A Travellerspoint blog

February 2019


sunny 5 °C

There was a bit of a groundswell of chatter - in blogs, on newspaper travel pages, and on TV - about Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, which inspired this trip. The plan had been to spend about a week here: ultimately, it is closer to two. I finally arrive by train from Borjomi at around 9 in the evening. Planning ahead, I have a room booked in the hotel in the railway station - there's not much to say about it but it is convenient. Surprisingly there is nothing to eat in the station: its laughable foodcourt is closed and the various food places outside don't look very interesting. Eventually I find a combination Indian sweet shop/Turkish restaurant where I get some lovely lamb chops cooked on the charcoal grill - they also give me a curried soup and tea.

Tbilisi is strung out along a valley, on both sides of the Kura River - I visit pretty much all of its extremities. Here is what it looks like from the west.

For the first few days, through until New Year's, I stay on the left bank - the eastern side - in a hostel that gets talked about a lot: Fabrika. It is in an old sewing factory - I take a room by myself: it is very plain (and the corridors are very long) but the hostel is a great place to stay, although you might not think so when seeing it from the outside.

But you go in and find they have an amazing lobby - seating of all sorts, a huge line of books piled up along one wall, a bar with good coffee and, at the end, a restaurant - somehow I neglect to go here apart from having lunch when I first arrive. On my last day, to help people recover from New Year's Eve, there's a DJ - one song in particular gets to me. It is a woman singing, not in English, maybe in Georgian - her voice is full and rich, and set against the background of some orchestral music.

Out the back, there's a courtyard in which there are various related businesses - a record shop, a couple of fancy clothes shops and a line of cafes and bars - I have ojakhuri (the pork and potato dish I've now had several times) which is given a modern spin here, by adding pomegranate seeds and a couple of other unusual elements. It's good, and washed down with some lovely black craft beer.

Although it isn't actually Christmas here for a couple of weeks, they're ready for it - across the river there's quite a large Christmas market fenced off. Very little is happening when I first see it, too early in the day, but at night the place is packed, with several bands going full bore, lots of lights - my camera didn't really like being asked to take photos but one does give some idea.

Nearby there's a Biltmore Hotel - a bit pricier and posher than my normal haunts, and I have to say they made me feel it as well, but I persist and have a good G&T in their bar - its the sort of place that women walk around wearing full length fur coats, and I'm there in my fisherman's jersey and Swanndri raincoat.

Most of my days involve just wandering in a particular direction and seeing what I see, but I did leave home with some things I wanted to see. Top of the list was Prospero's Books & Caliban's Coffeehouse: the bookshop is nice enough although much smaller than expected, but the coffee shop is terrible - just a few chairs, bad coffee and a badly prepared cheese toastie.

I have a much better time at Schuchmann Wine Bar: you go in a narrow door and down some steep steps into an underground bunker. There is just one couple there, apart from the staff: they're from Scotland but living in Saudi Arabia. We have quite a good chat, with the waitress joining in as well, until the conversation takes a racist turn when I mention that I have seen more Indian travellers than anyone else. Luckily, they leave soon after.

I did pick up a tip from them about dinner: they and the waitress talked about a dish called shkmeruli and told me where to find it - a restaurant full of Georgian workmen when I arrive. The explanation I was given is that shkmeruli is chicken marinated in milk and garlic overnight, there may or may not be boiling, but the chicken is then roasted and served in a milk and garlic sauce with the local flatbread. It looks like this

Mine doesn't look quite so appetising, and the chicken is overcooked so is quite dry - but it tastes good and there is plenty of it. Of course, I pig out on kharcho first, so it is quite a mission to get through all the chicken, one I fail to complete by about one piece of chicken.

At the north end, 16 km from the centre, is the Tbilisi Mall - going there is a big mistake. It is completely packed and I lose all sense of direction: I basically have something to eat and feel I must leave, because I hate being in it so much. I have made a rookie's mistake and failed to work out where to catch transport back to the city, not even the map on my phone works. I do know, however, which way I must go, and walk a couple of kilometres. This gets a bit more adventurous than planned, because the road has no footpath, and the only safe option is to climb the bank and walk through the forest, in pitch black darkness. Eventually I find a bus stop, with about an hour to wait for the next bus - it is a chilly night, made worse by me being stopped outside a nice, warm University building with a drinks machine and security to stop me getting at it.

Posted by NZBarry 02:57 Archived in Georgia Comments (0)

Riding the Kukushka ("little cuckoo" train)

rain 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.large_IMG_0558.JPGlarge_IMG_0565.JPG

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.

Posted by NZBarry 04:15 Archived in Georgia Comments (2)

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