Georgia – a peculiar mix
On friday the 13th of May we are ready to enter the first country that we didn’t visit before, and we are excited! After a very easy border crossing we are in. With crossing the border there comes an end to the good road and relatively easy driving in the east part of Turkey: the roads aren’t that good and the traffic is chaotic. The cars that are driving around are faded glory European luxury cars that are sometimes almost falling apart. We see right hand drive vehicles, many cars and trucks with German or Dutch company names on them – apparently they imported a lot of them from Western Europe.
A strange mix of my things
We go directly to Batumi: the third largest city of Georgia, located at the Black Sea. While we drive to the center we see a strange mix of buildings: a skyline with new skyscrapers and all the famous hotels are represented – one of them even has a golden fairy wheel integrated in the facade – and some classical drop shaped domes that you would expect to see in Russia. Old streets with terraces which makes us feel like being in a Western European city and – when we go a bit further into the city – we see the dusty streets full with market stalls that reminds us of India, or no: maybe more of Iran. Our minds constantly try to compare the new country with our previous experiences: that’s how the minds works. It wants to find patterns, wants to understand and organize things. But it seems like Georgia is a strange mix of many things.
When we rest a little bit in our bus before going in to the city, we hear two people outside and apparently they are posing and making pictures. When we open the window they say: “hey, we know you!” David and Evelyn are from Austria and they are driving their motorbikes to Australia (we2r.com) and they recognized our car from a facebook group where a lot of overlanders share information (facebook.com/overlandsphere). That’s funny! We instantly decide to drink a beer together, and that turns into several. We go on a quest to find the “marvelous” dancing fountains and after that we ended up in an open air disco in party capital Batumi. We had a great night together! After that we went back to our bus to have a quiet sleep. But our peaceful place turned into a racing track.. Drivers show off their skills and drive with high speed just past our bus – shaking our house… Moved to the second spot which appeared to be a “drift” track, on spot 3 we’ve found out that Georgians love to put their car’s sound systems to the test.. Thank God for earplugs! After a few days in Georgia we came to the conclusion that the car is really important for them: it’s their pride, their mobile sound system, their place to have a little bit of privacy and sometimes even their home.
In the end we stay four days in Batumi: Roderick fixes the sealing of one of our windows that was leaking and we use the time to get up to date with the stories of Turkey. We sort the photos, write the blog. And as always: it takes more time than we hoped for. The bus feels so small again and I go outside to run and loosen up a bit. While somewhat frustrated throwing stones in the sea, all of a sudden I see something jumping out of the water. A group of dolphins is playing in the waves! Very close to the coast. Wow, what a surprise! I run back to the bus to get Roderick and together we enjoy the playful dolphins jumping and hunting for fish. This is why we are travelling! And all of a sudden the computer work doesn’t feel as big of a problem anymore.
On a quest
The next morning we are ready to see more of Georgia: Batumi has been a great introduction to the country, but we have the feeling it is not exemplary for the rest of it. When we drive out of Batumi, we see lush green hills, palm trees and a lot of flowers – it feels very tropical. And at the same time: the grey concrete apartment buildings look Eastern European or Soviet style. Georgia keeps confusing us. We decided to drive towards the mountains of the high Caucasus, but we take it easy. We read about hot springs on our way, and because our last shower was more than a week ago, they sounded even more appealing to us. Of course, we know that our expectations shouldn’t be too high, but there are two hot springs on our way and one of them should be good enough to wash ourselves a little bit, right? The first one we want to check out are the Menji hot springs. A spa resort, as our tourist map tells, with curing mineral water. And it showed a picture of a beautiful gorge with stones and clear water. Let’s go there! We have to take a dirt road and arrive in Mengi village. When we ask for the hot springs, nobody knows about it. But after sometime they seem to realize what we are looking for. “Ah, Sanatorium!”, and they point in a direction further away. So, we drive on, out of Mengi village. We drive over a train track, pass a Soviet style apartment block and drive into a street. Outside of one of the houses there is a Georgian woman and I ask her where we have to go for Mengi sanatorium. She points us back again. But further than some pointing, our conversation doesn’t go. Too bad that we don’t speak any Russian! It seems like almost everybody in Georgia seems to know at least some Russian. We turn the bus and drive back. We decide to take the dirt road that leads to the river. We drive on and on and than we end up at a place that is used as the local trash heap. Hmm, oh no… “Why aren’t there any signs? It should be a place you should visit according to this tourist map!” I say. We try to turn at the small dirt track and drive back to the main road. “Ok, let’s drive to the nearby city to ask there, they will know for sure”, Roderick says. We continue our quest, Roderick is notorious for not giving up easily… After talking to some people, they point us back in the same direction as where we were coming from. We pass the old Soviet apartment block again. It seems unmaintained, but at the same time it is full with laundry and we see some people walking around. “Maybe it is this place?” Roderick says. “No, I can’t believe it, did you see the pictures??! I don’t want to believe it!” I say. We drive around the building and eventually stop in front of an old, crumbling stairway made of stone. Three man are sitting in the shadow of the trees. We stop and ask them: “Menji sanatorium?” They nod their heads and point enthusiastically at the building behind them. We are somewhat confused: should we be happy that we finally found it? Or should we be sad because it really is the place that we were not hoping it would be? “I will take our bathing suits and towels!”, I say, still hoping that we would find our paradise. When we walk up the stairs we see the remnants of the sanatorium, which our now used as cow and chicken sheds. And when we walk further we meet some of the people that live in the huge unmaintained Soviet style apartment block. With gestures we try to explain what we are looking for: we make movements like we are swimming or bathing – and in the end they point in the direction of the scrap heap again…
Disappointed we walk down to our bus. Maybe we should accept that we can’t find it.. But it looked so good on our map! Finally we decide to go on again, let’s go to the next spring – 40 km drive more north. Hopefully we are more lucky there..
We drive an hour through the landscape that is more rural at the moment. We see so many animals, and they are everywhere: the cows are walking around freely, and so do the horses, pigs and chickens. The whole land seems theirs, and around the houses are fences to keep the animals out. The other way around as we are used to in The Netherlands! We make fences to keep our animals in a specific area – if they are even outside.. But in Georgia the animals choose where to go, and many times they like to take a stroll on the road. So, be careful while driving!
After one hour we arrive in the small valley where our second option for a hot spring should be. We even see a sign that suggests that there will be one! Ooh, we almost can’t believe it. But then, all of a sudden, we loose the sign. A few older people on a bench in the village are happy to help us. We make swimming and bathing gestures again, and off course they start to laugh. Then they point back in the direction where we were coming from and tell us to take a left turn somewhere. We drive back, I take our bathing suits out again, let’s have a look! But when we arrive at the spot, we realize why the elder people were laughing. Yes, there is hot water coming out of a small pipe, but the swimming pools are more looking like small cow shit pools: apparently the cows like to groom here too. I am really disapointed now…
Ok, travelling is about letting go, so let’s move on. We decide to drive a little bit more towards the mountains. And hopefully we find a good place for the night. We see a valley on our map, with a river running through it, and decide to take the dirt road there. It is always hard to find a good and relatively flat spot in a mountain valley, and just when gave up finding that perfect place at the river we find one: a green patch of grass, at a river with fresh clean water. We are completely happy! As always we have a look around to get to know our place a little bit and introduce ourselves to our new neighbours. We walk over the suspension footbridge that led to other side of the river. A very old lady is sweeping the ground in front of the house. When she sees us and realizes we are strangers, she calls out to other people around the house. Some what later a middle aged lady welcomes us and we point out that we are here with our “caravan” and that we are parked at the other side of the river. Everything is fine, and as we walk back over the bridge we can’t wait to get our chairs, table and barbecue out and have a swim in the clear water. But the moment we start our preparations for the barbecue, the lady of the house comes to visit our place. She brought her son and husband. They feel at home it seems: she sits down in our chair, while her son takes a look in our bus. In the meantime the man of the house keeps on talking in Georgian, while he has his arm around Rodericks shoulders. We don’t understand a word of what they are saying, and he keeps on talking. After a while it gets clear: they really want us to come to their house. As in: really, really want us to come to there house. He keeps on talking and making gestures: he taps with his finger against his throat – later we learn that this is the sign for drinking alcohol – and he makes gestures as if he is cutting his throat. No idea what he is trying to explain, but it seems not very inviting to us… We were so happy with our spot and we decide to decline their invitation and continue our preparations for the barbecue. But, they insist. They start to fold our chairs and put them in the bus. And now the son is making the same sign of cutting his throat. It feels like they won’t rest before we are in their house, eat with them and sleep at their place. OK, let’s make a deal: we come to their house, but we will sleep in our bus. In the end they seem to agree. We are still not completely at easy due to signs and the amount of pressure they applied… it almost feels like we are taken hostage! Just before we lock our door, Roderick decides to take a knife with him… just in case.. We follow the son over the suspension bridge to their house. First we sit with grandma outside, while they try to repair their television. Not necessary for us! We “talk” with grandma who seems a really tough cookie and she tells us about her belated husband and a lot more which we can’t always understand. Then it’s time to eat: they serve their homemade cheese (Sulguni) and yoghurt from their own cows. And of course: this wouldn’t by Georgia if there was no alcohol involved: we drink homemade wine and chacha (65% vodka made of grapes). And our host is the Tamada of our table: every time he brings out a new toast, and then you have to finish your glass in one time. We drink to the friendship between Hollandia and Georgia, to Sandra Roelofs (the much loved Dutch wife of the former president of Georgia), to our friendship, to us and a lot more we don’t understand. “Marlenki, Rick – karmachos!” When he gets out his gun after a few toasts, we get second thoughts for a moment… But of course nothing happens. It was a really great evening where we got fully introduced in Georgian culture – and we like it!
The next day we are ready to hit the road again to go to the real mountains. We say goodbye to the family and give the woman a ride to her job at the local kindergarten. Our next destination is Svaneti – a region in the upper Caucasus, where people lived around typical stone towers that were used for defense. As we are driving towards Mestia the mountains become bigger and bigger. On our way we see so many churches: Georgia is a very religious country, where most people are orthodox christians. After quite a drive through the mountains and a lot of hairpins we finally arrive in Mestia, the starting point to go deep into the mountains of Svaneti. We heard about a 4x4 road from Mestia to Ushguli: the highest permanently inhabited village of Europe (? yes, we are surprised that Georgia is seen as part of Europe – after Istanbul we drove into Asia right?) at an altitude of 2.400 meters. It is a 50 km drive over a tough road, and we hope we can drive this road with our Abi. It the good news is: we checked a few local people and they think we can do it with our bus! There was quite some rain the last days, but tomorrow the weather seems to be good. Together with our new Russian friends Konstantin and Nadia, which we met on the way, we decide to take the chance and go tomorrow. Our plan is to drive to Ushguli, stay there for a few nights and make a camp together with them. In the early morning we drive off, and the road is… challenging. So many holes, big puddles of water that come as high as our axle, crossing rivers and a lot and a lot of mud… But Roderick and Abi are doing it! We are enjoying it very very much and we just keep going: there seems no way back. When we would have seen the road before going there, we would never have thought it would be possible for us to do it. What a confidence of the locals in our bus! After three hours of slipping and sliding we made it. It is great to be in this remote area with our own bus! So proud of my two men ;-). And so are the people we meet in Ushguli: they are all very surprised that we made it up here, with this bus. Our mountain goat proved himself again!
And although is starts to rain again we make a great camp with the Russians. We put a lot of effort in making a fire with the soaking wet wood and have a perfect barbecue. And the crazy thing is: in this remote and hard to reach place two motorbikes and a yellow landrover stop at our camp: 4 Dutchmen on their mission to Tokyo. We talked to them already through Facebook before we left. “See you somewhere on a mountain”, Roderick said to them. And, here it happens! Crazy Dutch people. We do some great hikes in the Svaneti region: the one to Ushba glacier was our favorite: 18 kilometer, changing landscapes and even a remote mountain military post because we are very close to the border with Russia.
The good life
After our great adventures in Svaneti, we regret to leave the mountains again. We say goodbye to our Russian friends and at the same time we meet some new friends: Anina, Karl and their dog Luna – from Germany in their Mercedes bus. Together with them we make a great camp at Katski pillar – where we had some holiday time: swimming in a hidden lagoon, yoga in the morning, Roderick did some rock climbing and barbecue time in the evening! And after that we drive together to the capital Tbilisi. Along our route we passed Chiatura: a former Soviet town, where they used cable cars as public transportation.
In convoy and through heavy rain we drive in a few hours to Tbilisi. What a surprise: a very pleasant city of more than one million people. The center is full of charming restaurants, beautiful houses with baroc style balconies and ancient hammams with warm and smelly water from the mineral hot springs. Paradise! We are really enjoying the good life in Tbilisi. Highly recommended as a city trip or the start of a longer holiday! The capital is also our last stop in Georgia. We loved Georgia a lot: very good and mostly organic food, great people, and the nature…. mind blowing! A little sad to leave the country we get ready for Armenia. To impress the border official we learn our first Armenian words. Nachvamdis Georgia, Barev Armenia!