Ksani

I was in a bookstore flipping through a photo book of Georgia looking for last minute purchases before leaving Georgia when I saw a picture of an amazing looking fortress perched on a mountainside.

Ksani

Ksani

I decided then and there that this place would be my last destination.

I got home and researched online where it was. Good news and bad news. Good news was it was really close. It was in the next region over. But the bad news was it was also in one of the occupied territories of Georgia; occupied by the Russians. Oh well, you win some you lose some.

I spoke to Zura about it and he said, “Oh yeah, Ksani. I was there yesterday.” What!?! Come to find out, Ksani is not as close to, i.e., into south Ossetia as previously indicated. Anyway, Zura said we could take a trip to see his summer home one more time and then go see this fortress.

Ksani is halfway between Tbilisi and Gori right off the main highway. Zura wasn’t exactly sure how to get there, so we meandered a bit. We got pretty close when Zura got a phone call. I told him to pull over so I could get some pictures. He did.

At this very spot was a sheepherder with him flock. Zura asked him how to get to the fortress and the man pointed to the dirt road immediately behind him. But he advised that we could only drive halfway, the other part of the road was washed out.

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He asked if I was Indian… Whatever.

He also told Zura that the fortress was nicknamed (roughly translated) “suck my dick”. Named so because even though conquerors laid siege to the fortress, there was a secret tunnel out of the mountain to the local river where they could fish and therefore feed the besieged population. This emboldened them to taunt them with the yells aforementioned.

Sure enough we have to walk the rest of the way. It was steep and dirty enough for me to wish I wore my boots. Without serious investment, roads have no chance here.

It was good to have Zura with me on this trip, too. He is a good guy. He always tells me he wants to travel and camp more often, but because Mari is pregnant, he doesn’t have the opportunity.

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We finally get to the top and it’s a beautiful site! I wish the weather were clearer, because the view would have been breathtaking. I highly advise anyone else to hike there and camp in the fortress probably during summer or fall. It reminds me of Weathertop in the trilogy, The Lord of the Rings- Fellowship of the Ring.

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Petra Fortress

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On the way to Batumi from Ureki, the driver stopped off at an old fortress that I had always wanted to visit. It is right off the road going to Batumi, but I had always been in a public marsh and didn’t want to risk waiting for another one to pass by…. although marshes to Batumi go by probably every minute.

Petra Fortress was built on a hill overlooking the Black Sea, by the Greeks around 500 AD.

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***

Oh, should my people fall
Then surely I’ll do the same
Confined in mountain halls
We got too close to the flame

I See Fire, Ed Sheeran

 

 

Sameba Cathedral

Sameba Cathedral

Sameba Cathedral

Some Georgian friends took me on a walk in a section of Tbilisi called Avlabari. Avlabari is where Sameba Cathedral is located. I had gone to the cathedral before, but I didn’t know it contained other hidden gems. This time I was shown the side chapels and also we went down under the main church. The church descended down two more levels. And on each level there was a big church. Not as big as the main cathedral of course, but still bigger than other stand alone churches.

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I got to thinking while walking through the cathedral, not only how big it was but also how new it was…brand spanking new. It was new, but it also was built the same as churches of old. Which means the look was exactly the same as hundreds of years ago when they, too, were new. Polished granite and marble, walls and grout smooth to the touch. Imagining such a grand structure in the Middle Ages changes my perspective.

Church of the Transfiguration

Church of the Transfiguration

Along with that thought, we next went to a nunnery, Church of the Transfiguration, located nearby. The nunnery was built in the middle ages, but the frescos were bleached out. They are now restoring the paintings to their full luster. Seeing these paintings as they were, must have been a truly spiritual experience.

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At the same nunnery was a restored part of an old castle where the Queen’s quarter’s used to be. Satchino Palace was a summer residence of Queen Darejan, the wife of the Georgian King Erekle II (1720-1798).

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***

“Here is the church, and here is the steeple;
Open the door and here are the people.”

 

King’s Castle

I want to visit as many places here in Georgia as I can before winter sets in. This past weekend, I wanted to see some castles and fortresses. Fortunately, Kakheti is full of such places. I wanted to visit the town of Gremi based on the cool photos I have seen. It is easiest to get there from the city of Telavi, so I decided to stay the night in Telavi and visit Gremi from there.

Telavi is an eerily pretty city/town. It is obvious that it has had extensive upgrading. But the eerie part is all the storefronts are still empty of shops and stores. I thought Telavi would be a good destination because of the 2 for 1 factor. The city of Telavi has one of the few intact fortresses of Georgia. Telavi was the capital of Kakheti back in the day.

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When we explored the fortress, it was hard to figure out how to get in and where to go exactly. We actually walked the wrong (or most inconvenient) way. We entered one entrance only to find a school inside and no access to the rest of the fortress grounds. We continued walking around the castle on the side not intended for tourists.

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Finally, we got to where we were supposed to be only to find the way barred due to renovations. All in all though it was still an impressive site. I was prepared to pay the museum fee, but we couldn’t find it. There were no signs except road signs pointing in the direction. But when you walk in that direction for just a little while, you find a road sign pointing back in the direction you just came. Don’t have time for that game.

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The guesthouse we stayed in, Eto’s Guesthouse, was super cute! It was comfortable and Eto was as nice as can be. She served us homemade wine, both white and red. And the breakfast the next morning was tasty. So shout out to Eto!!! If you are traveling through or to Telavi, try it out.

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The highlight of the trip however, was Gremi.

Gremi was also a site of the ancient capital of Kakheti. It’s down in the valley from Telavi. Upon approach you see the beautiful architecture of the church and tower.

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The entire site of ancient Gremi was easy to walk to and it has been well preserved (renovated). The church still has the frescos, the adjacent tower also serves as the museum. On the grounds are hot baths, and smaller churches.

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One of the smaller churches in Gremi

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Bath House in Gremi

I highly recommend visiting Gremi.

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***

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
Humpty Dumpty, Nursery Rhyme

Hold The Wall!!!!!!!

This weekend I was able to check off one of my last major points of interest in Georgia. The town of Sighnaghi, “City of Love” is in the Kakheti region in eastern Georgia. It is hailed as one of the prettiest towns in Georgia. It was one of the few towns targeted for tourism through a thorough upgrade of all its buildings by government subsidies.

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We stayed at the cutest guesthouse. It still had the ‘old’ feel to it, but it, too, was obviously renovated.

Nana's Guesthouse

Nana’s Guesthouse

Sighnaghi is in the heart of wine country, but since we missed the harvest, we didn’t get to enjoy the wine tasting. We thought we planned the visit to coincide with a festival, but that proved to be false. So with those options off the table, there were only a few other things I wanted to see in the town.

1. St Nino, the apostle who is noted for bringing Christianity to Georgia is buried within walking distance of the town. The church and monastery complex with her namesake was included in the massive upgrade and overhaul. The new and improved version left a sour taste in my mouth. I didn’t want to linger and look around as everything seemed sanitized and commercialized.

Walking to St. Nino’s facilities, we came upon an old lady who was also walking to the Church complex. She seemed nice enough, but then she started showing signs of crazy. Most Georgians, when they realize we don’t speak Georgian (or Russian) well, they will either stop talking as much, start talking louder for a while… then stop talking as much, or start using a lot of mime motions… then stop talking as much. Well this lady was either crazy or oblivious to the fact that we didn’t understand 90 percent of what she was saying. She kept talking without missing a beat… in Russian…for the next 2 km. We sort of realized in the end that she was concerned with getting us to the right area in the complex which she thought was the Holy Spring. Once we got to the complex, she seemed to be ‘in the know’ or at least the crazy lady everyone recognizes. She pointed down a steep stairway, and deemed her mission complete, then left us.

After hearing about St. Nino all this time, I really wanted to see her gravesite. The maps were no help as they all had 3 “you are here” markers. I saw a mini gravestone in front of one of the churches on the site and figured that was St. Nino. As I was going to take a picture of the little sad thing, I figured I would go into the church for a look first. As soon as you go into the church and look left, there is a frenzied line trying to get into a little alcove on the side. Hmm… THAT must be it! So I waited in line with my friend, who was able to get into the church without a headscarf. We both thought she was going to be ejected at any moment although there were others doing the same thing. But still…she was a foreigner.   As we got closer, it was obvious that this was indeed St. Nino. We all could see what people were doing once they were in the alcove. Most were praying and kneeling and doing a lot of kissing (of the tomb). All those actions made me nervous once it was our turn to go in. I asked my friend what she was going to do, and she said she didn’t know. When we got to the door and the previous viewers left the room, my friend looked and then turned and left. I went into the alcove, stood and looked around. I bent to see the actual tomb. It was tiny. It had a painting of her on the tomb with a medallion. The alcove was filled with painted murals above. All this happened within 6 seconds, and I was out of there. I turned to see a sea of Georgian faces staring back at me.

Awkward.

2. Sighnaghi is one of the few Georgian towns with an intact Fortress wall. Guidebooks say its because the town was pretty insignificant to start with and not worth the trouble for invading armies to climb the mountain to attack it.

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We were able to walk the wall and look off into the beautiful valley vista. Walking the walls and climbing the turrets reminded me of The Lord of the Rings, when they were fighting at Helm’s Deep.

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The Lord of the Rings. Battle for Helm’s Deep

TLG End of Year Ceremony 2014

This past weekend was the End of Year Ceremony for TLG.

I love seeing everyone together. We get to swap stories and just be in each other’s presence instead of having to text or phone.

This year it was at the Resource Center in Tbilisi instead of an ambassador’s residence like last year. Unbeknownst to me, I received an award! I was one of 15 to be selected as ‘Best Volunteer’. How about that, huh?

My co-teacher, Mañana and me

My co-teacher, Mañana and me

Guria Regional Rep. for TLG, Tamta, me, and Manana

Guria Regional Rep. for TLG, Tamta, me, and Manana

On the last day of the conference, we toured the Kakheti region, which is wine region in a country that prides itself on wine. As I hadn’t been to kakheti before, I was super excited to go. Not so much with the other delegates. Either they had been before (because they live there) or they were not excited to spend ALL day on a bus, or they wanted to do stuff in Tbilisi. Oh well, sucked for them. I enjoyed it.

We went to:

Alaverdi Monastery

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This place wasn’t so old but it was very beautiful. During Soviet times, they frescos were all white washed. But they are slowly restoring them.

Shuamta Monastery

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This place was huge. We were fortunate enough to come during a wedding.

 

 

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Obviously weddings are done differently here. For example, although there is a religious ceremony aspect to it, not all are invited or expected to attend. There is just one best man and one bride’s maid. So the number of people there are probably 20-25. Everyone else invited to the ‘wedding’ are waiting at a banquet hall for the supra. Also the church/ monastery isn’t closed off to the public. People can still use the church to pray or whatever or (like us) creep on whoever is getting married.

Alexander Chavchavadze’s House Museum

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I was very impressed with the beauty of this house. We took a wine tour and a tour of the house. Alexander was a mover and shaker during his time. I will research further into his history, but here is a link that’s pretty good to give the gist.

***

Because we’re goin’ to the chapel
and we’re gonna get married,
goin’ to the chapel
and we’re gonna get married,
gee, I really love you
and we’re gonna get married,
goin’ to the chapel of love.

Chapel Of Love, The Dixie Cups

In Which Sanchezi Goes On An Excursion (or Herding Cats)

When I was young (13ish), I was dumbfounded to realize that one of my closest friends had not ever been to the beach. It was a weird thing to me because my parents took us to the beach every summer. Living in Charlotte, NC, it was only three hours away. That was my introduction to the concept that not everyone has the same resources and therefore could not afford to do and see all the things someone else does regularly and perhaps takes for granted.

One of the most endearing things that Georgian schools do, in my opinion, is the excursion. This is a trip, usually at the end of the year, that the whole class takes to another city or historical site. What I love about this trip is that it is a bonding experience for the kids. Nothing bonds like shared journeys. The other thing I love about it is, it is an opportunity for kids who would otherwise not be able to see their beautiful and historic country. I meet kid after kid who has not been to the capital or other major cities in Georgia. For the excursion, they pool their resources for food and travel expenses and go. They rarely stay overnight, unless special accommodations can be provided.

I was not invited on any excursions last year, unfortunately, but this year I have been invited on several. The first was this past weekend with Natia’s, my host mother’s, 1st grade class. They are the bigger of the two first grade classes I have.

We assembled in front of the school Sunday morning. The class was so big that we had to take two marshrutkas. And on top of that, to save costs, the kids had to sit on the laps of the parents. We were packed in like rats. When I walked up with Natia that morning, one of the marshrutkas was already there. And it was overrun with the boys of the class. First grade Georgian boys… wow. They are a toxic mix of energy and physical aggression. Thankfully they are too little to hurt others or themselves, or they would be serial killers or sociopaths. The bus was literally rocking with their enthusiasm. The girls, equally excited were standing outside being harnessed by their mothers. Don’t be fooled by the gender difference. I saw a first grade girl run up behind another unsuspecting girl and perform a flying double elbow to the head. The assaulted girl crashed to the ground stunned at the sheer violence that was enacted upon her, then obviously started crying. The assaulting girl stood above her and smiled triumphantly. I saw it with my own eyes.

Once the other marsh came, the girls and their mothers loaded up that one. They were so packed, I didn’t think I would have a seat. But a kitchen table chair appeared out of nowhere and was placed in the aisle. Problem solved.

Since the kids were no longer required to adhere to classroom etiquette, throughout the day they would just yell out my name out of pure joy. At times, my name was cascaded through the group like a rally cry. At other times, when most were in their own thoughts, it would be screamed out by one single child, who remembered I was around. They don’t know English at all at that age. They know their letters and English words for a handful of things, but they can not put together any sentences for conversation. So when they do yell my name and I turn to them, they greet me with a smile of love. That’s all the communication they need. And I am satisfied.

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It was a rainy day. It took us an hour to get to our destination. We went to the town of Chokhatauri to visit the museum of Nador Dumbadze, a famous Georgian writer. Natia explained to me that after his death, his friends constructed this museum in his honor. The museum was an A frame house. It was packed with photos and memorabilia from Dumbadze’s life.

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The kids were herded into the main room to hear the tour guide give a synopsis of his life. Thankfully it was short, as the kids were getting restless. After the tour guide’s presentation, the kids took turns standing on the fireplace giving short recitations. I think they were quoting works of Dumbadze. As one kid would start talking, they all pressed into him jockeying for position to be next. It was painfully awkward. They did this, despite Natia telling them not to for all of the speakers until there were only a few left. The others, as they finished their recitation, continued through the house on a self-guided tour. Unfortunately, for the other speakers, the house was made of wood and the rest of the tour went past an overlook down to the fireplace. The remaining speakers had to battle to concentrate over creaking footsteps and the jeers from their classmates from overhead. When the recitations were finished, we all were free to continue touring the rest of the museum.

We had brought a communal lunch and were supposed to go outside to eat it but it started to pour down. So we had to stay in the museum with 34 first graders for about 30-40 minutes. …herding cats.

But the rain did finally stop and we went outside to a great picnic lunch. One thing Georgians know how to do well regardless of circumstance and that’s eat. We feasted.

The kids ate first and as they finished, they started running around the grounds of the compound like mini hurricanes. Their favorite game is a mix between chasing each other and bumping into each other. And it’s a gender-neutral game. Doesn’t matter if you are boy or girl, you too can be knocked on your ass. As it was wet out now, the game had an added dangerous aspect to it. Also now interspersed with sporadic cries of my name, were the mothers calling out to their little ones that were doing something just a litttttle too dangerous; like jumping off a mini cliff, or throwing empty bottles into the fountain, or absentmindedly punching someone repeatedly in the face. …herding cats.

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After lunch, Natia gathered the kids for one last talk and a group picture. The parents, being the example for their kids, left no space between the kids and themselves in order to take pictures. So, either no one had a good class picture of the kids or if they did get a clean shot off, they were close ups of some kid’s face. And of course, finally, the traditional end to any great Georgian gathering- fireworks.

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Riding to the museum, I rode with in the girls’ bus, which was for the most part quiet. On the way back, I rode in the boys’ bus, which was a chatter box. And as soon as the bus was turned on, they yelled to the driver to play the radio. Besides having to stop to let one girl vomit, we made it back without incident.

One excursion down.

***