I visited Georgia in 2003 on a three-month trip travelling back from China overland that also brought me to Hong Kong, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Azerbaijan. In Georgia, I ran out of time and had to make a Mad Dash Home to make it back in time for Christmas.
A word of warning. The quality of my pictures from this trip is bad, I was a horrible photographer and I had an early digital 3,3 MP camera. Due to a shortage of memory cards I set the resolution down to 1 MP, what a mistake. Taken as memories from this trip, they are still quite enjoyable. I added a few pictures from a short visit to Tbilisi in 2010 as well.
I had kept an eye on the situation in Georgia for the last weeks. On the 2nd of November 2003, parliamentary elections had taken place that fell short of international standards. Protests started which had grown to impressive demonstrations by mid-November. It was unclear in which direction things would develop. On the 23rd of November President Eduard Shevardnadze finally annulled the results of the parliamentary election and stepped down. The Rose Revolution had won a first victory, a caretaker president took over and new elections (for parliament and president) had been called. I entered Georgia barely two weeks later on the 6th of December, things were calm.
I crossed from Azerbaijan with Gavin, an Englishman I was travelling with and in Telavi we met Charles, a Canadian friend of his. We would spend most of our time in Georgia together, making this a very social part of my trip, I have many memories of tasty Georgian food and Georgian wine. We stayed at a nice guesthouse and were about the luckiest people in Telavi as we seemed to be the only ones with a generator giving us power for a few hours in the evening. The rest of town was pitch black, the one high-rise standing as a black stele in the moonlight. People claimed that Georgia had enough hydroelectric power but that it would be sold to Turkey under the radar.
Telavi is a town in a beautiful setting and around it you have numerous old churches and monasteries in stunning locations. We rent a taxi for the day and visit Alaverdi Monastery, New and Old Shuamta, Gremi Church and Nekresi Monastery. Coming back from Nekresi we have some questions about the fitness of our driver, while we were visiting, he clearly enjoyed the time with his friends and some vodka. In the evening we have a reading session of the Ruhnama, the hilarious book the President of Turkmenistan wrote, Charles has a copy. A laugh is guaranteed wherever you open. Did you know that the Turkmens invented the wheel? The next day we take another taxi to the cave monastery of Davit Gareja.
Tbilisi is a beautiful city. Nice location, old churches, wooden balconies, art nouveau buildings, the Mother Georgia Statue. A high-rise has been taken over by refugees. We learned about another cheap place to stay with an old lady. She needs the dollars for her granddaughter who is studying in the US. She is weird, she basically waits in our room until we come back, and hide your sweets otherwise she might eat them. In the British pub we watch my football team, the VfB Stuttgart, play Manchester United. Suddenly, someone with a gun is outside. The owner is relaxed, sometimes trouble with the neighbours but nothing serious. That is why they have security. As we leave, she insists to organize a taxi for us. Tbilisi has electricity, 24 hours a day which is much better than last year but the voltage is low, the light bulbs are all like dimmed.
[I visited Tbilisi again in 2010, only for a short day on the way back from Armenia. I add a few pictures from that trip here, they are much nicer but Tbilisi itself is also visibly back on its feet.]
Mtskheta, Stepanzminda & Mount Kazbeg
Back to 2003. We went on to Mtskheta, Georgia’s old capital. A massive, beautiful church, a monastery on the hill. The next day we take a minivan to Stepanzminda, the small town at the foot of impressive Mount Kazbeg. We stay with a local guy, we are at an altitude of 1750m and it is mid-December by now, it is cold. There is no heating and no electricity but he has a proper gas stove. We end up sitting in the kitchen, all four burners giving us warmth and light. We were warned not to get our host started on UFOs but we disregard the advice. He believes a lot of strange things. Next morning, we hike up to the scenically located Gergeti Trinity Church. The guardian of the key insists on coming with us (for a fee), he points to a pistol, we need that against the bears. I don’t think so but before having trouble let him come along. It has snowed, and our return journey to Tbilisi the Pass of the Cross is very beautiful.
I have finally made it to Gori, Stalin’s birthplace. One of the few places where a statue of Stalin, one of the cruellest and deadliest dictators the world has ever seen, is still standing. A museum has been built around the house where he was born, his railway wagon is there as well. All over Georgia we had already seen election campaign posters of the Communist Party with his picture, 50 years after his death.
I take the night train to Batumi, some police officers ask me for money, I refuse and have a friendly chat with them instead. The morning in Batumi, a resort town on the Black Sea, is all I can afford. It is the 14th of December, Christmas is not far away, I promised my parents to be back in time. As the crow flies it is 2,600km, measured on roads around 3,400km. It’s time to go home, I take the minivan to the nearby Turkish border.