The trip from Zugdidi to Mestia was largely uneventful. The Russian girls we were sharing the car with had pitched in on a bit of a sightseeing tour, for five lari extra, so we were obliged to pay that as well. The sightseeing portion was fairly interesting, and we stopped off at the Enguri dam, which is admittedly pretty cool. It’s one if the largest arch dams in the world, and looking down on it is indeed spectacular.
A few hours of winding mountain roads later and we arrived in Mestia. Mestia is a touristy place these days, with travelers coming from all over to go hiking and exploring Svaneti (the mountainous region in northwest Georgia). Fortunately this late in the season it wasn’t totally overrun, but there were still plenty of people coming and going. We hadn’t booked anything for the night, but it seems like every other building in town is a guest house, so it didn’t take long to find a place to stay.
We came upon Dodo’s guest house and wandered around the property a bit until Dodo came out to greet us. She first quoted 25 lari per person per night, but after we turned to leave she came down to 20, which is a fair price, so we decided to stay.
The Russians had planned on taking a shared car to Ushguli the next day, and that was a spot we were thinking of visiting as well, so we joined them and a few others for a full van. We were to meet them at 9 the following morning on the main square.
One of our cabin mates from the train trip from Tbilisi was still in Mestia, and had just gotten back from a trek, so we met up with him to swap stories (he was interested in visiting Abkhazia too). The trek he did sounded great, and we had half a mind to do at least part of it the next day. It’s basically hiking to or from Mestia to Ushguli via three other villages along the way. There are guest houses and shops along the way, so no need to pack much food or camping gear. After a bit too much storytelling, and perhaps a few too many beers, our hangovers the next morning quelched any plans of a serious hike that day. Instead we opted to ride out to Ushguli and back to Mestia the same day.
The drive from Mestia to Ushguli is only 45km, but the road is not in great condition, so it takes more than two hours. The scenery along the way is amazing though, if not a bit vertigo inducing from the sheer drops down to the canyon bottom right next to the road. Ushguli is a major destination in Svaneti as well, so there is no shortage of vans making the trip out there on a daily basis.
Arriving in Ushguli is a bit like a time warp. The village has power and a cell tower, but that’s the last vestige of modern life there. The houses are built of flat stones and warmed by fire. Around the town stands a series of stone towers, very common in Svaneti, telling the story of a conflict-ridden past. Occupying the narrow swath of land between the Middle East and Russia, the Caucasus and Georgia was often the host of many different invaders making their way to and fro. With that in mind, the people of Svaneti sought to defend themselves and their land, so most towns have at least a few of these towers.
We spent a few hours in Ushguli and visited the centuries old church at the end of town. Parishes dressed in black robes sporting long beards and black hats tended to the grounds and kept candles lit. Outside, the snow began to fall, completing the mountain village vibe. Oona made friends with an adorable Caucasian Ovcharka puppy at the church who had a bit of a chewing habit and nearly destroyed her cashmere pants. After exploring the rest of the area on foot we reconvened at the van for the trip back to town.
Our hangovers and incomplete sleep from the night before convinced us of an early night that night. The new guests at the guest house, two Polish couples, however, had other ideas and soon came knocking at our door. Hardly clothed and in bed, we were somehow convinced to come drink vodka with them. They had been traveling all night and day from Poland via Kutaisi, fueled all the way by Żubrówka and apple juice. We talked for an hour or so and had a lot more vodka than we would have expected earlier that day, but it was some good fun.
The next day I had a plan to hike up to Mt Zuruldi, not far from town. Oona decided to stay and catch up on some reading. It was a 6km hike up to the Hatsvali ski area (mostly following the road but cutting between a few switchbacks) followed by a chairlift ride (operational year round, it seems) to the top followed by another 3km to the summit. The views were incredible, and fortunately the weather stayed fairly clear. As I was walking down a police truck offered me a ride, and a ride it was as the driver careened down the mountain road at totally unsafe speeds. Beats walking though…
The town of Mestia is small, so you end up running into people a lot over a few days. Another Polish couple (from our ride to Ushguli) showed up at the restaurant we were at (probably our fourth time seeing them since Ushguli), so we shared a table with them and talked about our respctive travels. That night, we talked to Dodo about transport back to Tbilisi the next day, and she called a friend and told us to show up at the square at 6:30am to catch the marshrutka.
Another early morning and a long trip back to Tbilisi before we headed east to Azerbaijan.
We stopped off for two days in Tbilisi on the way to the east. We caught the marshrutka to Signagi along with some others, equal part backpackers and locals. The crusty old woman next to us did not like sitting next to us at all, and made that pretty obvious. Fortunately the trip is only 1.5 hours or so, so doable even with a cranky woman shoving her elbow into your side.
Signagi is a picturesque town on the edge of a wide valley in the middle of wine country not far to the east of Tbilisi. We got out of the van in the center and wandered around for maybe three minutes looking for a guest house before Lasha pulled up in his BMW and offered a room in his house, meals included, for a small sum. His dad offered to drive us around to a few wineries the following day to do some tasting. This method of ad hoc tour guiding seems to be popular in the area, and it’s not hard to find somebody willing to house you and drive you around the area in exchange for a bit of money.
We spent that night walking around town a bit, and stumbled upon a Mexican restaurant called Pancho Villa (in Signagi of all places). We figured for better or for worse we had to give it a try, and it turned out to be quite good, in fact, which is something that can’t be said of many Mexican restaurants outside North America. The restaurant is little more than a house, repuporsed into a kitchen and dining room for guests, with the dining room overlooking the huge Alazani Valley below. Shortly after being seated, we heard a few other guests who identified themselves as Finnish come in. We decided to keep any knowledge of Finnish a secret in case they started talking about anything racy, but Oona ended up striking up a conversation with them shortly before we left after their conversation proved pretty mundane. We were keeping track of how long we could travel without running into any other Finns, so I guess that answers it.
After a wonderful breakfast of local produce the following morning we took off on our wine tasting tour. We ended up trying a dozen or so different wines and chachas across three different wineries and getting quite drunk in the process. We got along well with our tour guide at the second winery and as a result she gave us some extra wine and a shot of chacha as a parting gift. The last location was less wine “tasting” more “putting a few carafes of homemade wine and chacha in front of you to drink”. The focus was on traditional Georgian wine-making techniques, and Oona, with her background in wine production talked shop with the guides, comparing and contrasting the different production methods. All told, we were suitably sloshed by 3pm as we pulled back into Signagi. We got some lunch (with more wine, of course), and somehow made it home after passing out in a park for awhile. We finished off the night with some rocket fuel grade chacha made by the guest house owner along with a home cooked meal and called it a day.
The next day we took off for the border with Azerbaijan at Lagodekhi. Our first leg was a taxi down to Tsnori (4 lari) where we caught a marshrutka at the bus station bound for Lagodekhi. The driver agreed to take us all the way to the border (some 4km farther) for an extra 2 lari (for a total of 4 lari per person). We walked across the border with our printed e-visas* in hand and it was a cinch to cross. On the Azerbaijan side we caught one of the many waiting taxis to the town of Zaqatala (15 manat) where we caught a marshrutka for the trip to Shaki (2 manat per person).
We really enjoyed our time in Georgia. It’s becoming much more of a tourist destination compared to even five years ago, so word is apparently getting out about how nice of a place it is. The food is amazing, especially compared to Mongolia, and the people are quite friendly and hospitable. The wine and chacha flows freely and the nature is beautiful. It’s a little melancholy leaving, but we have high hopes for Azerbaijan as well.
*The e-visa is great, by the way. Much cheaper than the standard visa and doesn’t require any trips to the embassy. It only took ours three days to process and we printed them out to show at the border.
There are several different Kartvelian languages spoken in Georgia, in addition to standard Georgian. Around Zugdidi and the west, Mingrelian is commonly spoken, and in Svaneti the local tongue is Svan. These languages are distinct from Georgian, and not mutually intelligible with it, but its tough to identify them in the wild unless you speak one of them. One identifying characteristic of Mingrelian is the prevalent /ə/, otherwise absent in Georgian. According to most accepted grammars, Svan has a series of front rounded vowels which before arriving I figured would be easy to pick out, but I didn’t hear anything that was obviously front rounded, so I’m not sure what to conclude there.