Traveling to Georgia.
Traveling to Georgia
Having been a fan of Mitchel Kanaskevich for some time now I have been watching closely his work and journeys from all over the world.
In one of his articles he said that while traveling back from Mongolia he passed through Georgia and fell in love with the country. I made some quick research and quickly discovered the breathtaking landscapes of the Caucasus and the rich cultural heritage of this country. That was enough to get me intrigued.
A few days later I was lucky enough to find a round trip ticket with just 30 euros, from my city, Thessaloniki to Kutaisi, Georgia. As you can guess. I booked the tickets immediately.
I started organizing my trip to Georgia and for my accommodation I chose to use Couchsurfing. The first time I used it was in Madrid while traveling with a friend after my Erasmus and had seen the way it can enhance your journey to a foreign country. Since then I always try and help travelers through Couchsurfing and even host some people when I have the time.
So, after sending some requests I found hosts in both Kutaisi and Tbilisi.
And that was the only thing I planned. I decided to truly go with the flow in this journey and not make detailed plans beforehand on what to visit and how much time to spend in each place like I had done on other journeys.
So with my bags packed and everything ready, the day of my flight arrived.
Four hours before the take-off and while going to the airport, my host in Kutaisi sends me a message. He said that he will be my flight’s pilot.
My mind was blown. I couldn’t believe it. I knew he was an aviation professional but what were the chances of something like this happening?
I said hello to him as I entered the plane and he invited me in the cockpit. The journey had started and I already had one amazing experience. A beautiful story to share.
We arrived at Kutaisi, took his car and went at his place to leave my luggage then immediately went out.
The locals were incredibly welcoming and wanted to find out where I was from, inviting us to drink chacha with them, a traditional Georgian drink with lots of alcohol. They were curious about my camera and many of them asked me to photograph them.
The town had a big street market selling a huge variety of fresh vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, tea, spices sweets and anything else you can imagine. A utopia for everyone who loves tasting new things, I felt the need to try everything.
We sat down for some Hinkali and beer at a local restaurant. Hinkali is the most typical Georgian food and it is a dumpling stuffed with meat, potato, or cheese. It’s delicious. After filling our bellies we continued our walk to the city as the sun was slowly setting down, changing the colors of the city as the night lights were slowly turning on.
The next day my host suggested that I should go visit Tskaltubo. I made brief research and immediately got interested.
Tskaltubo is a former Soviet Sanatorium, a place where people went after getting permission from the government, to relax and blow some steam off. The park has therapeutic hot springs and offers a beautiful view of the surrounding nature. Around the park you can find huge Soviet buildings that were used as lavish hotels but are now abandoned and silent, as nature is starting taking over, enveloping the concrete giants.
As I walked near the concrete giants I felt a slight melancholy. There was a certain silence in this place that it’s hard to describe. After walking around a few more buildings I noticed clothes hanging from the balconies, cats and curious faces looking through the windows. The sanatoriums were now being used by refugees who had to fled from the region of Abkhazia once Russia too over in 2008. Making the most out of what life has thrown at them, they have brought life back to the grey giants creating a post-apocalyptic atmosphere that gets carved in your memory.
After hours of walking around it was time to go. The sun was setting and I had to catch a bus back to Kutaisi. I left Tskaltubo with a bitter-sweet feeling of melancholy in my mind and an absolute certainty that I will come back at some point. One day at this place was surely not enough to properly photograph its concrete giants and the people who live there.
When I came back my host proposed that we go to eat something at a local restaurant he knew. I can’t describe the food we ate that day and I hoped I had taken some photos to help me do so. Khinkali, chatsapuri, saslik, river fish, salads, dips and a tasteful Georgian black wine. We tried almost everything there was on the menu and the price was probably about 1/5 of what would someone pay in most European countries. It was stunning.
As the wine was ending and the head started becoming heavier I felt excitement. Excitement for how great this adventure already was and for what laid ahead.
The next day it was time to visit Tbilisi. After a 4-hour bus ride and a 10 lari ticket (around 3.5 euros), I arrived at the capital. Life here immediately seemed much different than the one in Kutaisi. The city was bustling with life, tall buildings, cars, lights and traffic.
I started walking towards my host with my camera on hand, trying to capture pictures of what I show on the way.
My hosts, Laura and Martin were two amazing people from Latvia that made me immediately feel welcome at their place. After chatting and getting to know each other it was time to sleep and wake up fresh the next day to start exploring the city.
I woke up at 9.00 am had breakfast with Laura and Martin, picked up my camera and went out for a walk.
One of the first things I noticed while going around Tbilsi is how many clothes Georgians hang from the balconies. It’s almost like a form of decoration, transforming the otherwise boring, grey houses into mosaics of textiles and colors.
The streets of Tbilisi, like the country itself, is a mix of contradictions. People selling all kind of products and trinkets on the street, open markets and narrow corridors sit beside huge modern monuments, breathtaking gold orthodox churches and all that gets embraced by Tbilisi’s river, Mtkvari and the surrounding mountains and hills.
The majestic statue of Mother Georgia (Kartlis Deda) is always watching gracefully the city underneath, decorating the urban skyline with its imposing presence. The statue was erected on the top of Sololaki hill in 1958, the year Tbilisi celebrated its 1500th anniversary.
It is truly a must to go up the hill of the Statue of Mother Georgia as it offers an incredible view of the whole city and its surroundings. As I was making my way up the hill where the statue resides, a soft grey mist was enveloping the buildings below covering the whole city in mystery.
When the night lights around the city started slowly turning on, it started transforming into a gem, shining brightly in the dark horizon. Glamorous Orthodox churches, skyscrapers, houses and modern monuments lighting the night sky with their beautiful and diverse colors.
It was a long and very fulfilling day and when I thought it couldn’t get better Laura and Martin asked me if I wanted to join them at a friend’s house party.
I said yes and an hour later we arrived at a flat full of people from all over the world. I met some incredible individuals that night and oddly many of them could know how to speak Greek. Some had been Erasmus students in Greece, others had Greek boyfriends/girlfriends. Whatever the case it was very interesting and pretty bizarre to meet so many people that knew Greek, in a flat party of a guy I didn’t know in Georgia. After a considerable amount of beers and lots of “Nice to meet you”, we headed back home. It was a long, amazing day and I needed some rest.
After 2 days in Tbilisi and quite a lot of photos, my photographic taste started getting focused on what was truly unique and beautiful about this city. Its streets. As I said before they teleport you in a different era, one that you seldom see nowadays in Europe.
So the third day I woke up and knew what I wanted to capture. The streets of Tbilisi and its people to show the intimate and kind of vintage moments that this amazing city has to offer.
I don’t usually shoot in Black&White but I thought that the streets of this city are ideal for giving it a try and a street-market I stumbled upon with my friend Raminta that day was ideal to put this idea to the test.
To be honest, I loved the Black & White look on the photographs from the streets of Tbilisi and it was the point in time where two new photographic interests were born: Street Photography and Black & White Photography. With the absence of color I could see emotions and moments with more clarity, especially in a busy environment like a street market and the man street vendors of the city felt like they were meant to be captured without color.
The last but definitely not least part of the journey was a trip to the Caucasus mountain range. As a lover of landscapes and nature, I couldn’t leave Georgia without visiting at least one of its beautiful mountains so the next morning we woke up and we decided to hitchhike to Gudauri, with my host, Laura.
The last time I hitchhiked was in Spain, as I was traveling there with a friend after our ERASMUS in Portugal had ended. Our experience there was not so good since we wanted to go from Vitoria to Madrid and had to wait for hours until somebody picked us up. Even when this happened we only managed to reach a small town 200 km outside of Madrid and had to take a bus because there was no place to stay for the night.
Hitchhiking in Georgia couldn’t be more different than that. We reached a mall close to a highway, just outside Tbilisi by bus and there, just after waiting for 30 minutes we got picked up by two awesome guys who were going to a place to Gudauri. They offered to take us to the village and while going there we spoke up Georgian culture and the guys constantly stated the love they have for their country. After 5 days in Georgia, I could understand why, as I had also been enchanted by the beauty of this country and the hospitality of its people. Just before reaching Gudauri we stopped at a local restaurant to recharge our batteries.
According to the guys who took us in the car, the restaurant there had the best khinkali in all of Georgia. I only tried khinkali from 3 restaurants while I was in Georgia, so I can’t say for sure if that was the best in all of the country but it was the best I tried during my stay. We accompanied the khinkali with a beer and of course a couple of shots of chacha and after 5 minutes of almost begging them to let us pay for at least some of the food we ate, the guys paid for everything saying that: “you are our guests and the guests in Georgia mustn’t pay.”
After one more incredible example of hospitality by the Georgian people and a 20-minute drive, we reached Gudauri.
The Caucasus mountain-range had been on my travel list for a long time now. and I was finally there. We bought a coffee from a nearby shop and sat at the balcony to enjoy the view of a nearby peak. Every breath was like a pure dose of clean oxygen. The face felt refreshed as the light mountain breeze caressed it softly and the body felt rejuvenated as the sun started to warm us up. A place where all the senses felt pleased.
After enjoying our selves on this balcony for almost an hour we took the lift to go a bit further up the mountain and see the view from up there. Endless white mountain peaks sprang across the horizon all around us as the clouds were playing hide and seek behind around them. Skiers and snowboarders were enjoying the fresh snow at the mountain slopes. I couldn’t help but feel the need to stay there for days or weeks, to explore the nearby peaks and villages.
In ancient Greek mythology, Caucasus was a shepherd who lived close to the region and helped Zeus against his father, Kronos. Enraged by that, Kronos killed him and Zeus named the area where he lived (the Caucasus mountain-range) by his name. it was the place where the leader of the Greek gods would later tie Prometheus in chains for giving fire to men. His punishment? An eagle would fly to him every day and eat his liver, only to grow back the same night for the punishment to continue the next day. Zeus imposed this punishment for 3.000 years but Hercules saved him after 30, receiving immense praise by mortals.
A journey comes to an end
As the sun started going down and we began to look for a way to go back to Tbilisi I realized that my journey was also coming to an end. This was my last day in Georgia as the next one I had to go back to Kutaisi and catch my return flight.
We struggled a bit to find a way to go back but eventually, someone agreed to give us a ride back to the city. Hitchhiking in Georgia had again proved to be an easy and enjoyable feat to accomplish.
As I laid down to bed I felt grateful for all the great experiences I had, the amazing people that crossed my way and the breathtaking landscapes I saw that day.
The next morning I bid farewell to my hosts, thanked them for the warm hospitality, had a brief coffee with my friend Raminta and then took a transport to Kutaisi. While riding the Marshrutka, this famous remnant of the Soviet area used as a mini-bus, I thought about the journey I had and how I felt about Georgia after these 7 days.
It’s hard to give a specific answer about Georgia since there are so many things to say.
Georgia is a stunning canvas of so many different landscapes, cultures and people that need much more time than just 7 days to be explored.
The Georgian hospitality though can be felt from day 1 though, with the locals welcoming you to their country with every opportunity. It’s a country with tons of history and it’s one of the places that Homo Erectus roamed the Earth from the beginning of the Paleolithic Era.
Its cuisine is something out of this world. As a Greek, I have tasted tens of of amazing dishes from my country’s local cuisine so it’s hard sometimes to get impressed. In my visit to Georgia though, I was stunned. The variety of recipes they have is remarkable and all of the ones I tried left me impressed. I will not start speaking about Khinkali because I can talk about the taste of this amazing thing for hours.
It has one of the most diverse landscapes, combining sea, lakes, desert, and mountains going up to 5.193 meters.
Its cities are a cocktail of flavours, smells and colors with the local markets selling every possible thing you can imagine.
So what is Georgia? It’s a country of warm people, breathtaking landscapes, incredible cuisine.
A country for every taste and pocket and one that I already miss and will be visiting again soon.
PS: I want to say a big thank you to my hosts Jurian, Laura and Martin for letting me stay at their couches and offering me tons of guidance, help and some unforgettable experiences!