Lamazi Buneba: Georgia 2018

I’m a bit lazy so this post will largely repurpose my instagram record of my trip to Georgia in June 2018. That means it wasn’t all written in one breath but rather several daily breaths, so the tenses might be a bit odd and my thoughts a bit half-baked. The photos are still decent, though!

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I went alone. I had wanted to visit Georgia, the Switzerland-sized nugget of mountains, wine and Orthodox Christianity between Turkey and Azerbaijan, since 2011, when I was 18 years old and dreaming of Places Far Away. Thanks to the magic of the internet, you can still read what I wrote about it back then here.

And so, eight years, two degrees, a dozen jobs, and half a dozen international moves later, I started planning my trip. I was different, but my interest in Georgia wasn’t. As you’ll see in my eighteen-year-old self’s vision of Georgia, there is much to see and although I spent a few days in the pretty capital Tbilisi, for me this trip was primarily about one thing: finding nature. And find it, I did. Georgia is so full of ლამაზი ბუნება (“lamazi buneba”; beautiful nature) that my phone is figuratively bursting at the seams. So let’s cut to the chase.

IMG_20180602_170735_558Day 0: If you go to Constantinople, I’ll be waiting in Istanbul (for my flight to Georgia).

IMG_20180603_232130_270Day 1: It was difficult to pick one photo from my first day in Georgia but since I have a special spot in my heart for rugs, here’s the Caucasian and Oriental Carpets Gallery displaying Kelim, Jejim and other woven wonders. Little do they know I have a magic carpet all of my own that I carry around inked into my skin. Wouldn’t say no to one of these guys but they are 300-500 euros each…

IMG_20180619_225324_541Kazbegi/Stepantsminda from the car reminds me a lot of Iceland.

IMG_20180605_121739_441Day 2: Yesterday I did the most touristy thing possible and joined a tour to the mountain region north of Tbilisi. Our ultimate destination was a small church on top of a hill, erected in the 14th century to keep the local Christian artefacts safe from marauding Mongol invaders. It used to be called Stepantsminda (St Stephen) after a saint who saved his village from an avalanche by warning them to move, but the Soviets disliked the religious connotations and changed it to Kazbegi after the Georgian author Alexander Kazbegi. Since the fall of the USSR, the old name is back.

On our trip, the weather was dire but the landscapes beautiful (bare, bright green mountain slopes and swathes of mist) and although I couldn’t get a good photo of Stepantsminda Church, I found this idyllic water fountain at its feet.

20180605_205129Day 3: For a day that started with me blearily opening my eyes on a Soviet train as a conductor rapped on the door to my compartment, that saw me squeezed onto a minibus full of strangers hurtling over mountain passes and perilous semi-constructed, pothole-riddled roads, the day ended pretty well with me staring in awe at Mount Mazeri and Ushba glacier wreathed in clouds. I’m in what I suspect to be the original garden of Eden, still untouched by sin. At the very least, untouched by rampant human domestication. There are people and homes and villages and communities all over the place but nature – buneba – reins supreme and unchecked. I can’t help but compare with Germany’s sanitised and well-trodden Alpine roads.

I’m in the village of Mazeri in deepest Svaneti, arguably Georgia’s most remote region – and inarguably most beautiful. The air literally smells sweet, the water bubbles out of the ground, the animals all roam free and there are meadows upon meadows of wildflowers. I feel quite, quite strange but then again I am a massive stranger here so it’s okay to experience some discomfort and uncertainty. My hosts are very welcoming indeed and I am delighted that I can finally fall asleep to silence. But, just like at home in my Berlin bedroom, I will wake up tomorrow morning to see swallows darting all around the window. I cannot recommend Svaneti enough!

IMG_20180608_091304_595Just to prove there is another side of the house, since I can’t seem to stop photographing Peak Mazeri.

IMG_20180607_002513_885Day 4: This was the day. The day I’d been looking forward to for basically ten years. The day I rode a horse in the mountains of Svaneti. These days are never as star spangled as you imagine, and I did spend many moments trying to feel what I felt I should feel and not worry so much about little things (#storyofmylife), but taking away all that psychological mess I have to say it was a beautiful experience. The horse I rode, Ariol, was healthy and strong. My guide for the day, Zaza, was friendly, patient and insistent on taking photos of Ariol and me every half hour. I now have dozens.

We tied Ariol up at a border guard post (not the first time I’ve found myself on horseback at a border guard post in a former Soviet satellite state, as it happens…) and hiked on toward a waterfall, crunching our way up ice fields that were frankly really bloody dangerous and kind of scary without ice spikes, me taking several breather breaks because of how steep the path was, and found some other tourists along the way that we adopted and took back down safely.

I say “we” but it was really all Zaza. I couldn’t have asked for a better guide. My only regret is that I don’t speak Georgian so we had some difficulties communicating but without him the day wouldn’t even close to have lived up to my astronomical expectations. As it was, we got fairly close.

IMG_20180608_075201_356Day 5: After my adventure yesterday I realised that although it was incredibly fun to bushwhack on horseback, I wanted to spend my other two days at the guesthouse here in Mazeri just relaxing, reading my book and enjoying the garden. Unexpected bonus? The cows! Cows have been my favourite animal since, at the age of 4 or 5, I visited the dairy farm down the road from my childhood home and allowed the calves to suckle on my fingers. Cows are intelligent, playful, affectionate and fairly imperturbable. As I was reading my book on a boulder, I heard the mooing increase to a bovine cacophony and looked up to find myself surrounded by a herd of cattle, moving down to the evening pasture and lowing loudly to make sure everyone was accounted for.

Not wanting to frighten the mothers with their calves, I forewent cow cuddles and moved to a less central rock but this did not stop the occasional cow wandering over for a good stare. This lady on the right came back several times – perhaps she thought I should be coming with them. Some people find this cow stare unnerving or unsettling. I find it deeply soothing. To be simply seen as a living being by another living being, to be recognised as alive, to be given undivided attention, to be the focus of another’s curiosity is a wonderful feeling. I spent two or three hours watching the cows play, graze and wander and felt that deep kind of happiness settle into my skin.

I will take the memory of these cows with me back to Berlin. Thank you, cows, for all that you give us and sorry for all that we do to you. I will try to be kinder, buy less dairy, make better choices with my wallet, and reduce my impact on your suffering. Because cows are not stupid and have complex emotional lives which we stunt and cut short. I’m not preaching, but I was moved by these cattle today. They live good lives here on the farm and I want their cousins across the world to enjoy the same right.

20180607_124810Day 6: It’s impossible to describe the meadows of wildflowers here. I can tell you that I spotted forget-me-nots, oxeye daisies, fennel, buttercups, clover, dandelions, speedwell, cow parsley, hyacinths and begony, crane’s-bill, hydrangea, bistort and something that looks like an azalea but smells like honeysuckle. I can tell you that breathing in is like walking into a florist’s, a rose bush, an imagined memory of what nature should smell like. I can tell you that you can sit on a boulder and look and look and get down on your hands and knees to look closer and lie on your back and look up and never tire of the labyrinth of shapes and colours surrounding you – it’s better than acid (not something I say lightly).  I can tell you that walking barefoot through the grass is like walking on silken cushions, that it’s impossible to step around the flowers because they are the meadow.

But it’s not the same.

I’m not worried I’ll forget – I know I will, and that’s fine. I’ve never been so awestruck by nature’s plenty as I have here and I don’t think it’s possible to hold its magnitude inside me even while I am right in front of it, so there’s no way I can retain it fully once I leave. I guess this is what the world is like when people haven’t ruined it yet, and I can’t help hoping that there is a heaven and that it is like this. There are *so many flowers* that I walked for an hour and didn’t leave the meadow. I want to take it with me but it’s a good thing I can’t. I’ll never forget that this place exists.

IMG_20180609_140019_659I’ve left Mazeri and moved on to Mestia, and I miss the cows so much I could cry.

IMG_20180609_202733_241Day 7: I’m in Mestia now, having left Mazeri this morning. Mestia is objectively beautiful in a rural, ramshackle, organic way but after four days in an oasis of perfect natural splendour, I’m struggling to wax lyrical. Mestia might be small but it bustles like a bigger town. The main trade is clearly tourism, with souvenir shops, ski rentals, museums, tour operators and restaurants jammed along every street. Oh, and every house seems to be a guesthouse. The Svan towers are fascinating and ancient and I get blown away when I think that they’ve stood here in people’s gardens for 1000 years. Not being in the mood for dust, noise and cars I clambered out of the valley and found what I was looking for: cows, flowers and a beautiful view.

20180609_154900I can’t believe this is real.

IMG_20180610_210842_017Day 8: I’m on holiday, so I feel like at least one selfie is compulsory. It’s been a long day and an odd one. I got up at 7 to hike up to this big, metal cross that overlooks Mestia. Although the going was a bit tough at points (see: Fiona dragging herself up a painfully steep slope, mumbling to herself to keep going, trying to keep her legs not only under her but also moving onwards), I had a companion most of the way as a friendly dog chose to hike with me. I’m clearly more out of shape than I thought and it makes me feel some trepidation about the thought of hiking across the Alps this summer but today also gave me the confidence to know that pain alone isn’t enough to stop me.

After coming down from my hike and the adrenaline high, I waited for my marshrutka (minivan) to Zugdidi. The ride out of Svaneti took several hours but I still arrived at the train station in Zugdidi far too early and have been whiling the time until my sleeper train arrives by reading and people watching. Tomorrow morning, I will wake up in Tbilisi, with the mountains far from my body but not from my mind.

IMG_20180611_093649_571The view from above Mestia, with honey-scented rhododendrons in front.

IMG_20180612_101607_487Day 9: After a week in the delirious other-world of northern Svaneti, I landed with a heavy bump back in Tbilisi. In fact, I spent the entire day on the Fabrika hostel site, which is as fully kitted out as a cruise ship. I was wiped out from my hike, the long and bumpy drive from Mestia to Zugdidi, the hours I spent waiting on the train station platform and the rumbling night train which arrived in Tbilisi at daybreak, but actually arriving at Fabrika was bittersweet. Bitter because Fabrika’s manufactured hipster heaven vibe, ant-free floors, carefully curated vintage furniture, friendly reception staff and bottomless brunch are a million miles removed from the genuine, messy warmth of Svan guesthouses; sweet because I badly needed somewhere to crash and switch off and since Fabrika is like a pastiche of Berlin, I felt right at home.

And yet, the run-of-the-mill hipster design tropes dotted around (old-school sewing machine, distressed furniture, peeling paint, bare light bulbs, well-worn carpets, exposed pipes) suddenly seemed strange. I’d seen exactly the same things in Svaneti but did not register them there as hipster. What seems like a design choice here by being out of place seemed to have nothing to do with design and everything to do with function in the mountains – it’s all about perspective, people!

This realisation of in-place-ness made me re-examine hipster aesthetics with the eyes of an anthropologist returning from ethnographic study (fun fact: “Culture Shock” was originally used not to describe the shock of arriving in a different culture, but to the shock of returning to one’s own after some time away. This means that “reverse culture shock” is a pleonasm). Georgia is interesting because the worlds that time has separated where I come from (Western Europe) are separated here only by a few hours on a train and some mountain passes. The past tense which my millenial contemporaries exalt and exoticise by reframing it as a style choice evocative of another time – I’m referring to the retro and escapist, not the industrial and futurist, side of hipster aesthetics – takes on a different tone of self-exoticisation and othering here. And yet, it works.

IMG_20180614_123842_259Day 10: Not sure how to fill my last two days in Tbilisi, grumpy that I’d not given myself more time in the mountain paradise of Svaneti, and still thinking about those cows, I decided to go plant-based for a day and take a mini-break from omnivorism. I took a long walk to and around Tbilisi’s Botanical Gardens (it seemed fitting) and then went to a vegan cafe, Tbilisi’s first. In the evening, I headed back to my hostel for a vegan khinkali workshop. Khinkali are Georgian soup dumplings, usually with a meat filling, and they’re eaten by holding onto the ‘stem’, biting a tiny hole to slurp out the broth, and then swallowing the entire dumpling in one big gulp. Under the guidance of a Copenhagen-based Bulgarian chef, we learned how to fill, shape, cook and serve the dumplings. They were pretty tasty and it was very interesting to talk to the other participants at dinner over a mountain of khinkali we had made together.

IMG_20180616_132936_659Day 11: On my last day in Georgia, I managed to tick off another thing that had been on my travel wish list since the tender age of 18 – visit the cave city of Uplistsikhe, an hour or so outside of Tbilisi. I teamed up with Michel, an interior designer from Groningen, who I had met at the vegan khinkali workshop.

After some marshrutka travel, we arrived in Gori where we explored the strange Stalin museum and got lost (like actually lost, not “omg let’s go get lost and find ourselves” lost) in the ruins of Gori’s Fortress. Finally, we found our way to Uplistsikhe and began to explore. It was far, far bigger than I anticipated and we easily spent two hours scrambling over millenia-old stairways, through iron-age kitchens and bedrooms and around tenth century church naves that are still marked with the soot of ancient fires.

Considering the fairly impromptu nature of the excursion – I’d already resigned myself to not being to see any caves while here – I felt very grateful and lucky to know that I’m leaving Georgia having truly seen all I wanted to see: Tbilisi, Svaneti and some caves.

Thank you, Georgia! მადლობა

P.S. I didn’t talk enough about food. Georgian food is really, really good:

 

 

2 thoughts on “Lamazi Buneba: Georgia 2018

  1. Fiona, this is brilliant. It makes me want to go straight away. (Mountains, cows, YES.) Genuine question: how did you plan it all? I’ve never been on holiday alone and I think the time might be soon, but planning is…intimidating.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. First of all, I was you a year ago. I’d been on holiday alone before but never in a country I didn’t speak the language and I was intimidated. And it was hard. This is definitely the instagram version of my trip – by no means do I want to scare you off but let me say I went looking for the edge of my comfort zone and I found it! As for how I planned it…. I think being in a country where my money went far made a massive difference. I knew I wanted to go to Svaneti, so I googled a lot (lonelyplanet and reddit are fantastic resources) to find out how to get there. I figured out how long it would likely take, figured out how long I’d like to spend in Svaneti, added a few days in Tbilisi on either end and then had 12 days. (1) I booked my flights. (2) I sketched out an itinerary and booked my rooms on booking.com with no prepayment necessary which allowed me to be pretty flexible. (3) I booked my train tickets from Tbilisi to Zugdidi, which is where you get the bus to Svaneti from, and back again. (4) I found a guesthouse in Svaneti that offered horse riding by emailing a few different places until one said yes, then I relied on them for explaining a lot of the logistics of how to get to Svaneti. (5) On reddit I happily, luckily, met a woman who’d recently been on a solo trip to Georgia and she gave me lots of good, specific advice and answered my anxious questions (“Are there cash machines?” “What happens if you miss the bus?”).

      To reiterate, being in a country where my money went far made this a good trip. Although I travelled by bus and train I knew I could afford a taxi if all went tits-up. When I stopped loving my stay in Mazeri as much as I’d hoped, I was able to rebook into a hotel in Mestia with no trouble. I didn’t have to cook for myself because I could afford to eat in restaurants for breakfast, lunch and dinner. This was no wild adventure compared to what some people get up to but as an anxious introvert, I am so proud of myself for taking the risks and going somewhere alone. Oh, I also learned the alphabet and a few words (like a dozen words) before going.

      I learned lots of lessons which I texted to my best friend intermittently and do plan to collect them all together at some point! The biggest one, though, was “Since you’re an introvert, it’s okay to do some tour-group things because otherwise your anxiety will hold you back from stuff you want to do just because you find logistics overwhelming”. Another lesson was “If the guy who was supposed to take you horse riding starts giving you cuddles and flowers you don’t want, it’s okay to cancel your horse riding and lie far away from him in a meadow of flowers and cows instead”. Also, “Be persistent when looking for your bus and don’t stop saying the name of the place you’re going to complete strangers until you’re on the bus.” Let me know if you have any other questions though. Where are you thinking of going?

      Like

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