Our Hearts Beat The Same, Georgia 10 – 6/2014

December 9, 2016

If you pick up a handful of dirt in Los Angeles or a handful in Istanbul, it’s the same stuff. Part of what makes travel fascinating for us is the people and their lives in the unique countries they live in. But there is something else interesting about these individuals, whether adults or children, regardless of religion or politics. Let me tell you a quick story:

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At our first camp in Georgia, these kids paid us a visit. They were very curious yet polite and rather shy.

It was 1995 and we were sitting in the living room of a Russian friend in the suburbs of Moscow. Marc Podolsky had been on the Russian Camel Trophy team, an international rally that I covered for U.S. magazines. We were talking about our plans to drive across Siberia and the former Soviet Union alone, ocean-to-ocean. There were fears of fuel and food shortages, impassible roads, bandits, and mafia. If there was a road, however bad, we were confident that The Turtle IV could handle it. It was the danger from people we could not control.

In the midst of this conversation about unknown problems and dangers, suddenly Marc’s father-in-law looked at me and put his hand on his wrist. “Feel your pulse”, he said. Marc translated. I did. He then moved his hand to his neck. “Feel your pulse.” he said again, so I did. Then he placed his hand to his heart and spoke quietly, as his eyes met mine, he said, “Our hearts beat the same.” What a powerful statement!

This sheepskin hat would have been perfect for skiing in Park City, the only one on the slopes but Monika didn’t like the sheepy smell.

This sheepskin hat would have been perfect for skiing in Park City, the only one on the slopes but Monika didn’t like the sheepy smell.

Monika and I looked at each other and knew instantly that we could travel across Russia alone and be safe.

What you will notice about the people below from the country of Georgia is that their hearts beat the same as yours and ours.

The people we meet in the poorer Third World countries are worried about their children, their animals, their crops, their friends and relatives, putting food on the table, having a roof over their heads — most of the stuff that everyone in the World thinks about to some degree. If you treat 99.9% of all those people with a smile and respect, it will come back to you tenfold.

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Markets, Georgia 9 – 6/2014

December 2, 2016

Years ago when we traveled in Mexico, we used to laugh at people coming south with their motorhomes or campers full of canned food, on the assumption that people in Mexico didn’t have anything to eat. Now, as we travel through some of the most remote countries in the world, some may wonder how do we survive? What’s for dinner?

georgia-market-7-54You may see some interesting answers in the photos below as we traveled through the country of Georgia. There may be twenty ladies selling tomatoes, onions, beets, peppers, cabbage and more than you can imagine. The question is, who has the best? What does the cheese taste like? Can we taste? Of course!! Is it “moo”, (cow) or “baa”, (goat)? Is that meat pig “oink-oink”, or moo? Seriously, the biggest problem of finding food in these countries is limiting our selection to what we can use in the next few days, because little roadside stands are often selling the same as we drive along.

When we’re home in California, people ask how we cook on the road. The answer is, exactly the same as we do here, except often the selection of food is better and fresher that your local supermarket.

 

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A few more things, Georgia 8 – 6/2014

November 29, 2016

Our friend Tom Hughey back in California loves to read about our experiences, the people and the interesting places we visit but being a practical kind of guy, he was wondering, about the local infrastructure, so we started photographing items of different nature. Much of Georgia’s economy reminded us of what we had seen in Russia in 1996, so for us, it was not new. Gary already mentioned the above ground gas lines in Sighnaghi (blog Georgia 4). Here is a collection of few other things you might find interesting. 

Unfortunately, our time in Georgia was cut short. China was calling. The exact entry date was set, August 28, 2014, and we still had to travel thousands of miles through five other countries. Someday, we hope to return to Georgia to explore the rest of the country and get to meet more of its friendly people.

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Visit to the Numisi Farm, Georgia 7 – 6/2014

November 25, 2016

While visiting the Numisi Winery in Velistsikhe, Misha, the Russian husband of Nunu, invited us to tag along to visit their farm where he wanted to pick up some fresh milk. We learned that the whole Kakheti Valley has hundreds of Artesian wells. There was only one on their land. Unfortunately, the water had a very bitter taste and to our amazement, it was flammable. Only the cows drank it. We walked around admiring the cows and the tractors. A young Azerbaijani family was taking care of the farm. Nunu had whispered into Monika’s ear that they were Moslem “but” that they were very nice and honest. (Remember, Georgia is a Christian nation!) They lived an extremely humble existence. It rather looked like they were camping out. The young mother was preparing dinner on a discarded plow disk while her husband was milking the cows. Both were very gracious and didn’t mind us taking pictures.

 

 

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Happy Thanksgiving

November 24, 2016
Happy Thanksgiving!

 

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If you have food in your fridge, clothes on your back, a roof over your head and a place to sleep you are richer than 75% of the world. If you have money in the bank, your wallet, and some spare change you are among the top 8% of the words’s wealthy. If you woke up this morning with more health than illness you are more blessed than the million people who will not survive this week. If you have never experienced the danger of battle, the agony of imprisonment or torture, or the horrible pangs of starvation you are luckier than 500 million people alive and suffering. If you can read this message you are more fortunate than 3 billion people in the world who cannot read it at all.

Aren’t we lucky?

Gary and Monika

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Kakheti Valley, Georgia 6 – 6/2014

November 18, 2016

We had been looking forward to Georgian wines since we had our last sip of Italian Nero d’Avila. To our disappointment, most of the stores in Georgia stocked plenty of beer, vodka and juices, but rarely more than a few wines. Much of the table wine we found in the country was either homemade or produced by wineries and sold in 5-liter plastic containers. It was invariably on the sweet side. This was not Napa Valley, where there is a winery every couple of miles advertising their wine-tasting rooms, tours and picknick facilities. If these exist at all in the Kakheti wine country valley, they are set up for tour buses, not individuals.

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The old wine cellar at the Numisi Winery still had the original amphorae buried in the floor where wine is traditionally aged in Georgia.

At length, we did find two wineries that were very interesting. The Numisi winery in Velistsikhe was located on a dirt side road with no signs outside of any kind. It had an interesting museum of antique wine making equipment. The old winery itself still had the huge amphorae called qvervri buried in the ground where wine was traditionally aged. For $10 each they offered a tour of the museum and a generous sample of their red, rosé and white wines, plus a dangerous chacha brandy, (grappa style), also called “vine vodka” or “grape vodka”, distilled from the seeds and stems. All was accompanied by fresh cheese and bread.

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Nunu, the owner of the Numisi Winery gave us the full tour on a personal level.

We learned that they are apparently known for their Saperavi wine made from an indigenous red grape. Saperavi is Georgia’s most widely planted red wine grape, and is often blended with other grape varieties. The owner, Nunu, a delightful lady herself, gave us the tour and let us peek into the cellar where 10–year old cognac was aging in barrels. Quite content that we had discovered Georgian wine, we camped right in front of the winery that night.

The second winery we visited with the help of the informative Tourist Information Office in Telavi was the Twins Old Cellar Winery. Obviously set up for tour buses, we would have never found it on our own. They had a fabulous museum and exhibits of how their traditional wines were made. Even then, their best dry red they called “The Black One” because of its incredibly dark color, was sold in beautiful ceramic 1-liter bottles, ($25) or a 5-liter plastic jugs, ($35), an unfortunate choice since this type of wine deteriorates quickly once exposed to air.

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These strange looking boards have flint or shale embedded in them. They were used to drag over a plowed field to break up dirt clots. We’ve seen similar version before in Spain and Turkey.

We were fortunate to see the next generation of giant amphorae being prepared and buried in the ground for the unique aging process. Once the special clay amphorae (urns) are fired and aged, they are treated with a lime type cement on the outside and then again heated with fire on the inside. A coat of liquid bees’ wax permanently seals the surface. Buried in the ground, the year’s vintage is sealed and stored for at least one year. These amphorae are cleaned and re-used for generations.

We were told that Russia has banned the importation of Georgian wines, mostly sweet, and wineries are now adapting to more modern vinting processes to produce the dry wines preferred by the European and US markets, but we found few examples that were both good and affordable.

Driving through the Kakheti Valley, we could have been in the Napa, Sonoma or any other valley in California, but clearly, the way to explore the wines of Georgia is with a private guide or by tour bus.

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Ikalto, Georgia 5 – 5/2014

November 15, 2016

Crawling up a 14% grade to the Ikalto Monastery we found a comfortable flat parking area overlooking the upper Kakheti valley, famous for its Georgian wines. Visiting the church and its grounds, it appeared that wine production had been important from a very early time.

After closer inspection we realized that these underground amphorae used to store wine.

After closer inspection we realized that these underground amphorae used to store wine.

The Ikalto monastery near Telavi was founded in the 6th century. It was known as one of the most important cultural-scholastic centers of Georgia. In the 12th century, the Academy of Ikalto trained its students in theology, rhetoric, astronomy, philosophy, geography, geometry, and chanting but also taught more practical skills like pottery making, metal work, pharmacology, viticulture and wine making. In 1616, Persian invaders set the Ikalto Academy on fire and it ceased to exit.

This little doll was waiting for her parents visiting the church. Monika exchanged a photo for a balloon.

This little doll was strolling in the Ikalto mission garden. Monika exchanged a photo for a balloon.

Today, there is an effort to save the ancient church and some stabilization and restoration have taken place but lacking funds still threaten the structure.

We took advantage of a sunny day and did a full maintenance service on The Turtle V, including changing the Amsoil dual by-pass oil filters. One of the unique features of The Turtle V is its built-in 12-gallon oil reservoir. Finding quality oil in developing countries can be a problem.

 

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Monika’s Birthday – October 15, 2016

November 10, 2016
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The sky opened up in time for a pretty sunset at the Point Arena lighthouse.

You may recall that Monika loves birthdays and wants to remember every one of them. She does some strange things like climbing Yosemite’s Half Dome, jumping out of an airplane at 18,000 feet, spending two weeks exploring Cuba or riding a camel in the Altai Gobi Desert in Mongolia. This year she took another adventure off her birthday–bucket list; to stay in a lighthouse. Well in this case not actually in the lighthouse but in the lighthouse keeper’s apartment. With a full kitchen and a cozy fireplace we thought we’d have some great dinners, climb the lighthouse by moonlight and go for a walk. Then the weather changed.

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Along the Point Arena-Stornetta hiking trail, we watched the angry waves crashing into the coast line.

The rain came sideways off the ocean, stinging our faces like little pieces of ice. Our North Face Gore-Tex jackets flapped frantically as another 60-mile-an-hour gust nearly pushed us off the trail we were walking alongside the cliffs of the Pacific Ocean. Twenty-foot monster waves rolled in and built over the submerged rocks, crested in plumes of spray, built again and crashed violently into the helpless escarpments just below us. The water rushed back out to sea, forcing itself into the next set of breakers. What were we doing here in this gale was a question that came to mind, but of course, it was Monika’s birthday.

The horizon of the angry Pacific was shrouded in dense fog. There is actually a huge reef just offshore only 6 feet under the water. Literally hundreds of ships had been trapped and demolished on these rocks. Any survivors, if they could even swim, had little chance of reaching the shore and scaling the vertical cliffs.

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Point Arena Lighthouse, CA

The Point Arena Lighthouse, originally built in 1870 out of necessity and rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, happens to be the tallest on the West Coast of California that is still open to the public (115 ft/41 m). The view from the top was inspiring, even as we watched the storm moving in. The excellent museum next to the lighthouse documents some of the amazing history.

Our picturesque hike along the coast through the Point Arena-Stornetta Unit of the California Coastal National Monument was only 4.5 miles from the lighthouse to the town of Point Arena where we could take refuge out of the wind and rain for a cup of coffee. We could see that the torment was not letting up and the rain was increasing. Our Extreme Gore-Tex North Face jackets and pants were no match, but fortunately, even with the wind, it was a warm Pacific rain. Little creeks we had hopped across on our away to Point Arena were now flooded and muddy trails descending into the ravines were treacherous. By the time we got back to our warm cabin we were completely wet. A note stuck on the door explained that due to the power outage, the moonlight tour of the lighthouse had been canceled.

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No power? No problem. We enjoyed a romantic candle light dinner starting with fresh oysters.

The sky opened just in time for a beautiful sunset. We stood outside with the other guests and found out two of them were also celebrating their birthday! Must be a Libra thing. Still without power, we dined in romantic candlelight on fresh oysters for appetizers, followed by a delicious French cut rack of lamb, a baked potato and vegetables, accompanied with a good bottle of Zinfandel, and a sumptuous chocolate birthday cake, all the while sitting in front of a cozy warm fireplace. It was the perfect meal to end another memorable birthday!

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Sighnaghi, Georgia 4 – 6/2014

October 21, 2016

Escaping Tbilisi without a scratch on The Turtle V, we headed east towards Georgia’s famous wine region. We’re always interested in new foods in each country, so when we spotted some ladies selling fresh bread, we had to check it out.

What a welcome we received from this peanut vendor in Sighnaghi.

What a welcome we received from this peanut vendor in Sighnaghi.

The first one was a baker and she happily showed us, explaining in Russian, how she heated up her insulated round oven with wood and then scraped the coals to the middle and slapped the pieces of dough onto the side. Monika loves interacting with vendors and has a good feel for bargaining or when they mark up the price because we are foreigners. This lady enjoyed our curiosity and gave us her normal asking price. When you don’t speak the language, it’s always easiest to use a calculator.

After we scored our bread she sent us to her friend to buy cheese. There we tried each variety and chose a big chunk of the one we liked best. Now we were ready to find a quiet spot for the night. Turning right on the first dirt road, we came upon a wide valley and discovered the perfect place right next to a vineyard to stay put for a couple of days. We opened our first bottle of good Georgian wine to complement the freshly baked bread and homemade cheese and let the hassle of Tbilisi and the Chinese Embassy drop into the misadventure file.

After the hectic traffic in Tbilisi, we enjoyed a quiet camp in the countryside.

After the hectic traffic in Tbilisi, we enjoyed a quiet camp in the countryside.

Checking our paper map and reading in our Lonely Planet guidebook, we noticed a town called Sighnaghi that was located high above the lower end of the wine valley. It was also marked as a Historic City. Following a narrow tortuous road into the hills, we arrived in Sighnaghi and found a safe spot for the night in a large parking lot just at the beginning of the town.

While the area has been settled since Paleolithic times, it was in 1762 that King Heraclius II of Georgia sponsored the construction of the walled town to defend the area from marauding attacks by Dagestan tribesmen from the northern Caucasus. Sighnaghi is very picturesque with its pastel houses and narrow cobblestone streets overlooking the agricultural and wine region of the vast Alazani Valley with the Caucasus Mountains visible in the distance.

Driving through this old arch would have been a shortcut back to the main highway but after great discussion, Monika decided it was too narrow. I said, “Fold the mirrors in, we only need an inch on each side”

Driving through this old arch would have been a shortcut back to the main highway but after great discussion, Monika decided it was too narrow. I said, “Fold the mirrors in, we only need an inch on each side”

As soon as we parked, a couple of curious boys came around and started asking questions in English. Boys will be boys when they see a big fancy truck. Both seemed quite bright and to our amazement, English was their common language. One lived in Sighnaghi and the other was visiting with his family from Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. In Soviet times, they would have spoken Russian.

In the morning we set out to explore this “City of Love” as it is known because it’s apparently a destination for Georgian honeymooners. People were busy going about their lives, and there was hardly a tourist in sight. We strolled up the cobble stone streets and smiled at some of the features that reminded us of Russia.

We enjoyed the charming narrow streets of Sighnaghi.

We enjoyed the charming narrow streets of Sighnaghi.

At a shady plaza street vendors were selling snacks and displaying their wares. Men were intensely involved with a game of backgammon. Everywhere we were greeted with welcoming smiles. Natural gas seemed to be widely available. Homes had Russian style gas meters connected to overhead gas lines. A station wagon had been converted to LPG. We chatted with friendly ladies sitting at their doorsteps busily knitting and displaying their felted handicrafts. Monika bought a pair of socks from an old lady but no one could convince her to buy a wooly sheepskin hat that had a very distinct smell of the animal it came from. Gary politely got out of buying a felt hat. One of the knitting ladies pointed to a trail leading along the old city fortifications. Climbing to the top of the tower the view of the wine country was beautiful. The wall itself gave us a feeling for the Great Wall of China but that is still many miles ahead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Georgia 3 – 6/2014

October 14, 2016

Certainly one of the more pleasant things about driving into Georgia was that it is a Christian nation. Not that we have anything against the Islamic faith. Some of our good friends are Muslim, but it was nice not to be woken up before sunrise by amplified loudspeakers throughout town calling us to prayer. In fact, driving by villages, there were often one or more church steeples, and as we noted before, the dress of mostly young women was as modern as San Francisco or London.

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The Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta is one of the most important Eastern Orthodox churches, a World Heritage Site.

We learned that Nino, later Sainte Nino, at the age of 14, experienced a vision of the Virgin Mary telling her that her destiny was to convert the Iverians to Christianity. Coming to Iveria, (Eastern Georgia), in the 320s, Nino won a royal convert when her prayers saved Queen Nana from a serious illness. Then, King Mirana was struck blind while hunting, only for his sight to be miraculously restored after he prayed to the Christian God. King Mirana made Christianity Iveria’s official religion in about 327. It was the second nation in Asia to become Christian after Armenia.

We stopped to visit a few religious sites, among them Musket and Bodbe. Being Sunday in Mtskheta, several wedding ceremonies in the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral were happening simultaneously and continuously, giving us an interesting experience of a Georgian Orthodox wedding.

This wedding party appeared in their Chokha, a traditional outfit from the 9th century. It was rarely seen under Soviet rule but now it's a strong show of Georgian national pride.

This wedding party appeared in their Chokha, a traditional outfit from the 9th century. It was rarely seen under Soviet rule but now it’s a strong show of Georgian national pride.

But now it was time to head to Tbilisi to collect our Chinese visa. Getting closer to the capitol also meant that the intensity of Georgian crazy drivers and road conditions multiplied. 

Humps, bumps and potholes were enough to keep our speed to a max 40-mph. Unmarked 5” speed bumps would suddenly appear for no apparent reason and had to be crossed at 2-mph in our truck to avoid breaking something or getting air. Since no one obeys any posted or unposted speed limit, the bumps were somewhat effective. They reminded us of crossing Brazil where the speed bumps are twice as high. If they tried that here, the BMWs would get high centered.

Should we mention parking? Joke! On a 4-lane road, the lane on the right is not a lane. If that fills up, you just double or triple-park wherever you please. Parking on both sides of a narrow side street quickly turns it into a zero-clearance alley unless you’re driving a mini car. Sidewalks were perfect parking areas as long as you could get half your vehicle off the road, and even that was not too important.

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This cafe was located at the Round Garden (Park) in Tbilisi near the UN Headquarters. We parked just around to corner while waiting for the Chinese Embassy to open. A keen eye can spot The Turtle V behind the tree in the distance.

Arriving in the capital city of Tbilisi, the drivers and traffic were nearly humorous. Interchanges were something like a scary ride at an amusement park that had somehow gone wrong. We ended up hiring a taxi to find the Chinese Embassy. It was closed for the three-day long Dragon Boat Festival. After a long two days and two nights parked half on the sidewalk of a side street near the Chinese Embassy, UN Headquarters and the Round Garden, we were informed that they do not issue visas to foreigners unless they are living or working in Georgia. We were shocked. Plan B??

We escaped the madding traffic of Tbilisi with only a couple U-turns and more grey hairs and found a quiet camp in a meadow overlooking a pleasant valley. It was time to take a deep breath.

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