This morning, we arrived after an overnight flight to Tbilisi, Georgia. It took all of 5 minutes to get though immigration and customs since we didn't check luggage. The ATMs were super convenient, although like most ATMs, they only give big bills. The wifi is truly free and accessible, so we were able to message our guide and say that it was time to come get us.
Roma, our guide, picked us up in an old Mercedes van. Even though they drive on the right side of the road here, his van was set up for left-side driving. We were extra cautious throughout the day when exiting, and I hope he was extra cautious when passing. The other thing we quickly learned about his vehicle was that it can run on gas or gas. That is, natural gas or gasoline.
We stopped off at a natural gas station where they filled up the canister in the back of his van the same way you'd get gasoline filled up, more or less. Apparently that's normal enough here that they have gas stations for it. He explained to us that his van can switch fuels easily, depending on what is available in the area, but also he can manually switch it if he's going up a mountain, as gasoline gives better pickup.
As we drove towards our first sight, we passed through Tbilisi and got an idea of what the city is like. Then, we passed down roads that were more "country." Every few meters, there seemed to be another roadside fruit, vegetable, and wine stand. The wines were these very dark homemade reds, packaged in 2-gallon water jugs.
Soon, our guide announced that we were on the famous Georigan Military highway. This road is one of the oldest in the world. It used to be part of the silk road, bringing goods from east to west. Then, in Soviet times, it brought trade from Russia to Georgia. Now, it is still a major artery.
Trucks flow through here, bringing goods between Armenia and Russia. Also, we saw signs of a few pipelines. Azerbaijan sends their natural gas over to Turkey through Georgia and Russia sends theirs to Armenia through Georgia. Talk about the perfect location!
Our first stops were by the Zhinvali dam. This dam stops up a river so that Tbilisi has drinking water. When they built it though, there was an old village located where the water would flood. The people were moved, but they didn't do anything about the buildings, so they're still under there. Supposedly you can see the building tops when the water is low. I bet it would be an awesome place to SCUBA dive.
The scenery near the dam is amazing. Everything is so green and mountainous. We really enjoyed just sitting there and taking it all in.
On the way, we passsed several statues and monuments. One that really stuck in my mind was right near the dam. The most famous Georgian king, David, was defending the country from somebody and near the location of the dam, several hundred Arabs helped him, but died. So, they put up a statue there to memorialize those who helped.
The other item I noticed along the way were these old stone towers. The guide told us that they were thousands of years old. Just like in Gondor, the towers were spaced sight-length apart. When somebody would try to invade, a fire would be lit in one and the rest of Georgia would pass the information on. He said that within a half hour of an invasion, all of Georgia could be alerted. Today, they're not in use, of course, but also a lot of them have been lost to the years.
We stopped at Ananuri Castle as well. This castle was Georgian for a long time, but then taken over by the Soviets to use as a way of guarding the nearby territory. It is mostly just a bunch of semi-ruined stone that is climbable, but the church inside is nice and the views are nice as well.
The church is typical of any orthodox church in that the walls are covered in religious paintings. Candles and candle holders abound. There is no stained glass, but the stone carvings show quite an interesting style. At the entry, they show a dress code, which includes covering women's heads. They provide cheap scarves that are in constant reuse and touching who knows what kinds of dirty heads. Just hope nobody had anything contagious.
The tower is climbable. You have to climb a bit just to get to it, but then it's only 40 steps to the top. However, the steps are steep- at least twice as tall as normal ones, maybe more. Also, at one point, you have to cross an internal room to get to the rest of the steps. The floor is made up of round logs placed side by side, but not held in place by anything except that they are packed in tightly. But one is missing, right where the tourists pass, so it's actually quite easy to slip a foot through to the floor below. The window slits are small, and you have to really get up against them for a good view. Even at the top, the walls are high and there is only one window with a view. But it is an amazing view and totally worth the climb.
The parking lot for the castle is lined with vendor tents. They sold Georgian fur hats, shot glasses, food, and other tourist junk. I was interested in the food, even though I knew that this was an overpriced tourist trap. We ended up getting some smoked cheese in a braid, some dried fruit leather (Tklapi), this neat stick candy I had heard about (Churchkhela), some green tomatoes, and a smaller bottle of the homemade wine. (Not a multi-gallon jug, "only" a liter.)
The wine was horrible. It was still fermenting and bubbly. But my partner just kept drinking it anyway. The cheese turned out to be very salty- much more than I expected or can handle in quantity. The dried fruit was almost tasteless. What we thought were green tomatoes were green plums. But the candy was great! They run a string through some walnuts and then coat it all in some juice so that it solidifies somehow. The outside tasted like red licorice and is very tasty. You can see these sticks hanging pretty much everywhere and I highly recommend it.
For lunch, we stopped off at some restaurant the guide liked. We got more salad, bread, cheese-filled bread (Khachapuri), and pork than we coould possibly eat, plus drinks for only 45 GEL- super cheap. The food was all very tasty and the drink I got was a lemon cream soda local to this area. It was delicious!
The next several stops were all viewpoints, just to look at some cool stuff/views. But you know that all the guides take all the people there because each one has at least a couple of souvenir stands.
One was a point here 2 rivers met. The rivers were 2 different colors- one a brown and the other more of a turquoise. Even after they joined together, the main river was still striped two colors.
The last viewpoint along the highway was a monument to Russian and Georgian friendship left over from the Sooviet days. It's this huge circular wall that as been painted in sections with different styles- quite different. Like the other spots, this one had a bunch of people out front trying to sell crap to tourists. Here, they had honey.
We had seen lots of honey stands lining the road in this area, and we were interested to see what this was all about. Some of the honey was standard yellow. But there were also jars of white and jars of a golden brown. Turns out, the brown is also chestnut, the white just doesn't taste like honey, but the yellow is very floral.
The other interesting tourist activity they had on-site was paragliding. We saw a few paragliders up in the air, and a representative offered us a chance to join them. (We didn't.)
The last stop was a spot where the water dragged minerals downhill with it and was forming new crusts of rock.
The whole way, we were subjected to somewhat crazy driving. As mentioned, our driver was on the right side of the car even though they drive on the right in Georgia. I don't know where they get the cars from as I think Pakistan is the closest location that drives that way, and they're not so close. In any case, our guide (and the rest of the drivers) were all speeding along these one-lane in each direction curvy mountain roads. They would regularly try to pass the trucks, only to find out that the cars coming in the other direction had the same idea at the same time. A lot of the passing would be considered close calls elsewhere, but I guess it's normal here. In addition to the hazards of oncoming traffic, there were also plenty of times where cattle blocked the road. They didn't always block it in easy-to see places. Sometimes it was right around a bend that we were taking too fast.
Another oddity is that the tour guide pointed out these "avalanche tunnels" that are used in winter in order to get through. I'm not quite sure why they wouldn't also use them in summer as they are just an extra lane on the road. But they didn't.
Somehow, we made it along the road.
At this point, we had left the forested hills behind and were truly in the mountains. (Our guide's definition: if trees can grow on the top, it's a hill. If the treeline stops, it's a mountain.) Our final destination, Stepantsminda, is surrounded by mountains that are still snow-capped in June. The town itself is already at an altitude of over 1km, closer to 2. It's a pretty sad town.
It's very dusty and most of the roads aren't properly paved. Cows roam the streets freely, so there is an almost constant dung smell, and a good chance you'll step in some if you're not paying attention. A lot of the yards are filled with trash and junk and random building material. A lot of the areas are pretty run down and clearly not well-maintained. Plus, there are very few street signs or numbers, so it's pretty impossible to find anything.
I had a map and address, but the guide still couldn't find our guesthouse so that he could drop us off. He eventually called it, and found it in a place that he had already passed. It's not marked with a sign or even a house number, so it would have been impossible to find if we hadn't called and the proprietor hadn't come to the gate.
When we got there, we got some bad news- the gas was out so there was no hot water. The owner offered to us (through the guide) that we could cancel and go elsewhere, but we were exhausted and ready to nap. We decided to chance it and move if it became a problem.
After a much-needed rest, we wandered in to town to see what there was to see. The answer is not much. The town has very few properly-paved roads. A lot are dirt or packed mud. Many are rock, as if the road used to be stone, but was worn away over centuries and dirt fills the gaps.
There are a few minimarkets that sell bottled beverages, snacks, and produce. There isn't a lot of selection, but what they have is very cheap. 22 GEL (under $9) got us bread, cheese, chips, chocolate, 8 liters of water, and some other items.
I wasn't super hungry, and our hostess had prepared a bit of salad for us, so I didn't really need anything else. We went to bed a bit early, but we didn't get a ton of sleep on the planes to get here, and we needed it.