Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Walking in the footsteps of dinosaurs - Kutaisi, Georgia

Kutaisi is Georgia's second city. Second cities are usually second for a reason beyond population size and administrative buildings, so I wasn't holding out for anything particularly exciting. I was wrong. Our stay in Kutaisi was very enjoyable, giving us more insight into Georgia and Georgians, as well as having a couple of great days out.

It immediately won us over when we found a couple of good cafes. As I people watched in a particularly cosy cafe I saw a very respectable mother and daughter take a seat. The girl was a about 9 or 10 years old and I watched them as they ordered lunch. A few moments later I looked up and was shocked to see that not only was the woman drinking a bottle of beer but so was the little girl. Not a taste from her mother's drink but an entire bottle to herself. I could only image the conversation when ordering, "what will you have to drink, darling? A coke or milkshake maybe?" "Actually I'll have a beer with my ice cream thanks mum."

In the same cafe we chatted to a British guy and an American girl both working on a Teaching English in Georgia scheme in a local school. They spoke of the different work ethic they had experienced. All they had to do was to turn up for work to be thought of as a conscientious worker. Many of their Georgian colleagues often didn't.

We were staying with Giorgi at his homestay on the hill overlooking the small town. The house was spacious with fruit trees growing in the garden. On his mantelpiece I spotted a compliments slip from a coffee company. I did a double take, realising that I knew the person who had written the note. Our London-based, exclusive coffee company employee friend, Guy, had visited Georgi a few years previously. It was nice to send Guy an email to say that Georgi had got his coffee. Georgi suggested that evening that we spent the following day at Sataplia.

The following morning, after a frustrating hour and a half trying to find the right marshrutka to Sataplia - no one could give us any information about where it left from and at what time but we eventually made it out to the Sataplia State Reserve, 7 km from the town centre. Initial annoyance soon subsided as we were taken to the first attraction; the dinosaur footprints. The guide claimed that this was the only place in the world where two different species of dinosaur footprints had been found; one a herbivore and the other it's predator. The footprints are not as large as I was expecting, just bigger than hand-sized, but they were extensive, showing a trail of prints where the creatures had scampered about on the muddy ground. This ground, over time, had turned to rock and preserved the prints with incredible definition.

Next the guide took us along a walkway to a steel door in the side of the cliff. After tapping a code into the key pad the door slowly opened. It felt as it we were entering a baddies lair, but actually it was the Sataplia cave attraction. Tasteful lighting lit up the stalactites and stalagmites in sequence as we followed the walkway. It eventually led us to The Heart. This was not only at the heart of the cave system but it was also a huge stalagmite grown in the shape of a heart. Not a heart draw on playing cards but a human heart.

The final attraction at Sataplia was the glass walkway. Not really comparable in scale to the one over the Grand Canyon but the same concept. The walkway had been constructed over a vegetated cliff looking out towards Kutaisi. I have to admit finding it a little disconcerting stepping out on to the glass. The Georgian/Russian couple with us were also cautious but the woman soon overcame any fear. Her Georgian husband, on the other hand, managed only a few steps on the platform, whilst clinging to the side, before scuttling back to safety. This had us all in fits of laughter which he took graciously.

So, for only $3 we had had a great day out. If Georgia can produce quality tourist attractions like Sataplia, instead of overpriced Stalin Museums, it may well become a mainstream tourist destination.

Back in Kutaisi we met up with Mary in our favourite cafe. Having grown up in Kutaisi she gave us some interesting insight. Of particular interest was that the incumbent President, Saakashvili, who was at the end of his term and could not be re-elected, was currently building a new Parliament building in Kutaisi, with plans to relocate the government there. The official line is that it will create job opportunities in Georgia's second city. Sceptics believe is to distance the government from from the prime minister as Saakashvili lines himself up to 'do a Putin' (become Prime Minister for a term when the Constitution does not allow for another term as President). Ironic really as no one despises Putin as publicly as Saakashvili. But our discussion with Mary wasn't all negative, she spoke of Georgia's transformation in the last couple of years from a corrupt state, where corruption was encountered by citizens on a daily basis, to its almost overnight eradication. We topped off our stay in Kutaisi with a few beers in new microbrewery next to the river.

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