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Friday, October 30, 2015


Our hotel owner/guide Nikoloz decided that our second full day in Georgia would be the best day to go to Kakheti, which is to the east of Tbilisi, because it was supposed to be somewhat less rainy that day than the next.  So we got an earlyish start after another one of Mia's wonderful breakfasts.  When we got ready to leave, we found out that Nikoloz did not have a vehicle large enough for all of us.  He introduced us to his elderly father, Lado, who had brought his car.  We decided to divide along gender lines, with the women in Lado's car, and the guys with Nikoloz.

At some point, soon after we got into the car, I said something to one of my friends.  Lado asked me if I was speaking American English, and I replied that I was.  He said he couldn't understand me at all.  I knew then that I could say whatever I wanted during the drive.  But I also knew we wouldn't be learning much about Georgian history or the places we were visiting from him.

I found out later from the guys that despite Nikoloz's English skills, he wasn't providing much information about the sites, either.  Also, one of his favorite topics of conversation reportedly was going to the bathroom outdoors (!).  So, it seems likely that our language barrier with Lado didn't cause us to miss out on particularly sparkling conversation.

I spent the day seeing sites with little to no context provided, and with rain and fog sometimes obscuring the views, but enjoyed them all the same.  Our first stop was the David Garjeja monastery, which was amazing.

After exploring there, we got back into the car.  We passed a lot of livestock, including pigs.  Pigs are somewhat of a novelty to me while traveling, since I've traveled mostly in the Islamic world.  At one point, we drove through a very impressive flock of sheep, which I desperately tried to photograph while Lado yelled at me not to open the car door.

Next up was the monastery of St. Nino, by which point it was raining quite convincingly.

The next stop was supposed to be a wine tasting, since Kakheti is famous for its wine.  Our group of friends ranged from complete teetotalers to people who really enjoy wine and were very interested in the wine tasting.  I was somewhat neutral.  Under other circumstances, I probably would have been more interested, but (a) it was way past lunchtime, and I didn't particularly want to drink on an empty stomach, and (b) the "free" wine tasting turned out to actually cost 15 lari once we got to the wine museum.  The cost wasn't insurmountable, but on top of all of us already being hungry, it was enough to turn the non-teetotalers against it, much to Nikoloz's consternation.

Fortunately, our next stop was lunch, albeit at an hour much closer to what many of us would think of as dinner.  Wine was available for those who were interested, as well as great quantities of badrijani, a dish I particularly like that's made from eggplant, walnut paste, and often pomegranate seeds.

Unfortunately, the weather had not improved at all, it had gotten much darker outside, and we had a long drive over hilly terrain and roads dotted with potholes.  I've written before about not terribly smooth rides I've taken, often on roads in a bad state of repair with drivers swerving all over the place.  But this ride was the first one in a long time in which I actually felt in danger.  Lado didn't slow down even for potholes filled with water, and I felt the car skidding a number of times.  I finally put on my best obey-me-if-you-want-to-live voice and told Lado to slow down.  He understood me, despite the language barrier, and protested that he was driving slowly.  Fortunately, as we got closer to Tbilisi, the traffic picked up, and he was forced to slow down so as not to crash into other cars.  Rarely have I been so grateful to see traffic.  In fact, I probably would have refused to get into a car with Lado the next day, except that we were going to see parts of Tbilisi and Mtskheta, where I anticipated there being enough traffic to slow him down.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Arrival and Day 1 in Tbilisi

When we were planning our trip to Georgia, we had hoped to get the direct flights from Astana that we heard were available.  Sadly, none of these were available during our fall break, and we had a layover in Almaty.  Almaty is a lovely city, but its airport stresses me out.  This time going through, the major excitement was that the woman who was processing me at passport control abruptly ran out of her booth to help a coworker who was dealing with some young guy who slumped over while being led away.  I never did figure out what was going on there, but I was selfishly concerned at the time because my passport and boarding pass were still inside the booth and out of my reach when she ran off.  Fortunately, she eventually returned to stamp my passport.

The flight from Almaty to Tbilisi was raucous, due in large part to members of a Georgian judo team who were flying with us.  I was glad to get in to Tbilisi and have Nikoloz, the hotel owner and tour guide, waiting for us.

Glad, that is, until we got to the hotel.  One of our friends with whom we traveled had booked an apartment with three bedrooms and two bathrooms.  I think we were all picturing three bedrooms of roughly equal size, where each couple could sleep comfortably.  I, at least, was also picturing two bathrooms that were both equipped with showers, so that six adults could realistically not have to spend all morning cycling in and out of one shower.  What we found was two relatively normal bedrooms....and one room only barely large enough for the broken pull-out sofa it contained.  Also, only one of the two bathrooms contained a shower.  But, it wasn't a total loss because featured prominently in the living room was a liquor cabinet with lights that changed color!  Too bad I'm neither a big drinker nor a twenty one year old partier with a large decorating budget.

Only four of us arrived that night:  our other two friends were due to join us the next day.  Scott and I took one real bedroom, and the other couple who was with us took the other one.  We figured there was no point in anyone sleeping on the broken sofa bed until absolutely necessary and that we could figure out what to do the next day.

The next morning, we decided we would ask nicely for a second room to put our friends in.  Nikoloz's mother, Mia, who was decidedly the bright spot of the entire operation actually beat us to suggesting that.  She also served us a very tasty Georgian breakfast.  We had had a bean dish called lobio many times at the Georgian restaurant in Astana.  She served us lobiani, which was a pastry filled with lobio.  She also served some sort of soup, pickled vegetables, and tea with local honey.  Optimism restored, we went forth to explore Tbilisi.

It took us a little while to get our bearings, and it started raining in the afternoon, but we did see some interesting things.

I'm always interested to see how American logos are adapted for other alphabets.

They had a variety of donut that for some reason, I never see in the US.  I can't imagine why not...

A street stall with candy made of strings of nuts dipped in a grape juice syrup, spices, vodka, and honey

A cool alley and a big, beautiful tree!  Living in Astana has made me appreciate big trees.

A lovely church with more trees

An inspirational message spray painted on a wall

A synagogue!

The Peace Bridge

When we ate dinner out that night, we had a Spanish-speaking waiter!  It turned out that he had lived for several years in Valencia.  I felt that my Spanish was embarrassingly rusty, but it did get the job done.  The next day, we were scheduled to take a tour of Kakheti, and we all were looking forward to that.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Georgia And Its Furry Friends

Scott and I just got back yesterday morning from a fall break trip to Tbilisi, Georgia with four of our friends from here.  Our interest in Georgia was sparked by the fact that one of our favorite restaurants in Astana is Georgian--I can't believe I had never tried Georgian food before coming out here.  It also proved to be not too long of a trip and a relatively affordable destination from Kazakhstan.

I'll probably write several posts about the trip, but in a nutshell, it was a beautiful country, and we loved the food.  We weren't entirely lucky with either the weather or our guesthouse owner/tour operator, but we had a good time in spite of both.

As often happens when I travel, I saw lots of animals I wished I could adopt and take home with me.  I photographed a good number of them, and today's post is dedicated to them.

Proof that cats are largely the same everywhere.
Okay, the snail isn't a furry friend per se, and I was happy to leave it behind in Georgia, but it was still pretty cool.

I'm a fairly dedicated cat person, but I liked this dog, who peacefully followed us for a while in Mtskheta.

Acrobatic Cat #1

Acrobatic Cat #2

This little cat was my favorite in all of Georgia.  We took a break to sit on some benches while walking to the Narikala fortress on the last day.  I assumed when this cat came over to us that it was looking for food, but it eventually got in my lap, curled up, and started purring.  This was great, but as anyone who has ever had a cat in their lap knows, they can be quite resistant to leaving and they often dig their claws into your legs for leverage when they do finally jump down.  This kitty was indeed resistant to leaving my lap, but eventually left without clawing me at all.  I was so tempted to bring this cat home with me, but couldn't see how to work out the logistics, especially with just a few hours to go until heading to the airport.

This cat found us later on in the walk.  It seemed very interested in me, which made us wonder if it could smell the cat who was sitting on my lap earlier.  I decided not to press my lucky by letting yet another stray cat sit on me.

This concludes the tour of Georgia's animals.  Stay tuned for more posts about sites, and all that other stuff the guidebooks tell us about!

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Water Machine

We try to avoid drinking the tap water in Kazakhstan.

We actually never received any sort of "official" guidance on the water.  But since our employer put hot/cold water dispensers in all of the offices and provides large bottles of water for them, I'm led to believe that everyone--locals and foreigners alike--is concerned about the quality of the tap water.

Since we never received any official guidance, we don't know with any certainty what the problems are with the water.  Some people have told us it's heavy metals people are worried about, but we don't know where they may have heard that.  Everybody seems to have their own system for dealing with this.  I usually use tap water for cooking pasta, since I throw out so much of the water anyway, but bottled water for cooking anything else.  I figure I'm probably getting some cooked tap water when I eat in the cafeteria or in restaurants, anyway.

I've lived in a lot of places where at least some of the people avoid drinking tap water, but this is the first place I've seen a machine like this.

You pay 10 tenge per liter (Kazakhstan's tenge is floating but today that is worth about 4 cents).  So you can fill any size of container that will fit under the spout.  I usually just fill 5 liter containers because they're big enough to last a while, but small enough that I can still carry two or three of them.

The first time I used this machine, I spent some time trying to decipher the Russian directions.  Then I realized there were also English directions.  Oops.  Aside from my lack of attention to linguistic detail, it's pretty user-friendly.  The water splashes a bit,'s just water.  Also, the machine inexplicably rejects some coins.  It's not a matter of denomination, so I wonder if it's a matter of older and newer versions of the same denomination of coin being slightly different in some way that the machine can discern but I can't.

I look forward to the day when I no longer have to worry about the tap water.  But this machine is an okay way to get at least some of of our bottled water.  And as a bonus, it is keeping our supply of small coins under control.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Clothing Conundrum

Today we went out to lunch with a couple of friends.  We were planning to go on a walk in the park afterwards, but when we walked out of the restaurant, it was raining very lightly...with very heavy winds.  So we walked ourselves over to the nearest mall for some coffee and highly caloric coffee shop desserts.  That was almost as healthy of an option, right?

As the cold and the winds start to set in in Astana, I've been thinking a lot about clothing and how to dress around here.  Before we came out here, I thought I had it all figured out:  The warmer, the better, no exceptions.  After all, I had read that Astana is the second coldest capital city in the world.

But here was the problem I didn't anticipate:  The weather is certainly very cold outside in the winter (as well as large swaths of the fall and spring), but the temperatures inside, at least where we live and work, are almost always suffocatingly hot.  Scott and I spent a good number of weekend days last winter wearing shorts and t-shirts inside our apartment, with the window open.  And if anything, I tend to be more sensitive to the cold than the heat.  In past workplaces, I always kept a sweater on hand.  (On a related note, did anyone else read about how office thermostats are often set with men in mind?)

So, with that in mind, here are the lessons I learned last year about what types of clothing are useful--and what types are not--for this most fascinating climatic situation.

Useful:  Silk long johns.  Some days are cold enough that I, at least, need extra layers for my legs.  Silk provides extra warmth while outdoors, without still feeling cool to the touch indoors.

Not useful:  Synthetic long johns.  Way too warm indoors.  Ugh.

Useful:  Jackets or sweaters than can be layered under a winter coat, but are not an integral part of an outfit.  Layering is key some days to survive the short walk to work.  But it's good to be able to peel off a lot of those layers once you're in the office.

Not useful:  Heavy blazers or cardigans that are meant to "dress up" an outfit, and therefore be worn all day.  I was so proud of myself when I found a wool sweater blazer on sale, too!

On a related note, lighter weight tops that are reputable enough looking on their own to not need a blazer on top are extremely useful.

Useful:  Pants with enough room to layer long johns underneath if need be.

Not useful:  Flannel-lined jeans.  These are probably useful to winter sports enthusiasts, but they are way too hot indoors.

Useful:  Work-out shorts.  I have never worked out in such a hot gym in my life.

Not useful:  Work-out pants.  This is assuming, of course, that you don't have to go outside to access your gym.

Useful:  Really warm winter boots.

Not useful:  Very thick socks to wear with them.  Admittedly, this will depend a lot on your boots.  I bought myself a new pair of snow boots before coming out here, having had the same pair since college.  My new snow boots are down-filled, and amazingly, were warm enough to wear all winter with just tights or trouser socks underneath.  This is fine, since all of my super thick socks also date from college, so (a) I didn't spend money on them recently, (b) they're getting pretty floppy and not much fun to wear, and (c) it's easier to just change shoes at the office without also having to change socks.

Useful:  A heavy duty hat that can't be blown off your head.  I wasn't really sure what to do about hats before coming out here, but it quickly became clear that the hats I had brought out here were woefully insufficient.  I ordered a down-filled hat with earflaps that fastens under my chin.  It won't win any points for style, but it was a game changer in terms of my winter comfort.

Useful:  A long coat with room to layer underneath.  I'm not going to try to weigh in on which brands are best, but I think in this sort of climate, you do want something that covers a wide swath of your legs.

Useful:  A balaclava or scarf you can wrap around your nose and mouth.  Alas.

Useful:  Heavy gloves or mittens.  This probably goes without saying, but thin fleece gloves often won't cut it.

Useful:  Yaktrax.  They were a little bit of a nuisance, but I didn't fall once last winter!

Wishing everyone moderate, pleasant climates that don't require any clothing analysis!