Tbilisi and rainy mountains
I was beginning to think of Tbilisi as my home city now and got the hang of it a lot more. I've mentioned before about the dilapidated buildings and wonky pavements, but you soon get used to the pavements and I realised how much more beautiful the buildings are left to themselves .
I've also mentioned the food at great length and the vodka, but I realise that I haven't told you about the most traditional Georgian dish, which is called Kinkhali - best pronounced as if you have swallowed a frog which is now trying to jump back out of your throat. Kinkhali are large dumplings, which are filled with a meaty, herby mixture and broth and are twisted at the top. The general idea is to hold the dumpling by the twist and then bite into it, first making sure that the broth inside has cooled a bit otherwise it can be a bit painful. After a few messy meals you get proficient enough to suck the juice out and then eat the dumpling, making sure that you leave the twist. Its very common to see groups of men any time of the day sitting in cafes with huge plates of Kinkhali and a bottle of Vodka. Please don't think that they just sit there swigging back vodka and getting pissed - there is far more to it than that! There is a tradition of "toasting", which is always done with vodka and there are all sorts of rules about how high your glass should be held and not finishing the last bit and of course there has to be the main toaster, who says something very long and eloquent to which everyone drinks to. No more is drunk until the next toast. Other people then get involved with the toasting, but if its a formal affair they need permission from the main man. Its all very traditional and romantic, though some of the wives I talked to were less than impressed by it. Having said that, even though they can down some pretty massive amounts of alcohol, there are very few annoying drunks around - its very bad form to be out of control after drinking.
Our plan was to go to another beautiful mountain area north Tbilisi before going on to Armenia, but the weather was against us.The drive up to the mountains was beautiful. We managed to get a shared taxi for the same price as the mashrutka with a Kazbegi man who was going home and wanted to pay for his fuel and some extra and he was happy to stop at a church overlooking a lake in the low mountains before the proper big ones started. The drive was great and we drove over a high pass with snow at the top of the mountains and I was really looking forward to seeing the famous Kazbegi mountains.
However, when we got there there was a freezing, misty rain hanging over the whole area and it was impossible to see anything. I was totally unprepared for cold weather, I know realised. Having carried my favourite, but impractically heavy jacket around all summer, I had immediately lost it the first time I wore it on a chilly evening in Azerbaijan. Now I was dressed in a bizarre collection of inadequate clothing, or maybe an inadequate collection of bizarre clothing, whatever, I was freezing cold and looked funny! Kazbegi village was also unprepared for winter as the gas, which provided the heating wasn't to be turned on until the end of the month. After a couple of days attempting walks in the rain not being able to see anything and hanging around in a cold, expensive cafe we headed back for Tbilisi as the weather forecast wasn't looking very hopeful. Never mind, we'd been pretty lucky with the weather so far and you can't see everything in a country that you want.
We took the mashrutka back down over the pass, which was now completely covered in snow, passing an old Tesco lorry on its way to Russia. The mashrutka driver was quite religious and as is quite common the front was covered in religious pictures. His driving was pretty good until we drove past a church on a busy part of the road, which entailed him crossing himself three times and I wondered if we'd crashed would he have gone directly to heaven?
Back in the warmth of Tbilisi, I decided to call in on a hostel on the way back to our "apartment" to see if anyone there was just back from Armenia and was greeted by an amazed French/Algerian man who I'd met four years before in Cairo. You often keep bumping into the same travellers on the same trip, but to meet someone from that long ago in a totally different area was a great coincidence. We spent a couple of days meeting up in Tbilisi until we headed off on the overnight train to Erevan, capital of Armenia.
Here is another, very detailed and completely accurate history/geography/politics lesson to remind you why we have to keep coming back to Georgia: Georgia borders Turkey; Armenia; Azerbaijan and Russia to north. Armenia and Azerbaijan share a border but its closed because they fought over an area called Nagorno Karabach (more about this in a later blog) Armenia and Turkey share a border but its closed because just after the First World War, the Turks either killed or forced marched over a million Armenians into the desert of Syria, where most of them died. The border may remain closed until the Turks acknowledge this and apologise. The Georgians pride themselves on getting on with everyone and welcome you with a free visa at the border. I wont mention the Georgia/Russia problems here though as that would just take too long.