Entering Georgia

From Dilijan we caught a taxi to Vanadzor. It was a bit chilly that morning, and I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt as always. Locals here have no tolerance for cold apparently, because it was only sixty-ish degrees and to see them dress youd think it was winter already! Well, Ive mentioned their hospitality. The taxi driver kept looking at my bare legs and arms and finally had to say something; arent you cold?? he asked. I said, using two of my dozen Russian words, Nyet, karasho! meaning, no, Im good. Well, he understood but couldnt accept it. He kept looking at me in wonder, then when we stopped for gas he took off his jacket and insisted I wear it. And really, I wasnt that cold! But there was no refusing, so I took it gracefully.

Speaking of Gas, most of the cars here run on propane; gasoline is the exception, not the rule. When filling with propane, we all have to exit the car in case it explodes .It takes about 10-15 minutes to fill up the tank. Anyway, we spent the morning in Vanadzor, walked through the gigantic market, got some raw milk, dried fruits, spicy homemade beef sausage, local cheese, and so on. The milk had a very pleasant taste, and cost about 50c a quart.

We caught a taxi for the border of Georgia, crossing into which was uneventful, then a marshrutka (shared minivan-taxi with 15 people in it) for Tbilisi. We noticed immediately that these people were lighter in skin tone – some lighter than I – and less happy, friendly, and apparently less healthy than the Armenians we had just left.

At the Tbilisi bus station we were immediately accosted by taxi drivers, as usual, to whom I replied with a firm no. Never, ever, take the taxi that runs to meet the bus. It speaks of either desperation or greed, neither of which spells good things.

So we got away from the concentration of sharks and were walking through the bus station, when a man – I later learned he was Nigerian, the only black man I saw the whole trip – walked up to us and asked where we were from, and where we were going. I told him and asked him how to get there, and he insisted on walking us all the way across the lot to the bus we needed to get on. Which was very nice.

After finding a hostel we went to the famed old town to look for some food. I found it quite disappointing – reminded me too much of New Orleans French Quarter. Overpriced food, cheesy pseudo-European sidewalk cafes, and so on. We ate, but left hungry and disillusioned. We wound up eating at a New York Burger. Rather depressing. Although I must say the ketchup was the most unusual Ive ever had. It was thin, and had some sort of strange spice in it, like cinnamon or nutmeg. Still not sure whether I like it or not.

Next morning we set out for the Turkish Baths at Abanotubani. They are a sulphur bath where both Alexander Pushkin and Alexandre Dumas once bathed. 20$ got us a private room for 2 with a 5 cube full of 104 degree water that smelled of rotten eggs, a shower, and tile everywhere. Swimsuit time!

Just when the water was really getting me mellow and relaxed, there was a knock at the door. At first I thought our time was up, but apparently it was our masseur. Crystal was too chicken to go first so I said sure, why not. He proceeded to lather me up, rub me down, use a scrub brush all over, use pressure points on the feet, pound on my back, and so on. Then he seemed to delight in surprising me with a bucket of hot water over my head. It took him 20 minutes to do it all. Then, since I apparently survived the experience, Crystal deigned to take a turn. Wound up costing us another 20$ for the both of us for the scrub and massage.

Found a restaurant nearby, obviously invented for tourists, but which was still fairly cheap; we had a chicken liver/heart dish, a bowl of strangely seasoned beans, and a kebab – which here means something like meatloaf rolled into football-shaped but golf-ball sized lumps. Good though.

Then we walked through the botanical gardens, and up to the top of for Narikala – where I juggled as part of my juggle-around-the-world hobby.

Finally we made our way to the train station, where we were planning to catch a train to Zugdidi, thence to Svaneti, our destination in the mountains. I should note that all Tbilisans we met were rude, pushy, aggressive and angry. I havent been cut off in line so many times since I was in the Andes mountains where the Indians were REALLY pushy at times.

We were standing in line in the ticket counter, very clearly, and people would just shove past us, stand on the side in the ticket counter and demand their attention next. As if we were invisible. Finally I got pushy too and no one seemed to mind. A far cry from the hospitality of Armenia, and which were to experience in rural Georgia.

Anyway, in spite of all that we found that all trains were full, we were informed rather rudely and impatiently. Until two days later. So we decided to change our plans and go to Tusheti first, then to Svaneti later. Tusheti was also mountainous, and closer. However it was too late to start for Tusheti that night, so we went to another hostel – we hadnt liked the first one. Here we met several interesting travelers from China, Italy and Israel and stayed up chatting until fairly late.

Tried to catch a minibus to the bus station the next morning, but the first two were full, and the third one had space, but a woman saw me, pushed in front of us, onto the bus, then slammed the door behind her – and I was IN the doorway at the time! I managed to duck out and the bus pulled away. So we gave up on the minibus idea, took the underground metro and started planning our later return to Armenia via some route that did not include Tbilisi!

Next we went to Telavi, our jumping-off point for the mountains. It was too late in the day to go onward to Omalo, our destination in the mountains, so we stayed in a homestay in Telavi. This was our first real homestay, in a beautiful 19th century European-style home with 10 ceilings and beautiful antiques. They made us dinner, and breakfast, and doted on us terribly. Their hospitality was incredible, and they only charged us 10$ each for the room and two meals. And another 5$ to drive us to the next town to pick up the taxi for the mountains. I left another 10$ on the bed to thank them for going above and beyond, since I was pretty sure they wouldnt take it if I offered it.

As I write this, I am waiting in a shared jeep for a trip up into the mountains. Its a 3.5 hour trip, but weve just been informed that the roads are closed until this afternoon due to a lot of rain last night, and maybe closed even then, so were not sure what happens next. But hey, thats part of travel when youre not with the tour group!

Posted on August 30th, 2010 by Natnee and filed under Georgia/Armenia | No Comments »

Jermuk (They spell it with a D).

We walked the distance to the Shuka, the local name for the market where they sell produce of all sorts. Arriving there, things were just starting to get moving and most of the vendors were still closed. I was struck by the fact that all the products were just setting there, under a sheet – not all wrapped up and taken home every night like Im used to seeing in Latin America. They must be more trusting/trustworthy here.

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We wandered through the market and noticed how prettily the food was stacked. We were soon waylaid by a vendor trying to get us to taste her wares – she gave us an apricot and, youll think Im lying, I kid you not when I bit into that apricot I heard singing saying aaaaaaaah! It was hands down the best apricot I had ever tasted. It was fresh, but it had all the concentrated flavors of dried apricots, plus some others thrown in. It was amazing.

Then we tried a fig; now mind you, Ive eaten many fresh figs in my life, I grow my own at home. And I thought Id had good figs before. I hadnt. These were spectacular. Using the refractometer, they brixed at 30, while the best figs at home usually brix at 20 – making them 50% sweeter, and more healthy, than the best fig Id ever eaten.

We tried their blackberries – again, unbelievably good blackberries. Small, and tender, and juicy. The peaches were good, but not outstanding, and so were the tomatoes. The grapes however were excellent, with a brix of 20 which is really good for grapes. I also bought some dried figs which were so tender they were just a little harder than fresh figs, with a dried center that tasted like it had jam inserted into it. Many people have noted the correlation between high-brix foods and healthy people, and here I am eating it and seeing it for myself.

Finally, stuffed and with a backpack loaded with food, we caught a taxi to find the shared minivan going to Jermuk. 2.5 hours later we arrived in Jermuk, the home of some incredible mineral water hot-springs and sanatoriums set up by the Soviets to send workers to for rejuvenation. We wound up staying at a place which was very expensive for me (75$/per person), but it included three buffet meals a day, internet, and treatment at the sanatorium. So at that, it wasnt too bad.

We ate dinner there that night, tried some of everything, and it was almost all good. Green beans were incredibly sweet. And the potatoes! They were whole, peeled, boiled white potatoes. And yet, if I were blindfolded, I would have sworn I was eating mashed potatoes – these things tasted like they had tons of butter and salt in them, and I was eating them whole and plain! Not only that, but the texture was so smooth, none of the lumps and chunks we have in our potatoes. Since they were cooked, I wasnt able to get a brix on them (it only works on raw juices), but Im sure they were the best potatoes I ever had. Crystal said they were better than eating ice cream, and I think she was right!

Time doesnt permit me to tell of all the dishes we sampled, so I wont torture you with them, but I must give honorable mention to another stellar food we ate; grits! Crystal grew up in Georgia and hates grits. And so when they brought two bowls of grits to the table to go with our dinner (which admittedly, is a little odd), I figured Id be eating both of them. But one spoonful changed all that.

The grits were served plain – no sugar, just a little butter melted on top. Whats more, I couldnt taste the tell-tale sugar/honey tastes in the grits. But they tasted like well, I dont know what. They were sweeter than ice cream, but didnt taste sweetened. They were just plain GOOD. We wound up eating them at almost every meal after that. They also served whole wheat bread, and some fermented milk with cucumber and drill substance.

I got a chance to use my universal picture dictionary, by taking the page with the pictures of animals on it to the buffet and asking the waitress by pointing at a dish, then at the page, and then shed indicate which animal it was.

So the next day we set out for a hike around the small artificial lake; halfway around I discovered a path leading uphill which I couldnt resist, and we followed it and saw thousands of wildflowers, and all sorts of bees and butterflies humming everywhere. It was quite beautiful. Here are a few of the pictures:

Alongside the lake is a building made to look like a Greek temple, and inside it are about 8 pipes flowing into these Grecian urns, each with a different type of hot mineral water coming out of the ground between 90 and 130 degrees. Supposedly different ones are good for different things, and there are claims they cure everything from headache to stomach ulcers to cancer. I drank some of each, and they all had a unique taste.

The next day we went down into a steep gorge to see the towns waterfall. It was a large waterfall, but I felt rather let down by it. I suppose the water did too! (pardon the pun). The gorge was nice, but not gorge-ous. (Im on a roll!). However, we walked along the bank of the river at the bottom as far as we could, looking for another way out; the road comes in by a rather circuitous route and we didnt want to have to go up that way. Sure enough, I found a thread of a path heading straight up the side of the hill, and I had a feeling it would take me out of the gorge and into town.

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So up we went. As we got half-way up, the path disappeared at a sheer cliff face, so we had to climb up. Crystal had never done any rockclimbing, but it wasnt a difficult climb and it was quite a bit of fun. We came out at the top in someones backyard, followed a path around the side of someones house, and came out behind a building in downtown Jermuk, about a block away from where my dead-reckoning said I should be.

Next day we did a hot mineral bath in the hotel, and then I did a gum hydromassage. I think that may be really good for teeth because it stimulates bloodflow in the gums, so Im going to try and build one when I get home.

Finally we left Jermuk back to Yerevan, then caught a shared minivan – called a Marshrutka here – to Dilijan, called the Switzerland of the Caucasus. Well, as the guidebook says, thats stretching it a bit. But it is nice. Built on the side of a very steep hill, full of hairpin switchback streets. We were looking for a place to stay, tried one place and werent too happy with it, so we looked for somewhere else. We were looking for a place recommended in the guidebook called Tatehs guesthouse.

We made the mistake of asking two guys about 20ish for help. Naturally, we speak almost no Russian much less any Armenian, and they spoke no English. But we managed to convey what we wanted. Next thing we knew, theyd flagged down two people passing on the street and asked them for directions; they concluded that it was down the hill and to the right – when I say down the hill, I mean DOWN the hill. We thanked them and set off, then they decided to walk us there personally. So they led us down the hill, and to the right, asking everyone they saw as we went where Tatehs guesthouse was. We walked about a mile until they started wondering if it was there, so they stopped at someones house, went in and used their phone to call the number in the guidebook. Somehow or other that didnt work, I wasnt sure why.

Then as they were doing that, they asked another woman walking by and she said Oh, Tatehs! and indicated that it was way back the other direction the way we came. So we gathered our packs, tiring now, and we all trundled back up the hill. It turns out we went right at bottom of the hill when we should have turned left. Then we skirted a fence, went up a flight of stairs, up a street, and finally I saw the fence that the guidebook said marked the guesthouse. Needless to say, the guidebook was NOT correct about the location. There is no way to find this guesthouse from the guidebook – the directions are simply wrong.

We thanked our guides profusely. I would have given up long before that, and just looked for a different place, but they wouldnt leave us till we had a place to sleep. They have a very strongly ingrained sense of hospitality here. Its nice but sometimes a bit too helpful J

Anyway, it turns out we were almost back up to town, so I went in looking for some dinner. I wanted some milk. So I went into a little grocery store (TINY grocery store) and asked for Moloku which was as close as I remembered, the Russian word for milk. That didnt elicit a response, so I went to a can that had a picture of a cow, pointed at the picture, then made milking gestures with my hands, then mimed drinking out of a glass. That got a response, and she said Ah! MILK! and I said why yes milk indeed why didnt I think of that J

Anyway, I grabbed a couple of other things and that was that. Tomorrow we head for Vanadzor and then to Tbilisi, Georgia. Catch us there!

Posted on August 24th, 2010 by Natnee and filed under Georgia/Armenia | No Comments »

Flight To Armenia

The flight to Armenia was rather brutal; all told we spent 33 hours in airports and planes. We set next to some interesting people, which helped to pass the time. I got to practice a bit of my German on one leg, which was fun. But the interesting experiences didnt show up until we landed in Moscow. We arrived with a 12 hour layover ahead of us, speaking little Russian and not quite knowing what to expect. We had to stay in the terminal since we didnt have visas. The terminal was surprisingly deserted and ragged for Moscow, considering its such a hub.

We hadnt eaten in a long time nor slept in two days, so eating was getting important. We found a restaurant in the terminal, looked at a menu which had an English translation, and decided to get some juice. I pointed at a bottle of juice I saw in the window and asked how much it was, and she dug out the menu and said 90 rubles (3 dollars). Well, that was a bit high but we were hungry and needed to relax and unwind. However, they wouldnt take dollars. They said there was a place to change them down the terminal a ways, so I went to see if I could figure it out, leaving Crystal with the bags.

Money Changer

Money Changer

Well, I found a machine that looked like it should change dollars; I tried to figure it out, but it didnt seem to work (I later found it was out of order, but no one bothered to hang a sign). So I wandered around, asked someone else, Dollars Rubles? with a hopeful look seemed to convey the idea. They said I needed to go this way and turn there, and so on. So I went there, and found this machine.

Now Im pretty sure that this is a machine invented by Stalin to torture capitalists. Granted I was famished and lightheaded, but it was the weirdest thing Ive ever seen. I looked around all over for a place to insert bills, and nothing seemed to work. I stuck bills in all the orifices around the machine, hoping it would grab them and do something, and nothing happened. Finally I decided to try to decipher the machine using my almost nonexistent Russian, and then discovered that it offered an English translation. I selected that immediately, which took me to a Russian translation anyway!

Well, I navigated more or less by guess through several pages and finally the machine creaked and whined, and this slot (lower picture, center, right side, silver spot) opened up to reveal a box; the idea, judging by the pictures inside the box, was to lay the bills inside, on the bottom, and the machine would take them, count them, and give you rubles instead. That was the idea, anyway.

Money Changer 2

Money Changer 2

In practice, I gave it a 5$ bill (I wasnt about to risk more than that!) and it spit it back out. I tried again. This time it took it, I had to work my way through several menus, starting over once or twice, but I finally got 150 Rubles for my trouble. I went back to the restaurant, relaxed over a bit of juice, and then we decided to move on. I went to settle up the tab and gave the 90 rubles, and they informed me that it was 90 rubles *per glass*, or 450 rubles (14$) a liter!

Mind you, this is a liter (about a quart) of orange juice! I naturally raised a stink, but they pointed to the menu where it was marked that 200ml of juice is 90 rubles. There wasnt much I could do, but I let them know it was criminal. I also let them know I didnt have enough rubles, so I had to take another trip back to the Stalin torture machine.

If I thought it was hard to get along with before, it was downright cruel now. It didnt like any of the bills I submitted. I even tried a twenty. It rejected it time and again, then started saying The phone number you have entered is invalid. This was to change money, cash, it had not asked for and I had not entered a phone number!

I tried this for probably 15 minutes, then sat down in despair to think out my options. At this point a dutch traveler, guessing the source of my frustration, approached me and confided that hed had the same problem with the same machine, and that I needed to tell the restaurant that if they wanted paid, theyd help me change the money. This seemed like good advice, so I did it. They came down to operate the machine, I gave them a twenty to change (sure that it would work for them and make me look foolish) but to my relief, it gave them the same obnoxious message as it gave me!

So he tried a few times, then reluctantly conceded to accept 15$ American and leave it at that. I again let him know I considered him one step removed from a highway robber and we parted.

With that initial hurdle passed, we started wandering around looking for a quiet place to nap. Finally we found a way out of this terminal into another terminal, which was much nicer, much more modern and clean. It had a huge stretch of carpet, which we used to our advantage.

Sleeping

Sleeping

We werent the first to have this idea either.

Others Sleeping

Others Sleeping

After that we were hungry again. We went through all the restaurants, where hamburgers cost 30$ and bottled water was 5$ a liter. I decided I would drink water from the toilet like a dog before I paid 20$ a gallon for water. I also decided to skip a few meals rather than give the Russian airport Mafia another dime. Well, eventually we got on the plane for Armenia, which arrived in Armenia at 4am local time; by which point we would have been up, not counting about an hour of catnaps, for about 40 hours.

The annoying thing about this flight is that we arrived in Armenia at 4am local time; too late to really use a hotel room, but to early to just start wandering around. I had stewed over this problem for weeks, not wanting to waste 40$ on a few hours in a hotel, but not wanting to just wander a strange city before dawn.

Well, I set next to an Armenian who was returning from a business trip to China; we started talking about his country, where to go, things to see, and so on. One thing led to another and he offered to let us ride in the taxi with him and hed see to it we got dropped off in a 24 hour restaurant where it was safe and quiet. He also gave me his phone number in case we had any trouble or needed anything translated.

When we arrived, we had to get a Visa, change some money, and then stand in a LONG line to get our passports checked and into the country. When I saw how long it was going to take us, I told our friend, Narek, to go on ahead and not to worry about us, wed be fine. It took us almost an hour and a half to get all our visas, through the immigration line, and to get our checked bag – we came out the other end of customs and discovered hed decided to wait for us anyway, just in case we needed help. Him having had no sleep and us complete strangers. I guess this is that Armenian hospitality wed heard about.

Im glad he was there, because navigating through the taxi sharks would have been a bit creepy on our own, we had to follow him and the taxi driver through some dank alleys to get to the taxi, then he dropped us off at the restaurant and refused to allow us to pay for the taxi! It seems someone to help is always there when we need them as we travel. Like Blanche from A Streetcar Named Desire Ive grown accustomed to the kindness of strangers  :)

At the restaurant we had spas, which was a thin yogurt soup with cucumber and dill, and a hamburger which wasnt too good and a khachapuri, which was mostly a big tortilla with cheese in the middle. We left the restaurant while it was still dark and wandered the city streets. I felt safe there and as the dawn came up we watched the city come alive too. Finally we worked our way to the local market, here called a Shuka, and thats where our next entry will pick up

Posted on August 23rd, 2010 by Natnee and filed under Georgia/Armenia | No Comments »

Off To Georgia (Not That One, The Other One!)

We are headed off on a new adventure, this time to Georgia (the former USSR republic, not the place they grow peanuts) and Armenia. Yes, Armenia – not Algeria, nor yet Albania, but Armenia. Why? Well, first its no secret to readers of this blog that I hardly need an excuse to travel. But why here, now?

Well, several reasons. Primarily, there are persistent stories of the Caucasus having some of the oldest people on earth. Well documented reports run up to 170 years of age. A friend of mine who emigrated from the Ukraine told me that at any given time, the oldest person in the USSR was always in the Caucasus.

There are three places in the world claiming exceptional longevity, Vilcabamba, where I have been (See my article about it, Shangri-lost), Hunza in Pakistan where I have not been (yet), and Georgia where I am going now. In Vilcabamba I found that while old people once did exist there, due to the importation of French fries and the western diet in the 1970s by the Peace Corps, now they are just as unhealthy as anyone else in Ecuador – which is to say, vastly healthier than your average American, but still nothing fantastic.

The USSR frequently closed down entire factories to send workers to weeklong retreats in Georgia and Armenia to increase health and efficiency. The USSR wasnt known for wasting money and time to make its workers happy, so its a good bet they believed it really made a difference.

Second, and what prompted the visit now, is that I have researched the connection between better-tasting food and healthier food and have found a distinct correlation; after all, all things being equal if you have two strawberries, one of which tastes sweet and one tastes like the package it came in, the one that tastes sweet tests to have higher mineral content and being more healthy. Thats why we were made to like the sweeter fruits, a sort of built-in quality checker. We override it with massive amounts of sugar, but the sense is still there for a reason.

In my trip to El Salvador I discovered that their food tasted much better than anywhere else in Central America; and I noticed that El Salvadorans in general were happier, had better teeth and wider dental arches (something Weston Price associated with good food and health beyond any question in his research), and in general were stronger than Americans. I saw a woman much smaller than me haul 100 pound sacks of corn a good hundred yards through thick, soft sand – something Im not sure I could have done. And she hauled about 8 bags in a row – something practically no American woman could do. And this was quite common there. I saw men racing uphill with a dozen 1 thick clay tiles on their back – which must have weighed 150 pounds. And they did this all day, and seemed to enjoy it.

So the point is, El Salvador had the strongest, happiest, healthiest people in Central America. And they had the best tasting food. If youve never tasted food from outside the US – not imported food, but food actually bought and eaten there – youve probably never tasted real food. The difference is incredible. And so when I read on Wikitravel that both Georgia and Armenia had food that made their counterparts everywhere else on Earth pale by comparison, and whose taste would make you unable to go back to eating Apricots at home, after eating the delicious apricots from Armenia, it told me that Armenia might have a higher quality produce, and that might explain the higher quality health and longevity.

I found this sort of off-hand comments in the Lonely Planet guidebook, and in the separate wikitravel pages on Georgia and Armenia, and in several independent sources around the net. Ive never seen that sort of comments about anywhere else. So that is why Im going there.

The reason Im going now, is the harvest season is in September, and I didnt want to wait another year to find out just how good this food is. Good food can be tested for sugar content with a refractometer, commonly used for checking grapes for harvest, and good food is called high brix food, brix being the measure of sugar in the food. So Ill be checking that against the standard American fruits and seeing if there really is a difference.

Also, on an unrelated note, the Caucasus mountains is why European and Americans are called Caucasian, because historians trace back our white-skinned ancestors to the Scyths in the area of the Caucaus circa the 6th century BC – a tribe very numerous and fully developed, with no apparent history. I hope to go through the museums and discover links to connect them to other peoples who migrated into that area from the south.

But who am I kidding? Im going because I want to see whats over that next hill. The rest just excuses :)

Posted on August 19th, 2010 by Natnee and filed under Georgia/Armenia | 1 Comment »

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