Freshly arrived in Georgia, a tour guide waiting for another customer at the border arranged for us a cheap cab to Tbilisi, the capital. It was a two hours ride by car that could have taken us three times as much time with the minibus, so it was well worth the meager 35$ or so the taxi was charging us.
Our things dropped at the hostel in Tbilisi, we walked towards the old down to get a coffee and a bit of food and then rode the ropeway up the hill to get a view of the city. Having accustomed ourselves to being lone tourists in Azerbaijan, the crowds up there felt obnoxious and annoying. In spite of heavy trafic and a complete lack of accomodation towards pedestrians, Tbilisi had a very European feel and a lot of potential for a very good time, but we were eager to pick up the car we had reserved for the week and tour around Georgia and Armenia.
Due to some differences on how street addresses are set up in Georgia, it took us a while to find the rental agency. Once we got there, everything went swiftly and in no time, we were on the road. First stop was a cell-phone company, were for 4$ we picked up lots of minutes and 500 MB of data in case something went wrong on the road. Then, we effortlessly got out of Tbilisi onto an highway towards the west. Our objective for the day was Mestia, a town deep in the Caucasus mountaisn, famous for the Svan people and their reputation for having resisted all attempts at conquering them over the centuries. The car was a Toyota Vitz, the North American Echo but for the Japanese market. I quickly noticed that something was off with the interior and through a couple of clues came to the conlusion that the car had had a previous career as a right-hand drive in Japan before being imported in Georgia and have its whole interior switched to the other side, except for a couple of items, like the controls on the steering columns and some other minor accessories.
Sooner than we expected though, the multilane highway transitionned into your two lane regional type of road with a lot of truck trafic and cars overtaking each other in a sometimes downright suicidal fashion. It was becoming dark when we arrived at the foot of the Caucasus, but decided on reaching our goal at no matter what the hour, we pushed on. The road was tortuous but in overall good condition. Worried it would turn to gravel anytime, our fears never materialised and even though it took us three hours to arrive in Mestia, we encountered little difficult surfaces. Happy but tired, we settled for a guest house which was referred to us by the owner of one that we intended to use but was full. We enjoyed a couple drinks at a restaurant on the main plaza and hit the sack to an early rise to do some hiking.
The next day, we woke up to impressive mountain scenery, high enough for it to have glaciers and eternal snow. For that matter, a glacier is what we had intended to check out that day so after a nourishing breakfast, we spent the whole morning and part of the afternoon walking the 12 km to the foot of the glacier. For the most part, we were following a dirt road along the river but with a quarter of the way remaining, the trail turned to forest and ended on the rocks. We both never had the chance to see a glacier from up close and there, we got our money’s worth. The return in town was long and tiresome, but well worth the scenery that had been unfolding before our eyes for the day.
An early departure from Mestia got us early at the down the mountains back on the large valley that is the center of Georgia. Our plans for the day were to reach Armenia or at least the border, which was really ambitious. Wanting to see the Black sea, we followed the coast until we ended up getting bogged down in Batumi, Georgia’s second largest city and an extermely popular destination with both the Georgians and the Russians. Not having enough days to do all we wanted to, we had to sacrifice a stopover and decided that Batumi was lowest on our priority list. Now inside the city, among its kitschy or downright ugly buildings, crappy restaurants, casinos and seas of Russian vacationers, we for a minute regreted our choice : this would have provided premium people watching opportunities.
Outside of Batumi, we opted for a road that cut straight through the south of Georgia, a mountaineous but certainly spectacular region. All was well and we were making good progress until halfway, where the pavement turned into gravel and dirt. For some time, we had hoped that this would only be a temporary condition but we eventually accepted the fact that the road would remain in this state at least until the next major town, which was actually not that far on the map. However, it still took us a solid five hours to negotiate that part of the way. Too concentrated avoiding pot holes to enjoy the scenery or simply unable to due to heavy rains and thick fog, the driving was intense.
The car, a Toyota Vitz, the Japanese version of the Toyota Echo, was not meant to handle that kind of punishment and at times I was seriously worried that we would get a flat or scrape at the wrong spot and puncture a line. Fortunately, none of that happened, but this little incursion into 4×4 territory imparted a serious delay on our day’s planning. Fed up, drained and with my girlfriend starting to feel sick, we stopped in Akhaltsikhe, about 100 km short of our goal. While she immediately went to bed, I went out in search of food and came back with the only palatable thing I could find in the whole town : a can of sardines in tomato sauce. I spend the remainder of the evening finishing the post on Azerbaidjan and sipping on Turkish Raki.
Now close to Armenia, we figured the next day we could afford to visit the famous cave monasteries of Vardzia and actually take our time doing so. An impressive network of caverns and tunnels dug in the mountain, the site is huge and provides both excellent views and ample photographic opportunities. By chance, we encountered the guide whom we had me while getting into Georgia and he gave us a quick rundown on the history of the site, which used to be much much larger and housed as much as 50 000 persons in its heyday. Invasions, earthquake and communism have reduced it to what it is now. With no other option around, we had lunch at the restaurant on the site, which contrary to most establishments set on much visited locations, was affordable and decent.
It was the middle of the afternoon when we reached the border (set on a beautiful plateau). Leaving Georgia was effortless: passports, car papers, stamps and that was it. I was expecting the process of getting into Armenia to be convoluted, long and expensive and was correct on those accounts. We took our passports and car papers from office to office, payed fees, were forced to hire the service of a customs broker and purchased extra insurance at an exorbitant price but finally after two and a half hours, we were set free in Armenia. A German couple riding old 50cc scooters in the region and whom we had met a couple of hours ago in Vardzia was struggling through process along us: for them it took even more time and they ended up paying many more fees. Another traveler met later on told us that the Armenian border ranked really high in “the pain in the butt to pass border” list.