On the trail of the Caucasus

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Asia » Georgia
September 4th 2019
Published: September 7th 2019
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We departed Tbilisi in the morning to make our way to Mtskheta, Georgia's former capital. The city is known for its churches, the city being the spiritual heart of Georgia since christianity was established in the area around 337 AD. The interesting thing about Georgian orthodox churches is that women need to cover their hair like in a mosque. We visited the Jvari church which overlooks the city on top of a hill. We then went to the Svetitskhoveli Catherderal, which dates back to the 11th century. It is an enormous complex, and Christ's robe is said to be buried beneath the central nave. Markets surround the complex as well, so its a nice little walk around the markets picking up souvenirs and snacks along the way, including Churchkhela, a candke-shaped sweet of walnuts or hazelnuts covered in fruit molasses. We we then made a detour to the town of Gori, where Joseph Stalin was born and we went to the Stalin museum. An interesting place, though the guide didn't talk about how horrible Stalin was during the soviet era, nor the crimes committed. Though Georgians hated the Soviet Union, we were told that some people on Gori like Stalin because he was born there, and there are Stalin souveniers galore there, including wine (which we bought just because of the bottle). The museum itself was built on the land on where his house was, and the facade of the house still remains, as does an old Soviet train and his living quarters on the train. Our home for the evening was a guesthouse in Kutaisi. On the way we visited the Gelati monestary, which was once one of the great spiritual and cultural centres of Georgia in the middle ages and is often referred to as the ‘new Athens’ and the ‘second Jerusalem’ at the time. Founded by King Davit Agmashenebeli in 1106, today it is being heavily restored and is a series of buildings and churches. At the guesthouse, our dinner was made by the hosts, a delicious spread of Georgian food.

The next morning we set out to the farmers markets to have a look at daily life and take photos like nosy tourists. Little old ladies were selling home made liquor (cognac we were told) and a couple of us were lured in for shots at 9am! We did buy a bottle which was bottled up in a water bottle! We then went up to the Sataplia Nature Reserve to see footprints of dinosaurs (contained within a specifically designed building) and to wander a natural grotto to see the stalagmites and stalactites. The Sataplia cave was the highlight, seeing the stalagmites and stalactites limestone formations – the placement of coloured lights in certain areas enhanced the experience. The reserve was also nice to wander around, and the forest was a lovely reprieve from the heat. Our next stop was the Caucasus mountains – the Svaneti region in northern Georgia near the Russian border. The main town, Mestia, was our home for the next two nights and our base for our first hike, 13km in the mountains. The next day we set out for the hike, the hardest we were told, however other than getting used to the incline at the beginning and a 500m steep decline halfway through, it was an enjoyable walk through the mountains, even with the cows following us and dodging cow dung! After the walk, we went to a guesthouse for a cooking lesson (which was really watching the cook making it) on how to make Kubdari, a Svanetian speciality of meat in bread, and cheese. The Kubdari is cooked in a traditional coal oven, first on top of the oven to make the outside crunchy and then cooked inside the oven. It was a very nice snack!! Afterward, we went to a museum to see a traditional Svaneti house dating back centuries, and climb up a watch tower. Later, a couple of us walked around town, had a drink and soaked up the atmosphere. After a lacklustre dinner at the guesthouse, our group went for, yet again, rooftop drinks.

The next day we left for Ushguli, one of Europe's highest alpine inhabited communities 2200m above sea level. There are several villages that make up Ushguli, and the village we stayed in had guesthouse after guesthouse (though it didn't feel overly touristic) for travellers making Ushguli their base for various hikes. On the way, we stopped b the ‘love tower', an over-glorified watch tower with a hundred different stories of why its called the love tower! The next day we set about for our second hike, a 7km trek up literally up the side of the mountain to a fortress. After losing the group walking through a small village, we all joined up again to find out this is the hardest, and rather dangerous, hike up the mountain with tiny trails just visible enough to follow up to the top! The fortress, which was a King's summer house, is very decrepit though the views over Ushguli was nice. The way down was treacherous, we went the wrong way and had to turn around and slipped a couple of times! That afternoon, the group (except Bill) went to see a movie called ‘Dede', a 2017 film set and filmed in Ushguli. The cinema was an interesting set up underneath a guesthouse with wooden stacked benches fir seats. It was very cosy! The movie was set in 1992, after independence from the Soviet Union, and told the story of Dina, who was arranged to be wed to David, but she loved his friend Gegi so she defied tradition and married for love (this is after David committed suicide). Fast forward a few years, Dina and Gegi had a little boy, and when Dina's grandmother got ill Gegi went back to the village to gain permission for her to come back, but instead he was killed. Dina's best friend then decided he loved her, demanded to marry her, she was still in mourning and Gegi's parents made her leave her son behind when she got remarried but she returned when the son was ill. The movie ended on a bright note, after a terrible illness the son survived and made a recovery and Dina was forever grateful to her new husband. Once you get past the bridal kidnappings and machoistic nature of the film (as was village life at the time) it was a very good film and won several international film awards.

The next morning, we set out early to walk 20km round trip to the Shkhara glacier. It started out as a very cold morning, but warmed up as we walked. The road was mostly flat, and everyone joined this third and final hike including the older couple on our trip Janet and George, who hiked most of the way (they hadn't done the other hikes). Halfway was a cafe where we could stop, have a drink and refresh. The last 2km was a treacherous climb over rocks but finally, aching feet and all, we got there to the glacier. It was magnificent hike, the glacier, unfortunately as all glaciers are, is slowly melting away. Ushguli is a magnet for tourists because if this hike to see the 5100m Mt Shkhara. It was really beautiful – I didn't realise what I thought was rock was still the glacier just with dirt on it. The walk back seemed the longest – we stopped at the church back near the village and I got in trouble by the priest for not putting on a makeshift skirt over my jeans before going into the church. We then were on the road again to Mestia, a 1.5hr drive back down to the main town, where we stayed in a new guesthouse and rested our weary feet!

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