Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Tbilisi: A City of Contrasts

View through the Bridge of Peace, Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo by Mitya Gimon, 2015.
The morning before we were about to leave for Tbilisi, Mitya woke me up with the following news: that there had been a huge flood in Tbilisi the night before, and that because of the flood, many of the cages in the zoo had broken and a bunch of animals - including lions, tigers, and a hippo - had escaped! People were being told to stay in their homes while the police and military searched for the escaped animals, and we saw photos of various animals, including the hippo, being captured.

Our friend Vika, who lives in Tbilisi, told us that it would be safe and that the flood didn't affect the Old Town, so the next day, we hopped on a plane in Moscow and landed in Tbilisi. This was our second visit to Tbilisi and to Georgia, and it was great to be back, in spite of the unfortunate circumstances (the flood destroying part of the town, zoo animals mauling people).

One of the first things you may notice on a walk around Tbilisi are the grapevines dangling from almost every window and balcony in the city. Because the city is so far south (at least, compared to Moscow and many cities in the Soviet Union), the climate is very conducive to fruit cultivation.

Grapevine on balcony in Old Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo by Mitya Gimon, 2015.

You will also find many fruit trees, from pomegranates to apricots to figs.

Pomegranate tree in Tbilisi. Photo by Mitya, 2015.
Loquat tree in Tbilisi. Photo by Mitya, 2015.

And it's impossible not to notice Tbilisi's state of elegant decay. I think it beats Rome on that count! The best area to see this is in the maze-like, hilly streets of Old Tbilisi.

Crumbling facade of an apartment building in Old Tbilisi. Photo by Mitya, 2015

We have a favorite small park and lavash (Georgian bread) place in Old Tbilisi. Surprisingly, there are few tourists there. At all hours, you can see men playing checkers or chess and children running around. On hot days, birds will perch on top of the umbrella statue/fountain and drink from it.

Small park in Old Tbilisi, Georgia. Taken on film by Michelle

Another architectural point of interest you may notice are the churches. Georgia's churches are quite old, as it was the second country to convert to Christianity, in the 4th century. (The first country to convert to Christianity was Armenia.) The style of most churches you will see in Tbilisi and the rest of the country was developed during the 9th century, and is known as the "Georgian cross-dome style", consisting of a cone-shaped dome raised on a drum over a rectangular or cross-shaped lower structure.

Typical church architecture of Tbilisi. Photo by Mitya, 2015.

As we mentioned earlier, former president Saakashvili was a huge proponent of contemporary architecture, and he had several cutting-edge architectural structures built in Tbilisi and all across the country. In Tbilisi, you can find the bow-shaped Bridge of Peace, which leads to Rike Park (which has its own contemporary concert and exhibition hall); the Presidential Palace; and the Georgian Public Service Hall, to name a few. This pastiche of new and old architecture is why I call Tbilisi a "city of contrasts."

The Bridge of Peace in Tbilisi. Photo by Michelle
Georgia Public Service Hall in Tbilisi, designed by architects Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas. Photo by Mitya Gimon, 2013
The Presidential Palace and Concert Hall, Rike Park, Tbilisi. Photo by Mitya Gimon, 2015

If you are wandering around Old Tbilisi and hike up to the Narinkala Fortress, you are likely to run into several cute kittens and cats.
Cats in old Tbilisi. Photo by Mitya Gimon, 2013

And there are still cats, 2 years later! Photo by Mitya, 2015.

The Narinkala Fortress in Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo by Mitya Gimon, 2013.

We also hiked up to this church on the hill, in the middle of the photo below. It's east of the Narinkala Fortress. You can also get a nice view of Tbilisi from here.

Tbilisi and the Kura river. We hiked up to the church on the hill in the middle of this photo. Photo by Mitya Gimon, 2015.

View of Tbilisi from the church. Photo by Mitya Gimon, 2013.

You can catch a nice sunset from the amusement park on the hill, west of the Narinkala Fortress.

Sunset view in amusement park in Tbilisi. Photo by Mitya, 2013.
Another sunset view of Tbilisi. Photo by Mitya, 2013.

Strolling down Rustaveli Avenue, you can check out the works of Georgian folk artist Nikos Pirosmani and other Georgian artists at the Georgian National Museum.

You can go off the beaten path and explore the Marjanshvili neighborhood on the other side of the Kura River.

Marjanshvili neighborhood. There were NO tourists here, except for us. Photo by Mitya, 2015.
Park installation in Marjanshvili. Photo by Mitya, 2015.

And you can end your evening by watching a puppet show at the Gabriadze Theater. (I recommend Ramona, which we saw during our first visit, over The Autumn of my Spring.) If you know Russian, the Russian dubbing of his plays is much more accurate than the English subtitles.  Mitya's grandparents actually ran into Gabriadze in the late 1970s when they were traveling in the Georgian S.S.R., and he told them very excitedly about the new puppet theater he was building. He invited them to come when the theater would be built. So a few years later, when they were in Georgia again, they came to the newly built Gabriadze Theater, told the people at the ticket office that Gabriadze had invited them, and they were seated - on the house!

Tbilisi is also beautiful at night, when they light up the fortress, churches, and all the monuments. A stroll in the night, either before or after dinner, is a perfect way to end the day.

Honorable mentions:
- The Botanical Garden in Tbilisi - one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world. It's beautiful and wild.
- Dry Bridge Flea Market - like all flea markets catering to tourists, it can be pricey, but you can find deals on some gems.

Tbilisi at night. Photo by Mitya, 2015.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

In the Land of the Svans, Part 2

Sunset on one of the four villages of Ushguli. Photo taken on film by Michelle
Lying at the end of a long, bumpy, unpaved road from Mestia is the village of Ushguli. Actually, Ushguli is comprised of four villages: Zhibiani, Chvibiani, Chazhashi, and Murqmeli. The villages lie at the foot of Georgia's highest mountain, Mount Shkhara, and at 2200 meters (7,217 feet) above sea level, Ushguli is Europe's highest inhabited village. (However, having been at elevations of 15,000 feet above sea level earlier this year, during our trip to Parque Nacionale Lauca in Chile, we weren't too phased by the elevation.)

A visit to Ushguli is definitely recommended if you're in Svaneti. There are a few ways to see Ushguli. The most popular is to do it as a day trip from Mestia. You would leave in a van with people from your guesthouse at around 9 am, get into Ushguli at 12 pm, and then have 4 hours to wander around before getting back on the bus at 4 pm. I would not recommend this, as you would practically be rushing around trying to see everything in this time frame. You may not think there's a lot to see in a small mountain village (or four), but everyone on our bus was running to and from the sites, trying to see everything in that small time frame.

The other ways to see and get to Ushguli are:

1) Take a van from your guesthouse, but stay there overnight and find a ride the next day (or however long you want to stay there). This is what we did. We had a lovely time and we really enjoyed our hosts and our guesthouse experience. We were also able to explore the mountain and the villages at our own pace, without feeling pressed for time. The only downside was that the ride back to Mestia was pretty expensive!

2) Hike from Mestia to Ushguli and camp and/or stay in guesthouses in villages along the way. This is what the folks from Uncornered Market did. We also spoke with a guy from India who had just finished hiking to Ushguli from Mestia and stayed in guesthouses along the way. The hike takes 4 days. If you like camping, hiking, and have time, I think this is a great and unique way to see this region. You would also explore lots of villages that people who go on day trips and people like us bypass. As with option 1, though, you would have the issue of finding transportation back to Mestia.

3) Cycle or ride your motorbike/4x4 car to Ushguli. (We would not recommend taking a regular car as there are some parts of the road that a regular car would not be able to pass.) We did pass two men who were cycling to Ushguli. Our van driver snickered at them and said in Russian, "Good luck cycling to Ushguli!" But we saw them in the cafe in Ushguli later in the afternoon. We also saw two people on motorbikes coming in as well. So these options are definitely doable and you wouldn't be reliant on anyone for transportation. You would also have the advantage of exploring Ushguli at your own pace.

So, what did we do there? Well, after dropping our bags off at our guesthouse, we walked through the villages towards Mount Shkhara. It's a beautiful walk, and you are rewarded with majestic views of the mountains, pretty flowers, and grazing cows. Very bucolic.

Cows on mountainside by Mt. Shkhara, Usguli, Svaneti, Georgia. Taken on film by Michelle
Orange poppies, daisies, and wildflowers on the trail to Mt. Shkhara. Photo by Mitya

Bird on hillside, against backdrop of Svan tower and mountains. Photo taken by Mitya
Cows grazing on the mountainside. Photo by Mitya
After about an hour or so on this trail, you are rewarded with this beautiful view:

Panorama of Mt. Shkhara and Caucasus Mountain range. Photo by Mitya
We ran into the people in our van on this trail, and they were all running back to catch the van. No stopping to smell the roses for them!

You can keep hiking on this trail for another few hours, but we decided to turn back and visit the villages.

I love the detail of the stones in this photo. Taken by Mitya
Two of the four villages of Ushguli. Photo by Mitya
Cow grazing by a Svan Tower. Photo by Mitya
Teaching Svan children how to ride a horse in Ushguli. Photo by Mitya
Sunset in Ushguli. Photo by Mitya

While we were walking around, a cow started to approach me. I froze up, not knowing what to do, and then, it licked my camera lens!

Once the sun set, we came back to our guesthouse and were treated to a huge dinner by our host, which included khachapuri (a Georgian cheese pie). They had some very cool midcentury modern furniture, and I loved how they stored their books:

Georgian books at the guesthouse of Nina Nijaradze, Ushguli. Photo by Michelle
 In the morning, we were treated again to a large and generous meal for breakfast. We were told by the hotel owner's son that his grandmother made the cheese!

Our breakfast at the guesthouse of Nina Nijaradze. Photo by Mitya
The neighbor of the family we stayed with also owns a Svan tower, so we were given a tour of it as well!

Svan tower we visited, Ushguli. Photo by Michelle.
The day before, we spoke to the owner of the Ethnography museum, who encouraged us to come inside. We told him we would come back the next day, although now I regret not going in when the owner was there, because the man who opened up the museum for us the next day was quite grouchy and didn't even try to explain what the various objects in the museum were. Oh, well.

Before heading back to Mestia, we took one last walk around the village, and saw this:

Svan child on horse, Ushguli. Photo by Mitya
Overall, we had a great stay in Ushguli and I would highly recommend anyone coming here to stay at least one night. If you'd like to stay at the same guesthouse where we stayed, our host's name is Nina Nijaradze and their phone number is +995595854749. He speaks Russian fluently and his son speaks some English. We paid 50 GEL (approximately $25 USD) for a one night stay, including meals.

Related posts:
In the Land of the Svans, Part 1
The Road to Svaneti

Useful resources:
Uncornered Market blog
WikiTravel on Ushguli
WikiTravel on Svaneti (has details about hikes in the region as well as the hike from Mestia to Ushguli)