Koutaissi and the mountains of Caucasia – 5 days – 200 metres above sea level

Version française disponible ici. 

The Georgian capitale being behind us, we did a first stop 20 kilometres further to visit the monastery of Djvari. Sadly, the building doesn’t have much specificities. Plus, there were too many tourists. A crowd which didn’t help to enjoy the view over the Mtskheta city. 

At the bottom of the cliff, we stopped in the fortified city which was the capital of the country in the past. In the historical area, we visited the Cathedral of Svetitskhoveli, an impressive building by its architecture and the fortifications. In one of the pedestrian steets, we enjoyed our first Tchourtchkela, a speciality with a shape similar to a French saucisson. But it was a sweet made of nuts and a gelatin made with grape juice. 

Not convinced by this speciality, we stopped on a terrace of a café reminding the British gardens for a lemonade with an aniseed or lemon flavour. 

Still accompanied by Maika and Christoph, we continued our trip on a small road in the Georgian countryside. Mid-afternoon, we reached the ancient troglodyte fortress of Uplistsikhe. The archeological digs revealed the first caverns have been sculpted from the Iron Age, before the site became a big medieval city. But it was hard to imagine how was the life in these rooms dug in the rocks. We loved watching the lizards enjoying the shadow of the caves. 

After a night spent along the Kura river. We visited in the middle of the morning the Gori city, place of birth of Joseph Staline. His family house was exposed on the main square at the bottom of the museum in tribute to the father of the Russian people. In the park, the vendors were selling many souvenirs reminding their hero. We bought some matches with the celebrity printed on the box. We finally went to the fortress on the top of the city. 

Then we reached the thermal city of Borjomi, famous for its natural sparkling water. We arrived by the river before to enter in the city at the beginning of the afternoon. Lunch break in a restaurant for a fresh salad to cool down a bit. After this, we hiked in the thermal park of the city. We started along the Borjomula river where beautiful villas with wooden facades have been built at the best of the city, the 19th century. At the beginning, the park looked like the old amusement park from the Soviet period before to enjoy a quiet pine forest. The small path led us to the public baths before to go up to reach the cliff overlooking the city. During this hike, the clouds brought the rain. We sheltered under a tree to avoid a shower. 

Back in town, late in the day, we looked for a guesthouse where we could dry and shelter due to the stormy forecasts. We chose a small studio apartment, rented by a family in a cul-de-sac. With our three vehicles, no one else were able to go through. We spent the evening on the terrace in front of the studio, sheltered by a trap given by a Dutch traveller to Maika and Christoph. 

After a hearty breakfast prepared by the studio’s owner, the Russian Gang were back on the road. Nice curves along the river before to climb up the mountain. We started the road under a blazing sun before to get rain and hail, just a few kilometres before the village of Khertvisi. The rain suits were not sufficient to protects us from the hailstones which were as big as little balls. We stopped to get some protection under the trees and we finally found refuge in a café. 

At soon as it stopped for a bit, we used the Uaz van to reach Vardzia, a troglodyte monastery. The road was climbing up the mountain between the canyons revealing a breathtaking view over the historic site. Built on the mountainside Erusheti at the 12th century, there were about 3,000 caves during its golden age including 900 which are still up today. While walking in the city, we were impressed by the chapel and enjoyed crossing the labyrinth of tunnels going through the mountain. Back on the road back, we stopped a couple of times to manage going through the cows.  

The following day was rainy. Again, the road was going between the mountains. We followed the advice of Claudia, a German lady met around a glass of wine, we left the main road leading to Koutaïssi, to start a circuit of 200 kilometres in the Racha area. On the asphalt, we saw old tractors from the Soviet area and many Lada cars. 

After 20 kilometres, the road were going up and there were more and more curves. At the top of the summit at 595 metres above the sea level, we did a small break with a view over the Tkibuki lake. On each side of the lake, there was a conflict between the dark clouds on the right hand side and the last sun rays on the left hand side. We observed this show with some tourists including a guide who gave us delicious and unexpected pieces of watermelon. We took the opportunity of this break for wearing up our rain suits. The target for wild camping tonight seemed already under the dark clouds. 

We went back down towards the old mining city of Tkibuki. Today, almost abandoned, the buildings were falling into ruins, leaving rust progressing on the metal. Once we visited the city, we climbed up a last col. The road continued on a plateau along the Shaori lake and clear waters. It was along the river that we camped under the rain during all the evening. 

Early in the morning, we continued our trip along the river before to go down and reach the city of Ambrolauri. We went on the left to take a small mountainous road in a canyon made by the Rioni river. There were many stones on the road so we were very cautious with an eye looking on the right side. Between the village of Lajana and the small city of Tsageru, the road went up before to go down with a beautiful view on the mountainous scenery. 

We reached the Prometheus caves. We walked through 1.5-kilometre galeries among the 11 kilometres of the caves. A guide was mandatory for the visit with a big group of tourists. We stayed the last ones on the group to enjoy some quiet time in this impressive place. We tried to guess the shapes made by the stalactites and the stalagmites. Some freshness and poetry during this hot day. 

For the next step, we stopped in the thermal city of Tskaltubo. Known during the glorious Soviet years, its hot water sources were enjoyed a lot by Joseph Staline. Big buildings have been built to offer public baths or spas. Today, due to the obsolescence, the hotels were abandoned. We enjoyed a little session of “urban exploration” in the ruins of the public bath number 8. 

We arrived at the end of the afternoon at Koutaïssi. We climbed up the small narrow streets to find a hotel found on Booking.com. But no one at the address specified. We chatted with a neighbour who made a small hostel with two rooms in his house. Nothing fancy but a great welcoming. We finished the day with a beer on his small wooden terrace at the bottom of his garden, by the Rioni river. While going back up to the hostel to walk in the city, we have been kindly invited for a tea and a glass of wine liquor with the family. The kids in the living room were celebrating a birthday under a disco ball.

On the following day, after a new hearty breakfast prepared by the owner, we went discovering the city. We passed by the impressive theatre of Lado Meskhishvili, crossed the central park before to reach the Bagrati Cathedral on the opposite side of the river, above the city. Longtime into ruins, the renovation works succeeded themselves during the 20th century for ending a few years ago. Magnificent, it has the originality to wear iron wings.

During our visit, several pops were praying around a coffin. A chorus of men was singing a cappella. The ambiance was heavy but beautiful from this emotion resulting of the ceremony and the greatness of the place.

At midday, we took the direction of the Black Sea, by the main road of the country, also used by several trucks. But surprisingly, even if this road was one of the busiest roads of the country, we had to slow down a lot for several level crossings. 

Arrived at the sea side, we setup the camp at the well-named “black sea campsite”. Then we had a dinner with the feet in the sand, in the shared kitchen and its walls made of bamboo. This was our last Georgian night…

Before crossing the border, we stopped a few kilometers after the campsite, in a garden honoring Georgian and international musicians and singers with nice statues. We saw Edith Piaf representing France…

Then, we passed the seaside city named Batoumi, with its futuristic architecture, before to reach the border in Sarpi. 

Arrived at the custom building, Emilie, Christoph and Julien managed alone the crossing with the vehiclies. While Marie, Maika and I went by foot to the immigration. It was a modern building looking like an airport. The paperworks were smooth, altering between immigration counter and duty free shops. We left the building 15 minutes later with a new stamp on our passport and waited Emilie, Christoph and Julien.

The sidecars arrived less than 1 hour after  we left them on the Georgian side. Again they did not need to open any luggages… In another hand, this was a lot more difficult for Christoph, with his Kazakh registered vehicle and Cyrillic documents. The customs asked him to go back to Batumi for translating in English the vehicle documents.

Therefore, it was at this border that our paths were diverging. We planned to meet them in a few days on the Northern coast of Turkey.

Sadly, we learned later they were unable to enter in Turkey with the UAZ and its Kazakh registration. Maika and Christoph had to reach Germany by crossing the Black Sea with a ferry to Bulgaria. But we know that one day, our path will cross again. Maybe in Germany, France or somewhere else around the world  to gather together the “Russian Gang” !

Where to drink?

Café Tatin
20, Mamulashvili street , Mtskheta

A nice break in the shadow with a British atmosphere to enjoy a drink of a delicious and fresh lemonade.

Where to eat?

Restaurant My House
1200 Kostava St, Borjomi

A good place to enjoy a fresh salad before to hike in the park.