A Travellerspoint blog

Jermuk

Taking the waters soviet style

sunny 14 °C

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After a relatively short Mashrutka trip past the glorious view of the twin peaks Mount Ararat across the border in Turkey, through some very red hills, some bare mountains, and a pocket of rich farmland, we arrived in our first planned stop. As the distances are so short in Armenia, we'd left in the afternoon and there was about an hour of daylight left.

The little town of Vayk had sounded quite attractive, but in reality it seemed little more than a dusty street containing a few shops and cafes and the promised beautiful surrounding hills looked very uninspiring. As we got off, we were immediately harassed by taxi drivers, who seemed bemused by our decision to stay the night in the town and having spotted a shop/cafe, we sat escaped there for coffee and to decide what to do next. The woman in the shop was very pleased to see us and rushed to make us some strong Armenian coffee - known as Sorch. I looked up and down the street, wondering where the welcoming homestays were that we'd been told about and thinking how different it felt there, not only from Georgia and Azerbaijan, but from Yerevan. One of the taxi drivers came over and tried to communicate with us the stupidity of staying in the town, saying that we should let him drive us to another town in the mountain where we had intended to go the next day. We'd heard that one before! Taxi drivers always tell you that there is no bus, the last one is gone, the hotel you want is closed, whatever it takes to get some custom! In the end he phoned an English speaking friend, who repeated the advice and in we eventually struck a surprisingly reasonable deal for him to drive us to the 20 km up the mountain. This definitely put me in a better frame of mind - until the nice cafe woman tried to charge some ridiculous amount for the coffee. Its so easy to forget the basic rules of travel when you are tired or distracted: always ask the price first, especially if you've just arrived in a place, and especially if they smile a lot!! And don't always mistrust taxi drivers, but do be very careful!

The village or small town we arrived in that evening turned out to be a good decision, the good old taxi driver went out of his way to find us a bargain, which, as it was just out of season, definitely was a bargain! There were 2 bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen, and sitting room where we had a massive breakfast brought to us in the morning. It had all seen better days, of course, but the best of all was the ancient but effective central heating to protect us from the cold mountain evening. All for considerably less than a cramped room in Yerevan, though without the friendliness of our one is previous hostess.

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What a strange place Jermuk was. Its about 2,000m above sea level and surrounded by wooded mountains, which looked beautiful in the autumn sunshine. Its famous for its water, and quite rightly so. People have been coming there since ancient times to "take the waters" and now it's bottled and sold all over the world. In the 1940's it started to become a popular Soviet health resort. There's a lake surrounded by woods and hills. Next to this lake is a building called the "Gallery of Waters", which consisted of an arched wall with a series of taps, from which water from the hot springs flowed into stone basins. Each tap has water of different temperature, ranging from warm to "drink it straight from the tap if you think you're hard enough"! The temperature of each water was written next it and they were all meant to have different therapeutic properties. There was a constant stream of people coming to drink the water, some had special cups that the brought there every visit. The water tasted faintly metallic but quite nice.

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Around that area are a few stalls selling some natural cures, mainly herbs and fruits and around the lake are some large modern hotels/health spas and a deserted one that had obviously been pretty impressive in its hey-day. There was also a new one being built, right in the way of the beautiful views! The rest of the town consisted of some pretty dilapidated old soviet blocks of flats and house another disused, massive hotel. There were no cafes around so we had to make use of the (very) minimally equipped kitchen, but the shopping in Russian and about three words of Armenian was great fun. I was puzzled, though, as to why a lot of the shops seemed to be selling 80's sports wear as well as food.

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It was interesting to walk around the area and to see the old Soviet remains and the new building that were going up, which also had the feel of the new Soviet era. Its funny that years ago the stereotype Russian woman (mainly from James Bond films I suspect) was built like a shot putter and had very few feminine qualities about her, I'm trying to be correct here, but we are talking about stereotypes! Nowadays Russian women are usually portrayed as beautiful blonde man-eaters, waiting to trick men into marriage at the first opportunity. The fashions of architecture are equally changing and the austere soviet buildings are now being replaced by a newer, slightly more welcoming ones, but still intimidating for us feeble westerners.

And so it seemed with the health spas, which were in the new soviet-style hotels. Of course, how could I be in a health spa town without trying out the goods, especially at out of season prices. Rob bravely decided to come too and thus became the only man under 60 they had probably seen in a long time! Though I don't think he quite got the idea that you were meant to enjoy it, afterwards I realised he might have had a point. The hotel we chose definitely had the new soviet veneer and once we passed the forbidding grey exterior.

In the clean white carpeted foyers people were hanging around in 80's style sports wear whilst waiting for there various treatments. People often come here for a week of tow of treatment, seemingly either from Yerevan or Russia. There is a long history of soviet health tourism, which I saw remnants of in Kyrgyzstan. We had opted for a day's series of treatments and swim and I had visions of soft white toweling robes and towels and being pampered and pummeled and stuff happening with clay and oils, though I wasn't quite sure what.

Our first port of call was the doctor, apparently for a medical check-up, but in actuality seemed more concerned with what we were prepared to pay. The nice lady from reception, who spoke English and had promised us a day package had miraculously disappeared but we negotiated the same price, minus the swim. It never ceases to surprise me, coming from NHS Britain, not that you have to pay for treatment, but how often the doctors, therapists etc. get involved in haggling prices beforehand. Anyway, we were pronounced fit enough for the treatment and were prescribed a hot spa bath, a gum massage, an oxygen drink and a normal massage.

My first port of call was the gum massage room. Images of what it could mean flashed before my mind as I was efficiently rushed to the room. Looking at the rows of old-fashioned sinks lining the walls, I was again struck by the modern veneer put on the old soviet systems. I was sat at a sink and given a tube that was hanging from a leaking mineral- greened tap. Probably nothing could look new for long with this water running through it constantly, but I was glad when I was also handed a plastic mouthpiece. I then had to sit over the sink, a plastic bib tucked around me while I moved the mouthpiece around my teeth. "Keep moving it" I was sternly warned, and so I expected some pretty gum-tingling pressure. It was mildly invigorating, but maybe the mineral content was doing unseen things to the health of my mouth.

After about 15 minutes, my personal nurse came back and brusquely rushed me to the mineral bath. Again this looked like something from some old Russian film! There were cubicles of baths, divided by curtains, everything was green and the hot spa water continuously ran into old-fashioned bath-tub and out of the overflow. I was told to get undressed and get in the bath, handed a timer and told " 10 minutes only, keep heart out of water!" and a timer was placed on the grubby rack over the bath. "Whatever!" I thought, maturely, and proceeded to sink right into the lovely hot bath English-style for a wonderful 20 minute metallic smelling mineral soak. After 2 rounds of the giant egg-timer my nurse hurried me to a white sofa-ed waiting area, where I was soon joined by an equally bemused Rob. I felt a bit like a bag lady in my odd assortment of light clothes and bags of warm clothes for outside - so much for my idea of soft white toweling robes! We adjourned to the coffee bar upstairs to wait for round two.

Again, the imagined pummeling massage from the old shot-putter style Russian turned out to be a disappointingly light rub-down by a slight blonde and then it was time for the intriguingly named oxygen cocktail. I was led to a small sitting area where the oxygen machine was run by the first, and only, smiling woman of the day. She took a glass containing a coloured sugar solution and pumped it full of oxygen from a tap on the machine. It tasted like a sugar solution with air pumped into it, but was told the oxygen would counter the effects of the high (all of 2,000 m) altitude. And that was it - an interesting, but not impressively healthy health spa.

After a day of rain we headed back early in the morning in the only Mashrutka of the day to Vayk, where we intended to catch another one onto to the town of Sissian, about 40 km away.

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Posted by sue deegan 10:21 Archived in Armenia Tagged landscapes waterfalls mountains people water springs village hot mineral armenia Comments (0)

Dancing in the street to Boney M

A photo heavy blog.

sunny 25 °C

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We were told to be prepared for Armenia to be less exciting than Georgia and Azerbaijan and that the Armenians had a bit of a reputation for being miserable. We had also been told that Erevan, the capital (also known as Yerevan) was less interesting than Tbilisi and Baku. When we boarded the Armenian night train I was surprised by how clean it was and how the attendant was walking up and down spraying the carriage with air freshener. There was piped Armenian music and a calm, relaxed atmosphere - except for the group of excitable Georgian teenagers.

We arrived at the massive train station early in the morning and got a taxi to a hostel in the city centre. To save money I try and use public transport as much as possible, but its so much easier to get a taxi when you arrive at a strange city early in the morning after a disturbed night on a train. Once you've got your bearings its usually easy to find your way around by bus and mashrutka and Erevan also had a small metro system. The streets were eerily quiet and when we got to the hostel, we were told that it was Erevan's birthday and that there would be celebrations all that day. The hostel was full, but sent us to a Homestay down the road in an old soviet apartment owned by a woman called Suzanna. After admiring each others names, she rushed off to work. A word here about my name: When I was travelling before I would just get a blank look, until one day a man at a hotel looked at my passport and his face lit up "Ah, Susana" he said "that's and Egyptian name." Its also Turkish, Georgian, Armenian, Syrian and Jordanian. Even in Turkey and Azerbaijan, where the word for water is "Su", people wouldn't make the connection. So I've resigned myself to calling myself Suzann and it never fails to bring a smile to peoples faces when I tell them, in fact I'm beginning to think of myself as that now.

When we hit the streets, we really were in the centre of town, people were getting ready for a street party - and what a street party it was! Slowly the massive streets and squares filled up with people, dressed up in all sorts of costumes and waiving flags. There were speeches by important people, marching bands galore, children, lots of music, a children's park with an amazing puppet show, stages with pop music, traditional dancing and music, arts and crafts, street dancing - including what was probably the world's youngest break dancer, people working in shops were dancing wildly outside and everyone was having fun. As you can see I got busy with my camera and everyone was very eager to be photographed. (There are a couple more photos on my gallery on the blog site.)

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But the crowning glory of the day in Erevan, of course, was the headline performance of Boney M in the main square. It was so full of people that it was impossible to see them, except on one of the mainly massive screens, but we could here them doing all the old favourites. I'd been surprised to have heard "Rasputin" played in Georgia and Azerbaijan on buses and the radio given that the Russians had taken over those countries for so many years, but there is very little rancour on the surface towards Russia or the Russians there. Actually I never liked them that much at the time, but now I'm fond of them as you can only be in retrospect with cheesy pop music. I reckon it takes about 10 years minimum for a bad song to become a Golden Oldie! Sorry all you Boney M fans, but that's the truth. Anyway they were wildly popular in Armenia.

We spent the next day wandering around the subdued city, which as I'd been told not to expect much, I found really pleasant. As we'd travelled through the night on the train we hadn't seen any of the scenery and when we climbed up to a high viewpoint I was amazed to see the snowy twin peaks of Mount Ararat, which is in Turkey, dominant in the distance. I was soon to learn that the Armenians have an almost religious devotion to the mountain, claiming that it really is part of Armenia. Its the sadly unrealised dream of many Armenians to make a pilgrimage there.

As our visas were only for 3 weeks, we moved on to the south of Armenia, promising to come back to Suzanna's on our way back to the north and to our 3rd visit to Georgia. We got on the obligatory Mashrutka going to an interesting looking town in the mountains to the amazement of the rest of the passengers. It didn't seem worth explaining to them that it was ok we knew how they worked and had spent a massive percentage of the last few weeks on them! Having enjoyed Erevan so much, I was looking ofrward to the rest of the country.

Posted by sue deegan 00:40 Archived in Armenia Comments (0)

Back to Georgia 2

Tbilisi and rainy mountains

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

Posted by sue deegan 12:54 Comments (0)

Back to Georgia

The land where drunks sing in harmony and chips are a "healthy option".

all seasons in one day 24 °C

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The first town we stopped at in Georgia was called Lagodekhi, set in wooded low mountains. Just outside the town is a nature reserve, which we headed straight to. The girl working there made us immediately welcome and arranged for a homestay just down the road - and what a homestay. The grandmother was probably one of the best cooks in Georgia and immediately set to feeding us up - not that I really needed it! Georgian food is a mixture of really healthy local, home grown fruits and vegetables and some serious white flour and saturated fat combinations. In one meal alone we were given: the tomato, cucumber, onion and herb salad that you get with every meal, potato salad, chicken, dolma - vine leaves with a meat stuffing; chicken; katchapuri, a baked cheesy dough; a delicious broad bean mixture; home-made yoghurt; home-made tomato ketchup/sauce; chips; bread; home-made wine; cha-cha (home-made vodka); freshly picked grapes; cakes; homemade jam and probably a load of other things I've managed to forget.

After a massive breakfast and loaded up with lunch, we waddled up to the reserve to walk off the food. After Azerbaijan, the people seemed twice as friendly. The houses were similar, but everything was scruffier and slightly anarchic. The girl at the centre let me use her computer in the office to copy some photos onto DVDs, gave me book on Georgian birds as a gift and then kissed me goodbye.

The walk we had chosen was apparently one of the easier ones and we set off expecting it to be a stroll in the woods. This is what it was at first and it was easy to imagine that I was in one of the nicer parts of England until I glimpsed bits of mountains through the trees. After a short while a Georgian Cow Dog attached itself to me. I had seen these dogs before in the mountains in Mestia. If you think that sheepdogs are clever, you should see these dogs! Every morning the dogs take the cows from the villages and towns onto the pastures in the mountains - by themselves. They know the routes totally and lead them up some pretty steep tracks, guard them all day and then in the evening, they bring them back down again. If the cows dawdle they are barked at until they get going and the dogs know all the routes so well that they often run ahead or behind at the tricky places to make sure they go the right way. Well, this dog apparently thought I was a poor lost cow and in need of herding. It stayed with us the whole time, making sure we went the right way and impatiently herding me if I wanted to stop and admire the view (usually when going up a steep bit). When we stopped for lunch it accepted our food, but it didn't act like most dogs do, wanting to be stroked and looking for attention, it stayed its distance and backed away if we tried to get close. When we were safely back, it just disappeared again.

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After an hour of walking through the woods and across streams, the path became more seriously uphill and became more of a clamber than a walk. This was fine, except it had rained quite a lot in the night and you might remember my fear of going downhill in slippery conditions and this is what they certainly were. Clinging onto the branches and occaisional handrail when the path went steeply up through streams, I put this to the back of my mind until the way back and after another couple of hours we came to a steep climbdown to the waterfall, which was worth all the effort.

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Eventually the downhill journey couldn't be put off any longer, and wondering, as I usually do at this point, why I like walking in mountains, I set off determined that it wouldn't beat me. I would be lying if I said I hadn't wanted to be "beamed up, Scotty" quite a few times, but after some tortuously slow climbs down the wet rocks and path, I decided that if I was going to get back that day I needed to speed up and eventually got into the rythm of it. As we got to the easier flatter bit, we met a party of teenage Georgian girls wearing teenage Georgian shoes (the same as English teenage shoes, but more so). "Are we nearly there?" they asked plaintively. They weren't happy with the answer and carried on closely followed by their teachers who didn't look too happy either. It was very beautiful in the woods and I strode along the easy level path, following the Georgian Cow Dog. Those of you who have read my previous blogs might guess what was about to happen - yes, I then slipped on a flat, wet rock and went sprawling on my back with a large rock stuck in my ribs! Pretending I was ok, I got up and carried on, but the reality was that my ribs were painfully bruised for the next couple of weeks. Duh! Going back through the woods we also passed a couple of policemen, their police car parked by a stream with the radio on loud, a bottle of Vodka in hand, enjoying their own private party.

lagodekhi cow dog brings us safely back

lagodekhi cow dog brings us safely back

The next day we carried on to another small town called Sighnaghi famous for its grapes and wine. The Homestay here was also very welcoming. I sat on the balcony drinking strong Georgian coffee and lazily reaching down for the occaisional grape from the vine growing on it. Not only was this place very cheap and friendly it also had amazing food, cha-cha and wine (they kept giving us vodka for breakfast). The only reason I'm not still there is that I found the town pretty boring! At first it looked really pretty with balconies overhanging the street, but it was the only place I came across in Georgia which had received the "Poundbury treatment". Everything was pristine and re-built and the streets were neatly cobbled ready for the wealthy Tbilisi tourists, but the character had gone and nothing much went on there. To cap it all I was hassled by a Jehovah's Witness in the street! I read somewhere that Georgians, who are Orthodox Christians, are very tolerant of other religions but attacks had been known on Jehovah's Witnesses.

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Just about every second or third woman in Georgia is called Nino after a Georgian saint who is buried in Sighnaghi at the convent. After looking at this we walked down endless steps to Nino's Well, which is reputed to have sprung up there in time of need of water after Nino had prayed for some. Maybe she should have specified that it should have been nearer the convent as they must have had a difficult time lugging it all the way up there in buckets! There was a little chapel at the bottom where a crowd of people were queuing up to be immersed in a pool inside. I was all for trying it to see if it would heal my sore ribs until Rob mentioned that there were probably quite a few people going in there to be cured of their skin complaints and I decided to give it a miss - well it was cold(ish)!

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The next day we headed back to Tbilisi by Mashrutka on what should have been a quick easy journey on straight roads. Unfortunately the driver must have been in a terrible hurry as it rattled along like anything, painfully bumping over every pot-hole. We were warmly welcomed back to what was becoming to seem like our private appartment in Tbilisi with a computer with Russian Photoshop at my disposal most of the time and I spent the next few days combining sightseeing, clothes washing and marathon computer sessions.

Posted by sue deegan 10:52 Archived in Georgia Comments (1)

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