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A weekend in Tbilisi

(Hi visitor from the internets! Did you come here looking for info about 144 Stairs in Tbilisi? Here’s their Facebook page, or you can see a few pictures of it towards the bottom of this post. But do feel free to hang out here a while.)

After our early morning arrival and glorious introduction to Georgian food, the rest of our Tbilisi weekend was a blur of seeing everything, doing everything, and having a super fun time getting to know Sean and McKinze better and soaking up all the Georgia intel our brains could handle.

We visited the new city park that President Mikheil Saakashvili (we preferred his nickname, Misha) opened last summer. The glass-domed presidential mansion, “Misha’s house,” is at the top of the hill, so this new park is essentially his front yard.

The new park in Tbilisi and the President's house

Children playing in the splash pad at Tbilisi's new city park

A fountain at Tbilisi's new city park

We walked across the incongruously modern Peace Bridge at noon and at night.

Tbilisi Peace Bridge

Tbilisi Peace Bridge

We came across a free streetside wine tasting and sampled our first Georgian wine (they claim to have invented it 8,000 years ago) while a man alternated between playing his accordion and his organ grinder.

Tbilisi sidewalk wine tasting

Tbilisi sidewalk wine tasting

Tbilisi organ grinder

We climbed Narikala Fortress, whose first stones were laid in the 4th century, and within its walls, we saw a portion of a Georgian Orthodox mass in St. Nicholas Church.

Narikala Fortress

Narikala Fortress

St. Nicholas Church, Tbilisi

View of Tbilisi from Narikala Fortress

We cooled down in a Turkish tea house.

Turkish tea house

The bath houses in Tbilisi

We ate more Georgian food at “the Ossetian place” and piles of noodles and meat at “the Uzbeki place,” where we were treated to an awkward belly dance (is it rude to look, or is it rude to not look?).

Uzbeki food

Uzbeki food

We went to the gold bazaar where McKinze bought a silver St. George pendant (he’s Sakartvelo’s patron saint) and Alicia bought earrings.

Sean and McKinze shopping

Sean and McKinze shopping

We went to the regular bazaar.

Tbilisi bazaar

Near the Tbilisi bazaar

Sean and McKinze negotiated a great cell phone deal for us (up to this point, we didn’t have phones with us).

Cell phone shopping in Tbilisi

Cell phone shopping in Tbilisi

Cell phone shopping in Tbilisi

We had tea and lobiani (khachapuri with beans instead of cheese) in a cafe where a man played guitar and made up funny songs about the men gathered around the back table.

Impromptu musical comedy

We climbed the hill to the brand-new Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi, surrounded by rose gardens and a palpable sense of national pride.

 Holy Trinity Cathedral, Tbilisi

 Holy Trinity Cathedral, Tbilisi

The grounds of Holy Trinity Cathedral, Tbilisi

 Holy Trinity Cathedral, Tbilisi

Tony and Alicia at Holy Trinity Cathedral, Tbilisi

We visited the statue of Tbilisi’s founder, King Vakhtang Gorgasali, whose hand served as a perch to a real bird (although not the falcon of legend).

Statue of King Vakhtang Gorgasali, Tbilisi

Statue of King Vakhtang Gorgasali, Tbilisi

Statue of King Vakhtang Gorgasali, Tbilisi

We climbed 144 steps to a wine bar of the same name, where we felt like kings as we enjoyed the view of the city from the patio until a thunderstorm drove us indoors. We decided to wait it out, which ended up many long conversations later at 4:30 a.m.

144 Steps, Tbilisi

144 Steps, Tbilisi

144 Steps, Tbilisi

We walked. Everywhere.

Graffiti, Tbilisi

Wandering through Tbilisi

Children playing in a fountain, Tbilisi

Wandering through Tbilisi

The long escalator down to the Metro

All of that in one weekend. Exhausting. Perfect.

On Monday afternoon, McKinze escorted us to the marshrutka station, and translated all the requisite questions that the drivers had for us. Questions that we would answer again and again with every Georgian we would meet.

Marshrutka drivers in Tbilisi

Where are you from? (America… Iowa.)
Do you like Georgia? (We love Georgia! Georgia is beautiful!)
Are you married? (Yes.)
How long are you married? (Almost eight years.)
How many children do you have? (None). Concerned looks from the drivers.
When will you have children? (Maybe when we go back to America.) They perked up. An acceptable answer.
How old are you? (30 and 33.)

When it was time to leave, we hopped in the front seat, bound for Kamran’s village of Leliani. Who is Kamran? A guy we had never met before. Where is Leliani? Several hours east of Tbilisi, by the Russian and Azeri borders. You can’t find it on Google Maps. But we would soon find Leliani in our memories forever.

01
Jul 2012
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Iowans, Meet Georgia

Our first introduction to Georgia came before our feet even hit the tarmac of Tbilisi International Airport. We were waiting for the boarding announcement for our connecting flight in Istanbul. It was delayed by 30 minutes and everyone had gathered at the gate. It was midnight, there was an unexplained delay, and everyone clumped towards the front. It was not a matter who arrived first. Rather, it was who wanted to be first. Despite the late hour and the jostling for position, all the Georgians were happy. They were going home.

As we were two of the only three obviously non-Georgian or non-Russians on the flight, most chose to stare at us to pass the time. The stares are always overt, with no attempt to pretend they were looking elsewhere. To many cultures, including ours, this would be a terribly rude thing to do. But in Georgia… well, why would you not stare at the utskhoelebi (foreigners)? God gave you those eyes for a reason.

Tbilisi International Airport

At arrivals, we stepped into a crowd of people staring back at us and briefly felt like red carpet celebrities, but of course they were anxious for their own friends and family to walk through the door. The only blonde in the crowd was easy to spot, even though she is only five feet tall. McKinze and Sean gave us huge hugs and we piled into a taxi. Or maybe it was just an opportunistic kid who had a car and needed gas money. Either way, we were soon hurtling down George W. Bush Avenue (yep) towards downtown and the Peace Corps office. White lines? Merely a suggestion. We decided that either the drivers of every single vehicle on the road had hit the chacha hard that evening or the rules of the road were very different here.

Tony noticed a large glass building that resembled an American style car dealership, until you read the huge POLICE sign, written in both Georgian and English. McKinze explained that a few years ago President Saakashvili fired and replaced the entirety of an overtly corrupt 30,000 member police force. It was one of his more successful and beneficial initiatives for the country. Part of the overhaul included new police stations with glass facades as a symbol of transparency.

After a sufficient recall of traveler mortality statistics had passed through Alicia’s brain (motor vehicle accidents are at the top of the list), we arrived safely. It was 4 a.m., and rather than paying for a room for the remaining few hours of darkness, we would just sleep on the couches at the Peace Corp office.

But first, Sean suggested a bedtime snack of khachapuri imeruli at the cafe across the street. If you can imagine tangy, salty, homemade cheese stuffed into a leavened dough, baked into a flat, oily, disc and cut into pizza-esque slices, that is your basic khachapuri. Alicia was certain that the recipe had to include a generous squeeze of lemon juice, but Sean said that flavor was all in the cheese. Tony and Sean each enjoyed a pint of Natakhtari, not certain if it qualified as a nightcap or as breakfast.

Khachapuri imeruli, photo courtesy of Sean Fredericks

(photo courtesy of Sean Fredericks)

We caught up with each other’s lives, and they told us about what they had been doing during the nearly two years of service as Peace Corps volunteers here. The sun rose, the birds awoke and we finally walked back to the office and slumped into the couches for a few hours of rest.

Peace Corps office

When we awoke, we grabbed our bags and walked to the guesthouse where we’d stay that evening. It always feels good to find the place you’re sleeping and then leave your heavy bags behind. Our 34 liter backpacks are about half the size of the average backpackers’, and conform to even the strictest airline carryon maximums, but they’re still a ball and chain after a short distance.

Guesthouse

Guesthouse courtyard

We left the leafy courtyard and took the subway to the old city district, to a restaurant where we would have our Very First Georgian Meal Ever. (And the people rejoiced.) The preview of the early morning khachapuri was enough to get us excited for all the wonderful things we would soon be experiencing.

The fastest way to both of our hearts is through our stomachs and Sean and McKinze made sure it was love at first sight. They ordered puri, salty bread; lobio, mashed beans baked in a clay pot; kitri da pomidori salata, cucumber and tomato salad, always with lots of onions, parsley and salt, and sometimes with dill, basil, jalapeños or walnut sauce; two kinds of khinkali, large pasta dumplings filled with either mashed potatoes or ground beef, pork and broth; and khachapuri acharuli, a huge bread boat filled with tangy cheese, an egg yolk, and a slab of butter.

Lobio, puri, kitri da pomidori salata

We started in on this new type of khachapuri. McKinze instructed us to rip off a chunk of bread, stir it up, and eat. Sweet mother of heaven.

Khachapuri acharuli

Sean taught us how to eat the meat-filled khinkali. Hold it bellybutton side down, take a small bite from the edge, then suck out the broth. An expert khinkali eater keeps his plate dry. The bellybutton is edible, but most people keep them on their plates so they can count how many they’ve eaten, and so they can save room for more khinkali. The vegetable salad was a welcome break from the heavy (and heavenly) salt, fat and carbs, and would be something we would continue to order with almost every meal.

Khinkali

We felt only a little remorseful as we waddled out of the restaurant. We would pack a lot into this weekend, and the first day had barely begun.

01
Jul 2012
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საქართველო ლამაზია.

IMG_4430

So we went to Republic of Georgia. The first time we ever heard of Georgia was when the Russians invaded South Ossetia in 2008. The second time was when Alicia’s co-worker, McKinze, joined the Peace Corps with her husband Sean. Alicia remembers looking at photos of Tbilisi and Georgia and thinking it looked beautiful… but very far away, and a very unlikely that we would ever visit. Then we made a series of big life decisions that made visiting Georgia… well, a very easy decision.

Georgia has about 4 million people and is nestled in the Caucasus mountains. It’s bordered by the Black Sea on the west, Russia on the north, Azerbaijan on the east and Turkey and Armenia to the south. By modern continental divisions, it’s half in Europe and half in Asia. Being in the same neighborhood as Turkey, Iran and Iraq, it might be tempting to call it the Middle East, but that doesn’t fit either. For a large part of the 20th century, it was under Soviet rule. Georgians have a long history of cycles of occupation and independence and they are fiercely proud of their heritage. They speak Georgian (Kartuli), and, although the country is known internationally as “Georgia,” its true name is Sakartvelo.

So why did we want to go to Georgia?

First of all, Sean and McKinze have lived there for two years. We like them. If that wasn’t enough, Georgia is starting to appear on “best undiscovered places” backpackers’ lists. Not many people go there. This would be our first truly off-the-beaten-track adventure. And our friends could help us navigate and discover totally foreign country in ways that would be incredibly difficult to do on our own. We stayed much longer than we planned. Sean and McKinze showed us how to love Georgia. They also taught us our first Kartuli phrase:

საქართველო ლამაზია.
Sakartvelo lamazia.
Georgia is beautiful.

01
Jul 2012
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A Weekend in Tbilisi

We’re going to skip ahead a bit (we still have a few more Madrid posts to add, not to mention Barcelona, Toulouse, and Paris!) and update you on what’s going on at this very moment. I’m sitting in a cafe in Tbilisi enjoying the first wifi we’ve had in five days. We have a three hour marshrutka ride ahead of us and I’m going to finish learning the other half of the Georgian alphabet before it’s over.

Here’s what we did last weekend with our friends Sean and McKinze. Click around their site if you’re curious about Georgia! They are great ambassadors.

-A

23
May 2012
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