A Georgian Odyssey

Subin Jagdish
Monday, January 8, 2018

“Are you crazy?, Who on Earth goes on a road trip across Georgia in winter?” That was the most popular response when we told our friends what we had planned for December holidays 2016.

Thankfully my wife was supportive and my 7 year old daughter only wanted to know if we would have snow, so plans were finalized.We wanted to self-drive across this beautiful country and Georgian Holidays in Tblisi were very cooperative in arranging a 4x4 car as well as an itinerary that would fit our schedule.

Tickets and International Driving Licences in hand, we were all set. Georgia grants Visas on arrival for all with a Kuwait Residence, so we were all set.

A very warm welcome awaited us at Tbilisi, right from the immigration and the airport staff to our contact from Georgian Holidays, Ms Anna. Oh, and before I forget, Sim cards are free of cost right at the airport, all we had to do was recharge with a voice and data package and we were online on the spot.A quick check in and a short evening walk with a scrumptious dinner at a café later, we called it night, for our adventure was to start the next day.

24 December: Tbilsi to Bakuriani

Early morning in Georgia means 08.30, and that was when Anna came to the hotel to handover our steed for the trip, a golden coloured, V8 Powered, Toyota 4 Runner. This would be our day home for the next week or so.We were soon out of Tbilisi and headed to Gori, the birthplace of Joseph Stalin with me at the wheel. A museum now stands on the location of his old home and his personal railway carriage is also there.

A minor detour took us to the Rock city of Uplistsikhe. Literally meaning the Lord’s Fortress, these caves have history dating back to the Early Iron age. A stiff climb up the hill to the caves was absolutely worth it for the fantastic views. The snow covered mountain made it extra special and impromptu snowball attacks made climbing that much more fun.

Bakuriani is a popular skiing resort in Borjomi District and as soon as we left Gori, the roads started climbing. My wife was at the wheel now, enjoying her first experience of driving on snow covered roads and spectacular mountain views. Several photo stops later we were at Bakuriani. We headed straight to the snow slopes and the 3 of us literally gamboled like kids in the waist deep snow. After a lovely fun day it was off to the hotel to check in for the night. Our package included Breakfast and Dinner through the entire trip – so it was authentic Georgian fare on our plates for all meals.

25 December: Bakuriani to Akhaltsikhe

Christmas day came with a view from our hotel window that could be from any X-mass card. All the courtyards were covered in ice and venturing out was therefore as if we were on skates. Phhssssssssst! Lots of fun for my daughter who was thrilled with these natural skates. It was then back on the road with Google telling us the path to follow. I was enjoying the drive through the ice, with 4wd selected, very gingerly and gently pointing the car to where I wanted to go. The roads gradually turned into snowfields with just a path cleared by a bulldozer.

Google was however very sure of the path and the ever-trusting us followed all directions implicitly until IT happened. We were stuck – bumper deep in soft snow, with wheels spinning uselessly right in the middle of the forest. All our efforts to dislodge us were in vain, and the almost waist deep snow chilled me to the bones. Back in the car and with a quick thankful prayer that I had a full tank of fuel (so I could keep the car and heater on), we contacted the emergency services.

Very professionally and kindly, they asked us our GPS co-ordinates and told us to wait in the car while they sent help. 45 minutes waiting for the rescue were spent in photographing the sheer natural beauty of the place. Finally rescued by the brave rangers of the Georgian Police Department, who refused even a token gift, and with instructions to follow another route, we were back on the road.

The day was to be even longer for us though. Mother Nature struck us with a severe snowstorm. Visibility was almost nill and even with 4wd in Low ratio – the car was slipping and sliding all over the road. Snow on the heated windscreen melted to form ice and the wipers would not work anymore until I cleared the ice by hand. The final blow was a loud bang, the windscreen of the car cracked end to end due to the temperature difference on the inside versus outside. Thankfully we could continue till the end of the trip with the broken glass.

The final 100 kilometers to Akhaltsikhe took us over 3 hours, but we were finally there. A bit scared, a bit worried and very very thankful to all the gods for having pulled us through the day without any serious consequences, the three of us soon called it night.

26 December: Akhaltsikhe to Kutaisi

The Grand Palace hotel in Akhaltsikhe a disused railway station and the reception actually has a door opening onto the platform. The fresh snow and the beauty of the hotel soon rid us off all nightmare from the day gone by and the three of us were soon involved in a full fledged snowball fight before breakfast.

Food done, we went down to find the car snowed under, with icicles hanging from it. A new sight for us and a whole new experience. Once the car was drivable, we were back on the road, Jisha at the wheel making good progress on the beautiful roads there.

Kutaisi, capital of the Imereti region, is famous for its earthen pottery and the roadside is littered with shops selling curios aplenty. Attractive prices meant that we did stop often and buy a few pieces as mementoes of our trip.Driving into Kutaisi was like entering a maze, streets headed off into every possible direction and google maps was once again our guide to Bagrati’s Cathedral. This 11th Century Cathedral has a spectacular view of the entire region, though it could do with more care and maintenance to maintain its proud beauty. Our next stop, Gelati monastery is also from the 11th century and it was good to see the renovation work being done on this UNESCO recognized World Heritage Site.

27 December: Kutaisi to Mestia

An 8 AM start saw us back on the road, headed to Zugdidi. Zugdidi has an old palace worth dropping in and served as our mid morning break before the uphill drive started. Mountains, valleys, rivers and even more mountains, that’s what exists on this road. Every corner is a photo stop and every crest is a doorway to a new wonderland.

40 odd kilometers after leaving Zugdidi is the majestic Enguri Dam, the world’s second tallest concrete arch dam. Standing over 271 metres, the view from the top is truly a remarkable sight. The real beauty of the place however is the pristine wilderness surrounding it.

Indeed, during our visit, other than the security guards stationed there not a soul was to be seen or heard to interrupt our exploration. It was with reluctance that we peeled ourselves away from the place.Now the roads got steeper, narrower and impossible though it seemed, even more picturesque. Waterfalls on the roadsides were frozen by the cold as though a giant finger had pushed a pause button. Giant icicles, some over 10 feet tall, were the norm by the roadside and the scenery took on a fairyland look.

Correspondingly, the roads got tougher to navigate, I was now driving almost continuously on 4wd- Low and the tires had almost no traction at all on the steep mountain climbs and descents. Traffic however was almost nil with just a couple of vehicles crossing us every hour. The white road on the white mountain is what we followed.

Mestia, though the capital of the Svaneti region is nothing but a tiny village and most of the inhabitants move away to lower altitudes during the harsh winter months. The entire scene looked exactly out of an old Hollywood western movie.

The warmth of the hearts of the inhabitants of this cold country cannot go without mention. Asking for directions to the hotel produced little result due to language difficulties. A taxi driver read the name on the printout and gestured me to follow his car to the hotel and then disappeared before we could even say thanks. Truly a heartwarming experience.

28 December: Mestia to Ushguli to Mestia

Morning saw us wake to a freezer cold 8 degrees below zero. We had a day trip planned to Ushguli, one of the highest continuously inhabited villages on the continent.

One major worry was that the Mestia to Ushguli road would not be passable as the road is cleared off snow only once in a while. This time however, luck was on our side and we set off. 50 kilometers of mountain passes, cliffs and gorges and valleys filled with Christmas trees made the journey surreal.

The roads were narrow, just about wide enough for our car to fit through and had a steep cliff on one side with a deep gorge on the other. The mighty Enguri river was just a tiny stream flowing through these deep ravines.

Visiting the 12th century Ushguli chapel was a trek through waist deep snow, which was, by itself, an adventure. Excitement came barking and wagging its tail in the form of a huge but over-friendly St. Bernard puppy thrilled to have visitors in this bleak month. Each leap it took to say hello meant us losing balance and rolling in the snow.

Chapel visited, we headed back to Mestia. Post lunch, we dropped into the museum, which had a lot of artifacts from Georgian history. The beauty of nature beckoned us and we wanted to be outdoors again, in the freezing cold. So off to the ski slopes we headed, and if you have not experienced it, a ride on a ski lift in temperatures well below zero on a windy day is certainly more hair raising than the scariest amusement park ride you can think of.

29 December: Mestia to Kutaisi

The next day was a run back to Kutaisi. Almost as expected, excitement stepped our way in the form of a light truck which had skidded off and ended up stuck across the road completely blocking it. We stepped in with our car, hooked up a cable to the truck, and yanked it out.

Next was a drive through Becho Village, a sleepy little village well under a few feet of snow. Pushing on now, we then headed to Nokalakevi ruins. The history of this place extends all the way to 8th century BC and it is an eerie feeling while wandering through the grounds. After that it was a quick and hard push to Kutaisi.Reaching there, we spent an exciting time wandering through the streets looking for good deals.

30 December: Kutaisi to Tblisi

This was officially the last day of our Road trip. The only visit scheduled was a visit to the Prometheus Caves. Discovered in 1984, the caves form an underground passage over a kilometer long. With rivers, several halls, innumerable stalactites and stalagmites and even a lake 280 meters below the ground, it is a geologists dream come true. For the layman, the amazing light effects makes the whole experience astounding.

After that it was a smooth drive back to Tblisi, where we bid goodbye to our rental car. The car was on a full tank to full tank basis and we were charged an extra for the broken windscreen, a fair deal overall.

31 December: Tblisi

Since the entire trip was on the road and by car, this was a planned spare day. Thankfully, we did not need it and that left the day free for us to go around the capital.First stop was the Bridge of Peace, from where a a short cable car ride took us to the Narikala Fortress. The viewpoints on the Fortress provides an eagle’s eye view of almost all of Tbilisi and should definitely not be missed. This was followed by a short walk to the Statue of the Mother of Georgia.

Lunch was followed by every ladies dream, Aghmashenebeli avenue is a shoppers paradise with all kinds of things to suit all sizes of pockets. For the shutterbug, the whole street being built in the old Soviet style affords a great way to spend time too.

Night in Georgia was a burst of colours as the whole of Tblisi erupted in fireworks to celebrate the New Year. For us, personally too, it was a celebration of having explored the wild side of a beautiful country. An odyssey of nearly 2000 kms under our belt, we came away on 1st of January, with a feeling that the time we had there was too short. We wanted to stay there longer, to explore the land and to enjoy the hospitality of the Georgian people.

Express your comment on this article

Monday, February 19, 2018
Great trip. Excellent narrative.
Appreciate your guts to travel such adventurious trip with family and that too alone.

I have been planning for quite sometime to visit Georgia. Hiring a vechile seems to be good idea.
Do you have any contacts point or tour operators?

Wednesday, January 10, 2018
wow, wat a fantastic and brave trip it was!!!!!!!!! hats off to you n family. its great motivation for all trip lover

Huzefa Sultan
Wednesday, January 10, 2018
WoW !! Its beautifully explained and well organised trip.. i must say its lifetime experience you guys have experienced. i like the most you beat the odd and went in winter to see real beauty.
not to forget about your daughter also she is brave enough to accompanied you.

I wish to contact the person Subin Jagdish to have more info on the same. if someone has, please share it.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018
Cheers !!!!!

Very well narrated and it is informative as well....
we all must try for sure... to explore the scenic beauty......

thanks and regards/VKV

Sarvasrestha Tiwari
Tuesday, January 9, 2018
Beautiful write up, must have been a wonderful experience for sure.

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