Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Day 217 - Arm wrestles, Monasteries, and Wineries. (Georgia)


Having managed the border crossing in less than an hour, we had a whole afternoon that we hadn’t expected to have. With no real plans as of yet we stopped for lunch in the border town where we ordered the traditional dish of “khinkali” – juicy meat dumplings. A group of men at another table took an interest in us, and one in particular who had evidently had more than his fair share of the empty vodka bottles at their table, began professing his love for us. “I... LOOOVE... YOU..., VEEEERY MUCH,” he called out towards us over and over again, and having already taken a liking to Georgia and Georgian people, we found this amusing and politely thanked him each time. Having finished their own plate of khinkali, the group followed this one guy that loved us the most as he joined us at our table. He had obviously taken a special liking to me, and most specifically my eyes, and amidst complementing me on my eyes and kissing my hands, he proceeded to indicate how offensive he found Ben’s long hair and blazer, how exciting he found Denner’s beard which we think he was saying was like Jesus’, and how confusing he found Tunkles’ moustache. Apparently long hair, facial hair and blazers aren’t fashionable in Georgia.

Still amused by this man and his antics, we played along when he and his friends challenged Ben, Tunkles and Denner to arm wrestles. These men were not small, and after watching him display his biceps and say “Me, stallion”, we weren’t expecting any wins from the Australian team. Sure enough, each of my comrades’ arms was duly slammed into the table amidst good natured laughter. When they began violently wrestling each other at our table though, knocking over the glasses of vodka they’d brought with them, and threatening to overturn the table, we quickly stepped back and decided the scene was losing appeal for us. Realising our reactions, all but the main offender apologised, welcomed us to Georgia, posed for some photos and farewelled us. Our good friend the stallion though decided to stick around, and tediously pointed at my eyes and Denner’s beard for the rest of our meal. It got a bit out of hand in the middle, and incredibly tiresome at the end, but it was certainly an exciting welcome to the Christian nation of Georgia.

As we had nothing to particularly head for, we followed signs to a very pretty monastery a few kilometres from the main road. As the first Christian country on this trip (unless you include Australia), and our first non-Muslim country since China (3 months ago), visiting a monastery does have a certain sense of new and exciting.

A little further down the road we spotted a sign to Nekresi Monastery, which jogged Ben’s memory of something he’d read. We followed the turn off and as it turns out we’d stumbled across one of the must-see monasteries in Georgia. Located 1.5 km up a very steep hillside, it is only accessible by foot or by paying for a bus ticket. At only 1 Lari per person we opted for the bus, but were informed that they only run with a minimum of 10 passengers. Unconvinced that 10 more visitors would arrive in that whole afternoon, Tunkles and Denner decided to brave the walk while Ben and I waited for them in the car.

After a little while though a couple more cars arrived, and we realised that there may well be 10 people for the bus ride now. Sure enough we were now 2 of 14 passengers, so we paid our way and boarded the bus, sorry for Tunkles and Denner, but glad that we’d also be able to see the monastery.

The advantage of walking up the hill is that you’d have the whole place to yourself, but unfortunately our bus load arrived just as our companions reached the top, sweaty and parched from the steep ascent. The views over the valley were truly spectacular from this vantage point, and the understated and raw beauty of the monastery was haunting.

Tunkles and Denner snuck on the bus for the return trip and we headed back to our car where we were greeted by a friendly Georgian man. “You have brought your car from Australia?” he greeted us. “Yes!” We’re so used to confusion and disbelief at the nature of our trip that when someone has actually looked at the car and figured out what we’re doing, it is a welcome relief. “You know Russian guy?” he asked us. “Um....” “Misha? From Baku?” Yes, we had met a Russian guy in Baku. Apparently Misha was staying with this man in a nearby town, and had just caught the bus up to the monastery that we had just come from. Misha had spotted our car and told his host that he knew this car and had met us in Baku. We decided to wait with this lovely man who gave us bountiful amounts of information about the area, and meet up with Misha when he returned from the monastery.

We greeted Misha like a long lost friend, despite the fact that we’d only spent one evening chatting intermittently at our hostel in Baku, and decided to take up the invitation of tandem driving with them – Misha, Guram, and an American/Peruvian couple living in Dubai who was also staying at this guy’s place – to a nearby wine factory. Our intention was to visit the wine factory, find something or somewhere for dinner, camp the night, and possibly/probably visit Sighnaghi the following day where we would more than likely stay at Guram’s guesthouse.

The wine factory was very interesting – much more industrialised than the ones we get shown around in Australia, or perhaps it was just that we got shown more than we’re used to being allowed to see. As well as the current production and packaging processes, we were also taken to a room where the traditional method of wine making was demonstrated by Guram, who was our free tour guide of the factory.

At the completion of the tour, we were sat down in the wine tasting room where we sampled a few of their varieties, my favourite of which was a semi-sweet red that is acclaimed as Stalin’s favourite wine. Enjoying the company of our flukily found companions, we decided just to ride out whatever plans Guram had for us and go to Sighnaghi so we could spend the evening with Misha, Lee and Claudia. Not only had we stumbled upon some great company, but we seemed to have chanced upon an excellent, no strings attached, truly hospitable guide.

Our next stop was a wine cellar that was unfortunately closed because we’d spent too long at our wine tasting, so on we went to another wine factory. This one wasn’t the modern, commercial production line we’d just experienced, but was a truly functioning traditional workshop. We were shown an attic full of antique furniture, vessels and ornaments, then the underground cellar full of their wine and chacha (a spirit made from grapes). In the main room where all the wine is produced, we were once again shown the process which involves several metre deep holes in the ground which are filled with the grapes and periodically stirred with a 2m long pronged stick. For different stages in the fermentation process the grapes are moved to a variety of these holes until the process is complete.

We huddled around a table set with bread, cheese, white wine, red wine and chacha for us to try. Our endless summer that began in November in Melbourne, continued as we started our trip through tropical South East Asia, followed us into summer in China, Central Asia and Iran, began drawing to a close in Azerbaijan, but is now officially over. In the mountains of Georgia it is far from warm, and the unheated brick building was the perfect setting for some hearty home-made wine and the continuation of conversation with our new friends.

We followed Guram and our fellow travellers back to his homestay in Sighnaghi where we were treated to a feast of home-made Georgian cuisine, and of course, their very own home-made wine and chacha.

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