Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Batumi, Svaneti, & Deserved Sickness

My host-Babua Rezo and myself; I'm basically a spitting image

In between teaching, travel (which I’ll get to), getting sick again (which I’ll also get to), and managing various other social activities (winter travel plans, my annual Thanksgiving football game, and the occasional acid trip [I’m kidding of course, but name that movie!]), I’ve been busy as all hell. I don’t want this to become a place where I only post once a week, and I know things will slow down eventually, so please excuse my procrastination for the time being. This post will be mostly about my recent travels, but hopefully I can soon get back to my inane anecdotal humor. Enjoy.

Ati – I’ve been traveling these last two weekends, and after I went to Batumi two weekends ago, I told someone it’s the most beautiful place I’ve been to since I got here. Well, this past weekend I traveled to Svaneti, which is, amazingly, even more beautiful. Both are polar opposites when it comes to climate, but really they’re only a few hundred kilometers apart. Which would take less than an hour by plane, but probably nearly nine hours by car since the road into Svaneti and it’s capital of Mestia is about as safe as a Bangkock hooker (too much?).

So this is where I stayed in Batumi, appropriately named, Hotel Old Ship

Otsi – But let me start with Batumi. When I was first looking into coming to Georgia, the company that was placing me told me I’d be in Batumi, which is a coast town in the southwest region of Adjara. But low and behold, it didn’t end up that way, much like many of the things that company (which shall not be named) told me. When, on our second day in Georgia, TLG told us they’d be driving us all the way cross-country from Tbilisi to Batumi in order for the President to speak to us, I was excited to check out this region since it’s subtropical, on the beach, and is supposed to be the most beautiful area of the Black Sea Coast. But they whisked us in and out of Batumi without even having a chance to whiff the local culture.

My new Georgian buddy Vano looking quite spiffy in my sunnies; although when he found out I bought them in Tbilisi, he was disgusted.

Otsdaati – There’s been times when I’ve been reminded of the Pacific Northwest while in Georgia. I think it’s the diversity of the plant life, the sight of mountains from anywhere, and the long stretches of continual rain. Well, Batumi defines that. Right from the water’s edge, the terrain starts working it’s way up and a few kilometers later you’re in the low foothills of the South Georgian Mountains. In Batumi, it’s also either raining and overcast or it’s clear, zero humidity, and gorgeous. Add to that the Evergreen trees that scatter the hillside as far as the eye can see, and it was perfect concoction of nostalgia for my summers in Indianola, Washington.

View from my room on Hotel Old Ship, beach and the Black Sea in the background. I, obviously, am not impressed

Ormotsi – And we got to stay on a pirate ship… Well, not really, but kind of. It was a few friends and myself who headed down to Batumi just for the day and a night, and when we got there, we didn’t have a place to stay (most volunteers have completely adopted the Georgian sentiment towards planning, which is fuck it). But we decided to check out the beach and try to get a swim in before it started raining (like most days in Batumi, it was overcast). On our way we walked past a dock where Lucas (a Brit from Newcastle who loves to complain about everything, whether it’s the food, his host family, or the students; but it’s not annoying complaining—more of a novelty than anything) spotted an old three-mast wooden ship that had a sign on the back that read Hotel Old Ship. So we checked it out and of course, it was a hotel and bar (or disco that was in the deepest part of the ship; we went down there in the middle of the day and I’m pretty sure there was a gigantic transvestite at the bar and a game of Russian roulette going on in the corner—totally sketchy). Basically that night ended with nine of us packed into three rooms on an old wooden ship (not named Diversity). But it started with drinking ludi, vodka, and shavi gkhvino on the poop deck with a newly acquainted kick-boxing Georgian named Vano (who knew next to no English, but got my mobile number and continues to text me How are you?, kind of weird). What happened in between was kind of a blur, but I know there was much rejoicing.

View of the Batumi harbor the next morning; add a dock and turn that container ship into a ferry and you get the Puget Sound

Ormotsdaati – So Batumi was kind of cool. Not many times have I been able to say I’ve slept on a pirate ship (odds are it was a pirate ship at one point, so don’t argue otherwise). But even despite that, I can’t wait to go back and spend more than a 24-hour stint, because it really is quite beautiful. But it doesn’t beat Mestia, Svaneti. Svaneti is the mountainous region north of Samegrelo (my region) in which only one road runs through. But that road is closed from late November to early May because the weather gets so bad and the roads are terrible to begin with. President Saakashvili is trying to get the roads paved to the point where it can be a year-round ski resort (there aren’t any ski slopes yet, but on a few of our hikes we could see where they were already clearing out trees for runs), but even if they were paved (and there are sections of the road that are already finished) it’s tough to see how they could keep them cleared with all the snow they get in the region. But that’s not really up to me.

The reservoir right at the beginning of the Sveneti region; it's amazing how clear that water looks compared to where it comes from. Giant damn dam seen to the left.

Samotsdi – I won’t go into too much detail, but nothing I say can really do the views or area justice. The ride from Zugdid to Mestia (only about 120 km) can take anywhere from five to seven hours and is not for the feint of heart. It was again myself and some of the other volunteers and thanks to some well-thought out planning by a few Zugdidi ladies, we had our own private marshrutka (although I’m using that term rather loosely, since we picked up hitch-hikers from time to time) and were staying at a nice guest house for the duration of our stay (so maybe I should say that just some of the volunteers can’t be bothered with planning). Our marshrutka driver, Zuravi, made it a point to tell us where anybody had died while driving on the road, which was pleasant. The drive up only allows for glimpses of beauty, especially if the weather isn’t cooperating, but it basically follows along the Enguri River, which cuts right through the middle of Svaneti.

A sketchy pedestrian bridge that crosses the Enguri River

Samotsdaati – The people of Svaneti are called Svani’s (which is pronounced like Swani since the v’s in Georgian are pronounced like w’s, much like Latin) and are sort of like the red-headed step-children of Georgia. It reminds me of the way Western Pennsylvanians view the people of West Virginia. They’re backwoods, simple, cut-off, and most likely inbred. But we all know that besides Morgantown, that’s not completely true. Well, most Georgians make fun of the people of Svaneti in the same way. And it would make sense since it’s the most secluded part of this developing country. But no encounters we had in our three days backed that up. They were just as hospitable, peculiar, overly-engaging, and bizarre as all the other Georgians we’ve encountered (which is a good thing).

The view out our window in our room. Enguri River and the valley in the background.

Otkhmotsi – And some of that might have to do with how far the region has come in the past ten years. They have a fantastic tourism center and website (partially supported by U.S. Aid… you’re welcome) that will set you up with both a guesthouse (basically the same thing as a hostel; ours cost about $12 a night and was as nice as a majority of the hostels I’ve stayed at in Europe) and the ability to hire guides for hikes. There are tons of different hiking routes in all directions, and some are so well-marked that a guide isn’t necessary (like our hike on the first day which led us to the Chaladi Glacier). On the second day we did hire a guide (even though in hindsight it probably wasn’t really necessary) named Murabi who spoke and understood English quite well (something we didn’t really take into account when we were discussing the ways in which to contract gonorrhea while resting at the top of the hike—whoopsi), which he picked up from being a tour guide for the past seven years. Amazingly, most of the English-speaking tourists who come to Svaneti are Israelis (including a few we met while hiking).

Purty; leading up to the mountain you can see the Chaladi Glacier

Otkhmotsdaati – I don’t have the ability to describe how beautiful Svaneti was and is, but it got me thinking about where it ranks on my list of most beautiful places, and I would say most of them have to do with heights and views. Seeing Machu Picchu was pretty breathtaking, while the view of Firenze from the Basillica di San Miniato al Monte is something else. The view from atop Kehlsteinhaus (The Eagles Nest) in Germany has to be up there, although the fact that they turned a historical monument made with Jewish blood into a touristy restaurant docks it a few points. On a clear day, the view from Mount Bachelor can give you a glimpse of half of Central Oregon, including the Sisters, Broken Top, and Mt. Hood. But I would still say that taking the tram to the lookout point from Mont Blanc is still the most stunning thing I’ve ever witnessed. On a clear day you just see peak after peak in three different countries. All of this is to say that Svaneti is special enough to rank up there with the rest of them… and I’m one lucky son of a bitch.

Sunset peaking out before it falls behind the hills

Asi – But luck, like a see-saw, has to even out at some point. Which is why I returned to Bandza and was sick within the day. It’s the second time I’ve been sick (and I’m not talking tummy/headache under the weather sick; I’m talking nauseous, groaning in my bed, can’t make it to the door sick) since I’ve been here, which is a huge outlier to my previous performance of sickness. Maybe I’m just hitting my peak sick years, and I’ll slowly return to form. But before I was bed-stricken, when I got back to the house, I was welcomed with a gift from Lasha’s sister in Belgium (Lasha’s sister married a super nice guy from Brussels named Laurent and I help their daughter with her English assignments from time to time). It was a really neat polo shirt and a nice pen (somehow, all the Gabunia’s know the way to my heart). I just kept on thinking, I come back from the most beautiful place in Georgia with nothing but a walking stick for the family, and they have presents for me. If I weren’t such a heartless bastard, I could have cried.

View of the valley from atop our hike on the second day


  1. Hey Max, I grew up on Vashon Island in Puget Sound in between Tacoma and Seattle. and yes Batumi port does look from your pix exactly like it. I hope to visit Batumi on my next trip (my 3rd) to Georgia so love your pix and blogs.

  2. Hallo Max,
    Darf ich hier auf Deutsch kommentieren ?
    Mein Englisch ist nicht so gut. :)

    Interessantes Blog