Sunday, June 12, 2016

On the Road: Georgia


As is the case with many countries, the local people in Georgia do not call their home by the English name. In the Georgian language it goes by Sakartvelo, and the country has been at the crossroads of East and West since time immemorial. It's even home to the oldest human fossils ever found outside of Africa. Perhaps most amazing though was Georgia's varied terrain. From the high mountains in the north, to the Black Sea coast in the west and the semi arid steppes of the east, Georgia had many wondrous places to see. Getting around was cheap and easy too. From Tbilisi, any major city in the country could be reached by bus within six hours. So in the three weeks I was there I saw most the major spots. Had I not been eager to continue with my travels elsewhere, I might have gladly stayed twice that amount. Heck, I remember that I'd come across an old Norwegian guy who was visiting Georgia for the 7th or 8th time. To him it was a veritable paradise. I could understand the sentiment. Unlike a lot of other places, mass tourism hadn't quite sunk its teeth into the region. So Georgia still had a genuine, friendly feel that was both fun and interesting to explore. As always, I've written all about it.

Georgian National Flag

The capital of Georgia is a beautiful city that has shaken off the architectural blandness of the Soviet Era to produce a pleasant, modern aesthetic. In many ways Tbilisi feels European, from the style of the brick buildings to the prominence of its churches. Then there is the Asian influence. I find that more difficult to characterize, but in the past, the region was under the control of Turks and Persians, and their legacy has left its mark. Whoever the conqueror though, the traditional Christian beliefs of the people persisted into modern times. Not even the godless Soviets could do away with the religious splendor that permeates both city and countryside. Orthodox monuments are everywhere and in a week I saw enough to become apathetic towards them. But as far as first impressions go I was amazed with their scale and architecture. On a hill overlooking the city, towered a fortress and church accessible by either foot or via a cable car. It was a must see for any tourist. I hiked up and gazed upon a cityscape that extended to another set of mountains on the opposite horizon. The largest church in the country, the Holy Trinity Cathedral, was clearly visible as well. I’d visit later, walking solemnly through the church’s vaulted halls. Though a modern construct it retained the style that the Georgians had refined over a thousand years to become distinctly regional.

I stayed at hostel not too far from the Old City. A friend had recommended it and I was very pleased with the place. Marta, the woman who managed it was quite helpful, and she didn’t hesitate to bend over backwards for her guests. So even though I was paying to stay there, I cooked a meal my last night and shared it with her to show my appreciation. The food I’d bought at a Carrefour supermarket. Just to be clear here, I love Carrefour. It was a bonus having one a three minute walk from the hostel. The other guests took advantage of the supermarket as well. But there were few other tourists that came during my stay. I was traveling outside the peak season. Still, I met some Europeans and also spent time hanging out with the Georgian guy who worked the evening shift. One of his friends came over to celebrate his birthday, so local and tourist alike drank in the hostel’s small courtyard. I hadn’t really brought anything and was hesitant to drink the alcohol the others had brought. But then the Georgian guy next to me said, “Anything on the table is for everyone. That is our custom.” People from another hostel had shown up as well and we had an enjoyable party, and as it got late, we went to the bar for more drinks. A draft beer only cost a $1 to $1.50. At that price I didn’t hold back and became highly drunk. At the end of the night I was wandering the streets of the Old City with a British guy looking for one last place for a nightcap. It was by then 3AM and we failed to find anything still open.

I left Tbilisi to go to Armenia and returned some weeks later. When I came back I met with a French couple I’d first known in Kapan. Though the two were working via the Internet while in Tbilisi, they took a break to have a drink with me at a bar. The dimly lit establishment was a happening spot with the usual cheap drinks. We  sat at a table, and while having beer, our conversation shifted towards homosexuality and how it was very looked down upon in the Caucasus region. A young guy over at the bar seemed to take offense to our conversation. But it turns out that this wasn’t the case. What bothered him instead was the Lonely Planet guide book I'd set down on our table. He didn’t like how Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan were included together in one book. According to him the three countries were very different and should be separate. His argument was actually very stupid, granted he was drunk at the time. The three were featured in the same book because geographically they’re from the same region. Beyond that though, in my own tipsy way of thinking, I had felt Georgia and Armenia were similar countries. The people ate more or less the same foods and both had many churches and monasteries. He tried to explain that I was wrong. So then I admitted that Georgians were more accepting of Muslims, and that did make them different in a way. He did not like that either and went into a rant about how Muslims were terrible people and that the Quran encourages them to kill, rape and take slaves. He got really worked up about it. Finally, we could take no more. We left using the excuse that we needed to eat. But it wasn't a lie. The French couple and I were indeed hungry. We soon found a restaurant with Georgian dumplings and washed them down with a bottle of white wine.
Liberty Square
Holy Trinity Cathedral
City View
Opposite Way
Prayer Candles
Mother of a Georgian Statue
Out for a Walk
Street Sculpture
Shots with the French Couple
Northern Bound

From Tbilisi I went north. I rode a minibus to the town of Stepantsminda near the Russian border in a region called Kazbegi. The place is known for it massive snow capped mountains and the Gergeti Trinity Church on a slope outside of town. The Georgians had a tendency to build their holy monuments in the most spectacular locales. To get up to the church I chose to take a footpath that passed through a gorge to an adjacent rise. Since the terrain stood higher I was able to take forced perspective shots that brought the mountains opposite the church closer. With the last strands of snow in the background still yet to melt I ended up with some spectacular shots. Then I scampered down to the church and saw its old stone walls and dome. Like all other churches, entry inside was free of charge. I liked that. In many countries they shamelessly try to bilk tourists for every penny, even at religious places where people should be welcome to marvel or pray without paying. Crossing the doorway threshold, I entered into the dark bowels of the stone church. I saw old murals and other relics from a distant age when such things were highly sacred. Once back outside I took a final look at Mt. Kazbegi with its glaciers, white against blue sky. Later in the year during summer it would possible to go all the way up, but not in March. Some determined hikers still staggered up to the snowline, which itself was a day hike. I’d arrived too late to make an attempt at it.

I only stayed in Stepantsminda one night. On the way back south I stopped off in Ananuri to see the castle. The rainy weather and the gloomy skies did not make for ideal photos, though I did find the building impressive. It had an intricate design and remained largely intact. After touring the site for an hour I decided to start hitchhiking. I’d heard it was easy in Georgia and sure enough I got a hitch in 15 minutes to a junction that would take me east into Khaketi Province. On the other highway an Armenian pulled over for me. He was a pilot for Hainan Airlines on vacation from work. As is always the case with the few pilots I've met in my life, I asked him if he'd ever seen a UFO during one of his many flights. He said no. Anyhow, the man had joined his brother to do some fishing in the area. His brother was up front in the passenger seat. After making our way over a mountainous, dirt road, the three of us arrived in the town of Tianeti where I was invited to an early dinner. We ate traditional Georgian fair--bread and meat. Later came the khinkali, a type of dumpling with meat, potato or cheese. It was far much to have in one sitting. The leftovers I stuck in a plastic bag for later. Then I bid the two Georgian guys farewell, but not before thanking them for the meal and ride. I had with me a tent I’d bought at the Carrefour in Tbilisi. But I suspected it was not rain proof. So I found a bridge at the end of town and set up camp beneath it.

The next day the weather was bright and sunny. Before I tried for another hitch I enjoyed a walk along the road through the villages to the east of Tianeti. It was not long before I encountered some men drinking on the roadside. They immediately invited me over and were excited to discover that I was American. They then had me drink beer with them. Later came others and they led me to a car. In the front passenger seat a middle aged man was in a drunken stupor. He moaned and shouted for cigarettes I had no idea what was going on, and sat until we changed locations to a hillside with a table and benches. Large plastic containers of white wine soon appeared. We did countless toasts and downed glass after glass. By noon I was pissed drunk. I crawled off to a nice patch of grass and curled up into a ball. My head swam and my stomach grumbled. But I refused to give in and throw up. I hate vomiting. So I fought the urge until I passed out. Sometime later the guys woke me. I’d told them I planned to go to the next town of Akhmeta and one of them said he’d take me in his car. I was stupid to go. The driver was obviously drunk, but I was too out of it to think clearly. It didn’t help either that the road was a snakelike dirt tract cutting through mountains. Somehow we arrived without crashing into a tree or flying off the road. Next I had to set up my tent again. I couldn’t find a bridge. I settled for a quiet park hoping it would not rain later. My luck wasn’t so good. But it was only a drizzle and my tent seemed fine inside. During the night I’d also become really thirsty and I didn't have water left. I needed to find another bottle and at 2AM the only place in town open was a pharmacy. The girl working there though, gave me a very strange look as she brought me the water.
Hiking up to the Church
Mt. Kazbegi
Gergeti Holy Church
From a Distance
Peeping through the Clouds
In Ananuri
Underground Eatery
Local Drinking Buddy

This was the easternmost province in Georgia. To the north beyond the Greater Caucasus mountains extended Russia, to the east was Azerbaijan, and then to the south, Armenia.  From Akhmeta I continued on to the Telavi, the provincial capital. It was a pleasant hilltop town with a historic castle in the center. Unfortunately, the castle was closed due to renovations. There were some museums as well that I didn’t bother to see. Gremi was my focus. The name belonged to an old medieval town that had a castle and church. Those two buildings were about all that still remained. I took a minibus from Telavi and arrived in the late afternoon. The weather was cloudy. After going inside the castle, I decided to camp in the area with the hope that I'd be able to take better photos in the morning. There was a bridge beside the castle. It was too close for me to set up my tent without attracting attention from the tourists and vendors on site, so I opted to camp in a pasture a few hundred meters opposite the river and castle. Once it became dark it started raining. Slowly the interior of my tent’s polyester siding became sweaty. After 20 minutes water dripped in. I was praying the rain would soon pass but it kept coming. That left me no choice but to return to the castle and set up camp beneath the adjacent bridge. To get there I carried my erect tent along the road in darkness, rain hailing down from a thunderous sky. If a car had passed at this moment I’d have made a very bizarre sight, but none did. Once beneath the bridge I discovered that the ground had no flat surface and was covered with stones. It was not a good place for my tent. What's worse, many of my things had gotten wet or damp from the rain. That night I did not sleep well. I awoke very early and packed up my gear before the castle opened up for tourists.

I headed to another town called Khaveli. It didn’t have much to see. Only some museums. One happened to be a money museum showing coins from ancient times and the more paper money from the Russian era, and lastly, the current Georgian lari bills. I mentioned to the museum curator that I collected currencies. He told me he did the same. But for him it was a business. Apparently, there was a big collector's market with buyers and sellers the world over. A bill in moderate condition from the Ottoman era (pre 1922), for example, could easily fetch 500 USD. As fascinating as this was to learn I remained content to collect bills merely for fun. While on the road I'd met tourists from various countries and could trade them for their currencies. So my collection was growing steadily. I explained this to the curator before saying goodbye, and on his advice, left Khaveli for a monastery in the mountains. I had to walk a long way up since it was on a mountainside. I was not alone. Dozens of Russian tourists arrived by bus. The weather was good and the views of the wide valley below jumped out in vivid shades of green. The region was famous for its vineyards and had a tradition of wine making going back over seven thousand years, possibly to the very origins of wine. Armenia also held claim to be the first. In any event, so common was the alcohol that I drank more of it than beer. I don’t particularly like wine though, and in Georgia and Armenia, the stuff tasted the same. The one big distinction between the different varieties was the amount of sweetness. They seemed to like it sweeter in Armenia.

My time in Khaketi led me to the eastern extreme and a town called Lagodekhi. I arrived to go climbing in a mountain reserve that was in the area. One trail went high into the Caucasus to a blue lake. It would have taken three days. But it was too dangerous to jike alone and I was worried about the rain. I decided to do another trail to Ninoskhevi Waterfall. For the simple day hike I paralleled a stream into a mountain valley. The weather started out good but after an hour rain began to fall. I had nowhere to take refuge and pushed on grudgingly through the moss filled forest. In places the trail crossed the river on makeshift log bridges. Bloated with rainwater the river appeared threatening and cold, and I had to be careful with my footing on the slippery bark. Later the trail traversed jagged rocks with a sharp drop off on the riverside. In one regard I was happy to have an adventurous trek through the wilderness. But I also kept cursing because of the crappy weather. My photos were worse for it. And once I’d finally made it to the giant 40m waterfall I was soaked down to my underwear. I tried to take a decent photo through the rain and mist. I wasn’t too satisfied with the result. Water kept getting on my lens. Rushing back the way I came, I scaled the rocks and crossed the river. About halfway the weather broke and the sky peeked through the clouds. Its warmth reinvigorated my beaten spirits. The rest of the way was pleasant with droplets of water on the ferns and trees.
Khaveli Old Quarter
Park and Wine Shop
Bus Station
Gremi Castle and Church
Holy Images
Old Armour and Saddle
Georgian Money
Monastery Tower
Inside Buildings
Ninoskhevi Waterfall
Wild Mushrooms
Wild River
Moss Laden Rocks

The same day of the waterfall I attempted to hitchhike to the mountain hamlet of Sighnagi. I didn’t get far. Two young guys picked me up in their motocart and we went to the next village. They pulled up in front of a house and invited me in. I had coffee and met the other family members. It turned out we were at the house of their aunt, a woman named Nona. She was studying to become an English teacher. This was good because we could easily communicate. Until then I’d met few Georgians outside of Tbilisi who could speak English. For the most part I’d gotten by with my limited Russian. Nona’s two daughters and son were also at home. I didn’t meet the father. He was off working in Tbilisi. When the hour grew late Nona asked if I’d like to stay at her sister’s place. I accepted. But first we had dinner. I bought some things at a nearby shop and prepared a kind of tomato sauce served with rice while Nona made traditional Georgian dishes. Once the food was ready we ate it with wine. Halfway through our meal two more men showed up. They were other members of the family, and they sat down to join us. I could see that they’d been drinking. Nona’s daughters brought more wine. The pace of alcohol consumption increased. Every five minutes someone raised their glass to toast something and I clinked mine against it before promptly throwing back the contents. In this manner I became terribly drunk.

I awoke in the home of Nona’s sister. The woman was the mother of the two guys who’d first picked me up. It was a Monday morning but the entire family, grandparents included, was around. The mother began preparing a meal. She cleaned little fish that the father had caught in a stream. The sons were content to smoke cigarettes and play a racing game on the computer. I had nothing to do. Now that Nona was gone my Russian was too poor to have a decent conversation and the situation felt awkward. Still I waited to eat with the family. The rain too played a part in my decision making. It went from a light drizzle to a heavy downpour. We didn’t start the meal until about noon. The dishes on the table had fried fish, spaghetti, bread, cheese and greens. I wasn’t keen on eating the fish but didn’t want to appear rude so I had a few. The left over bits I gave to the family dog, a cute puppy called Bobo. In the meantime I said what I could in Russian, and used the few words I knew in Georgian. Of course we were drinking wine which made things easier. Eventually Nona came by with her children. They’d been tending their vineyards, but with the rain, had stopped earlier than usual. We sat some more and talked. Then once the sky cleared I knew the time had come for me to leave. I'd planned to continue hitchhiking, but the family insisted I take a passing minibus. As I waited I dug some coins out of my pack and gave them to Nona’s young son. They were ones I had left over from my visit to Kenya and Israel. A half hour later a bus came and after one last quick goodbye I was gone.
In Motorcart
Dinner with the Family
Garden Rose
Having an Early Lunch
My next stop was Tsnori. From that town I had to go to Sighnaghi which was a good 8km away on a hill. Because it was a public holiday no buses ran in that direction from Tsnori. I considered taking a taxi, but the drivers wanted too much. That left me the option of hitchhiking. While walking in the general direction I tried to flag down each passing car. Oddly, no one stopped for me. After an hour I’d already covered half the distance and thought I might as well walk the entire way. It was an uphill struggle but I made it to the ancient wall that marked the perimeter of Sighnaghi. Next I had to find a room for the night. While I was looking, a local guy approached me and said he was a guide. He asked where I was from. I told him the US and immediately the conversation shifted towards me possibly marrying a Georgian woman so that she could get American residency. The guy said that after six months I could then divorce her. In return for doing this the woman’s family would pay me $25,000. It sounded sketchy. I knew American friends of mine in Japan who had married a local and tried to take the woman stateside, had had many problems. Immigration officials long ago wised up to this type of thing and needed proof that an international marriage was indeed for the right reasons. Still, the man insisted that it was an uncomplicated, guaranteed process, and that I would receive $5,000 up front. As tempting as it sounded I declined the offer.

I eventually found a place to stay, an apartment I had all to myself for $12 a night. After a shower and a bit of relaxation, I did some sightseeing and rounded out they day by having dinner at a Mexican restaurant. It was named Pancho Villa’s. The owner had never been to Mexico, but he'd lived in Southern California and had developed a taste for Mexican cuisine. The food he prepared was different from the real deal yet close enough that I enjoyed it immensely and cleaned my plate down to the smallest crumb. I was thus satisfied with my short stay in Sighnaghi. The next day I took a bus back to Tbilisi. Yet two days later I’d return to Khaketi province. It was only for a day trip. I went with a group of other tourists to Davit Gareji Monastery and because our minibus was not full, the driver stopped to pick up two French hitchhikers along the way. This part of the province was very different from what I’d already seen. The landscape had few trees and appeared similar to the steppes I’d once been to in Mongolia and Kazakhstan. A bumpy dirt track covered the last part of terrain before the monastery. We then got out and walked the final distance to the entrance. The place was unique because its builders had carved much of it out of rock. To the rear loomed low lying mountains that more or less marked the border between Georgia and Azerbaijan. A hiking trail went up to the ridge and the views into Azerbaijan were spectacular. The terrain below was open steppe as far as the eye could see. Aside from a military camp and distant town, it looked utterly inhabited.
Dead Car
Alley and Grapevines
Davit Gareji
Horses at Play
Carved out Rock Face
Wooden Cross
Georgia Azerbaijan Border
Infamous Son

As far as historical figures go, the most evil man of the 20th century was without a doubt Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili aka Joseph Stailn. The son of a poor, drunkard cobbler, he rose to become a highly capable revolutionary in Tsarist Russia. As a young adult he threatened and killed those who stood in the way of his ambitions. Eventually Stalin found favor with Lenin, and after the Bolshevik Revolution succeeded he became a member of Soviet Russia’s inner circle of leaders. Lenin, however, feared that Stalin was too ruthless a man to succeed him. He even recommended his dismissal. However, it was not enough to stop Stalin from rising to the top. After Lenin’s death in 1924 he eliminated his opposition and then went about creating a Soviet Union that conformed to his ideals of progress. The cost was tremendous. Stalin relocated entire populations, engineered famines, purged government and military leaders, enslaved dissidents in gulags camps, and forced the country to industrialize at an alarming speed. In between all this was WWII. Russia bore the brunt of the casualties, and a lot of it had to do with Stalin’s leadership. He treated his soldiers as expendable fodder. In the battle of Stalingrad, for example, the Russians were so poorly provided for that men had to wait till another died before taking the fallen soldier’s rifle and boots to fight on. The result was victory through a sheer advantage of numbers. In the end 14 million Russians died. But it was all for Mother Russia. Whatever the sacrifice, whatever the toll, so be it--Stalin’s governing policy in a nutshell. He had no conscious regarding the matter, and when his wife realized what a monster she’d married she became depressed and committed suicide. Stalin punished her extended family in retribution condemning many of them to the gulags.

So why all this talk about Stalin? Well, it just so happens that the man had been born in the Georgian city of Gori. The main avenue that runs through town now bears his name and there’s a museum dedicated to him. It portrays Stalin in a positive light, or more specifically, as a self made man who had elevated a worn torn, agrarian society into a world superpower. That much I’d read about in my guidebook. At the museum I couldn’t understand anything because the displays were written only in Russian and Georgian. So I focused on the photos and the many related objects such as the gifts Stalin had received from foreign dignitaries. And outside the museum, the staff had put Stalin’s bulletproof train carriage on display, the very one he’d ridden to the Yalta conference to meet with FDR and Churchill. Then, to top it all off, in the park nearby stood the house he’d grown up in.  It alone remains from that part of the old city, and a large roof protects the structure from the elements. I took a look inside to see the room Stalin’s father had rented for his family. There was no mistaking it. The future leader of the Soviet Union did indeed have humble beginnings. But I couldn’t respect him for it. In my opinion the world would have been better off had he died a nobody. Some people in Gori thought different. Sure they acknowledged that Stalin was a black hearted bastard, but it took precisely that type of uncompromising man to stand against the West and make Russia strong. The same parallel can be drawn with Putin, though even at his worst, Putin isn’t a tenth the demon that Stalin was.

Since I was in Gori I also went to see the ruins of a castle on the main hill overlooking the city. Then I went to the bus station and caught public transport to the town of Uplistsikhe. Not too far from the modern town were the historic ruins of what had once been the capital of a powerful kingdom. The inhabitants dug their homes and businesses into the soft sandstone rock of a naturally protected mountainside. There one civilization after another had flourished on trade until in the 13th century the dreaded Mongols forever destroyed the place. What remains are the holes carved in the rock. Erosion had taken its toll over the centuries as well, but the site is still impressive nonetheless. It is beside a river that also acted as a natural barrier, and in times of siege the inhabitants had used a secret tunnel to access to the water. I walked around taking photos. Some Georgian students on a school trip took an interest in me. Perhaps I didn’t appear like the average tourist. They spoke some English and asked all the questions they knew. I’d been in this situation a dozen times since starting my journey, but I like kids and let these ones practice, then praised them for the effort and continued on my merry way. At Uplistsikhe I also met a Ukrainian woman on holiday. She spoke little English but I enjoyed talking to her. She told me she was a teacher, and sometimes volunteered as a nurse who treated soldiers injured in the Donbass conflict with Russia. She’d even fallen in love with one of her patients, the results of the so called Florence Nightingale effect.
Statue of Stalin
Soviet Propaganda
Gift Collection
In Glass Case
Church and Fortress in Background
Castle Entrance
Church at Uplistsikhe
View from the Top
Carved Out Rooms
Western Georgia

I now left Central Georgia to move west towards my next destination of Turkey. So I first went northwest to the mountain enclave of Svaneti. Hidden away in the High Caucasus, its capital of Mestia was a charming town marked by dozens of stone towers. In days of old the towers were provided protection from would be invaders. Now the locals use them as storage for grain, and as a place to keep their livestock warm during the winter months. There was also a small square in the center with restaurants and tree lined park. At the park I drank from a spring fountain. Its mineral rich water had an odd taste, as if I were drinking club soda that had gone flat. At any rate I’d arrived in the region to do some hiking. The first day it was raining. And the second too. So I gave up on my hiking idea and instead settled on a few short walks around the area. On my final afternoon in Mestia the clouds cleared and I did get some sunlight. Around this time I had a shawarma wrap at a food stand. The owner was very chatty and liked how I had Mexican roots. He invited me to try on traditional Svaneti clothing he had on display next to his shop. I declined at first because I thought it a bit too touristy. But the guy kept insisting and I eventually said ok. I’m glad I did. Once I was dressed up, his friend took photos of me. The best part was I had a knife to go with the outfit and it made me look like some kind of badass mountain warrior.

After Svaneti I rode a minibus for 5 hours to Adjara region on the Black Sea. The main city is Batumi, but I did not head there directly. Instead I ended up at a small resort town called Urike. Unlike most the coast in the area, Urike’s was not rocky, but covered in fine black sand that had some therapeutic properties. I arrived with two Polish tourists I’d met that same day. My plan was to stay in my tent and get up early the next day to go to Turkey, but because we found a very cheap hotel room I decided to stick with them. Once checked in, I went with the guy Romuald to a restaurant to have a late lunch. We hadn’t even had a look at the menu when two Georgian men called us over. They invited to sit down at their table and immediately we commenced drinking shots of vodka. They couldn’t speak English but we somehow managed to understand each other to the point of getting drunk. I ate some of their food as well, very nice traditional cuisine with meat, cheese and salad. As the drinking continued one of the men challenged Romuald to arm wrestling. Though much older, the man easily won, and during the rematch he used only one finger and allowed Romuald to start in an advantageous position. And still Romuald could not beat him. In his defense he was already wasted. Without a word he wandered off from the table. I thought he was headed to the bathroom but after half an hour he’d still not come back.  The waitress said he’d left the building. So I went to hotel to look for him. He wasn’t there. The Polish girl was though. So we searched around together without any success, eventually gave up, and had a beer on the beach while watching the sunset. I was hoping for the green flash as the last bit of sun sank beneath the horizon, but it didn’t appear.

After we returned back to the hotel Romuald was passed out on his bed. Somehow he got back up and joined me to drink more. First we sat with a bottle of beer on the beach. Then we looked for an indoor establishment to have more alcohol. Oddly, the only place we could find was a dance hall where a group of Georgians were celebrating a wedding reception. A guy saw us peeping in from the entrance and he invited us to his table. For the next hour I drank and ate with a vengeance. I grooved a little too. But the atmosphere was off. In spite of there being a DJ and flashy lights, few people took to the dance floor. I shrugged and kept drinking. By the time we left Romuald and I were thoroughly smashed. And still we bought another beer to have in our room. I’m not even sure what time I fell asleep. When I woke up the next morning I had a terrible hangover. My had spun circles while we had breakfast at the same restaurant from the day before. Later at the hotel, the manager asked if I could marry her so that she could get a visa to the United States. At first I had trouble understanding her, so she called a friend who spoke good English. That woman explained over the phone that the marriage would involve no love or sex. Only for business. In response I said that I couldn't do such a thing, but that maybe I could find a friend to marry in my place.

We later went to the beach for a swim. The weather was sunny and the water refreshing. I quickly noticed that several jellyfish were floating in the sea. They were about the size of a grapefruit half. Romuald took one in his hands and determined that they were not dangerous. So I grabbed another and flung it at him. We then had a jellyfish fight throwing them around. Sometime after that we got out of the water to relax on the shore. Another tourist at the beach pointed out towards the horizon. We looked and saw wild dolphins playing in the water. Without a moment’s hesitation I swam to see them up close. They must have been 200m away, and I was exhausted when I arrived, but I got to within about 30m of one. It leapt from the water right before my eyes. "Wow! So damned incredible!" I shouted. I wanted to stay there forever watching them, but the dolphins didn’t seem to like my presence and swam further out to sea. Maybe they didn't care for my shouting. I returned to the shore and played in the black sand. The Polish girl had her tablet computer. She asked a Russian tourist to take a picture of us together. In the resulting photo Romuald and I looked like two oversized kids, huge smiles plastered on our faces. It was the perfect finish to my time in Georgia.
Having a Read
Towers in Mestia
Strange Statue
High Caucasus Mountains
Town Buildings
Village Pig

Me Posing
Black Sand Beach
Lunch Time
Arm Wrestling
Oil Transport
Bye-bye Caucasus

From Ureki I made for the Turkish border. I first had to stop in Batumi. Though extremely touristy it was actually a pleasant seaside city. I had lunch and walked around taking photos. The city center, however, was too large for me to see with my limited time. Once it got late I hopped on a bus to the border. At the crossing, a spot called Sarpi, I was annoyed to see that immigration was overrun with several tour groups trying to get through at once. I wedged in, pushed my way to the window to show my passport, then got an exit stamp. And that was that. After plenty of good times and a few adventures, I left behind the Caucasus region and entered another part of the world. My attention shifted westward. From the border I now planned to spend a month traveling across Turkey to Eastern Europe. What new things awaited me I could not say. I usually don't research a country I'm about to enter. It had been the the same for Georgia and Armenia. I suppose I'm the type of person who prefers to be surprised by the unexpected.

Batumi Backstreet