There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..



Sunday, 24 August 2014

South to Ajara: Part 14 of from the Caspian to the Black Sea

Alex had covered his car in dust and mud on the dirt road from Ushguli but in the morning, just as we expected, the black BMW was gleaming again.

One of the twin peaks of Mt Ushba
At 4,710m (15,450ft) it is by no means the highest mountain in Georgia, but mountaineers consider it the most challenging
We said ‘goodbye’ to Mestia and the Upper Svaneti, leaving by the same road as we had arrived - there is no other way. Descending the Inguri valley we made several stops to photograph mountains, the river and ourselves. By mid-morning we were back at Zugdidi and turned westward across the Kolkheti plain towards Poti, Georgia's main port on the Black Sea coast.

The River Inguri rushes south from the mountains
The River Rioni reaches the sea here and we crossed it on the outskirts of the town and headed south down the coast. If Jason and the Argonauts went to Kutaisi, the capital of Colchis, in their search for the Golden Fleece, then this was where they left the Black Sea and rowed up the river. There are, as we would soon discover, other sites connected with this story and other contenders for 'where it actually happened' if a myth can be said to have 'actually happened’ anywhere.
 
We head south in a more leisurely way
We soon entered the Autonomous Republic of Ajara (or, occasionally, Adjara). The province in the south western corner of Georgia, was taken from the Ottomans by the Russian Empire in 1878. In the aftermath of the First World War, with Russia in the grip of civil war, Ajara was jointly occupied by Turkish and British troops. In 1920 it was ceded to the briefly independent Georgia under a treaty guaranteeing special autonomy for Ajara as a largely Muslim province within Christian Georgia. Although the Soviet Union was equally hostile to Islam and Christianity, the Ajar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic maintained its semi independence when Georgia became part of the USSR in 1921.
 
Our journey between the seas

We passed through Kobuleti, an out and out seaside resort, with the only sandy beach south of Poti. This is a holiday coast, but most of the best resorts, Dinara told us sadly, were in Abkhazia which is de facto an independent state though to Georgian eyes (and in international law) it is a Russian occupied province of Georgia. We saw holidaymakers' cars registered in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey and, most frequently, Russia. The Russians were particularly plentiful this year as they were forsaking their usual haunts in Crimea for the political stability of Georgia - ironic considering how hard Russia worked to destabilize both Crimea and Abkhazia.
Ajara is in Georgia's south west corner, Abkhazia in the north west
When Georgia regained independence in 1991 Aslan Abashidze, the authoritarian leader of Ajara, kept the region out of the ensuing chaos, ruling with little regard for the Tbilisi government. After the 2003 Rose Revolution central government tried to reassert its authority and for a time it looked like there might be an armed confrontation. Popular demonstrations in Ajara against Abashidze led to his resignation and to Ajara, unlike South Ossetia and Abkhazia, becoming fully and unequivocally part of Georgia. The region retained its special autonomous status, originally negotiated when it was the only Muslim majority region of Georgia, even though today 70% of Ajarians are Christians.

We stopped for lunch south of Kobuleti. Spicy sausages turned out to be less spicy than promised and consisted largely of tripe and fat. We did not feel the need try them again. A cold beer, though, was very welcome on a hot and increasingly sultry afternoon.

A little further south, within sight of Batumi, the Ajarian capital, we stopped at the Botanical Gardens.

The city of Batumi from the Botanical Gardens
Founded by a Russian in 1912, the gardens were expanded under the Soviet Union and became a centre of study of Caucasian maritime subtropical flora. The 108 hectare site is now home to plants from all over the world.

We arrived at the main gate amid what seemed to be a chaotic scrum of cars. The cause was apparently a wedding party and the parking attendant advised us to drive to the back entrance. By the time we had walked through the park, he said, the jam would have eased and Alex could pick us up at the front.

Getting to the back entrance was not as easy as it sounded. Directed to take the next right off the main road, Alex turned onto a track which petered out among dense vegetation. He was not amused, and he extricated himself with much muttering under the breath; the next right took us to the entrance.
 
Batumi Botanical Gardens

I am not, by and large, a great fan of botanical gardens (update: except the Peradeniya Gardens in Sri Lanka which are magnificent) and although I like colourful flowers, I cannot claim to be much interested in plants. Sadly, for me anyway, large parts of the Batumi gardens are in fact an arboretum. The trees were well labelled, but the Latin names meant little to me and although they said where they came from, it was not much help. In the absence of something distinctive, like banyans or the huge kapoks of the Cambodian forest, one area of woodland looks much like another.
 
Batumi Botanical Gardens

I was more interested in the snake working is way along the side of the road. I have tentatively identified it as a Dice Snake; they are apparently widespread across Europe and beyond, but were unfamiliar to me. I was standing close to it and wearing sandals, so I was retrospectively relieved to read that it is harmless.

Dice Snake, Batumi Botanical Gardens
 The Botanical gardens were not entirely without their flowers, though.

Batumi Botanical Gardens
The back entrance was near a cliff top and our walk was all downhill to the main entrance. We continued past the entrance to a small station on a single track railway line and then onto the shingle beach beyond. We had started at the Caspian Sea and had now reached the Black Sea, which may not be black, but is a lot blacker than the Red Sea is red.

 
Railway station, Batumi Botanical Garden
We had immersed our hands in the smelly, polluted Caspian at Baku, so this was clearly the moment to remove shoes and march into the Black Sea. It was warm and pleasant but despite the apparently calm there was a strong undertow.

Standing in the Black Sea, Batumi Botanical Gardens
Our day had started among high mountains and now, only a few hours later we were at sea level, my feet were even a short distance below. Georgia is a small country, but the variety of scenery that can be seen in a single day is truly remarkable.

Lynne completes her journey to the Black Sea from the Caspian Sea
I finished my paddle, we found Alex at the now quiet main entrance and he drove us into Batumi.

Batumi is a port, a seaside resort and the capital city of Ajara, its 150,000 residents representing almost half the population of the autonomous republic. It is a hot and humid place – Abkhazia has not just the best beaches, but the pleasantest climate, too.

Away from the front Batumi does not feel like a holiday town; it does not feel like a Georgian town either - Turkey is less than 10km to the south and there is some inevitable influence.

Batumi
Driving to our hotel we passed many large umbrellas set up outside shops – that boded well for eating and drinking we thought. We checked-in, had a shower to wash off the hot and sweaty day and headed out towards the umbrellas expecting restaurants and café/bars but all we found were take-away joints flogging donner kebabs and barbecued sweet corn. After a longish walk towards the seafront we found a café with a line of tables stretched out beside the road. We sat down and a waitress appeared bearing an English language menu – how did she know, we wondered, and not for the first time.

The fare on offer was neither particularly Georgian, nor particularly interesting, but after so many Georgian feasts perhaps it was time for an omelette and chips. I thought I ordered a litre of the usual ‘homemade’ brown white wine, but what turned up was a  carafe of very clear, very bright very white ‘European style’ wine. Perhaps I pointed at the wrong line in the menu, perhaps something was lost in translation, perhaps they thought it best to give foreigners what they were used to or just possibly they took advantage of our assumed ability to afford a wine three times the price of the basic plonk. Whatever the reason, I have to admit it made a pleasant change.

From the Caspian to the Black Sea

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