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Georgia

Georgia - Mtskheta

Mtskheta - an ancient Georgian capital and christian heritage

Mtskheta is an ancient town and one of the historical capitals of Georgia, located about 20km out of Tbilisi. Mtskheta was the place of Georgia's adoption of Christianity in 3rd century AD and still is the headquarters of the Georgian Orthodox Church. It's a both main tourist destination and a christian pilgrimage site.
Not many people know, but Georgia was the 2nd country to adopt Christianity. Armenia was the first.

You can get a minibus from Dibude bus station, same place that you get a bus to Kazbegi. You will need to get a ticket from a small window at kiosk-like ticket office. The ride takes about 1 hour and costs 1 GEL. Prepare for the minibus to get seriously full.

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Once you get to Mtskheta prepare to get "templed-out". It's a capital of Georgian Christianity after all.

Main sites to visit:
Jvari (The Cross) Monastery.
Samtavro (Place of the Ruler).
Bebris Tsikhe (The Elder's Fortress). Located further up the main road from Samtavro.
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We decided to go first towards the Fortress. It was fun climbing the ruins although a bit dangerous in flip flops :-).
Than we came down to the river and found a place to cross and found an off road track leading up to the Jvari monastery . It's about 4 km hike, as there are a few trails crisscrossing you have to have your wits about you and check were you turning unless you want to get lost in the middle of Georgian nowhere.

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We bumped into this pack of hostile bulls or buffalo blocking our pass, when we tried to approach them they would get up and make unfriendly advances at us. We ended up having to bushwhack across nettle field to get around them. Well, I'll take nettle stings over a buffalo headbutt any day of the week.
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Jvari was a highlight of the day. A great view point over the town and the valley beyond.

Posted by dima.safr 11:50 Archived in Georgia Tagged temple church hike georgia tbilisi mtskheta Comments (0)

Akhalkalaki and Vardzia

The frendliest town in Georgia

Day 1 - Rain and Cha Cha

Akhalkalaki is a small Georgian town on a border with Armenia. About half of the town is made out of ethnic Armenians. We arrived after 6 hours on a local bus. I went on a scouting mission around the center and quickly found a decent guest house for about 50 GEL.
The town itself doesn't have much to offer. However, there is a nice fortress which was recently restores and provides good views over the surroundings.
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After visiting the fortress we popped into a cafe on the other side of the crossroad (sorry didn't take a note of the name).

We ordered our meal and a couple of beers. The idea was to have a quick snack and have some rest after the bus ride we had. Than the owner has noticed that I was Ukrainian and offered to have some Cha Cha - local moonshine. He got out a water bottle full of Cha Cha and purred shots to Dovile and I, it would be rude to refuse so we downed it and washed up with beer. Than his relative turned up, he also decided to have a chat about politics and the war, and of course that had to be accompanied by Cha Cha. Dovile isn't a big fan of spirits, let alone moonshine, but you have to follow the customs, and in any case we were already leaving...
As soon as we got to the door, the clouds broke and it started to pour and hail. It looked like a solid wall of water... There was no way we were getting out there.
The owner told us not to worry and got the rest of the bottle out... Not again... We drunk until we finished the whole liter of Cha Cha and could barely stand. I don't remember how we got home, but I do remember waking up with a massive hangover.

Day 2 Vardzia

There are two reasons to visit Akhalkalaki 1-to go to Armenia, 2-to see Vardzia.

Vardzia is an ancient cave monastery site in Georgia. It dates back to 11th century and was started by Giorgi III, and continued by his daughter Queen Tamara.

You can take a bus for 5 GEL each way from the central bus station. We decided that since there were two of us it made more sense to take a taxi. We approached the first cabby we could see at the bus station, and after a bit of haggling agreed on 40 GEL for a round trip, so double the price of a bus but without having to worry about the time and with stops on the way.
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Like this castle for example

Vardzia is truly amazing. I have been to cave temples before, but never to anything of this magnitude.
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There was an entire city based in those caves. The rocks kept people and food cool in during hot Georgian summers. The complex is well preserved, you can easily identify living quarters, kitchen, winery, temple and other places. As well as a few long and scary tunnels taking you from place to place beneath the rock.
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Posted by dima.safr 10:39 Archived in Georgia Tagged taxi fort cave rock monastery drinking vardzia tamara cha_cha Comments (0)

Kazbegi - Georgia

Exploring mighty Caucasus mountains

Marshrutka from Didube bus station takes about 3 hours up the windy mountain roads and costs 10 GEL, you pay to the driver and they leave when full.

If you are planning to climb Kazbegi (5033m) you will need a guide or at least someone with solid mountaineering skills. Mostly because you will have to cross Gergeti Glacier at 3000m.

We had a much less ambitious plan, just to reach the Holy Trinity Church and get to a view point of the glacier.

As soon as we got out of marshrutka we were surrounded by old women offering a room. We picked one and got a room and food for 70 GEL.

You can get a jeep up to the church, or hike up to Gergeti and take a trail bending the hill on the left side.

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It takes about 1,5-2 hours to reach the Church, there are only couple of spots where you can refill your water bottle. Once you get to the top this when you get to enjoy the view.
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The church is very pretty and it gets rather busy with both tourists and pilgrims. After a quick photo session we decided not to waste any time and push on to the view point.
The trails is not too steep and easy to follow, it only took us another 2 hours to get there and see this thing of beauty. Mighty Kazbegi towering over the glacier. We could see some tents camping just below the glacier, we were told that this was the only place you could refill your water after the Church.
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Posted by dima.safr 08:31 Archived in Georgia Tagged mountains trekking glacier kazbegi stepantsminda gergeti_trinity_church Comments (0)

Kobuleti - ghosts of soviet union by the Black sea

Live music and abandoned soviet hotels

After visiting Svaneti and cutting our trekking trip a bit short we had extra 2 days and we decided to pick Kabuleti

Kabuleti is a seaside resort town just 20 km away from Batumi. It is made out of a seaside road and a parallel street stretching for a bout 7km.
We quickly found a place to stay on the street just behind the main road. Generally every second house lets out rooms and the cost depends on season and level of comfort. We found a pretty basic room for 20 GEL a night.

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This is one of those very odd, old-fashioned Soviet-type places. The waterfront is clearly up for redevelopment, it has a bunch of abandoned concrete buildings, but nothings seems to be being built.

A couple of shut down restaurants have been turned into piss corners. The funny thing is that the smell is so vile that you can't even seat in the restaurant next to it. There is no way that the owner doesn't realize that this is the reason his place empty. Well this is beyond me...

My, by far, most favorite thing about Kabuleti is the live music in restaurants. Boy they like it there they really do. We were having a dinner in one restaurant across the street from one with live music. The music was so loud that we couldn't hear each other. That restaurant and the two right next to it, on each side, were completely empty. And again, it is beyond me, how come whoever runs the place sees it as brilliant idea!

The beach is a bit odd, because it's made out of big rounded rocks it's quite hard to get in and out of the water. All in all we have spent two days just chilling, eating hachapuries and drinking beer.
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Posted by dima.safr 07:49 Archived in Georgia Tagged beach georgia black_sea kobuleti Comments (0)

Mazeri to Mestia - an adventure of our lifetime

An overnight trek from Mazeri to Mestia

The Plan

To hike from Mazeri to Mestia and onward to Ushguli. Mestia to Ushguli part is very popular with well-marked trails and lots of home-stays along the way. We decided to make it more fun and supplement by an extra day of less populous Mezeri - Mestia trek.

Mestia is a capital of Upper Svaneti region and a major tourist destination in itself. People come here for trekking, to see Svan towers and just chill in the beautiful setting among 4700 meter peaks.

Mazeri is much less visited, but it's popular with climbers who tackle Ushba. To get to Mazeri we took a marshrutka from Zugdidi towards Mestia and asked to let us out at Becho. From there we hiked 7,5 km on a jeep track up to Mazeri. As you hike up you get the first glimpse of Ushba being wrapped in clouds.
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We quickly found a place to stay in a guest house of Yuram and Djamala, negotiated price down to 35 GEL for half-board.
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Yuram and Djamala took really good care of us, we stayed with them for 3 nights, talking a lot about how Svaneti and Georgia overall changed over the last few years, and drunk some really strong Cha Cha (moonshine) Yuram used to be a boarder guard so he knows the area very well and can tell you all about the surroundings.

It's about 16 km from Mazeri to Mestia and should take about 8-9 hours. Altitude start/end: 1600/1420m; highest point is Guli Pass - 2960m. The trail is marked by quite a common marking of red and white stripes (just like Indonesian flag). GPS on my phone has been playing up lately, the day before it showed that we were in the middle of the Ushba glacier when we were about 5-10 km off mark. It wasn't a problem at that point, but created a concern that I couldn't fully trust the GPS reading.
We left about 7 am planning to make it Mestia by 4 pm.

We followed the markings and occasionally checked GPS map on my phone. I use RMaps and MapsMe, both work offline, and Rmaps allows you to download Open Cycle topographic maps. By about 10 am we have reached a small clearing which had a few shepherd's plywood cabins and a small fenced off area for cattle.

Following the marking we have turned left and carried on walking along the creek coming down the Usba glacier. This was the point when I remembered Yuram saying that apart from the place with the cabin's there wasn't any water on the way... so what is the deal with the creek?
I checked my GPS and we were going way of course towards Ushba, but than there were markings so what to trust? Could it be that my GPS is wrong again and we are on the right trail? or the map is wrong? or the old trail is no longer there and the marking lay the new trail?
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We could see something ahead of us which looked liked Guli Pass. I got really disoriented and ran up a hill (didn't even drop my backpack), to get some sense of what was around us and if there was an alternative trail to the right that we could cut to. But there were just more hills and gullies and nothing looked like the map.

I decided to carry on following the marked trail. It must be leading to Mestia, and in any case, it's easier than trying to cut through the mountains off trail, especially when we couldn't trust the GPS.
After another hour the clouds cleared and I could see something that looked very much like Ushba glacier, we were right at the bottom of it. At this point it was clear that GPS was right and we were way off our course. I saw a small tent on an edge of the glacier, dropped my back pack and went to see if I could find someone. The tent belonged to 3 polish climbers. The day before we saw a chopper circling Ushba, Yuram told us that a climber died on the mountain. The guys told us that the chopper was one of their mates and he only broke a leg and was fine.
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We checked their map against my GPS and it all made sense. The markings were leading right to the middle of Ushba glacier, and if we carried on in that direction we would end up in Russia, and that wasn't part of our plan.
Turns out that Georgians mark all the trails in exactly the same way. That wouldn't be a problem if the trails didn't cross... Marking two interconnecting trails with the same mark is like:
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It was already about 4 pm, was clear we wouldn't make it to Mestia, and we burned far too much energy going up and down the mountain. In theory we could have gone back back to Mazeri, but a thought of telling Yurama and Djamala how we messed up was a bit to much. We decided to go back to the cabins, which must have been the place where the trail splits, and stay there overnight.

The cabins were really thin, they had some metal-framed beds and one even had a wood-burner. As we were going to have late lunch and a dinner in Mestia, we didn't have much in terms of food. Luckily Jamala packed us some bread and cheese, we had one pack of pot noodles and a whole field of blueberries!

After collecting the blueberries, eating cold water-soaked noodles and leaving the bread and cheese for breakfast we looted the area for wood, ransacked the fence and fired up the wood burner.
At midnight a herd of bulls showed up. They started fighting among themselves, than must have smelled us and started to circle around that cardboard hut, occasionally giving it a nudge. That lasted for good couple of hours until the bulls lost interest and moved on.
As the hut was so thin the heat was escaping and it was getting really cold as soon as the fire died down. We spent the whole night burning the rest of the fence and cuddling next to the fire.

We decided to leave as early as possible, and hit the road around 6 am. From the huts, we hiked up until we reached the top of the pass. We have wasted quite a lot of time and energy on trying to find a marked trail or align with GPS. There isn't really a trail, there are occasional markings pointing you in the right direction. But basically you just have to negotiate your way up until you reach the top of Guli pass.

This is where it gets really difficult, the way down the pass is very steep and guess what? there is no trail either? We have tried to align with GPS trail, but it quickly became obvious that it must have overgrown or otherwise disappeared. At the end we had to take bearings using a compass and descend down some very steep hill being knee-deep in slippery grass and loose rocks. This was our first hike on this trip, and I really didn't want it to be our last one...

Once we came down to the bottom of the valley it was easy to find and follow the trail. We bumped into a few people hiking around the area. It took us about 2 hours to get to the top hill hanging over Mestia.

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We were so exhausted that we decided to cut our loses and abandon the trip in Mestia. Afterall we still had 2 months of trekking in Nepali Himalayas ahead of us.

Posted by dima.safr 01:32 Archived in Georgia Tagged mountains glacier treking georgia homestay svaneti mestia ushba wild_camping mazeri Comments (0)

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