A bright sunny day saw us departing Sheki early to run for the border to meet our 72-hour permit requirement. Our easiest border to date saw us clear in just under an hour! Our old friend and guide, Zaza, was there to meet us at the border. What better way to introduce everyone to another of our favourite countries on our Asian expeditions, than by introducing them to one of the most important aspects of Georgian culture – food! Fresh from the oven, we lunched on delicious Kachapuri – a Georgian staple, every region has its own variation; these ones were large pizza shaped breads baked with cheese inside, delicious!
Immediately upon crossing the border we sensed a difference from Azerbaijan and the ‘Stan countries we had left behind, the most obvious being that mosques made way for churches as we crossed into a predominantly Christian country. The difference in landscape was also noticeable – in Azerbaijan we had camped on barren mud volcanoes, in Georgia we camped in a lush beech forest with sunlight peeking through the dense foliage. Many of the group headed off for a walk in the forest, while others sat around the lovely campsite enjoying a relaxed afternoon.
When Zaza arrived with what looked to be half a tree, we set about making a fire over which we cooked a feast of roast pork and lamb, another sign that food would be quite an important factor of our time in Georgia!Washed down with some local wine, or a tarragon softdrink (best not mixed with cherry vodka, just ask Rob!), it was a lovely night.
The first spits of rain started as we headed to bed, gained strength during the night (although it does always sound worse in a tent, or at least that’s what we told ourselves!), fortunately abated to a mere sprinkle at breakfast time – but our first camp in the rain of the whole expedition (how lucky have we been!) was enough to encourage everyone to pack up in super quick time in the morning heading for a homestay and a hot shower!
From our forest camp we climbed up into the hills to Signaghi, an old walled town which has undergone extensive restoration, but has now had time to weather and has become a rather lovely place to spend a day or so. Homestays are one of the unique features of Georgia that make our time here so memorable – the hospitality we receive, chatting to the families about their lives and thoughts on their country, and, of course, the food. One of the homestays had an added attraction – a wine room – which the host used to liberally apply wine to those staying there! Given the misty weather, it was hard to drag ourselves out to explore, but the hardcore amongst the group headed off to see what they could of the town, a hot coffee or glass of red wine afterwards was a just reward.
That evening, we headed to a local winery for a tasting and a Georgian feast. Pheasants Tears, an organic winery, produces some of the country’s top wines. Although many of us might not associate wine with Georgia, the country has a very strong wine culture – there is evidence of wine making for over 7,000 years, and Georgia is home to over 500 of the world’s 2,000 grape varieties. While some wineries are now adopting more “European” or “New World’ techniques, the majority of wine produced in Georgia is done in the traditional way, something we were to learn more about in the coming days. With wines tasted, and a bottle or two purchased for consumption, we set about devouring a wonderful range of Georgian specialities in a beautiful setting.
After our substantial homestay breakfasts, we headed down the mountain. The mist had cleared to give us the chance to enjoy stunning views over the valleys resplendent with autumn colours. Our first stop for the morning was at the Gremi complex – this was a stopping point on the Silk Road, and ruins of an ancient caravanserai and baths are present, as well as a beautiful church complex perched high on the hill.Being a Sunday, there was a service underway in the church, the haunting melodies adding something special to our visit.
Next up, the Alaverdi Monastery where we gazed in awe at the height of the ceiling in the church (until the building of the new church in Tbilisi, this was the tallest church in Georgia).The monastery is also home to one of Georgia’s top wineries (sadly on a Sunday the monks are too busy with their other duties to show us around the winery!), and to a bee keeper whose passion for his work was infectious and fascinating – honey making being far more complex than just having a couple of hives and a few bees!He explained with enthusiasm the complicated process of harvesting and processing, the specific temperatures involved and positively glowed when he showed us his very fancy machine they use to collect the honey.He seemed to be genuinely thrilled to have the opportunity to tell us more about bees and honey, asking for no payment for the tour, nor giving us the hard sell at the end of the tour.It was a lovely experience.
After lunch we made our final stop for the day – a local winery.Well, to be honest, this was supposed to be the first of two winery stops in the afternoon, but given the size of the “tasting” pours, it became more of a wine drinking than a wine tasting, with top-ups freely available, and a merry couple of hours ensued, so the time flew by!It wasn’t all about drinking the wine of course – the winemaker gaves us an explanation of traditional methods, and as the grapes were harvested only a couple of weeks ago, we were able to see the process in action as he stirred the contents of the queveri, a clay pot that is unique to Georgia.The unique techniques produce unique flavours – it has taken some of us quite a while to get to grips with the difference, but to our credit, we have persevered!
Some wine was purchased, carefully decanted by the winemaker into old water bottles, and then we headed to our homestay where we all got together for a group dinner which, as you will have noticed is a common trait, consisted of delicious traditional food and LOTS of it!The wine may have contributed to the merriment that followed for some of the group which included a merengue congo line and a bit of gangnam style dancing around the dining room.
Some of us weren’t so merry the next morning as we boarded the truck bound for Armenia.Fortunately it was a nice straightforward border crossing, with just a bit of queuing required for those needing to buy their visas at the border.From the border we headed south, through a stunning gorge under a clear blue sky.We returned to a lovely bushcamp spot that Pete had found in a grove of trees on the previous trip and set about drying our tents before sunset, and then enjoyed another feast (see the theme!) with a choice of either chicken or seafood curry.
It was a chilly start to the next day, but the clear night meant there were clear views over Mt Arakat (not to be confused with Ararat) before we continued our drive a short distance into the capital, Yerevan.We arrived just before lunchtime, some of the group headed straight to the nearby supermarket to pick up some supplies to enjoy on their balconies overlooking the canyon (including a fantastic ripe Armenian camembert!), while others headed into town to enjoy some of the city’s many restaurants.
Our time in Yerevan was full of city tours, galleries, sculptures, churches and history; plenty to keep everyone busy and to send Yerevan into the top of some of the group’s favourite cities list.
Saying farewell to Yerevan, and to Armenia, we headed back towards Georgia.We managed a record-breaking 45 minute border crossing, and then headed to another lovely bushcamp. There was not a breath of wind as we arrived, the gale followed shortly after, but fortunately died down again before dinner!
After dinner entertainment came in the form of a poetry recital from Mike, with a special guest appearance from Tom who was making his stage debut as “Tom from the Caribee(an)”.Magnificent!Another debut featuring Tom again as he encouraged us to try his version of a “lick, sip, suck” tequila shooters, using the local Georgian firewater, cha cha instead of tequila.An acquired taste; again, some of us gave it more than one chance to impress!
Onwards to another great city, this time the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi.It is a really funky city with a great vibe, a mix of modern and historical architecture and great markets and restaurants.Our arrival into Tbilisi coincided with that of the Canadian rugby team.Our Canadians on board, Mike & Jane, embraced this sport which had been, until now, completely foreign to them, and dressed in their “Ya Ya Canada” t-shirts they joined the more ardent rugby fans for our journey to the stadium.In the end, Georgia came out victorious (it must be said that rugby definitely wasn’t the winner…) and we had glimpsed something of the fervent passion that Georgians feel for rugby, one of their most popular sports.
A walking tour the next morning gave a different perspective on the city, others wandering to the flea market, or finding themselves ensconced in the KGB Bar (which carries the rather catchy by-line, “They’re still watching”).
From Tbilisi we headed to the town of Gori, stopping off first at Georgia’s ancient capital, Mtshketa. From there we headed to the Uplistsicke ancient caves, and then at the Stalin Museum for one of the more unique guided tours you will ever experience.
A very different style of caves were on the agenda for the next day – spectacularly lit and with incredible formations, it was a fantastic couple of hours underground!
From there we headed to the city of Kutaisi where we stayed in a rather flash homestay with a huge balcony overlooking the town that provided the perfect venue for sundowners and a few tunes from Frank and his guitar.
The following morning we explored the beautiful town of Kutaisi which is home to one of the best fresh food markets in this part of the world.
Our final stop in Georgia was the city of Batumi. In Soviet times this was one of the premier beach resorts, it fell out of favour for a while, but is now back in full force with shiny new Radisson and Sheraton hotels, and some of the most incredible modern architecture now dominating the skyline.Despite the rather damp arrival into town, many headed off to explore the city on foot, quickly discovering its charms – there is often nothing better than getting lost in the back streets, coming across hidden treasures and suddenly finding your way again. Batumi is a city where we have seen huge changes in the years that we have been travelling here, and it is great to see the city flourishing, and it has become one of our favourite cities on the whole trip!
And so, it seemed like in a heartbeat, our time in Georgia and Armenia had drawn to a close, and we had only Turkey remaining before our epic journey from Beijing would come to an end leaving us with new friends, epic memories and a lifetime of photos and stories to share!