The Midnight Train to Georgia

5 Jan

Here is the final Mystery Trip installment!
A guest blog by Patrick

We frantically wrapped up our time in Yerevan and rushed to the train station, picking up our ailing ‘Surprise’ on the way. While Sammi sorted out our tickets and scouted to ensure a mysterious train boarding, Colleen suggested we try to find some water.

Patrick: “Let’s stay here. We don’t know what time the train is leaving so Sammi might need us to board in a hurry. Plus, there’s definitely going to be water to buy later.” #famouslastwords

‘I Planned This’ led us to our own luxurious cabin, complete with four bunks and light switches that worked. I did a little exploring and our water prospects all of the sudden looked dire. Every train ride I’ve ever been on has been inundated with water purchasing options, usually to the point of being hassled. Not this one. I confirmed that we had 17 minutes until the train was actually leaving and rushed off in search for water. I was directed to the subway station underground, where I found balloons and flowers for purchase. They weren’t water balloons, so I rushed back to make sure I made the train. Colleen was worried that I wouldn’t make it back in time, but Sammi ASSURED her that I would never miss the train. “You haven’t traveled with Patrick like I have…”

I made it back with 13 minutes to spare.

We set off and immediately settled into an awesome adventure. We worked on the Fun-tivity packet (collectively as a group we’ve been to 63 countries!), talked about life, and watched Sammi force cuddles on Helen.

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“Come like me!”

We were able to obtain on bottle of water from a guy who worked on the train, and quickly downed most of it like we had been wandering in the Sahara for the past two weeks. Why were we so thirsty?!?

Colleen looked out the window and made the most fantastic comment that summed up the experience, then failed repeatedly to recreate it on camera. We all decided to help out:

 

We eventually decided to try to get some sleep, which was only mildly inhibited by the constant banging sounds, erratic jostling, inconsistent temperature, and snoring Armenians. Oh yeah, did I mention that we were all DYING OF THIRST? “There’s definitely going to be water to buy later.”

We were awakened when the train ground to a halt around 3:00am and the fluorescent lights in our cabin were slammed on. We handed over our passports to Armenian border agents, who stamped them (see how that works, Transnistria?) and sent us on our way.

We pulled forward for a few minutes and then were stopped as we tried to enter our final mystery country. Once again, we handed over our passports, but this time we waited over an hour for them to be returned. When they were, we had a bright shiny stamp welcoming us to GEORGIA!

Sure, we had guessed that this was where we were headed, but it until it became official, we couldn’t fully embrace this!

 

We managed a few hours of sleep before arriving in Tbilisi (say that 6 times fast!), where we were hit with an onslaught of bad news.

  1. Sammi’s notebook was missing. It wasn’t on the train. If you know Sammi, you know that her notebook du jour is priceless, especially when she’s wearing the ‘I Planned This’ hat.
  2. Our flight from Kiev to New York was cancelled, meaning we had to reschedule our trip home.

We quickly scanned Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and decided we needed to find an establishment with 1) Water, 2) Wifi, 3) An outlet to charge our phones, 4) Food, and 5) Honey-flavored vodka.

We went to work rehydrating, eating, booking new flights (THANK YOU IRA!!!), sending out an SOS for Sammi’s journal, learning about Georgia, and formulating a plan. In the midst of our planning we were sent over a bottle of (you guessed it!) honey-flavored vodka by a table of drunk guys (it was 9 in the morning, mind you). We had just read that it was extremely impolite to refuse a drink in Georgia, so we choked down enough to not feel bad.

We decided to prioritize trying to get a refund for tickets on Georgian Airways that had been cancelled on Sammi, and after much confusion we located a ticket office that could sort out Sammi’s money. Then we caught a bus to the taxi stand for Stepantsminda. After some hood-of-the-car negotiations with a taxi driver, we piled into a black sedan with the steering wheel on the wrong side and set out into the mountains.

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“Good tires. Good tires.”

 

Our first stop was Ananuri, where we toured an ancient fortress which contained two churches. The castle was perched on top of a cliff overlooking a gorgeous valley, and one church contained a beautiful fresco depicting heaven, hell, and earth.

 

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Sammi: “I think we should buy something.” #somethingequalssnacks

 

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Contemplating eternal damnation while simultaneously thinking about which snacks to buy.

 

While we were there we bought some snacks. And by snacks we mean super hard dried fruit-rollup type things and nuts dipped in melted fruit. Who knew that kiwis grow in Georgia?

We hopped back in the car and were on our way to Gudauri, a ski resort with a gorgeous mural depicting the history of Georgia. Thank god we had the selfie stick!

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Oh! My! Gud(auri)!

 

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She planned this.

 

We climbed through a snowy mountain pass and descended into Stepantsminda, a cute village 10km from the Russian border. We saw a huge line of trucks waiting to climb the pass on the other side, and learned later that the pass had been closed for days due to snow. Finally, we got lucky!

 

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In the end, this is where Sammi brought us on the Mystery Trip. Surprise!

After checking into our adorable little guest house, we bundled up and headed out in search of dinner. It was freezing!!! Like bone-chilling cold. Thank god Sammi instructed us to wear layers onto the plane! We found some authentic Georgian cuisine and sampled it all.

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“What’s that?” “I don’t know.” “Is that yours?” “I guess. I’m not sure.” “Ok, well can I try some?” “I think that was mine.”

 

We all got some much needed rest (we were still recovering from The Midnight Train to Georgia) and woke up for our final day rearing to climb a mountain. On Ira’s recommendation (THANK YOU IRA!!), we slipped and slid over to a ridiculous luxury hotel for breakfast and gorgeous views.

 

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Breakfast with people who are either rich because they are beautiful or beautiful because they are rich.

 

Our plan of attack for our final day was to hike to a 14th century monastery precariously located on top of a hill overlooking town. The hike looked ominous from our current position next to the buffet, but we eventually got sick of delicious pastries and decided to take some selfies. Thank god we had the selfie stick!

 

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Try number 47.

 

Helen decided to hang out with the other beautiful people on account of having the boots with the least traction in the world, so Colleen, Sammi, and I set out on our adventure. We had a gorgeous hike filled with discussions about Rick Steves, future career prospects, people we’d like to reconnect with, and encounters with cows.

We wound our way through pine trees and up the mountain, taking in incredible mountain views and basking in the sunshine. The photos don’t really do it justice. As we reached the top we emerged from the trees onto a vast plateau with howling winds and tons of snow. The last half a mile was incredible as we approached the monastery.

 

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Text from Sammi on December 12: “I don’t think we’ll need snow shoes. But if we do, at least we all won’t have them together. #solidarity”

 

The monastery was amazing, and the views of the town and surrounding mountains were phenomenal. We soaked them in and took photos before realizing we were WAY behind schedule.

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Sammi, Colleen, and Helen. (Helen is just hard to see because she’s sitting in the hotel inside the deformed heart.)

 

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Peace Corps Jamaica in Georgia….pop pop pop!

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Not a bad way to end the Mystery Trip!

We quickly hiked/slid down the mountain and met Helen in time to catch the 3:30 bus back to Tbilisi. The bus ride scored mixed reviews. At first Helen and I were terrified to have a view over the driver’s shoulder as he passed on hairpin turns and slammed in and out of traffic. But then we realized he was making the holy cross regularly, and our minds were put to ease. The erratic driving was not appreciated in the back of the bus; both Sammi and Colleen were so nauseous when we arrived in Tbilisi that Helen and I pretended we didn’t have a great ride.

We found a restaurant with wifi and ate khinkali without dripping any juice on our plate (shout out to Davit!). We booked a hotel near the airport and were enjoying the rest of our meal until four men walked onto a stage at the front of the restaurant and started karaoke hour. The volume was set at 11 out of 10; the restaurant cleared rapidly.

We caught a taxi to the airport and arrived at our guesthouse to find no one up but an Armenian family with two little boys that would not stop moving. Their mom was kind enough to engage in an epic game of ‘Google Translate Conversation’, which eventually resulted in us contacting the lady who ran the guest house and sorting out a place to sleep.

We busied ourselves preparing for our return to America. Sammi had Helen choose from the coins she had been carrying around for her, and then promptly threw the rest of the money away. Helen stuffed her bag with the things Sammi didn’t want to keep with her, and Colleen packed her curling iron. We calculated the final cost of the trip (WE CAME IN UNDER BUDGET!) and eventually got some sleep.

We woke up at 4:15am and headed to the airport for a full day of traveling back to the good old United States of America! For the first time in over two weeks, we knew where we were going.

In the end, the Mystery Trip was an absolutely wonderful adventure in a fascinating part of the world. We experienced more in 16 days than many people do in a year, and it was all planned with such care and intention that it was impossible not to have a brilliant time. We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to these two ladies, Sammi and Iryna, for their endless hours in front of a computer making sure that we had the time of our lives. I mean it when I say that I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather have wearing the ‘I Planned It’ and ‘Welcome Party’ hats. Dyakuyu!

 

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“PLEASE HELP US!!!”

One Response to “The Midnight Train to Georgia”

  1. deekerson April 17, 2018 at 5:09 pm #

    Even while reading this it was a mystery of where you would take me next. Glad I made it home. You all, too.

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