After almost two months of traveling, I finally hitchhiked my way across the Armenian border to my final destination, Georgia, and it’s capital Tbilisi. After all the recommendations and great reviews I heard even prior to my trip, I decided to ditch Azerbaijan from my plans to relax and take a better look around Georgia for the last two months. Due to the quickly escalating situation with COVID-19, I had to suddenly end my trip already before being done with the first half. This is why the depth of observations and the quality of the mostly phone taken photos may not be my very best. Nevertheless, I think it’s fair to assume I witnessed enough to share my experiences.
I had not done any research other than checking the first pages of results in Google pictures, which is why my arrival came with a small culture shock again. After coming from the rural areas of Armenia, it was surprising to see how vibrant, international and European-like Tbilisi seemed. I wasn’t even sure how to feel about the sudden appearance of tourists at first. Soon I got in terms with reality and found myself enjoying my stay even so. Coming to yet another new country and absorbing the culture and changes drained all the energy out of me. Therefore my first week was spent mostly with Netflix, checking out the nightlife and walking around the central area trying the local cuisine.
Just like in Armenia, there was once again something slightly mystical about the locals. Even Georgians themselves kept talking about their temperament, which I experienced with the sometimes loud and direct people. Even so, they mean good and are always welcoming, kind and helpful. I do believe that if you misbehave yourself, they will give you the shit you deserve, though. I’m not gonna be the one to try that.
Anyway, despite the growing tourism, I can’t remember running into any scam attempts or having people trying to get an advantage on me. As the mere opposite, I was treated with respect and given away some unusual gifts again. Such things happening as a market place seller giving his family’s top quality home wine and a random girl handling a liter of her father’s home brew in a minivan, will probably not happen to only me in Georgia.
In the wine region of Kakheti and it’s main city, Telavi, I had the kind of experiences I travel for. As one of the only tourists in the city of around 20 000 inhabitants in off-season, I could feel more isolated once again. The place had it’s calm and more authentic vibes that I enjoyed a lot when walking around. I don’t even know why, but one of my favourite moments in a long time was when I got dropped off next to a tiny local craft beer shop and enjoyed my IPA outdoors. Sitting there in the sun on a modest wooden chair, watching the mountains in the background and the chilled village people passing by, it was impossible not to smirk like a total idiot. Fellow few travelers in the only hostel around were like-minded so the atmosphere was for once like staying with a family. By myself I still ended up doing some tipsy hitchhiking around the region to visit and do tastings in a few impressive wineries.
With the friends made in Telavi, we agreed to meet up North in Kazbegi to do some hiking together. And not only some but more like a leg crippling amount of it for someone as inexperienced as me. The pain was probably deserved after all the eating I had done already starting from Iran, though. From the pictures we can all agree that climbing was luckily totally worth it. The stunning views from the infamous Gergeti trinity church ended up being one of the highlights of my whole trip and will most likely remain as one of the most memorable places I’ve been to. The feeling of drowning to the sight of surrounding and overwhelming mountains felt like watching cinema screen from one meter distance. It almost hurt my eyes when turning my head around and concentrating on the details of sunlight reflecting slopes and the town underneath.
The next day we did some more trekking with the help of a local friend in the village of Juti. Climbing while swimming in the snow up to waist was both physical and mental hell but once again worth the trouble.
Food also lived up to the high expectations. Georgian dishes were a level up to already great Caucasian food now that the use of spices and moderate use of chili seemed to be mastered. They also have their own cheese called “sulguni” which is a more sour and salty kind of a version of mozzarella. Sulguni is basically stuffed in every other food, after which that food is stuffed in my cheese-loving face, until a balance of self-hatred and eternal joy is found. I think it’s fair to claim that on this backpacking trip I quite exceptionally missed barely any Finnish food.
As you may have already understood, their own produce of alcohol drinks is an important part of the culture. Many of you may not even know the country from before nor the fact that it happens to be one of the oldest wine regions in the world. They also have their very own style to produce the wines that they are so proud for. In short, the ancient technique is fundamentally about mashing and throwing whole grapes with skins and seeds to big clay pots: “kvevris” that are buried underground. There the fermentation process takes place for several months resulting in some fine and intense dry wine. In wine regions like the previously mentioned Kakheti, you can find wineries side by side where they produce these drinks in both local and European style. Scroll your way back up and you will now understand the meaning of the holes in the ground.
Oh, and if you need to knock yourself out, try “chacha”. This usually homemade and 40-65% strong drink is often referred as grape vodka. Both wine and chacha making is a popular sport among men and considered a family honor when comparing who has the finest drinks. No wonder the gifts given to me were always their family drinks. Usually you can also find the homemade stuff being sold in market places and private stores in sketchy looking plastic bottles. Taste is almost always nonetheless way better than you’d expect.
With the worsening Corona virus situation, my last days were spent in towns of Bakuriani and Borjomi mostly by hanging out, watching South Park and doing some lazy writing covered in my poncho. Maintaining this chilled out and inexpensive lifestyle with tasty wines and food was what I intended my upcoming quarantine life to be about too. In the end I was pressured by my bank account and soon ending travel insurance to change my plans and get back home instead.
Even if already having these wide-ranged experiences, I saw only a fraction of what I had in my mind. There’s definitely more attractions and activities waiting for me whenever I get back in Georgia. I had to skip several famous towns, the entire seaside and the Svaneti region, which is rumoured to be the top destination with it’s stunning landscapes in high altitude villages. Now it was better for this sulguni stuffed traveler to pack up the backpack with wine and leave the rest for the better days to come.