The Last Week In Armenia

We stayed in the Maghay Guesthouse in Vanadzor, which was a very nice, European-style house with high ceilings and china closets and the works. It was a bit more expensive than wed been paying, but it was quiet, nice beds, and internet. And included breakfast for 20$ p/p. For an extra 10$ p/p she served dinner, which was an expensive but really expansive dinner; soup, several eggplant dishes, the omnipresent tomatoes/cucumbers, a meat dish, fruit, the works. Strangely, we were never offered wine at this place. And we actually ate with the family, which was pleasant. Breakfast was equally large, though based around grits or oatmeal, with eggs and other side dishes.

We went the next morning to Fioletovo and just got dropped off. We walked through town, for several miles, looking at the people, who were clearly a different ethnicity than the rest of the Armenians; strong, big bones, blue eyes, blond hair, and had a serious thing for flowers. All the yards were bursting with them, as you can see in the pictures below.

As near as I can understand it, in the 1850s a group broke off of the Russian Orthodox Church protesting the restrictions against drinking milk during lent. A few other doctrines were also different, but the milk thing got the most publicity, so they were dubbed the milk-drinkers, and apparently persecuted quite severely and fled to other countries. There are several pockets of them around the world, in many ways they are like the Amish or Mennonites. They keep to themselves, dont intermarry with the peoples around them, and so on. The seem to make their living selling their produce and milk in nearby towns.

Well, as we walked through there we definitely could tell this was different. The men all wore long beards, the women had shawls on their hair, the houses all had flowers and many had haystacks taller than the house itself. Then we walked out of that village and a little while farther along into another one, which just as clearly was different. Different people, not as well maintained, not as neat.

We tried striking up conversations with several people, but they are rather closed and suspicious of outsiders. Some waved back, some didnt, when I waved first. We had wanted to ask them several questions about their lifestyle and the milk, but with the language barrier on top of their aloofness, it just wasnt possible for us. We thought perhaps wed bring back the daughter of the owner of the homestay the next day for an interpreter, but naturally she left for Yerevan before we could do that. No one else spoke good enough English to act as interpreter that we had met.

So we just decided to enjoy Vanadzor, which has a huge market, and a pleasant one at that, and then go to Yerevan on Friday. So far this is the least hectic trip weve ever taken, with us spending several days in each place. Of course, these are the smallest countries weve ever been in too, so nothing was that far away from anything else.

Arriving in Yerevan Friday around noon, we set out for the Armenian Museum of history; it was a large museum, but the parts I really wanted to see – the 7th century BC to the 4th century AD – was closed. So we decided to try a different museum on Sunday. Then we discovered it was closed Sunday AND Monday. We found another museum on Monday, but of course, it was closed Monday too. We decided it was conspiracy.

It seemed like everything we wanted to do in Yerevan we couldnt, because it was closed. The Opera was closed until September 20th (this being the 12th). The chess club was closed Monday, and I didnt find it until Monday. The food market was open Monday, but the shoe market was closed and Crystal wanted some slip-on shoes for the flight. So we gave up and just ate and walked around town. Spent some time socializing with the other backpackers at the hostel. Tried to soak up sleep for the brutal flight back home – even more brutal now because we had changed our plans again. Instead of flying home to Dallas, we decided to fly straight to San Francisco and spend 3 weeks traveling around there, meeting up with my parents and renting a house for a week or two.

Meanwhile, back in Yerevan, it was Sunday and we went to the famous Vernissage market, a place where you go to buy gifts for home or a faucet for your apartment. Enormous and sprawling, it mostly had carvings, jewelry, clothes, and soviet memorabilia – in case your collection back home is missing an army hat or a medal of honor. They had some nice chess sets, but they were priced rather high – about 100$ for the cheapest normal-sized one.

But I found a used soviet-era chess set, about 30 years old, for MUCH cheaper, and in many ways it was even nicer because it had character. I bought it for one of my employees and bought a painting on a log-slice for another employee.  (And I liked it so much, I bought another for myself!)

As we wandered through the market, I spied a chess set (one clearly not for sale) with its owner nearby, and walked up to him and said shakmat? (Chess?) and pointed to myself, and then at him. He understood and went to get someone else, who apparently was a better player (or maybe more interested?). Regardless, we sat down and played. Soon we had a half-dozen people watching and smoking. It was quite a unique experience. After playing him, I played another player there, which was a very hard fought game – mostly my own fault, since I told Crystal early on in the game, before castling queen-side, you know how sometimes you see a move thats a lot of fun, but that youll probably regret later this is one of those oh well, why not?

He almost had me at one point, but let me slip away. Anyway, it was great fun and I think he enjoyed it too. So we parted before I bored Crystal too much and grabbed a kebab and soup for lunch. Monday we went to the market again for some dried fruit to take home on the plane. Found a stand, and didnt even need to ask for samples; we had, literally, handfuls of them shoved at us. And before we could finish those, he gave us samples of something else. And something else. About 10-12 things we sampled, by which time we were really full. We bought some of the best-tasting stuff, and then had to face the challenge of finding a box to put all of our things to take home – which tallied at roughly

5 kilos (11 pounds) of dried figs

5 kilos of golden raisins

3 kilos of cured meat [note written after we arrived: all the meat was confiscated; apparently no meat, cured, cooked, or otherwise is allowed in, period – everything else made it through customs fine]

1 kilo of dried cherries

¼ kilo of dark raisins

One chess set

Two small paintings-on-logs

One string of walnuts dipped in something that looks like paraffin but isnt. I still dont know what it is. Oh, and he insisted on giving us some fruit lavash – we call it fruit leather back home – for free. So the box had to be fairly large, and so we walked all over the back streets trying to find a box someone had thrown out, since the grocery stores said it was too late to get any from them that day since theyd gotten rid of them already.

We walked about 10 blocks, finally stopped at a pharmacy and after explaining ourselves badly in horrible Russian we managed to convey our need, she gave us a box, and we kept walking. Found a market to buy a roll of tape, then we were walking past a small restaurant and I said something cooking on a spit, idly, as we walked by, and then I heard this voice saying chicken! – apparently the owner understood English. So I was hungry and I hadnt eaten this yet, so we got it and went.

Somewhere in all this we had bought a bunch of peaches and grapes, fresh. I knew we probably couldnt get them back into the USA through customs, but if we could take them on the plane with us until we got there, we could survive the ordinarily horrible airline food. And it worked! Countries seldom care what you take OUT of their country – only what you bring in. So we can bring fresh fruit on the flight, as long as its gone by the time we arrive. At least, we did here. So we chopped them up, put them in our handy containers for the trip, and put them in the fridge to chill. And thats about it, really. We woke up at 4:45 AM to catch the taxi to the plane, and as I write this we are over Sweden.

Many more things happened to us of course, but some of them Ive forgotten and some, you just had to be there. All in all, Georgia and Armenia are the most hospitable places Ive ever been in. The capital cities not so much, but if you get away from the pressure of Tbilisi and, to a lesser extent, Yerevan, they are wonderful places. The food really is outstanding and across the board, most produce tested out higher on a refractometer than the equivalent would back home – in some places so high it was off the chart.

As for the longevity we set out to find we discovered it was actually Abkhazia which had the longevity, primarily, which is technically part of Georgia but is now occupied by Russia and you cant get there from Georgia. The other place is in Dagestan, which is also Russia, on the other end of the Caucasus. So we really werent able to find anything out about that this trip. Like the guy says in National Treasure theres always another clue!

Posted on December 12th, 2010 by Natnee and filed under Georgia/Armenia | No Comments »

Omalo To Vanadzor

Sorry its been several months getting this posted; obviously I made it out of the mountains and back home. In fact, Im getting ready to leave for Colombia. But last time you read, we were in the mountains of Omalo, Georgia, eating good food and seeing beautiful mountains.

The next day we set out for a place even more remote and farther into the mountains, a village called Dartlo. It was an hour jeep ride and perched on the bank of a river a little village of stone castles, which are very common here. The people who lived here 300 years ago were constantly at war with the people across the mountains in Dagestan, and so they built castles out of the plentiful slate stone for defence; castle isnt quite the right word, mostly they are a single turret about 20 feet square and perhaps 50 feet tall. Regardless, there was an unbroken network of these stretching across the mountains for many miles. This way they could warn one another if the evil Dagestanis came pillaging. I don t know if the Dagestanis had some similar defensive measure against the evil Tushetians or not.

There was a new hostel there which was not too cheap but not too expensive, and it was perched on the edge of the river with a fine view of the narrow valley. We spent first one day there, then decided to just stay there and be for a few days. The first day we ate the food, which was good, but not as good as other places wed been. The room was half the price with no meals, so we arranged to have no meals but get 6 liters of milk a day and do the milk diet for a few days. The milk here tested between 10-12 brix depending on the milking, so it was plenty good enough for the purpose.

We had difficulty conveying this idea to them however, since they spoke little English and we spoke even less Russian. They still made us lunch the next day, after we told them not to. Then they wanted to make us dinner, and we again said that no, we only wanted milk. We did this for several days until they finally realized that we werent going to eat anything but milk, which they didnt mind telling us, they thought was a little odd.

The milk diet was quite popular in the USA a hundred years ago and was widely used to treat and cure many diseases, usually by living on nothing but milk for six weeks or so. Always raw milk, unpasteurized. While we were doing this, we met a backpacker from the UK who told us about a group called the Molokani, a Russian word meaning milk drinkers. They apparently live in an enclave in Fioletovo, a village in northern Armenia where we were planning to go anyway, so we decided wed definitely hit that on the way home.

He helped us by translating some phrases into Russian to talk to them when we got there, and then left for farther up the valley. All in all, it was a peaceful way to spend several days. I have a 12-hour battery and a 5-hour battery for my laptop, both of which were full on arrival. We got about 2 hours of charging each night from the generator, which with my usage during the day meant I gradually lost more and more power each night – but it came out perfectly with us leaving for Omalo on the day I was finally completely drained of power!

We returned to Omalo with the intent to catch the plane the next morning. Unfortunately, the plane wasnt going to run again for another week, despite being scheduled for the next day. I never figured out exactly why. But we were stuck going back down the mountain again by Jeep.

We spent the day in Omalo with the homestay wed stayed at on the way up, who were getting ready to leave the mountains for the winter and go back to their home in Alvani, in the valley. So they fed us breakfast, then invited us to their going-away lunch party with their friends, which was an interesting experience. The food was good, as always, and the people were nice. This was the first time wed actually eaten *with* the locals – up to here, they had always served us in our own table by ourselves. But it was interesting to watch them eat and interact.

They have this thing about cold bread here. The local bread comes in two forms; lavash, which is basically a 2×1 flour tortilla, and something like a giant 2 long croissant. At every meal, they have this croissant cut up into 2 squares, and it is always served cold. I dont understand why, but its never toasted, never served hot, and seldom even used as a dipping agent – usually just eaten plain, cold, chewy and all. No butter on it, nothing. I tasted a bit to see if it was something special, and it was just like youd expect day-old bread to taste – nasty. But they consume a great deal of it here, and had trouble understanding why we didnt.

They made corn Khachapuri here, which means a corn quesadilla. They were fairly good, although being used to Mexican foods, I felt they needed salsa and some guacamole on top, but oh well :)

Speaking of which, they dont use spice at all. I mean spicy foods like peppers and such. I think I only had black pepper in a dish once. Most everything else is prepared very simply. They put a type of sweet basil here in a lot of things – it is a *very* sweet basil, almost like eating stevia. They use a few other spices of that nature, but mostly they let the foods speak for themselves, which they do quite well.

There wasnt much else to relate about Tusheti as a region, it was pretty, but heavily overgrazed by sheep thanks to Soviet planning and so erosion was pretty heavy in some spots and mountains that would otherwise be bright green were thin and sparse. Mostly we just relaxed and enjoyed the milk.

During our ride down the mountain with the taxi driver Gogi and his family, one thing happened which, to me, still doesnt seem funny but it was apparently very funny to the others. As we were going down a very dusty hill and turning a corner, with the windows rolled down, the wind picked up and blew all the dust wed just kicked up right through the car, especially the front seat where I was riding shotgun. Coughing and sputtering, I muttered Karasho, which means Good in Russian. I dont know why, it just seemed like the thing to say at the time. Well, the rest of the car went into an uproar over that. It still doesnt sound funny to me. But then about 10 minutes later, our driver playfully drove into another cloud of dust and announced Karasho!. That, I concede, was funny.

We arrived at the bottom of the mountain after dark; just after pulling into the town where Gogi lived, the jeep had a flat tire. Better here than some of the places wed been earlier! So it took a few minutes to change that, by which time the homestay where we were staying, 40 minutes away, had been notified to come pick us up. Gogi and his family insisted on waiting with us in the middle of town, even though it was about 9 PM, and I told them wed be fine, but they were firm that they didnt leave until we had a ride. Which was rather touching, I thought.

Anyway, we said goodbye to them and went to the homestay in Telavi, spent a night there, left the next morning by Marshrutka for Tbilisi, where we immediately caught another Marshrutka for Vanadzor. We were planning to find a place to stay in Fioletovo, a beautiful area just west of Vanadzor, where the Molokani lived.

So we went to the market, checked Email for the first time in a week, then caught a taxi to Fioletovo. I knew from the start it wasnt going to go well because the taxi driver was intense, impatient, and didnt seem to know the area at all. Plus of course, he spoke no English. But we conveyed we wanted to go to Fioletovo and find a hotel, and we went and then he couldnt find one; he asked some people, impatiently, with the tone of these stupid Americans dont know where a hotel is, DO YOU??? – well, to make a long story short we spent about a half-hour looking for one with him getting more and more impatient – the taxi was on a meter, so it wasnt like he wasnt being paid – but finally I realized this wasnt going to work and conceded defeat for the night. We went back to Vanadzor and stayed in a B&B I found in the guidebook, and the story will properly pick up there next time.

Posted on December 5th, 2010 by Natnee and filed under Georgia/Armenia | No Comments »

Trying To Travel To Tusheti

So we waited all afternoon for the road to open. After an hour or two, Gogi, our driver took us back to his house and fed us watermelon and then about noon said the road was not going to open today. So we went back to the square to pick up a marshrutka back to Telavi when Crystal said “Hey! I see backpackers!”

Naturally I walked over to investigate, and asked if they’d heard the road was closed. They hadn’t, so they asked someone else who said the road should be open by 2 o’clock. By this time, Crystal had our bags in the Marshrutka and was calling me to come on, it was ready to leave, so I made the decision to stick around and give this another shot.

We waited with the other backpackers, who were Israelis, for a few hours. I juggled to amuse myself and them, and we kept asking about the road. Finally, about 3 o’clock we gave up and sought other plans. We decided that four of us would go back to Telavi where I had stayed the night before, and two would go on to Sighnagi, a town I still can’t spell, for the weekend.

We managed to cram 6 backpackers, a driver, and all their  unnecessarily-large bags into a VERY small taxi. I would have taken a picture but there is no way it would have done justice to the image which you can see in your mind. On the upside, it was cheap splitting taxi fare 6 ways!

Halfway back to Telavi the two girls who were traveling together and going on into Sighnagi asked if Crystal and I would like to go on to Sighnagi with them so we could share taxi fare back; this sounded like a good plan, since I wasn’t looking forward to spending the weekend in a place I’d already been.

So we dropped off the two backpackers who were going to try the next day, and four of us went on to Sighnagi, 70km away. Sighnagi was a very pretty town, looks a lot like pictures you see of Tuscany, red-roofed houses with grapevines growing everywhere, cobblestone streets, and so on.

We found a guesthouse which cost 15$ per person per night with 2 meals. The first night was Friday night, and the guesthouse was owned by Georgian Jews (I think) and most of the guests were Israeli, and as we were the only gentiles present we ate at our own table.

We had a huge dinner; 10 plates piled high with food to choose from. Tomato wedges and cucumber slices, fried eggplant (which was really exquisite, and I don’t like eggplant), stewed eggplant, sliced local cheese, a huge pile of the local bread standard (which, being white bread, we didn’t eat), a carafe – probably a half-gallon – of homemade wine.

Then she brought Khachapuri, which is a local staple very much like a quesadilla, after which I said stop, no more! and then she brought Khinchala which is a homemade beef dumpling, and their local version of potato salad which is quite different from the American variety,  and I can’t remember all the plates now. But they just kept coming, and we ate all we could and the hostess kept saying “maybe you want more wine?” and the few dishes we managed to empty, she refilled and brought back to us! You could have fed an army off that table.

I’m not much of a wine drinker, but I think I had about 12 ounces that night. Which for me was a lot. It was pretty good, and even Crystal, who hates wine, likes the wine here. Well, we walked around the next day a bit, took a few pictures, walked down the old city wall built 400 years ago, and then went back to the room to chill. Our guesthouse, which we shared with a family and two other guests, had a balcony looking out over the valley, which probably was 50 miles across and stretched all the way to Dagestan.

Well, I had made the mistake of drinking tap water the night before, and about 2pm my belly started complaining, and by 6pm I was throwing up, and I spent a rather unpleasant night and was very week the next morning, so we didn’t leave Sunday as planned. We wound up staying until Monday, by which time I was sufficiently recovered to try for the mountains again.

We took a Marshrutka back to Telavi, ate beef soup with “fried potatoes” (which turned out to be French fries served with tomato soup as ketchup) for lunch in a restaurant there, which was actually our first restaurant meal in either country, thus far having eaten at the markets or homestays/hotels. Then a Taxi to Alvani, where the Jeeps waited to take people up the mountain to Omalo, in the region of Tusheti, our destination.

The road was open this time, but there was no one to share the 110$ jeep fare (rather steep, I thought), so we waited hoping other travelers would show up. After an hour and a half, with the day waning, I decided to try to bargain it a bit and we agreed on 75$. It was a 4 hour trip up the mountains to Omalo, quite beautiful with waterfalls and flowers and trees, up the only road to Tusheti which wasn’t built until 1979, which gives you an idea how remote this place is.

We arrived an hour before dark at the homestay of, as it turned out, Gogi! Who had come up here the day before bringing the Israeli girls we were traveling with. For some reason which not being able to speak the language I can’t determine, they left the same day we arrived by plane. We were planning to leave the same way in a few days, as plane fare was 35$ p/p all the way back to Tbilisi, while taxi down the mountain alone would be another 75$. Plus taxis, Marshrutkas, and days of travel. You do the math!

Our homestay here was 15$ p/p with dinner and breakfast, and it was the best meal we’d had in Georgia, and again, HUGE. You don’t leave a Georgian dinner table hungry, I can tell you that. This time it was soup, bread, cheese, another homemade soft cheese, and… well, here, I’ll show you…

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And this is the same table after we were stuffed to the full…

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Kinda hard to see a difference, huh?

After dinner she brought in a plate full of herbs, which I sniffed, she then said they were for tea, which I understood, then asked if I wanted some, which I didn’t understand, but said “yes”, thinking she said they smelled good. Before I knew it Crystal and I had tea to go with our already huge meal. And wine – never forget the wine which flows like water here.

The tea was vaguely minty, but it must be some herb I’ve never had before. She served it with some jam on the side – something rather like a cherry, but definitely not a cherry. I didn’t really like it, and Crystal – when I finally got her to try it – hated it. She had a bad experience with cough syrup as a kid, so her and cherries don’t mix.

The hostess also gave us butter at the same time she gave us the tea, and I thought perhaps it was used in the tea – I’ve heard of that before. So I asked her if the butter was for the tea and she broke out laughing, managed to sputter no, then went out to tell her friends about the silly gringos who thought you put butter in tea! Dorks!

Well, we’ve been the topic of jokes before. Moving on, the beds left something to be desired, but the hospitality was ample. There is no electricity anywhere in this region, so she runs a generator for a few hours at dark for light and we charged our camera and computer then.I n case you thought they only served big meals for dinnerthis was breakfast:

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We have an outhouse, a pit outhouse at that, and cold water outside. So it isn’t exactly pampering, but the scenery is beautiful and it is peaceful and there aren’t many tourists here, and not many Americans ever make it this far.

In fact, so far we haven’t seen any Americans. We heard about a couple once, but haven’t met any. A few Czechs, a few Poles, a Frenchman, and everyone else has been Israeli. Apparently this is the “in” place to go for Israelis. It’s beautiful, cheap and close for them so I guess it’s a logical place. We must have seen 30-40 Israelis backpacking thus far.

Breakfast the next morning was equally good and huge, consisting of fried potatoes, omelet, cheese, and tea. I asked for milk, and she said there wasn’t any now but we could get some that evening.

After breakfast we made sure we understood when the plane left so we could plan accordingly, and then looked into horses so we could go for a ride someplace. Two horses, a guide, and a 7-hour round-trip trek into the mountains cost 50$. We arranged it, and took this set of photos along the way:

We stopped for lunch, spent an hour resting, then I walked on ahead downhill to catch a few pictures I hadn’t had time for earlier. When the guide and Crystal caught up with me, we discovered that we had to walk the horses downhill most of the way – something we hadn’t counted on, since she has a bum knee and I just got over being sick. But there wasn’t anything we could do about it.

I did tell the guide that we had to ride at least most of the way down (15 km, about 8 miles), and he agreed. But we had at least 2 miles of downhill walking leading the horse, which really was hard on the knees after “posting” while trotting a good portion of the morning. Posting is what you do when the horse is trotting, a sort of half-stand to take the otherwise inhuman jarring out of the ride. Basically using your knees as springs.

Well, we made it. The saddle was homemade out of rough twine and such, and so a lot of it rubbed against my bare legs and the insides of my legs were both pretty sore after the end of the day. But we finally trudged back into town, stiff and sore, but it had been a great ride. The hostess found it greatly amusing how sore we were. Dinner was again superb, and afterwards we went to get the milk.

This involved actually going to the barn and watching the woman milk the cow, strain the milk, and hand it to us. So I am sure exactly where this milk came from. I tested it with my refractometer and it was a fuzzy 12 – the highest I’ve ever tested milk. Milk is difficult to test because the sugar content – measured by the brix – can be inflated by feeding grain or molasses, without increasing the mineral content.

But in this case, I have seen no grain anywhere in town, the cow was not fed grain while milking, and so I’m thinking this is probably completely grass-fed milk. That being the case, milk that brixes at 10 while on grain is poor; milk that brixes at 10 on pure grass is probably very good. Because it means that the grass it’s eating is able to produce a great deal of sugar, something only possible if the grass is very high in minerals. And this was a 12.

So we decided not to continue on to Svaneti, since the numbers don’t work out very good for us to get there. We decided it would be better to relax and enjoy the good food and beautiful scenery of one place, than to rush around and see a little bit of both places and waste almost a week traveling to get there, which could easily happen. So we decided to stay here, without power or internet, with practically no tourists, and good food and great milk, and live the good life for ten days or so until our time runs out.

So that’s where we are now. Of course, by the time you read this we’ve obviously made it back to civilization, so technically it’s where we were then, but… you know what I mean.

Posted on September 13th, 2010 by Natnee and filed under Georgia/Armenia | 2 Comments »

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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