September 2017: I've crossed by bus from the Turkish town of Kars along the black sea to the seaside town, and second city of Georgia, Batumi.
From the border I share a taxi with the Germans to the city of Batumi. An alien visitor who arrives on earth in Georgia might think that the cow is the dominant species here. They are everywhere, from the smallest of dirt roads to the busiest of highways you can be assured that you will encounter herds of cows on the road. These docile beasts are completely impervious to the speeding cars that must duck and dodge around them. Speaking of which the drivers in Georgia are insane, many of them, it seems, have a secret ambition to be a rally driver, a hobby which they are only too happy to indulge in when picking up tourists in their clapped out old bangers. However, driving is not an excuse to stop smoking, nor to hang up the phone in the middle of the conversation. When passing a church it is customary for a Georgian to remove their hat and cross themselves three times, but of course don't stop using your phone or stop smoking. It is at this point that the steering wheel needs to be controlled by the knees, this is also the perfect opportunity to perform a bold overtaking manoeuvre. If you are on a blind bend then even better. The perfect storm is a church on a blind corner, whilst smoking (which is always), whilst on the phone (which is also always), perhaps your passenger is showing you something on her phone, now is the moment to overtake that slow oil tanker. No wonder these people cross themselves a lot.
Batumi is a bizarre city. An eclectic mix of architectural styles, with no real coherence, and it is undergoing something of a boom, with a few new skyscrapers dotting the landscape, one with a golden ferris wheel embedded in the side of it, why not. This is where Russians came to enjoy some sea and sun in the times of the Soviet Union, and despite the tension between these two countries they are still coming here in their droves. Compared to the east of Turkey this place is heaving with tourists. In my hostel there are the usual ensemble of French, German and Swiss, as well as a few Arabs and Russians. I chat to a nice girl from the Czech Republic who says that she has been here twice this year already and gives me lots of tips about the country. It seems to be the place that if you are not careful you may fall in love with and never be able to leave. We bought a bottle of Georgian wine, sickly sweet as unlike its western counterpart it is made from the pulp, seeds and sometimes even the stalks of the grape, and have a drink on the beach.
The next day the Czech girl leaves for her flight home, although I try to convince her to stay and come hiking with me, she seems tempted but leaves nonetheless. I spend the day with some of the other tourists in the hostel, we go to the beach and to the botanical gardens, and take in some of the surprisingly delicious Georgian food. It's great to have company after a fairly lonely time in the east of Turkey.
Mestia and Mazeeri
The next day I take a bus up to the mountains to a town called Mestia. A small village in the western part of the high Caucuses, the good quality road upto the town means that this place gets a fair few visitors. I meet a lot of Iranians, Chinese, Israelis, Russians and of course Germans. The tourist scene here is a bit more diverse than in Europe. The trip takes around 6 hours, with one change of bus in the middle. A local man takes us through the last section, and is keen to show off his home land. He stops the commuter bus, to the annoyance of the locals, and takes us on an impromptu sightseeing tour of the area as he knows there are tourists on board.
Mestia is in the region of Georgia known as Svaneti, which actually speaks a language which is unintelligible to people from Tbilisi or Batumi. The region has been so isolated until recently that it has retained a lot of its old culture and feels far more traditional than other places in Georgia. Stone towers dot the landscape, these were administrative centres of the village, where people could hide out in the eventuality of one of their frequent blood feuds. It reminds me a lot of the mountainous regions in the north of Albania. The scenery here is some of the most stunning I have ever seen, with peaks that top 5000 meters in the distance. I stay the night in a local homestay, the owners do not speak English, but I am able to communicate with them somehow.
The next day I tell the people in my homestay that I will be back in two days time. I'm going on a two day hike to a smaller town called Mazeeri, and then on to the foot of a glacier. The first part of the hike is around ten hours, up a steep hill to a cross that is visible from the village, this area is actually quite busy with tourists as it is possible to get a 4x4 up here, from there there are amazing views to mountains that can be seen from Russian, and across the whole of the Sventi region. The standard walk is to a series of lakes a further hour up the mountain, but the right is a less travelled path along a ride. The route traces the ridge, at parts hugging the side of the mountain for a further 3 hours until you reach the Guli pass at 3000m. The views are unrelentingly stunning and the skies are blue but for the occasional lonely wisp of white cloud. The Guli pass sits beneath the twin peaks of Ushguli, and from here you can look down on the rapidly receding glacier. At the pass you can see the town of Mazeeri, really a series of hamlets along the road one valley along from the Mestia. It’s still a long trek from here and I begin to feel a little exhausted, but I finally make it to the town. The town has nothing of note, a tiny wooden church and a small shop, which is just someone's living room with a few bits and pieces of local produce. The buildings are mostly ad hoc stone, wood and metal affairs. The locals pay me little attention. One of the houses has the word "gust house" painted hastily on the side, so I bang on the door and owners show me to a room. 50 lari (15 euros) for full board accommodation, this is really necessary here as there is no restaurant. There is nothing much to do, so I nurse my legs and read a book. Dinner is served to me by the old lady, presumably the mother of the man who let me in. Only their young daughter of around 7 speaks some English (“Clock? Food?” she asks me), otherwise it’s translation apps or a few words of Russian here and there. The food is simple but delicious, sourced mostly from ingredients from around the farm. Milk that was, until about ten minutes ago, inside a cow; some pork stew (probably taken from the farm too) and bread. I fall into a deep sleep, disturbed only occasionally by one of the physcotic dogs who has prehapse taken umbrage to a passing cloud that looked at him suspiciously.
The next day it’s an early start to hike up to the glacier. More fresh cheese, milk and bread to power me up the hill. I begin the hike early in the morning when the mountain air is still fresh and cool. It seems like the river is at a high point and has encroached quite significantly onto the path. My route is blocked and I spend a good hour trying to find a way across with no luck. I consider wading across, but the water looks quite deep and fast, and I have my passport and phone in my pocket, it's game over if the passport gets drenched. I then bump into two dutch tourists who are similarly stuck, but they have seen two trees that have fallen across the river lower down, which we decided to cross. They are very thin and I worry that they will not take our weight, but the dutch guy, who seems significantly heavier than me, goes first and the logs hold. I tackle it by putting my feet on the lower log and my hands on the upper one and edge my way across. I make it without falling in! and continue the hike. It's another 3-4 hours from here upto the base of the glacier past a series of quite impressive waterfalls. The going is tough, but the views are worth it. This part of the hike is actually fairly busy compared to yesterday, where I met only one farmer and his horse. I'm quite surprised how popular Georgia is with international tourists. I finally make it back to the village as the sun is setting, and find a different route back which does not involve any trapeze acts. The family seems relieved to see that I am still alive (I haven't paid them yet), and they force feed me more pork and bread until I beg for mercy.
The next day I am worn out, and take a taxi back to Mestia to be reunited with my bag at the guest house I was staying at before. I spend the day in the sun with some more Georgian wine, nursing my poor legs. There is another 4 day hike that is quite popular to a town called Ushguli, I consider doing this, but I'm tired and am running out of time, so I endeavour to come back one day.
The next day I travel to the capital Tbilisi, which is a 9 hour drive. I'm right at the back so I can't really see anything. The trip takes the whole day, so I don't get upto much for the rest of the day and have another early night, fresh to spend a few days in the capital of Georgia.
Tblisi is quite a revelation. Far from the soviet monstrosity that one might imagine it is a charming little city. An old historic centre with rustic crumbling charms, many trendy restaurants and bars, and more modern architecture on the outskirts of the town, which are also worth a look. The setting is around a little canyon, and there are two cable cars running up to the top of two large hills which overlook the town. On the first day I join the free walking tour, lead by a Spanish guy, another casualty of the tourists inability to leave Georgia. The tour is nice and relaxed, preferring a casual anecdote to a deep history lesson. We take in the usual sights, churches and a mosque (there is a sizable muslim population in Tbilisi). Mostly the tour is about sampling the culinary delights of Georgia, great local bread and sweets, ending with some wine tasting and a final shot of cha-cha (local moonshine), which I wash down with some Kvas (similar to Turkish Bosa) a sweet, and only lightly alcoholic beer. After all that walking I take to one of the sulphur baths in the centre of town. It's 30 lari (10 Euros) to have one to yourself, otherwise you have to brave the naked Georgian men, and these people are built like gorillas, both in terms of mass and body hair, so I opt for the private bath, with a shower and a hot tub, full of hot sulphury water. The water is so hot that I have to take frequent cold showers, and even then end up feeling a little queasy. Still I come out feeling amazing, cured of all the aches and pains of the previous days. In the evening I sample some more Georgian delicacies, Khinkali, Georgian dumplings, which are to be eaten with the hands, it's a great disrespect to spill the juice on the plate, instead you must suck the hot juice out of the dumpling, and take the pain like a man; I also sample the Khachapuri, a piece of bread shaped like a frying pan with two handles, filled with cheese, butter and a raw egg, one rapidly mixes the cheese, butter and eggs, and then tears off pieces of bread and dunk them into the goo.
The next day I do some more solo exploring of Tbilisi, up the hill from the old town there are a series of charmingly dilapidated old Georgian buildings, leading to a fortress which overlooks the city, and behind that an enormous botanical garden. The fortress is free to enter and involves some freestyle scrambling to get to the top. Not one for the health and safety sticklers. I spend the rest of the day trying to plan the rest of my trip, I have six days until I have to be in Baku. There is an overnight train there, the other option is to take a series of buses to the more northerly border crossing and on to a mountain town called Sheki; it's time consuming though and I can't find much information on the route online, so I go for the night train. I'm enjoying Georgia so much that I decide to spend a few more days here, and then take the night train to Baku from Tbilisi in a few days time. I can take in the spa town of Borjomi, as well as going to the birthplace of Stalin (and who wouldn't want to see that!), then back to Tbilisi, it involves backtracking west a little bit, but much less travelling overall than going the northern route to Azerbaijan, so that's what I opt for.
I take the bus to the small spa town of Borjomi, famous for its spring waters and hot thermal baths. The drive is pleasant, and I'm actually not that far away from the region of Turkey which I was in, which seems like a long time ago now. There is a nice hostel in Borjomi, which I hang out at for a while and share a few beers and stories with a traveller from France. He is doing something similar to my trip but in reverse, so he has just been through Central Asia, so it is useful to pick his brains for a while. The guy at the hostel recommends that I should go to the stone city of Vardzia, and that he can get me on the tour. The tour is officially full but he says that if I go to the tourist office the next day I might be able to tag along for the day, which is what I do. In the morning I wait outside the tourist office, and one of the tour guides bundles me into a car, saying that it doesn't matter that I haven't booked, and I can pay at the end. The tour guide is a friendly and enthusiastic guy, but his accent is pretty strong and his historical accounts are quite jumbled, coupled with the fact that I had no idea that I was going to do this tour until 5 minutes before it started I really have little idea of what I'm looking at. Still it's fun to simply absorb the tour guides enthusiasm and passively let the sights wash over me. An old citadel called Rabat, a crumbling castle on a hill, an impressive canyon, and the ancient cave city of Vardzia, where Christian soldiers mounted their offense against first the Zoroastrian Persians and later the Muslim Turks. The whole complex is an impressive engineering feat given that it is entirely carved out of the rock, with sewage and ventilation systems that the local archaeologists have still not fully understood. In the tour group there are two Iranian guys who I get talking to, they of course invite me to Iran, and talk reservedly about the political situation there. I really regret that I didn't put more effort into obtaining an Iranian visa, opting to fly over Iran instead. Oh well, another time. On the way back to Borjomi we stop on a farm, in which there is a barn with a sulphur bath in it, and we stop to take in the warm sulphur waters. The tour promised a trip to the green monastery, a very old monastery just outside of Borjomi, with a disturbingly large collection of the bones of martyred Christians who took a stand against the invading Arabs. It's pitch black when we get there and it’s a long spooky walk as we ascend to the monastery, led only by the lights on our phones. As we enter the monastery there is a ceremony going on, with robed orthodox monks chanting incessantly in the candle lit chamber of the church, somehow one of the creepiest things I have ever seen. We return to the hostel at about nine, just time to grab some dinner and drinks before bed.
The next day I head to the Borjomi park, which is the main attraction of the town itself. There are a series of tacky amusements at the base of the park, which look like something out of the 1980's. You can also sample the sour-salty Borjomi water at the source here, it's disgusting if you’re wondering. After the amusements give up you are left with a pretty walk through a wooded area along a stream and after another few km you arrive at the thermal springs, a series of warm outdoor pools, a very pleasant and civilised way to spend a lazy afternoon, which is exactly what I do. Around 4pm I take the bus to Gori. I have missed the last bus there, but the one to Tbilisi offers to drop me by the side of the road on the turning to the town. It pulls up in the slow lane of a three lane highway, to much inevitable horn tooting, and drops me off, pointing down a steep embankment. At the bottom there is a taxi waiting for me, presumably many people get to Gori this way, and he takes me to the centre of the town.
The town of Gori itself is surprisingly pleasant and chilled out, a good place to people-watch, without too many tourists. I spend the rest of the day in a nice restaurant (the staff incredibly speak English amazingly!) with a few beers and a few more Khinkali. The hostel I'm staying at has the feeling of a guest house, and I sit and watch TV (some variant of the x-factor format for a Georgian audience) with her. She runs a hairdressing salon at the base of the guest house and offers to give me a much needed haircut. She shaves the sides and leaves the top long, a style which seems very common here. I can blend in nicely with the locals now!
The next day I visit Gori's major tourist draw, the birthplace of that colossus of 20th century history, Joseph Stalin. Despite strained relations with Russia, and largely an embrace of capitalism and western values, the people of this town are fiercely proud of their most famous former resident, despite the fact that he only spent the first 4 years of his life here. Outside the museum is a statue of the great man himself, with a que of people wanting to take pictures underneath this towering giant of a man. The tiny house in which Stalin’s family rented one room stands outside the museum, encased in a kind of protective mausoleum of its own. Behind the house is a grand imposing building, purpose built just after Stalin died in the 1950's to celebrate the life and times of Comrade Stalin. Nothing has really changed in the museum, including the staid script of the guides as they tell us all the wonderful deeds that this great man performed. The museum is really a series of photos and letters and a few personal belongings of the man. The final exhibit is the death mask of Stalin, in its own dedicated room. The main draw of the museum is not so much a balanced historical view of the life and times of Stalin, you won't get that here, but the sheer weird novelty of the place. I have to pinch myself several times whilst here, the tour is utterly surreal, I imagine this kind of thing maybe when visiting the tomb of Kim Jong Il in North Korea, here it seems like a complete anachronism; but worth it for the novelty factor if nothing else. What are the deaths of 7 million Ukrainian peasants in the light of the deads of such a great man, and a son of Georgian no less.
Coming out of the museum I am grabbed by a taxi driver who offers to take me to the nearby town of Uplistike, another cave city. He's offering a reasonable price, so I take him up on the offer. The city is much like Vardzia near Borjomi, but incredibly is much older, with parts of it dating to the 10th century B.C. There is a room for storing medicines and of course the all important building for making and storing the wine. The setting is the main draw of the town here, as the complex of caves is less impressive than those of Vardzia. Its sits on the bend of a river, with a jungle of rocky outcrops stretching into the distance behind the town. On the way back the taxi driver is eager to talk about world politics and economics, and set the world to right, no matter that he knows 20 words of English, he uses these in creative combinations and somehow manages to keep talking the whole way back to the town.
I take the bus back to Tbilisi, stock up on supplies and get on the night train to Baku. I share a beer with my new roommates, two Koreans and a Russian girl and drift into a peaceful sleep as the train rocks me to sleep. I wake up as we are approaching Baku.