines and Seljuk Turks and after a brief time under local control it was again invaded by the Mongols, Tamerlane, and Persia. Eventually the Russian empire took control which was passed on to the Soviets.

I was impressed by the houses that hang off the cliffs with their traditional Georgian balconies. There are many such houses throughout the city that need repair, but the ones on the hill are in good shape. I would not want to stay in them without knowing that they had been renovated, especially the supports. It would be a long way to fall.

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The path led into the beautiful Leghvtakhevi River Gorge and Waterfall.

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We crossed over a bridge that was covered with locks. It seems that every place now has a bridge with these signs of everlasting love. It certainly gives extra income to the lock manufacturers. I wonder if the lovers really stay together forever after closing their locks on a bridge.

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We walked past the baths where I could have had a massage and a scrub.

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We crossed the Mekhi Bridge to the Metekhi Church of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary where I photographed one of the iconic images of Tbilisi, the equestrian monument of King Vakhtang Gorgasali.

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We went back over the bridge and walked down Shardeni Street. I was familiar with this area from my previous evenings in Tbilisi. It is full of restaurants and shops.

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We passed by a sculpture of a man holding a horn that is modeled on an ancient Colchian statuette and is known as the “Tamada”. A tamada is the toastmaster at Georgian feasts and weddings.

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We crossed back over the river on the steel and glass pedestrian Peace Bridge.

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We had made our way back to Sergio’s car. I had seen a lot and taken many photographs, but it had been quite rushed so that I had not had a chance to take it all in. I crave that feeling of being somewhere that is totally different or just being amazed by the absolute beauty of a place. That is hard to get when you are being herded by a guide with a busy agenda. I was ready to be on my own.

But I soon realized that Sergio was not driving back to the hotel. He parked the car, and I followed him down the street. At first I was a bit annoyed, but then I was happy. We were at the funicular station!

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If you have read any of my past posts, you know that I love trains. Funiculars are trains that do not travel long distances but instead climb steep hills. There usually come with great views. Or at least that is usually the case. I had requested a ride on one in Istanbul but then had been disappointed since that one was enclosed and only went up a relatively gentle grade. This one in Tbilisi was the real thing.

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The funicular took us to the top of Mtatsminda, the Holy Mountain, the highest point in Tbilisi. As is appropriate after riding the funicular, there were some great views.

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At the top is a giant communication tower that is 275 meters (900 feet) high. Since it sits on the top of the already high plateau of 300 metres, is visible throughout Tbilisi.
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Next to the tower is Mtatsminda Park. It was built in the 1930’s and was one of the most visited parks in the Soviet Union. A Georgian billionaire, Bardri Patarkatsishvili, an owner of a steel plant and a TV station, and his wife bought the park in 2001 and began its transformation into a giant theme park. His opposition to the Georgian government resulted in the loss of these assets but they were ultimately returned to his family after his death in 2008.

Sergio sent me off to check out the park. It was rather quiet on this day, and most rides were not in operation.

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I walked towards the giant Ferris Wheel but did not see anyone there.
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We took the funicular back down.

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This time Sergio did take me to my hotel. Sergio had asked if I was okay with his wife driving me to the airport on my last morning so that he could begin with a new tour group. This meant that I would not see him again. We shook hands and wished each other well. No matter my concerns with his services, I liked Sergio.

I had a brief rest, to cool off a bit and but more to wait for the outside temperature to go down.

Sergio had suggested a restaurant for my last Georgian meal, the Machakhela, which was located at the back of Gorgasli Square in the Old City. I had been a bit overwhelmed on my first night at the Ramada but now that I was better orientated, and I was leaving much earlier, it seemed like a nice outing to end my time in Georgia.

I used side streets to find my way to the riverbank. I found a lovely little park, the King Parnavaz Garden with a large sculpture of King Parnavaz and great views of the river.

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I then walked to the Mekhi Bridge where I took another photo of the equestrian monument of King Vakhtang Gorgasali and the Metekhi Church. The church was built in the 8th century on the base of a 5th century church.

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I could not leave Georgia without seeing more graduates. They were lining up to race into a photograph.

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There was a couple getting some wedding photos. A ubiquitous street dog was relaxing next to them.

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I found the restaurant behind the “I Love Tbilisi” sign. Everyplace in the world has a bridge with locks and a sign that says, “I Love FILL IN THE NAME OF CITY”.

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I was given a great corner table on the terrace with a great view of the square. I had company from a kitten that settled on my hat and camera.

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My waiter told me that he wants to move to Canada. For my last meal I had a khachapuri and spicy beef along with my last glass of Georgian wine. The meal was almost at the “OMG this is good” level. Or maybe I was a bit spoiled by then.

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The Holy Trinity Cathedral dominates the eastern skyline of Tbilisi and is the third tallest Eastern Orthodox cathedral in the world. We had not made it there during my rushed tour, but I decided it would make an easy detour on my way back to the hotel.

I walked back across the Mekhi Bridge. The evening light was quite beautiful, so I retook many of my photos from earlier in the day plus a few more.

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There were rumbles of thunder as I got to the Holy Trinity Cathedral. I rushed a couple of shots including a nice sunset.

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The skies opened. It was another downpour. I had seen them every night in the capital, but this was the first one that caught me outside. Just about the time I thought a café would be a good place to sit out the rain, I looked up and saw that I was standing right in front of one. I enjoyed the best latte of my entire trip.

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The rain had let up by the time I finished, but the water was streaming down the street. The markets had remained open. They were used to the storms.

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The only way back to the hotel required that I take the busy Aleksandre Tsurtsumia Street that had upset me two nights before. Cars were driving quite fast down the narrow road. Complicating matters was the amount of water on the road from the recent storm. I stayed as far away from the curb as possible but was still soaked by the spray from one of the cars which had raced up and then slammed on its brakes for the now stopped traffic. I was not pleased and shouted out what is likely a universal obscenity, followed by “you”. There was a reply which could have been an apology. I assumed not and repeated the words. The traffic moved on. I made it safely back to the hotel. I did not like Aleksandre Tsurtsumia Street. I still liked Tbilisi.

I did my final packing and had a quick chat with Po.

My trip was over. I was a bit sad, but one cannot stay away forever. I was ready to go home.

Posted by Bob Brink 21:58 Archived in Georgia Tagged georgia tbilisi Comments (0)

Sampling the Wine in Kakheti

And Back to Tbilisi for the Night


View Turkey and Georgia 2023 on Bob Brink's travel map.

May 22, 2023

This morning there was no compelling reason to look out the window. There were no mountains, nor cable cars flying overhead. My new Ramada hotel was shiny and modern, but it was more of a business hotel and could have been almost anywhere in the world. All I could see out my window was the hotel restaurant, where I had dined and been disappointed the night before.

I was down to my last two days of my Georgia tour and was tired of hotels and a more than a bit homesick. I find that I am good for about a month of travel at a one time. Then I want to be back in my own bed in our little town in Newfoundland where I live with my wonderful wife of over 40 years and our latest senior rescue dog, Zoe, a 12-year-old mix of what we think might be Lab and Siberian Husky. She joined us two years ago and like many rescue dogs, came with some health and behavior issues (rashes, huge separation anxiety, and an aversion to other dogs) that make it complicated to get someone to dog sit, a major reason that I travel solo. Zoe might make joint travel impossible, but I do miss her when I am away. I missed my wife, too.

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It did not take long to find out that I would get much better breakfast service here. To start, there was food, including a large supply of fruit, yoghurt, and pastries, along with various warm dishes. There was an espresso machine. I asked for a small plate and immediately had helpers on both sides of me. The staff were all young and enthusiastic. They took my plates the second they were empty, or if I was not eating fast enough, just before. I had demanded a better hotel, and Sakura had arranged it.

The room was full of uniformed EU people. I asked one to explain and was told that they were here to provide disaster relief training. Everyone seemed quite relaxed except for a man who was not sporting the EU attire. He looked very much the tourist in his cargo shorts (full disclosure, I wear only convertible cargo pants on my travels, but generally keep the bottom parts attached). He was upset that his toast had only browned on one side and was loudly informing the staff that the hotel needed to replace the toaster.

Things had been a bit tense between Sergio and me when he had dropped me the day before. I even made a list of things that were bothering me so that we could have a discussion. He messaged me that he might be late. I thought, “Here we go again”, but then he arrived just after 9 am in a nice clean car. He told me that he had driven about 1.5 hours to get to the hotel. He was in a good mood. I forgot all about the list.

My Georgia trip was based on one of Sakura’s standard tours and had taken me twice into the mountains. I thought it would be interesting to see the agricultural area east of the capital, especially the area with the wineries, so this day was a late addition to the itinerary.

We drove east out of the city. Although we could see mountains in the distance, the road was relatively straight, certainly compared to the mountain roads of the past many days. Sergio pulled over at a small shop and told me that this was the place to buy dried fruit, much better and cheaper than the dried fruit sold at the tourist stops. He suggested that I might want to take some home, but I had no room for extras in my little suitcase. Sergio bought some for himself. I enjoyed some samples.

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Sergio pointed out an old tractor on a pedestal. He said that it was the first mechanical tractor in Georgia and wanted me to take a photograph. I did.

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From there we went to The Monastery of St. Nino at Bodbe. The structures were originally built in the 9th century. The monastery is now a nunnery and is a pilgrimage site. According to Georgian legend, St. Nino converted the Georgian queen and subsequently the pagan king in the 4th century. The grounds are quite beautiful with vineyards and rosebushes tended by the nuns. The complex sits on a hillside with a view of the mountains.

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I visited the washrooms. An old lady at the entrance told me that I had to pay. Just like in Turkey, one has to pay to pee in Georgia. A man arrived as I was leaving and just ignored her. Maybe he could just not hold it any longer.

Our next destination was the city of Sighnaghi. We could see it in the distance so I asked Sergio to pull over so I could get a couple of photographs.

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Signaghi is an extremely lovely city with mountain views and interesting architecture. Sergio sent me on my own and told me that he would be waiting at the other end of town. I bought a sweet bun that came directly from the oven. It was quite delicious but gave me a bit of a sugar jolt.

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I listened to a street musician in the park.

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And then I found a latte.

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There was a For Sale sign on a house, but I did not inquire about the price. That is a bit of a family joke since when we visited Newfoundland, we saw a For Sale sign and ended up buying a house, even though we had no such plans before our trip. It is now our home. We now joke about buying a house anytime we are in a nice place. Signaghi seemed to be a wonderful place to have a home.

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I found Sergio and we left Sighnaghi. We encountered more school graduates along the highway. Either the celebrations went on for more than one day or the school closing dates were not all the same. This time the traffic was in front of us. We were stopped at what appeared to be a traffic accident, although it did not seem to be serious.

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Considering the way that the students were driving, with many hanging out the windows, I was not surprised that there would be accidents. As wild as they were, they were obviously sanctioned, as police cars led them down the road.

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Our main destination for the day was the Khareba Winery where wine is stored in a giant cave built into the side of a hill. Sergio and I did a tour with a young couple. They provided blankets since it was cool in the caves. There were different priced tours, based on the number of samples one was provided. For some reason I chose a cheaper one, so I missed out on some of the tasting. The wine was really good, and I found the visit interesting, but it was not a big highlight of my trip.

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We encountered more graduates on the road to Nekresi Monastery. The monastery sits high on a hill, Mount Nekresi, and is accessible via a steep, winding road. Visitors must take a shuttle bus to the top. We arrived at the parking lot and found a batch of graduates. They seemed to be everywhere. I preferred the graduate tourist site visitors to the ones hanging out of the cars.

There were also a few Korean tourists. I chatted with one of the Korean men while we waited for the bus. I told him of the many Korean tour groups I had met. He wondered if they had been loud. I told him that they were fine. The bus came down the hill, and after many graduates spilled out, we were driven to the top of the hill.

The buildings date back as far as the 4th century.

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Looking below I could see the excavated ruins of the ancient city of Nekres, which existed from the 2nd century BC.

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We had one more stop before returning to Tbilisi. Gremi was the capital of the Kingdom of Kakheti in the 16th and 17th centuries and was a trading town on the Silk Road. A Georgian Orthodox Cathedral was built on the hill in 1565 and is all that remains of the city. The rest was destroyed by the Persians in 1615. Sergio had wanted me to see the museum, but it was closed. We did run into my latest Korean friend on our way back to the car. We greeted as old friends.

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Traffic was not bad on our way back into Tbilisi. I asked Sergio to drop me in my “old neighborhood’, near my first hotel in the Old City.

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I decided to try the Moroccan restaurant that I had seen the other evening. I sat down at an outside table. I was the only customer. The menu did not seem as authentic as I had hoped but ordered a chicken tajine and a hummus to start along with a beer. Just like my first dining experience in the capital, it began to rain and that quickly became a hard downpour. I was under an awning but finally gave up and moved inside. The beer was good, the tajine mediocre, and the hummus no better than what we buy in our local supermarket.

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The rain had stopped by the time that I had finished. It was almost 9 pm and time to walk back to the hotel. I quickly forgot the disappointing meal and was once again enthralled with the Old Town at night.

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I crossed the bridge and began my uphill walk. It was not pleasant with the fast traffic on the narrow streets. It took me about 20 minutes to get back to the hotel.

I talked to Po on WhatsApp and got to see Zoe. She phoned back to complain that a ceiling light had burned out. Changing light bulbs is one of my domestic duties, but there was not much I could from Georgia.

Posted by Bob Brink 01:27 Archived in Georgia Tagged cities wine georgia tbilisi kakheti Comments (1)

A Church on a Mountain and Back Down to Tbilisi

Gergheti Trinity Church


View Turkey and Georgia 2023 on Bob Brink's travel map.

May 21

I had a hard time getting to sleep after the midnight fireworks show but then slept right through until my jazz began playing. My first thoughts when I woke up were about the weather. Everything had been covered in fog and rain the day before. Would I get to see anything this day? Or would it be more of the same?

I had encountered lots of rain at the beginning of my Georgian tour but was lucky to wake up in Mestia on my second morning to see the sun and a great view of the mountains. And, just like that morning, I jumped out of bed, opened the curtains, and looked out at a fabulous view of the mountains. I could see the Gergheti Trinity Church on the hill.

I quickly finished packing and messaged Sergio to see if we could try to get going a little earlier than the planned 10:00 am. He agreed to 9:45, a small victory, although he was limited in that he had to organize my ride up the hill.

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I went downstairs and found a table with a breakfast already set up.

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"Yes, that is for you. Do you want some eggs?" I had been given many awful breakfasts during my trip, but I was more than pleased this morning. I was sorry that I could not really do justice to all the food that they served me. There was only instant coffee, but they almost made up for it with fresh pear juice.

I was most impressed with the Hilltop Hotel. I had received a warm welcome the day before, was provided with a great breakfast, and was given a warm goodbye as I checked out. I walked through the hotel gate and waited for Sergio.

We drove across the river and parked at the bottom of the hill, where we waited for my driver who would take me up to Gergheti Trinity Church. The town looked much better with the mountains in view, quite a contrast from the day before.

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Sergio was not permitted to drive me up the hill. The options for getting to the church were walking or taking a tour. I assumed that the rules were to control numbers and perhaps to provide local employment. This was the view from where we started up the hill.

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It only took a few minutes for the van to get us to the top. Although it was rough in places, the road was paved the entire way. The four-wheel drive was not necessary. I was told that I had 30 minutes for my visit. I asked the driver if they would leave me if I was late to get back to the van. He laughed and said no. I still moved as fast as I could. I walked around the back of the church. The views were spectacular.

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The church was built in the 14th century and sits at 2,170 metres (7,120 ft) in front of Mount Kazbek, the highest mountain in Eastern Georgia at 5,054 meters (16,581 ft). Since it is still is in use, visitors were asked not to take photos or record. I stood inside for several minutes and listened to the chanting. It was quite moving.

I reported back within the allotted time but asked that we stop at a parking lot down below so that I could get a better photo of the church against the mountains. I thought about the incredible things that I had seen over the past few weeks. It was a magical moment.

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Our next stop was the Dariali Monastery, which is located next to the border with Russia. It seemed a bit strange to be going to the border, but it appeared that it was one of the regular tourist stops. A few tour groups arrived as we were leaving. The border is located in the Dariali Gorge which has been a key crossing point through the Caucasus Mountains for centuries and has been fortified for over 2,000 years.

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Our official visit was to the monastery, which unlike the earlier churches I had seen, is a new structure, having been built in 2005. I walked around the church, looking for a good angle for a photograph against the mountains.

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Sergio then brought me to the Gveleti Waterfalls, a popular hiking destination. There were two drop off points, one for taxis and cars and the other, about ten minutes down the trail, that was for the four-wheel tour vans. Sergio parked at the first one and sent me on my way. I was really happy to be hiking.

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I soon reached the second lot where I found a few tour vans along with the drivers. They had sent their clients down the trail. One driver was looking up at the mountain cliffs. I asked what he was looking at. After a minute of me struggling to see, he took my camera and snapped a photo. Luckily, I was using my zoom lens. He gave me back the camera with this image. There is no way I could have ever seen that on my own.

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There are two waterfalls, but it seemed that everyone was heading to the more distant one. Two Swiss ladies and I wondered how much longer we had to walk. The younger one and I shared our memories of climbing sand dunes in Namibia, although she had climbed the Big Daddy dune, one that I had skipped, choosing instead to take photos down below and occasionally gazing up at the long line of hikers struggling up the steep dune. This climb was not nearly as difficult as that one, but we still had not reached the top.

The walk became a bit of a scramble, and I decided to put my camera into my pack to free up my hands. That delayed me a bit. When I got to the top a few minutes later, I was congratulated by the Swiss ladies, who had wondered if the old guy was going to make it to the end. My pride was a bit hurt that they had doubted me, but that was quickly forgotten when a lovely young woman offered me a piece of dark chocolate. That was followed a minute later by her equally lovely friend offering me a piece of white chocolate.

I took a photo with my phone and had one of my fellow hikers take my photo.
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It was easier going down.

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I chatted with my new friends. One typed her contact information into my phone so that I could send her the link to this blog when it was posted. That was many months ago. I had told her that it might take awhile. It did.

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Shortly after leaving the waterfall area Sergio turned off the Military Highway and pulled into a field that had several sculpted stone heads done by a local artist named Merab Piranishvili. The stones come from the area. The sculptures depict different figures from Georgian history or the arts. The project is mostly self funded. I put some money into his donation box.

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It was then back on the highway, headed to Tbilisi.

This is Kanobi, a village on the other side of the Terek River.

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We stopped at the Jvari Pass Travertine Natural Monument. According to Wikipedia, “This limestone was formed when carbonate minerals precipitate out of ambient temperature water.” It was like a mini-Pamukkale, one of stops during my Turkish travels.

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I asked Sergio to pull over at a marble cross marker at Jvari Pass, which is at 2,400 metres. There were some tourists playing in the snow. I was not so excited about that as I will get lots of chances to play in the snow later this year when I have to shovel it off my driveway. One can only imagine the conditions on stormy winter days. It was messy enough the day before and that was just a bit of rain.

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Just below the marker is the Gudauri Friendship monument, also known as the Gudauri Panorama or the Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument.

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There had been nothing to see in the fog the day before, but as I had suspected, the views were amazing.

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The irony of the monument is also amazing. The monument was built in 1983 (Soviet times) to celebrate the bicentennial of a treaty between Georgia and Russia, a treaty which Russia blatantly ignored at first as they were supposed to support Georgia against invasion from Persia and shortly afterward Russia just annexed Georgia. From everything I had learned, Georgians do not consider Russia a great friend.

But the panorama is remarkable.

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Some men were flying a drone. They had a baby in a car seat set up beside them. I spoke to the baby (from several feet away), telling her that she was facing the wrong way. The man noticed and moved her away. I guess he did not want strangers talking to his kid.

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I walked out to the viewpoint.

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A woman suggested that I might want my photo taken. How did she know that I was not going to just do a selfie?

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I bought a nice cheese pastry.

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Traffic was busy going back down, but we were not delayed. There were constant lines of trucks waiting to get up to the border.

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We were about an hour and a half away from Tbilisi when things got a big awkward. I was quite tired. It had been a long day of driving and hiking. I was anxious to get to my hotel. Sergio asked if I wanted to stop to get something to eat. I did not. He then said that since I was not interested in eating that he would stop at an Indian restaurant since that was his preference. He said that he had not eaten anything for breakfast, so he really needed to eat and was going to stop whether I was hungry or not. The question was only to determine the type of food. I might have been more sympathetic if he had simply asked if he could stop instead of posing the question to see if I wanted something. I also thought that he needed to look after himself better. He had chances to eat something earlier. I had eaten breakfast and then the pastry. He pulled up to a restaurant and asked if I was going to join him. I did not and walked along the river until he returned to the car. We did not talk during the remainder of the drive. Perhaps it was also a bit of guide fatigue. This was our ninth day together.

We fought the Tbilisi traffic and arrived at my new hotel. As requested, Sakura had changed it for me. I was now going to stay in a Ramada.

The first thing I did was to take everything out of my suitcase. I calculated what I needed to get home and did my final washing, everything except for my sweatshirt. I had to think about that since I knew that it would take a long time to dry.

I was still technically in the old part of town, at least my hotel was called the Ramada by Wyndham Tbilisi Old City. I went out to find a restaurant. Google Maps suggested that it would be a long walk. I was not happy. At my last hotel (the one I did not want to see again), I could choose from dozens of nearby restaurants. I began walking and only saw cars, very fast cars. I felt that I was really being punished for complaining.

I finally gave up and went back to the hotel restaurant which was full of European Union people. Their coats said something about civil protection. Not that I have anything against the EU, but I missed all my Korean tourists.

I saw lots of pricey western food on the menu and only a few Georgian options. The waiter came to help when he saw me checking things with my phone. I finally ordered Lobiani, a traditional Georgian dish of bean-filled bread. I thought that I had also ordered a soup but that never arrived. It was a disappointing meal which might have been better with the soup. I thought an ice cream would be good since the bean paste had left a bad after taste. But the waiter told me that I could only get ice cream with the apple strudel, which I did not want. I ordered a cappuccino.

My great day had gone downhill fast.

I thought a lot about communication. I could have had better communication with Sakura about the hotel. I had liked the area of my first Tbilisi hotel, just not the hotel itself. I did not really want a Ramada. Sergio and I had not been communicating. Language might have been a big part of that. The waiter and I could have communicated better. I missed out on my soup which would have gone well with the Lobiani.

I was a bit sad, so I took it out on my sweatshirt which I decided had to be washed and then just had to dry before I left. Because I was busy, I missed my call with Po and only got her message. It was now too late to call. That made me even sadder.

At least my fancier hotel had air conditioning. The room had been hot but was now cool as I went to bed on the first of my last three nights in Georgia.

Posted by Bob Brink 21:37 Archived in Georgia Tagged mountains georgia kazbegi georgian_military_highway Comments (1)

Back to the Mountains

I Survived Georgia's Military Highway


View Turkey and Georgia 2023 on Bob Brink's travel map.

May 20

My first visit to Tbilisi was brief. I would be back in a day to finish my tour, but before that I had another trip to the mountains. We would be taking Georgia’s Military Highway, a route that has been used by traders and invaders for many centuries. The drive would be at times slow and frustrating, spectacular at others, and overall, quite fascinating.

I had slept surprisingly well, my own Paul Simon music drowning out the street noise and music from nearby restaurants that had seemed so loud when I went to bed. For once I was awakened by my alarm as smooth jazz from my app jolted me from my slumber.

I walked down to the dining room at 8:30 am, which I assumed was a reasonable time for breakfast. I found three ladies waiting in the dark room and no signs of food or staff. Rather than just sitting down, I walked up some stairs that led to a terrace. I passed an eclectic assortment of items on the stairway, including old pots and a fax machine, an interesting little museum. The terrace looked nice, but the door was locked.

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I surprised a staff person on my way back down to the dining room, who announced rather loudly, “Breakfast will be late today.” I thought the lateness was rather obvious but did not understand why I had to be yelled at.

It took another fifteen minutes, but we finally got some food, just not much of anything good. The crepes were quite cold which was somewhat surprising since that they had just been served. But I suspected that they had not been made that morning. The three ladies barely ate before they left. I watched as the staff held up the line to make their own coffees. It was instant, of course. My lattes of the past two days were just a fond memory.

Breakfasts on this trip had really been hit or miss. This morning was far and away the biggest miss of them all, especially with the absolute rudeness of the staff. I decided to have my second cup of coffee in my room. There was an electric kettle, but I needed to find a place to plug it in. The only available outlet seemed to be the one for the big television. A controller crashed down when I moved the plug. I gave up on trying to find where it had been resting. I also gave up on coffee when I found tea bags but no coffee.

I was not in a good mood when I walked down to the lobby where the clerk met me with the same coldness that I had experienced when I had checked in the day before. By this point I had decided that I had seen enough of the Hotel Aivani. I was scheduled to return to Tbilisi after my night in the mountains and was a bit confused about whether I was booked back into the same hotel for my return visit. I vowed to find out and change it if I was.

Just like the day before, there was activity overhead with a balloon and the cable car in action.

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I walked to where Sergio was waiting. Like the previous days, I had asked Sergio for an earlier start, but he had told me that he would be commuting from his home which was about an hour and a half away. We stayed with the later departure.

We drove about an hour to our first stop, Jvari Monastery, a sixth century church that sits on a hilltop above the Aragvi and Mtkvari (Kura) Rivers.

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There is a great view of the town of Mtskheta, the former capital of the Kingdom of Iberia, our next stop.

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Mtskheta was the capital of the Georgian Kingdom of Iberia from the 3rd century BC to the 5th century AD. The city’s “Historical Monuments of Mtskheta" became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. With its close proximity to the present capital of Tbilisi, it is also quite popular with tourists. There were many of them along with shops to sell them things.

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I had my first taste of Georgian candy made with wine and walnuts. Yes, it was quite good.

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The Svetitskhoveli Cathedral is the second largest church in Georgia. It was built in the early 11th century. An original church was built on the site in the 4th century.

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The wine ice cream looked quite tempting. I made the mistake of ordering one in a roasted cinnamon shell, not understanding that it would take several minutes for the shell to roast and that much of the shell would be too hard to eat. But the ice cream was great.

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Sergio phoned Sakura as we headed up the highway. He discussed a couple of issues and since he had not conveyed my message about not liking the Aivani, I asked for the phone. I told my contact that I was most unhappy with the hotel and did not want to return. She agreed to change it. Unfortunately, I only said that I wanted a different hotel. I did not specify that I wanted a hotel in the same area. I would come to regret this omission.

We came to the top of a hill. There was a souvenir and fruit stand along with a couple of posts that made a frame for photos with a spectacular view of a lake, the Jinvali reservoir.

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I took a photo next to the frame.

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From there we pulled into the Ananuri Complex which houses castles and churches that were used by the Aragvi clan, a feudal dynasty which ruled the area from the 13th century. The structures date back to the 16th and 17th centuries. The fortress was attacked numerous times, both by outside forces and by local peasants, but the complex could be defended during sieges thanks to a secret tunnel that allowed for the supply of food and water. It was in use until the 19th century.

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I was going to climb up into one of the structures but every time I started to walk up, a group of young people would pour out of the door and then spend several minutes posing for photographs taken by their parents. I finally gave up. I did not want to have to squeeze past them along the narrow ledge.

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We continued the climb up the Military Road. Sergio had not given me much history until this point, but he now opened up with his opinion of Russia. He told of Russia failing to live up to the terms of the Treaty of Georgievsk in 1783 which was to establish eastern Georgia as a protectorate of Russia. Russia did not defend Georgia in 1795 when it was attacked by Persia. Russia then just annexed Georgia in 1800. Georgia remained part of the Russian Empire until 1918 when the First Georgian Republic was established. That did not last long as the Russian Bolsheviks invaded in 1921 and made Georgia part of the Soviet Union until 1991.

Since 1991 Russia has supported separatist movements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia which has resulted in armed conflict and border issues. The Russian military maintains a presence within the breakaway areas.

The current war in Ukraine situation has added a new layer to Georgia’s relationship with Russians. An influx of young Russians, in Georgia to avoid Russian military service in the Ukraine, is putting pressure on housing. Sergio mentioned that a large percentage of the renters in his building are now Russians who are pricing out the Georgians.

The Military Road is currently open to help Armenia as the country needs access to goods through Russia, especially since Armenia’s border with Turkey has been closed since 1993. Delays at the border result in trucks waiting for days to pass through. They cannot all wait at the border, so they stop along the way. We passed dozens of trucks parked along the side the highway.

It was foggy. It was raining. Not all the trucks were parked. There were dozens in front of us, crawling up the many switchbacks, with cars passing when they could. It was slow going. It was messy. And I loved it.

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We reached the summit and the Gudauri Friendship monument, also known as Gudauri Panorama. Most Georgians might question the friendship part. At that moment there was a short break in the weather, so I got a couple of shots of the monument.

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It started to rain again. I could see nothing but fog but had seen enough to learn that the views would be breathtaking on good days.

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We arrived in Stepantsminda. We were supposed to go up to the Gergheti Trinity Church, but Sergio suggested that we would not see anything in the rain and fog, so we should wait to try the next day.

I checked into the Hilltop Hotel. Without the clouds, I would have had a great view of the church from my room

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I went out to explore. The town was not beautiful in the fog.

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I took a photo of the Twin Towers Sculpture. Two guys, pulling up their pants, walked out of the empty lot next to it. They said hello to me. I assumed they just had not wanted to pay for a public toilet.

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I walked for almost an hour.

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I turned around about the time I found the monument with a Swastika. It was foggy and damp, and I took this as a sign that I had walked far enough.

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I found a restaurant. It was warm and dry. I ordered my now favorite dish, eggplant with walnuts. I added stewed veal and a glass of wine. The eggplant was great and the stew good but not quite hot enough and fatty. I guess not every meal can be "OMG this is good" quality.

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I walked along the river before turning back up to my hotel. I learned that I had to watch where I was stepping to avoid the cow patties.

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I found it really quiet in my room, especially after the street noise and live music in Tbilisi. At least it was quiet until just after midnight when the fireworks started. I looked out at the display for a few minutes and then got back into bed. I was not concerned about the fireworks but was only wondering if I would be lucky with the weather the way I had been in the western part of Georgia, where after enduring a couple of rainy and foggy days, I had woken up to the sun shining through the curtains of my hotel room, which had heralded a fantastic day in the mountains.

Posted by Bob Brink 12:30 Archived in Georgia Tagged mountains georgia kazbegi georgian_military_highway Comments (0)

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