If I had to sum up my Novruz/Spring Break trip to Georgia in a handful of words, it would be something like this…
- Mighty vistas
- Spiritual beauty
- Death by cows
Hopefully you’ll see why throughout the post. First, here are some logistics of the trip:
- Who: Myself and two other Fulbright ETAs, all ladies.
- The trip took place over Novruz week. Novruz is a major spring holiday in Azerbaijan and is also celebrated in Iran. We were gone the entire week, from March 21 through March 28/29.
- We took an overnight bus from Baku to Tbilisi, 12 manat ($12 USD at the time) per ticket. It left at 9:30pm (there are a few departure time options), and we arrived in Tbilisi at about 6:30am. We spent roughly an hour at the border, which we arrived at around 4:00am.
- To get back, we took the overnight train from Tbilisi to Baku. Price was about 60 lari, or about $30 USD. The border took longer than the bus, I want to say close to three hours.
- Our itinerary: (20) Overnight bus from Baku to Tbilisi, (21) Tbilisi, (22) Tbilisi/Day trip to Kazbegi, (23) Kutaisi, (24) Kutaisi/Excursion to Gelati Monastery, (25 and 26) Batumi/Excursion to Batumi Nature Reserve, (27) Batumi/Travel to Tbilisi, (28) Tbilisi/Train to Baku, (29) Arrive in Baku afternoon. Basically, we were very, very busy!
- Our main mode of transportation within Georgia was marshrutka, basically a little bus. It is useful to know Russian to travel this way (or at least have Russian-speaking friends to depend on, which I had).
- Our hostels, which you can find on Booking.com: Old Town Hostel (Tbilisi), Bavaria Inn (Kutaisi), Friends’ Hostel (Tbilisi). In Batumi, we rented a little apartment. The cost was comparable to a hostel, and we really enjoyed having our own space to crash in.
Tbilisi – Round 2
Highlights from Tbilisi:
- Taking in the city at a faster pace. I visited Tbilisi in January but didn’t get to see much. Besides the rain, it was great seeing Tbilisi again.
- Georgian wine and chacha. Chacha is Georgia’s hard liquor of choice. According to the Peace Corps volunteers I chatted with, all of their homestay families make their own homemade/moonshine chacha. They also take one or two shots of the concoction in the morning “for health reasons.”
- Getting a marriage proposal after enjoying said Georgian wine and chacha. I declined.
- Randomly bumping into some fellow Georgian Fulbright ETAs who we hadn’t seen since the Pre-Departure Orientation in July. Loved talking with them and comparing experiences.
(If you want to see them in a larger size with descriptions, click on the first one for a slideshow)
Kazbegi – Death by Cows
I don’t know about you, but I have an ongoing list in my head entitled Things to Never Tell My Mother. “Death by cows in the Caucasus Mountains during Georgia spring break trip” was on it, partly because I felt so stupid for being as scared as I was. But now I can laugh at myself so I’m going to tell the entire internet my ridiculous story.
Gergeti church, perched atop of a little mountain peak, was the goal during our day trip to Kazbegi (for more information on Kazbegi, click here). Dana said the views were to die for, and the trek up and down the substantial hill would take just the right amount of time for an entertaining, semi-strenuous day hike. Perfect.
Spolier alert: We did not make it to the church. First, paths were not clearly marked. Second, the path we ended up taking was still covered with snow. And third, we almost died by cows.
Picture the three of us at the bottom of a big hill, right outside a little village. Our eyes scanned the surrounding landscape.”I think this is the hill we take…” someone said. “Yeah, this must be it — people keep turning around and coming back after a few minutes on the other hill,” another one concurred. We started heading up, and, to our dismay, it was much harder than it looked from afar.
“How is it this steep? It didn’t look this bad from the bottom of the hill,” one person commented. I paused, already breathless, “I know I’m out of shape — but I’m blaming the elevation.” “Yesterday’s chacha isn’t helping us either…” the third added. “Awww, look, a cow!” All eyes looked straight ahead and spotted a handful of cows beginning their decline from a grazing area. We watched them slip and slide while we caught our breath, panic suddenly settling in as more cows appeared and dotted the hillside.
There we stood, balanced precariously on mud and slabs of gray sheet rock, desperately trying to avoid the onslaught of cows lumbering down the steep hill. Their slim ankles and bony knees hardly looked fit enough to handle their girth, and I imagined their joints buckling and heaving them down the hill on top of us.
It is SO hard to move quickly with precarious footing at a steep incline as panic surges through your body. We shuffled over to the left, half the cows headed in that direction. We moved over more to get to grass, hoping for better footing. Apparently the cows were looking for that too.
I know, deep down, that cows are harmless creatures. The animal must be pretty passive and relaxed to allow a human to collect milk from it everyday, and it was one of the first domesticated animals in human history. But we definitely fed the fire of fear as we each flipped out. “Is that….is that a male cow?!” “What if they run and attack us??!!” “There’s MORE coming — it will never end…!!” “I DON’T WANT TO DIE IN THE CAUCASUS MOUNTAINS!!!”
We scurried down the hill, absolutely scared to death (picture the characters in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “Run away! Run away!”). We reconvened and tried to find our sanity, all the while nervously glaring at the cows as they meandered past us toward the village. We waited until we were sure no more cows would come, and we gave the hill a second try. We made it much further, but, as I mentioned earlier, still failed.
*Sigh* Sooooo ridiculous. But if you can’t laugh at yourself…
Other highlights from our Kazbegi day:
- Being called “evil and beautiful” by a (very, very) drunk man at the restaurant. I took it as a compliment; I don’t mind being a little evil and being called out on it.
- Witnessing the aftermath of a minor car crash in the mountains. The treacherous 1-lane roads are just begging for accidents. And really, it did not surprise me — when you drive like a lunatic in the mountains, you’re in a world of hurt. What was so amusing was the Caucasus-style problem solving process between the two parties. About 25 men flocked around the scene, smoking and debating, taking sides as to who was not at fault for the accident. I was half-expecting someone to bring out tea. Luckily a police officer came along after about 20 minutes and we were able to move again.
From Tbilisi we ventured to the middle of Georgia and stayed in Kutaisi for a night.
- Meeting up with Kutaisi’s ETA, Alex, and visiting his class. Working with students mid-trip was refreshing for us all.
- Touring Gelati Monastery, a UNESCO site (separate photo album below).
- Immediately feeling relaxed and at-home in this charming city.
- Our hostel, Hostel Bavaria, was the most charming thing ever. For an extra 2 lari, they will make you breakfast and it is delicious.
- Randomly meeting a former Peace Corps volunteer during a walk. He fell in love with Georgia during his service, and splits his time equally between the States and Kutaisi.
- Buying fruit leather from a cute lady in a bazaar and impressing her when I knew the Azeri word for persimmon, “xurma.” Apparently they’re also called “xurma” in Georgia.
Gelati Monastery Pictures
A 20-minute taxi ride away from Kutaisi is Gelati Monastery. This is one of my personal favorites out of the whole trip. Since this post is forever long anyway, here is a link that describes more history of the Bagrati and Gelati structures: UNESCO website – Bagrati and Gelati.
Off Season in Batumi
Next phase of the trip: Batumi, a city right on the Black Sea coast. I wasn’t able to visit the Black Sea during my semester abroad in Turkey, so I was happy to see it in Georgia.
In the summer, Batumi is THE place to be — full of tourists, lots of fun. In March, spring had just arrived so although it was occasionally chilly, it was still enjoyable. It actually reminded me of the off-season back home in West Michigan, an area overflowing with tourists in the summer, and still as still can be in the winter.
Highlights from Batumi:
- Spending time with Batumi’s lovely Fulbright ETA, Jessie.
- Trying out the most charming local coffee shop I’ve ever seen. Owned by a Ukrainian couple, Choco Latte is affordable and delicious (pics in the slideshow).
- I convinced myself that the elevator of our apartment was psychotic and wanted to kill us. The fact that its doors slammed into one of us whenever we used it convinced me of this.
- Spending an afternoon at the Batumi Botanical Garden. Fantastic views of the Black Sea, diverse plant life, and nicely maintained paths make this a must-see attraction. (Photos in album below.)
- The marshrutka ride from Kutaisi to Batumi — actually, all of the marshrutka rides were surprisingly pleasant.
And there you have it, an entire week of travel in ONE post. Crazy. If you learned anything, I hope it’s this: Out of the three countries that make up the Southern Caucasus, Georgia is the most accessible since it is developing a pretty substantial backpacker/tourist industry. Tbilisi is awesome, but that’s just a taste of Georgia. Much of Georgia’s beauty lies in the smaller towns and cities nestled between ragged cliffs and hills. Venture out and experience the greater Caucasus…take in the mighty vistas, appreciate the spirituality of the region…
And try not to get killed by cows.
Until next time… 😉