When I first came to Georgia ten years ago I was struck by something odd. The tradition here is to make hyperbolic toast after toast, and much of it is predisposed on how amazing and beautiful and glorious this country and the people are.
All well and fine, but what stuck me as odd was how little of the country most people had seen. I noticed immediately that the people making the longest, most flamboyant toasts often hadn’t even been out of their region or even village their entire life. Nationalism and pride often works that way though, even in the United States.
Which is a pity. The country of Georgia does have a lot of immensely beautiful things to see. I’m not going to lie and say it’s the most beautiful country in the world (especially when beauty is a generally subjective thing), but it definitely ranks up there, and it’s certainly one of my favorites.
a common scene in Georgia
There were some legit reasons though. Mostly like for people anywhere, travel takes time and money. And in Georgia, it also takes a lot of confusion, patience, and a low risk aversity.
It takes time because the transit system is at best designed by a three-year-old armed with Hot Wheels and a Godzilla toy. Many of the larger tourism destinations aren’t easily reachable by public transit, it might go just once or twice a week (time), and to fit it in your schedule you might have to hire a taxi (money) that costs some 200 to 300 lari while your monthly income might barely be over that.
The best way to see the country is
to rent a car from Discover
One of my biggest arguments when complaining about the transit infrastructure here isn’t that it’s just bad for tourists, which it is, but also bad for Georgians, and that tourism should first be looked at in the spheres that it crosses over with improving the life of the residents of the country.
But things are getting better. Mainly that some enterprising Georgians have decided to make tours that, instead of focusing on the easy-prey foreign tourist, they’ve decided to make tours for Georgians. These tours are usually on the weekend, are cheap, and tend to pack in a lot of sights at once. And even for the foreign tourist, to see as much as possible when you’re on a timeline, I highly recommend just taking a tour like this one or two when you’re here. It’ll make the traveling a lot less stressful, and you won’t have to trust hopefully-well-meaning-but-you-never-know strangers nearly as much (I’ll write a blog later on getting around Georgia).
Here’s an example of a tour (and some places you should see in Georgia):
Horses hanging out under Chaukhi
We decided on an 18 lari day tour to see Juta. I’ve been hiking there several times and had wanted my wife to see it, but upon hearing that it was either a three-day hike (1 day to Juta, one day to the pass, and one day back), or to make it more practical a 100 lari taxi ride to Juta and then hike, she didn’t like the idea so much.
But then we found the tour, on the immensely useful page swoop.ge or hotsale.ge. There are tons of discounts there, but they’re all in Georgian, so probably not useful if you’re traveling here.
The tour was to hit Ananuri, the Russian-Georgian Friendship Monument, some waterfall sort of thing, Juta, the Patriarch’s house, and Kazbegi (Gergets Sameba).
I’ve already written extensively about the 13th century fortress complex here. It’s a beautiful spot and on a tour is probably the best and easiest way to see it (or from a taxi on the way to Stepanitsminda).
The Russian-Georgian Friendship Monument
This mid-60s Soviet monument, which has since been renamed "Gudauri Panorama", means a lot of things to a lot of people. To the Russian tourist coming down through the mountains, it definitely has a lot of positive connotations. It was the time when these two countries were in a union together, that they were friends without problems, and everything was good and fun.
That's the Georgian Queen Tamar in the middle
a man pondering friendship
To Georgians passing it, they look back at 200 years of Russian occupation, at cultural and economic oppression, gulags, and the continuing occupation of two of their territories.
stepping away from the monument
That said, it really is an amazing monument in an even more amazing place, high above the roaring rapids of the Mtiuleti Aragvi River, facing the sheer wall of cliffs on the other side. The monument is composed of a recently renovated mural, with both some standard Soviet propaganda imagery and in the center, a line from Rustaveli’s Knight in the Panther Skin in both Georgian and Russian. For anyone driving this way, it’s a must stop. It’s also becoming a popular place for base jumping and parasailing, so there’s that too.
and it's a long way down
Some waterfall thing
We stopped here for thirty minutes. I don’t know why. There’s some funny looking rock, and some water dripping off it. True story, that funny looking rock used to be about a hundred meters long, but they fixed that when they built a tunnel on top of it. Now it’s about 5 meters long. A bit less impressive. There were many vendors here, but none seemed to be open at lunch time.
some water and stuff
Juta is hands down one of the most beautiful places for backcountry and day hiking in the country. There are two trails that stem from the village, and the village itself is made of a half dozen guesthouses and boutique and backpacker hotels/hostels. The main trail goes up to the great Chauxi Massif, which pokes up to the sky, making a huge, chimney-like affront to the sky gods. You can make a day hike from Juta to the pass just next to the massif, which offers views over the neighboring peaks and all the way to Kazbegi, Russia, and Dusheti.
Bottom of Juta village looking towards Chaukhi
Coolest spot for a bar
If you start off early in the morning, it’s also possible to hike from Juta, over the pass and see the colored Abedelauri Lakes, and then on to Roshka. I did this once with a friend, but we had a tent and overnighted at the base of the massif. Though we got to Roshka in plenty of time, there was nowhere comfortable left to pitch a tent and we new we had to get to another village, Barisakhlo, to catch the mass transit from there, so we kept on walking. Again, on that mass transit completely not lining up with any realistic tourism strategy! That was five years ago, so maybe they fixed it, who knows. Better to arrange your ride with some shady guy at Didube Metro and Transit Emporium in advance though.
The Patriarch’s House
Many people might not know it, but the Patriarch Ilia II, peace be upon him, was born in the village of Sno, and his house is still right there. That’s the reason why one of the church’s businesses is a water bottling company called “Sno”. Nice, isn’t it? What’s really great at the Patriarch’s house is that just behind it, they built a massive, luxurious 4-star hotel. I’m not sure what people who stay here plan on doing, as there is basically just ruins of a village and a tower… and that’s about it. It’s not really close enough to Juta to serve as a base point, or to Stepanitsminda…
the house and the hotel
the tower in Sno village
Sno Valley could easily be developed though (which is actually the Patriarch's dream, hoping the hotel will trigger something). I could see ski slopes, horse back riding ranges, kayaking, all sorts of outdoors activities. Currently there’s walking. And once, I was walking there and approached by an old Georgian guy covered in Soviet prison tats. He was begging for money and/or cigarettes, and telling us how hard life was after getting out of the Gulag. We didn’t have cigarettes, so we gave him some cash to buy some at the next village.
This monastic complex is arguably one of the most famous touristic sites in all of Georgia. It’s situated high above the villages of Gergeti and Stepanitsminda, and was once the place that the Kartlian kings of old would stash their cash when invading armies came wandering through. It’s an incredibly scenic place that the peope have had alternating ideas on how to ruin it, and it’s just been incredible to me to see the transformation.
Gergetis Sameba monastery
Long ago, not more than ten years ago, it was all bright green tundra up there. But then tourism started picking up and the locals figured that a quick way to make a buck was to drive up the lazy ass tourists. So that’s what they started doing. After which, rather than making one, simple route across the tundra, everyone decided that they had to make their own path. Those fiercely independent Georgians, you know? Now much of the land is all brown dirt, but at least the church sits high enough that you don’t have to capture the brown dirt when you’re making shots of it.
don't tread on me
Seeing that most people rather drive up to the holy monument than take the 1 or 2 hour pilgrimage on foot, the government decided to set aside a few million and pave a road up there. As we took the taxi up—the tour was so speedy that it would have been impossible to do the walk, so we took Delica taxis up—the taxi driver explained, “Once they finish, I will come back at night and blow up the pavement!”
the Delica taxis that are currently the only way up
Why? Currently only off-road vehicles can make the route. That means even if you have your own transportation to Stepanitsminda, if you want to be lazy, you probably still have to hire a local to help you get to the church. With the new pavement though, any car will be able to make it up. The locals make zero money off this, Stepanitsminda probably loses some tourism from that as now it’s perfectly easy to go from Vladikavkaz or Tbilisi, drive up to Gergetis, and make it home before dinner. The government also makes zero money off it, unless they decide to put a toll on the road.
the awesomeness that is Kazbegi
Who exactly wins here? People with their own car. So, Russian tourists win, for the most part.
Now, I understand the need to get lazy people to the top to take their Instagram photos. I really do. Or maybe someone actually can’t physically do the climb, they’ve every right to see the view as well, and/or to make their pilgrimage and light their candles. But isn’t there a better, more environmentally friendly and economically profitable way to the top?
What I’m about to tell you will blow your mind!
Years ago, the Soviets had made a cable car, or a gondola, that went from the village of Gergeti to the just next to the monastery. Yes, the atheist Soviets had a better idea on how to visit a religious monument than supposedly religious people. It almost reminds me of that apocryphal story about the Soviet cosmonauts using a pencil while NASA threw millions to make a special ink.
another view of the monastery
If they built a cable car, and banned all driving up, it would accomplish three things:
Make rehabilitation of the tundra a lot easier without cars
Make hiking up the main path a lot more pleasant without cars
They could charge 10 lari for the gondola ride and make a heck of a lot of money, which then could be reinvested in the infrastructure of Gergeti and Stepanitsminda.
Four things. I lied. Because a cable car in this place would just be absolutely, friggin’ cool. It’s amazing that Georgians seem to be obsessed with throwing them everywhere unnecessary in Tbilisi, but out where it’d be a good idea? Nope, no thanks!
Oh well, it’s probably too late to save Gergetis Sameba. But maybe the powers that be could learn from the mistakes and lost opportunities here… especially as they plan to pave a road from Juta and Roshka, destroying the hiking and guesthouse industry in those villages…
Finally, on the way back, we hit up a khinkali restaurant. Khinkali are some amazing little dumplings that often have a kind of spice in them. They were supposedly invented in Pasanauri, a small mountain village on the route. Nevertheless, I still haven’t found a place I’m thrilled to eat at. The place they took us is listed on Google maps as Хороший Ресторан На Казбеги, which translates roughly as, “Russian tourist trap”. It was definitely better than the place we ate at in Ananuri, so it had that going for them. And their khinkalis seemed to have giant meatballs inside, so that was also awesome.