First of all,why Georgia?
Pretty much everyone asked me this question,even in Georgia ! My answer to this is, the evocative landscapes, the high and mighty Caucasus mountains, the fairly unique Georgian culture and ofcourse a good ticket and great value for money. Georgia certainly met my expectations, infact even exceeded them.
Tbilisi – Svaneti(Mestia,Ushguli) – Kutaisi- Vardzia and Sapara – Shatili – Kakheti ( Telavi and Signaghi).
- Ushguli! Staying overnight was a great experience, especially the walk to Shkhara early in the morning.
- Shatili: Simply beautiful, especially the way to Shatili through the high mountain pass.
- Vardzia and the area around it, especially the high tableland around Lake Parvani.
- Views from the ridge above the Mestia cross.
- Motsameta monastery and Satplia caves in heavy rain, mysterious and beautiful.
- Alaverdi monastery and Signaghi town in the evening.
- The homestays and people.
- Baths at Tbilisi and the Sameba cathedral.
How did I travel?
Tbilisi to Mestia was by the marshrutka, not too bad, but avoid it and spend some more time in Mestia itself. It seems flight tickets get booked early in the high tourist season,and I wasn;t sure if I could get a train ticket,but these options are worth exploring.
Got a taxi from Kutaisi to Vardzia stopping at Sapara and Khertvisi, and continuing to Tbilisi on the same day. I believe this route is certainly possible by public transport, it’s just that I had to do it in a day, given the time I had.
Again got a good 4*4 for Shatili, there is a marshrutka twice a week, but then getting your own car is worth for the photostops you can make.
Kakheti was done in 2 days from Tbilisi, largely by public transport.
Pretty cheap, 10-15 Gel was enough for a meal with a salad,a khachapuri and a lemonade. Homestays were generally around 50 Gel for full board, very good value in my opinion. Dorms in Kutaisi or Tbilisi cost 15-25 Gel. Bus to Mestia from Tbilisi was just 30 Gel. The taxi cost me 180$ for the Shatili trip, which was pretty much worth it, and about 220 $ for Kutaisi-Vardzia-Tbilisi.
Exchanging money is great, rates in Tbilisi are the best. A couple of shops near Freedom square are great. Kutaisi had good rates, so does Borjomi. Rates in Mestia weren’t bad either.
Where did I stay?
Namaste Hostel in the Old town of Tbilisi, good location and views.
Eka’s guest house in Mestia arranged a homestay for me with their neighbors(they speak little English)but were great hosts, good food and good rooms.
Ushguli I stayed at Ushguli guest house, good rooms, good food.
In Kutaisi, I stayed at the Kutaisi Hostel Centre, good location and good value dorms and rooms(15 Gel for a single bed room).
Again in Tbilisi, I stayed at the Happy Feet hostel,good location, helpful manager and very cheap dorm beds.
In Shatili, I stayed at the Nana Gogochuri GH, good rooms, very good food.
In Signaghi, Nato and Lado GH I stayed at this homestay, my bad I orgot their name, good value rooms and breakfast(20 Gel).
Now here’s a detailed description of the trip:
Reached Tbilisi on a fairly warm evening, the visa process was quick and you get a complimentary bottle of wine. Now taxi drivers will try to rip you off, even the official ones, but since I knew the price and insisted on it. View from the hostel was pretty good, but you know you’re in a foreign and very unfamiliar land when you have a hard time communicating even with fellow travellers. Dinner was Seidabadi Restaurant in the old town, decent food and prices.
The Old town is certainly a noisy place to stay, with loud music running late in to the night,so consider that while deciding to stay there. Woke upto a beautiful morning, went up the Narikala fortress, explored the churches of the Old Town, walked upto the Sameba cathedral(the roadside stalls had good fruit, the figs were particularly nice), had a good Georgian lunch at Samitkino. Then, hot afternoons are always for a small nap, went through the musuems on the Rustaveli Avenue, which were ok, did a small walk through the Botanical Garden and then got a good bath at a bathhouse(20 Gel for the bath,10 Gel for scrubbing) at Abanotubani, the sulphur smell was annoying at first but then you get used to it and the bath experience was pretty good refresing, although a little bit tiring(make sure you have a lot of water with you). Bought a lot of churchkhela, which is a georgian snack, walnuts covered with fruit jam or honey and dried.
Ended the day with a good meal at Samitkino Restaurant(yes,again) and then a gelato at Angelato.
Cost and tips:
- Lunch and dinner: about 13 gel each, with an appetizer and soft drink.
- Bath at the sulphur baths(private): 30 gel including a scrub and massage.
- Museums in Tbilisi : 1 gel(using student id).
Off to Svaneti: 13 hours in a bus,but no regrets at all.
Woke up early and reached the bus station at 5.15 AM, there was a marshrutka waiting with quite a few people already on board. So I though we would leave soon. I was wrong, we left at 8.30 AM. So began the long long journey to Svaneti. But then there were interesting people on board, which made it much more tolerable. One should note that not all seats are the same, some have more leg space than the others, some have windows that open, some windiws don’t open, so think about that while choosing a seat.
The lunch stops however were pretty good, with my standard preferred Georgian menu, khachapuri, salad and lemonade. We passed through Zugdidi which looked like a lively tropical town with a lot of melons and bananas on sale. The scenery changes significantly as you leave Zugdidi, you finally enter the mountains. As we approached Svaneti, the blue backwaters of a dam looked pretty awesome. The views of the Mount Ushba were phenomenal. Blueberries on the roadside tasted good. And the water from the springs was refreshing.
Reached Svaneti well in the evening. I think it’s a good idea to have accommodation booked, especially in the peak tourist season, since all those who hadn’t booked in advance had some trouble finding accommodation. Although I was booked with Eka’s guest house, I was transferred to her neighbors place, I was quite ok with it, since the rooms were good, the lady was supposed to be a good cook(and she was), and their house was located in a nice apple orchard. Dinner was a sumptuous salad,cheese,fried potatoes,a couple of vegetable preparations and bread. And fruits and tea later on. Tired from the journey I went to bed early reading a book, it was so refreshing to have a room to yourself, I almost decided giving up on staying at dorms.
Bus to Mestia: 30 gel.
Lunch: 10 gel
Accommodation at Mestia: 45 Gel per night for a whole room with dinner and breakfast.
Mestia and Chaladi Glacier
Woke up to a fresh morning, a lavish breakfast(khachapuri, stewed vegetables, cheese, bread, fruits) and then set off for the Chaladi glacier. I had really had no idea how far it was, almost a one and half hour walk away from Mestia. A part of the journey was fairly scenic, you could see the entire town of Mestia with all it’s towers. But then later on the route turning boring and there wasn’t any shade. Fortunately I got a lift and I got dropped to the beginning of the hike. The hike was certainly a very pretty one, going through forests and later close to a massive roaring stream. And then the road opens up near the glacier, the landscape suddenly changes to a rocky one, and then you see blocks of ice crash and melt into the stream. Was quite a dramatic place. Got a lift back to Mestia with some interesting people. So, the point is excursions from Mestia do require a taxi, and taxi’s not that cheap. So for all those who want to save some bucks, either hitch-hike which is fairly easy in the tourist season, or try sharing a vehicle with people.
Came back to Mestia, had a good lunch at Café Leila, Badrijan-nigzit(aubegine cooked with walnut paste) and a variety of hot khachapuri and some tarragon lemonade.
After a nap(it was quite hot outside), headed to the museum on the other side of the river, which for some reason was closed, tried searching for a spring ,but in vain. So I finally headed to the Ethnographic museum. So here you can enter a Svan tower and go right upto the top. You climb up the tower through steep staircases and wow,the view from up the tower is phenomenal. I wish I had got a guest house close to the tower, but the climb up is grueling, most people come with taxis.
Came back to my guest house, was treated again to a dinner of lobio, an aubergine preparation, a soup,salad, cheese, bread and khachapuri, and fruit soaked in water, so that the water completely absorbs the fruit and gets a wonderful taste. So ended another great day.
Now the most awaited destination of the trip was calling. Had a booked a 30 Gel seat in a cab with Café Leila. Important tip: don’t do just a day trip, most cabs want to begin the return journey before 4 PM,and Ushguli is tremendously beautiful in the late afternoon, and the Shkhara glacier is best visited in the morning.
The journey to Ushguli was fairly uneventful, except some Svan towers on the way. Now the first view of Ushguli was breathtaking! The village, the towers, the peaks behind, instantly transported to another world. “This is what I’ve come all the way to Georgia” was the first thing that came to my mind.
So I checked in into Ushguli guest house, the first guest house in Ushguli you’ll come across. Good rooms, excellent food, but then the owner and the family don’t speak very little English,so things can become a little difficult. But anyway I was quite used to the scenario, so it didn’t bother me. Post a good lunch, the entire afternoon and evening were spent wandering around the village “taking it in”. The wind, the sun peeping in and out, the farm lands, the grazing cattle, the towers(most importantly) ,the horses, all contribute in creating a evocative atmosphere.
Post sunset it became very chilly, and dinner served was piping hot and delicious. This was easily my best day in the entire trip. Later in the night it rained very heavily, and there was a power outage. But I kind of enjoyed all of that, it all added to the “feel of the place”.
Ushguli guest house, 50 Gel for lunch,dinner and breakfast.
Shared cab to Ushguli, 30 Gel(you always pay for two-way).
Shkhara Glacier from Ushguli
Woke up to fresh cold morning with beautiful blue skies. Headed out to the Shkhara glacier after a breakfast. The Shkhara looked brilliant in the morning, with the sun shining right on it and and blue skies in the backdrop. The walk was great, but at a point the path had been washed off by a stream, and passing the stream was close to impossible, so I continued on the other side of the stream and crossed the stream when it was narrow enough. Nevertheless, the hike was fun, and you never go up the mountain even if a path leads up, you walk straight up till the glacier(actually you could go up for the view). You see some horsemen riding around, the entire area is so beautiful that I stayed for quite some time. While coming back I met several large groups, so I was glad I went early in the morning. So all in all, it’s an easy hike with great views.
Came back to the guest house, got fresh, had a quick lunch(you need to pre-order on crowded holiday days) and set off for Mestia. Got many people to share a cab with. The return journey was certainly uninteresting, Mestia seemed too ordinary after Ushguli. Spent the evening playing football with my GH owner’s grandson, was fun,and we were doing well despite not knowing each other’s language at all. Dinner was again sumptuous home cooked. Slept off reading a book. Now that’s what you call life.
A failed attempt to hike Mazeri – Mestia and a hike almost upto Koruldi Lakes
Although I’d heard the Mazeri – Mestia hike is quite difficult, I was determined to do it. Woke up very early in the morning, got a taxi to take me to Mazeri. The taxi dropped me at a place where the hike was supposed to begin. While it did seem like I was on the right track, I lost the path and couldn’t really find a way. Too bad. And there was no one to ask. The Becho settlement too was quite empty, though there were quite a few houses. Found a coach going back to Mestia, so tagged along with them and then I decided to hike up to the Koruldi Lakes.
But then the sun was high up, and hiking in the heat wasn’t the best experience. After a good 2.5 hours, following the jeep track I reached up the cross. The views from up there were just phenomenal, totally worth all the pains I took to get up there. The Tetnuldi was clearly visible, a part of the Ushba was covered with clouds, but it still looked majestic. You realize how huge the Caucasus mountains are. Had a packed lunch, met several travelers at the cross view point, and set off. It was well past mid day, almost early afternoon, walking all the way upto Koruldi lakes and coming back would have been a little tough, so I decided to just walk as much as I could , take in all the views I could, enjoy the late afternoon light. It turned out to be a great experience, the ridge up the cross has phenomenal views of the Caucasus range, I think the ridge should be a must on anyone’s itinerary. You can actually take a jeep upto the cross and then walk upto the lakes, since the road to the cross isn’t that rewarding in terms of scenery.
Came back late in the evening and so ended a tiresome and long day with a big dinner at the homestay, today’s highlight was green beans and kidney beans.
70 Gel, to and back Mazeri.
Snacks at Café Leila: 8 Gel.
Off to Kutaisi:
I had booked a 25 Gel ticket for the bus to Kutaisi, turns out you don’t really need to prebook and I was charged 5 extra 5 Gel. Nevertheless, the journey was great, the weather had changed drastically, it was raining quite heavily, the clouds were low and the winds were chilly. Reached Kutaisi at about 1 PM(After a 5 hour journey). Got a taxi at the bus station, who would take me to Gelati and Motsameta monasteries and drop me at my hostel, Kutaisi International Hostel for 40 Gel. Again, I believe I could have got a better price.
It was a cold, chilly, rainy afternoon, the rain got worse by the time we reached Gelati. Most of the exterior is under repairs, but the interiors are magnificent. I didn’t see anything like this later on in any of the monasteries I saw, the style of paintings you might see in some of the caves in Cappadocia, Turkey, but on a much grand scale.
Motsameta was the star of Kutaisi, located above a cliff, surrounded by forests, it was the ideal location for a monastery. I could have stayed here a lot longer. I think the Gelati – Motsameta hike might be a good hike.
Came back to the city, got a bus to take me to Satplia caves(you need to change, ask the tourist information centre for details). Reached the caves, the place was quite beautiful, the rains had created a different atmosphere in the forest. You need to follow a guided tour(there was no English speaking guide), you get to see different evidence of dinosaurs inhabitation in the region, then you go inside the caves, which are pretty beautiful and well-lit. Then you can roam around in the forests using several trails. It was really beautiful, but I wanted to get back to the city so that I could see the Bagrati cathedral as well.
It turns out there was no bus to go back! Fortunately I got a ride back with the owners of the souvenir shop at the park. Walked upto the Gelati cathedral, was very beautiful. The views over the city were good too. The entire neighborhood was pretty interesting, the oldish Georgian houses , bylanes and small churches, I liked it more than old Tbilisi. Dinner was at an Italian restaurant(I wanted a small change from khachapuri-khinkali), it was fair enough, but then I could’ve just had Georgian food.
Bus to Kutaisi: 25 Gel
Lunch: 2 Gel for a khachapuri at a bakery
Dinner: 15 Gel
Bus to Satplia caves and back: about 5-6 Gel
Ticket into Satplia caves: 1 Gel(Student discount)
Kutaisi hostel: 15 Gel
Off to Vardzia – Tbilisi
I had booked a taxi to take me from Kutaisi to Tbilisi via Vardzia. This was going to be a long long drive, literally driving all across the country. But then I would get to see more of the country as well. So we began quite early in the morning, driving all the way through the hills of Borjomi area and the huge plateau land of Akhaltsikhe to reach Sapara monastery. The views of the Rabati fortress and of the entire countryside looked amazing from up the mountains which led to the monastery. The landscape was massively different from all other places in Georgia, definitely looked more like East Turkey. Sapara monastery was certainly interesting. For some reason forests around monasteries have an early autumn(fall) , everything was almost red in august itself.
We proceeded towards Vardzia, the landscape changed from brown to green as we entered the river valley near Vardzia. You are wow-ed by Vardzia’s first view, it’s a huge cave-monastery complex. I had a quick – good lunch at the café outside the complex. It was late afternoon and plenty of day trippers were leaving in their buses, I was happy I could get the entire site to myself(relatively). Climbed up to the caves, and wow, the place is brilliant. I’ve been to Cappadocia in the past, but this was something more exciting. The view from the top, the vantage points in the monastery and the general lack of tourists made the place very special(you need to stay well into the evening to enjoy the site). As we were leaving Vardzia, there was a huge downpour that accompanied us till we reached Tbilisi.
The return journey was one of my most memorable experiences. First we passed by the Khertvisi fortress, the rain was so hard I could barely get down for a few moments to click a picture of the fort. Next, we passed through the tableland area Javakheti. Vast open lands, with mountains at the end, huge lakes, pastoral villages, herds and herds of cattle returning back home, simply beautiful. However the rain prevented me from taking good pictures. But the area deserves a re-visit. We returned late in the night, I was staying at Tbilisi BHM hostel, a place right near the Freedom Square, very reasonably priced, the manager was pretty awesome and helpful. Dinner was at one of the cafes closeby, khinkali and khachapuri.
Taxi from Kutaisi to Vardzia to Tbilisi: 220$(Steep I know,but considering the distance it’s worthwhile)
Vardzia: 3 Gel (student discount)
Lunch and dinner: about 13 Gel each
Off to Khevsureti
Now comes the 2nd most awaited destination(After Ushguli). I was picked up by the same taxi, this time we had a good 4*4 to get us through the rough roads. Now Khevsureti is a well isolated region deep inside the Caucasus. Sparsely populated, it’s a different world altogether. When I first saw the pictures of the towers of Shatili, I immediately decided, “ yes, this has to be my top priority”. It’s difficult to reach, the road’s bad, it’s barely a jeep track, it’s accessible only during the summer and there’s a bus just once a week.
So we began our journey, a long one. The first stop was at the farm of my driver’s friend. Next were several photo stops all the way. It was raining hard again, the clouds were again low and it was beautiful.
A winding road took us up a mountain pass, the views we got after were among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. It was green, green, virgin and wild. Pretty much out of the fantasy fictions. We reached Shatili after a good 5 hour drive. My agent had booked a room in a guesthouse, Nana Gogochuri, which was right infront of the iconic towers of Shatili.
The towers were amazing, and gloomy dark weather increased the mysteriousness associated with the place. Had a good lunch at the guesthouse and set off to explore the village. Explore the ruinous tower complex, was pretty amazing. Had small talks with some locals who could speak English. Walked along the river, was so peaceful and beautiful. Relaxed a bit, had dinner, went to sleep reading a book.
Taxi to Shatili and back(with Jvari and Ananuri): 180$
Accommodation,food at Shatili: 60 Gel
Khevsureti and back to Tbilisi via Ananuri Fortress
Woke upto a fresh morning, the gloomy dark skies were replaced by bright blue skies. Shatili looked great under the sun, but nothing can beat the gray, cloudy, rainy feel. Had a hearty breakfast, went into the tower complex again. Went for a long walk on the road towards Mutso with another tourist, the road was very beautiful, you can see the road to the Chechen border(there’s a “no entry” sign from where the border is just a few miles away). Mutso’s not too far away, but I really wasn’t in the mood for a drive, there was a long 5 hour journey to Tbilisi waiting.
Came back at almost mid-day. The return journey was certainly exciting. The mountain passes and the river valley looked really beautiful under the sun, very different from the previous day. After quite sometime the metaled road replaced the jeep road, such a big relief! Visited the Ananuri Fortress on the way, which is a massive monastery – fortress overlooking the backwaters of a dam. Very picturesque and very Caucasus-y in nature. Late evening is a great time for photography. Next was the Jvari monastery. Located up a hill, with great views of the Mtshekta town, this place is great. But then the sun was shining with all it’s might, so it wasn’t the best experience(plus no photo-ops). But this would be a great place early in the morning or late in the evening. Came back to Tbilisi in the eveing, checked in again at Tbilisi BHM hostel, roamed around the Rustaveli, bought fruits, sunflower seeds, ice cream, had dinner at a Thai place(needed a break from cheese in general). Again got some good company at the hostel, went to sleep early.
Tbilisi hostel: 15 Gel
Dinner: about 12 Gel
Got an early morning bus to Telavi, was quite a long but interesting bus ride through the plains of Georgia. Wineries, farmland, loads of fruitsellers, roadside markets..quite different from western Georgia. Reached Telavi and was pretty clueless as to what to do, I certainly wanted to go to Alaverdi monastery. It looked like a pretty busy town, but there was a public holiday because of which the tourist information centre was closed. So I had a quick brunch at one of the places near the information centre(really good khachapuri and lemonade) . As I was looking for a taxi to take me to Alaverdi, I met an English speaking guide-driver(Zaza) who offered to take me to Alaverdi and Gremi for about 50 Gel.
The journey was pretty interesting, the landscape was different and nice if not spectacular. Passed through several vineyards, farms, the Caucasus mountains could be seen at a distance..kakheti looked like the perfect place to live in Georgia. We finally arrived at Alaverdi, it was the most beautiful monastery I had seen in Georgia so far(while all of them were great). The light was perfect, the clouds were perfect, the monastery was more like a fort, like Ananuri. Despite all that, the highlight of the place was the homemade honey-yoghurt that I got at the cafeteria outside the monastery.
Next on the list was Gremi, which was had received a lott of visitors, while the place is historically significant, I didn’t really enjoy it a lot. Plus it was hard to get good pictures. Returned back to Telavi, headed to the big food market place which reminded me of Istanbul’s Egyptian bazar. Telavi has other attractions as well, but most were closed for the public holiday.
Later on I found a bus heading back to Tbilisi, stopped at the junction which leads to Signaghi, got a taxi for 15 Gel from there. Found a guesthouse with a local woman(who didn’t speak English), was pretty neat and I was getting a complete room for myself with breakfast for just 20 Gel. So yes, why not?
Bus to Telavi:6 Gel
Telavi taxi to Gremi and Alaveradi: 50 Gel
Taxi from the junction to Signagi: 15 Gel
Dinner and lunch: about 10 Gel each
Accommodation in Signagi: 15 Gel
The ride upto Signaghi was quite scenic, the views of Signaghi itself were very beautiful. The town too was pretty impressive, nicely laid cobbled roads, beautiful houses and terraces and sweeping views of the countryside. Well that’s all Signaghi is! Took a long walk across the town, visiting all the vantage points, all had fabulous views. The wall around the town was in my opinion the top attraction of Signaghi. You can walk on top of the wall for quite a distance…kind of a tiny version of the Great Wall. But enjoyable nevertheless. Had a good Georgian dinner at one of the restaurants, carrot-walnut, khachapuri and salad. I generally liked the food more in Kakheti than Svaneti or Tbilisi.
Signaaghi and back to Tbilisi
Had a brilliant breakfast at my homestay, loads of accompaniments with bread, and khachapuri’s always there. Took another walk across the town, well there was nothing else to do. Got a bus back to Tbilisi, took a metro to the Freedom square area and checked in back into Tbilisi BHM hostel.
Took a bus to the Mtatsminda park, again, nothing to see except for the view. On the bright side I met two friendly indian gentlemen up at the park and went for lunch with them. Hada gelato at Angelato, a nice potato khachapuri at a bakery, took a walk in the Botanical garden, got a nice sulphur bath and walked upto the Tsminda Sameba cathedral which looks absolutely gorgeous in the evening as the sun’s rays fall on it. And then the church lights up, and it looks even more beautiful! And it’s really huge. Since it was a Saturday evening, there were quite a few people visiting. Spent a lot of time absorbing the place and then moved on back to the Freedom square area. Had a great Georgian dinner at a place on Dadiani street, spent some time wandering about the area, exchanged remaining money, had nuts and ice-cream from the street, came back to the hostel and went to sleep. Woke up at an unearthly 1 AM to go to the airport, the hostel manager had booked a taxi for a mere 15 Gel. Reached the airport, which was supercrowded for 2 AM, but I got in pretty easily. So finally ended my trip.
A great one, very great infact, it was challenging in some aspects, but certainly very rewarding, would love to come back for Tusheti sometime in the future.
Bus from Signagi to Tbilisi: 6 Gel
Lunch: 5 Gel for a good khachapuri at a bakery
Gelato: 2.5 Gel
Sulphur bath: 20 Gel
Churchkhela to take back: 2.5 Gel per piece
Fruits:about 3 gel(figs and peaches)
Dinner: about 10 Gel
Taxi to go back to the airport: 15 Gel