A very friendly welcome set the tone for my time in Georgia. The warmth of the people and beauty of the country filled me with joy. In my last post I wrote that crossing into Turkey was the easiest border I imagined I’d make. Crossing the border into Georgia was so sweet: quick, simple and welcoming. They loved my British passport and there were no fees attached. Thank you Turkey and hello Georgia!
Batumi, the first town after the border, was bustling with people and traffic. Here there’s a different set of rules for the highways. Cars were all over the place and squeezed down non-existent central lanes – it was safe though: they had their hazard lights on!
Driving up the Chorokhi valley was glorious. The river was a geographers dream with oxbow lakes forming and dramatic rock formations aplenty. The seated locals took people-watching to a whole new level. Perched next to the quiet road, without a building or town in sight, they had nothing to sell. All they had was the road and its travellers infrequently crossing their path.
Finally in my travels, I was beginning to get a little more remote. My destination was the town of Akhaltsikhe and to get there I had to cross the Goderdzi pass. I hadn’t known it when I planned the route but to get Pico up and over was a feat in itself.
At nearly all points, I headed higher and higher. If I thought the roads in Ukraine were a challenging game to drive, I found a secret level hidden in Georgia. Learning from my Ukrainian mistake, I took things slowly and at many points, I drove at just a few kilometres an hour. There was slippery mud to navigate, mini declines a Land Rover would have thought twice about and all the while, an incredible view. The landscape was genuinely remarkable – beyond spectacular.
Ahead I could see snow-tipped peaks and behind I had a twisting valley. The narrow lanes, through seemingly impossibly high villages, bought smiles and confused looks from many. To be fair, the mountain climb was probably the most populated remote countryside I’ve ever been too. At every point I could see some kind of civilisation existed whether it was a township I passed through or a hut nestled in the distance. The majority of the Georgian population still living in their countryside – this was a testament to their enduring relationship with the natural world.
At 2,025 metres high, the Goderdzi pass was certainly the closest I’d been to God in a while. I’d given a local a ride to the top and up there we found a small settlement prepping for winter. Snow was all around us but what was more impressive was the two cyclists we found cresting the summit as we arrived. Unbelievable scenes!
We all stopped for lunch in the village’s only restaurant currently. I say currently because the area is being developed into a ski resort. So far they have two lifts and a good reputation for off piste snowing – something to look out for in the future. Our nameless lunch consisted of a cheesy scrambled eggs concoction served by a smiling lady. It was utterly delectable and she is set to make a killing serving such food when the slopes open. For the cyclists, the warm food couldn’t have been better and they found a cabin to sleep in that night. For me, it was down the other side to Akhaltsikhe.
The road wasn’t fantastic coming down but at least sections were paved. On my way, I gave a lift to a Georgian woman carrying a sack of berries and a short lift to a nice Belarusian lad who wasn’t having any luck hitchhiking over the pass. I dropped him off in Akhaltsikhe to continue his journey by a different route and I set off for my guesthouse accommodation for the evening.
Arrival at the guesthouse bought wine. I have never entered anywhere and so swiftly been rushed to a table to eat and drink. Before I’d even clocked where I was in the Olimpo Guest House I was out the back, sat round a table and being plied with home cooked food and wine.
It turns out that they’d harvested the grapes that day and were celebrating by drinking last year’s vintage. The Georgians are becoming increasingly known for their wines and this stuff was pretty good. The one tradition they share that I can’t see being exported is that once a glass is started, it must be finished. This is certainly not conducive to sobriety and the entire family plus guests were rosy cheeked and drunkenly jovial. I felt like part of the family and garnered many ooo’s and ahhh’s as I told them of my journey via one English-speaking uncle.
Then as fast as it had started, the party stopped: having moved my bag into my room I came back to everyone leaving. In the space of an hour I’d downed 4 large glasses of wine. It was 8pm: this wasn’t right!
Moments later we’d all said goodbye and I was left to my own devices in the spacious annexed flat above the grapevines. The wine was rapidly catching up with me – time for an early night. I’d definitely recommend this guesthouse for their hospitality!
Pico parked under the harvested grapevines at the Olimpo Guest House
The morning bought an early start: I had a destination in mind on my way to Armenia. Vardzia is a magnificent stone cave monastery started in the 12th century. However, driving up the Kura river valley it sits in was a journey I’d rather forget. I felt pretty rough to be honest. Reaching Vardzia was only just enough to rescue me.
Looking over Vardzia and the Kura river valley
Hiding from daylight in a cave
The monastery is epic in scale and ruggedness. It’s almost 500 metres long and has 19 tiers of caves excavated from the Erusheti mountain slopes. To think that people have inhabited it for hundreds and hundreds of years gives you a strong sense of how ancient this part of the world really is. The simplicity of the stone caves was beautiful – however, I doubt whether life inside them was any more simple than today.
Not feeling so shapely in Vardzia
I took the option of the handheld-guided tour and although it was a bit all over the place, it did reveal some lovely facts and information about this source of national pride. Entry was 3 Lari (~ £1) and the self-guide cost 10 Lari (~ £3) - you had to leave some form of ID as a deposit.
Truth be told, I was somewhere distracted the whole way round. I still wasn’t feeling great and was aware of the reasonable drive I’d got planned to Yerevan, the Armenian capital. I enjoyed walking through the stone caves, the carved corridors and gazing out from the cliffside platforms but my heart wasn’t really in it that day. A freshly squeezed pomegranate juice at the bottom only served to provide me just enough energy to continue the drive onwards.
The drive to the Armenian border was ok – about as ok as it could be: some bits of the road were fine and others weren’t. In a small village I dined on a kebab lunch accompanied by a carbonated tarragon flavoured drink. I repeat, tarragon flavoured! Despite its intensely lime-green (jokingly radioactive) look, it was all right. Once you got used to it :)
The closer I got to the border, the worse the road became. Nearly every country I’ve been through since Europe let’s its roads fall in quality the closer you get to a border: it’s not surprising to me now but it was then.
It could have been feeling a bit under the weather and the wine from the previous night, it could have been several months on the road catching up with me or it could have been that Armenia just felt off course from Singapore but I needed a rest.
It was strange crossing from the joyful smiles of the Georgian people to the Armenian officials who grunted and looked unhappy as they stamped my passport. When the customs officials asked me for road taxes, insurance and environmental fees, it was just enough to tip me over the edge. I didn’t want to spend the money and I didn’t want to go to Armenia that day: I turned, reentered Georgia and headed for Tbilisi.
I knew I’d made the right decision as soon as I set off from the border. The roads cleared up and I made good progress. Even when fog descended around me and I could only see 10 metres or so I felt good to be heading to Tbilisi. Although my arrival in the city was a bit shaky, I finally got the good rest I needed.
It was shaky because I had no accommodation booked and the hostel I’d identified to stay at was full. Then I couldn’t find the hostel round the corner for at least an hour of walking. Then that hostel was super expensive. Then I visited 3 guesthouses nearby and each was fully booked. Things were not looking good for a bed for the night.
I arrived at one last guesthouse debating if I should just drive a little out of the city and sleep in Pico. The doors were open but I couldn’t find anyone to see if they had room: it was strangely deserted. However, in a moment of fortune, I did find their Wifi code. With it I could track down a hostel in the city with space – phew! What a great moment that turned out to be.
As I headed to the address I’d got on the internet I had one final moment of intrigue. I was looking for No.15 and although I couldn’t see it signed I could see No.14 and the building next to it had a ‘Hostel’ banner - must be the right place!
I walked in to the red-lit foyer and was greeted by two nervous looking men sat on either sides of the room. “Hi!” – no response. “Is this where I check-in?” – elicited shrugs and fingers pointed round the corner. I moved towards that direction and stumbled into a bathroom to find a scantily clad Asian woman. Through a little conversation I discovered I couldn’t find a bed I could sleep in but I could find a ‘massage’: it was clear I was in the wrong place ;)
Finding the hostel was a moment of exhausted smiles. They had room and I had somewhere to stay. It was an 18-bed dormitory with mattresses on the floor and it didn’t matter the slightest to me. I just needed a good sleep.
Tbilisi by night
The next few days were spent relaxing in the Why Not? Legends hostel. In my mind, it was truly a legendary place – not-so-tidy, not-so-clean and not-at-all awful. Joy abounded in its sweet authenticity as a raw travelling refuge. The shoes off policy meant the floors garnished in rugs were homely and a slatted staircase into the communal area bought great hellos each morning. People smiled. Traveller warmth (if not weather warmth) swelled around its large shared area and with free laundry, this was far from the sterile, moneymaking hostels of Europe. Why Not? was filled with older, more unique travellers – it felt like I was moving off the beaten path. That ruggedness was just what I’d been looking for :)
What also made it special was the people that worked there and even more so, the friends I made. In particular, there was Peter, a Czech guy failing miserably at getting an Iranian visa having tried multiple cities, despite having visited 18 times before. There was Amina, a Brit girl who just had me laughing at every moment with her brusque honesty, playfulness and classy travelling style. There was Abdo, an Egyptian studying Medicine in Tbilisi who preferred the hubbub of a hostel to living alone.
Finally there was Tom, another Brit of epic nomad quality. Having previously cycled from the top of North America to the bottom of South America over 15 months, he was now embarking on a 5-6 years journey to cycle from Georgia to his brother’s Budapest stag do/UK wedding and then to complete the circumference of Africa. He was a true adventurer and I happened to be the first person he met travelling this time round.
Tom, Abdo and Amina at one of our lunchtimes dates
The next few days were spent exploring the city and resting in this warm, friendly environment.
Turkey and Georgia couldn’t be more distinct for two bordering countries. As an outsider you notice these things so clearly. Where Turkey felt like a new world on my travels, Tbilisi felt like a European city. As Turkey potentially cuts its ties with the EU, Georgia has the European Union’s gold circles everywhere on an equal par to their own flag. Where Turkey is a developed country and striving for modernity, Georgia is still romantic in its old-fashionedness.
One of the best things about Georgia is its food. Everywhere and I mean everywhere I ate was incredible – in almost a week there wasn’t a single bad meal or snack purchased. From khacapuri and its cheesy sometimes-egg-topped boat-shaped pastry goodness to their rich, warming spiced stews I loved it there. Having already sampled the pleasures of Georgian wine, I even found them serving beer on tap in the supermarkets – 2 Lari i.e. under £1 for 2 litres!! I don’t need to recommend any restaurants because they were all just wonderful – from the humble to the fancy.
On one adventuresome day with Tom we caught the funicular up to the mountain overlooking the city. It started snowing while we were up there and the park at the top was a wonderful place to wander and share our enjoyment of photography. Up there, a theme park freely intermingled with the trees and views – no entrance fee. It was all pretty much shut up for the autumn – it didn’t matter; our conversation was far more enjoyable.
Afterwards, it was down into the city proper and after a quick bite of some more excellent Georgian food, we caught the cable car over the river to take a different view on the city, gaze at the Mother of Georgia Statue and walk around the ruined castle that topped the mount. There are so many pieces of cast sculpture around the city. It was wonderful to see flourishing artistry so prominently displayed and then pieces cunningly hidden to all except the observant.
The finest moment of the day was definitely visiting the hot spring baths near the river. Several bathhouses are all located together at the foot of the castle hill. While some are rather fancy, we opted for ridiculously cheap public baths. At 3 Lari they were unbelievably so!
On entry, we got traveller-baffled and were told we needed 2 additional towels for inside the baths and for after despite having bought our own. You needed another one if you were having a massage ‘apparently’. On reflection, it was definitely a way of making a little extra cash for them but at 2 Lari for each towel it was still ridiculously cheap for us.
The best experience was on the inside. The main washing room was about 10 metres by 5 metres with a large communal hot bath at the end. The walls dripped with moisture, the air smelt of sulphur and the eyes couldn’t see anything for the amount of steam on the inside. In the separate sauna room a very drunk Georgian propositioned me by asking if I’d like to share some beer with him and was I gay. I took the beer but declined the rest of his advances.
Despite the wet environment, there were even people smoking inside the baths. It was definitely an experience and for a small while Tom and I lost each other in the steam - this made the experience even more laughable.
Overall it was crazy, chaotic and charmingly wonderful in there. I highly doubt that everyone would enjoy the experience with the locals but with private rooms available you can definitely still enjoy the public baths of Tbilisi. I can recommend the look of the fancy private baths having stumbled into them trying to find the public baths. No idea about the price though.
Tbilisi was definitely a moment to catch my breath and I loved it. The hostel was wonderful, I met some great people and really relaxed – joyful. With quite a few days laid up, Azerbaijan and the adventures of crossing the Caspian Sea were calling.
Saturday 22nd October – Olimpo Guesthouse, Akhaltsikhe
Sunday 23rd October – Why Not? Legends Hostel, Tbilisi
Monday 24th October – Why Not? Legends Hostel, Tbilisi
Tuesday 25th October – Why Not? Legends Hostel, Tbilisi
Wednesday 26th October – Why Not? Legends Hostel, Tbilisi