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Armenia and Georgia Trip Report, Jun 9 - Jul 1, 2021

Armenia and Georgia Trip Report, Jun 9 - Jul 1, 2021

Old Jul 15th, 2021, 06:25 PM
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The drive up to Ushguli was surprising and eventful. It should have taken 4 hours. The first 3h15 minutes was smooth sailing. At that point the road was far more paved than I thought despite the fact that there was an enormous long-term project to construct a brand new road. I was slightly wondering if getting a driver was necessary. But it was indeed.

About 45 minutes from Ushguli, the road was closed. Or should I say collapsed. A big gaping hole was in front us where the road used to be, and a crew was trying to fill it. Without a guide, I would have assessed the situation as hopeless. We would be running out of daylight. But we stuck it out. For 3h15 minutes we watched in these very beautiful mountains as a digger pulled up boulders, put them in a dump truck, and the dump trucked backed slowly into the hole where a bulldozer was waiting to flatten the mess. Fill and repeat, fill and repeat. It looked bleak, but our guide reassured us. At the point where there was still a pretty large difference between the level of the hole and that of the road, the digger then destroyed the rest of the road to come closer to the level of the hole. It was time to go through.

Three cars were waiting to go down and three to go up. The cars going down went first as they had a longer drive ahead.

The first car made it, no problem. We watched as the car disappeared into the hole and reemerged a moment later.

The next car down disappeared into the hole and didn't pop out. It was stuck in the hole.

It was time for the bulldozer to tow the car out of the hole.

The next car got through, and then it was our turn. Our car dipped way down into the hole until the surface of the road was well above the surface of the car. And then we powered up and out of the hole.

The rest of the road was rugged, too much for my ability that's for sure, and as we rounded every bend traveling West to Ushguli we were chasing the sunset. After every bend, more daylight opened up.







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Old Jul 15th, 2021, 06:36 PM
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Wow!

Looking forward to the mountain pics.
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Old Jul 16th, 2021, 04:50 PM
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The Svaneti region and particularly Ushguli was worth it. A truly unique culture in a remote part of the world. Ushguli is magic. The Svan towers are certainly notable, but also we learned about the accompanying machubi, a kind of one room community center, sleeping quarters, and barn. The animals slept on the ground, the humans on a loft level just a few feet off the ground, There was a place for storage, a fireplace, a place for a fire in the middle of the room and above that a shelf for stones so that wayward sparks would be stopped. There was a patriarchal throne to sit on as well as benches for community members when they met. Many Svaneti villages were wholly populated by a particular family, so the village church, sometimes was a tiny one-room church that was also the family church with family relics.

Our first morning we went on a horseback ride, and my wife got dumped. Ouch. But she got back on the horse. We then went on a fairly thorough walk through all four villages that make up Ushguli. Simply breathtaking. After dinner went for an evening walk. The next morning another walk to take in the beauty again. You can't spend too much time here. The food at Gamarjoba Guesthouse was the second meal of the trip for which I can easily say One of the Best of my Life. The house also acts as an art gallery for the phantasmagorical paintings of Fridon Nizharadze, their uncle who passed away recently. There are some decidedly untraditional places to stay in Ushguli, perhaps providing for more creature comforts, but I wanted to stay in a traditional home and I'm so glad we did.

The road to Mestia starts off with a tight squeeze between the mountain and a dropoff, but after that it was fairly easy. There is also heavy construction going on here to widen the road, so any trip in and out of Ushguli is a crap shoot. Looks like a long term project. At any time the road could be closed for hours because of construction or rock slides. In a downpour, that makes it even more dicey. We got through with only 5 minute delay, but people after us said they experienced a 2 hour delay because of a rock slide.

We stopped at a couple of churches along the way and I climbed the roadside Svan Tower, nicknamed the Tower of Love. After lunch we saw the nearby house museum in Mestia (with tower and machubi), and drove up to the top of Mt Zaruldi to see the views of Mt Ushba. Eye-popping beauty. On to the Guesthouse of Shalva and Narziga, in the village of Lenjeri about a two minute drive from the center of Mestia. The guesthouse was beautiful, traditional, but with modern amenities as well. Shalva is an artist who created his own machubi room in which we had our meals. For the third time on our trip, One of the Best Meals of My Life. A parade of fresh, delicious vegetable concoctions, spicy stews, fried fish, and quantities of lemonade, yogurt, cheeses, and bread.

The next day we visited several villages south of Mestia, saw a Sunday service (beautiful chanting), and went to the Ethnographic Museum. Our 4 nights in the Svaneti were soon to be over, but it's something that will stay with us forever.

















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Old Jul 17th, 2021, 10:13 AM
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We flew from Mestia to the airport at Natakhtari near Tbilisi. The flight operated by Vanilla Sky is very smooth on a prop plane that seats approximately 30. Takes 50 minutes. Included in the price of the ticket is a van ride into the center of Tbilisi. The cost for the flight is about $30 per person. I still do not understand how the cost can be so low.





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Old Jul 18th, 2021, 09:43 AM
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We spent three nights in Tbilisi. Even in a pandemic, it is a much busier and noisier city than Yerevan. So many great and exciting features. We also took the opportunity to visit with the director of the Movement Theatre (friend of a friend) and visit with his staff and stage as they prepared for an upcoming show. Unfortunately they were not performing while we were there.

We stayed in the old town and there's so much to see just on foot. The Orbellian Baths provide a unique streetscape thoroughly unlike what you'd see in Europe, even in cities with bath houses... Walk around very early (7:30am) and nobody is there. Later in the day, it can be packed. So extra points for staying nearby. The bath houses take on a different character as the light changes. As a whole we found Tbilisi to be a surprisingly late-sleeping city. Some bakeries don't open until 10am and stay open through the evening. So we shopped for breakfast at night.

Some things to note: Holy Trinity Cathedral (aka Sameba) is massive, built in 2004, planned after the 1991 independence from Russia. Awe inspiring site with seminary and monastery, extensive grounds with a monumental bell tower and entrance gate.

Although the hilltop monument Chronicle of Georgia is open at night, go during the day only (unlike our mistake).

Fabrika is a former Soviet sewing factory turned into a huge hostel with courtyard and many places to eat. The pandemic and an 11pm curfew didn't stop loads and loads of 20-something from pouring into this place long after last call. The most serious social scene of young people I have ever scene. Young people, go to Tbilisi! (not that you need my encouragement).

We did a self-guided walking tour of the Betlemi neighhborhood. Old, old Tbilisi, up a hill, quiet with views.

I am not sure the food in Tbilisi was nearly as good as in our guesthouses. We ate at a couple of very old traditional places (both too salty) and three places that were somewhat modern and highly recommended. Of all that, only the chicken in blackberry sauce at Shavi Lomi was a serious thrill. Not on the menu, but it was offered to us.












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Old Jul 18th, 2021, 09:59 AM
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Thus ends our three week experience. Below is a link to my favorite photos in a flickr album. Some of the photos in this thread are not in the album, and many unique photos are. Thanks for tagging along.

https://flic.kr/s/aHsmW9JYxa

If you want more travel info about food, places to stay, etc, then I will leave my email address:
[email protected]
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Old Jul 18th, 2021, 12:47 PM
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Sounds like a wonderful trip! Thanks so much for the TR. I really should go back...
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Old Jul 18th, 2021, 01:09 PM
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There are so many places to visit in the world, some I've gone back to and some I've wanted to return to, but haven't (yet.) How wonderful it is to visit a place and think immediately about returning..... for me it's probably the norm, with the biggest exception being Cancun. I couldn't wait to leave that place.
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Old Jul 19th, 2021, 08:38 AM
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So if I got it right, you spent 2 full weeks in Armenia? I was thinking 10 days myself to see it "all" but wanted to get an approx idea. Thanks!
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Old Jul 19th, 2021, 08:40 AM
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It's interesting what you said on the food not being as good in Tbilisi. I loveeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeed the food I had there more than any other part of Georgia, with amazing veg options. But that said haven't been to Armenia yet!

Overall though agree with you on what a cool city Tbilisi is. Can't wait to return, even for a long weekend (easy from London!)
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Old Jul 19th, 2021, 04:48 PM
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We had 13 nights in Armenia and then 8 nights in Georgia. I had no idea if that was a good amount of time. Part of that was based on when I could get a flight from Yerevan to Tbilisi. For us, it worked out better than I could have imagined.

We didn't go to northern Armenia which is more forested plus has Gyumri which I am told has some unique architecture, culture, and food. We also didn't go further south than Tatev.

We did go to some places west of Yerevan that most people don't go to: Sardarapat Memorial, the Yazidi Temple, and the memorial to Musa Dagh, and we spent a lot more time in Etchmiadzin. I wanted to make sure that the trip was not just a succession of monasteries which I thought might lead to monastery-fatigue. I also wanted to get at the heart of what's there and not just see "Armenia's Top Ten." See if there are any cultural festivals going on and plan to see one. We just missed the herb festival in Yenokavan in late June. Turned out that June is a great time to go as the weather hadn't turned so hot.

My biggest recommendation would be to contact the Arakelyan Gastroyard near Khor Virap. If you stay there you can see Khor Virap with Ararat in the background early in the a.m, before the clouds roll in. If you don't go there, then there are other Gastroyards in Armenia you can visit. They are dedicated to providing seriously great food. In fact, I could see planning a trip just through visiting these places. My second recommendation is to stay at Machanents Tourism and Art and take advantage of their educational programs. I like this video about Machanents:


My biggest regret is that I did not make arrangements to see Smbataberd with a 4x4. We missed out on Levon's Divine Underground in Arinj and the Sergei Parajanov Museum in Yerevan. We were so close to Hohvanavank and its gorge, but didn't go. If we were in Armenia for the late June herb festival, I would have gone to Ijevan and there is a trip to a forested area with a cave and some carvings that is supposed to be wonderful. Never enough time, right?

I am not saying that all the food in Tbilisi is disappointing or salty, but I do have to say that the food at our guesthouses, including the Svaneti, was sensational. I chose them specifically because I had clues that they were serious about their food. The places I went in Yerevan also were chosen because of their seriousness with art and tradition. That's usually a clue that the food is going to be good.


Last edited by shelemm; Jul 19th, 2021 at 04:56 PM.
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Old Jul 21st, 2021, 01:07 AM
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Thank you for sharing such an interesting report. Endlessly fascinating how different our lives are.
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Old Jul 21st, 2021, 06:19 AM
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There are guesthouses in Armenia that feature the opportunity to learn some sort of craft, wine making, cuisine..... it seems to be a popular feature. Even if you don't do a class, I am thinking that these places are quite special and are worth seeking out.
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Old Jan 10th, 2022, 12:00 AM
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Thank you for the tantalizing report. Itís a great read and fantastic info.
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Old Feb 13th, 2022, 09:34 AM
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Beautiful pictures and write-up. Reminds me of my trip to Svaneti. And Armenia looks amazing too.
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Old Feb 15th, 2022, 06:02 PM
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Thanks kleeblatt and ashwinb for your kind words. I am adding a photo of the interior of the Selim Caravanserai, a view I don't see posted elsewhere. Some of these places are just so old!


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Old Jul 15th, 2022, 08:51 AM
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Got to say, glad I didn't listen to the comments here on Matenadaran and decided to go. It was AWESOME. I had an English guided tour and my guide was fantastic. Overall I was there for 2.5 hours and found the displays marvelous!
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Old Jul 15th, 2022, 08:53 AM
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Whilst I enjoyed Armenian food, I think Georgian food is far better. Definitely lots more veg options in very unique combos.
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Old Jul 15th, 2022, 08:26 PM
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Glad you enjoyed Matenadaran. As you experienced, a guide can make all the difference. If you get to Noravank, maybe the exhibit of books from Matenadaran will still be there.

Like anywhere else, what you have to eat depends on where you go. I encourage you to seek out aveluk, which is a kind of sorrel that is made into soups or salads and is an important ingredient in jingyalov hats which is a blend of many leafy greens stuffed into a lavash dough and cooked.
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Old Jul 20th, 2022, 08:00 AM
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I just finished reading Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel. It was his first novel and made him famous. He did extensive research, yet the fiction format allows readers to put themselves in the shoes of the Resistance. It is filled with Werfel's ideas about society, leadership, humanity. Many lessons from the novel could easily be applied to today, and there are echoes of our modern politics that resonate with strength. I feel 'shaken from the magnolias.' It took me a while to read it's 800 pages; I am admittedly a slow reader.

It is all too easy to scapegoat an entire culture if you don't like the actions of an individual. One accusation can send an angry mob on a killing spree. Crowd manipulation becomes second nature, not something one has to learn. Genocide is just one more step to take.

Although it was eventually made into a movie, politics kept it from being made for many years. It probably should be remade, as I am told the movie is badly done. Unfortunately, the politics hasn't really changed much, so I am not sure it will happen.
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