Prehistoric monuments, medieval cave cities and castles, canyons, and a hot springs. That was our three day quest that we had set, with very limited success. The team was my Latvian friend, his eleven-year-old son, and myself, crammed into the front seats of his utility van. It had been a relatively cool summer, so with the sun shining as we set off from my apartment, it looked like the perfect start to the trip.
Day 1: Edzana Canyon, Paravani Megaliths, and Akhalkalaki
Our first stop was a canyon. The back route from Tbilisi (Ortachala) to Manglisi was a surprisingly good road. Ortachala itself is a weird neighborhood: The site of one of the main bus stations in Tbilisi, it sits completely disconnected from the metro network, though still accessible by city bus and marshrutka. I remember first being there, when it was mainly just a row of brothels for arriving Armenians, Turks, Azeris, and Persians, with a crumbling, post-apocalyptic Soviet bus station as a centerpiece. The area has improved a lot since that time, with a couple of modern hotel towers rising up above the mess, but our first “megalith” was indeed that crumbling concrete massif our van idled by. It’s also definitely one of the better routes out of town to skip the traffic, so there was that too.
As we got halfway towards Manglisi, we picked up a hitchhiker en route, who was headed to that village. He was a hippie from Germany who gladly hopped into the back of the van. He was on his way back to the village—a popular site for Tbiliselis to have a summer home—where he had apparently left his hat. As a hat man myself, I had the feels for him, so we brought him all the way to the house. And then our first real discovery that though there aren’t many roads in the country side, Google seems positive that there’s a network of roads webbing across the Georgian hinterlands. There isn’t. There really is just one road.
As we followed the route out of town, the road quickly deteriorated into literally nothing. No problem, we’ll just turn around and get out, and then head down another road that did the same thing. Damn you, Manglisi! But wait, this WAS the main road!
So, onto that dirt avenue snaking through the hills we went. The road improved again, though it would prove to be quite patchy all the way to Akhalkalaki (due to a strange selection of road works). The road though, is good enough for any car to make the trip.
Tsalka, Edzana, and Dashbashi
Tsalka is a quaint village close to a large lake that seems completely undiscovered by tourists (even by Georgian tourists), and looks to be a great place for fishing (indeed, you can find a place or two to rent boats) and for just buying fish and grilling it up. It was settled in the early 1800s by Greeks living in Anatolia who were fleeing Turkish persecution after the Greeks had sided with Russia in the Russo-Turkish War. They were taken in by the then Russian Empire and allowed to settle in this scenic steppe. After the Georgian Independence of 1991, and all the chaos that ensued, most of the ethnic Greeks packed up and went to their motherland who was offering free citizenship to those who could prove Greek descent. They've left behind a lot of ruined houses, a crumbling Greek Orthodox Church, and a little Greek restaurant called Pontia.
We turned off just ahead of Tsalka to Dashbashi Canyon.
Edzana Canyon (as it's real name is) is a fairly large and scenic feature itself, with vertical cliffs, and waterfalls (and even its own 11th century church!). The area seems mostly undiscovered, but does seem to have a few hiking outlets (at the very least, a trail that goes down to the canyon). It certainly hasn’t got any of the love from the government that Okatse Canyon has, which might be a good thing really, as leaving places for more rugged hiking should be of some interest for the government as well (though some marked trails where you don’t have the feeling that you’re trespassing is also good).
Dashbashi River and St. George Church
The Dashbashi River is far below, carving its way through the Edzana Canyon. Down below are beautiful waterfalls, and clean, clear water—perfect for swimming on a hot day. Only an hour and a half to two hours from Tbilisi by car, it makes for a great day trip with friends or family. There is a trail that leads down to the swimming hole and back up.
Probably most notably, at the top of the trail is a beergarden. Enjoy!
You can get to Tsalka by marshrutka (from Samgori) or an achingly slow electric train from Station’s Square (I haven’t taken this route and am not one hundred percent confident that it actually exists, despite the officially posted time tables). From Tsalka to the canyon, you’d have to hire a taxi. I’m guessing to get him to drive you there and wait for you would be about 10-20 lari. Cheaper if you know the kartuli.
Paravani Lake and Poka Village
After leaving the canyon and exiting Tsalka, hail started slamming down on our car, acting as a kind of heavy hi-hats for the electronic music blaring out of my friend’s bluetooth speaker. While his kid was trying to show me the rudiments of Candy Crush Family Fun Pack for All! or whatever, I was trying to peer through the mid-July ice storm and see the strange houses that made up Poka Village. They were low lying, stone, with earthen rooftops. A kind of house that I had never seen in Georgia before. This trend, as well as building brick fences from manure (which I imagine they used for heating fuel in the winter), seemed to be a pretty common trend in this nearly untouched region of Georgia.
Shitty fences; in winter it's used for heating fuel
When the hail cleared it, it quickly melted, and as it melted, people emerged out on the streets, all with staves of dead fish swaying in the wind. Tables were suddenly set up, as though the sunlight from the parting clouds acted as a kind of magic ray that split through a shadowy shroud to reveal poker tables of produce and fish. People, eager for a sale, snapping to attention with each glance, and as you move on, the puppet strings fall and they collapse in disappointment.
Paravani Lake and Poka village
Poka—which means “See you!” in Russian, and I’m not sure its Georgian roots—looked to be the remnants of a Soviet resort town, long forgotten, with huge Soviet block apartments once occupied by always ready camps of red scarfed Pioneers, surrounded by those small stone and earthen huts, something quite out of a movie that takes place some time after World War III. Go off the main road of Poka and you make way towards two megaliths: Abuli and Shaori.
Abuli and Shaori Fortress
The two fortresses are so old and lost in time that no one really knows who built them or why they were built. Just that they were apparently there, probably built during the Bronze Age. As the Caucasus was fairly rich in copper ores, a prehistoric civilization once flourished here, building dozens of megaliths across the landscape some time around the 3rd millennium BC. As there was no writing though, we literally have only the stones they left behind.
Following an ancient cobblestone road that's still visible on Google maps
Road, steppe, and mountains
Shaori and Abuli are two such places. Massive stacks of rocks, organized for some purpose (shelter, worship, war, who knows?). Abuli is slightly closer to the lake, while Shaori is a bit of a drive. They are both doable as a day trip from Tbilisi, but there are some caveats.
One, you need a vehicle that can handle off road, or you need to be prepared for a bit of a hike (4 hours round trip, maybe?). We didn’t make Shaori, but it seems like it would be a shorter hike.
Just $20 first two days at teepublic
When we left Poka, the weather was patchy. Sometimes drizzles, sometimes sunny sky. It definitely wasn’t good hiking weather with a kid whose favorite distraction in life was Candy Crush. It was also curiously cold for mid-July, and I had chosen a light, summertime t-shirt.
We decided to drive. Google maps said there was a road there. We started driving the route. The road seemed to not have been used in about 1000 years (curiously there’s a modern maintained road from Takhcha to Akhalkalaki that is NOT on Google maps, go figure). It was a grown over cobblestone path, which I guess was used only by the shepherds driving out their sheep. This was a very popular place for grazing, but nothing else (as such, beware of dogs!). The cobbled road made for curiously easy driving in our utility van, with only a few difficult problems that my friend handed with surprising ease. Finally we made it to the hiking point, where we were planning on parking the car and walking the rest, but the mountain on which the megalith was on had disappeared. Completely covered in clouds. And not only that, thunder was rumbling from one peak to the next, right across the valley, with winds whipping along so hard I wondered if the van wouldn’t topple over.
Not exactly an offroading vehicle...
Group conference. Do we admit defeat and come back another day, or go for it?
We admitted defeat and kept driving.
one of the rare sights of the peak
The route got more and more difficult, and more and more often I had to get out and guide the utility van, but eventually we emerged at the village of Takhcha, yet another one of those curious hamlets of earthen roofs and shit fences. We were now entering Armenian territory (that is to say, the ethnic group was becoming more Armenian than Georgian, but still in Georgia). The language was changing now, from Georgian to a casual Russian, and more signs were in Armenian. Not that we had much experience of all this squeezing through the shit fences of Takhcha, but yeah.
From Takhcha was easy sailing. It would completely be doable (and a wonderful hike) to park your car in Takhcha and hike to the two megaliths. I estimate you’d need about 8 hours total for such a trek. I think the most enjoyable variation would be to park in Poka or the lakeside village at the crossroads between Shaori and Abuli and hike them each from there (unless you have an off road car). The terrain is this strange, high altitude grass steppe (though the altitude isn’t really that high, but it feels high). There are rocks and boulders spread throughout, making it absolutely no problem to even build your own megalith. Have fun!
Akhalkalaki and the Gold Café
From Takhcha to Akhalkalaki was a nice, fairly modern road that at times drove through some random, quite scenic medieval looking villages until finally coming out of the valleys to Akahkalaki, the sprawling “Armenian capital” of South Georgia, and indeed, the town itself looks drastically more like Gumri or Yerevan than it does anywhere in Georgia. There’s this kind of darker stone block used in Armenian construction that gives it that very characteristic look and feel. The town is built on an easy to navigate grid, and full of casinos and cafes. It had a kind of ghost town feeling though, since as we walked around there was literally no one there but a few stray dogs. One guy did emerge to stand around as I used the ATM, so either that was bad timing or just weird. The silence though was altogether foreign to the usual Georgian situation, which usually has men just standing around on street corners, chatting and eating sunflower seeds. None of that in the center city of Akhalkalaki. But in general, a handsome city.
We stopped at the highest rated café in town, the Gold Café. Sounds fancy. Basically a gigantic empty room with four tables. Because of the vast size, the walls looked barren despite having to broadswords hanging on one and two animal heads on the other. The staff was friendly enough. The food was nothing to brag about, nor was the price. It was all a bit meh-tastic. The khachapuri is gigantic though, so go easy when ordering that. They speak Georgian, Armenian, and Russian, but I think they had a copy of the menu in English, but you know, khachapuri is “khachapuri” in any language, so just order that.