I was in Paris, France for my girlfriend’s fashion show and was looking for somewhere else to visit for a week. After scouring the internet, I realized that I could get a nonstop from Paris to Tbilisi, Georgia for just 15,000 Delta points (that’s really cheap for those not in the airline points world). I have previously been to Armenia (the next country over) and loved it. Georgia is also one of the countries often mentioned on “up and coming” travel destinations. So, I figured why not and booked the flight.
June 23, 2019: Country 55
Georgia had a bit of a scare in the days leading up to my trip. Anti-Russia protestors amassed outside the capital building in Tbilisi. 3 days before my flight, the police attacked the protestors and over 200 people were injured. The protests made worldwide news. Luckily, the government gave in to some of the protestors’ demands and it was dying down. At the gate, TV monitors showed the violence in Tbilisi, which was certainly a strange feeling. Nobody seemed concerned, rightfully so.
The flight took 5 hours and soon enough I was on the ground at 9pm. From the airport, there was a bus that cost ½ Georgian lari (about 18 cents US).
Due to the protests, the bus couldn’t drive all the way into the city center where my hostel was located. Instead, it dropped me off somewhere else (which I later learned was about two miles away). With no reference points, I headed to the nearby subway stop. After purchasing my metro ticket, I walked over to the escalator and smiled because this was a Soviet-built metro system.
The Soviet Union decided that metro stops should be used as bomb shelters and so they built them deep into the ground. Like obnoxiously deep. To get between the surface and the metro, you have to take a crazy-long escalator ride. In this particular station, the escalator ride took about 3 minutes- longer than the duration between trains.
At the bottom of the escalator, I waited for 30 seconds before a heavy train barreled through the station. It was PACKED with people.
I luckily picked the right direction and was at my destination in just one stop. From there, I walked four minutes to the hostel.
It was now 11pm and most restaurants were close to closing. I settled on a fancy restaurant nearby that had really good ratings and was open until 2 am. I ordered a trout with pomegranate reduction and a bottle of wine- all for $10 USD. Incredible!
As I was eating, another lady walked in by herself and sat down. She ordered the same thing as me so we ended up chatting. Anna had just finished up the Trans-Siberian railway and had a few days to kill in Moscow. Rather than stay in Moscow, she got a flight to Tbilisi. The timing of her spontaneous decision seemed odd, since Russia announced they were ban flights to Georgia over the protests starting.
I asked her for some Tbilisi recommendations and she told me she told me she had booked a wine country tour for tomorrow (Georgia is the birthplace of wine). It was supposed to be a group tour, but because of the Russian protests, everyone else apparently cancelled. For just $51, I could go on the tour too. She pulled up the guide’s WhatsApp number on the screen and let me take a picture of it. “I don’t really care if you go or not” she said. I was intrigued but not sold.
Back at the hostel, I messaged David the wine guy. He responded with a TripAdvisor page with a detailed itinerary. It noticeably skipped a monastery I really wanted to go but still figured it could be fun. He told me to meet outside my hostel at 9:15.
June 24, 2019: Avoiding a Potential Scam and Mtskheta
The next morning, David messaged me saying the tour wouldn’t start until 9:45 but he was going to pick up Anna first.
At 9:45 he didn’t show up. Finally, at 9:55, David arrived in person but said that the driver was still on his way due to traffic. At that moment, I knew something was wrong since Tbilisi never has traffic in the morning. I decided that I wouldn’t go on the tour due to a weird feeling in my gut but still wanted to see the situation out.
David promised it would be just 10 more minutes and offered me an unsolicited huge discount on the tour. He said it was such a shame “because Anna [a lady he apparently only met yesterday] recommended me”.
10 minutes later, no driver. He was frantically making phone calls and asking me what I did for work. I waited another 10 minutes before deciding to walk away. He WhatsApp messaged me saying that the tour would be free and to please accept his offer. This made me more confident in my decision. There was no reason for him to decrease the price from $51 to free. I’ll never know but my suspicion is that this was some sort of extortion scheme and Anna the other tourist was actually involved. The lesson learned is that I need to book all my own tours through reputable sources that I have vetted.
After a long enough walk to ensure David left, I returned to the hostel and met the hostel owner Mark. Mark is from Northern Ireland and opened up the hostel just a few months ago. It was cool to hear about how he was building his business.
Mark suggested I go to Mtskheta, the ancient capital of Georgia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I convinced my bunkmate, Andre from Brazil, to go with me. We took the Metro to Didube station on the north end of town and then got in a taxi to show us around.
Our first stop was the Jvari monastery on top of a hill above town. To me, Jvari looked just another church but it turns out to be extremely important to Georgians. It was at this very spot that St. Nino (who converted the Georgian king to Christianity) erected a cross on the site of a pagan temple. The cross reportedly could work miracles and became a pilgrimage site. The Jvari church was built over the cross in the year 605. A large wooden cross still stands in the middle of the church.
Down below in town, we saw the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral which was built in the late 300’s!! It is believed that Christ’s robe (brought to Georgia by a local Jew who witnessed the crucifixion) is buried beneath the church. This church was the site of the coronation of all Georgian kings since the year 380. 10 kings are buried in the floor including David VI who died in 1290.
A few blocks away was the equally-ancient Samtavro Monastery which contains the grave of King Mirian III (died 390) the first Christian king of Georgia and his wife Queen Nana. It is crazy to think that these churches are over 1,000 years older than almost any church in Europe.
We then got a late lunch of two traditional Georgian foods: khinkali (a soup dumpling) and khachapuri (cheesy bread mixed with an egg).
I washed it down with the ubiquitous wine ice cream. Yes, it was alcoholic.
We took a minibus back in to Tbilisi and then took naps. Mark then told us about a free walking tour starting at 5pm. The business concept was really interesting. The guide gives a free 3-hour walking tour of the city. You give tips at the end. The guide keeps half and the company keeps half.
The tour was fascinating and I learned a lot. The gist of the tour is that Georgia isat the crossroads of Europe, Asia and the Middle East and is influenced by all those places. Georgia also gets along with all those places…except Russia. They really do not like Russia because Russia invaded and controls 20% of Georgia. Still, there are a ton of Russian tourists around Tbilisi and everyone can speak Russian.
Since leaving the Soviet Union, Georgia has been trying to become more aligned with the West and with European values. In 2003, they removed a Russia-aligned president in favor of a pro-West/Europe president. Since then, Georgia has drastically reduced the corruption and crime. According to the Corruption Perception Index: Georgia is currently the 41stleast corrupt country while Armenia is 105th, Russia is 138th, and Azerbaijan is 152nd.
As a symbol of this commitment to honesty, all the government buildings and police stations are made of glass so the public can see inside.
Georgia also really wants to join the EU. They fly EU flags everywhere. They want to join the EU so much that they have a Europe Square where there are about 30 EU flags flying.
While talking about lengthy Georgian drinking toasts, it started to rain. Coincidentally, we sought shelter in a bar. Drank beers while we waited out the craziest 30 minutes of rain I’ve ever seen. Rained well over an inch. Trees were destroyed and waterfalls formed. Just as soon as it started, it stopped and we kept going on the tour.
After the tour, Andre and I took the gondola up to the top of a hill to see the Mother of Georgia statue and an ancient fort called. Sipped wine and watched the sun set over the city. We got a steak dinner headed back to hostel for a chill evening.
June 25, 2019: David Gareja
In the spirit of Georgia, I slept in. At 11AM, I caught an 11am “tour” to David Gareja monastery which is reportedly one of the best destinations in Georgia.
The drive took 3 hours on a cramped minibus. I sat next to Kirk from Kalispell, Montana. Wore a cowboy hat. More than the eye appears. He has taught English around the world his whole life. Did peace corps in Kenya. Then 7 years in China. 7 years in Saudi Arabia. Then to Montana. Not sure what he does now. Reminded me so much of my friend Mike Murray who passed away. They looked nearly identical, had the same mustache, same voice and the same sense of adventure. He has been to 96 countries. We bonded over our sense of adventure and a desire to really see the world.
The bus dropped us off at monastery. It was scorching hot- like 100 degrees. We were told to be ready to leave in 2 ½ hours. There was no guide so we had to explore completely on our own.
We first explored the main part of the monastery, which is dug into caves. It was cool but took only about 15 minutes to explore since most of the caves were still inhabited by monks.
The group then hiked up to nearby ridge line to see the other half of the complex. The ridge turned it to be the international border with Azerbaijan and the other caves were actually on the other side of the border. Azerbaijan used to not care but recently has decided to enforce the border line. Both countries had soldiers patrolling the ridge and the soldiers would not let us visit the caves in Azerbaijan. The Georgian soldiers wore desert camouflage, while the Azeri soldiers wore dark green camouflage.
Despite the border dispute, all the soldiers were friendly with both us and each other. They were all smoking cigarettes and hiding in the shade together. The Azerbaijan soldiers even volunteering to take our pictures with a view of their country. While it was too bad to not be able to go to the other half of the complex, this was a unique experience.
On the drive back, we stopped for a Georgian dinner in the town of Udabno. The rooftop restaurant also doubled as a ranch. They had horses and goats. The landscape here was very open and reminded me of southwestern Wyoming.
Back in Tbilisi, I got ice cream then walked around the old town, which was quite lively. Then I went out for drinks with the hostel crew. I was very impressed by the quality of the other travelers. Everyone is adventurous, friendly and full of many more stories than your average backpacker. This alone makes Georgia a worthy destination.