Destinations

AsiaCambodiaDestinationsSoutheast Asia

Eating in Siem Reap

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Khmer cuisine is a curious thing, as it sits on the crossroads between Thai and Vietnamese dishes, though the dishes are slightly more sweetish, minus the stomach-burning heat yet still bursting with flavour with the abundance of herbs used in each one.

Steven, our guide for the local food tour that we are taking of Siem Reap—and an ex-Scottish chef in a previous life—thinks that the cuisine in this region generally evolved at the same time, only with slight but distinct regional variations as national boundaries changed over the years.

The tuk-tuk we pile on goes around the corner from where we stay and into a fairly large shop where the locals feast on a fish porridge—the kind that’s boiled in a clear broth with filleted pieces of fish and a multitude of herbs floating in it—and dough fritters bundled in a clear plastic bag, should you wish to dip it in the broth. It’s the traditional breakfast that Cambodians eat and according to Steven, it’s only one of the few original stores left in the old market area that hasn’t been priced out of the area altogether when the tourists started coming and the prices started rising. It’s delicious, fragrant with the amount of herbs in it and non-smelly (as fish can be, when boiled) which is frankly, an absolute revelation.

While we eat, Steven talks a little about his history and our favourite cuisines. I half-listen and chip in how much I like Middle-Eastern food, too busy devouring the soup and the pandan tea.

We trundle to the wet market next and it’s a massive one as our driver stops at the edge of it. We enter through a small muddy lane, where both pedestrians and motorcycles have equal rights passing through. A bewildering array of vegetables and herbs are laid out on both sides of the lane (I get excited when I recognise some of them), and Steven chatters with the shopkeepers in Cambodian as he buys a myriads of things from the wet market some of which whose names I’ve already forgotten: fried banana fritters, fried coconut and rice flour waffles, a few variants of rice cakes, pickled vegetables, jackfruit, delicious coconut ‘cakes’, for starters.

We eat a few of them, and then leave the rest as a ‘non-bribe’ to the Angkor complex checkpoint officers so that our tuk-tuk’s passage through the complex (and into the village) would be smooth. As we talk, several storekeepers come over and make fun of Steven’s Cambodian. Laughing at his expense is a regular occurrence, though it seems to have more to do with the fact that they can’t get over how a Caucasian is trying to speak their language and getting it mostly wrong.

A slight drizzle starts, turning dusty lanes into muddy ones with huge potholes of dirty water. Meanwhile, the conversation flows: from corruption in Cambodia, health care standards, NGOs whom the government relies on to keep the general populace educated and fed, foreign investment, rural life and racial tensions as we walk around the stands of raw meat, clothes and vegetables…and how much Steven loves the dogs and puppies in the village.

On the way to the village, we stop yet again, to get some barbecued frogs stuffed with pork (seasoned with turmeric and other spices) and omelettes with herbs cooked over hot coals. We pinch some off; the rest are given to stray dogs that look tetchy and desperate for scraps.

The village is a long road with houses and farmland bordering it. We stop somewhere in the middle and walk into a few families’ homes to see how rice is milled and how traditional rice noodles are made. Steven explains that there is a measure of sustainable living among the villagers who live off the land and this self-sufficiency means that few of them don’t really venture out to the city, despite Siem Reap being only about 14 kilometres from it. But while the villagers hardly leave their homes, they’re more than happy to see foreigners stepping into their world and getting to know them a little. It’s a good exchange, so we’re told.

The last full meal of the tour is Nom banh chok Samlar Khmer and my favourite of the day, a bowl of rice noodles made from fermented rice with gravy made with fermented fish paste and coconut, garnished with raw vegetables like banana blossom, water lily stems and fresh herbs. I slurped mine quickly, then felt regretful that there weren’t more of it.

We pile into the tuk-tuk once again as the sun peeks out a bit. Slowly, the old market area and the surrounding traffic congestion come into sight as the grey clouds come around the edges. By the time we get ready to go out for dinner at a French creole place, the rain starts to come down, getting heavier by the minute. The sludge and mud are challenging to wade through and our shoes are dirtied, then dirtied some more. Things go awry at the last minute—though this is probably routine for Cambodians—a dead baby lizard gets stuck in the hairdryer and makes the hotel room smell ominously like barbecued meat. The windows leak, as does the huge lizard living behind the mini fridge that calls out persistently throughout the night.

But it’s a full, memorable day. Not all Cambodian food is to my liking, which doesn’t come as a surprise, but a few of these dishes have already, within a span of a few hours, become my favourites.

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AsiaDestinationsSoutheast Asia

Templed Out

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Coming to see the Angkor temples was my primary objective in visiting Siem Reap and doing it during the cooler months from November – March sounded like a bloody good idea. Unfortunately, it seemed as though the whole world thought the same thing.

Still, the best thing you can do is to plan…and plan well, just to avoid jostling shoulders with the huge crowds of Chinese tourists as much as possible. There are several ways to go about it: hire a tuk-tuk for a day or go with a tour operator, though choosing which one is probably imperative. A good guide makes all the difference and the stories he tells will probably make you look good if you’re a travel bragger.

Our day tour

TC and I booked our day tour with Vespa Adventures and it turned out to be a shrewder move than we’d initially expected. The manoeuvrability of the scooter meant that we could take worn footpaths and smaller forested roads where larger tour buses and tuk-tuks couldn’t go, so we zipped in and out quicker than would have been able to.

Sathya and Heang (our riders) picked us up at 8 a.m., and we then went to buy our tickets at Angkor Enterprise. A day pass costs USD $37 and you get a typically bad photo is taken there and then at the counter. A shell-shocked image is what you have permanently imprinted onto the pass that you’ll need to flash each time you get to a different temple in the Angkor complex.

The Angkor Archaeological complex is massive, so a day is definitely sacrilege to cover it, because it’s basically impossible to do so. TC and I wanted just a small taste of it however, so a day pass sufficed.

Back briefly at Vespa Adventures office, we met our guide Sov Sothick, whom we later learned, had spent 12 years as a temple boy learning the Pali text as well as English from the monks before civil war broke out.

A Brief History

The Khmer empire, as does modern-day Cambodia, has a turbulent history that spanned roughly 600 years. At its height, Angkor Thom was a vibrant complex of temples, palaces, and houses as kings declared themselves gods and built structures that mirrored the universe in Hindu cosmology…that was later switched to Mahayana Buddhist by Jayavarman VII (reigned:1181–1219) and then erased in a period of iconoclasm after his death.

Our even shorter Itinerary

Bayon, our first stop, was a temple mountain of faces where we struggled just to get a free square metre. Ta Prohm – the temple that’s getting gradually reclaimed by the jungle as the trees’ massive roots wrap around these structures – or better known as the Tomb Raider movie set, was next.

Angkor Wat, the biggest of the three we were going to visit, was left for last, because, according to Sov, the hordes of Chinese tourists take their siesta from about noon to 2 p.m., leaving the queue for the uppermost levels of Angkor relatively free.

Lichen still coats many structures; the difference between the restored stones and the stones in their original state is stark after the ongoing restoration projects by joint teams from Japan, Cambodia, India and France. In the sweltering heat, we watched selfie after selfie getting taken and increasingly bushed tourists just stopping for a breather. Few stopped to admire the intricate detail of the carvings that told convoluted stories of good vs. evil in the Ramayana or the tales of Khmer victory over the Cham people.

Things to Remember

Cover up. Cover up. Cover up. Hydrate. Take loads of photos. Try not to get irritated with the jostling crowds. Hire a guide – the insider knowledge will bring you a long way. Up the sense of adventure by humming the Indiana Jones theme song.

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AsiaCambodiaDestinationsSoutheast Asia

When the dust settles in Siem Reap

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Siem Reap’s – quite literally meaning ‘Siamese Defeated – name is a (smug) testament to its history of conflict that Cambodia has always been embroiled in one way or another. And it isn’t a place that the travel companion (TC) and I actually envisioned visiting at all.

But the idea the Angkor Wat Complex simply grew too big to contain. Knowing that the year end week-long holidays offered the opportunity to do just that, we booked our tickets still feeling uncertain, and that was that.

If November – April is Cambodia’s driest and coolest period, the day we arrived proved the contrary. The sweltering heat and humidity meant the insects were out in force, as were the sweaty people whose facial glows were made worse by the garish night lights.

Escaping the heat and getting into the hotel’s air-conditioned rooms was a luxury all on its own, and its location on a side street supposedly meant that we were further away from the noise downtown. But an incessantly-chattering lizard, noisy neighbours who stomped their way around at 3 a.m. and the screaming Cambodian children playing early in the morning meant that sleep was scarce.

TC and I were grumpy arses because of the infuriating airport queues, the flight delay and questionable standard of the room we had in a hotel that was supposedly rated very highly by others.

All things considered, I do tend to arrive at my destination feeling worn-down, worn-out and plain unwashed, then wonder how people make merry while I see everything else through the dusty lenses of a tired tourist trying to keep it together.

The centre of Siem Reap turned out to be several night markets, a bewildering string of push-cart stalls, swirling with the dust of a hundred tuk-tuks and the footsteps of too many tourists stumbling their way through the uneven roads. A town on steroids, so to speak, when things pass you at warp speed, and all you want to do is take a bath, find something to eat and head to bed.

It was a typical first day, after all.

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AsiaDestinationsMusingsSoutheast AsiaThailand

When travel becomes lacklustre

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It isn’t often that I feel dissatisfied after a trip, but a recent 5-day one to Khao Lak had wrong written on it from the very start. I’d planned to dive in the Similan Islands, taking advantage of the early diving season, but a sinus-infection (along with a doctor’s warning not to do it) meant that I was on the verge of cancelling the entire trip, only to go ahead the last minute.

The hotel I was in was overwhelmingly stocked with Germans; my room had a variety of insects and bees in it and the deck chairs reserved the whole damn day with towels on them, while their owners remained conspicuously absent.

I ended up diving only for a day in Koh Tachai, and on impulse, feeling lost after having a free day, booked a day trip with a dodgy operator that to white-water raft (the most fun I had in ages) with everything else such as the flying fox and the waterfall being better forgotten in the Phang-Nga province. Touted as a 200m flying ride, the reality was 10 times shorter – a 20 metre zip across a small stream. The ‘jungle walk’ to the waterfall ended up as mere steps to a small escarpment over which water tumbled over. The Gullfoss experience was it not. What was weirder even was the German/Serbian family who hawked their Bitcoin ventures to me after the white-water rafting trip when it all sounded suspiciously like an Internet scam.

My waterproof camera fell apart, as did my waterproof bag, so I had awful photos, as I had sopping wet things that weren’t supposed to get wet.

I plied the stretch of the whole Nang Thong township by foot so many times that I got quite sick of it. I tried spending the day at the pool doing nothing and got so bored that I felt guilty for feeling that way when obviously the rest of the world had other real problems to worry about.

When it was time to leave, the closed roads at the bottle-neck choke at the Phuket checkpoint because of a bicycle race meant I nearly didn’t make my flight back.

Perhaps it was the experience of being alone in a place where the Travel Companion had been with me before, but this time, I’m almost tempted to say that maybe I should have obeyed my first instinct…to not go on this trip.

The burning question here really is: is it really possible to have gone on a trip, spent all that money on it, and not be excited about it as you thought you were going to be? That in itself, is a revelation because I always expect to enjoy myself on a vacation, learn some new things, though this time in Khao Lak seemed to be proving otherwise. The fact was, it was lacklustre, most un-instagrammable, for want of a better word and it was an experience I was loathed to write about because a blog post about travel is supposed to be one that gushes about the unforgettable sights and smells of that new place you’re exploring.

But it’s out here now, the admission that travel can be simply underwhelming. It’s just an experience I’d rather not repeat though who controls this?

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DestinationsMiddle EastQatar

Dweebs in Doha

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Doha reminds me of Dubai a decade or so ago: a city expanding and changing at a frenetic rate as migrant workers and expatriates flock here to construct its lofty ambitions in the dust and sand. It’s also a hard city to love, with horrendous traffic and red lights that last up to 3 minutes and a plethora of dust pollution swirling at your feet each time you walk. I found myself mostly ignored by men and tried not to feel insulted that many of those who walked around in thobe dishdashas—whether working in the souq or the museum—chose to speak over me and directly to TC instead, when gender separation is clearly important here.

As a city under construction, Doha thoroughly modern, with artificial sights and a ton of shopping malls to keep its expatriates happy as they work their way through their contracts, yet with a dire record of human rights and labour laws—termed by the media as modern slavery especially when it comes to the treatment of migrant workers from the Indian subcontinent or even sub-saharan Africa—in this sharia-legislated country. It’s hard work, after all, prepping a city for the 2022 World cup, as construction on the stadium and the metro barrels full steam ahead. But the extremes here are jarring, to be honest. The exploitation of the ‘lower classes’ in contrast to the excess and opulence of the wealthy, all within the strict rules of Islamic laws—they took a while to get used to frankly, after having come straight from Tbilisi, a city that’s still building itself from the ruins of communism.

Thankfully, February in Doha is still considered a ‘winter month’, so temperatures were actually beautifully balmy at about 16-22 degrees celsius and the infamous desert heat hadn’t yet returned. We arrived on short-term visitor visas in Doha for 2 days and learned that taxis are pretty much the norm here, as we went to and fro from our hotel at the Sports Roundabout. Taxis are plentiful, though not necessarily always cheap, given the bad traffic jams here. Karwa taxis would be Doha’s default mode of transportation apart from buses, although there’s a subtle tipping culture here that we aren’t quite used to given the appalling wages that these workers actually earn. We added about 5-10 rials to each cab fare, then about 20% more to restaurant bills, then felt thoroughly frustrated because it was something else yet to remember, which be solved by simply adding service charge and government tax to the total bill. It was also surprising to learn that most places to eat were either found in hotel lobbies or shopping malls that do play a large role in pastime activities for expatriates.

In Doha itself, there’re just a few fixed things to see: the Museum of Islamic Art which does have an impressive collection of artefacts, a stroll through part of the 5 km-long Corniche and the Dhows floating on the banks, the atmospheric Souq Waqif if you can ignore the treatment of the poor animals on sale in a certain part of it and the adjoining Falcon Souq, and perhaps the West Bay financial district if a glittering skyline is what you look for.

As we took our last taxi ride through the lit columns framing the expressway that led to Hamad International airport, I asked myself this question: is it a place that I’m willing to return to? Unfortunately, I can’t quite say yes.

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AccommodationDestinationsFoodGeorgiaHealth and SafetyItineraryPlanningThe Caucasus

Tbilisi for the Uninitiated

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The Caucasus is a region I had absolutely no clue about, except that it is where Europe and Asia converge, and where ancient man, as anthropologists and linguists posit, first walked out of Africa and into this part of the world. Georgia seemed like the logical choice when I planned this trip, along with Azerbaijan or Armenia. Time and costs narrowed it down to only Georgia and well, Doha, given the logical stopover that Qatar Airways offered. The Travel Companion (TC) bought his tickets separately a few weeks later after suddenly deciding that he wanted to come and truth be told, I was glad for his company. Georgians are hyper-social creatures; no one eats alone and a foreign woman going at everything alone would make it doubly odd—after the wary but blatant stares I kept receiving, I’d say TC helped in some ways to make me feel less like a specimen under a microscope.

We were only in Tbilisi for about a week and with this limited amount of time, day tours seemed like the most logical option. Even so, there was so much we couldn’t cover without a car. I decided on this post simply to make planning somewhat easier for idiots like me who bumbled about and probably made tons of mistakes getting around. But I’m hoping this will be a useful source of information for anyone planning a short, compact stay that wouldn’t take too much out of you.

How we got around

By taxi

This was our primary mode of transport. A taxi is pretty much any guy with his own car and a lit sign that says ‘Taxi’. Completely unregulated, you simply haggle for a fare before you hop in. We’ve taken a few through Tbilisi, using fingers and body language to negotiate and the taxi drivers typically range from grumpy to grumpier. Saying ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank you’ in Georgian helps a lot. The general rule I’ve learnt is that a trip around the city centre should cost no more than 5 GEL, which anything outside can be anything between 7 and 10 GEL. The airport is a completely different story though, so be prepared for inflated prices that would cost about 35-40 GEL, be it a taxi, a hotel car, or a pre-arranged driver from one of the tour companies.

By metro

Tbilisi has just 2 metro lines, tunnelled so deep into the ground that you can probably develop claustrophobia and vertigo just by riding the long, long escalators. The Avlabari and Rustaveli stations have long, long ones that take at least 2 minutes to clear them all, which can be a horrifyingly unpleasant experience. Built in the Soviet era, they retain that grim, bleak look that made me wonder if Tbilisi really left that bit of their past behind yet. 1 GEL takes you anywhere, for a single trip. 2 GEL for the reusable Metro card, which can be returned at a ticket office after showing your passport.

Bus & Marshrutka

We didn’t try this at all, finding the Georgian script and the general lack of English rather daunting. There are designated routes and stops for buses, but only designated route for Marshrutkas, which pretty much stop wherever people want to get down. But there are numbers on these little yellow things and there’s also a website explaining the routes, but there’s only Georgian on it.

Where we stayed

Hotel Piazza

Just a couple metres off Avlabari metro and in the heart of the old Armenian district, the location and its breakfast are pretty much the hotel’s perks. The staff were lovely and incredibly accommodating. In their 24-hour shifts, I think we bothered them the most with questions and odd requests and all of them had no problems with what we asked for. But it was impossible to open our room window without getting a fragrant whiff of the constant cigarette smoke that swirled around the ashtray just outside. Workmen came on the third day and worked till late at night and tons of (loud) tourists who were mostly Russian came back drunk and loud late at night—clearly not the best thing we could have hoped for when we were already so much in need of uninterrupted sleep. Breakfast started at 9 am (!), so early-risers, you’re straight out of luck if you want to start out early for your day trips.

Automated/self-service laundromats were impossible to find, but the hotel did laundry for us for 5 Gel/kilo, and it was amazing how much we actually spent washing our dirty clothes.

Tours we did

Free Tbilisi walking tour

At noon every day at Freedom square, there’ll be a guide who will walk you around the city for about 3 or so hours, explaining Tbilisi’s and Georgia’s history. These guides survive on tips, so give what you think they deserve.

Colour Tour Georgia

We booked 2 tours with them—one into the Kazbegi mountains and the other into the Kakheti wine region. Both tours were very different in their own ways and the driver/guide are always accommodating to what you want to do on the way. Another driver/guide we considered was Makho (sourced from Tripadvisor), who has a Facebook page. Colour Tour’s slightly lower costs won out in the end.

Culinary Backstreets

Trust Paul Rimple to take you around. If anything, you’ll get an expat’s view of Georgia and Tbilisi but he has been living in Tbilisi for so long that he’s practically one of the Georgians. Paul’s interesting stories help make the hours fly past, and you get to sample all the food he shows you in the Deserter’s Bazaar.

Places we ate at

It’s difficult to find bad Georgian food really, or we’ve been incredibly lucky for most part, to get what we wanted. We normally try to stick to local cuisine as much as we can, so there’s quite a bit of Georgian food where we’re concerned. It’s easy, however, to overload on Khachapuri and Khinkali, and then feel a little sick for a while as the cheese and meat start to take root.

You can eat cheaply, if you rely on fried food, or bread with cheese from the numerous bakeries (Tone) that could be found around the city.

The smoking ban in enclosed places hasn’t reached Georgia, so cigarette smoke in restaurants can be a problem if you’re particularly sensitive to it, as I am. Some of the places listed below do have a view over the old city; others don’t.

These are the places we visited and they’re mostly around Avlabari or the old town which we could easily reach on foot.

Pasanauri
Oat gallery & Art café 144-stairs (right below the Cable cars, but do not use the path leading up to the Fortress for it. It’s through one of the tiny backlanes called Gomi)
Ezo
Culinarium Khasheria
Saamo (Avlabari, near the Trinity church)
Zakhar Zakharich
Vino Underground
Café Flowers

A place we were recommended but didn’t make it: Machakhela, Organique Josper Bar, g.Vino

Other things we did on our own

Gulo Thermal spa

One of the best and worst decisions I could have ever made. The hammam experience was really not bad—steam from the sulphur baths helped unclog my nose and pores—though it was overpriced, with, well, rather bad service. Be prepared to face a chaotic mess at the reception as Gulo the proprietress attempts to sort out your reservation or walk-in booking with minimal English. I tried making a booking through Facebook and ended up with a heated argument between Gulo and someone called Zura when Zura didn’t manage to get my reservation down with Gulo at all. We had to wait an hour for a larger bath to be available—no apologies made—and was doubly charged until we managed to convince an English-speaking ‘bather’ that we’d already paid for our 15-minute massage and scrub, which in truth, was shoddily completed in about 5 minutes.

Visiting all the churches

See Orthodox Christianity in full swing, marvel at the richness of Christian Iconography and look at faded frescoes that are centuries-old. Walk the crumbling battlements of fortresses, step on stones that have weathered conquerers and enemies and soak in the haunting melodies of the liturgies. We walked up the Narikala Fortress (1 GEL brings you straight up there from the other side of the river) and it was a relatively easy climb and a good way to see the city in the setting sun.

Medical emergencies

I’m sort of embarrassed to say that a skin condition forced me into a private emergency clinic off the Medical University Metro stop late one night. MediClub Georgia has staff who are English-speaking, though I was tended to by residents who triaged their patients before handing them over to the main doctor on duty. Never having been in an emergency ward, I spent most of my time waiting, feeling both curiosity and dread at the somewhat dated setup, then wondering how much it was going to cost me. I got prescribed strong antibiotics in the end, something I couldn’t get on my own in a pharmacy.

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DestinationsFoodGeorgiaThe Caucasus

Wine Education

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I was just along for the ride to Kakheti, the richest and most fertile part of Georgia that lies in the shadow of the magnificent Caucasus range. The wine tour that we did with Colour Tour Georgia (and with Gvantsa and Tazo) was more for TC than me, but the journey into the mountains and into Telavi – Kakheti’s old capital – was just as scenic as the one to Kazbegi.

Wine tasting was limited to 2 large producers: Shumi and Khareba and both companies are impressive in their own ways. Shumi takes advantage of micro-climates in Georgia, producing wine from different regions where terroir helps shape it flavours and taste. Khareba’s sprawling compound , on the other hand, consists of a lovely park, and an 8-km-long underground, converted tunnel beneath the Greater Caucasus that houses wines of all sorts.

Archaeological excavations seem to suggest that Georgia has produced wine from 8000 B.C., long before the empires rose and fell, or so says the tiny Shumi winery museum in Tsinandali. The traditional method of fermenting wine in a Qveri – a large, roundish terracotta clay vessel buried in the ground – is still practised in villages today and for some large wineries, Qveri wines now make up the premium range of their collection. As we learnt, Qveri wines produce deep, dark colours as opposed to the European way of fermentation and in particular, white wines turn out a deep amber colour; red wines turn out nearly black. Both have strange but stronger aromas and are typically very dry – TC is better suited to sorting them out than I can – but generally, the difference is rather stark.

And that’s saying something when all I smell is typically sour socks and the sharp burn of alcohol. Just sipping a Qveri’s bitter dryness just made me cringe.

Georgians are understandably, proud of their wine heritage and their enthusiasm about wine shines through every time they talk about it. There’re never-ending jokes of course, about Georgian men’s ability to imbibe 3-litres of wine each when the occasion calls for it and the correlation to their stomach sizes. No one ever makes a toast with beer – it’s considered inferior to wine – and since every family in villages practically own their own vineyard for their own wine consumption. With a wine culture that’s accessible to the common (and poor) man, it’s unsurprising that people don’t tend to get snobby about wines here.

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DestinationsFoodGeorgiaThe Caucasus

Food, wine and revolution

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The long road to democracy, a squeaky-clean police force (thanks to a reality show called ‘Police’ to restore its standing in the eyes of the public and a concerted effort to clamp down corruption) and a booming tourist industry that almost everyone is happy to capitalise on pretty much characterises what I saw in Tbilisi – and perhaps to a lesser extent, the whole of Georgia. The Tbilisi of today is a far cry of Tbilisi in 2002, at least according to Paul Rimple, one of the authors and guides for Culinary Backstreets, the food tour company with which TC and I signed up to get a feel of the local area.

A native Californian who’d been a chef, a blues musician and is now a journalist in Tbilisi after spending some time in Poland, Paul made it clear from the start that he wasn’t a tour guide, but rather, someone who knew the city and wanted to share the places he loved with visitors.

That was perfectly fine with us, being in a city where it was hard getting around without knowing Georgian. Our day started on a winter morning in the old town and after shaking hands with Paul, who stopped to tell us about his own experience living through the end of Eduard Shevardnadze era to the Rose Revolution and finally to what Georgia has become today.

We made stops at a tone bakery, a wine/cheese/cha-cha shop just next to the Sioni Cathedral and then hopped into a taxi to elbow our way through the Deserter’s Bazaar (or the Dezertirebi), a chaotic, boisterous place that hawks the freshest fruits, vegetables, spices, oils, nuts, piglets (dead) and well, pretty much everything else, named as such because army deserters sold weapons here in the early part of the 1920s. Today, you’re more likely to be faced with anonymous plastic bottles filled with what could be honey, sunflower oil or any other unnamed liquid rather than guns and toothless old crones (who look alarmingly like the old witches in fairytales) hustling you to buy their cheeses.

This is Paul’s favourite place and he has been called insane for that, but it’s clear he’s on very familiar terms with the shopkeepers there, stopping to greet people while doing his grocery shopping as we followed in his wake, buying the things he bought and then sitting down for handmade Khinkali (dumplings) at Zakhar Zakharich. Other several hole in the wall-type shops we made pit-stops included a Georgian wine/cheese shop whose owner went to the only English-speaking school in Georgia, as his Soviet-sympathetic father had probably expected his son to be an interpreter for the KGB. But said son grew up to make cheese and wine instead, which probably puts him in a better position now than ever, if he does indeed get to retain his license to make blue cheese.

TC and Paul sampled 7 different types of wine at Vino Underground, the most interesting being the amber-coloured ones that were fermented traditionally in the ground in large earthenware vessels called Qveri(s) for about 6 months or more, a process which produces very dry, deep-coloured liquids with unusual aromas. And finally, we headed a few blocks down and around to Ezo, an organic restaurant that’s focused on putting quality food on the table – cooked just the way a Georgian’s mother/aunt/granny does it, supposedly – sourced through sustainable farming methods and fair-trade deals.

Through Paul’s stories, it was easier through learn about the radical facelift that Tbilisi had undergone, some pieces of Georgia’s history finally falling into place after he filled in the gaps for us, but others remained frustratingly out of reach. Replete with wine and fantastic Georgian food, we walked dazedly back to Sioni Cathedral through backstreets that we would never have ventured on our own, never quite getting over the fact that Georgia – and its inhabitants – still remain quite a mystery apart from what the history books say.

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DestinationsGeorgiaThe Caucasus

The bride who hides her face

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“Hello, my friend!” Tazo our driver greeted us with such enthusiasm that it was impossible not to like him at first sight. As we found out throughout the day, he knows a smattering of English, ending every sentence with ‘my friend’. His driving skills are unparalleled, so much so that we had a headache by the end of the day trip into the Caucasus mountains.

The road out of Tbilisi is scenic, but absolute shite in many places. There are many times though, when the landscape alone makes it worth it and this is possibly one of those times.

The Georgian military highway is the only route out of Tbilisi into Russia and Azerbaijan, and follows the route of traders and invaders throughout the centuries through the high Caucasus. Touted as one of the most scenic – but dangerous drives – in the world, it’s easy to see why: harsh winters have reduced parts of the road to nothing more than potholes and the narrow width along hairpin turns would faze any driver.

But it’s also unbelievably gorgeous as it winds through isolated villages paralleling the Zhinvali Reservoir, the Ananuri Fortress, and the Gudauri ski resort near the highest point of the road called the Jvari pass before descending into Kazbegi, where most tourist journeys end, in the small village of Stepantsminda.

From then on, it’s a matter of playing Russian roulette (with not quite the same stakes) with the weather, to see if Gergeti Trinity church is accessible from Stepantsminda. Winter and heavy snowfall rule that option out almost immediately, despite the sunny skies, impassable even for 4WD vehicles which are normally used for that 6km trek uphill. TC and I had hoped to hike up, but that was pretty much a negative.

Kvintsa, our guide with Colour Tour Georgia, says Kazbegi is likened to a bride who shyly hides her face from visitors as it’s often shrouded in fog and clouds. Our disappointment and desperation must have been obvious, because the guide suggested that we could visit a neighbouring church on the other side of the mountain but we chose not to in the end, opting to see Gergeti church from the terrace of the very posh Kazbegi Rooms hotel.

Then it was back through the same road to Tbilisi – but with a stopover at a supermarket in Gudauri for lunch. Gvantsa and Tazo were brutally accommodating, eschewing their own proper meals that made us feel quite bad about it.

TC, however, slept most of his way through the journey, prompting concerned stares from everyone.

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DestinationsGeorgiaThe Caucasus

In the heart of the Caucasus

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The locals call their land Saqartvelo, whereas everyone else calls it ‘Georgia’, a place (and many men thereafter) named after its patron Saint. For the longest time, it has been a country shrouded in shadowy myths (for me at least), lumped in with the rest of the Soviet states and forgotten about, until the Travel Companion (TC) bought a bottle of Georgian wine years ago.

My research into the place started in earnest then. I looked into their ancient language – a part of me imagines this is how Proto-Indo European might have sounded like -, the wine, the gorgeous churches, the mountains, the fabled hospitality of the people…and I was sold.

A few days into this trip, well, let’s just say that reality is a little more sobering. Avlabari, the site of old Tbilisi where the hotel is, is oddly chaotic and I’ve never gotten so many wary, distrustful stares from people and that’s not because I have unshaven armpits.

Georgia has always been the pawn of a larger power or another, tussled among those who warred over its ancient, fertile soil. War, or at least some kind of conflict has plagued its borders every few years, the latest being the looming spectre of a revived Russia seeking to inch past its borders. Consequently, there’s always a long story made of facts (and some entertaining fiction about saints and sinners) that every guide will enthusiastically tell of their colourful history, though getting their personal opinions of their conquering powers and the recent political situation is equivalent to pulling teeth.

Tbilisi is on its own, a huge contradiction but a proud survivor of its turbulent past: a beautiful mixture of architecture (best seen in the carvings on the balconies in the old quarter), a blend of old and modern, centuries-old Orthodox churches, bordered at times by grim, industrial-looking Soviet architecture on both sides of the Mtkvari River.

The guide that we had in the free walking tour of Tbilisi exemplified this quirk in his anachronistic dressing that belonged better in Dickensian or Victorian England. He took us around the old city, explained about the family network of Georgians as seen in the sharing of balconies/terraces, walked us through the sulphur baths, the Siony church, Freedom square and gave us a taste of Churchkhela (Georgian traditional candy made of nuts dipped in a sweet wine roux and left to dry out).

But there is as always, much more to the country than just its capital. I couldn’t wait to find out.

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