A Travellerspoint blog

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)

There's more to Gori than Stalin

semi-overcast 1 °C

Just down river, there is an ancient cave city called Uplistsikhe - carved into the rocks. This is said to be one of the oldest surviving places settled in Georgia, some 3,000 years ago, but around 700 years ago, it came under attack from Genghis Khan and was largely abandoned. It doesn't really seem to be my sort of thing, as there's not much intact now (thanks to an earthquake), plus it is raining and a lot of clambering is needed. Here are a couple of bloggers I follow who did actually go.

For similar reasons, I don't visit the church that stands on a hill high above Gori - it is a 3 hour hike. Apparently, to celebrate St George, the locals take sheep up there, walk them around the church three times and then sacrifice them.

What I do do is visit Gori Castle, which is on a hill in the city itself.

At the base of the path, there is a collection of sculptures - the Memorial of Georgian Warrior Heroes. I don't know if the heroes were damaged and these are faithful reproductions, or if the sculptures are falling apart.

Only the walls remain, but I am able to look out over Gori - it is a pretty undistinguished looking place from up here:

Coming back into the centre of town, I find myself in a few streets of modern housing, boutique shops (most are empty) so obviously there is some effort being made to look to the future.

Not far from the Stalin Museum, there is the Historical Ethnographic Museum. It is a fairly small building, with all the exhibits on the first floor. Although I don't actually have a tour, there is a young woman there who points various things out and is good about answering questions. I am not sure she understands what I am saying when I start talking about emojis - which is what these make me think of - but tells me that they are fertility symbols.

The people here used to live - more than a million years ago - in these wee huts with a central hearth. The bottom photo is of a portable hearth or, as I like to think, a prototype of the barbecue.

There are collections of local clothing, cookware, musical instruments and the like to give some idea of what the locals are into or have been into in the past.

I end up quite liking my 24 hours in Gori - there are things to see and I find several places in which I am fed well - so am glad to have made the effort to stop here.

Posted by NZBarry 02:38 Archived in Georgia Comments (1)


Getting to Gori is easier than expected: I had been told it involved a change of trains, with a short time between the two. Not knowing that Georgian Rail is actually very good about being on time, and knowing there is only one train a day out of Kutaisi, I had been worried. There was no need. The ticket office sells me a ticket to Gori for the equivalent of 50 cents (1 lari) and, about half an hour before the train is due to leave, I am taken to the train.
It is an old Soviet sleeper train with four bed compartments: I find a couple from Quebec, another couple from Italy plus infant, and an older woman who is obviously a local. The couples can talk to each other, obviously, but otherwise there is no shared language. The only people communicating are the old woman and the infant, plus a guy out in the corridor from Valencia has a long chat with the Italian guy - despite an obvious lack of comprehension. They get all excited when they work out what the other is saying. The train pauses in the next town down the line and then continues to Gori: no need to change after all.

The main avenue of Gori is lined with Soviet style housing: the hotel I have booked is in these buildings but when I arrive, the place is all locked up with no sign of life. I carry on down the avenue and am tempted to stay in the Intourist Hotel, but it does not appear to be functional. The door opens to reveal a lobby with no furniture and curtains closing off access upstairs.

There is a bloke on the phone but I leave him to it: there are rumours of a wonderful guesthouse (Nukri) the other side of the railway station. The young fellow who greets me there could not have been more welcoming: he takes me to my room, works out what I want for breakfast, asks about dinner and whether his dad can drive me anywhere. They make their own wine and chacha - a clear brandy: he makes sure I try it (it actually has the feel of drinking whisky). The buildings in my street are a bit nicer than on the main street, and after a while I realise that almost everyone is growing grapes in the street.

There is a reason for coming to Gori: it is the birthplace of Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili - a former editor of the state newspaper, Pravda, and an activist who supported Lenin by carrying out various robberies, kidnappings, and protection rackets. At some stage, he changed his name, to Joseph Stalin, so I probably don't need to describe his activities any further. The odd thing is that he is celebrated in Gori as any other poor boy who has made good might be - the main street is actually Stalin Avenue, one of the few remaining statues of him stands here and there is a museum which honours his memory. The house in which he was born is at the end of Stalin Avenue - it is quite humble but has been given special treatment:

The museum is directly behind it, and is rather large and imposing.

Tours are not so much available as not optional: a group of us is rushed around by a stout woman who might not actually speak English. She has a script which she follows to the letter - no questions are asked and she does not invite any. Many people I see later say that they felt rushed but unable to do anything except carry on with her. I don't do this: we go through the several rooms on the upper floor but instead of descending the staircase with the group, I start at the beginning again and take a leisurely look at things.

Many of the exhibits are documents in Russian, portraits, photos and the like - including a glass case with a family tree showing who has survived him and where they are. There is no mention anywhere of anything even unsavoury about Stalin, let alone indications of the terrible things he did while he ruled [in the interests of balance, there is a museum in Tbilisi which does do that]. The whole point of the museum is to celebrate his great achievements, such as meeting with Roosevelt and Churchill at the Yalta Conference - a meeting ostensibly at least designed to work out how to manage German recovery from the war.

There are a few exhibits I like, such as some small books, a brass tank and a reconstruction of his office in the Kremlin:

When Stalin died, a death mask was made of his face, and then several copies were made, each 10% smaller than the one before it. The original is in Moscow: Gori got the fourth mask, so is 60% of the size of the original. It is given a very prominent place, in a room all by itself.

I am particularly interested in Stalin's carriage - I have already seen it in Michael Portillo's TV show but want my own experience. It was part of the tour I abandoned, but luckily there is a private tour for a family from India just starting, so I follow them in. There is actually very little to see, but it is possible to imagine the kind of decisions Stalin may have made in his private compartment or around the table in the (surprisingly small) stateroom.

After all this, I need a bit of a break - there is a wee cafe nearby where I can have a coffee and one of these:

I have more to say about Gori but will say it in another post: in the meantime, here is a picture taken from above, and what is either a drama theatre (Tripadvisor) or, more likely, City Hall - in any event, it is a very impressive building.

Posted by NZBarry 02:26 Archived in Georgia Comments (0)

By marshrutka to Kutaisi

semi-overcast 1 °C

My next destination is only vaguely on the rail map: I can get there by train, but it is awkward and slow. By road, it is about three hours. I have been on a couple of shared minivans - marshrutkas - but only for short distances but since there is no alternative, this is what I must do. These things tend to be Transit or Sprinter minivans, with a huge number of seats - 7 rows. Here's a Russian one, since I forgot to take any photos of mine.

As I am heading to the bus station, I notice a couple of marshrutkas on the side of the road, bound for Tbilisi. Just pausing is enough for a driver to emerge to try to get me onboard: when he hears I am going to Kutaisi, he summons his mate, also bound for Tbilisi but via Kutaisi. There is a bit of confusion over the price: I am sure he is asking for 220 Lari, which is about $100, and so I remove my bag and start walking. This gets the attention of both drivers: they confer and say the fare is 10 Lari, even pull out the notes to show me. So, it seems I am off to Kutaisi for half the proper fare.

The land is quite similar to what I saw in Turkey, although a bit less rugged and scruffier. I can't take photos - the windows are clean enough to permit it. We stop periodically to drop off or pick up passengers. Although most towns have regular stopping points, all you have to do to catch a marshrutka is stand on the side of the road: since standing on the side of the road seems to be a favourite Georgian activity, we stop for lots of blokes who don't want rides. We do get there eventually, and I am let off near the railway station, on the main road to Tbilisi. I immediately regret my choice: I had heard that Kutaisi is nice, but this is not. All I see is a line of crappy looking shops, a McDonalds, a bus station with a horrible looking hotel above it, heaps of traffic and rain.

I have not booked anywhere to stay, so that's the first thing to do: there's a hotel which looks decent about a mile up the road. Booking it turns out to be a stroke of luck: I am pretty wet by the time I get there, but the fellow on reception looks after me - carrying my bag up, turning the heating on, finding me a hair dryer and getting me settled in nicely. I think the best thing for me to do is take a nap until the weather clears. Another stroke of luck: my walk in the rain has brought me to within a kilometre of the old town. Not that I know this - I set off in what I hope is the right direction for food. Everything is really quiet and I begin to wonder if the town has closed for the night, when I spot a pub in which I can get some dinner and a drink. There appears to be a band performing upstairs, but I am not really in the mood: instead, I carry on walking.

The centre of the old town is not very big, but at night, it is magical. Many of the buildings are in really good condition, and when lit properly, look amazing - to the point that I decide I will stay another night, but this time in a hotel in the centre. The city itself claims to be one of the oldest cities in the world, having been here 3,500 years or more. It was the capital of Armenia for a while, a thousand years ago, and the capital of the Kingdom of Georgia after that. The Georgian Parliament is here - even though Tbilisi is the capital - but I forgot to go look for it. With its long history, there are a number of ancient churches around - such as the Bagrat Cathedral which sits on a hill overlooking everything - but I only venture into one. Its interior surprises me, as there are no places to sit.

Even the schools look amazing - this is the Kutaisi 3rd Public School, and a couple of the surrounding streets.

The commitment to funding spaces for art is impressive. There's a big opera hall and a drama theatre (the Meskhishvili Theatre, in honour of an actor who was a big deal here at the end of the 19th century).

I tried out two more forms of Georgian food here: the first is khinkali, a spiced meat in soup in a dumpling. The soup drained out too quickly, leaving me with a rather heavy dough. Apparently you don't eat the stalks - they are counted up by the staff so they know how much to charge. People have told me of more than 30 being eaten in a sitting! Not really for me, but I adored the cafe in which I ate them - Our Cafe.

Ojakhuri is a much more palatable discovery - it is basically chunks of potato and meat (normally pork) roasted together with onions and peppers and lightly dusted with spices. Yum. This is a dish I repeat. Several times.

Posted by NZBarry 12:36 Archived in Georgia Comments (0)


all seasons in one day

There are several differences between Georgia and Turkey that become apparent pretty much immediately. The first is the absence of tea shops: sure, tea is still available, but not places where you get a small glass of tea for almost no money and linger. The only tea shops I see provide fancy teas. Second, it is much easier to get by when English is your only language. Third, there is more food variety - I suppose there were Chinese, Indian, Thai etc restaurants in Turkey, but I hardly saw them but here, they are all over the place. They are not necessarily authentic: I have some very interesting tacos, where the taco shell is almost a deep fried bread rather than what a Mexican might use. I loved them! Fourth - obviously, given the history, Russia is a whole lot more evident - I hear Russian all the time, signs are in Russian and there are facilities specifically provided for Russians. This is probably nowhere more the case than in Batumi, which is where Russians come to gamble. There is even an Intourist (the former Soviet travel agency that controlled foreign travel through Russia) Hotel - from most angles, one of the ugliest buildings I see in Batumi, but I quite like the entrance. I considered staying here, just out of curiosity, but opt for a more reliable hotel.
I nearly didn't even stop in Batumi - the idea of a city catering to gamblers has no appeal, and while a lot of Georgians come here for the beach (it is on the Black Sea), I don't really do beaches myself and in any event it is the middle of winter. But I saw some pictures of the buildings here and had to come. My time is spent wandering the streets marvelling at what I see and eating. My first meal is in a restaurant serving traditional Georgian food - its walls are entirely made of timber, a bit like an old skool Lockwood house and the furniture is rough-hewn timber: they're obviously going for a rustic look. I break a personal rule and eat in an entirely empty restaurant and am happy with the result. I had read about ostri before leaving home, and it sounded real good - a spicy, tomato based, beef stew - so that's what I have, along with my first sampling of Georgian wine: they are very proud of it, as Georgia is one of the first places to make wine. Oddly, it is sold according to grape type, rather than winery: it does make life easier. I like the ostri so much that I plan to make some when I get home. Funnily enough, in the two weeks I spend in Georgia, I never see it on another menu.

Here are some random buildings and street scenes in Old Town Batumi that caught my eye as I wandered around

There are various Armenian Apostolic Church buildings around. I am curious to see what they look like on the inside, so try to go into this one. When I find the door locked, I manage a photo through a glass panel in the door. The lady in the photo is not amused: she comes out and yells at me - basically telling me to fuck off in Armenian, although the only word I understand is private.

There is a promenade along the beach which runs for several kilometres (I have 6 stuck in my head but have no proof), but even better, there is a garden-like park which runs between the promenade and the busy streets of Batumi. A French nobleman and gardener, Michael D'Alfons set this up in the 1880's - he is commemorated by a sculpture of him sitting in has garden, presented as a nice fellow.

In the same area, there is a University, the Batumi Shota Rustaveli State University (named after a medieval poet) which has a Faculty of Exact Science, whatever that is, among others. Like several Universities I have encountered, there are security guards at the entrance, who are bemused by my wish to come in and look round but let me proceed. There is not much to see and I need not have bothered because there is no security on the other side.

That last is the Batumi Art Teaching University I just like the building. My plan for my second night in town s to go to another Georgian restaurant, one which is very busy when I first see it but not so much the next time. The highly reputed Chinese restaurant is empty, so I give that one a miss as well. The crowd is across the road at a German beer restaurant, so that's what I have. My evening finishes with a gin in the bar on the 19th floor of the Radisson Blu hotel - it gives me some great views.

I think the last is the lighthouse, but it looks like no other I have seen, and changes colours every few seconds. The night is clear so I go for another wander in the gardens. I really don't know what this building is about: when I look in the window, all I can see is a few bunches of fake flowers on pedestals, but the building is too small to be much of a function centre.

The last building is a performance space for classical music: when passing earlier, some musicians were having a run through of a piece but there is no indication of when the public might go in and listen so I keep moving. One of the things that surprises me about Batumi is the mix of traditional buildings with the very modern, to create some odd juxtapositions, such as this McDonalds.

Going back into antiquity for a moment, there is a statue of Medea in Europe Square, clutching what appears to be a golden fleece - the object of pursuit of Jason and the Argonauts. My understanding is that they were more in the west of Georgia, that the fleece might have been metaphorical and, in any event, it was never in Medea;s possession. Someone may well know better than me.

I could easily stay longer, although I think I see most of what the city has to offer, so staying would be more about deepening my understanding of the local bar and food scene - no bad thing, but there is plenty more of the country to see.

Posted by NZBarry 12:15 Archived in Georgia Comments (1)

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