24.12.2018 - 26.12.2018 1 °C
Borjomi is not at all what I expect: it is a spa resort, almost alpine in its altitude, so I expected a combination of Queenstown and Leamington Spa. I arrive in from Gori on a surprisingly comfortable (albeit grotty looking and empty) train
to find the place virtually deserted at about 7:00 in the evening. Outside the railway station
there is a small park. The street up to my hotel has no signs of any shops at all, apart from a couple of small grocery markets and a line of stalls established on the footpaths to sell local products (clothing, wine and honey in particular), all closed or closing up for the night. Sure, there are a few guesthouses, hotels and cafes - but with no customers. There is also the rather imposing Crowne Plaza hotel.
My Christmas eve is looking like it will be a solitary affair. I get to my hotel - which is very nice, but there is no-one in the restaurant, so I go for a walk to find some wine and somewhere for dinner that has people in it. The only place that qualifies is the Crowne Plaza, where two or three tables are occupied. The staff are lovely, the dinner (roast duck) is miniscule, although tasty.
No-one in the grocery shop speaks English but my phone can ask for a good dry red, I have a game of charades with them to see if they can sell me an opener: a very fancy, and expensive looking one is produced from under the counter but I am not expected to pay for it. Instead, they send me away with an opened bottle of wine.
Here, there does not seem to be much attention paid to the producer of wine, just the style. Looking it up, I see my wine is made from the Saperavi grape, a local varietal, but is the posh version in that it has been aged for three plus years in oak casks. I enjoy it so much it is gone in two nights.
My reason for being here is to catch this - the Kukushka or little cuckoo. The railway line was put in nearly 120 years ago to give people access to the ski fields at Bakuriani, about another thousand metres up and 35 km away. It had been a steam train until the 1960's, when the line was electrified and a couple of locos made by Skoda put to work.
It is not a fast train - taking more than 2 hours - but its a very enjoyable trip. I spend a fair amount of time outside - each carriage at each end has an open air vestibule to stand in, quite refreshing and good for taking photos.
At one point I am joined outside by a local fellow, who has pretty good English so we can chat for a bit. Then a Russian woman comes out and the three of us talk a little, until they both switch to Russian and I'm left to my own devices again.
There are a couple of small towns on the way, as well as stations with nothing else to see. When the train stops at one, it is common for passengers to hop in to the cab with the driver through to the next station. It is also common for people to lean out of the train to knock snow off the trees as we pass.
For the true train geek, there is something very special on this line: I am the only one outside to see it. This bridge is famous, because it was designed by Gustave Eiffel, who has a slightly more famous tower in Paris. The track turns and enters bush almost immediately after we get off the bridge so this is the best sight I get of it.
Here's one I found on the net:
Bakuriani is at the end of the line. I had toyed with the idea of staying, or at least wandering around and catching a taxi back to Borjomi but when we get to Bakuriani, it gives no reason to stay. There isn't even a cup of tea to be had - pretty odd for a ski town to be locked up for the winter, but that's the vibe I get here.
So after confirming there is nothing to see, I just get back on the train and wait for the return. There's a group on the platform I take to be a family: when they get on, the teenage son has some really shit music playing loudly on a bluetooth speaker, but no-one tells him to shut it. It turns out they may not be a family after all: about half way back, the "grandfather" collects a whole bunch of wood-cutting equipment and clambers off. The rest have taken to singing - some of it quite lovely. One woman in particular has a great voice and is singing as if she has been trained - the songs are (I expect) in Georgian, so I have no idea what she's singing but it's wonderful. She hands out some cards - when I get one, I compliment her, and she tells me to make sure to go to the website on the card - jw.org. Yep - this is a church group I had thought was a family.
Back in Borjomi, I see there is a handful of restaurants near the station, so go for the most populated one, Old Borjomi. It is here I have my first experience with Kharcho (the K seems to be silent) - a lightly spiced, oily soup with rice, chunks of beef, loads of coriander, maybe tomato, and definitely some sort of sour cherry plum. Yum!
Sitting here, it occurs to me that of the few foreign travellers I have encountered (apart from Russians), about half have been Indian. Georgia is barely known in New Zealand: I wonder how it has become so popular in Georgia. I decide to help my thinking processes by going up to the Borjomi Palace Hotel for a gin: it is very posh, but I was put off a bit by the references to wellness routines so am not staying here. It has a cute wee bar in what is almost a dungeon but, sadly, it has no gin.
I have another day in Borjomi before my late afternoon train, but it is raining so I am a bit lost as to what to do. There is the Romanov Summer Palace just down the road: even in the rain I'd go there, but it is presently closed, and travellers have said there's nothing to see. Pity - it looks special:
I linger over breakfast as long as I can, and do not checkout until noon, so that I can go to lunch - more Kharcho is on the agenda. But now there is a power cut: no soup. Wandering around confirms my initial impressions of a near complete lack of shops this side of the river. On the other side, there is a line of scruffy shops - grocery markets, electronics, clothing and the like. I find a different restaurant for some Kharcho, then hang out in the coffee shop in the Crowne Plaza as long as they let me (not long - they made me feel real uncomfortable) before heading to th cafe at the railway station to await my train.