I’m in Georgia!! I managed to arrange to meet some friends here so the next couple of weeks are with Seb and Emma and involve plenty of hiking, then Seb and I will carry on for another few weeks in Armenia and Azerbaijan.
I liked Kutaisi and enjoyed having a few days to explore the city and the area around it. Direct flights are extraordinarily cheap from some European destinations and I would recommend throwing Kutaisi into your stack of options if you’ve not been to Central Asia before.
My flight to Kutaisi actually arrived 35 minutes early, which I don’t remember happening before. I was just about to walk out of the airport when I got a tap on the shoulder and found that Seb had come to meet me. Hitchhiking in Georgia seems to be really easy so we managed to catch a ride almost to the centre within a few minutes. It’s so hot here!!
We walked the rest of the way to the hostel and it’s a really funny place (not in a bad way, just unusual). We’re staying in Hostel Vagabond. Seb arrived yesterday and Emma (the third amigo) arrives tomorrow afternoon, so I’ve booked three nights and am paying a TOTAL of £13.50!
Hostel Vagabond is in an old building overlooking the river. It has an interesting layout – it’s all on one floor and the dorms all link together so there’s 12 beds in each room set around three corners. The place feels quite spacious but I think that depends on which bed you end up getting. It’s run by Turkish Kurds who are friendly, though the way they can hang around in a dorm for a minute longer than necessary was a little odd while I was getting changed. Fuad the owner is nice and he makes sure to get to know a bit about everyone who stays there, so it’s nice to come back to somebody who knows your name.
Seb and I bought some traditional Georgian dumplings in a shop on the way here and we have just had an epic fail cooking them as I thought they would have been steamed but that would take forever. So anyway, we have managed with a couple of strange half-cooked dumplings and are now heading out to explore.
The Bagrati Cathedral is easy to find because it’s right up on the hill and it seems that all roads lead up the steep hill. It’s a very pretty stone building with a nice green roof. We had a look around and then just lay in the shade for a while, planning where to go next.
We have hopped in a mini bus to a nearby town called Tskaltubo which looks like it has a cool park in the middle with a moat all the way around.
This town is amazing!! I’m so glad we came here! The place has so many derelict buildings that it feels like Chernobyl!
We headed to the centre of a park to a huge squat building and worked out that it had been a bath house. A big one with lots of individual bathing areas as well as some larger ones. We climbed up to the second floor, made trickier by the lack of stairs and went out on to the roof.
Once we finished exploring this building I took Seb over to a huge derelict building I had spotted on the bus ride in. This one is harder to believe. It’s a 5 storey abandoned hotel. It’s like something out of the movie 28 Days Later. There were even dogs lazing about outside and we weren’t sure if they were going to be aggressive or territorial; thankfully they skulked off and we climbed through a hole in the door to get into the entrance hall.
We had no idea how big this place was before we got inside. There were staircases that led to different floors, so we would get to the top of one wing and then walk along and find yet more stairs leading up.
We made it up on to the fourth floor and started to hear some strange banging noises. It definitely started to feel like a horror movie at this point. When we got up to the roof I could see that a metal panel was loose and flapping with irregularity in the wind. We made our way down and back into civilization, grabbing a beer at a cafe before taking a minibus back to Kutaisi.
We found a nice restaurant for dinner. No atmosphere but the beef stroganoff was tasty and it was cheap overall.
Then we took the cable car across the river and up to the top of a steep hill in the city which is home to an amusement park. We had a ride on the Ferris wheel with good views over the city at sunset and it only cost 2 Lari (£0.60).
To round off the evening we visited a bar called Prague not too far from the hostel and had some drinks.
We had a fairly slow morning, we cooked some more of the dumplings for breakfast and then wandered around the city. We found a nice cafe and I had my coffee fix and we shared pancakes. We were waiting until 2pm when we had a bus to catch to visit some monasteries in the mountains so we decided to have a beer at a bar in the park. We tried Argo, a Georgian dark beer and it was good and also very cheap.
We ended up almost missing the bus because of the beer distraction but we made it!
The bus dropped us off at the Gelati Monastery with plenty of Georgian visitors. The Monastery is a symbol of Georgian Christian Orthodox church, and the first church here, the Church of the Virgin, was founded in AD 1106 so it’s an old Byzantine site up on the the hillside with a commanding view of the whole valley. The setting is like something out of a movie, it’s spectacular. The monastery is also the burial site of King David the Builder, possibly the greatest ruler of Georgia and also perhaps King Tamar, a famous female king in the Golden Age of Georgia.
The walls inside are covered with brightly coloured murals and mosaics, including the largest mosaic in Georgia. There was a service going on in one of the churches so it was nice to stand and listen for a while.
We walked from this monastery, 4km down a long and winding road, to another monastery called Motsameta where we found some bats living between the wooden boards above the bridge.
We hiked back out to the main road and were just resting and working out where we should go to hitch hike when the bus did its final sweep to pick up anyone from either monastery. We caught the bus and paid next to nothing for our ride back into town to meet Emma, our Aussie travel buddie joining us today.
On our way back, we picked up some Georgian wine and an enormous honeydew melon and then on our walk back, I lost a game of rock paper scissors and the first word I said to Emma face to face was “Melcome” as I presented her with this melon. Face palm.
We went straight out for some food as we were all ravenous and decided to check out Eldepo, a traditional Georgian restaurant which the hostel staff recommended.
We had some pork dumplings and some mushroom ones. We really aren’t sure how, but we also apparently ordered a plate of cheese. When this plate of white gooey wobbly slices arrived at our table none of us were even convinced it was cheese. We all eventually tried it and I was fairly convinced it was a type of plastic; as we were discussing it, one of the waitresses overheard and loudly announced “cheese” pointing to the plate with a flourish, which set us all off laughing.
The wine and melon was beckoning so we headed back to the hostel for food-baby inducing feast.
Seb cooked us scrambled eggs for breakfast and we three sat planning how we would get to Prometheus Cave and the Okatse Canyon today. We were considering taking minibuses and had established that there may be a way of getting between the two sites without coming back to the city, but the hostel owner told us that he had found a “cheap” taxi who would take the three of us to Prometheus, then to Okatse, wait for as long as we wanted and then return us to Kutaisi for 120 GEL, which is £13 per person. It was a fairly easy decision as it guaranteed seeing the major attractions today so we decided on the taxi and left 5 minutes later.
Prometheus cave is definitely the tourist hotspot of the region. We arrived around 11:30am and bought our tickets. Man this place has increased in price since the blog I read about it.
Entry prices @August2018:
Adults 20 GEL (£6)
Students 5 GEL
Boat trip 15 GEL
So we each paid £10.50 for a guided tour of the huge cave, culminating in a boat ride.
The waiting area held some interesting exhibits, including some Neolithic period tools and the skull of a cave bear!
The cave was discovered in 1984 and opened to the public in 2011. It is a constant 14 degrees Celsius inside (though it feels much warmer to me..)
I saw the first curved stalactites I have ever seen. Caused by imperceptible air currents in the cave. In some chambers there are formations that look like suspended sails. The lighting in some of these areas is spot on – you can actually see through some of the sails. In one area in particular the chamber is absolutely enormous, and it feels like a cathedral.
Our boat trip out of the cave was great and we saw some of the formations up close. As we emerged we were hit by a wall of heat and brightness that hurt our eyes.
We were all famished when as we left the cave so we headed across the carpark to Gold Age restaurant which probably has very touristy prices but it’s still very reasonable for us. We had an absolute feast, all freshly cooked for 74 GEL (£22). We had a lot of company in the form of cats and kittens.
On our drive to Oktase Canyon we passed a funeral procession coming in the other direction. Over 200 men were walking down the road and there was a convoy of more than 50 cars on top of that, there were only 10 women in the whole procession. The thing I had never seen before was a few men were carrying what appeared to be the lid of a coffin, which I thought was unusual, until I realised that there were six men a bit further back in the procession carrying the open coffin down the road.
Our driver had absolutely no idea where he was going and reached some railway tracks that he definitely couldn’t drive over so then we all got our maps out to work out where to go. He made two phonecalls as well as asking for directions from local taxi drivers. We did some more swerving around cows in the road and then took a steep and windy mountain road to the canyon carpark…
We had to pay 15 GEL for entry to the canyon, though we also discovered that there is a combo ticket for 50 GEL which gives you access to the top four sites in the region; the two we have seen today plus the Martvili Canyon and Sataplia Cave (where I think there are dinosaur fossils). We are hoping to come back to the area and see the other two sites after our big hike.
We were offered a jeep ride down to the canyon walkway and back for 30 GEL but it’s only 2.2 kilometres each way and it’s a nice walk through a forest so I would recommend waking if you have time.
The suspended walkways along the canyon wall were a surprise! And well made too. The trail goes hundreds of metres along the cliff face and then at the end there is an amazing and slightly terrifying platform resembling a dive board out over a sheer drop of over a hundred metres.
A decent basejumping spot if you have the stomach.
We strolled back up to our car, stopping for much-needed ice-cream on the way and then had a great drive back through fascinating settlements on the way back. It’s hard to describe Georgia, particularly the way the people live. Hopefully I’ll get some decent photos later in the trip which could help but there is a strange level of dereliction across the whole area that we have seen so far, and a huge amount of tumbledown charm. Houses seem to be mainly single storey living quarters, built on raised platforms, with wide verandas around two or three sides and lots of them have fancy sweeping staircases with wrought iron bannisters. The first level looks like it’s more of a storage area than a living space and the finish of the buildings is usually crumbling or totally unrendered. The gardens are large and often full of fruit trees and vegetable patches, there are an incredible number of beehives scattered about and we are keen to try some of the local honey.
Our next trip will be to the Svaneti Region for some epic hiking close to Mount Elbrus (one of the seven highest summits challenge).