Every time we enter a new country, we ask ourselves what kind of encounters will await us. Our expectations of Georgia are high, as we have only read and heard positive things from other travellers so far. Great people, breathtaking nature — a Caucasian paradise that sees itself more European than Asian. And with those expectations our story begins with Georgia.
Shortly before the city Batumi directly at the Black Sea we travel with the Turkish bus company Ulusoy. We are assured several times that a connecting bus is waiting for us after crossing the border. So we shoulder our heavy backpacks and start walking. After a short confusion, which door is the right one, we find the counter to check out from Turkey. It was a short intermezzo of only eight days. Then we enter no man’s land. We enter a grey corridor — left, right, above — sheet metal walls everywhere, no exit. Agoraphobia spreads. After about one kilometre of narrowness I see the light at the end of the tunnel. After another confusion we find the way to check in to Georgia. The first ATM does not work. Fortunately, the second one does. One man tries to convince Steffen that he broke his phone and another one begs in an annoying way. Why do grey border crossings attract shady figures? By the way, no bus is waiting for us. A Georgian policeman only shrugs his shoulders and says “Welcome to Georgia”. So we jump into a Mashrutka (minibus) — let’s get away from here. Today we still have one destination: The National Park Mtirala. We booked a room in the Green Hotel for three nights.
Black National Park
In Batumi, the warm entertainment paradise at the Black Sea, we buy food for the next days and look for a taxi. It is already late afternoon and buses generally don’t go to the national park. We find a taxi driver who is willing to drive with us the one hour to Chakvistavi. It is already dark and he races in his hybrid car over the highway. As soon as we take the exit, it gets more bumpy and slower. Soon we wind our way up narrow paths between black mountain outlines. It is cloudy and we can only imagine the beautiful nature. No light betrays the beauty of the national park. And then we already see the building: The Green Hotel. It consists of a few rooms next to the national park exhibition and information. I climb up the wooden steps and my foreboding is confirmed: everything is dark. Nobody there. I call and knock on all doors, but nothing moves. A mountain stream roars behind the building. In front of the wooden house there is a car, but no life can be discovered far and wide. After some thinking back and forth we decide to return. The national park remains for us a black memory.
Sweet New Year’s Eve
We ask our taxi driver, who by the way works for the Georgian military and therefore probably drives so well, to drive us to another accommodation. The first thing he thinks of is a luxury resort, over 150 dollars per night. We can only laugh. So we search for two other accommodations via booking.com — unfortunately both are closed. So we let us drive back to Batumi and rent an apartment there. CO2 emitted for nothing for 2 hours! Quite frustrating! But we only wanted peace over New Year’s Eve. We do not move the next day out of the house — our wish didn’t come true!
However, in the evening suddenly our landlady with her daughter stand infront of our door and bring us a huge plate of cake and Georgian wine! Our mood improves rights away! They have sweetened our day and even our first experience with Georgia.
After the black incident we want to give Georgia and its nature another chance. Since it is quite cold here, we think “why rain, if you can have snow”, and aim for the mountains in the northwest. We are so lucky that there is a new couchsurfer. Her name is Salome and she has already confirmed our request. We are allowed to live 3 nights with her and her family. Steffen is still a bit sceptical, because there is little on her profile and we will be the first guests. But nothing ventured, nothing gained. After a night in Zugdidi we plan to go to Chuberi. It is the 2nd of January, an official holiday, and the driver of the Mashrutka (minibus) to Chuberi is probably still has a good night’s rest over his intoxication. We surrender to our bad luck and once again take a taxi. We can see the white mountains from far away and are already looking forward to it. Finally snow! We climb higher and higher and the last seven kilometers we drive over a holey, partly icy and muddy road to Chuberi. With the unfilled couchsurfing profile in our heads, we slither across the ice to Salome’s house. An excited puppy jumps directly at us and we see Salome. We are welcomed so warmly that we immediately feel at home. We are allowed to move into our own room on the first floor. When we return to the warm living room, a Georgian feast awaits us: eggplants stuffed with walnut paste, round flat doughs stuffed with cheese and egg (Chatschapuri), a colourful salad and much more. We get to know the mother and the two sisters of Salome. Slowly the profile fills up in our head. We talk about the village, nearby Abkhazia, the planned dam project, where the father works as a guardian, and the sisters’ life dreams. Salome and Elada have already finished school and plan to study soon. They proudly show us their album with Georgian script in calligraphy. Salome even won a prize for it. Tamara is still learning and she asks us if we would like to see her village school. Of course!
The classrooms are still heated with wood. The floor is a tripping hazard.
The world here in Chuberi.
In the evening we spend the time playing games. Rock Paper Scissors, Hangman, Who am I and Yatzhee are a lot of fun and we have a fabulous time together. From time to time also the puppy Tuzik tries to sneak in. I taught him “sit”, “wait” and “come”. He is 100% playful, but also very intelligent. The family has him actually just as a guard dog, that’s why he is probably underchallenged. And it is cold outside.
The next day we do a long hike through the white winter landscape. Snowball fight of course included.
A dam is constructed for this river just a few hundred metres upstream. The family has mixed feelings about this project.
The robust moutnain cows of Chuberi
The poor jay will serve this man as supper.
Every time we sit down at the small living room table, we are directly presented with food. We have probably gained 3 kg during this time. But the girls are fasting and are eating vegan. Their mother shows me how Chatschapuri is made. The farewell after 3 days is very difficult for us. It was such a warm and colorful time together with the family.
This picture shows us with the two sisters Salome and Tamara, mother, father and Tuzik in front of their house in Chuberi.
Our next stop is Mestia. In a sweet guesthouse we avoid the snow storms and in the snow free times we explore the surroundings. We are a little sad as the trip to the highest village in Europe, Ushguli (also a UNESCO World Heritage Site), which is inhabited all year round, cannot be guaranteed. The snow is simply too high. And also hiking would be difficult, because we would not find the trail. So we spent time with our website and visited the modern museum about the history of Svanetia.
The history museum in Mestia is worth a visit. We learned a lot about the past of this region. Ancient findings from the Stone and Bronze Ages prove the craftsmanship of the inhabitants here. Clay works, wooden chests, jewellery, arrowheads and much more want to be admired.
The Svaneti villages are famous for their stone towers. Every house used to have such a defense tower.
Everywhere in Georgia we find faithful and cuddly companions. We have only met lovely street dogs who are chipped and dewormed in most cases. The only dangerous thing about them is that they follow you every step of your way when you just smile one time at them.
For the time being we have filled up enough on winter landscapes and are on our way to Tbilisi (also: Tbilisi; Tbilissi), the capital of Georgia. It is a 10 hour drive from Mestia.
A mashrutka from the inside. The minibuses are very cheap. For one hour drive you pay about 3 Lari (about 1 Euro). We also read that the trains in Georgia are supposed to be very good, but they are usually slower than the Mashrutkas, but even cheaper.
No matter where you look, in Georgia you see mountains.
In Tbilisi we spent a total of about 2 weeks. Half of the time we stayed in apartments to work on our website. The main reason: we are waiting for our Iran visa. Sightseeing got unfortunately a raw deal during this time. But we were able to get some impressions at least.
Tbilisi used to be on the Silk Road. Many caravanserais are located in the city centre, but they have lost their traditional character and now serve as supermarkets, chic restaurants or fashion shops. The rustic souvenir shopping mile “Meidan Bazari” is located near the Metekhi Bridge. It runs under the street and has a special charm.
The entrance to the Meidan Bazari is marked by these special letterboxes that allude to the Silk Road.
Sometimes we’d eat outside, like here at the Kiwi Vegan Café. We also tested the Hummusbar and Mama Terra Veggie Corner and were satisfied with the vegan food. By the way, the website www.happycow.net. helps to find veggie restaurants all over the world.
Besides the delicious food we also took two books from the book corner with us, among them “Flight from USSR” by Dato Turashvili. This has catapulted us into the Soviet history of Georgia and made some things clearer to us.
If you are not fasting, the Georgian food is very hearty: lots of meat and cheese. Since we eat vegetarian or vegan food during our trip, we cold-shouldered some specialties like khinkhali (meat filled dumplings).
You see colorful shops like these more often in Georgia. The strange sausages are nuts covered with thickened grape juice.
Jumble in the architechture jungle
Architecturally, Tbilisi is a mix of Soviet, Orthodox-religious, modern and traditional buildings.
Courtyards like this one are more common.
Wooden porches and balconies are the hallmark of the old town of Tbilisi.
The Peace Bridge is an example of a modern project in Tbilisi. It crosses the prominent Mtkvari River.
There is a lot of construction and demolition going on. Just like this actually beautiful building. However, safety at work is not playing a big role. And after work, the well-preserved stones are transported home in clunkers and used privately. Unusual SecondHand shopping.
The small craft shops are also unusual.
This repair shop’s full of bits and pieces.
Where togo now? In Tbilisi you can always find your way around thanks to the signs. People are also happy to help you.
The 1,5km long Rustaweli street, which leads into Liberty Square, is supposed to invite you for shopping and strolling. Unfortunately, we don’t like it at all. The four-lane, very busy road was apparently designed only for car traffic and underpasses are rare. However, the government buildings and the opera house catch the eye. It reminds a bit of Ottoman architecture, but is designed by the German Viktor Schröter.
In order to escape the noisy and stinking city, we made a circular walk up to the Mtatsminda-Park and back to the city on one day. In the park there is an amusement park, the colourful TV tower and the not used Ferris wheel. One could also get there by cable car, but the route through the forest offers a good stroll.
When we were not satisfied with these short periods of relaxation, we thankfully accepted the offer of our SERVAS host Mary Ellen and drove with her to her village cottage 40km from Tbilisi. There we had 5 days of rest.
The village idyll and the matching car.
From the book “Flight to USSR”, which tells about the time of the Soviet occupation of Georgia, we learned that people were not allowed to own anything but their own grave. That’s why they used to have a high value and were sometimes even “decorated” with bicycles and cars. Nowadays they are precisely marked out with a fence. “Mine”.
The stone houses have beautiful, individual patterns. It is worth wandering through the villages of Georgia and admiring them.
Since our online status for applying for the Iran visa has still not changed from “Waiting for Acceptance” to “Approved”, we decide to go to the embassy. The gentleman is very unfriendly and just says that we would have an 80⁄20 chance with travel agency and rejects us. We decide to aplly for the visa in Armenia. Nevertheless, we continue to enjoy the time in Georgia.
The Georgians are religious and their Orthodox faith is very important to them. Everywhere we see monasteries and churches. As soon as people see one of these spiritual places, they crucify themselves. In the Mashrutka this already leads to “mass crucifixions” in short distances.
Some believers have a lot to do in monasteries or cathedrals like Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in the former capital Mtskheta. Because they kiss every single picture with Jesus and/or Virgin Mary at least once and nudge it with their forehead. Mtskheta has been around for over 3000 years and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We visited another monastery in Borjomi.
Borjomi is known for its healing mineral water and the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park. It is the oldest of all national parks in Georgia and the best touristically developed national park recommended to us by Maka of the WWF Caucasus. We had an interview with her in Tbilisi and learned a lot. For more than 10 years she has been committed to the protection of ancient sturgeons and the entire Caucasus region. A rather tense work, as the countries are politically no friends. You can read backgrounds here. Before you want to hike in the national park, you have to go to the national park center first. We filled out a piece of paper with our information, got helpful tips for all kinds of activities and were officially allowed to enter the national park.
We find a good weather day and make a small hike. Unfortunately a steep part of the way is very icy. Therefore we decide not to do the two-day hike with overnight stay in a mountain hut.
The view rewards us for the slippery climb.
In Borjomis Central Park we find the oldest hydroelectric power station in Georgia. It is under renovation, as the sign says. However, we cannot see any trace of it.
Hitchhiking is really easy in Georgia. We never had to wait long. My sparse knowledge of Russian was mainly used for communication. The older generation still speaks Russian well. The two young gentlemen even gave us their dog mascot as present.
As the last stop in Georgia before Armenia we look at Akhalsikhe. Here is a (too) renovated castle called Rabati.
Our conclusion about Georgia
After a stumbling start Georgia turned out to be a very cold but very warm country for us. People are very warm and guests are similar to gods according to a proverb. As a fan of history, you find a heaven in Georgia: in the modern museums and the architectural mix, you can almost feel the past. Culturally, Georgia can score with its extraordinary food, language and ornate writing, dances and much more. However, we could only guess the beautiful nature and the Caucasian biodiversity hotspot with its endemic species. These treasures were mostly hidden under a thick layer of snow.