Country Archives: Georgia

Mestia – Ushguli

Yesterday we felt that we’d been in Mestia long enough and that it was time to move on. Our next destination was Ushguli, a community of four villages in the remote northeastern corner of Svaneti.

What is so special about Ushguli? First and foremost it is said to be beautifully located high up in the Caucasus. Second, it boasts about 20 Svan towers and numerous old houses, which have been listed as world heritage by the UNESCO. Third, at an elevation of approx. 2100m, it claims to be the highest year-round inhabited community in Europe(!).

So we left Mestia around 11am. The road, which is now merely a track (though a pretty good one most of the time), follows the Mulkhura river eastwards towards a few hamlets, then crosses the Ughviri Pass (1922m) and from then on follows the Enguri river. We had a short break before climbing up the pass when a police jeep stopped next to us. The first question was about our nationality. We answered and the police officer started babbling away in fluent German! Amongst other things we learned that the road from Ushguli to Lentekhi is impassable for cars, but we wouldn’t have any problems with our bikes.

We crossed the pass and from that moment on the landscape was of an otherworldly beauty impossible to describe in words.

We came to the hamlet of Bogreshi and visited the St. George’s Church of Nakipari nearby. Bogreshi and Nakipari where the first places we’d seen that were truly out of the loop. That is, there are no shops there, no tourism worth mentioning, no jobs, no future for the people living there other than doing what they’ve done for centuries: subsistance farming and herding.

Many houses are really old, exceptionally beautiful, in a bad state of disrepair, and/or abandoned.

We continued along the Enguri and were wow’ing and aaah’ing constantly, about the beauty of nature or about location or architecture of houses and towers. Our cameras were busy all the time.

Visited the St. Barbara Church of Khe, a tiny chapel in a tiny hamlet. The key keeper’s family invited us to cheese, bread and matsoni (yoghurt), which was a much appreciated gesture. The situation got a bit awkward at the end when Alex tried to pay for the food, but neither of us was sure if that was appropriate, and how much would be a sensible sum. They did accept the money.
Khe, just like Bogreshi and Nakipari, is out of any loop as well.

We finally arrived in Ushguli at almost 8pm and were again awestruck by the views. The truly old buildings, towers and ruins were illuminated by the setting sun.
Checked into a Lonely Planet-recommended guesthouse, or so we thought.

It’s only about 45km to Ushguli but that distance took us 5 hours of net riding time (excl. breaks). In total we spent almost 9 hours on the road (incl. lots of photo breaks, etc.).

Cycled: 46km

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Shkhara Glacier

When arriving in Ushguli yesterday we were almost immediately certain that the one day we’d planned to stay here would not be enough. We’d need at least one more day to explore the villages and churches that belong to the Ushguli community.

The plan for today was to hike to the foot of Mt Shkhara to have a look at the Shkhara Glacier, which is the source of the Enguri river, which we’d followed since the Ughviri Pass.

We set out at 9.30am and walked through Chvibiani and Zhibiani towards Mt Shkhara, approx. 10km to the northeast. The villages are exceptional; I felt set back to the middle ages. It wasn’t always a pleasant view, of course, but a fascinating one nonetheless. There is some kind of sewage system for the houses, but pigs, sheep, goats, cows and horses use the paths between the houses, including for being fed and milked. Houses and towers are deteriorating. Quite a few are abandoned.

Outside the villages the track went across colorful meadows, was crossed by numerous streams, and blocked by an avalanche. We met a group of four Israeli-Americans and a Canadian on the way.

At the glacier we had a bath in the ice-cold waters of the Enguri directly where it gushes out from under the ice, with rocks falling down from the glacier cliff above every now and then. We explored a cave in the ice, climbed up the glacier and enjoyed the view over the ice masses and toward Mt Shkhara (5068m), which was just a few hundred meters (guesstimated!) away. At that point we were at an elevation of approx. 2600m, just half of that of Mt Shkhara!

Returned the same way we’d come.

The family we’re staying with consists of three generations: grandpa and grandma, both in their 70s, Giorgi and Tiko, in their late 20s/early 30s, and Lika, their three year old daughter.

Walked: 20km

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Today was reserved for the community of Ushguli. We went to see two of the three local museums (one of which was a bit disappointing and expensive for what’s on display). The third one was closed by the time we got there. Walked around the hamlets and noticed that in the two upper ones, Chvibiani and Zhibiani, there is quite abit of refurbishing going on and there are actually a lot of guest houses (and an unexpectedly high number of tourists – we met 10+ or so). Not all of the guest houses seem as sympathetic as ours, though.

Wanted to rent horses to ride to the ruins of Tamar mepe (Queen Tamar) church, which is located on a hill overlooking the Enguri valley and all of Ushguli. After hiring the guide and horses he told us that the path would be too steep or whatever and that it wouldn’t be possible to go there by horse. Gna! Instead we were offered a ride to the Shkhara glacier where we’d been yesterday. For lack of options we accepted that route eventually.

I hadn’t really ever ridden a horse (other than once around a soccer field or so years ago) and I was looking forward to it now. The ride was short, though. At the avalanche we’d crossed yesterday the guide stopped and turned around, telling us that it wouldn’t be possible to cross it with the horses. Oh well, in other words, we got ripped off. ;)

Walked down to Chazhashi, the second lowest hamlet of the Ushguli community. Here there is less (re)building going on. Tracks between houses are narrow, twisted, bumpy, and dirty. The towers are mighty and strong, though deteriorating. I don’t think many of them are put to good use, and most are just rotting away slowly. Very sad.
If you ignore the satellite dishes in the backyards, this truly feels like having traveled back in time to the middle ages.

The only part of Ushguli we haven’t visited yet is Murkmeli, the lowest of the four hamlets. We’ve only seen it briefly from the road when we arrived here two days ago. It looked like it is the poorest and most rotten one.

At night we had a farewell supra in our family. It was short, fortunately, but the chacha was strong. The etiquette is very difficult to grasp, especially given the language barrier. Ours and their Russian combined only got us thus far. We never knew when we were supposed to reply to the toast, when to drink, and how much. Well, we managed anyway and had quite a bit of fun.

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Ushguli – Confluence of Tskhenistskali and Zeskho rivers

Left our lovely host family shortly past 10am and went to the local treasure museum, which was closed yesterday when we went there.

It was still closed and we had to wait for half an hour until someone heard our shouting and told the officials that there were visitors. The local police officer showed up with one key. He phoned the ‘director’ of the museum who brought the other keys to open the door (three or four locks in total). The museum is located in an old Svan tower. It has icons and crosses from Svaneti churches on display, some of them really old (many things from the 11th and 12th centuries, some from the 6th century, some even older). Taking pictures was not allowed.

We left Ushguli almost half past 11 and cycled to the east. The road (read: track) climbed steadily and steeply towards the Zagaro Pass (2623m) which we crossed happily after about 9km. From then on we went downhill pretty much all the time. We’re quite happy that we didn’t attempt to go to Ushguli from this side. It is so steep it wouldn’t have been fun at all.

Came to a glacier on the south flank of the Ailama massif, which is the source of the Zeskho river. Explored a house in the abondoned hamlet (or maybe military base) of Koruldashi at the foot of the Ailama.

A few kilometers further we came to Tsara, a tiny village on the right bank of the Zeskho. At first glance it looked abandoned, too, and we crossed the river to have a closer look. Curiously, there are no defensive towers in Tsara. Found a couple of very nice-looking old houses, though. We also found people. They were strange, however. The first lady who spotted us didn’t care at all – kinda unexpected here. Then a guy followed us and we were asked where we were going. He pointed out that we were on the wrong side of the river, and said: “This is just Tsara”. It seemed obvious to us that he didn’t really want us to be there.

We continued along the Zeskho. The gorge it flowed through was amazing. High slate cliffs, thick forrest, little streams crossing the track, fabulous weather.

At the confluence of the Zeskho and the Tskhenistskali we noticed a bridge across the Zeskho that wasn’t on any of our maps. A bit curious, we crossred it and found a beautiful grassy place between the two rivers. We decided to call it a day and camp here.

Had a bath in the Tskhenistskali and lit a fire. I cooked some pasta for dinner.

We saw exactly one car all day: a Polish family traveling in the same direction as we did.

Cycled: 31km

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Confluence of Tskhenistskali and Zeskho rivers – Lentekhi

It was a rainy night. No bear showed up.

Got up, packed our stuff, had a quick breakfast, and continued along the Tskhenistskali river.

We came through hamlets or villages more often now, but most of the houses were abandoned. The closer we came to Lentekhi, the center of the Lower Svaneti district, the more people actually lived in the villages.

Reached Lentekhi in the early afternoon and decided to stay here for the night. Asked a police officer about possibilities. He phoned a friend with a car and they escorted us to Irina’s, in Stalin St. Irina is a friendly woman of Russian descent renting out rooms in the oversized house standing in her frontyard. I got the cheapest accomodation on the entire trip here (20 Lari (~8 Euro) incl. dinner).

Not long after we arrived in Lentekhi it started to rain heavily. We went out anyway to check out the party scene have a look at the town. We also wanted to buy some wine. Finally found a shop that sold some – self-brewed in a 2 liter beer bottle!

We invited Irina to some wine. She accepted but was busy making phone calls and listening to music on her laptop all the time. The TV was running. Her little daughter watched TV in the next room, too. Media overkill after the quiet days up in the mountains.

What’s worse, there is no bathroom that we know of. We had our showers in Irina’s bathroom, but to reach it we had to walk through her living room AND her bed room.

Cycled: 46km

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Lentekhi – Kutaisi

Today was Police Day.

Left Irina’s, who’d brewed us a magic coffee, and had breakfast at a quiet spot at the edge of town. It’s Alex’s birthday, and all I had was two Snickers and a tiny candle. Anyone remember the ‘Yes’ TV ads from the 90s(?)? :) The police officer who’d directed us to Irina’s yesterday magically showed up with some colleagues to say good bye.

We followed the Tskhenistskali river down south. The road was now tarred most of the time.

Alex’ plan was to turn east near the town of Tsageri, towards Oni and South Ossetia. He wanted to try to get into and through the disputed area. I wanted to go straight south to Kutaisi. About 20km from Lentekhi and right outside Tsageri we approached the turn-off. Before we even realized that this was the spot of saying good-bye we were stopped by the police and asked about our travel plans. Knowing that going to South Ossetia is not something Georgian officials like to endorse, we both said we’d be going to Kutaisi. The police then escorted us into the town of Tsageri where we had a break, and bought some food and water. Our hopes were that the police officers would leave us alone. Instead we became the towns No. 1 attraction. Soon there were not two but six police officers around, all being very curious and asking the same questions we’d answered before. The lucky horse shoe attached to one of my panniers and Alex’s maps were the most interesting of our belongings. Alex asked about a place to get a Georgian SIM card for his phone. Instead of giving directions two of the officers took Alex to a phone shop in their car! There was just no escape!

When he returned they gave us two handfuls of cherries! We ate them on the spot, said good-bye, and continued our ride. Stopped at a bank where I withdrew some money. When I came back to the bikes – the police car was standing next to Alex, waiting for us to go on. He’d asked them about alternative routes to Kutaisi, ones that brought us closer to the road to South Ossetia, but they’d insisted that we take the direct one.

So we cycled on, followed by the police. Eventually they honked good-bye – but we were well past possible turn-offs to the east! Well done!

So Alex changed his plan and we rode on together. So far the road had been going downhill most of the time. Then it suddenly started to climb steeply and continued to do so for a few kilometers. When we finally reached the highest point we saw that we were pretty close to the southern edge of the Greater Caucasus. We could see the western Georgian plain below. Had a short break there – when a police car drove up and stopped next to us. The driver asked us about our route. Both Alex and I had the impression that he was checking if we were the two cyclists he’d been informed about by his colleagues in Tsageri.

So we left the Greater Caucasus behind us and came to a little shop where we stocked up on water. Another police car stopped next to us and the driver got out. He spoke English and asked us … about our travel plans. Then they waited. We had some ice cream, chatted, and eventually they got bored and left. We reached the town of Tskaltubo. In the town center we stopped in front of a hotel where Alex decided to stay, to be nearer to a National Park that he’d decided he was going to visit tomorrow. We were chatting with some locals when that same police car drove past, turned around and stopped next to us. The officers didn’t talk to us at all, but they did talk to our new friends who’d even offered to host us, and seemed to scare them off with their comments/questions. Our friends left quickly, the police stayed, still without talking to us. We had enough. I said my final good bye to Alex and left for Kutaisi, 10km away.

I reached it without further disturbance by the police.

I have no idea what was going on with these guys. Maybe it’s the proximity to South Ossetia. Maybe it’s just curiosity. Whenever I tried to ask what’s going on people didn’t seem to understand crucial words like ‘dangerous’ and gave rubbish replies.

I’m in a hotel which has wireless Internet and English-language TV – for the first time in more than two weeks.

Sting is in Batumi tonight.

Cycled: 90km
Max. speed: 65kph

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Kutaisi – Surami

Not an eventful day. The road, S1 connecting Kutaisi with Tbilisi, was mostly in good condition but a bit hilly at times. Must have crossed the river Dzirula a thousand times. It winds and ziggzaggs between the hills and the road tries to follow it for a long time.

The original plan was to go as far as Gori, but that turned out to be a bit too much. Temperatures peaked at 42°C (in the sun). Decided to stay in Khashuri. Unfortunately, there’s no hotel there, so I had to backtrack a few kilometers to Surami. The hotel here doesn’t deserve the name. Dirty, unfinished, smelly, expensive for what’s on offer.

Surami is a mix of rotten Soviet-era industrial complexes and ramshackle residential areas.

It felt a bit strange to be cycling alone again. The past two weeks of traveling with Alex were a good and fun time.

No police trouble today.

Cycled: 111km
Max. speed: 61kph

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Surami – Gori

Arrived in Gori at 1pm. The ride was easy and uneventful.

Gori is the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. There is Stalin Avenue, Stalin Square, Stalin Park, and Stalin Museum. The Stalin statue, apparently huge and still mentioned in my Lonely Planet, has been taken down not so long ago.

Walked around town and visited Stalin Museum. It feels a bit dull, mostly showing photographs of him from various occasions. There’s presents he’s gotten from other heads of states, and his death mask, a strange exhibit, I find. The museum focuses on his achievements, there’s no mention of his ‘dark side’. My group’s guide admitted this but added that by now this is intentional. The museum hasn’t been changed since 1977 or so. Kinda like a museum in a museum. The souvenier shop features a lady wearing some old military uniform but doesn’t even have Stalin postcards!

Walked up to Gori Tsikhe (Gori Castle), centrally located and overlooking the city. Unfortunately, there’s not much up there other than a grassy plain, good views, and a police post(!). From below the walls look more promising.

All in all, I somehow expected more from Gori.

Cycled: 53km

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Gori – Uplistsikhe – Tbilisi

First port of call today was Uplistsikhe, 10km from Gori but not exactly en route to Tbilisi. I made the detour anyway. Why? Uplistsikhe is a cave city inhabited since the 6th(?) century BC, but now abandoned. The visit was quite interesting.

Otherwise the cycling today wasn’t very pleasant. More than 41°C (in the sun) again and hilly landscape. The bike had made funny noises two days ago. Yesterday I didn’t hear anything. Today the noise was back. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to identify the source yet.

I also noticed that the rear tyre will give up soon. The reason, probably, is that the air pressure was not high enough for the amount of luggage.
Need to cure/fix both issues over the next days.

So, I cycled into Tbilisi, aka Tiflis, Georgia’s capital, in the late afternoon. Coming in on the southern bank of the Mtkvari river, there is only a motorway. Not willing to make the long detour to avoid it, I just cycled onto it and – nobody cared, not even the police.

Bori, who I’d met in Batumi and who’s long back in Budapest by now, responded promptly to my desperate help request and recommended a hostel which I quickly found.

And guess who was sitting there at a table when I checked in? Zoltán, the guy I’d shared a cabin with on the boat from Varna to Batumi! Small world!

Went out to dinner with him. One(?) beer and I’m ready for bed. Good night.

Almost forgot: I cycled 90km today.

PS: It is HOT here in Tbilisi, even at night. It’s 30°C at half past 11pm in the room I’m sleeping in. I’m sooo looking forward to going back to the mountains soon!

PPS: I’ll stay here for a couple of days. Most importantly, I need to organize a visa for Azerbaijan. Last I heard is that visa application handling is a bit chaotic since new visa procedures were introduced in June. I’ll see how it goes.

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First order of the day: apply for an Azerbaijani visa. First disappointment of the day: the visa department of the Azerbaijani embassy only accepts applications Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Of course you only learn that when you’re being turned away at their door; this info is not on their website.

Strolled around the old part of the city several times today. Successfully getting lost (intended) and getting a feel for the place. And finding a barber shop. There’s lots of ‘Beauty Salons’, but not a single one of the small, dodgy, run-by-an-old-guy, cheap barber shops located in a single room in the basement of an old house that I was looking for. Got a hair and beard-do anyway. It was done with a machine built in the GDR(!), so it’s at least 20 years old. At times it felt like the guy was trying to tattoo me.

Tbilisi is cool (not in terms of temperatures!). Lots of little shops in the streets, all selling basically the same items: bottled drinks, ice cream, cigarettes. Many small bakeries selling freshly baked … not bread. All kinds of Georgian baked things which I don’t know the names of, some filled, some plain. Older women selling sunflower seeds, single cigarettes or paper tissues in the streets from mini stalls (just an upside-down cardboard box); live music (guitar and a full drum kit) in the subway. Flea market on the Saarbruken bridge, with Soviet memorabilia, medals, money, knives, daggers, sabres, porcelain, glass ware, tools, books. Allmost all of which are really second-hand, unlike on ‘flea markets’ back home.
Traffic is massive.

Zoltán cooked a great gulyás for dinner – it took ages and was ready right for the midnight meal.
I’m working on getting pictures ready to upload here. You’ll find today’s samples below. :)

For the interested, some interim statistics about this trip:

  • 6 countries cycled,
  • 2540km on the bike + ~1200km on the ferry + ~50km hiking,
  • 11GB of pictures taken.
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Tbilisi, day 2

Arrived at the Azerbaijani embassy around 11am. The Georgian police(!) officer at the gate handed me an application form to fill in (but had no pens). Some locals lent me one and let me fill in the form on their car’s hood. I had to produce two passport fotos at the gate and was let through – to a barred door through which I had to hand my application form and one photo. They wouldn’t let applicants enter the actual embassy building. I was then asked for a ‘Letter of Invitation’ – which I didn’t have – and sent to a travel agency that would take care of that for me. To make a long story short, I’ll hopefully have my visa one week from now, on Friday, July 15. Crap. When asked why this would take so long they replied that the embassy had run out of visa stickers. What?!

Met Ben from Texas who also applied for a visa. Went with him to meet two other Americans, Alex and Roy, who are teaching English in villages here in Georgia. Turned out they had been to Batumi after I was there and knew the big American guy I’d met in Batumi hostel back then, who’d annoyed some people there, and they also know Lasha, one of the owners of Batumi hostel. Lasha, who’d invited me to his parents place when I come through, lives not far from where Roy teaches. Small world!

Ben used to play Lacrosse in high school and college back in the states.

Went to the National Museum with Ben. It doesn’t have much on display; the little that is there is mostly pretty cool, though. They have the Georgian Treasury, archeological gold and silver findings mostly from excavated burial sites with old but magnificently fine and detailed works. There’s an exhibition about the Russian communist/Soviet occupational period, and they show an excerpt of pictures from around Georgia from the early times of photography, i.e. from the late 19th century and early 20th century.

Bought a map of the whole Caucasus region and learned that it is well possible to go into Abkhazia. South Ossetia is strictly off-limits. It is also possible to go through Abkhazia to Russia. New possibilities!

I know now that there are no bike shops selling spare parts. That means I’ll have to have a new tyre shipped from Germany.

Took no pictures today so there is nothing to post. ;) And the rotation issue is still not fixed. :(

Interestingly, in early June a Hollywood movie was released that covers the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. I had the chance of watching this tonight.

The movie is called ‘5 Days of War’ internationally, and ‘5 Days of August’ in Georgia. It is a bad movie. It is simple and dumb pro-Georgian and anti-Russian propaganda with lots of special effects and no brains and even less insight into the conflict. Vital facts are omitted and Russia and especially the South Ossetians are displayed as raw evil. Apparently, war crimes happened on both sides, but not so in the movie. On top of all that, all the lead characters are played by Americans. Not a single Georgian or Russian actor.

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Tbilisi, day 3

Enjoyed hostel life today and fixed the image rotation issue. Uploaded some more pictures. May is complete and July is almost complete. June is still almost entirely incomplete.

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Tbilisi, day 4

Went to a sulphur bath and sauna with Erlend and Helmut from the hostel. Had a Georgian full body massage and peeling. Lovely.

Noticed that my camera doesn’t work anymore. Dunno what’s wrong. Need to investigate tomorrow.

After lunch/tea we strolled around the old town and the flea market again.

All in all a(n almost) relaxed day.

Allegedly, the building below is featured in ‘5 Days of War’. Like many other houses in this part of Old Tbilisi, it will be torn down soon (and replaced by something “new but looking like old”) in an attempt to make Tbilisi nicer (read: more tourist-friendly).

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Tbilisi, day 5

No luck on the camera front.

Had a look at the former Hotel London not far from the hostel.

One of the nice stories of today: We were on the way to a restaurant to have dinner with a few people. We got lost wandering around the old town, searching for a specific place. A courtyard struck us a exceptionally full of character and we took some pictures, then decided to sneak up some stairs to have a look at the place from a different perspective. We came to a balcony spanning along three sides of the building we were in. There were people around, of course, and we asked if it was OK to have a quick look. The guy we asked had no objections and even told us to go around the next corner where we met a lady who happily told us all about the history of the beautiful house. Erlend, being fluent in Russian, interpreted for the rest of us. The house was about 150 years old and used to be an accountants school, or something similar. The entire building was owned by a single gentleman back then. During Soviet times the large rooms were split up into individual flats, with shared kitchen and bathroom across the balcony in an adjacent building. So, the point of the story? Instead of being suspicious or annoyed about our showing up on their doorstep, or even kicking us out, these people were happy to see some folks being interested in their house/city/country and took the time off from whatever they were doing to talk to us and answer all our questions. That’s just another tiny example of the amazing Georgian hospitality.

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Tbilisi, day 6

Six days in Tbilisi, holy crap! I’m getting tired of counting the days here, it’s been too many already. My passport is at the travel agency/embassy and my bike’s rear tyre is still waiting for it’s replacement – my options for this week are kinda limited.

Managed to find a new camera today. Same model as before, pretty much the same price as in Germany half a year ago. I hope this one lasts longer.

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