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Saturday October 19, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Saturday October 19, 2013 MYT 9:24:29 AM
by story andphotos by philip game
Serene: Horses grazing in Ushguli, Georgia, Europe’s highest inhabited village.
A taste of Europe’s Caucasus region, sandwiched between the Black and the Caspian Seas, leaves this writer hankering for more.
FROM my bedroom window, I can see Mt Kazbeg, the snowy 5,000m peak, bathed in sunlight. I quickly aim my camera and grab a shot before the clouds move over.
The peak lies on the border between Russia and Georgia in the Caucasus Mountains. Russia is just 15km away from where I am, past a deep gorge. The breakaway state of South Ossetia occupies the next valley. Fantastic scenes appear at every turn: soaring snow-covered peaks and lonely little medieval churches perched on bald hilltops.
Soon it is time for my guesthouse breakfast – Turkish-style bread, cucumber, tomato, goat’s cheese, cold sausage meat and hot noodles. After that, I would be making my way down to the city, squeezed in a marshrutka (Russian-style minibus).
I’m in the South Caucasus region, sandwiched between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, just below Europe’s highest mountains – the High Caucasus. It’s a part of the world that’s either ignored or misunderstood – and there’s no reason why you can’t join me here.
The South Caucasus holds three distinct countries cut loose from the former Soviet Union. Georgia and Armenia descend from the world’s first Christian kingdoms, whilst Azerbaijan is predominantly Islamic. The Caucasus is a rich blend of tribes, cultures and languages – generally incomprehensible to outsiders; its landscapes are a medley of snow-capped peaks, lush valleys and semi-desert.
The hardest part about visiting the Caucasus is deciding to go. Peace prevails, there’s very little crime and costs are moderate. Azerbaijan aside, entry formalities are a breeze. Flight connections are surprisingly straightforward.
Yes, crime, civil unrest and post-Soviet conflicts were major concerns in recent years – but definitely not at present. The Soviets have been gone for almost a quarter-century (admittedly, sometimes you can see where they’ve been).
From the Caucasian glaciers to the Black Sea coast, Georgia is the easiest and most rewarding country to start with. Places are near one another, and you can cross the country by road in a few hours, or overnight by train.
Tbilisi, the capital, nestles in a broad river valley ringed by forested hills, and I’ve taken a room in a small hotel on a hillside above the city centre. It is summer – the skies are blue and the clouds delightfully white and puffy. The evenings remain warm, even though the Caucasian peaks aren’t far away. Newly freed from Singapore’s smoky haze, I open the windows to admit a soft breeze. At around eight in the evening, the setting sun warms the dome of the huge Tsminda Sameba cathedral across the river.
Much of Tbilisi is a jumble of seedy old Russian-style homes with precarious balconies of turned wood or wrought iron, alternating with once-smart apartment blocks and ancient stone churches – plus a scattering of in-your-face modern architecture. What are we to make of the huge, gleaming worm-like structure nestled below the Presidential Palace on the eastern bank of the river, or the sinuous curves of the footbridge that spans the Mktvari River?
On the western bank, the city’s main avenue celebrates the great poet Rustaveli, running from Rose Revolution Square (Vardebis Revolutsis moedani) down to Liberty Square (Tavisuplebis moedani). Rustaveli is lined with grand public buildings dating from the 19th century through to the 1920s: theatres, an opera house, an academy of sciences and a national parliament, as well as upmarket stores.
In the centre of Liberty Square, encircled by moving traffic, stands a pillar bearing a golden St George slaying the fabled dragon. It’s a much sweeter sight than Vladimir Lenin’s ugly mug, which once stood here.
Narrow streets run off the square and up into the Old Town. Peeling paint and disintegrating stucco are the norm in this jumble of crumbling town houses, often once grand.
Street-corner fruiterers will tempt you with crates of fresh apricots, cherries, peaches and strawberries. Here and there you’ll stumble across a venerable church, often adorned with medieval frescoes. Devout Georgians cross themselves as they pass by, or enter to light a candle and kiss each icon in turn.
Stairs continue up to the top of a ridge overlooking the whole city, to a starkly modern effigy of Mother Georgia and the ruined Persian citadel of Nariqala.
Directly downhill from Nariqala lie the domed Middle Eastern-style public baths and a group of restaurants. Order a khachapuri, a calorie-laden cheese pie, a mug of beer or a large glass of Georgian wine, and you may decide you rather enjoy Tbilisi.
One morning, as I roamed these narrow lanes, I came across a boarded-up Armenian church, hemmed in by tumbledown homes. Angling for a vantage point, I then realised I was probably trespassing when I heard a woman’s voice call: “It’s all right, come on up!” I called out my thanks, but despite several tries, couldn’t see where the voice came from. Eventually the speaker appeared from below and cheerfully invited me in for a coffee.
A bubbly lady, Julia was a professional musician who had returned home after 13 years in America, with no guarantee of work. She set out to restore the 18th century family home, but had overlooked the need for a building permit. With its bare brick and mud walls, the place will be miserable in winter until the job is complete.
Directly opposite the baths, the historic Metekhi Church commands a rocky ridge overlooking the river. The eastern bank is dominated by the golden dome of the Tsminda Sameda Cathedral, consecrated in 2004. Inside the cathedral on this Saturday afternoon, several wedding parties seemed to be wrapping up – girls and young women were dressed exquisitely in what would normally be formal evening gowns. Men wore Cossack-style coats and shaggy fur hats.
The mountains were calling, and the Russian-built Georgian Military Highway would transport me up over the passes to the small town of Kazbegi.
Here, I could jump straight out of bed to enjoy those awe-inspiring views. A lonely little 14th century church stands proudly on a windswept 2,200m hilltop below the snowy flanks of Mt Kazbeg.
Nightlife in Kazbegi might consist of sharing a flagon of wine with a cheery bunch of German or Polish backpackers. But by day, the possibilities are endless: mountain trails behind the hilltop Gergeti Trinity church lead to majestic glaciers, whilst others reach into remote valleys.
Two of us engaged a rattletrap Russian-made Lada for a day’s excursion into the Truso Valley. The driver, a typically beefy Georgian male, had a warning to convey: “MOST XX!” he emphasised with arm-crossing gestures. Scraps of Russian surfaced from my subconscious – most means bridge, and the crossed arms said the rest. Yes, later in the morning, our hike came to an end at a collapsed bridge. Along the way, we had peered into the abandoned homes of villagers from the Ossetian minority, displaced by the 2008 conflict.
Next on my must-do list was Svaneti, an enigmatic mountain region away to the north-west. The Svan retain their own language and traditions, revealing many legacies of the old pre-Christian religion. Koshkebi (fortress-like stone towers) still loom over every village and hamlet, even if the ancient blood feuds have gone cold.
To get here, sit up all night in a west-bound train to reach Zugdidi, near the border of Abkhazia, another breakaway territory. From Zugdidi, marshrutky (long-distance buses) speed north into forested hill country punctuated by beautiful meadows.
Mestia, the Svan “capital” seems quite a slick little town, almost like a ski resort in summer, until you step off the main road, then it’s all koshkebi standing like sentinels, crumbling walls and roaming cattle – and their droppings.
“Imagine, I lived in Mestia for more than a year nearly 20 years ago. Unforgettable experience!” says my well-travelled Georgian friend, Buba Jafarli.
Notwithstanding the town’s recent makeover, you can still look up and be bedazzled by the same eternal and unchanging snowy peaks which enclose the valley on three sides. Mestia boasts one or two hotels, but there’s no lodging more hospitable than in the homes of entrepreneurial local women like Nino Ratiani.
Europe’s highest inhabited village lies 47km farther on, but the journey by road takes well over two hours to reach Ushguli. This cluster of the ubiquitous towers, ramshackle cabins and crumbling drystone cottages sits at the head of a lush green valley at 2,300m, walled in by a solid rampart of ice and snow: the face of Georgia’s highest peak, Mt Shkhara, reaching 5,068m.
Glaciers can be reached within a comfortable day’s walk, or you may just want to explore the village streets that are also used by cattle and pigs – mind their droppings!
Over the centuries, the Svan people, fearful of invaders, often hid their most prized religious art. At the village’s Ethnographic Museum – housed within one of the koshkebi, naturally – is a treasured albeit musty collection of gilded silver icons, chalices and processional crosses removed from local churches.
There is still more to discover in Georgia: the remote mountain regions like Tusheti, now almost depopulated or on a gentler note, Kakheti over to the east, perhaps the very birthplace of wine-making. Next time …
> For more information, visit Georgian Tourism’s website (www.georgia.travel) and for train travel, visit www.railway.ge (references to Makhinjauri are to the station serving Batumi on the Black Sea). Local currency is the Georgian Lari (GEL), freely available from ATMs (cash machines). Visas are not required for many nationalities, including Malaysian citizens.
Tags / Keywords:
Lifestyle, Travel, Georgia, South Caucasus, Soviet Union, Mt Kazbeg, Black Sea, Caspian Sea
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