About four years ago I absentmindedly spent time planning a dream overland trip from the UK to Australia. A key part of this route was travelling overland through Turkey to the Caucasus – Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan – before catching a ferry across the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan, and on – through the Stans – to Asia and beyond. Even at that time Georgia and its capital Tbilisi conjured up to me some strange, mystical land, wedged between the boundaries of West and East – Istanbul, the Ural Mountains – a strange outpost of European culture in geographical Asia. Perhaps this was a very reductive way of considering the region. I didn’t know much, if anything, about the country, yet I felt it would be an interesting place to visit. Fast-forward several years and my trip to Georgia finally happened – not part of a grand overland voyage to Oz – but as a two-week solo journey that also took in neighbouring Armenia.
Itinerary and highlights
Day 0 – Arriving at the airport I managed to work out how to take a marshrutka (shared minibus taxi) into central Tbilisi, and navigate to my threadbare hostel – fine for a night though. I explored central Tbilisi, stopping in the interestingly decorated and slightly upmarket Purpur Restaurant for dinner, before heading back to my room.
Day 1 – I spent my first full day exploring Tbilisi – the main sights can easily be seen in a day. I visited the National Museum and Gallery, walked around the Old Town, and spent the afternoon at the top of the funicular, reading my book for the trip: Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. By the time I’d eaten a simple khachapuri (Georgian cheese pie), it was time to go to the train station to catch my night train to Zugdidi. I travelled to the station in a taxi with two Israelis, and spent time that evening and the next day chatting with them and a solo American traveller – a man called Fritz – who was walking from the Caspian to the Black Sea. Two weeks later I would find out that Fritz had been stabbed during an argument, and had died. He was a fascinating person – he told us about spending time with the peoples of northern Russia, and travelling with a camel train to a salt mine in Mali. His photographs were incredible but he’d never thought to share them. When one of the Israelis remarked that they couldn’t imagine taking so long out of real life to do what he does, Fritz remarked ‘This IS real life’. I met the man for an evening and the next morning, yet in that time it was obvious what a special person he was.
Day 2 – On arriving in Zugdidi Fritz took control, finding us a four person taxi while I lingered to take photos of our train. Before I knew it we were speeding away towards Svaneti – well ahead of the marshrutka I would otherwise have taken. By 10.30am we had driven through beautiful mountain scenery (see below right) and had arrived in Mestia, my base for the next three days. Despite a lack of sleep I was invigorated by arriving in a new place, and after lunch I started trekking up towards a cable car just out of town. The trek was tough – 3 hours of uphill walking, but when I got there and took the slightly scary cable car up the mountain I was rewarded with a nice bar and stunning mountain views. If I were to do it again I’d probably take a taxi to the cable car station.
Day 3 – Day three was the hardest day of the trip. I packed three litres of water and several snacks and began what would be an arduous trek up the hillside north of Mestia to ‘the Cross’ and the Koruldi lakes. I ended up walking with a Polish chap, and then met a Dutch couple at the top who were also staying at my guesthouse (a great choice). We took the wrong route to the Lakes, but amid the stunning scenery it didn’t really matter. As the clouds closed in we made a last push towards the lakes, but I was keen to head back, so started walking down. Luckily I encountered a Russian family of seven who let me squeeze into the boot of their car and get a lift back down the mountain – before the heavens opened! I later saw the Dutch couple arrive back at the guesthouse at around 8.30pm – completely drenched.
Day 4 – I’d originally planned to only spend three nights in Svaneti, but the scenery was so beautiful and so many people I’d met had said that it’d been the highlight of their trip that I extended my stay. I decided to spend a night in the more remote Svan village of Ushguli, before returning to Mestia for one more night. The road to Ushguli was extremely bumpy – three hours of rattling around inside a marshrutka. But once there I got to enjoy the stunning views. I walked about 2/3rds of the way towards the Shkhara Glacier. It didn’t matter to me that I didn’t get there – the surroundings were stunning and there were few, if any, other people on the route. The photo on the left below is the view back from Shkhara towards Ushguli.
Day 5 – Ushguli was even more stunning in the early morning light, and I really enjoyed my hour-long walk around town, taking photos, before breakfast. The full bleed photo below the two below is of the Shkhara Glacier, from Ushguli, in the morning light. In the afternoon I visited the Chaladi Glacier near Mestia, an imposing sight (below right). My time in Svaneti had been fantastic, and would turn out to be the real highlight of the trip.
Day 6 – After so many days of walking I didn’t actually mind the long journey from Mestia – a few kilometres from the Russian border – to Akhaltsikhe – a few kilometres from the Turkish border. At least to begin with. I left Mestia at 8am, arriving in Kutaisi at 1.30pm and waited only an hour before the next marshrutka took me and two Belgians on to Akhaltsikhe. I spent time chatting with the Belgian couple on the journey, and would end up spending the next two days travelling with them. It was a day spent in a vehicle, but it quickly got me from the north of Georgia to the south. Given my tight timeframe a day like this was necessary, I think. I explored the pleasant castle in Akhaltsikhe in the evening (below left).
Day 7 – the Belgians and I rented a taxi for the day and explored several local sights around Akhaltsikhe, including the caves at Vardzia and Sapara Monastery (below right). The latter in particular was stunning – a secluded religious home full of grumpy monks and stunning medieval architecture. A special place indeed. The evening, as with the day before, was spent drinking and observing the curious goings on at our guesthouse where a father, mother, son and the local moneylenders seemed to be involved in some dubious dealings. Apart from that it was a great guesthouse though, and our well-cooked meats and breads were washed down with homemade wine and the local homemade spirit, chacha.
Day 8 – An early start (7am) got me and the Belgians to the Georgia-Armenia border crossing at Bavra-Ninotsminda. Crossing was straightforward and hassle-free, and we were in Gyumri by lunchtime. A second marshrutka then took us on to Yerevan where we parted ways – at least until that evening when we’d meet up for a farewell drink and a celebration of the Belgian man’s birthday. After checking into my guesthouse I explored the Cafesjian Centre for the Arts and the almost Parisian cafe culture in the surrounding, leafy streets. I liked the feel of Yerevan very much, but at the same time people seemed less open to outsiders and more Russified. People seemed to be particularly annoyed at me taking photos in the metro stations of the ex-Soviet decoration and signs.
Day 9 – The first of two days of day trips to sights around Yerevan. Geghard Monastery was impressive, while Garni temple was a bit disappointing. In the afternoon I explored Yerevan some more – the History Museum of Armenia and the unique Matenadaran (The Museum of Ancient Manuscripts).
Day 10 – This was a great day. I decided to hitchhike and see how far I could get. I got a marshrutka to Khor Virap, a monastery nicely backdropped by Mount Ararat. I then hitched to the town of Ararat, on to Yeraskh (near the border with Azerbaijani enclave Nakhchivan), and finally on to Areni, where I had a fun tour of a winery. I then got a lift by a policeman in a beat up Lada to Noravank Monastery, a beautiful church in a stunning setting. I caught a shared taxi back to Yerevan in the evening, tired but content at the sights I had seen and the people I had met.
Day 11 – A shared taxi took me away from Yerevan and north to the industrial town of Alaverdi. After lunch in an empty hotel on the hillside, and a walk around town to admire the industrial cooper mine belching smoke, I took a taxi to the various monasteries around the area. This included Sanahin (so-so), Haghpat (very nice collection of buildings, peaceful setting, below left), and Akhtala (beautiful murals, deserted, below centre). The taxi driver was friendly but not intrusive – a rare combination on this trip, and I was happy to pay extra for him to take me to the Bagratashen-Sadakhlo border – in fact I just had enough Armenian currency left for this. After walking across the border (always fun!) I hitched to the nearest town, and travelled onwards back to Tbilisi. I had come full circle.
Day 12 – After a night back in Tbilisi at a different guesthouse, I took a marshrutka to Kazbegi and the mountains directly north of the capital, a three hour drive. I climbed up to the famous Gergeti Trinity Church in the afternoon. On the whole I didn’t like Kazbegi nearly as much as Mestia – the town itself didn’t have much character and was full of trucks moving goods across the border to Russia. The sun setting behind the church, however, was a beautiful sight (below right), and I had an enjoyable evening spending time with the Georgian family I was staying with and some Russian travellers.
Day 13 – My final day was an energetic one. I took the Tbilisi marshrutka as far as Ananuri, to photograph the beautiful castle nestled in the hillside next to an emerald lake (below). I then hitched further south to Mtskheta, the religious capital, had a nice lunch and explored the local churches, before finally returned to Tbilisi in the late afternoon. I stayed at a third hostel – probably the best of the three – and met some friendly Brits who I drank with until around 2am. After an hour’s sleep, I was up and whisked to the airport for my 5am flight back to the UK via Amsterdam.
And that’s it! A rushed trip in many people’s eyes I’m sure, but I enjoyed packing a lot in and definitely didn’t feel like I was on public transport for TOO much time. Mestia-Akhaltsikhe was a long day of travelling for sure, but the other days of movement involved crossing international borders which I always enjoy, and day 11 also included stops at some great monasteries, not to mention the stark ex-Soviet architecture of Alaverdi.
The highlight of my trip was definitely the stunning mountain scenery of the Upper Caucasus in the Svaneti region, and I would encourage people to spend time in both Mestia and Ushguli. Despite the iconic church, Kazbegi was a definite second to Mestia, due to the frenetic feel of the central square and the larger crowds. The Lower Caucuses around the city of Akhaltsikhe were also beautiful – sun-baked and stark, but also with trees and sloping hills. I’d put these second behind Svaneti and before Kazbegi.
After the scenery comes the churches and monasteries. The top three, for me, were Sapara Monastery in Georgia (isolated and a stunning church) and Haghpat and Noravank Monasteries in Armenia (the former a relaxing collection of interesting buildings and the latter a beautifully situated monastery in a gorge). I also enjoyed the cafe culture of Yerevan and the attractive old town of Tbilisi.
People in both Georgia and Armenia weren’t always friendly – they can be very direct and at times cold to outsiders. Few people spoke English, yet almost everyone spoke Russian. In guesthouses people could be welcoming, offering you homemade alcoholic drinks and plenty of hearty food, and engaging you in conversation about politics (ex-Georgian President Saakashvili, current Armenian President Sargsyan and Stalin all came up in conversation) and your home country. Driving was extremely bad in both countries – drivers would frequently speed, smoke, take photo calls and talk to the passenger next to them while negotiating hairpin mountain bends.
Neither country is renowned as one of the world’s great cuisines, and nor, unfortunately, did they turn out to be one of the gastronomic hidden gems of travel I’ve experienced. Both had solid, Eastern European fare exemplified by khachapuri (cheese-filled bread) and khinkali (dumplings), filling and satisfying but, ultimately, unexciting. The best restaurant I visited was in Yerevan – Pandok Yerevan – where I had a delicious kebab, Greek salad and homemade bread. There are also some delicious semi-sweet red wines on offer in both countries.