Sightseeing in Akhaltsikhe

On our last day in Akhaltsikhe, Sean took us to see the original city of Akhaltsikhe. McKinze had to work, but first we all stopped at the tone bread shop.

The tone bread shop window

Sean poked his head in the window and ordered a loaf, which cost a princely sum of 70 tetri (about $0.44). It was fresh from the tone oven, so it came wrapped in a few pages of an Avon magazine to protect our fingers from the heat. We tore off steaming chunks and devoured the whole salty thing in the shadow of the Queen Tamar statue.

Yummy tone bread

Queen Tamar statue, Akhaltsikhe

Then it was time to hike up to the old city. It’s on top of a hill and the mosque, synagogue, church and walls still stand in one form or another. The Georgian goverment is pouring money into into rebuilding and expanding the area into a tourist attraction. It looks like the emphasis was probably more on making it a pretty tourist site than on historical accuracy.

Walking up to the old city

Old Akhaltsikhe

Nothing prevented us from walking onto the construction site, so we did. Apparently, no one was in charge of keeping civilians out, so no one bothered to tell us we shouldn’t be there. We just kept going, expecting to be kicked out. Besides getting a lot of stares, no one seemed to care. Some old bits of the original buildings were just strewn about.

Rubble or relic?

Construction site

Castle tower

Looking down into modern Akhaltsikhe

DIY scaffolding

It’s hard to tell from the picture, but this fire was huge and hot (the pieces of wood were about the size of railroad ties). We joked that it was to dispose of the bodies of the workers who perished due to unsafe construction practices.

Construction fire

Walking through construction

Some fancy people arrived, along with photographers. We asked one of the workers about them and he said the man in uniform was “Chief of Border Patrol.”

Chief of Border Control?

Alicia expressed interest in seeing the cemetery, so we walked over the hill and checked it out. It seems that it is tradition to engrave a portrait of the deceased on the headstones. We didn’t feel like we should take photos, so you’ll have to imagine the dead looking on; some with pleasant smiles, others with stoic gazes, a few with cigarettes eternally dangling from their fingers. There were also small shelters and tables for picnics.


Just in case you forgot the Soviets were once in charge…

Stalin is still popular here

Walking back to town

On the way back to town, we were hot and thirsty. And so we bought the most delicious orange Fanta. Instant time warp back to our childhoods.

Fanta 1

Fanta 2]

And then it rained again.

Jul 2012



Alicia’s village field trip

While we were in Akhaltsikhe (a not-quite-correct-but-easier way to pronounce it is, “Akh-alt-seek-hay“), we spent a bit of time at McKinze’s office. As we mentioned, Sean and McKinze are Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs), and PCVs are assigned to non-governmental organizations (NGO) who have requested assistance. McKinze’s NGO works specifically on womens’ issues like domestic violence and health care access.

Us outside the office

Mckinze showed us the mammography equipment that was donated so that her organization can provide free breast health screenings. It is an old machine, but the only one in the region.

The mammography room

There is also a sewing room at the NGO office, which is used by women who are escaping domestic violence situations. They make clothes and sell them so they can support themselves.

The sewing room

Tea time at McKinze's office.  The posters on the wall depict projects and trips of local youth.

Sean and McKinze also have a weekly American Corner where they lead a group of school children in reading a news article in English and discussing the new words and concepts. The two sessions we were sat in on were attended only by a few younger girls; the older students were busy with exams. We also enjoyed imparting an extremely important part of American culture (at least in my opinion): the art of Scrabble.

Scrabble at American Corner

One of McKinze’s coworkers owns a restaurant, so they treated us to a huge lunch one day: a pile of khachapuri and tubs full of khinkali.


One afternoon, McKinze and I and several other workers from the organization piled into the director’s vehicle (literally… it involved lap-sitting and no seat belts) and traveled to a little village outside of Akhaltsikhe.  The purpose of the visit was to tell the village women about the health services available to them in Akhaltsikhe and to perform free PAP smears at the village’s ambulatoria. (This is why Sean and Tony were not invited.) The presentation was given in the front yard.

Ambulatoria sign

Introductions and the informational talk

A sweet village woman

The exam room:
The exam room

The pharmacy:
The pharmacy

One of the nurses:
One of the nurses

After the talk, there was nothing for McKinze and I to do, so we took a walk through the village. It had been a rainy week, but there were blue skies and sunshine that morning.

But a giant bank of rainclouds hovered in the distance, waiting to pounce.

rain clouds

This village has little indoor plumbing or heating, but satellite is pretty easy to get, so it’s not uncommon for a household to have a latrine in the back yard and 1,000 TV stations in the front room.

satellite tv

As we sat on a bench next to the road, waiting for things to wrap-up, an old village woman wearing a red headscarf and a heavy dark sweater and skirt trudged over to us with a bowl of apples. Her tattered slippers kept the most of the muddy road from seeping into her black stockings. She grinned as she offered us an apple, half of her smile strong white teeth and the other half gleaming gold. We had watched her sprinkle the bowl with a hose a moment ago and wondered if our digestive systems were prepared. It would be impossible to decline.

The three of us ate our apples and chatted a few minutes. McKinze translated as the woman told us about her children (after inquiring about our own status as mothers, of course). It was one of those moments where you’d love to whip out your camera to document, but you tell yourself it’s better to stay still and soak it in. We had privately guessed that our new friend was well past eighty, but from the ages of her children, we knew she was only in her early sixties. It’s a hard life here.

When it was time to leave, we said our goodbyes, and the woman flashed her gold teeth again and we told us we were kargi gogoebi. Good girls.


Jul 2012



Hotel Meskheti, Akhaltsikhe

Bye, Charlie

After a few days in Leliani, we said goodbye to Eleni and Charlie early in the morning and a marshrutka hauled us the long and bumpy way back to Tbilisi. Kamran was headed on a weekend trip to visit his fiancée, so he came with us. The radio blared a mix of Georgian patriotic songs, American power ballads covered by Russian singers, and Backstreet Boys. In Tbilisi, we said goodbye to Kamran and hopped another marshrutka headed for Sean and McKinze’s town, Akhaltsikhe, in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region, near the Turkish border.

Akhaltsikhe soccer field

While we waited for it to leave, human pop-up ads shoved their wares into the open door and shouted words we didn’t understand. A boy selling paper saint cards passed one out to each passenger, waited a moment, and then collected the cards from those who didn’t offer him a coin in return. An old woman selling packets of sunflower seeds and tissues appeared. A packet of tissues is one of the most practical purchases one can make in this part of the world. Alicia asked, “ra rghirs?”

The trouble with knowing only how to ask questions in another language is that you won’t understand the reply. But that’s really not too much of an obstacle, if you think about it. If you’re asking for directions, even if you have no idea what the person is saying, they will gesture and point, and you can head in that direction until you find someone else to point and wave, and if you’re lucky, they might even escort you to your destination. If you’re shopping and ask “how much?,” the seller knows you’re interested in buying, and you can hold out the coins you think will be sufficient to cover the purchase, and they will pick out the ones they need. There’s a level of trust involved, but the risk is negligible.

Cows and more cows

The woman hunted through the coins and pulled out 20 tetri. A bargain! Soon we were off, and this section of highway was much better than the eastern part we had just traveled. It took several hours, and this driver’s radio was mercifully broken. We wound our way through the lush countryside, past Stalin’s hometown of Gori, through Borjomi National Park, all the while passing innumerable cows and crumbling Soviet factories, apartment buildings and bridges.

A heavy thunderstorm descended on us as we passed through the most mountainous sections of road, but the reduced visibility and slippery road did little to slow the driver’s pace. The Mtkvari river heaved with rushing, muddy water from the daily rains and Alicia tried to imagine the best escape route if the marshrutka ended up floating in it.

Room 203, Hotel Meskheti

As always, we arrived safely, and McKinze took us to the cheapest hotel room in town (per our request) at the Hotel Meskheti. It set us back 30 lari per night. Just over $18. Hotel Meskheti, with its wood floors, enormous windows and high ceilings, must have once been a grand place. You can see where the crown molding used to hang. Now, there is mildew near the floor under the peeling wallpaper, it smells like stale cigarette smoke, and the requisite tiny burn marks sprinkle every piece of linen and furniture surface.

Hotel Meskheti

Hotel Meskheti

But it’s clean, and that’s really all that matters. Well, there are certainly parts that have a thick coating of grime, but nothing that you need to actually touch. Later, we would realize that the mildew on the walls is only because the floors are enthusiastically and obsessively mopped at every opportunity. If you can ignore the myriad cosmetic failings, it’s actually fairly pleasant.

Hotel Meskheti

The location is central, and if you remember to flip on the switch at least two hours before you want to shower, there will even be plentiful hot water. But don’t forget to turn it off when you’re done, or the landlady will be sure to instruct you (via charades, unless you know Georgian or Russian) on the proper usage every day. How can she know you forgot? Somehow, she knows.

View from our window, Hotel Meskheti

View from our window, Hotel Meskheti

Jul 2012