Khertvisi Castle, Khertvisi, Georgia

Thursday, August 18, 2011


The road from Svaneti passes by Georgia's second city, Kutaisi, which happens to be located a few kilometers from the Sataplia nature reserve. The Sataplia nature reserve is famous for honey, forests, caves, and preserved dinosaur footprints, and since traveling with me is a little like traveling with a six-year-old ("Dinosaurs!") and a little like traveling with grandma ("Oh, local honey!"), we made a stop.

The dinosaur tracks were of course the big draw for me. But Sataplia nature reserve itself is a really pretty stretch of hilly land mostly covered by "Colchian" forest and, when we went, shrouded in warm mist.

Our first stop was the dinosaur track pavilion. I'll admit to low expectations; someone had said you needed to use your imagination to see anything. But that made it all the more incredible. These were very clearly dinosaur footprints, so my imagination was left free to design a saddle for my pet dinosaur.

There were a number of signs making mention of some of my best childhood friends -Iguanodon, Stegosaurus, and so on - but I'm pretty sure they weren't the species represented. But then, I am, for reasons that can only be attributed to poor life choices, not a paleontologist.

Anyway, BP has funded a really nice, climate-controlled pavilion to protect the prints from further damage and decay, and I have to say that if a gigantic mega-corporation wants to mask the brutality and destructiveness of the market system, giving me a day with dinosaur footprints is a good (ahem) step.

From the pavilion, we walked through the Colchian forest (featuring very tasteful statues of dinosaurs), to a wooden walkway along a cliff side. The mists were covering what is usually a pretty broad panorama, but on the stone side of the cliff, the guide pointed out the dwellings of the wild honeybees who (he said) gave Sataplia ("Place of Honey") its name.

A bit further on, we came to the entrance of Sataplia cave. Perpetually cool and damp, the cave featured an underground river, semi-translucent stalactites, a variety of different formations, and a famous stone shaped by water to resemble a human heart. I'm a sucker for caves, especially those with glitzy artificial lighting, and this was a good one.

Sataplia is a world treasure. I know I'm 100% the target audience - forested hills, honeybees, caves, and dinosaurs - but this is the kind of thing that I wish everyone could see. It wasn't raw majesty on the scale of Svaneti, but you get something strange running down your spine when you see footprints made in soft mud in days when those mountains from the last few posts hadn't even been born.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Svaneti Trip Day 3, Year 3

After scanning through our pictures from our Svaneti trip once more, we realized that we still had a ton we wanted to show off. Hence, one more blog post, lots more pictures and a few more stories from our trip.

Our last full day in Mestia, August 2, broke once again with a brilliantly beautiful morning. We woke early to try our hand (and our legs) at one more long hike--this time scrambling up the mountain that hugs Mestia to an overlook point at the foot of a giant iron cross before following the ridge up another several hundred meters to a cluster of mountain lakes and views of the big giants from the Caucasus all around.

Just a fraction of the way up

One of the many beautiful mountain wildflowers

Headed the right way
We set out just before 8am, making our way slowly and steadily uphill. We had our moments where we couldn't tell if we were on the intended hiking path or just a cow path, blazed by an intrepid bovine hiker. Soon enough, though, we found our desired red-and-white trail blaze and continued up. There were beautiful flowers all around and not a soul to be seen (except for the cows that kept one-upping us with their feats of climbing).

More flowers

Hiking trail or cow path?

The start of the trail was steep--we climbed up a kilometer over the first 2.5 kilometers. Around noon, we made it to the crest of the first big hill, the overlook by the iron cross. We also ran into a few sets of other hikers who had come up the hill from the other side, our intended route of descent. (These fellow hikers were an interesting bunch. We had some nice conversations with the pair of Czech tourists, met two Poles with whom we jointly cursed the two Dutch girls who got a jeep ride to the top and were skipping happily down past us telling us that the top was only 20 minutes away, and listened to the exhausted panting of the Japanese man who had walked his mountain bike up the mountain upon finding it too steep to actually ride up.)

You can vaguely see the iron cross at the edge of the green hill; we came up from the right-hand side, then went back down along the visible jeep track on the left

I don't think the boys always appreciated my energy levels

A shepherd's summer shack

The views all around were, as was to be expected in Svaneti at this point, absolutely breathtaking and striking. Every direction, every view, everywhere we looked was like a scene for a movie poster or advertisement. We made it up to the mountain lakes (by August, a little smaller and less impressive, maybe, than the hiking tour book made them out to be) and had a picnic, watched over by the towering mountain peaks and a group of grazing horses. We stretched our legs once more and headed back down the mountain, grateful that the clouds had started to fill the sky and keep the strong high-altitude sun off our shoulders for the way down.

And more pretty flowers!

One of about a dozen or so mountain lakes

Another lake, with mountain-climbing horses in the background

Baby horse, making us look bad as we pant and puff our way to the top of the mountain

A beautiful spot for a much deserved picnic

We made it back to our guest house almost exactly 9 hours after we set out. We attacked our dinner with gusto and rested a bit before taking one more evening stroll around Mestia on this our last day in town. It was a good day, one where we went to bed feeling absolutely worn out and grateful for the chance to fall asleep. Our three days in Svaneti were fantastic and just the perfect way, we thought, to celebrate our 3rd wedding anniversary.

Happy 3!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Svaneti Trip Part Two - Ushguli

Ushguli, a community of about 200 people, is claimed as the highest year-round human settlement in Europe, in the neighborhood of 2,200 meters. It stands 45 kilometers from Mestia on a winding dirt and gravel road cut by streams and rockslides and closed by snow six months of the year. We knew we wanted to visit while we were in Svaneti, but it proved trickier than expected. Gizo’s car, faithful as it had been on the miserable road up, just wouldn’t be a match for the Ushguli road, and private jeeps and marshutkas were asking prices that could have significantly impacted the U.S. debt ceiling.

So we went about it the old-fashioned way, lying in ambush for foreign-looking tourists and seeing if they would be willing to share a ride. We yelled at people on the street and bothered them at their hotel breakfasts, and, since the universe seems to like this sort of thing, it finally paid off. We met a group of Polish tourists going to Ushguli by minibus with a few extra seats and a guide willing to let us join in for a reasonable fee.

And we set off. Just outside of town we stopped at a mineral spring. The water here is carbonated and really high in iron – the local folks came with plastic bottles that looked like they’d been covered in rust. A few minutes later, we came to a beautiful view of double-peaked Mt. Ushba, one of the great mountaineering challenges of the Caucasus, and a ubiquitous symbol of Svaneti.

And then we settled in, enjoying some good conversation with our fellow travelers; the marshutka rolled over gravel and water, along cliff edges and through mud. The 45 kilometers took about 3 hours, including a brief stop at the “Lover’s Tower,” built, according to legend, for a Svan girl pining for her love who drowned in the river below.

Finally, in the early afternoon, we made it to Ushguli. It’s a kind of beauty that even pictures can’t do justice to, the blue sky and the hills greener than hills are in August, the towers rising under the white peak of Shkhara, Georgia’s highest mountain. Horses and cows on the hills looking healthier and happier than we’ve seen in a long time.

We were given a few hours to do what we would, so we struck off along the river in the direction of Shkhara. As we walked out onto the track, we could hear people singing in Svan over the next hill. We first went to a little church on the hill, then set off to follow the river for an hour or so, passing some tourists on foot, horseback, or jeep, but more often than not finding ourselves alone with the springs running down the hills, the cold river, and the sound of stones.

We came to a school-bus sized chunk of glacier abandoned by the summer retreat, and watched it slowly melting in the sun, before it was time to turn back.

I know we might well be singing a different tune under feet of snow in October and cut off from the rest of the world until May, but just then, we felt like we could have put down our bags and stayed there forever.

Sunday, August 7, 2011


Sam and I have been working on separate grant proposals for projects in Akhalkalaki. Sam wrote and submitted grant proposal for the Small Project Assistance (SPA) program, a USAID-funded grant program for PCVs to support community development, to build and "English Cabinet" at his school in Akhalkalaki. This would be an English classroom, equipped with a computer, projector and speakers, English textbooks and cds, and some other necessary materials to make a more conducive, modern learning environment for kids in his English classes. I wrote a grant proposal to the VAST program (Volunteer Activities Support and Training Program, funded by the President's Emergency Fund for AIDS Relief, which provides PCVs with a pool of grant money for HIV/AIDS-related projects) to hold a Women's Health Peer Education program with some of the women and girls from my fitness club and to purchase some equipment for the fitness club.

We have both just recently gotten the good news that both our grants proposals were accepted! I have been able to purchase most of the materials I'll need for my training sessions and for the fitness club. I hope to hold 10 training sessions (with the first one scheduled for tomorrow evening!) on different topics, including physical fitness and nutrition, hygiene and communicable diseases, HIV/AIDS prevention, STIs and others. My friend and counterpart and all-around great person Marianna is going to help me facilitate all of these trainings and she and I spent a few hours today putting the final touches on our session plan for tomorrow. I'll be sure to update on how the training goes!

Sam hasn't had his grant money deposited in his account yet, but has been able to hold a meeting with his teaching counterpart to plan out their next steps. He and his school will have their work cut out for them! They will need to purchase their materials for the classroom, set everything up, hold computer training for the English teachers and create and give pre-tests to all the English students once the school year gets back underway, so they can monitor the effectiveness of the English cabinet in helping improve students' English levels. They hope to have everything up and running for the start of the school year in mid-September.

So we've cleared the first hurdles on these projects and gotten financing. Now comes the next step of hard work and actually carrying out the projects. Once we have some results (and pictures!) we'll post some updates!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Svaneti Trip Part One-Getting there and first hike

We have been keeping ourselves busy, as we keep mentioning, but part of that business has thankfully been recreational. We had been chomping at the bit to get to a region of Georgia called Svaneti, located in the northwest of the country. Set against the backdrop of the Caucasus Mountains (highest mountains in Europe, depending on where you say Europe starts), Svaneti is famous for its defensive towers built to keep out raiders and as a safe haven for family clans seeking shelter during blood feuds with other family clans. When our friend and hiking buddy, Gizo, told us that he had some vacation time coming at the beginning of August and was looking to go to Svaneti, we decided that, despite our jam-packed schedules, we should jump.

Like any good trip in Georgia, this one began with lots and lots of car time. Thankfully (and thanks to Gizo) this was actually car time, though, and not marshrutka (mini-bus) time. This really makes a difference, too, since each hour of riding on a marshrutka is pretty darn near scientifically proven to shorten your lifespan by one year. We drove from Tbilisi to Zugdidi, a 361 km (225 mile) drive that took us just about 5 hours along a nice, civilized, paved road. After Zugdidi, the real fun began. We had a final 135 kilometers to go (that's a mere 84 miles for all of you without distance converters built into your cell phones) and figured we'd be into Mestia, the capital of Svaneti, in just a short bit of time.

Our trusty ride

Oh me of little knowledge and too much faith.

The first 70 km of road wasn't actually too bad. The road was mostly paved, although it's been a long time between patching up, and we got to stop at this crazy big dam, which a woman and her son who we picked up as fellow travelers showed us. I guess they were so happy to have gotten a ride to their remote village that they were only too happy to take a detour to show off one of the area attractions.


Once we parted ways with our picked-up companions, though, the road got worse and worse and our hopes of reaching Mestia quickly were replaced by those of reaching Mestia at all. Where once a road in reasonably road-like conditions had stood there now was a pit being excavated by earth movers and diggers and dynamite. While our sedan wasn't necessarily the best choice in automobile for the "road", I don't think a tank or ATV or dirt bike would have been much better. We inched along, trying not to careen off a cliff or rip out all of the underbelly of the car or get stuck in a pit. After 5 more hours (remember, this was 84 miles), we arrived in Mestia, dust-covered and brains rattling inside our heads. (And, as a side note, it seems like the main reason for the awful condition of the road currently is that they are actually building a real road that will last, not just laying down some asphalt that will be washed away each season by snow and rain. So hopefully, in a few months, the trip will not be so much like driving into Kandahar.)

Some of the better road

But boy, was the journey it worth it. Here's a few of our first views of the main town in Svaneti, under construction to spruce it up and give it the infrastructure it needs to be the tourist attraction it deserves to be, but still beautiful and breathtaking.

Mestia, with its family defense towers

Keeps out the raiders!

They light all the towers at night

Lots of construction ongoing, but lots of working on it, too, so hopefully it'll be done soon...

On our first full day in Svaneti, recovered a bit from the long journey and aching to take advantage of the beautiful weather to go out and see some of this place, we loaded up on food from our guesthouse (lots of different styles of khachapuri, lots of good cheese and cottage cheese, lots of fresh bread, lots of coffee and tea... the theme seemed to be delicious and big for breakfast) and headed out for a hike. We chose an easy hike route that followed a jeep track 10 km before crossing a rushing river (via a shaky Soviet-era pedestrian suspension bridge) and heading uphill another 2 km to the Chaladi glacier. We had a faithful canine companion join us for most of the hike there and up at the glacier itself we ran into a few large groups of tourists from Israel and a handful from Georgia.

On our hike

The Caucasus were mostly encased in clouds and mist but started to come out as we walked

Our first glimpse of some tall mountains and the glacier
Gizo, contemplating the sturdiness of the bridge versus the velocity of the river

Almost up to the glacier

Glacier, up close

After feeling sufficiently cooled off from the icy breezes coming off the glacier and its river, we headed back into Mestia, past the airport that can only accept flights when the wind isn't too high. Despite the nearly 15 mile hike we had just completed, we were still feeling pretty fresh so we headed up to the Svaneti ethnographic museum, which consisted of a very confused and confusing tour guide and a typical Svan residence (complete with defense tower to protect the clan from raiders).

Maybe a little bit treacherous to climb up to the top level of the defense towers

...but once inside, the view from the defense tower ain't half bad!

Back to the guesthouse at the end of our first full day, we plowed through another huge dinner consisting of lots of food in big quantities of deliciousness before crashing completely and sleeping blissfully. Even after just one day, we felt like the ordeal that was the car trip to Mestia was completely justified!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Backyard camping

One thing about Georgia is that it makes you want to be outside. In this spirit, and in preparation for an upcoming trip to Europe on the cheap, we bought ourselves a tent. A quick test run in the yard brought all the children within shouting distance to see, and led to two more setups in the next 24 hours. It was a big hit with our host siblings. Shaen helped put it up (asking lots of questions about who lived in tents and where you could put them), and once Lilit got in, she refused to leave. We eventually dragged her out under protest.

Look! A camera *and* a tent! All at once!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Published Authors!

On Wednesday, July 27, Sam and I were invited to the official book release of a book called “Musings on the Cow, and Then Some.” This book was the brainchild of some of the PC Georgia staff and the U.S. Embassy in Georgia and is a compilation of blog posts and photos written and taken by PCVs in Georgia (from the G9 and G10 groups). This year is the 50th anniversary of Peace Corps worldwide and also marks 10 years of the Peace Corps Georgia program.

Inside the Palace of Youth in Tbilisi

The blog book (as we all informally called it while it was searching for a title) is really a cool thing. Sam and I had three different blog posts (and lots of pictures) selected for inclusion. We’ll get copies and bring them home to show off to everyone, and if we find that they end up being available elsewhere (pretty unlikely, I think, but they do have an ISBN number, so who knows?), I’ll be sure to let you know.

A pretty nice building, no?

The launch party for the book was really nice. It was held in the Palace of Youth in Tbilisi, a very cool building that I had walked past several times but never been inside. (It also turns out to be the building in which the Republic of Georgia declared its independence from the Russian Empire in 1918, as well as where the Republic of Azerbaijan did the same in the same year.) The U.S. Ambassador to Georgia, John Bass, attended the event with several Embassy employees. The Ambassador is a really wonderfully nice man and extremely knowledgeable, but also exceptionally busy, so for him to take time out of his schedule to attend an event like this for Peace Corps is always really fantastic, I think.

L-R: Ambassador Bass with his wife, me, my friend Marianna and PC Georgia Country Director, Rick Record

Each of the volunteers who contributed to the book were asked to speak a little bit about why they blog and what they write about. Afterwards they distributed books to attendees. Also invited to the event were several Georgian students and some other Tbilisians, who all swarmed us for autographs after the formal part of the evening was completed. It seemed a little funny, but I guess it’s something we’ll have to get used to as published authors.