Friday, March 29, 2013

Snow, Stalin, and Vodka Shots with the Year 10 Students



20 to 26 March, 2013 – Bakuriani, Gori, Stepnasminda - (Georgia)

Trying to map out a few days travel, and realising that the snow was interfering with some of our plans, we decided to take advantage of the sunny days and that aforementioned snow and we went skiing. The timing was perfect. Admittedly, not many runs were open any more, but enough for us to be happy for a day. Hardly another skier there, either. The tickets were cheap, the ski rental was cheaper, and the accommodation was already charging off season rates. It was the perfect thing to do for that moment.

Panoramic View from Our Balcony
View from Our Balcony
Our view in Bakuriani, one of Georgia's ski resorts.


Caucasus Behind
Caucasus Behind
Spring skiing at Bakuriani. The snow is disappearing, but grooming keeps some runs open. But this might just about be the last few days of the season. We practically had the slopes to ourselves, with maybe 20 people in total skiing or boarding. The majority of people using the cable car were sightseers.


Bakuriani Skiing
Bakuriani Skiing
Snow was good, weather great, and scenery, fantastic.


Bakuriani Village
Bakuriani Village
View down the slopes to Bakuriani.


Gori. It is the birthplace of a boy who went on to be known to the world as Josep Stalin. The Stalin museum still operates and is proud of this link, but overall, I'm not sure if Georgians feel the same about this link as they did a few decades ago. We had a guide in the museum who had been leading visitors for over 30 years. Our vote for best comment regarding Stalin and communism went to the off-handed “They made some mistakes, but...”

More significantly for us, Gori was a great place for a day excursion. We hopped from one bus to another, and walked quite some distances.

We first went to Ateni Sioni, only to find it shut up. We walked to town to fill in some time in case it opened a little later, then walked back to find it still locked. So, back to town to see if we could find a person with a key. But to no avail.

Ateni Village
Ateni Village
Ruins overlook the village of Ateni, not far from Gori, Georgia.


Slightly disheartened, we went to our second destination for the day, Uplistsikhe.

Approaching Uplistsikhe
Approaching Uplistsikhe
A church on the hilltop above the cave city of Uplistsikhe. Sheep grazing by the approach road looked after by a shepherd with a staff.


Remains of an Old Temple, Uplistsikhe
Remains of an Old Temple, Uplistsikhe
The cave city of Uplistsikhe lies largely in ruins, but some remains are quite distinct, including pagan temples (later converted to churches) and dwellings.


Me, Some Wine Jars, and a View
Me, Some Wine Jars, and a View
The view up and down the river from Uplistsikhe is quite extensive and very pretty.


“Single Column Cave”
“Single Column Cave”
We nearly missed this cave, as it was a bit awkward to get to, but since it was one of the very few which had a sign, we made a bigger effort. And glad we did. The carved arches and the work around the column made it a highlight.


The cave city of Uplistsikhe was an interesting place, in its own right, but going there was greatly enhanced by our cultural interchange with a group of Year 10 students from Tbilisi. We first saw this group of students amongst the ruins. However, afterwards, we had a 2 km walk back to town to look for transport back to Gori. Along the road, we passed the group. They were stopped in a clearing by the side of the road, having a picnic. After waving from the road and receiving many waves back, a few of the students came running after us. Would we join their picnic? Why not. Home made food, some bought snacks, soft drinks, and vodka. Yes, vodka. “It is traditional. Of course we have vodka” explained one 16 year old.

The Year 10's
The Year 10's
Some of the kids who were on an excursion who invited us to join them for their picnic. The food was made up of various things that they had brought along to share, including some fantastic home made treats. The most surprising thing to see was, amongst the bottles of Coke and lemonade, a few bottles of vodka. Upon arrival at the picnic, we were presented with a plate and a small plastic “shot cup” of vodka, and gestures were made to the immense quantities of food to help ourselves. But apparently we didn't help ourselves enough as food was brought to us and put on our plates.


It's All Fun and Games Until...
It's All Fun and Games Until...
After the picnic, the kids had some time to fill before they had to return to Tbilisi. They pulled out speakers and put on music and sang a few songs, including Georgian hits as well as stuff we knew like Coldplay. The activities got more boisterous, with students swinging each other around, fairly violently, and culminating in recreations of Georgian sword dances. Apparently, throwing each other in the air is part of those dances. I guess we just have to believe them. Jo did not seem to offend them by politely declining persistent invitations to be one of the thrown.


Since it was not too late when we were heading back to Gori, and it was not too much of a detour, we thought it prudent to attempt one last time to visit Ateni Sioni. When we arrived and the gate was still locked, I made a decision. Apparently, some of the nice details on the church are on the outside of the building. And the fence was not too high. So, having exhausted all possibilities, I didn't feel too bad about jumping that fence to see what we could. I had just got my leg over the top, and was straddled there, when a car pulled up. And a caretaker with keys arrived. Red-faced, I scrambled back over the way I had come, and waited while he unlocked the gate for us. He did not appear to be upset, and made no reference to what we were up to, but I was a tad embarrassed all the same.

Back in Gori, having dinner in a pub, a couple of guys at another table started playing the piano accordion and drum, and sang. It was all rather spontaneous and a lot of fun. One of them turned out to be quite the entertainer.

Gori Pub Entertainment
Gori Pub Entertainment
We never worked out if this guy was supposed to be putting on a show at the pub, or whether he was just a talented patron. He and a friend sang songs at their table, playing the piano accordion and a drum. When we acknowledged them with a smile and a little applause, he moved up to the “stage” area, where some equipment was set up, and he put on some music. He accompanied the music with some rhythms, throwing his drum in the air, rolling it around his body, arms, and legs, spinning it on his foot, and as caught in the photo, twirling it on the floor.


Heading to Kazbegi had us going through one of only three motorable roads that crosses the Caucasus Mountains. This high pass is open most of the year, but it was not the snow that delayed us. We were stuck for an hour, and eventually it was revealed what had blocked the road. A broken down B-double. Problem was, that even with two massive (and I mean massive) army trucks with snow chains could not pull it up the incline. Wheels spinning on the icy roads, spitting oil and black smoke over the snow by the road. It was very dramatic. Two days later, the truck was still by the road when we passed on our way back down.

The hike from Stepantsminda up to the beautifully picturesque church of Tsminda Sameba was gorgeous. Although, being some of the first people to go up for the day meant making our own path through the snow and forest. We had to turn back a couple of times and find an alternate approach, when we found ourselves trying to struggle up the slope in snow which was almost thigh deep. Arriving, though, took our breath away. The church, and its picturesque setting.

Approach to the Church of Kazbegi
Approach to the Church of Kazbegi
The walk up through the soft snow was a bit of work, but to come over the rise and see the church was uplifting.


Tsminda Sameba Up Close
Tsminda Sameba Up Close
The Kazbegi church itself is old and interesting in its own right.  However, its fame and lure is greater because of its location and history, and it is quite the symbol for Georgians.


Another View of the Church
Another View of the Church
The church of Kazbegi.


Priests Heading Through the Snow
Priests Heading Through the Snow
We have no idea where they were off to.  We thought that the only likely direction from the church would be down, to the village below.  But they had headed in another direction entirely, and all we could think of was that there must be another church or chapel or shrine, somewhere close in the mountains.


Cliffs and Snow add Dramatic Effect
Cliffs and Snow add Dramatic Effect
As I said, the location and setting is the main part of the attraction and fame of this church of Kazbegi.


A number of times we have come in to Georgian churches when services have been on. I tell you, the chanting is amazing. Georgian singing and chanting has a unique three-part harmony. And when the acoustics assist, the effect is overwhelming.

A stop at Ananuri, and through Tbilisi once more, before heading on the train to our next country.

Ananuri
Ananuri
Fortress and churches of Ananuri, north of Tbilisi.


Tbilisi's New Cathedral
Tbilisi's New Cathedral
Tsminda Sameba Cathedral. A recent construction described as a "symbol of Georgia's post-Soviet religious revival". A marvellous building which is surprisingly light and open. Inside, the dome towers incredibly overhead.


Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Becoming Wine-oes



11 to 19 March, 2013 – Tbilisi, Sighnaghi, Davit Gareja, Telavi - (Georgia)

We have only been a week in Georgia, and we have already had a number of times when words simply escape us. This is such an incredible country!

We started with a few days in the capital, Tbilisi. We need a visa processed, and a day or two to acclimatise after being in Africa. This place is definitely Europe. Geographically, it sits in Asia, often categorised as West Asia, but culturally, you could transport this and put it next to Hungary, Czech, Bulgaria, or Romania. The old town is pretty and absorbing.

Ray of Light
Ray of Light
Jvaris Mama church, Tbilisi.


Tbilisi Old Town
Tbilisi Old Town
The old town below, with the controversial modern “Peace Bridge” crossing the Mtkvari river. It has been nicknamed the “Always Bridge” due to looking a little like a hygiene product.


Tbilisi's Sulphur Baths
Tbilisi's Sulphur Baths
Tbilisi has hot sulphur springs. The domes on the left are the vents over the private baths, the Royal Baths. We spent an hour soaking in the hot (almost too hot) sulphurous waters in one of those private baths. Considering the day was overcast, chilly, and drizzling a bit, it was a great way to warm up and feel a little special at the same time. The tiled building in the back is another set of baths, the Orbeliani Baths. They have communal pools as well as private baths.


We have couchsurfed with a lady, Nana, while here in Tbilisi. We took her out to the marionette theatre. You may, like us, think that this sort of thing is not for you. I tell you, don't think puppets, think theatre. It was a great tale (with English subtitles, thankfully). But the variety of marionettes, and the skill with which they were manipulated to tell the tale, was amazing. We were so impressed.

We headed east from Tbilisi, to the wine region. About a quarter of the world's 2000 odd varieties of grapes originated in Georgia. There is apparently evidence of wine making dating back to the bronze age, and that is when vines began to be cultivated, not just growing wild. Anyway, suffice to say that wine making is a tradition that goes back a long time here.

Signaghi was our first port of call. On a hill top, with a fantastic intact city wall, a magnificent view over the expansive plateau of vineyards, and the Caucasus Mountains in the distance. Some wineries in town, and our first proper tastings. Yes, we drank Georgian wines in Tbilisi, but now we are starting to learn a bit about what we are drinking, and how the Georgian techniques vary from Western European techniques. Most predominantly, Georgian techniques do not use wood barrels for ageing, rather they use clay vessels called qvevri buried in the ground. Also, while Western techniques tend to use the juice discarding skins and stems, Georgian techniques tend to leave the whole lot in. (As one man said, the stems and skins are the mother of the grape, and the mother is needed to nurture the wine). Another statement made to us was how people don't make wine, wine makes itself, people just help create the right environment. We went to one venture which is endeavouring to make organic wines (although, essentially, almost all Georgian wines are organic, anyway). But this mob is trying to ensure that none of the current knowledge and techniques are lost. Including the fact that they now make wines from some grape varieties that have not been used for wine for half a century or more. It was very enlightening.

Sighnaghi
Sighnaghi
On the roof of a church, built in to the walls of Signaghi. Looking down over the town, and St Georges church. Behind that, the plains stretch out, the fertile grape growing region of eastern Georgia. And suddenly, in the distance, the snow-capped Caucasus Mountains rise up. This is so perfect.


Evening Sun Hitting the Caucasus Mountains
Evening Sun Hitting the Caucasus Mountains
In Signaghi, looking north.


The most beautiful thing was sitting on the balcony of the homestay we are at, with the sunset on the distant Caucasus Mountains.

From Sighnaghi, we were able to make a day trip to Davit Gareja, near the border of Azerbaijan. Beautiful in its own right, but perhaps even more-so because of the incredible setting in the semi-arid desert. It is actually a collection of monasteries, mainly based in caves, most of which have been long abandoned. But amazingly, this was once so significant, with thousands of monks working on translating and copying manuscripts.

South Eastern Georgia
South Eastern Georgia
Spring is coming, and the first blossoms are breaking forth. Near the border of Azerbaijan, the semi arid desert can still support flocks of sheep and goats, though fairly sparsely. The interesting striated rocks that you can see here run in perfect parallels, stretching for a dozen or more kilometres out.


Lavra Monastery, Davit Gareja
Lavra Monastery, Davit Gareja
Abandoned during the Soviet Era, and now recently re-inhabited by a small group of monks and priests who are ensuring it will continue to be a place of holiness as it has been for over a millennium already.


Lavra Monastery, Davit Gareja
Lavra Monastery, Davit Gareja
The view in to Lavra Monastery as we ascended the hill rising behind it.


Border
Border
This ridge defines part of the border between Georgia and Azerbaijan. An ancient tower looks down to the plains that are unseen in this picture but are laid out to the left of our point of view. The mountains and ridges to the right, behind the tower, are in Georgia.


Cave Refectory
Cave Refectory
The frescoes here date from the 11th century, although the caves were used as part of the monastery complex for many centuries before that. These are part of the Udabno cave monastery, part of Davit Gareja. Monks would eat here, kneeling at the long stone benches.


Panorama at Davit Gareja
Panorama at Davit Gareja
This shot takes in a lot of the Georgian side, and is an attempt to capture a bit of the amazing geology and geography that is evident on that side of the border.


Lavra Monastery, Davit Gareja
Lavra Monastery, Davit Gareja
Another angle on this beautiful monastery. The little caves running up the back are where the monks live.

An hour or so drive from Sighnaghi had us in Telavi, well and truly in the heart of the wine district. A few days here meant ample time to visit a couple of wineries, as well as some of the old monasteries and citadels around. One morning, we woke and it was snowing. Thankfully, though, this should be increasingly rare as we head in to Spring. And although the snow did not stay on the ground in town, the dusting on the hills was very pretty.

In the Wine Cellar
In the Wine Cellar
In the cellar of the Chavchavadze family estate in Tsinandali.


Wine Tasting, Georgian Style
Wine Tasting, Georgian Style
We found this little winery in Tsinandali. We walked to it, and asked if they do tastings. The lady spoke reasonably good English, and said they did. 5 lari for wine tasting, and 10 lari for wine with some food. (That's about $3 and $6 respectively). So we decided to get some food as we had not eaten any lunch yet. After bringing out a stew, and a variety of salads and pickles, and a basket of home made bread, she brought out the wine for us to taste. One litre of white, and one litre of red! Oh, and there was some spirit called tchatcha (like grappa) to wash it all down with! Lucky we were walking!


Baking Bread
Baking Bread
After wine tasting, we were invited to have a look at how they bake their bread.


A Friendly Wave
A Friendly Wave
Always friendly, some Georgians greet us to their country as they pass by.


Citadel of Gremi
Citadel of Gremi
Gremi, close to Telavi in Georgia. It used to be the capital of the region known as Kakheti, from the 15th to 17th centuries.


Wine Qvevri
Wine Qvevri
These large clay pots are buried in the ground, and the wine is fermented in them.  These lie scattered near an old church.  Apparently, families bring them and leave them when they are unable to fulfil commitments they may have made.


Alaverdi Cathedral
Alaverdi Cathedral
When this was built, in the 11th century, it was the tallest church in Georgia.  And it remained so for nearly 1,000 years.


Monday, March 18, 2013

Don't Say Fuda!



10 to 11 March, 2013 – Doha (Q), Baku (A) - (Qatar, Azerbaijan)

A quick little post about our change of continents. We flew from Nairobi, and had a night in Doha, Qatar, on the way. And from there, we had a one hour stop in Baku, Azerbaijan, en-route to Tbilisi. More on Azerbaijan in a later post, I'm sure, when we return there by land.

So, we had this very nice lady at immigration at Doha. Her question, where we were staying for our night in Doha. "Fuda Hotel", we told her. She looked at us a little oddly. We repeated, "Fuda Hotel". She seemed to process it for a bit and then her eyes lit up. "Oh, the Fuda Hotel", although when she said it, it was more like Vooda than Fuda. "Oh, sorry about our pronunciation. Should we avoid saying Fuda." "Yes", she replied. "Not a very nice word." We were suitably embarrassed. Then she cracked up and laughed. "No, just a joke. Say it as much as you like. Fuda, fuda, fuda." As we exited the immigration area, I think she got one more "fuda" in.

Doha Skyline
Doha Skyline
Looking to the Doha business district, from "Al Corniche".


At Souq Woqif
At Souq Woqif
In a street adjacent to the famous Doha market, Souq Woqif.


Culturally Contextual Signage
Culturally Contextual Signage

Oil Platforms
Oil Platforms
Coming in to land at Baku, Azerbaijan, over the Caspian Sea. Dozens of oil platforms.


That's Us
That's Us
Cool shadow seconds before touchdown.


Sunday, March 10, 2013

Coasting Down To Zanzibar



23 February to 10 March, 2013 – Mombasa (K), Jumba La Mtwana (K), Bamburi Beach (K), Tiwi Beach (K), Wasini Island (K), Dar Es Salaam (T), Zanzibar (T), Nairobi (K) - (Kenya, Tanzania)

I'ld like to share one of the great customs when dining in this part of the world. Due to the fact that many meals are partaken without cutlery, i.e. using one's fingers, hand-washing is extra important. For restaurants, this means always ensuring a tap and basin is convenient. However, in a home, the host brings a large tub, some soap, and a jug of hot water. It really is a great custom, and almost adds a touch of theatre.

In Mombasa, we decided to find a church service one Sunday morning. My goodness. What a lively event. The praise; the singing; the dancing. It was astonishing and wonderful.

Nappin'
Nappin'
Finding a quiet nook in Fort Jesus, Mombasa.


Inside Fort Jesus
Inside Fort Jesus
Portuguese fort, Mombasa, built from coral rocks.


Stella Has A Shop With Her Picture On The Outside
Stella Has A Shop With Her Picture On The Outside
I'm glad we know what she looks like, now. I'm sure we'll recognise her when we see her in the street.


From Mombasa, we worked our way through various beaches. Bamburi. Tiwi. Wasini Island. We snorkelled the reef at Kisite Marine National Park, spotting turtles and giant clams and uncountable beautiful fish. We got stung by numerous bright blue sea-jellies (jellyfish for those who are not so politically correct) at Tiwi beach. We ate fresh calamari and fish, grilled on the beach over an impromptu barbecue. We dined on an amazing octopus in coconut curry, with a very tasty seagrass accompaniment, at Mpunguti Lodge, Wasini Island, and watched some dolphins (at a little distance) while eating breakfast the next morning.

Sykes Monkey
Sykes Monkey
Hanging around the ruins of Jumba la Mtwana were a number of these extremely cute monkeys.


So Pretty, and Ultimately, So Tasty
So Pretty, and Ultimately, So Tasty
A lobster, destined for a dinner plate somewhere.


So, What You Looking At?
So, What You Looking At?
Outside a beachside mosque, at the northern end of Diani Beach.


Aren't Boabab Trees the Coolest?
Aren't Boabab Trees the Coolest?
There is something so fantastic about them.  Are these two siblings?  A couple?  Or just good friends?  It doesn't matter, they have decided that nothing will ever come between them!


Sea-jelly
Sea-jelly
There were many of these sea-jellies (jellyfish) floating by while we were trying to enjoy the water at Tiwi Beach.  But those tentacles.  Initially, you would feel a stinging pain where they brushed past, then a tingling and numbing over the next 20 minutes or so, and then, eventually, they would just become itchy rashes taking, in a couple of cases, days to settle down.


Turtle
Turtle
Spotted while snorkelling Kisite Marine National Park.


Weeee!!!
Weeee!!!
Wasini Island.


Welcoming Duty
Welcoming Duty
This was next to the door.  The guys from the lodge said they were told numerous times not to move it, as it is quite the marvellous creature.  We tended to agree, as long as it understood its place was outside.


Asymmetrical Crabs
Asymmetrical Crabs
Do you think they walk in circles because they're out of balance?


Those poor guys at the island. Having not had rain for a while on an island with no fresh water meant they had to bring it all on boats from the mainland. Then fill the water tanks on the roof so the two mzungus could shower. Naturally, we felt obliged to keep the showers brief.

Due to the elections in Kenya, and given the history from the last elections (when post-election violence saw over 1000 people killed), we decided that it would probably be best to be out of the country by the 4th of March. If for no other reason than to avoid the possibility of being stuck somewhere if any essential services are interrupted, or if transport services are in any way disrupted. So, down to Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar, in Tanzania.

Dar es Salaam was a brief stop, and we managed to catch up with yet another relative in the extended family of Nick's, Millicent. Two nights, good food, and some fascinating stories. Seriously, this is one person who should be writing an autobiography.

One thing I am always proud of is my sense of direction and ability to orient myself. So, trust me, it is one hell of a confusing maze of alleyways that results in me looking at Jo and saying “I really don't know where we are.” Yes, we were lost. In the labyrinth of nooks and lanes and alleys and paths of Stone Town, Zanzibar. Not worrying lost, in fact, even delightfully so. But nevertheless, lost. Doorways and balconies, and gorgeous old buildings, all different and somehow all looking the same, at every turn. Shops with different owners, but selling the same things. Different faces, but the same greetings. Thankfully, the low sun meant that we could work our way to the waterfront, but if it had been closer to midday, we may have been lost for a lot longer.

Our hotel has a breakfast dining room on the roof. “Fifty-four”, Jo proudly announced while eating. I looked at her, inquisitive. “Archways”, she said. “I can count fifty-four archways from here.”

Mercury's, Zanzibar
Mercury's, Zanzibar
Freddie Mercury, born Farrokh Bulsara on September 5, 1946 in Stone Town, Zanzibar.  Since he left when quite young, there is really nothing to see that is truly connected with him, but it is still an interesting fact to keep in mind.


Zanzibari Doorway
Zanzibari Doorway
A typical door in Stone Town, Zanzibar.  Most are not quite this elaborate, and many are not in as good a condition, but the work on many of them is magnificent.


Red Colobus
Red Colobus
Beautiful colours and hair on the Zanzibar Red Colobus.


Baby Colobus
Baby Red Colobus

Mid Flight
Mid Flight
It is hard to keep one's hair style neat when swinging through trees.


Massage
Massage
We felt we might try and re-create the decor of this room when we get back home.


Zanzibari Pizza
Zanzibari Pizza
It's sort of like a crepe, but more savoury, and then stuffed and fried.  Savoury fillings like beef or tomato and cheese, or sweet fillings like fruit with chocolate.  All the varieties we tried were fantastic.


After the last election, when over 1,000 people were killed in post-election violence, we were careful about our timing. We thought waiting four or five days after the election before returning to Nairobi would be long enough to know what the mood was like. Plenty of time to get a result announced, and for us to find out if the people would accept the result without rioting... We watched the news and net as results came. And after they abandoned the electronic system and re-began the count, it became apparent the result woud not be known as soon as expected. Even as we arrived at the airport, we checked if a result had been reached, but no. The streets of Nairobi were practically empty, as businesses had not re-opened, and people were avoiding going out. Sometime in the middle of the night, the result was announced... And the following day it was made official, and thankfully the country seems to have remained pretty calm, so far.