Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Georgia – The first Georgian Christmas


December 23-26

Hello everyone!

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. A time of singing and dancing, drinking and prancing; cooking and kissing, hoping and wishing. A time to uphold traditions passed down from generations before to those who we educate for the future. A time of special foods and family reunions.


Normally.

Not this year. As I’ve already mentioned, I’ve missed Christmas before and, though part of me would love to be at home, I’m ultimately more about new experiences than routine. One of the sacrifices of travelling around is a lack of time with loved ones, but it is fascinating to experience such a magical time of year in such a different environment. The main difference being that Christmas in Georgia isn’t on December 25th


Georgia is a predominantly Russian Orthodox country, and this particular religion follows a slightly different calendar to our own Gregorian version. ‘Christmas Day’ here is on January 7th, which is our 'December 25th' in the Julian calendar. However, the Christmas spirit is very much on show at this time of the year. Bright lights radiate the streets and illuminate the monuments of Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, and evergreens have sprouted along the streets.





Santa hats are worn by smiling faces and tinsel is strung from every ceiling. I even met Santa Claus in Batumi, the evening before we moved on to the capital city.





Ultimately, though, it isn’t yet time for Grandfather Snow to deliver presents to little Georgians just yet. The streets of Tbilisi were crowded on the 25th, with all shops open for business as usual and people walking along just like every other day. The onus was thus on myself and Justine to maintain some of the traditions that we hold so dear. One of them is to watch Love Actually on Christmas Eve. A wonderful Christmas movie!


Many other things are often only watched at this time of year, and we spent part of our Boxing Day at a performance of the Nutcracker in Tbilisi’s State Opera & Ballet Theatre. It was a colourful and superb performance, though compared to the one other ballet I have seen this year in Kazakhstan, it couldn’t have been anything less.







Those are traditions to be treasured either side of Christmas Day, but what of the main day itself? At home, life on December 25th often revolves around the creation and devouring of Christmas lunch. The one time I’ve spent Christmas abroad before it was impossible to get hold of turkey, and it was a stain on an otherwise enchanting Korean Christmas-uh. Having done some scouting, we found a way of eating the favoured Christmas bird. The Tbilisi Marriott Hotel – who also helped us locate the theatre for the Nutcracker – were putting on a Christmas buffet for 70GEL, which works out as less than £30. Though travelling with a budget in mind, it is sometimes worth splurging for something truly special. The chocolate fountain alone makes it worthwhile.





And special this was. It was a twist on a normal Christmas dinner – the turkey had a lightly cooked strip of apple on the top, which sweetened and moistened the taste in the mouth. I’ve also never had quail or chicken chow mein on Christmas Day, either. But the main traditions – copious amounts of turkey and bountiful volumes of excellent wine – were upheld in the best ways on this most unusual of Christmases.





შობა!
Merry Christmas!





Love you all

Matt

Monday, 26 December 2011

Georgia – The first khachapuri


December 22-24

Hello everyone!

So after five days of travelling through the heart of Turkey, we have now moved into uncharted terrain. A country from which we had no idea what to expect, let alone prepare for. We had now dipped our toes into the Caucasus region, which consists of three countries – Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. It costs £100 for a British national to get a visa for the former, and the middle one is impossible to visit from Turkey due to deep-rooted historical differences and fighting. Thus, we went for the closest, and easiest, country for us to visit from Turkey. Hello Georgia! The country…not the state.





Gladys Knight took the Midnight Train to Georgia. We took the midday bus. Not quite the same. A few quick bits of information to help you understand more about this former Soviet state that is similar in size to Ireland. Georgian is the official and most used language – and one of the most unusual I have ever seen – yet Russian is commonly spoken, in spite of Russians themselves not being particularly popular here after the short war between the two countries in 2008 over the potential breakaway of two Georgian regions. It has a population of 4.7 million, and the capital is Tbilisi. One other thing that we didn’t realise – there is a two hour time difference between the Turkish and Georgian sides of the border crossing at Sarp. Our fears that the Sun would set at 4pm were thus soon eradicated.





The west coast of Georgia sits along the Black Sea, and it was a coastal town where we decided to decamp for the evening. We stopped in a place described as ‘Georgia’s summer party capital’. Clearly arriving in winter wasn’t going to provide us with the experience that many Georgians, and indeed foreigners, receive when visiting Batumi. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t good, but I can imagine that this place is reverberating with positivity and happiness in the summer months, when the subtropical climate is at its warmest.





In spite of the lack of people, we were pleasantly surprised by Batumi. What struck us more than anything was the atmosphere of the town. From the cobbled streets and dimmed, old-fashioned street lamps, to the French balconies and vines crawling up the walls of old, crooked houses, Batumi seemed to possess a strange yet justifiable cross of an old, classical European city and a town from Victorian England. I could visualise Sherlock Holmes walking down these streets in the dead of night, the ambience merely adding to the aura of the place.







The city possesses some more striking historical landmarks such as old churches which are magnificently illuminated at night, and an evening stroll through the quiet lanes of the town led us to some of these wonderful buildings.







 This nostalgic air is arguably under threat, however, from some of the new developments rising rapidly in order to earn and cement Batumi’s place as a summer hotspot. Spectacular modern landmarks, from the large statue of Medea unveiled in 2007 to the unique and at this moment incomplete ‘Alphabet Tower’ are beginning to dominate Batumi’s low skyline. Whilst the fusion between old and new seems to work right now, it would be a shame to see Batumi’s more traditional design disappear under the shadow of grand hotels and casinos, like in so many modern cities.

 



One thing we had researched before arriving in Georgia’s ‘second city’ was the food eaten by the locals. We are already accustomed to drinking their relatively sweet red wine, and needed some food to accompany. Georgians are fiercely proud of their rather heavy dishes, and the national dish is called khachapuri. This is a thick flatbread curled up at the sides to create a crust, which then has a layer of cheese in the middle. The Batumi take on this staple dish also contains an egg, and is known as ajaruli khachapuri. It is delicious!





During our time in Batum we also savoured khinkali, which are meat-filled dumplings that you hold at the apex and eat around it, and ojhakuri, which consists of meat, potatoes, onions and garlic. It’s fair to say that you wouldn’t come to Georgia to lose weight. Heavy, hearty fare.




The relaxed air of Batumi, from its gentle dancing water fountains to the languid waves lapping the dark, stony beaches, was a pleasant surprise for us. Even a child letting off a firecracker inches in front of us cannot taint the positive feeling we have towards this town. It is one which will grow in international consciousness as the tourism industry continues to develop, and has been a very encouraging start to our travels through Georgia.


Love you all

Matt

Turkey – The first Turkish bath

December 21-22

Hello everyone!

After a rather uncomfortable overnight bus from Cappadocia, with the conductor seeming to have a personal vendetta against me, we arrived in the Black Sea city of Trabzon. We did little research before arriving, but decided that we needed a stop between our Cappadocia and Georgia, and Trabzon seemed to be the biggest place en route.





After finding somewhere to stay, we decided to explore one of Turkey’s bigger towns. With hindsight, we stayed in the wrong area. Much of Trabzon’s influence comes from its port, which became a focal point of trade to Iran and the Caucasus during the Ottoman period. Consequently, this area is rather industrial, which contrasts greatly to the Ataturk Square area that we saw later.


After a kebab – the target of one per day is on track – we decided that there wasn’t much to see in the city itself or by the sea, so headed back into the country. A couple of marshrutka rides took us to the foot of a steep cliff on which sits the Sümela Monastery. A marshrutka is a rickety minibus that bumps and bobs you to a destination on the cheap. Always entertaining, those things.





A half hour hike up some fairly unstable trails will lead you to an incredible sight. The monastery was initially built in the 4th Century and has been subsequently restored numerous times. It juts out of a cliff in the Altindere Valley, and was built there to keep the Greek Orthodox monks in a quiet location. It is a spectacular setting to learn and study in.





We had one final box to tick before leaving Turkey the following morning to head into the unknown quantity of the Caucasus. We wandered through the main square to find a hamam, where you can have a Turkish bath. I had no idea what this involved, but soon learnt that the process was very much segregated by gender. This was discovered when we knocked on the door of what turned out to be a female hamam, at which point the door was opened and immediately slammed in our faces. Apparently women were getting changed, so my presence was not at all welcome.


Having found the male hamam, I was promptly stripped and provided with a towel. One of the men spoke a bit of English, and he managed to explain the procedure to me. Sauna, then wash, then massage. It was very relaxing until the final act. A massage here isn’t the type of massage you would expect in a health spa. It involves a man with a scrubbing glove and a bar of soap (obviously I didn’t have my camera with me for this so the picture below isn’t quite what happened in mine). It does have a soothing feel, apart from when the eccentric masseur’s hands went slightly too close to certain parts of my body for my liking. Still, I haven’t been that clean for a while!


We celebrated our cleanliness with another kebab. Final kebab count? Six in five days. They just taste better here. Many things are better here in Turkey, and it has been great to see more of this culturally rich country. Cappadocia was a treasure, and I would highly recommend the region to anyone. However, it is time to move east into a region of the world that few people know much about. Time to enter the Caucasus!




Love you all

Matt

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Turkey – The first hot air balloon ride

December 20

Hello everyone!

Many of our conversations out here in Turkey have revolved around bucket lists. For those who are confused, a bucket list is a collection of things you want to do or achieve before you…well…can’t. What you want to do before you die, basically. Today was all about ticking off one of the items on both mine and Justine’s lists – to ride in a hot air balloon.





You’ve seen the scenery now. It’s pretty impressive from ground level, but imagine it from the air…it must be spectacular, right? Luckily, many people here agree with us, and scores of companies are at hand to offer you the trip of a lifetime over the rocks and valleys of Cappadocia.


A 6am wake-up led to us being in a bare field before sunrise, warming our hands over a fire whilst our very large balloon was laid out carefully on the floor. I’d never seen how a hot air balloon is set up, so I’ll quickly give you the low-down. The balloon is laid out on the floor, attached to a surprisingly small wicker basket lying on its side and tied to a truck. Numerous ropes connect the two, and the balloon itself is soon beginning to inflate from the power of two fans. Once sufficient air is inside the balloon, fire is shot into the balloon’s vacant space to cause the air, and the balloon, to rise from the floor. Soon after, sufficient heat is in the balloon to cause it to rise and the wicker basket to flip over to its correct starting position. This is when you get in and get excited.








Sway to the left…sway to the right…sway…and up we go! The feeling of leaving the floor is incredibly powerful, leaving you helpless and at the whim of the elements. Our excitement, however, quickly turned to concern. Other balloons are being inflated simultaneously, which can lead to a lack of space. Our balloon, no sooner than leaving the floor, was careering towards a stationary balloon on the ground! Fire on full blast, and holding on tight, we lightly bumped the top of the balloon and were soon out of harm’s way. Back to feeling excited!





It truly is a magical feeling to soar from the floor with such speed and grace. It is almost regal how you float along over the obelisks of rock before descending into the valleys of Cappadocia.






Of course, the elements dictate where you travel to. As it turns out, we travelled further – and for longer – than most trips. Not that we were going to complain, though. It is a very relaxing way to spend an hour, and wonderful to serenely saunter across the stunning natural sculptures early in the morning. So over an hour later, we bumped back down to Earth, where we were provided with champagne and waited for our bus to locate us.





This was a busy day for us. Having flown over them, we opted to explore the rocks at close quarters, even climbing into some of them. We also visited Göreme’s overrated open air museum, which consists of a few churches that weren’t as old or well-preserved as others we had seen the previous day.







Kebab count – now up to three in three days. A different style of kebab, however, as it was cooked and served in a clay pot and covered in juices and vegetables. The waiter has to hit the top of the pot with a small tool to separate the two parts before you can savour the food inside. I would call it a stew more than a kebab, but it was still very enjoyable.




We’re now moving on from Cappadocia, heading north and east to the Black Sea. I have to say that I have really enjoyed the tranquillity and serenity of Göreme, and the attractions of the Cappadocian region as a whole. The people have been warm and friendly, the food fantastic, and all in a surreal, magical setting that I have never laid my eyes upon in the world before. All capped off with a hot air balloon ride over this most unique of landscapes. Consider that ticked off the bucket list!






Love you all

Matt