Life in the Caucasus

06/23/2018 - 07/07/2018
by kuba10


DAY 1 - flight from Prague to Kutaisi

DAY 2 - flight from Prague to Kutaisi, travel by marshrutka to Tbilisi, Tbilisi - Café Flowers, Rike Park, The Bridge of Peace, Old Tbilisi, Café Leila

DAY 3 - Tbilisi - The Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi, Narikala Fortress, Sulphur baths; Mtskheta, Ananuri, The Russia–Georgia Friendship Monument, Stepancminda

DAY 4 - Gergeti Trinity Church, Kazbegi, Stepancminda, Darialy Gorge, Darialy monastery complex, Juta

DAY 5 - Chaukhi lake, Truso Valley

DAY 6 - Uplistsikhe

DAY 7 - Martvili Canyon, Svaneti, Mestia

DAY 8 - Mestia, Café Zuruldi, Zuruldi ridge

DAY 9 - Koruldi lakes

DAY 10 - Chalaadi glacier

DAY 11 - Ushguli, Shkhara glacier

DAY 12 - Magnetiti (Ureki Beach)

DAY 13-14 - Batumi

DAY 15 - from Batumi to Kutaisi, flight from Kutaisi to Prague

DAY 1-2 - flight from Prague to Kutaisi, travel to Tbilisi, Tbilisi - Café Flowers, Rike Park, The Bridge of Peace, Old Tbilisi, Café Leila

We are full of expectations ahead of our trip to Georgia. It was the country on the top of our list of places we would like to visit. At the same time Caucasus is the highest mountain range we are about to see. Flight from Prague to Kutaisi was about 1 hour and 20 minutes delayed and we arrived to Kutaisi around 3:15 a.m.

The driver from our hotel was waiting for us and took us to the hotel. It was the first glimpse of Georgian transport and how wildly they behave while driving. Of course he wanted more money than we agreed beforehand, so be aware that taxi drivers try to fleece you.

After just a short and bad sleep we went to the centre of Kutaisi to find marshrutkas to the capital of Georgia Tbilisi. Marshrutka is the common way of transport. They are usually mini vans that take you to the places you want to go. It is very hard to find their schedule, it is better to ask locals.

The ride to Tbilisi took about 3.5 hours. As I was mentioning the drivers in Georgia are just crazy. They overtake other drivers from the left, from the right, in sharp bends, they just don't care. I was prepared for that from many stories I read in other travel blogs, but the reality shocked me anyway.

Nevertheless we arrived to Tbilisi safely and were glad we could get out of the car. Marshrutka did not take us right to the centre, so we had to find taxi to take us to our hotel. It took a while explaining where we want to go, but we succeeded and after short ride we were standing in front of our hotel.

Our first stop in Tbilisi was Café Flowers with splendid view of Tbilisi city centre. It is beautiful place with amazing garden that can offer you shadow and rest from hot weather that is common in Tbilisi. We could taste odjakhuri (the meal with potatoes and meat) for the first time and it was probably the meal we liked the most in Georgia.

After this refreshing stop we went for a walk to the city centre. At first we went to futuristic and ill-assorted Rike Park with Music Theater and Exhibition Centre - one of the most famous and controversial new buildings in Tbilisi. Then we crossed river Kura via another futuristic building The Bridge of Peace in order to get to Old Tbilisi. We were wandering through the streets of Old Tbilisi that have oriental look.

Our wandering also took us to picturesque Ioane Shavteli Street where we found amazing Leila Café with extraordinary design. We ordered our first Turkish coffee in Georgia and enjoyed unique oriental atmosphere of Old Tbilisi.

We ended this long day with picking up our rental car Mitsubishi Pajero that became important member of our trip.

DAY 3 - Tbilisi - The Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi, Narikala Fortress, Sulphur baths; Mtskheta, Ananuri, The Russia–Georgia Friendship Monument, Stepancminda

We started our second day in Tbilisi by visiting the most monumental building of Tbilisi - The Holy Trinity Cathedral. It is also known as Sameba. It is the main cathedral of Georgian Orthodox Church. It is quite new, the cathedral was built in 2004. As many of Tbilisi buildings this one is controversial as well. It was built on what once had been old Armenian cemetery. It is said that the cemetery was treated with scandalous lack of respect during the construction.

From Sameba we went to the cable car station and went up to Narikala Fortress that offers great view of Tbilisi and also Kartlis Deda. It is monument of woman in Georgian dress that symbolizes the Georgian national character: in her left hand she holds a bowl of wine to greet those who come as friends, and in her right hand is a sword for those who come as enemies.

We also wanted to see famous Sulphur baths. Just from outside. After stories we heard from these baths, we definitely did not want to go inside.

Then it was time to say goodbye to Tbilisi and jump into the chaos of Tbilisi's traffic. To get out of Tbilisi centre was quite stressful, but were slowly getting used to their way of driving. Our plan was to drive to Kazbegi region to Stepancminda village. There is several sights on the way.

First one is Mtskheta. We stopped at Jvari Monastery that offers perfect view of confluence of the rivers Mtkvari and Aragvi that have different colours. That is what makes it special.

Next sight on the way to Stepancminda was Ananuri. It is a castle complex on the Aragvi River and it lies on the Georgian Military Road. The road is main connection with Russia and a lot of trucks going from or to Vladivostok use it.

Ananuri is complex of 2 castles and 2 churches. It has great location and it is surrounded by turquoise blue water.

We were slowly ascending to the foothills of Caucasus. The sceneries like from fairy-tale started to show up. You can enjoy many shades of green everywhere around. There is also The Russia–Georgia Friendship Monument that is worth visiting. The monument is quite bizarre. It depicts the scenes from Georgian and Russian history. But the view of surrounding colossal mountains is breath-taking.

We arrived to Stepancminda shortly before twilight. We wanted to camp at the Gergeti Trinity Church, but because of road works it was not possible to get there by car, so we stayed at the periphery of Stepancminda.

DAY 4 - Gergeti Trinity Church, Kazbegi, Stepancminda, Darialy monastery complex, Juta

In the morning we started to ascend to Gergeti Trinity Church. We realized soon that there is another road leading to the church that is known probably only by locals, because some local jeeps with tourists were passing by. But it is always more rewarding to hike somewhere, than to get there by car. The feeling when you reach the destination is much better. Also we had amazing view of Mount Kazbegi (5 033 metres) on the way. The sky was clear, only couple of clouds, so the majestic Kazbegi made a big impression on us. It is said to be one of the easiest 5 000 metres mountains. It is not technically difficult. We have seen also some mountaineers and locals with horses loaded with mountaineering equipment and going to basecamp of Kazbegi.

When we reached the church, we were speechless. On one side majestic Kazbegi, when you turn around you can see panorama with Gergeti Trinity Church and surrounding mountains. We were lucky to see even Griffon vulture flying like a big shadow over our heads. The whole scenery could not have been better. We continued on the trail leading to Gergeti glacier, but weather started to get worse, so we came back, but view of church from mountain range above was amazing.

We got back to Stepancminda and went for a lunch. Then we were driving to Russian borders and to imposing Dariali Gorge. Steep mountains all around, no wonder legend of Prometheus has its origin here. One can easily imagine how he is tied to the rock. We stop at Darialy monastery complex. It was finished in 2011, so it is quite new. The Patriarch was hoping it could help to re-establish peaceful relations of Georgia and Russia thanks to its location. We will see...

From the monastery we continued to Juta village. The road to Juta is awful and it takes a lot of patience and nerves of steel, but the effort is worth it. This area is sometimes called "Georgian Dolomites". When you first see Chaukhi massif (3 842 metres) you understand why. We can really recommend the camp in Juta, it has spectacular view that you can enjoy from one of their sun loungers.

DAY 5 - Chaukhi lake, Truso Valley

When we woke up, the weather outside was amazing. We went for a hike to Chaukhi lake. It is quite easy trail, but views are amazing. Meadows full of colourful blossoms, cows and horses grazing around, several streams running from mountains. What a place!

We were looking forward to cool down in the lake, because the weather was very hot, but lake was so cold, that we put our feet into the water just for couple of seconds. Nevertheless it was very pleasant relax time.

When we came back to the camping site, we packed our stuff and went on the same bad road back to Georgian Military Road. After couple of kilometres we turned to side valley with bumpy road as well, until we reached Truso Valley. We went for a hike in almost abandoned Truso Valley leading to borders with autonomy region South Ossetia.

First we were walking through narrow gorge along roaring steel-coloured river. After few kilometres the valley opened up and showed us amazing green hills in the shape of pyramid. The sun was trying to get through clouds and it created unique game of lights.

For detailed description of this trail I recommend very useful and amazingly detailed website caucasus-trekking made by Jozef Antala:

DAY 6 - Uplistsikhe

The long drive was ahead of us today. First we needed to get to the ancient rock-hewed town Uplistsikhe. It is around 180 kilometres to get there.

When we got out of the car in Uplistsikhe, the heat slapped us right into our faces. This part of Georgia is very dry with high temperatures during the summer. If you go more south you get to semi-desserts and prairies. We were walking around this unique place and tried not die in direct sun. Expect for the hot weather, the place is really worth the visit. It used to be one of the main town on former silk road with 20 000 inhabitants. There is also a lot of lizards around. We saw for example the Caucasian agama.

When we had enough of stones, caves and rocks we continued in our journey and drove 230 kilometres to Martvili, where we wanted to have a boat ride through Martvili Canyon. It was hard to find some camping spot, but we were lucky at the end. We found a nice garden by the river with small kiosk and fellow locals let us sleep there.

DAY 7 - Martvili Canyon, Svaneti, Mestia

We woke up into another hot day in Georgia. It was good that we were staying close to the river, so we could refresh ourselves in its water. It was good idea to go to canyon right at its opening time. We jumped on the first boat and had a short but very nice ride in the canyon. We were the only boat there at that time. This location is quite popular even among Georgian tourists, so it doesn't happen very often. The canyon offers azure water, rocks and jungle like in rainforest.

When we got off the boat we went for a short walk above the canyon, where you walk on small bridges and you see the canyon from different perspective.

After returning from the canyon we jumped into the river to cool down, packed our stuff and went for a 170 kilometres long drive to Mestia, the heart of mountain region Svaneti. We passed Enguri Reservoir with bright green colour and we were driving along strong Enguri River until we finally reached Mestia and campsite Svanland.

DAY 8 - Mestia, Café Zuruldi, Zuruldi ridge

We had 4 days ahead of us in Svaneti, so we wanted to look around first from some viewpoint. The sky was clear, the visibility amazing, so we drove to the upper station of Hatsvali cable car and ride to the top of Zuruldi ridge. When you get off the cable car, panoramic Café Zuruldi is on your right side and offers splendid view of Ushba (4 710 metres) with its double-peak standing like a guard above Mestia.

We were walking on the ridge towards Mentashi transmitter. We were almost alone on the trail with amazing view on both sides of the ridge and colourful meadows all around us. It is quite short and easy walk to the transmitter. It is one of the best viewpoint of this area. The view of Tetnuldi (4 858 metres) is phenomenal. Its regular pyramid shape is typical for this massif. Quite a long time we spent relaxing there with majestic Griffon vulture flying soundlessly above our heads.

On the way back we stopped at the Café Zuruldi and enjoyed great coffee at the terrace with look at surrounding mountains.

Detailed description of this trail to Mentashi transmitter on caucasus-trekking:

DAY 9 - Koruldi lakes

The most demanding trail was waiting for us. We had to get up quite early to avoid ascending in direct sun. We wanted to get to Koruldi lakes. In order to get there you need to ascend around 1 400 metres from Mestia, because the lakes lie around 2 800 metres. 

In the first part of this trail you need to ascend around 800 metres to Tshkhakezagari mountain or so called Mestia mountain, where lies the cross that is visible from Mestia and offers great panoramic view. The climb is quite steep and there are sections with 40% inclination of the slope. The weather was getting hotter and hotter and even though we could partly hide in the shadow of trees, we were mainly walking in direct sun. After approximately 2.5 hours from Mestia we reached the cross at Mestia mountain. There was a nice shelter. A pleasant surprise that was waiting for us and we were resting in its shadow.

The second part of this trail leads you to the lakes via jeep road. It was demanding as well and the steep sections were quite exhausting especially because of the heat. We were in higher altitude above tree level, so there was nowhere to hide from direct sun. Nevertheless we reached the lakes after another 2 or 2.5 hours. When we saw the bigger lake for the first time, we forgot how hard the climb was. It was definitely worth it. The lake reflects surrounding mountains and it is hard to describe the beauty of that scenery, I hope photos will do that job.

Detailed description of this trail on caucasus-trekking:

DAY 10 - Chalaadi glacier

We got up early again and went towards Chalaadi glacier. We took German traveller Manu with us, who was on the road with her bike from Kyrgyzstan for a year. She is great woman with a lot of experience gained by travelling in many countries. We learned a lot from her. She is the person you want to meet on your travels. 

To have own car was a big help in this situation. We spared ourselves a long dusty walk through construction works on the Mestiachala river. So we drove to the bridge in the upper part of the valley and walked from there. The walk was quite easy and short (around 3 kilometres one way) in the shadow of birch forest. Our legs were little tired after yesterday hike to Koruldi lakes, but we did not have to rush. The whole walk was in the close proximity of river coming from Chalaadi glacier. The river has pretty strong stream and shows how nature should not be messed with.

To see the glacier is another monumental look that Caucasus offered us on our expedition. The clouds floating over sharp peaks of mountains, falling stones from the glacier and silence where you only hear the river. It was good idea to go in the morning, because we met some people only on our way back. The trail is easy and quite popular, so expect more people during the day. When you go to the place where river comes from the glacier beware of rock falling. When we were there it was around every 2 minutes that some rocks were falling from the glacier and we heard that some people were actually hurt.

Detailed description of this trail on caucasus-trekking:

We wanted to rest a little bit during the afternoon, so we took a cable car and ride to Café Zuruldi again.

DAY 11 - Ushguli, Shkhara glacier

Ushguli is one of the highest continuously inhabited settlements in Europe and it is part of UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is located in altitude of 2 100 metres. The road to Ushguli is in very bad condition, the first half is fine, but the second one is awful. That is why 47 kilometres took us around 2 hours by car.

When we arrived to Ushguli, the weather was amazing. We were walking to the upper part of the village, when the valley with the highest peak of Georgia opened up and the view made us speechless. The trail we were about to take leads to the Shkhara glacier. It lies at the foot of Skhara mountain (5 193 metres) - the highest mountain of Georgia.

You need to walk around 8 kilometres one way to get to the glacier, but there is no significant elevation gain. It is necessary to cross two streams on the way, but it was very nice refreshment thanks to the hot weather. The views from the valley are superb. When we reached the end of the valley a big German Shepherd came to us and started to fondle us. Believe or not the dog was walking with us all the way back to Ushguli. He was keeping in close distance behind us. When we stopped, he stopped as well. When we started to walk, he was following us like our pet. When we came back to Ushguli, we were sad that we had to say goodbye to him. So we gave him at least some food.

On the way back to Mestia, we met our fellow Manu again. She was cycling on dusty road to Ushguli. We were glad we met her, because we forgot to exchange our contacts in the campsite. We gave her some cookies and wished her pleasant ride.

DAY 12 - Magnetiti (Ureki Beach)

We didn't have to rush in the morning, because our only task was to get to Magnetiti and Ureki Beach. The resort is quite popular in Georgia especially because of its black magnetic sand that should have positive healing effects.

We were not driving alone, we took German hiker Linda and gave her ride to Zugdidi. The way to Magnetiti was around 230 kilometres long, but the traffic and roads were fine, so it wasn't such a long drive. It was perfect time to leave Svaneti behind, because later on we discovered that the next night after our departure big storm and flash floods hit this mountain region.

The weather got worse and it was raining on the way. That was the reason why the beach at the shore of Black Sea was half-empty. That was good for us and we could have a bath in the sea without crowds of people. The rain became stronger, so we didn't stay for a long time and tried to find some place to sleep.

DAY 13-14 - Batumi

We drove around 55 kilometres in order to reach Batumi. This city is like from different planet. It is full of futuristic buildings on the half-way between Las Vegas and Dubai. The city aims at rich tourists from Turkey, because it lies in short distance from Turkish border and it is full of casinos. If Batumi was the only thing you see from Georgia, your perspective of this country would be much distorted.

We tried local restaurant Porto Franco, where we tasted fish and yakhni (traditional meal of this region) and it was both delicious. Then we went to promenade along the Black Sea. The promenade is very nice, unfortunately we were not able to take a bath in the sea, because it was raining all the time and beaches were almost empty. We met small wine shop called Good Wine. We read about it in one blog, they sell delicious and very cheap Georgian wine and we can testify that.

On the way back we stopped at Piazza Batumi. It is new complex of hotels, boutiques and restaurants built in Italian style and one of the many controversial architectonic landmarks in Batumi. Almost all tour groups head this way, because it was built mainly for tourists. You hardly meet locals there. Some people love it, other people say it is not authentic whatsoever.

Next morning was without rain, so we went on a promenade again and explore Miracle Park with Alphabet Tower, Ferris wheel, Batumi Lighthouse or Ali e Nino statue. When we were walking around Batumi Summer Theater, we heard some music. We peeked inside and found out that some kind of folklore youth festival was going on. We spent couple of pleasant hours inside and were lucky to see even famous passionate Caucasus traditional dance.

DAY 15 - from Batumi to Kutaisi, flight from Kutaisi to Prague

We spent our last day in Georgia driving from Batumi to Kutaisi. We returned rental car at the airport and flew back to Prague.

Our expedition to Georgia gave us many unforgettable memories. If you love mountains, this is the right place for you. For me Caucasus was perhaps the most beautiful mountain range I have ever seen. The infrastructure of Georgia develops rapidly. It means that the potential of growing mass tourism is huge, especially thanks to its amazing nature. Let's hope the increasing number of visitors won't destroy the atmosphere of virgin mountain regions...

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