(The Republic of) Georgia: So beautiful it makes me angry


svantowersAfter leaving Kazakhstan, I met with Anna in Tbilisi (capital of Georgia) and plan to travel for a month or so together through Georgia, Armenia, and Turkey.

She arrived from a flight to Istanbul to Tbilisi by overnight bus; her ride seemed eventful, including an instance where someone was shot in front of her at a bus stop and a huge fight broke out. The gunshot victim was bleeding out while the Turkish men fought, and because of the fighting the ambulance wasn’t even able to take the dying man to a hospital. The bus left before the situation was resolved, although I think with a few less passengers. Anna was unharmed and kept safe.

Compared to that, my flight from Kazakhstan was uneventful with a layover in Ukraine. I got mild amusement by peculiar word usage in an English-language newspaper from Kiev and a brilliant article that listed the number one potential use for Chernobyl in the future to be a nuclear waste disposal site.

For the sake of time I combined all the cities we visited in Georgia into one post, with pictures after each city. So here we go:

Tbilisi – The Capital of Georgia

Besides your typical ex-Soviet country phenomena of hostels that you reserve not existing, restaurants inexplicably being closed or not having food, and in general things like bus routes being unknown even to the people that live there, Tbilisi was really beautiful. It had a completely different architecture than other Soviet-influenced cities and was a pleasure to walk through. There were some old walls outside the city on a hill that we walked up to, and beautiful old churches with ancient frescoes dotting the city. We also explored the main bazaar where I picked up onion seeds as a favor to my Couchsurfing host in Novosibirsk.

We experienced the famed “Georgian hospitality” when we were basically force-fed assorted Georgian wines during a dinner out by a local lawyer in Tbilisi who had visited Arkansas and become fond of American politics. After he studied the issues of flag-burning and abortion in the US on an exchange program, he decided that he would be a Republican. He bought us two bottles of wine to-go, one of which managed to disappear that night in the nice nearby April 9th Park.


Kazbegi – First dose of Caucasian mountainous beauty

After Tbilisi, we had our introduction to the harrowing experience that is riding in marshrutki (mini-buses) in the Caucasus Mountains. Kazbegi was a three hour ride north of Tbilisi, with many sections that were simultaneously bone-jarring due to the road condition (many of the roads were first built by gulag prisoners) and astoundingly beautiful due to the mountainous scenery.

As we rose to the highest pass of the route, the surrounding mountains were covered with more than a meter of snow and peaks stood imposingly all around. We found a small guesthouse in a community called Stepansminda (located in a valley with beautiful mountains shooting up on all sides) that included breakfast and dinner and waited out the rain. Guesthouses are the norm in the Caucasus region for travelers, and are just spare rooms in peoples’ houses. They usually include food in the price, and are a cozier than hostels. We would see over the course of traveling that the cows and sheep that roamed freely around town was also the norm for Georgia outside Tbilisi.

The next day was clear and we hiked up to the Sameba monastery, picturesque enough to make it on to the cover of the Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan Lonely Planet guidebook cover. To reach the 9th century monastery (Georgia is the 2nd oldest Christian nation after Armenia) about 800 meters above the town there was a longer route if you walked on the road or a shorter, smaller, more pleasant trail that basically cut through the road when it switched back. Not knowing that Anna spoke German, she overheard a group of older Germans on the road talking about how we were destroying nature since we weren’t walking on the road, perhaps because they didn’t realize there was a trail. Just to see their reaction, I tried to get her to snarkily say in German, “At least we didn’t destroy Europe,” but she resisted my juvenile urge.

Anyways, the mountains and scenery were beautiful (pictures describe it better), and after hiking up past the monastery we were exhausted and returned to the guesthouse after seeing the monks do a ritual that was lost upon us. They spent a lot of time singing demurely and kissing portraits of Jesus. It was also obvious that bathing wasn’t really a priority for them when they walked nearby, so I guess they didn't really emphasize the whole "Cleanliness is next to godliness" thing.

We took the rough marshrutka ride back to Tbilisi and headed to Svaneti.


Svaneti – The isolated home of the "ferocious" Svan people

We were planning to skip over this stunning area of Georgia due to the difficulty or arriving by land, but when we found out about government-subsidized flights to the Svan capital of Mestia for around $40 we jumped on the opportunity.

With it’s own culture isolated in the Caucasus mountains of northwestern Georgia, the Svan people have maintained their territory during numerous conquests throughout history and gained them a reputation for ferocity. However, the only thing that we noticed being ferocious was the rate at which people seemed to be refurbishing their homes for an expected tourist boom. Apparently it was dangerous for tourists to visit due to some local thugs until they were arrested by police a few years ago.


Flight over the North Caucasus mountains to Mestia (Svaneti) from Tbilisi, Georgia from Tyler Cole on Vimeo.


We ended up staying at the same comfortable, cheap guesthouse (with its own traditional Svan Tower) as a few other passengers on the plane and we grew quite fond of them during our few days in Mestia. A Canadian-Brit historian named Dan was traveling with his Irish friend, Bernice, during a break he was taking from researching medicine in the Gulags during the Soviet days in the archives in Tbilisi. He was currently a professor of Russian Studies in Swansea, Wales and in the middle of writing a book, and he rewrote his grant proposal to fund research time in Georgia. Dan was fascinating to talk with and picking his brain full of encyclopedic knowledge of the Soviet Union was a ton of fun.

He had actually met Bernice in London when they were working in the student travel industry years ago, and they had been friends ever since. Bernice also had a cornucopia of life experience to talk about and among other things worked as an art director for an Irish university before becoming ill and fighting a rare, chronic case of meningitis. Although she was still fighting it, she was brave enough to travel and barely let it slow her down. There was also a kinetic Australian named Scott that seemed to have traveled just about everywhere and shared with us a lot of good info about traveling in Armenia.

Although Bernice wasn’t feeling well, we joined Dan for a trip to the nearby city of Ushguli. It is considered to be the highest inhabited city in Europe (some may contend how European it is), and although it was only about 45 km from Mestia took about 3 or 4 hours to arrive. This was our third, violent experience on Georgian mountain roads but was worth it to see Ushguli, and at least the scenery during the ride was astounding.

Dotted with the same Svan towers as in Mestia but a bit more concentrated, much of the town seemed locked in time. We ate lunch near a small church from the 9th century, many of its frescoes covered during the atheistic Soviet times but still with a bit exposed and restoration ongoing. The local museum had some incredible artifacts from the area from as early as the 6th century.

Although we avoided the road on the way to Mestia, we had to take a marshrutka down to get to Batumi.


Batumi – Okay so let's move on

I’m not sure why we decided to go here besides its location on the Black Sea, and we quickly left after recovering from the marshrutka ride from Mestia and staying for a night. It was overpriced and had little to offer besides an apparently wild nightlife that we forwent. The weather was gray and the Black Sea not particularly appealing to swim in. It would probably be better to visit some other season.


Borjomi – Source of the famed, eponymous mineral water

We took a marshrutka to Borjomi from Batumi, renowned for its production of mineral water. It was the most popular type of water in the Soviet Union and Russia until the conflict over Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008 when an embargo was imposed on Georgian products by Russia.

The mountains around the town reminded me of the Smoky Mountains, and we were plenty entertained here for a few days. We happened to stay in the same room in the same guesthouse as a French guy, Joel, I had met in 2010 while traveling from Nicaragua to Honduras. Neither of us could believe the coincidence. We both shared a passion for biology, simple living, and Wikitravel, and it was only after talking to him for a while and thinking I had déjà vu that it clicked in my head we had met before. We pulled up pictures and found that we had taken the same picture at the border when crossing into Honduras. We shook the freakiness of the coincidence of meeting again in such a bizarre place as Borjomi and the three of us took a day trip to the nearby cave monastery of Vardzia and enjoyed several long meals together.

There was also a Polish couple in our guesthouse armed with traditional Polish bison grass vodka which led to some colorful card playing late into the night along with the daughter of the guesthouse’s owner, Mako. Mako had married a Peace Corps volunteer in Georgia not long ago, and was making preparations to go the US. She vehemently denied doing it for immigration purposes, assuming we had thought so (she was clearly bright enough to make something of herself in Gerogia). Funnily enough, her brother also married a Peace Corps volunteer from the US.

Although we got turned down from seeing the actual bottling factory of the famed Borjomi water, we were able to bathe in a nearby hot spring and get a bit into the surrounding mountains. Many of the houses and building in town were abandoned and sad to look at but fun to climb around in. Many looked as if there were squatters that had passed though, and the decline of the town since the Soviet days and the Russian embargo was obvious.

We took off after spending a handful of days here for Armenia.


Ninotsminda – Cursing the Russians in the middle of nowhere

After not researching logistics well enough on the route to Armenia, we were stuck in this small town close to the border which was slightly reminiscent of Mongolia for me but without the charm. We found the only guesthouse in town, which was only a few dollars per night. The beds were fairly smelly with the stench of mutton and exhaust, and we just used our sleeping bags for the night.

Although the town was fairly small and quiet, we were pulled into a social drinking circle of workers who were staying in the same guesthouse. We had to pry ourselves from them when we tried to go to bed to get enough sleep for traveling the next day. Anna had a good command of Russian and found out they were installing street lights in town, and also drove trucks for an energy company. When they found out we were from the United States, there were innumerable toasts to Georgian-American friendship and plenty of cursing the Russians.

The next moring the workers (both clearly hungover) saw us off on our marshrutka to Yerevan, Armenia.




0 #1 Alyssa 2011-06-02 00:21
Sounds like you guys are having a great adventure :)
0 #2 Victor 2011-06-08 03:34
Hi Tyler! it is Victor from Omsk. I like to read your blog. Georgia is so nice according your article. it is so sad that the don't like russians. But I hope the locals will not kill me if I visit Georgia))
0 #3 Tyler Cole 2011-06-08 15:28
I'm sure you wouldn't have much trouble if you visited. I think there are more problems with the politics of Russia than the people of Russia. If you are genuinely interested and want to visit to learn about the area, I'm sure no one would much mind if you were Russian. By the way, my Couchsurfing host in Novosibirsk (Anton Kochepasov) visited Georgia and had a nice time...you could contact him and ask about it. It is the same for Americans in a lot of places, particularly the middle east. Many people hate the US in the middle east, but I have had many American friends travel to the middle east and have a wonderful time. I think most people can separate an individual traveler wanting the see the world from geopolitics.
0 #4 Lisa 2011-12-19 23:17
Georgia is a beautiful place with amazing people. The Russian government has destroyed many lives with their overwhelming greed and have ran many people out of their well earned homes. Still the people of Georgia are filled with love and warmth and will take in anyone from anywhere. Its definitely not about the Russian people but about the Russian politics.
0 #5 Giorgi 2012-01-08 20:08
Quoting Lisa:
Georgia is a beautiful place with amazing people. The Russian government has destroyed many lives with their overwhelming greed and have ran many people out of their well earned homes. Still the people of Georgia are filled with love and warmth and will take in anyone from anywhere. Its definitely not about the Russian people but about the Russian politics.

It's true Lisa!
0 #6 Zaza from Georgia 2013-03-10 08:04
You are right. But there is not shown everything.
0 #7 Zaza from Georgia 2013-03-10 08:12
We have much bigger history than Russia has.
So they can not destroy Georgia. In every century we had to fight to death to stay alive. Nobody coud destroy Georgia.
0 #8 Luka 2013-09-21 20:38
Quoting Victor:
Hi Tyler! it is Victor from Omsk. I like to read your blog. Georgia is so nice according your article. it is so sad that the don't like russians. But I hope the locals will not kill me if I visit Georgia))

you aren't right Russians are our brothers :) our presidents don't like each other :) and we are waiting for you :) we are always ready to have such great guests )))))

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