July 2017
  • Day21

    One last hurrah

    July 26, 2017 in Georgia ⋅ ☀️ 29 °C

    Lada Gaga's last day allowed us to add a bonus expedition to our itinerary - a drive up the Georgian Military Highway to the Kazbegi area.
    The drive is beautiful, following the river and lakes north towards the Russian border. We ended up again surrounded by peaks over 5000m though fewer glaciers from what we could see. We ended up going out to Trusso Valley, seeing how far Lada Gaga could go on terrible roads and, as usual, she took us to the end - a tiny border post with Russia overlooked by yet another ruined fort.
    The Trusso Valley seems to have three things to check out - (abandoned) villages, geysers and mountains. The geyser and springs left beautiful salt patterns on the ground, the mountains surrounding the valley are lushly green and there is still a hamlet or two and what looked like a monastery or convent being built. Oh, and the cows... who were still to be found filling highways and roads.
    The highlight of Trusso Valley was something we'd heard another traveller talking about but then hadn't been able to find on maps or in guidebooks. We did find a stock image though... and that proved the key! We'd been told about a 'soda pool', a naturally carbonated spring in the valley. When we stopped to see the geyser at the wrong location (thanks maps.me) we saw a small pond across the river that I thought looked like the stock image we'd found. On our way back through the valley, we found a foot bridge which let us cross the river before scrambling along the (very) steep hillside to get to the pool.
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  • Day20

    Two faces of Georgia

    July 25, 2017 in Georgia ⋅ ⛅ 29 °C

    My expectations of Georgia were largely centred around it being a former Soviet state, I hadn't considered the longer history. I still don't know very much of Georgian history but I think today helped put some of it in perspective. Our drive back to Tbilisi took us through Gori which is the town where Stalin was born and then Upstiltske where there was an abandoned cave village.
    The Stalin museum in Gori had actually been under construction when he died. The first thing you see is a large almost Mausoleum structure which is a shelter for the house Stalin was born in. They brought it here and reconstructed it. It's small, it was shared with the landlord, Stalin's parents rented the front room and his father had space in the basement for his cobbling business.
    The museum also houses Stalin's train carriage as well as a host of paintings, photographs, documentation and State gifts sent to Stalin from other countries. An English guide was needed as none of the signs include English. It's an odd atmosphere - the showcasing of State gifts seems like an attempt for validation or legitimacy. And yet there's also an attempt to balance the old propaganda (or maybe that was an attempt by an English speaking guide).
    Walking around the small bit of Gori that we did revealed the usual Soviet apartment blocks but these quickly gave way to a beautifully restored Old Town.
    We had planned on stopping in Mtskhete but decided to make a slight detour to Upstiltske which turned out to be an unexpected surprise. Unfortunately there was no English information, and so I can't pretend to be intelligent and offer much explanation. It was a village carved into the rock with evidence of wine cellars, temple and kitchens. There is a chapel that has been built on the site but the real pleasure was in the freedom we had just to roam. With no fences or cordoned off areas, we could just clamber over the rocks as we wanted. I'm aware this comes with a cost to the site, but it was amazing having that freedom.
    In the end, we drove back to Tbilisi rather than stopping in Mtskhete for more monasteries... Heathens that we are
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  • Day17

    Time to breath

    July 22, 2017 in Georgia ⋅ 🌙 24 °C

    Today has been a bit of a break from the intensity of the past few days. We had a late start and then walked up to the nearby glacier where we met a lovely Swiss couple who will come with us to Ushguli tomorrow.

    Apart from an incredibly disappointing museum in one of the blood feud towers there's little else to report... I'll let the photos do the talking for this one!Read more

  • Day16

    Following the rules

    July 21, 2017 in Georgia ⋅ ☀️ 31 °C

    So we had had little hints over the first couple of days in Georgia that this a country that seems to like its rules and procedures. At the border, Tom had followed the car ahead of us into the Georgian passport area and both cars had passed to the left of an empty guard post. The border guard standing near the passport office angrily told both of us to turn around and come back through on the right hand side of the empty post... despite the fact we ended up in exactly the same spot as we had been.

    At Vardzia, we paid for and were given tickets at the booth and then 2m on another man checked our tickets and let us proceed.

    Well today we were going to find out that this emphasis on protocol and bureaucracy is ingrained to an extent we've never seen before. And I've travelled in India where they really do love their protocols and procedures.

    But I am jumping ahead slightly. We started the day off slowly, heading into the city to check out the produce market (unfortunately the fruit was not as good as it has been in Armenia and Iran). From there we went to the Prometheus Cave which is the biggest cave found in Georgia. It was discovered in 1984 (though I have some trouble believing no one came across them before then) and has since been explored and opened as a 'natural wonder' of Georgia. It is certainly large, the walking tour covers roughly 1km through the main body of the caves and the larger caverns are immense.

    While the cave was impressive, it has been 'dolled up' for tourism with brightly coloured neon lights and piped music making for a very odd experience. There was a sad boat ride at the end that really just followed a tunnel for 300m barely pausing so you couldn't really really see anything.

    After this, we ended up on a 3hr diversion pursuing a look at the Okshan Canyon, involving the worst roads to date (neither of us have ever seen anything like them) and a bureaucracy mad ranger who scuttled us at the last hurdle. It started off relatively harmlessly, with a 'maps.me special' path sending us down gravelly roads with tight corners and steep gradients. Nothing we hadn't seen before on this trip, though the rocks were both larger and looser making it reasonably hairy.

    After taking us down to the river and trying to send us across a pedestrian swing bridge (even Lada Gaga couldn't take that on), we finally ended up back on relatively normal roads (by Georgian standards). We passed a small village before finding a turn off from the bitumen onto dirt that would lead to the canyon. After navigating barely visible tracks we finally found the way down. The first nudge of the nose down the 'road' it looked rocky but potentially do-able but within a couple of metres both of us were silently praying the road would be a loop and we wouldn't have to come back. The road was tight and the rocks so loose that there was nothing to do but commit to it as we went down incredibly steep gradients on rocks that wouldn't stop moving. There was a slight reprieve going through deep puddles and mud before an even steeper, looser descent. It was a nightmare, especially as the 4wd system (like trying to get her into reverse) is extremely finicky and at that stage Tom hadn't been able to turn it on despite much playing with the lever so all he had was the low range.

    Despite all of this, we did make it to the car park for the canyon, greeted by some bemused and at times amazed Georgians! We gladly rocked up to the pathway that would lead us down into the canyon to be told we needed a ticket. The ranger spoke no English so called someone who did, we politely pointed out that the ticket booth was empty but were told we needed to go to the visitors centre. We had passed no visitors centre so asked if we could go through and pay on the way out... or pay the ranger... or...

    We went back and forth but there was no budging Georgian bureaucracy, the visitors centre we were told was 1km away back up the horrific road we'd come in on and we'd have to go back get a ticket and then come down again! We tried everything but there was no budging him.

    We trudged back to the car with the faintest glimmer of hope that maybe we'd somehow missed it on the way down and headed off. Going back was worse than coming in. The Pajero ahead of us was sliding so badly on the first steep ascent we all had to reverse back and start again. Then there were 4wd and tour buses coming in the other direction that sent us reversing back down these impossibly tight laneways. It felt never ending. Thankfully in this, Tom finally managed to sweet talk Lada Gaga into 4wd and between that and low range he managed to get us out.

    We never found the visitors centre, though it must be there somewhere. And neither of us could face it all again (even being a passenger was stressful). It was gutting that after 3 hours spent finding it and then the horror of the road, the ranger drunk on what little power he has wouldn't let us in or help us out.

    It made for a quiet drive north to Mestia, now pushed for time and still on shitty roads where 60km feels like highway speed. This is further hampered by the sheer number of cows... turns out bureaucracy is not the only thing Georgia shares with India. There are cows on every road, sitting, lying, standing nonchalantly flicking their tails and sending clouds of flies into the air. It's an extra little surprise to find yourself facing 6 cows, 2 lying in each lane and the standing around so you have to weave in between them.

    Needless to say, finally arriving in Mestia was an amazing feeling. Especially as we were greeted st the door by two gorgeous puppies vying for attention!
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  • Day15

    Its not easy being green...

    July 20, 2017 in Georgia ⋅ ⛅ 25 °C

    As you'll have read in Tom's post, I followed in his footsteps by getting gastro. Although unlike him, I didn't choose a day when I could lie in a bed and wish death upon myself. Oh no, instead I chose to do it the day we drove and drove and drove down some terrible, terrible roads. I don't have (m)any photos from that day except the videos Tom has already shared. But I will say, don't fear... the roads have got worse since then as well.

    The day after the first epic drive, we headed to Vardzia down yet another glorified sheep path that clung to the sides of a mountain and zig zagged so tightly that the GPS couldn't decide what part of the road we were on. Vardzia is a cave monastery full of ascetic monk cells but also remaining frescoes and the remnants of fuller living quarters. It was largely abandoned after the Ottoman takeover in the sixteenth century but in the past 10 years it has started to operate as a monastery again, though we didn't see any monks.

    From there we went on to Kutaisi where we visited tge pillar of Kutaisi where a monk lives on offerings at the top of a large rock column. Very odd but somehow fitting and reminded me of the Indian gurus and religious hermits.

    We lucked upon another hostel that made us dinner from their home grown produce which was one of my favourite meals of the trip so far - not that I could eat much!
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  • Day13

    Where once the children laughed

    July 18, 2017 in Armenia ⋅ 🌬 23 °C

    Yesterday we headed up to Dilijan, to discover that the b&b we booked is more like a homestay than the one in Alamut Valley! It's a lovely family who runs the place, Tom was immediately smitten when they took him up to their 'basins' to get some trout for the dinner BBQ! We've been plied with so much homegrown/made food, including a Linden leaf tea which I wish I could have all the time.
    And today we've wandered around an abandoned amusement park, visited a lake and now we're just relaxing at the house.
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  • Day12

    Lada Gaga is on the road

    July 17, 2017 in Armenia ⋅ ☀️ 15 °C

    After having our dear Lada Gaga delivered to the hostel, we headed off to Dilijan via monasteries at Garni and Gerghard.
    Garni is from the 1st C BC and is the only of its kind in the region. Armenia had declared itself Christian in 300BC and was the first country to do so. What is left is in relatively good condition, it seems this is thanks to some USAID spent here and at Gerghard.

    From there we headed up to Gerghard which is the current favourite when it comes to monasteries... and will be hard to beat! It is set in a cliffside with a whole network of caves. It was extremely busy and I realised I've forgotten what it's like to be surrounded by bus tours!

    We stopped at Lake Sevan for lunch where there was another monastery on top of a hill on a spit on the lake. The lake is huge, accounting for 5% of Armenia's land surface.
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  • Day11


    July 16, 2017 in Armenia ⋅ ☀️ 30 °C

    The last couple of days have seen us settling into Armenian life. Yerevan was a blessed relief after Tehran... cleaner, more charming and easier to walk around. Yerevan is a mix of early Soviet elegance and later Soviet brutalism. All crumbling and fraying at the edges.
    We spent a couple of days in Yerevan, going on a walking tour, visiting the Armenian Genocide museum and going out to see nearby monasteries, I think we've started to get a sense of it. A few things stood out pretty quickly -
    1 Being the oldest Christian country, monasteries and religion is BIG here
    2 Armenia has been disputed ground for centuries and almost always seems to be under the rule of another power
    3 Armenia has a serious Mercedes fetish - I've never seen so many in my life
    4 And Yerevan takes parks very seriously
    Yerevan gave Tom the opportunity for a beer again - though the first one was a significant disappointment. And for me, it was just a wonderful city to walk around and admire. The street life ramps up after dark, every street seems to be lined with outdoor cafes.

    We also picked up a car - due to confusion our first day wasn't in a Lada *sob* but this was rectified. The car gave us an opportunity to head out to Khor Virap, a nearby monastery. It set against the backdrop of Mt Ararat which is spectacular though with midday sun and a hazy day, it was hard to capture. You'll have to excuse the exposure on these images as well because my little Fuji was struggling in the flat bright light.
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