Friday, 27 March 2015

Mar Musa 11 - part 2

Ha! So I have just realised that I have been on the cusp of conquering Mar Musa II now for about two months. And no ... I didn't get lost, kidnapped by elves or so drunk on Georgian red I married a man called Beso and have been passing my days throwing clay pots.
I am actually back in Istanbul now.
But let's pretend I'm not.
Let's finish this story, shall we?

So the Gergeti Trinity Church is perched on a small mountain in the shadow of the towering Kazbegi peak which scrapes the heavens at 5034 meters. Despite being a renowned climb-beast ( I have been known to take the stairs at work from time to time) my plan was not to scale Kazbegi but rather reach this pretty little church instead. It looked so other-worldly from where I was staying. Like it belonged in Middle Earth or some other kingdom where fairies brew gin punches and unicorns spin candy floss from their magnificent alicorns.

This view above was taken from my smiley host's front terrace after he had kindly arranged for me to do the ascent with two handbag-toting Polish gals. Part of me wanted to scream ..Noooo, I'm a hermit, leave me be..but the the practical part of me knew climbing in knee-deep snow alone would surely be a recipe for disaster. Besides they turned out to be nice gals so it wasn't really a sufferance.

Now despite being a climb-beast and conqueror of Mar Musa, it wasn't an easy trek. Even though the weather was kind to us the, climb was difficult because every so often the snow would give way underfoot and I found myself spending a lot of my time picking myself up out of little valleys of fallen snow... in sandals and socks. Not my finest fashion hour.

Along the way we met a dog who wanted to help us.

And then a little further on when we were beginning to think we perhaps were really lost and the church was an illusion brought on by too much grape juice, a wandering, jolly Slovakian appeared loaded with beer, biscuits and vodka. Morning Tea time! Hooray!

And I don't even like beer but on that climb, with all that snow, I loved it!

Watered and fed we continued with our newly acquired friend who insisted on speaking in Slovakian with me all the way to the top and was particularly interested in knowing about Kangaroos, Aborigines and the big red rock. Inexplicably I was able to understand  everything he said and started translating to the Polish girls.

Morning Beer + altitude = I can speak Slovakian. 
Who knew?

When we finally reached the plain on which the church squats, it was such a feeling of exhilaration I wanted to leap for joy but that I knew I would land on my bottom which I did a number of time during the final ascent anyway.

Our beer buddy left us at that point because, in a truly surreal James Bond moment, two of his friends suddenly came skiing well and truly off-piste (or already pissed), down the mountain behind us. The last we saw was him whooping in the air, waving a bottle of vodka.  

The rest of the time was spent exploring the plain and the church and I took so many photos, which I love, I wish I could share them all


Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Mar Musa II

Mar Musa (Syria)..half way through epic feat
I have a running joke with Damien about Mar Musa which is a monastery in Syria perched on top of a very hot, treeless mountain. The entry into the complex is through a small wooden door that looks like it was built for hobbits and if you pitch in around the monastery you can stay for free. Well, at least this was the case back before the war, I don't suspect there are many visitors today and I can only hope that the nuns and monks living there have been left in peace.
hobbity entrance
Now when I climbed up to this place it was the height of summer, I had my full backpack on and I described this epic climb to Damien in terms of a monumental mountaineering achievement. I still stand by this. A year later he made the same climb and he made some vague comment about traversing over an anthill so Mar Musa has come to represent an improbable climbing feat/ leisurely stroll in the park in our own private vernacular.  Suffice to say when I told Damien about my climb in Kazbegi his first response was ' Another Mar Musa moment per chance?'

Well, We shall see.

Georgian Mar Musa challenge

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Escalators and mountains

When I was six years old I was terrified of the London Underground escalators (after a couple of ciders, I still am!). I mean I would cry and backtrack the closer they came and thought nothing of climbing up the stairs that were built alongside them. Even though the cement stairs went on for hours and my family would be waiting for me to make it to the top.
I liked tube stops like Knightsbridge and Covent Garden (not only because they had shops with toys) but they had elevators which meant the whole Hans Holbein Dance-of-Death charade could be avoided.
I suppose for my six year old self, I felt I had more control of the situation.  If I fell it would be all my clumsy-footed-self's fault not some sudden lurch of machinery or an impatient commuter tossing me by. Not much has changed really I suppose. I want to control everything in my life and I keep on making the discovery over and over again that I can't. I control very little and the things I think I can often turn out to be things I can't. Like other people's hearts, minds even that bad-ass Pirate and her Three-paw beating ways.
Now the reason I am writing about escalators is really for no other reason than the fact that when I was in Tbilisi  I rode on the longest underground escalator I have ever seen. You actually could not see the bottom from the top it was so far down and the lighting (a sort of  Soviet shade of jonquil) just made the whole descent even more mysterious. And as I rode into the depths (the air becoming more acrid with each breath), lumbered with a backpack which made my tipping point even higher than usual, I thought of my six year old self and how far (and how little) she had come. Control it seems, does not improve with life but perhaps acceptance (of its lack) does.


Anyway my whole reason for riding the escalator was not epiphany-based. Rather I had decided to head to the Caucasus mountains. My destination - Kazbegi -  up near Russia's border.
It meant a three hour journey on a marshrutky ( Georgian mini-bus) which whiffed slightly of cheese (maybe me), alcohol, sweat and cow.  But I kind of like those smells while I am travelling, it reminded me of my trips around Poland back in the nineties.
South Ossetian border behind

The journey was lovely. Mountains always are. One one side were the ski resorts and the other  - the border to South Ossetia.  Now I had promised my parents not to go near any contentious borders but I felt fairly confident that no crusaders were going to ski over the edge of this formidable mountain range and intercept our whiffy bus.

Bedroom view
When I arrived in Kazbegi I had no plan so fortunately a very smiley man,  who spoke wonderful English without any need for definite articles, picked me up in his little car and said 'Come. I host. I have hotel.'  Which indeed he did with a wonderful warm bed, hot shower, a rather acceptable bedroom view and a home-made rose wine that made Georgian and English intermingle without effort.

It was actually bitterly cold and bleak by the time I settled  as you can see by my street...

So I passed the rest of the day wandering in the town, meeting cows, dogs, pigs and chickens. 

visiting the local church

And eating Borscht at the only restaurant - in readiness for the next day's climb!

Sometimes it can be lonely travelling on your own and one can easily slip into a melancholy of earlier, more companionable days. But what's the choice really. You are where you are - each and every day.  And you can either ride the escalators that scare you to death or stagnate at the top and be alone anyway because absolutely every one else is riding them  as well.

Monday, 16 March 2015

wine wine wine

One of the most alluring things about Tbilisi (apart from its general charm and cheese pies) is the plethora of wine shops and cellars, all offering tasting and little history to go along with it.

Obviously, they would love it if you bought something too but often they seem to enjoy sharing stories of each grape and grower. Sometimes they even like to play a bit of Schubert while you degust.

Take the Usakhelouri , for example. This is a scarce grape which results in only about a 1000 bottles being made in a  good year. According to my piano-playing degustation master, it is this grape that Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill shared together. (Google is yet to confirm this for me.) Given its rarity and premium price, my host only gave me a wee snifter ( generous enough to reach the four corners of my mouth) and I have to say it was a indeed a friend of the palate.  


So  I spent the first two nights  in an elegant, wooden terrace house painted pastel blue in one of the more ramshackled-looking areas of old Tbilisi. Steep cobbled streets, dim lighting if any at all, colourful lopsided building with flowering trees and mysterious dark courtyards.  Beautiful.  
Hooray for wine
The insides of my home were rather spartan, noticeably less heat than my little bones might have liked, but the two women running it were friendly and enthusiastic.
Georgia is the only country I have ever been to where they put out complimentary home-brewed wines as a welcome. Nearly every Georgian home makes their own wine using a queri ( a clay pot) which they keep in the ground.  They have been doing this for centuries and centuries. Wine made this way is unfiltered and chemical free, rich with antioxidants, and seems to slide down the throat easily with little hangover the next day.

I have a feeling that the abundance of wine ( and their deep love of it) may be responsible for more than one of the joyous sculptures I found dotted around the old town.

Anyway I spent the day walking around the old city; visiting ornate little churches filled with Sunday worshippers; air redolent with incense and wood. There were no ceremonies as such. The Georgians simply went from one gold-leafed icon to the next (my mother would have shuddered at some of the man-child depictions of Jesus  -a pet hate of hers) , uttering short prayers (maybe wishes), lighting candles and having a good gossip from what I could tell by the animation on their faces.

I also strolled the cobbled streets ( gobbling Khachapuri - a traditional cheese pastry) inspecting houses that seemed undecided whether they were meant to stay up or come down.
Ambulance at the ready for inevitable tumble...unless this is the hospital!?!
By the cathedral I also met a woman who called herself Butterfly. She was the local homeless animal care-taker and she even had a badge to prove it. Nowhere near the number of cats you see in Istanbul (and far more nervous which is a testament to the generally safe environment the Turks offer to their feline friends) but they still came out of the fallen woodwork for a bit of love from Butterfly.

My timing was impeccable too because I happened to visit the quaint town clock at midday which resulted in quite  a lot of to-ings and fro-ings out of various hatches of  the rather wonky clock.

Later I took a ride on the recently renovated  funicular ( after its previous incarnation had a rather tragic free-fall accident) up to the town's fortress and visited an enormous statue of a woman clutching a sword in one hand - to keep the invaders out -Georgia's had its fair share so I understand the sentiment  - and a cup of wine in the other - but of course!) I loved clambering all over the fortress. It's Eastern Europe after all. No such thing as Health & Safety precautions here except perhaps on said funicular after aforementioned tragedy.

Obligatory Church next to fortress
 In the evening I ate a restaurant known as the KGB. My meal was sublime - so full of fresh herbs I thought I was growing a garden in my mouth. I  mean if the KGB could really cook like that they would have had world domination for sure!

I loved Tbilisi. After the choke and grind of Istanbul, everything about this town appealed to me.  If I didn't have my two laydees at home, I would definitely contemplate teaching in Georgia instead. Much more my style.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Georgian laydee

So I think most of my anxiety was related to my cats, especially three-paw who I had decided needed a holiday from the one eyed tyrant.  But I needn't have worried because as soon as I got her to her guest pad she ambled down the corridor and threw herself on her kind host's double bed and began purring.Actually the most stressful part was the journey there because the traffic were awful, the taxi drivers were even worse and nobody seemed even interested in helping me with my map. I find Turkish people seem to start  panicking as soon as they hear Turkish with an English accent and become disinclined or perhaps too nervous to help.
This I can now attest is not the case in Georgia. From the minute I got off the plane the people have touched me with their warmness and kindness and perseverance in helping me even with the language barrier. That is not to say that Turkish people aren't kind as well, they just seem to have more of a fear of the unknown whereas the Georgians seem to relish it.
 I began my adventure with a squishy yellow bus - number 37 - which goes from the airport to town. As soon as I got on the people rallied round to help. One woman paid my fare and another lovely young chap not only helped me get off but walked with me to my hostel. Actually his desire to help sort of backfired because we got royally lost and I carried my backpack around for a good hour longer than I would have on my own. But it didn't matter I got to explore  lovely nooks and crannies I may never have discovered otherwise and it helped me identify my first wine stop.
It is called a konka and was a form of transport pulled by horses back in the 1800s. Now it is the happy home of some locally made red  Georgian wine and the  sweet Natalie who  chatted amicably to me about topics ranging from distilling wine at home, alternatives to violence and where to find the best cheese pie. 

Thursday, 12 March 2015


Intrepid laydee in Ghana
So now I am officially on holidays and in less than 48 hours I will be in Georgia. Unfortunately I don't feel excited, I feel anxious instead. Really anxious. I was trying to rationalise it as I walked home tonight in the dark, semi-lit alleys near where I live. I  mean come on. I live in Turkey on my own and yet I am nervous about going to Georgia on my own. And Georgia actually  has a better security rating than Turkey right now!!! It just goes to show how you can make anywhere your home and how we humans are really creatures of habit so any change is suddenly seen as threatening and unsettling. And this trip to Georgia is supposed to be a holiday! Relaxing. Invigorating. Reaffirming.
Of course,  I am sure once I am there with a glass of sweet Georgian red in one of their horn-shaped glasses, I will feel much better. It is just pre-travel jitters.
I remember the first time I went to Syria on my own. I swore I would stay in my hostel for the two weeks, maybe venture out for bread and the odd plate of fattoush. And then looked what happened there..what a love affair I had with that magnificent county.

Come on intrepid laydee, you can do this.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Save the doggies

Bit of Animal Rights' Protesting to begin the weekend. The Government has built a concentration-style camp for the street dogs of Istanbul on the outskirts of the city and the pictures of the place look quite awful. Can't imagine a wee march in the streets is going to stop the machine but one must try at least.

On a completely personal level, meeting up with people ( some of them unknown) to go on the march was a little stressful for me. Stranger Danger! Aargh. But as always I find when I am feeling less confident in myself that is when I need to push myself the most.


Still needed a huge pot of tea after the occasion though!! And a big hidey cushion to cuddle.