Monday, 10 September 2012

Samtskhe-Javakheti

Borjomi
The Samtskhe-Javakheti region in southern Georgia is very diverse, with a lot to offer visitors, though not always first on tourists' itineraries. I was drawn to the area by its proximity to Tbilisi, making it convenient to visit when only in the country for a short period, especially compared to other areas such as Svaneti, Ajara and Tusheti, which are more popular with tourists but also take longer to get to from the capital, whether due to inaccessible terrain or simply distance. I'm not going to lie: there was a part of me that felt that coming to this part of Georgia was a bit of a compromise, and that it would be kind of dull compared to the much-talked-about wonders of Svaneti in the northwest. Thankfully, I was thoroughly and pleasantly surprised by what I found here!


Borjomi
I decided to base myself in Borjomi, a spa town once frequented by the Russian royal family, and popular with Russian tourists throughout the Soviet period. While less rugged and dramatic than the Kazbegi area, Borjomi's surroundings are no less beautiful. The area has a distinctly alpine feel, immediately reminding me of Austria, with beautiful pine-covered mountains all around. Since the collapse of the USSR the souring of Russo-Georgian relations, Borjomi's tourism has suffered, bu the local authorities seem determined to foster a renaissance. All the infrastructure is here for a tourist hotspot, but there is a lack of visitors that I don't think can be entirely attributed to my visit falling at the end of the summer. There's a brand new tourist office, staffed by a man named Artur who exhibits enthusiasm and keenness to help unrivaled by anyone in a similar position anywhere the world over. The small park in the town centre is full of "attractions" targeted at children: trampolines, climbing frames, a paddling pool with water balls on it and a BB shooting range to name just a few; as well as kiosks that sell beer and snacks, and old women selling jewelry, cigarettes and children's toys (sometimes all laid out on one table). There's a large and interesting museum, full of artifacts from the local area and information in Georgian, English and Russian. But despite all of this the town has a perpetually sleepy air, with mostly just locals in the streets: kids running around and playing while old folk just relax and watch the world go by.


Borjomi
Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park
About 2km from the town centre is an entrance to the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, which is the largest national park in the Caucasus and one of the biggest in Europe, with an area of 5300km2 (approx. 7.6% of Georgia's total territory). The park's authorities have put in a lot of infrastructure for hikers and campers, with nine set routes, two of which are day hikes and the rest of which require overnight stays in the park. I did the shortest route, which - aside from a steep ascent at the start - was more of a stroll than a trek, though poor signage and a lack of a real map meant that I did get lost several times. What I saw of the park was all pine forest, and as pleasant as it was, I don't think it's possible to get a proper feel for the environment without spending several days there. The list of local fauna is impressive:brown bears, lynxes, badgers, wolves, red squirrels, foxes, ibexes, chamois and red deer. I wish I had a heroic tale about escaping a pack of wolves or fighting a bear, but all I can rightfully claim to have seen is a solitary squirrel scampering up a tree trunk.

About twenty minutes' drives out of Borjomi and the land transforms completely. The lush greens of the forests are replaced by a barren, mostly brown, semi-desert landscape. Riding shotgun in a taxi through this with the windows rolled down, wind blowing in my face, there's no doubt in my mind that we have left Europe. The driver points in one direction, and says it's that way to Armenia; he points another direction, that way to Turkey. Two enormous lorries drive past, both with Iranian number plates. While in Tbilisi any signs not in Georgian are usually in English, and in Borjomi they're normally in Russian, out here it's not uncommon to see signs in Turkish. Due to Georgia's recent history having been dominated by Russia, and the devout Christianity of most Georgians, I almost forgot about the country's proximity to the Middle East, but here I can really feel it. 



After a few windswept villages we reach Akhaltsikhe, the capital of the Samtskhe-Javakheti region. This is a town with a multicultural heritage. Up until the 1940s it was inhabited predominantly by ethnic Turks, as was much of the surrounding area. These Turks, known as variously as "Meskheti Turks" or "Ahiska Turks", had lived in the area since the 16th century, when it was part of the Ottoman Empire. After the Ottomans ceded the territory to the Russian Empire in the 19th century, these Turks remained and lived peaceably with their Georgian neighbours. During the Second World War, however, Stalin was planning to launch a pressure campaign on Turkey. Fearing that the Meskheti Turks might betray the Soviet Union and collaborate with the Turkish Republic, he had the whole population deported to Central Asia. Tens of thousands died during deportation, and those that survived were never allowed to return to their homes. Today Akhaltsikhe is home to one of Georgia's largest Armenian communities, with a population of about 61% Georgians and 37% Armenians. There's little ethnic tension between the Georgian and Armenian communities here, a fact for which the Georgian government is very grateful; but the authorities fear that if the Meskheti Turks were to return, it would upset the delicate ethnic balance and result in unrest. As a result, to this day no Meskheti Turks have been granted the right to return to Georgia. Despite this refusal to accept back these former inhabitants and their descendants, Akhaltsikhe's main attraction is a remnant of its Ottoman past. The Rabati, the walled old town, has an undeniably Turkish feel to it, and includes a mosque, a madrasah and a synagogue (none of which are still in use). The fact that the Rabati was all recently renovated means that it feels a bit inauthentic, and I imagine it was a lot more atmospheric before, but it's nonetheless interesting to see.


Akhaltsikhe's Rabati
Akhaltsikhe's Rabati


Further south of Akhaltsikhe, right by the Turkish border, lies the region's main attraction: the cave city Vardzia. This complex of caves, carved into a steep mountainside overlooking the Mtkvari River, was constructed in the twelfth century and for hundreds of years was permanently inhabited. Today most of it only exists as an historic relic, but there is a functioning church within one of the caves, and several of the caves (which members of the public aren't allowed to enter) are home to monks. It's utterly surreal to imagine that people ever lived like this, let alone that some still do! There's an almost complete lack of signs or information around the site, which makes exploration all the more rewarding. Most of the caves are only single rooms, a few metres in diameter, but when I happened upon a mysterious tunnel with a staircase leading downwards, I couldn't help but investigate. In the tunnel there were light bulbs on the walls, but no apparent way to turn them on, so I delved down in pitch darkness. After some ten minutes of tense descent, I came out in the large cavern that is Vardzia's church, with natural light coming through its small stained glass windows. While examining the alter, feeling like Indiana Jones, I suddenly heard a noise: a tour group coming from the other entrance! Recalling that visitors weren't supposed to enter the church without a paid guide, I scarpered back up the tunnel I came from, my escape made all the swifter by the fact that when the tour group entered, the electric lights came on!





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