I didn't want my Easter Holidays to be stuck within the walls of my room in Dubai. A travel plan is, of course, something that usually keeps me calm and fresh. So after planning with a few colleagues and friends no common decision about a possible schedule came out to a conclusion. I have had Georgia in my mind since long, as from the Middle East it is easily accessible and with UAE resident Visa it's free Visa on arrival. Planned and executed a solo trip once again and this time a more different one: study about the country a bit, chalk out a practical and approximate for 4 days itinerary, hire a car, get a GPS and get ready to feel a new land with a free soul.
After reaching my hostel at around 5 am I took some rest and regained my energy for the day's plan. At around 9 am the hostel staff woke me up saying that a man had come to drop me my car. It was a Nissan Xterra. Alex, a Greek guy was at my doorstep with the car. Quite a gentleman with polished behavior and good English, he handed me over the car and explained the car specific functionalities. Now my test starts; a 4x4 car a new country and minimal experience of driving. It was all adventure on cards.
I had my breakfast and in the table, met and communicated with few people of different nationality. A Georgian lady photographer, two German guys, and a Russian couple. They were discussing a Georgian custom during the Easters where drunk people fight for a ball and they have to literally beat up people to get that ball. It was about to take place on Sunday in a Village near Kutaisi. Kutaisi was not in my itinerary and I was returning on Saturday so I just enjoyed the feel of this tradition through her photographs and the stories she narrated. By this time it was already 10:30 am. I got ready and started. My itinerary had Mtskheta, Akhaltsikhe and the Jvari Monastery.
Mtskheta is a city in Mtskheta-Mtianeti province of Georgia. One of the oldest cities in Georgia, it is located approximately 20 kilometers north of Tbilisi. I drove without much of trouble. Since it is a different country the road rules and road set up was a bit different. At a point, it was so confusing that I traversed the same road twice and on the third attempt understood how to take the exit, and as you know GPS is as helpful as it is misleading at times. The highway took me straight out of the city buzz. The Caucasus Mountains could be visible from any part of Georgia. From Tbilisi, it is a different view and as soon as you drive out of Tbilisi it is another feel. Proper highway, lush green meadows, roadside restaurants more like our Dhabas, it's like all you would desire.
I really found it difficult to pronounce Georgian cities and monuments, the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral was one of those names. The Church is situated at the heart of the historic town of Mtskheta. In Georgian sveti means “pillar” and tskhoveli means “life-giving” or “living”, hence the name of the cathedral.
According to Georgian tradition, a Georgian Jew from Mtskheta named Elias was in Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified. He brought Jesus’ robe from a Roman soldier at Golgotha and brought it back to Georgia. Upon his return to Mtskheta, he was met by his sister Sidonia who upon touching the robe immediately died from the emotions engendered by the holy object. The robe could not be removed from her grasp, so she was buried with it. The place where Sidonia is buried, with Christ’s robe, is preserved in the Cathedral. Later, from her grave grew an enormous cedar tree. St. Nino ordered the cedar chopped down to build a church.
Georgia being an Orthodox Christian country the culture of the country is quite different from the Catholic countries. The architecture too reflects the difference so does the appearance the people. This small town was a very stress relieving site. An old fairy tale town feel with horse chariots and vintage cars running in parallel.
Walking down the streets of Mtskheta, I found street food stalls juice stalls, handicraft and souvenir stores etc. What drew my attention was the candle shaped sweets made of grapes and pomegranates. I tried some and carried some.
Georgian Girls were quite beautiful and even a fruit juice seller can be so attractive that I stopped to have some pomegranate juice from her stall and know about her whereabouts. Darly, she sells fruit juice in the this old market of Mtskheta. She comes from a near by village 20 km away from Mtskheta. Pomegranate is quite famous here in Georgia, these are locally harvested and used almost everywhere, from drinks to sauce you will find very good quality Pomegranate.
I am not a great reader so miss out so many basic information about the world. Before this trip, I was not aware that there is a difference in the color of the dress worn by the priest of a Church in Orthodox and Catholic Christianity. In Eastern Orthodox, they wear a black Gown and have big Tagore like a beard (although not mandatory) whereas in Catholic it varies with depending on locality and denomination.
The grandeur of the interior of Svetitskhoveli Cathedral was a very typical east orthodox style for cathedrals. I found a similar pattern in almost all the cathedrals in Georgia. A Chandeliers hangs from the center of the dome and light seeping through the rock-carved windows, makes it look amazing.
Out of the cathedral, I walked down to a spot where tourists take a boat ride since the city lies at the confluence of the rivers Mtkvari and Aragvi. And from this place, you get a glimpse of the Jvari Monastery, which stands on a rocky mountaintop nearby.
As per my plan I had parked Jvari Monastery for the evening at the time of Sunset. I had my lunch at a local restaurant. My food was Khachapuri, a traditional Georgian dish of cheese-filled bread, can easily be related to the cheese paratha we have in India but with no Indian spices. In addition, I had a local beer called Black Lion.
After that my plan was to visit the castle town of Akhaltsikhe. I set my GPS on and started to drive. The road was as awesome as it could be, pure untouched nature. From grazing cattle herds to lush green fields with blooming flowers and cherry blossom, it was feeling of freedom in the lap of nature.
Over here the GPS betrayed me I lost my way and reached some other place which showed as the destination in the device but was actually just a barren field. It was quite late so I thought wiser decision would be to drive to Jvari and be in Tbilisi for the night. I drove back and reached Jvari driving through the curvy roads to reach the top of the mountain, but here it was proper road and driving wasn't at all difficult.
From the Jvari Monastery, you get an amazing view of the road I drove to reach Mtskheta and also the Mtskheta town where the rivers Mtkvari and Aragvi meet.
Top of the mountain amazing views, the silence of the Jvari monastery and the setting sun making the sky look dreamy this is why I say traveling is the best form of meditation since you get the be at a new unknown place with a pure fresh mind.
After reaching back to Tbilisi, I parked the car in front of my hostel (Why Not? Tbilisi - Legend Hostel) and left for a city walk and dinner. I had the lunch with the vegetarian, Khachapuri, but for dinner, the carnivore inside me was knocking hard. With the Google maps, I walked down to the Freedom Bridge and the center of the city from where I could even witness the Narikala Fort and the Mother of Georgia looking down over the city. On the other side of the city, there were fireworks to declare the celebration of Easter.
For dinner, I chose a German pub. Roasted Pork prepared in a Georgian style with local sauce and local beer and to add to my entertainment and Real Madrid - Bayern Munich Champions Trophy Semifinal second leg. Oh amazing environment amazing food and beer, of course, I am always fond of them, especially when they serve fresh draught. Black lion White and Black and then a Paulaner to finish things.
The next days I woke up a bit later than my plan. Freshened up, I left for Kazbegi at around 9 am. It was drizzling. With the GPS location set to Guest House in Stepantsminda, I started my journey. I had my breakfast after an hour of a drive with a plate of Khinkali and Pomegranate juice.
After driving for a while the road climbed up to the mountains. With altitude, it seemed the rain had disappeared. Little bit sun was peeping at regular intervals. The scenic beauty kept on improving in different aspects. The beautiful Zhinvali Reservoir on the Aragvi River in the Caucasus Mountains made me stop for a while and get lost in nature.
While driving across a country you itinerary just builds up since you get to see some places of natural beauty and some touristic destinations that fall in the way. Ananuri Castle was one of such beauty. Located at a height near the banks of Aragvi River, the Ananuri Castles with its typical East European architecture is so much a part of the surrounding.
With every rotation of the wheels of my car, I could feel the snow caped Caucasus mountain peaks nearer. The Green meadows started losing their saturation and the white snow started to bloom. I stopped at some places to grab some snacks or a coffee or a Beer. The restaurants were very similar to the Dhabas on the highways in India. The roads were not as great as UAE but since there was rain so they were not in the best of the conditions.
Things kept getting white and whiter and after some time I could see nothing but white. Driving ins such condition was the first time for me. There were dark tunnels; yes dark because they were quite long and no lights. For the first time, I was almost in a mess since I was unable to figure out what turns the road takes even with my head lights on. I admit I did not know how to turn on the high beam. Somehow I escaped the first unexpected hiccup because there was a truck in front of me and all I did was to follow him. I kept doing the same thing for the rest of the tunnels since this time I knew what was coming.
A few miles I reached a view point in Gudauri, it is the Russia–Georgia Friendship Monument on the top the white, a monument build in 1983 to celebrate the bicentennial of the Treaty of Georgievsk and ongoing friendship between Georgia and Soviet Russia. Inside the monument is a large tile mural that spans the whole circumference of the structure and depicts scenes of Georgian and Russian history.
For continuing my journey to Stepantsminda, I had to again drive downwards. and the first thing I did once I got down from those curvy white roads is to have some heavy lunch. It was of course a late lunch since the digital clock on my mobile showed 16:00. For lunch I had a chicken brain curry prepared in pure Georgian style with corn bread and of course with a beer. The restaurant was a cozy one I spent some time to relish my food and ease the tiredness of such long drive. Coincidentally I met an old couple I met in my flight, who were travelling from Mumbai through Dubai with their son and daughter who were Dubai residents. From them I came to know that they needed pre-applied Visa to enter Georgia unlike rest of us who were Indians with Dubai residence permit.
By God's grace, I had that food and it was heavy enough. Because after that it was one of the toughest drives so far in my life. As per my initial plan I wanted to check in my guest house in Stepantsminda and then drive to the Gergeti Trinity Church. But again the GPS betrayed me and I could not find the guest house. I was really losing time so I started the drive to the Gergeti Trinity. After driving for some time on the main road a diversion came which showed an arrow to the Gergeti Trinity. Fearlessly I continued. It was drizzling and the so-called road to the top of the hill had no private vehicle except mine. All other tourists were on some 4WD vehicle driven by the local tour guides. My first hiccup came when I took a wrong turn within 500 m after getting in. There was no space for a U-turn and I had to drive in reverse for some time with the car being on a bumpy ride. My rear wheel got into a ditch and I was literally stuck. The inexperienced driver in me didn't what to do when I suddenly recalled that what had said about how to switch on 4WD, and 4WD took me out of it. I continued. Many a time I thought of parking the car and hiking up because I was really not feeling confident but hiking will take a hell lot of time to go up and I was afraid it would be dark and hence will be more difficult. So I continued and kept backing me up that I can do it. When I reached the top it was such a relief. It felt like being on the top of the world.
There was snow, there was a light drizzle and there was tired me who was feeling as if just survived a scare.
While driving down it was raining not that heavy as it rains in India but heavy enough to make my getting down an equally tougher task but this time I was a bit confident and I had taken extra caution by switching on the High 4WD which is the most powerful mode of the engine. I managed to take some photographs from the car pane to remember the road I achieved yes not traversed I would say I achieved.
After getting down it was already dark. I parked my car downstairs and asked a shopkeeper to help me out with the address of the guest house. Her English was really good. She called the guest house so that someone comes to pick me up. I decided to have some food and beer in the meantime.
The Stepantsminda town was very pretty in the evening all white mountains guarding it and some clouds to compliment the view. The Gergeti Trinity was literally looking very tiny from such a distance but one who has been there, of course, knows how to value it.
After I reached my guest house I found my host a non-English speaking old lady. She showed me my room after I settled down she asked me if I need tea or coffee. I was more interested to have some alcohol so I asked if she has some wine. I have traveled to many places in Europe, in the guest houses or the hostels they have wine which we can buy. I did not understand Georgia was different. First, she was unable to understand what I was trying to say. Then she called a young lady, her neighbor who was quite fluent in English and she acted as a translator. She had only a little red wine, maybe a glass but if I wanted she can bring. I said her if needed more I would go and take it she need not be bothered. She gave me a glass of wine and I settled down with that.
I had a plan to wake up early to see the sunrise and the blue hour. I woke up as well. But it was raining and all cloudy rather covered but dense cloud. I came back again and went back to a sleep.
When I woke up the lady was there making breakfast for me in the kitchen. She gave me some Georgian bread, cake and a cup of tea as per my choice. Breakfast was not included in my booking. So while leaving I asked for how much do I need to pay for the wine and the breakfast. She was literally embarrassed that how can I ask for money when I am her guest. This little gesture gave me such feel-good factor. While having the breakfast we did converse in our own languages mostly sign and feel. She told me that her daughter is married in Tbilisi and even her home is in Telavi and she has been staying here for a couple of years. So many stories over a breakfast with no common language can only happen when people are so clean at heart.
My itinerary for the day was to travel to Telavi, via the Alaverdi Monastery. So I started my journey bidding goodbye to my host. As soon as I reached the edge of Stepansminda, the road was stuck. After driving through the all-white region of tunnels and snow I encountered a long queue of vehicles; trucks, cars, trailers etc. and the weather was very inconsistent swiveling between rain and sun. It was an hour-long wait when the road was cleared. I was so much behind in the queue that I didn't even realize the reason behind the halt; I was either enjoying the nature or taking some photographs or took some rest when it was raining heavily.
Once it started to move a little I took a diversion and ahead of the traffic. The white Gudauri again started and this time it was raining heavy. I had my fog light on and it was really difficult judge the road, so I was following a Lexus just in front of me. Somehow I kept my pace on par with the Lexus for some time.
After I came down from the hills I found a Hofbräuhaus, the famous brewery from Munich. And wha on earth can relieve me more than some German Beer and pork dishes. Here I tried pork Kinkhali and a small wheat bear(small because I had to drive a lot and it was morning).
We, Indians get amazed by snow so easily. But here driving is snow for such long time and after that when I saw some life some green if really felt good. May be that is the reason most happy places are in the foothills. I drove and drove. The roads got better, the sun was out and there were widespread meadows.
Then started another horrible road. I kept following the GPS and it took e inside a national park with no proper road just a way. As per my knowledge I was just near the Tusheti National park. My car was taking so much stress in these couple of days that I was really amazed by its durability. In the national park I did not see a single human being except one who asked if I had a match box. Apart from that I could see no car no living being except some birds chirping from somewhere.
After the long long solitary off road at last I reached some where when I see some proper roads, driving became a bit easier. Some times later I saw that a beautiful typical Indian type place. I could see some huts and a stray dog roaming around.
After a while I entered a village. Humans in numbers! Oh I saw them after such a long time. I asked a few about the direction to the Alaverdi Monastery. Despite language barrier, people were of course helpful. There herds of sheep, water reservoir and endless untouched natural beauty as the road led me to the Alaverdi.
At last I reached the Alaverdi monastery. Located at amidst nature this is worth a visit. It was under renovation yet amazing. The I spent some time to look around and then had some wine in the Alaverdi Winery. It was a bit costly there but the Georgian wine Saperavi was amazing since the time I tasted it.
Again after the wine I had to wait a bit before I start for Telavi. Place around the Alaverdi Monastery was really awesome, so wait never felt like loosing time, rather it was spending time.
Next was Ikalto, a village about 10 km west of the town Telavi. It has a monastery which known as one of the most significant cultural-scholastic centres of Georgia. An academy was founded at the monastery during king David the Builder by Arsen Ikaltoeli (Ikaltoeli meaning from Ikalto) in the early 12th century. The Academy of Ikalto trained its students in theology, rhetoric, astronomy, philosophy, geography, geometry chanting but also more practical skills such as pottery making, metal work, viticulture and wine making and pharmacology. According to a legend the famous 12th century Georgian poet Shota Rustaveli studied there.
All this time I faced many difficult roads, difficult weather conditions, long tiring day but never ever was in some trouble. But on a trip, if you get into some trouble and then come out of it you get to know the place better. I got stuck since my car was not at all moving and full meddle on the accelerator the car was running at 10 kmph. I asked a few mechanics in a garage on my way but they could not help. I kept moving so that I reach my guest house at least. In the meantime, I had informed Alex and he was very apologetic that this happened and my tour is being hampered. Wait! I could not believe this apologetic tone. Such a gentleman. In Dubai whenever I have faced this the Indian or Pakistani vendors' first question was always "What did you do? How did it happen?" but here this gut was apologetic and his only question is what is happening to figure out the symptoms. so that he can help me. I kept moving at 10 kmph, Ii even stopped at some place because the sky was getting divine and the scenes around Telavi were out of this world.
After some time the car had stopped breathing. But I was just at the entrance of the Telavi city. The car had done his job till its last breath. I again gave a call to Alex and confirmed the car is not moving an inch now, he promised me to send a new car in an hour or two. Two of the policeman came down for my help tried a lot, spoke to Alex on my behalf in Georgian and Alex was trying to guide them if they can arrange a mechanic for me ideally it may be a battery issue. It was Easter and all the mechanic shops were closed. Still, on request of the Policeman, a mechanic came with little preparation. After some time, he confirmed he needs to investigate more which he can do next morning.
I somehow parked my car with the help of a push from the Policeman, took my luggage and got a taxi to my guesthouse. I was too hungry at that time. I didn't have a proper lunch. I checked in at my guest house (Guest House Lilia, Telavi), and left for some food. It was a pretty restaurant just at the end of the road. The owner was fond of art so there were many artworks by one of the famous local artists which she used to decorate the restaurant. I again had some more Saperavi wine with a chicken breast with pomegranate sauce. My sole purpose to spend a day Telavi was to get drenched in Wine. That's breaking down of my car didn't affect me much anyways my plan was to walk around.
Good food and good wine and then a stroll around the small Telavi on a cloudy day felt really good.
I was looking for a shop where I can buy some Saperavi to take back home when I bumped into a bread shop where the lady offered me free wine since I was a guest in Georgia. Read more about her on my website where I usually speak about friends I made during traveling. : http://abhibt2.wixsite.com/abhishekdeypixels/single-post/2017/08/21/Sayed-Hossein
I again had my dinner with some grilled chicken and lots of Saperavi. :)
The next day early morning Alex had sent me a new car, now a black Toyota 4Runner. The driver took me to the spot where I parked my car, we towed it to a garage mechanics and they let me free.
Today my plan was to drive to Sighnagi enjoy the beautiful city. The road led me to villages, I met herders, saw the local simple life of the Kakheti region. It was a good feeling to talk and meet simple people and Georgia has always given me this privilege.
It was after these plains I entered the curvy roads and I was as if driving through a green passage. The only color I saw was green. When you enter Sighnaghi you feel like the city is welcoming you. There is a proper gate to the city in a historic way. You feel like entering a different world.
It started drizzling a bit on the higher side as soon as I parked my car and started to walk. I was hungry as well since I had nothing in breakfast. So I settled down in a restaurant. Ordered some rabbit meat prepared in a traditional style known as Ojakhuri(which is usually made of pork but u find for other meats too). Along with that, I had a cup of coffee since I was having a little headache due to last night's wine.
Walking through the city was a like walking down a memory lane. Next, I went to the Peasant's Winery and paid 25 Georgian Lari to try a set of different types of wine Chinuri(white), Rkatsiteli Amber Wine, Tavkveri Rose, and Saperavi, in the order of their alcoholic strength and even the color got darker every time. The last in the list was a shot of CHACHA, made of the leftover grape skins and yes it was very strong like 45-50 percent alcohol perfect to ring all the bells near your eardrum in one shot.
After the Peasants Winery, my steps were not falling straight but I had to hike up to the famous Bodbe Monastery. On the way, I met an Israeli group, two families to be precise. I never felt bored in that almost 5 km hike. They were telling their story of how they were scared while going to the Gergeti Trinity and was amazed that I took the courage to drive up there in this weather. The Sighnaghi from the road to Bodbe was looking like a locality in heaven.