Sunday, December 24, 2017

Tbilisi to Yerevan

According to the map the road distance from Tbilisi to Yerevan is 301km and 5:45 driving time.  And that proved pretty accurate, as we left the city at 9:00am and we were at our hotel by 16:00pm.  In the middle we visited some UNESCO listed monasteries

We had arranged a car transfer between the two cities with a tourist agency and it worked perfectly, allowing us to see a couple sights we wanted to see along the way, that would have not been possible with public transport.

Once we had left Tbilisi we saw road-side stall, after stall, selling autumn fruit and produce.  One local oddity was that often the stalls also sold washing powder and detergents.  Time and again, it would be that classic combination: fruit and washing power.

After crossing into Armenia we headed into the mountains.  The landscape was unusual in that there were deep canyons with very flat cultivated land at the top.

We stopped at Haghpat Monastery.  It was Sunday and mass was being performed.  The colour of the church garments, the choral singing, and the local with headscarves on added to the atmosphere.  An operational church in a building that was 1st established in 976AD

From here there were clear views of a Copper mine belching out emissions.  All through this valley there were derelict factories and signs of investments abandoned.  There were plenty of people living in towns and Soviet style apartment blocks, but not huge amounts of places to actually work.  Our driver said most men in the past went to Russia to find work. 

The second monastery was Sanahin, which is of a similar style and age, but not functioning the same as Haghpat.

and here the floors had engraved floor stones

From here we got back onto the main roads for the drive down to the capital.  Along the way some of the areas seemed pretty bleak,  Looking at the map later, this was the edge of area hit by the devastating earthquake of 1988 when 25-50,000 people died and 130,000 were injured.  There were many herds of sheep/goats being moved by a lone herder.  The herders fell into two main categories - a young person simultaneously checking their phone or a stooped over, elderly person.

As we passed the highest point, with Mt Agarats in the distance, the temperature dropped significantly (in Yerevan it was warmer again)  

The only traffic incident we had on the trip was near the city where a wedding party of cars were doing strange manoeuvres while driving.  They were clumping together, surrounding the bridal car forcing other drivers (including our car) to have to do some slightly hairy moves to get past them and back to normal.

Andrew captured some great pictures of the typical ovens and the bread therein

Monday, December 4, 2017

A bit more Tbilisi

We ate very well over the time we were in the city and prices were VERY cheap, maybe $12 for two  of us for a simple dinner with a house wine or beer.  

Having an interest in wine, we tried the one highly recommended venues which specialized in Natural Georgian wines - Vino Underground.  The natural refers to the traditional wine making method

Grapes are stomped by foot and put into egg-shaped clay pots called qvevris, which are then buried in the ground or kept in cellars. As the wine ferments, the qvevri's shape promotes circulation, clarifying the wine. The clay provides natural temperature control and a little oxygen exposure, all of which makes for some truly dynamic wine unlike anything you may have tasted. There's also skin contact, which gives white wines that iconic amber color and more tannin's than conventionally made whites, where the skin is removed before fermentation.
The complete article on Georgian wines: 

Below is a qvevri, terracotta wine jar - an advertising prop outside a local wineshop

The wine industry is huge for the country and there are a lot of places trying to sell to tourists.  We tried a few wines, but really only found the best ones on our last night in the city.  A local cafe Dadi offered wine by the glass and the staff were happy to listen to what we liked and make sensible suggestions.  And the food and atmosphere were excellent.

We had another local food venue down the street from us that was in the Lonely Planet, Racha (with great street art graffiti on the wall outside. Andrew particularly liked watching the dumplings being made and the traditional fried potato and meat dish  Ojakhuri 

One of Tbilisi’s last duqani (cheap, traditional, basement eatery, literally 'shop'), Racha serves up tasty home-style staples such as khinkali (spicy dumplings), mtsvadi (shish kebabs), khachapuri and badrijani nigvzit (aubergine slices with walnut-and-garlic paste) at great prices. Perhaps not a place for beginners: the menu is a board written in Georgian and no one speaks any English.  (From Lonely Planet)
It was very good, simple food and we went back twice.

The other great eat was at Sofia Melnikova's Fantastic Douqan, which we picked up off Tripadvisor with consistently good ratings. The reviews said how hard it could be to find the location and it proved a challenge.  Finally we walked into the museum we knew was near the actual location and of course I had forgotten the actual long name of the restaurant.  Saying Sofia a couple of times resulted in blank looks.  But i remembered the name for the dumplings for which the restaurant was well known for and saying Khinkali?  resulted in a big smile, and they directed us through a door and pointed to where we needed to be.  

And the salads and dumplings were well worth the search!  No one deserves to watch the video I have of Andrew eating/slurping his dumplings, so just a photo.  The dumplings are very large and the local technique is to use your hands.  The knot at the top isn't eaten and used more as a handle.

We found some very good coffee at independent cafes around the city, but it was relatively expensive by local standards 

Andrew did cause a bit of an international incident one day when we were walking along the street.  A young man gave Andrew a fright by grabbing his arm from behind.  So startled by this, he yelled at the top of his voice "F*** Off!" The guy backed-off and started saying America, America - we weren't about to contradict him.  Then he started to follow us.  Periodically yelling 'America'.  15 minutes later we ducked into a museum to lose him.  He probably was high on something or perhaps had some mental health issues.  

The museum was actually on Andrew's list, being the National Gallery.  It was one of the most disappointing  places we visited this trip.  There was an exhibition of Italian paintings - but they were just copies.  Then one gallery of local artists which had a limited number of paintings and were of a primitive style.  A picture taken of the favourite local artist, Pirosmani 

 On the other hand the Georgian National museum was outstanding and well worth a visit - we happily spent a few hours here.  The displays archaeological items in bronze and iron ( many were thousands of years pre BC) were really interesting and the items in the treasury were stunning.  On the top floor is an exhibition on the Soviet Occupation from the 1920s until the early 1990s and covers the 2003 Russian invasion in disputed Georgian territories.  A particularly effective, yet simple exhibit, was lighting inside a rail car, so as to highlight the bullet holes.

The green building in the photo above, is a police station.  According to some reading we did, post independence Police Station were built of glass as part of the idea of transparency and moving away from corruption - how true that statement is we don't know, but we did see a number of glass police station in Tbilisi and on the drive to Armenia.

We took a trip to the large market called Deserters Bazaar.  There were no shortage of large articulated lorries distributing produce and transit vans where the vegetables had been pileed in directly and the vendor selling directly from the tailgate.  If it was grown or made, you could probably buy it here. 

We originally had a plan to head to particular lunch venue after the market but we hadn't factored in local customs.  The city didn't really get going until 11:00am and cafes weren't always open when we wanted.  The ones that were probably though we were odd, eating so 'early'.  I read somewhere some people's working day didn't start until 13:00.  Of course things were open much later in the evening, but we kept our normal routine and were asleep before the fun started.

There was a trip to the weekend flea market at the Dry Bridge.  Lots of people and some interesting items for sale.  There was no shortage of Vinyl records and vintage cameras/lenses.  One special stall that surprised us was the surgical instruments, and they had a lot of stock to sell!  Also a good collection of firearms and swords.

The people were helpful and kind to us, but they had the eastern European more reserved natures.    While we couldn't read the local script and had 3 words in Georgian, we had no problem communicating with people. The only time we got caught out was when Andrew purchased a bottle of milk.  He said it made his tea taste funny.  Turns out it was Kefir not milk.  He had missed the English words on the label, but no harm done and I'm sure his gut health was improved.  And it is similar to the time in Russia where he nearly bought horse milk rather than cow milk before a kind local pointed the label out to him :-0 

Andrew noted that a lot of the cars had 1 or both bumpers missing - probably related to the driving styles commented on earlier.  There were not the same number of expensive cars that we saw in Azerbaijan  but there were a LOT of Ladas.

Tbilisi was a great base for exploring and we had plenty to do.  At another time of year the mountains are an hour away and would be worth day-tripping to do some walking.

Georgia, the Country, not the State

For our time in Tbilisi we had rented an Airbnb apartment, in a residential street, near the centre of the city.  We took the option of paying the owner to send a driver to meet us at the airport - which was her father who made nice conversation.  Meanwhile he drove like a mad-man or in other terms, like a typical Georgian driver!  See a gap, take it, veer in and out of lanes and make sure you use horn.

From the outside the building looked interesting but inside was modern, spacious and quiet.  Our apartment was the one at the top, with the small balcony.

It was immediately obvious that there wasn't the same economic prosperity here as had been very evident in the centre of Baju, Azerbaijan.  Here things were a look more run-down and there were plenty of investment opportunities if you wanted to renovate buildings.  One obvious sign of the need for maintenance was the high number of apartment buildings that were being propped up by steel beams. And wasn't just a single building, very often it was the entire street.  Everything appeared very stable, but you wouldn't want to be here in an earthquake.

The weather for the entire trip was generally pleasant, being early autumn.  But we struggled to get entirely clear days, so when we did go up the cable car or the funicular to the hills surrounding the city, the views were not ideal, but you just have to take what you get.

The hills accessed by the cable car provided views back down over the Peace bridge, a pedestrian only zone, and the music hall.  Very modern architectural installations, in a very traditional city.

One of the other recent builds is the golden domed cathedral visible from all the hills around the city.  While is is impressive in size and style, the interior was lacking in individual character, but there were plenty of devout worshipers.  Entering Orthodox Christian churches I almost always needed to cover my head:  that was made easy because I was wearing a hooded winter jacket, so just needed to put my hood up.  But at the cathedral I was required to wear a skirt as well - large scarves and wrap around skirts at the door were the solution provided.

We visited a number of other churches, from very spartan ones dating from the 12th century to more ornate modern versions.  In the collage below, bottom right, is a symbol from inside our apartment.  It consisted of a sticker over a 'painted'cross - about 10-15 cm tall.  They were in the kitchen, living a sleeping areas.  A little google research said  they were blessings done by the priest each year with the cross painted in olive oil.  A comment in the Lonely Planet suggested the Georgians as a nation were very superstitious.

Another unique feature we saw through the region was the reverence given to uneaten bread.  Bread was considered sacred and that it should not be thrown away like rubbish or left on the ground.  Instead, it was placed on the lid of communal rubbish bins or hung off the end to keep it separate.  We are unclear what process the rubbish collectors had for it when the rubbish was actually dealt to.

Tbilisi, more than either of the two cities we visited, had bread for sale every 10 meters in bakeries or from windows directly coming from the baking room.  The ovens were the round tandoori style where the bread is placed directly onto the walls of the oven.  And it has to be said the bread was simply fantastic, unbelievably cheap, and there were so many varieties to choose from.

Most of the places we ate at were subterranean, located below street level and the bakeries were also generally below street level.  The left hand picture below shows a direct bakery window, with the black footpath and road visible.  To buy your bread you had to bend down.  

Some more food, wine and exploring to follow