Text and Photos. Tony SteurerTbilisi - Mtskheta - Anamuri - Gudauri - Kazbegi/Stepandsminda - Gori - Uplistikkhe -
Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park - Abastumani - Svanetia - Mestia - Ushguli - Kutaisi - Batumi
A rather small, mountainous country, about the size of Scotland or Austria. Bordering Russia, Armenia, and Turkey, it has an astounding array of physical diversity. To the north lies the High Caucasus with mountains towering above 5000 metres, higher than anywhere in the Alps. To the south is the Small Caucasus, still impressive with peaks of up to 2850 metres. In between these ranges is the Kolchic plain, as well as an array of hills and escarpments. A subtropical climate, deep forests, a history spanning thousands of years, part of the ancient silk road as well as the now-defunct USSR, independent republic since 1991.
My first impressions after landing in Tbilisi, the capital with 1,5 million inhabitants: a 1500 year old city with lots of impressive buildings. 8.00 am: Hardly anybody on the streets. The mighty Rustaveli Avenue is leafy and houses ministries, upmarket shops, and hotels, mostly in historic buildings between Freedom Square and Revolution Square. The old town is getting rebuild and reconstructed on a large scale. Quite an effort although the mock old-style can appear a bit soulless in places, almost like a movie setting. But there are still crumbling rows of houses that show decades of neglect, most with ottoman balconies, steep staircases. Churches aplenty.
Picked up a 4x4 Nissan Pathfinder. Difficult to find the pickup place as the street had recently been renamed, a frequent nuisance around here. Driving north out of the city through a maze of one-way-streets; hard to find the entry to the motorway, which once I am on it, is in excellent condition but at the time of my visit was a mere 80 kilometres long. First stop in Mtskheta, a small place and a UNESCO world heritage site with a big, fortified castle doubling up as a church. Beautiful frescoes, solemn and peaceful atmosphere. Classic basic design of an orthodox church in the region. The town itself already touristic with faux facades in the pedestrian zone.
Moving north on the old Soviet military road I reach Anamuri, another atmospheric highlight and yet another fortified castle church, almost a thousand years old, high above the green blue waters of the Zhinvali barrier lake, surrounded by mountain forests. The road is winding up the mountain in serpentines. A few miles ahead of Gudauri I come across a monstrous, monumental relic from Soviet times is hanging above the gorge. Imagine a concrete structure, 50 metres in diameter, fully covered with paintings of the Marxist saga; quite surreal. Gudauri is a ski resort (2000 m), but now in summer it is deserted. Further serpentines lead up to the Jvari pass (2379 m): bad road, ice fields and lots of Armenian trucks that provide the overland supply between Russia and Armenia.
Next stop is Kazbegi, now called Stepandsminda (2000 m), the Russian border is 8 km ahead and is closed to foreigners. Phantastic panorama from the Gergeti church, 600 m above town. Two bearded monks in black cloths. Grudges about photography and women not wearing skirts. Close by are the snow and ice walls of the valley, the highest mountain towering above us at 5033 m. So far, my 4x4 has climbed an impressive 4800 metres. Found a hotel next to the raging river; with the night comes the rain; low hanging clouds in the morning.
Heading West: The Trans Europe E60 (Istanbul is 1760 km down that road) leads to Gori: plenty of rundown buildings made from pre-cast concrete slabs, a large citadel in the centre and broad boulevards. Stalin was born here, still much revered to this day. About 10 km outside lies Uplistikkhe, one of the oldest settlement in the country. 3000 years ago cave dwellers carved rooms out of the soft rock. There is a three-tiered basilica, an enthronisation room, an apothecary, wine cellar and more… The valley in yellowish-raw, Siena-like colours; nice views.
So far, I have driven 1600 km: Lots of petrol stations, every second one an abandoned ruin. One litre of petrol costs one Euro. All across the country you encounter prime Soviet architecture, but it is far from being the dominant style. Plenty of old, cobble-stoned streets, and vast numbers of investment ruins, the reasons for which remain hidden. On a positive note: No trash and hardly any billboard ads. The cows in the countryside seem very stubborn and like their cousins in India seem to prefer to stand or even lie down in the middle of the road; even on a motorway. Traffic is very light: often there is hardly a car or even motor bike in sight. And not many people seem to own a car either. The whole place is just very beautiful. There doesn’t seem to be any region that is not pleasant. Stupendous mountain panoramas, far reaching views, endless forests, wild rivers und canyons, plenty of almost untouched nature and fascinating cultural places. The people are calm and serene, almost everywhere you are greeted with a smile. Only whilst driving do people show a more hectic disposition. But I had a strong feeling of being safe throughout.
Very scenic route through the Borjomi-Kharagauli Nationalpark. Turkish coffee at a roadside place, bread is baked in a earthen oven right next to our stand. Akhaltsike with a huge citadel above the city. From there about 65 km to Vardzia. Outstanding beautiful scenery, with valleys that seem to be taken straight from a historic photo book; pretty and atmospheric castle ruin in Khertvisi. Vardzia is a city made of rocks and caves build into a cliff high above the narrow canyon. After a steep climb uphill, countless cave dwellings, an old rock church (which reminded me of Göreme in Turkey) with frescoes, inside the cliff are mazy alleyways, stone staircases, a chamber with a spring, very impressive place! One night in Abastumani, in a hotel in the middle of a forest. Massive historic, wooden houses. Took a yellow major (sic) road in the morning which to my surprise ends at the gated entrance to the Borjomo-Kharagauli national park wilderness. Early in the day, nobody around to ask. Driving on uphill the surface is getting very rough. After 90 minutes I reach the Zekari Pass (2182 m), and on the subsequent ridge the sights in almost every direction are amazing. Another slow 90 minutes downhill through wild gorges and wet forest with massive lichen on the trees. 3 hours for maybe 20 kms... Exit from the wilderness in a narrow canyon with a modern hospital with a big carpark. The patients all arrive in big cars. Narrow curves through the canyon towards Bagdadi.
Heading North towards Svanetia: The only major road into the poorest and thinnest populated region leads from Zugdidi in the northwest to Mestia. Along the way a massive, about 180 meter tall dam; high-pressured water shooting out. Dense mountain forests, narrow gorges, deep down below the raging Enguri river, endless curves, lots of falling rock. On one occasion, a digger has to clear the road before we can move on. Ubiquitous cows resting on the road, bridges being their preferred spots. Lots of dung... After 130 km, I finally reach Mestia; the centre of the region. High peels are characteristic here, dating from the middle ages, protected as a UNESCO heritage site, and resembling the fortified towers of San Gimignano. Unfortunately, a lot of new buildings in Mestia without much sensitivity towards older architectural styles. Therefore straight on to Ushguli, about 45 km away, on a road that is only suitable for 4x4s. This is a seriously challenging track over a mountain pass: deep troughs, axle-deep trenches, and pools of mud. Few villages along the way, all with peels. Remote and rugged beauty in this valley in the High Caucasus. The sky is a scorching blue, slopes in emerald green up to the icefields. Meadows full of blooming flowers and plenty of giant hogweed. This is how the Alps might have looked a hundred years ago. Ushguli (2200 m) is dominated by about 20 peels (up to 22 m high, built from the local shist with small crenels high above, inside with mostly 4-5 floors, interconnected by wooden staircases). Above the village at the end of the valley are the towering snow and ice walls of the Skhara massif (5058 m) with the namesake glacier, the Langhitau (5058 m) and Ailama (4546 m).
A short trek in the cool, clear, and thin air, then local specialities for dinner. Exploring the village in the morning, houses are crumbling as the young have departed a long time ago. Some peels are used as shelter for the animals, the alleyways are full of dung like in the middle ages. Without the little ongoing tourism the place might be completely deserted and abandoned. My map shows a track leading through the mountains. The alternative would be to return along the same way. So I am asking the owner of the inn I was staying in, whether my car could handle that road. No problem. Came the reply. It turns out that I am the only tourist who is taking that road: steep drive uphill, crossing the Zagaro Pass (2623 m) with icefields alongside the track, and into the Zhesko valley. Another steep gorge with the mighty ice-covered Tsurungula (4249 m) dominating the entire horizon. Rhododendron forests. This is a very tricky day tour, about 100 km track with ridges of rock, mud, creek crossings, holes of every imaginable kind and size. The Pathfinder muddles through all of it. In 5 hours I only came across 2 cars and 2 trucks upcoming. Deserted area, the first village appeared after 50 km. Near Lentheki, I reconnect with civilisation, but still another 3 hours over bumpy roads through the Tskhenistskali canyon before reaching the central plain. Can’t remember seeing a single road sign.
Phantastic sweeping views from the Caucasus escarpments across the central plain towards the Small Caucasus about 80 km in the distance. I spent the evening in Kutaisi, the country’s second biggest town with (180,000 inhabitants). I am staying in a hotel with a pleasant terrace on a mountain above the town. Big market hall, fruits, and vegetables, local Natakhtari beer available in 2-litre bottles. Pleasant atmosphere, even an opera house. Bagrati cathedral (UNESCO site) high above the town. A few kilometres outside, on a ridge above a canyon sits Motsameta monastery: pleasing and harmonic architecture, solid walls, peaceful and atmospheric. Gelati (UNESCO site), another fortified church on a mountain. Amazing mosaic on the altar, the virgin Maria, about 900 years old. Colourful frescoes throughout, around 800 years old. Ubisa: Atmospheric miniature monastery, a 4 storied tower with an outside staircase. In Surami climbed up the crumbling citadel. One kilo raspberries just 2 Euros. The fortified church of Samtavisi is deserted, a few miles further the deserted church of Amilakhvari. 500 m above Skhvilo the old citadel, a darkish place from the middle ages with high walls, a tiny entrance, and crenels. Steep off-road drive uphill. Sweeping panoramic views with no one around.
After returning the Pathfinder in Tbilisi, I took a taxi (Mercedes 280E) to the Armenian border, the land getting drier and the temperature hotter: 35 Celsius at 10.00 in the morning. I tried to board the bus to Ardahan in north-eastern Turkey. However, coming from Iran, it was fully booked. Change of plan and onward travel to Batumi on the Black Sea. Near Kutaisi a gruesome accident: A burning Mashrutska (shared taxis, most of them Mercedes Sprinters) plus a second burning minibus. Naked men with burns, covered in blood, on the road. I guess their clothes caught fire. A dead body looms from the minibus. No ambulance yet. Afterwards our driver is adopting a slower driving style.
Black Sea: Interesting, lush vegetation with bamboo forests, tree ferns, eucalyptus, palm trees. Dark, pebble beaches, some also sandy. The usual property ruins, right next to brand new buildings. Difficult to understand this waste. Batumi, according to Donald Trump, in five years ‘the best city in the world’ (quoted 2012) has an interesting, futuristic skyline on a peninsula. Casinos and hotels next to a big harbour and the usual chaos of a Georgian city. Some way to go still before it can fulfil Donald’s assessment.
Some final thoughts:
Local transport: with buses and Mashrutkas, but if you would like to do parts of this tour, a 4x4 rental is recommended, especially for Svanetia.
Accommodation: Plentiful in Tbilisi and Batumi, otherwise sufficient availability, although sometimes basic.
Language: Locals are ok with English. In some areas, however, only Russian and Georgian are spoken
Costs: Not an expensive place.