Meeting strangers while traveling seems a lot easier than meeting strangers in our hometown. Or well maybe meeting them is not the difficult part but becoming friends with strangers is. Not here in Georgia though.
Meeting a stranger on the road
After a couple of days working we drove towards Tbilisi. We are loving Georgia but after five weeks it’s time to move on. Thus, the idea was to drive slowly to Georgia, do some work, get a PCR test done and drive to Armenia on Wednesday. Our plans always change and so did this one.
While on the road a big blue Raptor stopped next to us, kids waving to us and that went on for a couple of minutes. Then he asked us where we were going (we were in a traffic jam) and he took us to a shorter detour cause it was busy. Then he told us his daughter want to invite us for a cup of coffee. Of course we were doubting a bit cause we’ve always learned to not go with strangers, but the kids looked very innocent. 45 minutes later and we are sitting in a cafe on the side of the road with a table full of food. Georgian coffee is never just a coffee.
Levan and his kids happened to be such kind and hospitable people. They invited us to check out their village. Which we did the next day.
Food, quads & a bridge
The next day we arrived in Garigula. Immediately we got food, drank wine and got to meet part of the family. What a big family! So, the family is huge – about 150 people. Not all of them living in this village anymore (many moved abroad as well) but every summer they come back to the village and be together. We met many uncles, aunts and the boss of the family. Grandmother showed us around and told us stories from a long time ago. Apparently this family is descendent from a nobleman, they call him King, but we are not sure. Lost in translation sometimes.
After a while we got onto some quads and got a trip to an old bridge; the King Queen Tamar bridge. A beautiful bridge that we’ve also seen in parts of the Balkan. On the quad we had to cross rivers and had the most beautiful views. Although we couldn’t really watch the view too much cause the road wasn’t made for relaxation.
We got back, had dinner (and wine), met more family members and in the end slept way past our bedtime. But it was super fun! We got invited to Nikolas (the son) birthday on Wednesday, so we’ll get to see how Georgians celebrate birthdays.
Back to Tbilisi
For not being our favorite city on earth we do spend a lot of time here. This time we needed to get back to Tbilisi to get a PCR test done. It’s so hot here that we stayed inside the hotel most of the time. Which isn’t that bad cause we paid for it anyway. So we did just that; relaxing, watching movies, working, figuring out our next steps, doing research, editing photos, writing blogs, relaxing, eating and waiting for the test results of our PCR test, which we get later today.
Let’s hope its negative cause if it’s not we have to go in quarantine and cannot cross the border into Armenia for the next two weeks. We do feel very healthy though and have no symptoms so it should be fine. Still, we have some time to kill which we are doing in the coolness of the hotel, then we’ll buy a present for the birthday boy and get ourselves ready for a Georgian birthday party with a lot of people. We’re sure that after today we will be hiding in the woods again to get some peace and quiet and maybe no internet for a few days.
We are planning on crossing into Armenia on Friday! So probably the next blog will be from there.
And again we left the mountains behind. This time not to travel directly to Tbilisi but to travel back to Tskaltubo. Well, we also tried to get into Abkhazia but that seemed more difficult than we thought.
A Georgian region but not really. Even though most countries recognize this state as part of Georgia, it isn’t really. Abkhazians themselves view this region as an autonomous republic and being occupied by the Russians one needs special authority to travel there. And also a PCR test. So we couldn’t visit, which really is a bummer because even though most Georgians tell you it isn’t a safe place, it is a beautiful place. We also really wanted to visit because we will meet some Abkhazian Georgians the coming days in Tskaltubo.
Working in Tskaltubo
But, when the border police – who are very very nice btw – say you can’t enter, you cannot. Thus, we continued our trip to Tskaltubo, where we will stay for a couple of days and work with Niniko.
Ok, before Tskaltubo we actually stayed at a wonderful place in the middle of grass land for cows, sheep, horses and us. Also many mosquitos because it was near a river. It felt for a second like we were in The Netherlands: flat lands, cattle and water. But then with 35 degrees Celsius, which in The Netherlands doesn’t often happen.
The next morning we left early before all the sweat would drain our bodies, but not before a cute farmer could give us some tomatoes and cucumbers. So kind, so sweet. We couldn’t understand each other at all but who needs languages when you have arms and legs, right?
Back to working in Tskaltubo. We met Niniko, our translator for the coming two days, and got to work immediately. The plan is to meet the displaced people who live in the old Sanatoriums here, listen to their stories and photograph them.
The waters of immortality
Tskaltubo is a spa resort in Western Georgia. It is known for its radon-carbonate mineral springs, whose natural temperature of 33–35 °C (91–95 °F) enables the water to be used without preliminary heating. Tskaltubo was especially popular in the Soviet era, attracting around 125,000 visitors a year.
In 1950-1951, architects I.Zaalishvili and V.Kedia prepared a project plan for the town where sanatoriums form a circle around a park, recreation and balneology facilities. Tskaltubo was divided into the following zones: balneological, sanitarian and living.
Visitor numbers to Tsqaltubo dwindled after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and currently the spa town only receives approximately 700 visitors a year. Since 1993 many of the sanatorium complexes have been devoted to housing some 9000 refugees, primarily women and children, displaced from their homes by the conflict in nearby Abkhazia.
The conflict in Abkhazia
In 1992 a war broke out between Georgia and Russia or Georgian Abkhazians and Abkhazians. The Abkhazians did not want to be part of Georgia, they wanted to be independent and have their own Republic.
The Abkhaz–Georgian conflict involves ethnic conflict between Georgians and the Abkhazpeople in Abkhazia, a de facto independent, partially recognized republic. In a broader sense, one can view the Georgian–Abkhaz conflict as part of a geopolitical conflict in the Caucasus region, intensified at the end of the 20th century with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The conflict, one of the bloodiest in the post-Soviet era, remains unresolved. The Georgian government has offered substantial autonomy to Abkhazia several times. However, both the Abkhaz government and the opposition in Abkhazia refuse any form of union with Georgia. Abkhaz regard their independence as the result of a war of liberation from Georgia, while Georgians believe that historically Abkhazia has always formed part of Georgia.
During the war the Abkhaz separatist side carried out an ethnic cleansing campaign which resulted in the expulsion of up to 250,000 and in the killing of more than 5,000 ethnic Georgians. The conflict lasted for 13 months beginning in August, 1992.
Displaced people from Abkhazia
The people who fled the war in Abkhazia were given temporarily residents at the sanatoriums in Tskaltubo. It’s now 29 years later and most (not all) still live in these sanatoriums. We’ve been to the sanatoriums last time we were here, but this time we have a translator with us so we can actually talk with the people living here.
As a documentary photographer focusing on social issues and human migration this is a very interesting story. Especially knowing that these sanatoriums where the people live in aren’t really livable. The story goes that the Georgian government does want to relocate the people. Not really because of the horrific conditions the people live in but mainly because they want to revive the town.
We met such nice people here who shared their stories with us. Which won’t be shared on this blog but keep an eye out for the stories on my professional Instagram account.
We weren’t planning a lot of things in Georgia. From several car break downs to driving the most dangerous road and the most car killing road. But visiting Svaneti was actually one of those things we planned for a second visit to the country.
I, Milene, really want to go hiking here with my little brother (Morrits, that’s a deal!) so I didn’t want to visit. But as we had some spare time here we decided to explore the area so we would know where to go the next time we will be here. So, we headed to Mestia.
Mestia the capital of Svaneti
Mestia is where all the tourists and hikes get together. It’s a hotspot for tourists and so every house is made into a guesthouse and many new hotels are being built. Which means, we did some grocery shopping and left. We stayed close by at a wonderful spot right on the middle of nature. The only living things we saw were crickets, birds and cows.
We continued our road to probably the most touristy place of Svaneti; Ushguli.
Though very touristy it is a cute place to visit. Yes, all the houses are made guest houses or cafes, but there are still the famous Svan towers to be seen and with the highest mountain of Georgia as a back drop it can’t be skipped when visiting the area. We didn’t need any guesthouse as our van is our home but we did have some local food. This is where we tasted the famous Kubdar.
Kubdari or Kubed is a Georgian filled bread dish which is particularly a national dish of the Svans. The bread is leavened and allowed to rise. The filling contains chunks of meat, which can be lamb, kid or pork, Georgian spices and onions.
We hiked to the glacier nearby. The hike is easy but nice. The glacier not so much. It’s a bit ugly and seems dirty. Anyway, it was a wonderful hike, took about 5 hours going there and back. The view on the mountains was amazing! And all the flowers and little water streams we had to cross were wonderful. Only at the end we came across a lot of other people. Many actually go by car to a campsite and walk from there to the glacier. We did the whole way which was a lot more fun.
Back in Ushguli we relaxed a bit, met a very beautiful Svan lady and made friends with dogs, what else?!
Mazeri & Mount Ushba
The next day we left again to explore some other mountenous parts of the area and we ended in Mazeri. From here we had a wonderful view on the most famous mountain of Svaneti: Ushba. And wow what a view!
We hiked to a waterfall which many call the highest of Georgia. Well, no one knows how high it actually is. Which we don’t really understand cause it’s not that difficult to find out. But, we continue living with the mystery of this waterfall and the believe that this is the highest one.
The best part of this hike was actually not the waterfall itself – which is great! – but the hike to it. We absolutely love to hike through the forest. Often our hikes take us to beautiful places but most of the hikes are out in the open, not in the forest. There is a lot of deforestation going on in Georgia which really is a pity. So hiking here was amazing. Though we weren’t alone.
Many many other hikers followed us, or we followed them… Well, we went a bit further up the mountain to see the waterfall from up close. There where most people don’t go and it was great. Such a breathtaking view, on the waterfall but also on the valley behind us.
We weren’t done with Svaneti at all. But as I wrote in the beginning of this post, that’s for next time. So, this would be our last hike in the area and our last night. It’s time to get back and maybe cross another border?
While I look at the stars with my back warming up from the campfire we just made I feel small. I feel like an ant discovering the world, small but strong. Small because the world is just a tiny planet in this huge universe. Strong because most of those stars are unliveable and we made it work on this planet.
We feel so much alive during this trip. Camping in the wildest of places – well, as wild as our van can go. We cook on campfires, wash ourselves in tiny streams, rivers or lakes and use a secret spot behind the bush to do our business.
It’s funny that city life never made us feel this much alive, even though we absolutely love the buzz of cities. Nature is where we humans belong, we feel that. Nowadays we feel strange in cities, as if we don’t belong in these concrete jungles anymore. They are too crowded to our taste. Everything is just too much, the traffic, the people, the sounds, the smells, the colours.
We are happiest while camping where we hear nothing but the wind through the trees, the birds tweeting and a river crashing into some rocks. We feel at home with grass below our feet, stars above our heads and surrounded by trees and mountains.
That’s why we are only in Tbilisi if we have to. And Alexine – loving the good roads of the city – makes us return there more often than we like. But then we return to nature as soon as we can. Finding the most wonderful spots, often only sharing it with some dogs. Sometimes with locals having a bbq.
Maybe it’s the never ending sound of humanity that make us crave for the sound of birds so much. Maybe it’s the flats of the city that make us need forests in our lives. Maybe it’s the screens we so often stare at that make us want to see mountains again. Maybe it’s the city we know so well that we feel so free in nature.
Cities are good to meet people and make friends though. And so we did. With these friends, owning Volkswagen T3’s we had a short but amazing Roadtrip. The planet is so diverse yet so similar. We drove through the mist finding ourselves in what’s known as the Lake District of Georgia. The weather, the views, the roads – it did feel like we found ourselves back into Western Europe. We visited the Georgian birthplace of Christianity, the chocolate making nuns and one of the oldest castles of Georgia. We drove through the mist into the sun, were almost blown from a cliff and were blinded by a big rainstorm. We had a van breakdown, were helped by locals and visited an old slave market.
In the end we had diner in a very luxuries restaurant, got ourselves a doggie bag and slept at the foot of the famous Cave city Vardzia.
The next morning we climbed the stairs of this cave city, explored the secret tunnels and had a sound check in one of the dark rooms. We left for Borjomi, where we drank a glass of ‘smelly’ water that made Stalin deranged. True story.
And after two days, 300 kilometers and countless enjoyable moments we said goodbye to our friends and headed into the wild again.
Into the concrete wild
While heading North to Svaneti, we made a quick stop in Skaltubo. It’s a small town but very interesting. It once was a vibrant spa resort city, but since the fall of the Soviet Union it became an urbex jungle. If cities are called concrete jungle, I’m sure this is called the concrete wild. A city where, just like Chernobyl, nature has taken over. Or back I guess. The baths where once thousands of Russians came to relax are now home to bushes and dogs. The sanatoriums where the Russians came to regenerate and get better are now in decay. Stairs without steps, windows without glass, walls without roof. For explorers like us this is a feast.
The displaced people from Abkhazia
Even more so because we found out that there are actual people living here. It’s definitely not suitable for living but the people living here have no choice. They are internally displaced people, also; Abkhazians, forced to flee from their home due to the civil war between Abkhazians wanting to be part of Georgia and Abkhazians wanting to be part of Russia. The war started on the 14th of August 1992 and ended 16 months later. The people were given a temporarily home. Thirty years later they are still living there.
So while we venture through this lost city like some urbex explorers, these people actually live in these buildings ready for demolition.
More hot springs
We continued our trip to the hot springs cause we needed a hot shower. Well Yuri needed it. Ok, a hot waterfall, who can resist?
The next day we moved our butt to the mountains of Svaneti. We felt like Bilbo in Lord of the Rings, happy to see mountains again. And that, people, is the end of this story. We are exploring the mountains and our climbing altitude limits the coming days in this most famous area of Georgia. Now, luckily, with a lot less tourists!
Love, Milene & Yuri
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Sorry! We’ve been a little absent lately. It has good reasons though. We weren’t quiet because it was too hot to type, or too wild to share but our adventures were mainly about fixing the van.
Maybe Alexine had her own version of the Pandemic flue. So from having to change her alternator we went to having to fix the carb. Then while we were driving in these beautiful mountainous area we had to change the spark plugs and after driving to Tusheti we found out the starting engine failed. So we asked our friends from VW Airhouse to send us a big package full with beautiful extra parts.
Impatiently we waited for the package to arrive in Tbilisi. We booked an apartment and had some work done. But the days passed while we heard nothing about our package. After a week in Tbilisi we were craving for nature. So we headed into he parks around Tbilisi. We already made some new friends in Georgia. Some of who own a T3!
Anyway, a couple of days we were surrounded by nothing but nature. Alright and some huge pensioned shepherd dogs! So many dogs here, that we decided to buy dog food to be able to feed them, cause they are very very skinny!
We had the most amazing overnight locations and were able to cook on a campfire which feels very “into the wild”.
After a week in nature we headed back to Tbilisi to work on the van a bit and meet with our friends. The package was still nowhere to be found so we couldn’t really work on the van. Meaning: new plans. We left the city behind and headed towards Signagi and Vashlovani National Park. The lather is a semi desert on the border with Azerbeidzjan. A tiny part of the park is impressive to be honest. The rest is just farmland. And the part that is amazing isn’t made for 2×2. Even though Alexine can handle most roads, this one wasn’t hers to handle.
Thus we stranded in front of a steep hill. Not because it was too steep for her but because the engine felt it didn’t get enough gasoline. Too much dust in the engine?
We got a tow from fellow travellers who got us out of the mess of Vashlovani. We drove back to Tbilisi but not before visiting Lamara, the last silk weaver of Georgia.
She showed us around and we got to see the silkworm! Pretty great. In Venice we bought a silk book, here we bought a silk face mask.
Our package arrived and when in Tbilisi we immediately started fixing Alexine.
So we checked the valves, changed the battery (which we cooked in Vashlovani), had the window fixed, cleaned the carb, cleaned the spark plugs, changed the VC joints, bought new good oil, changed starting engine, changed the oil sensor, installed a new filter, took care of rusty bits due to annoying stones and checked her timing. Two days and we are finally on the road again.
That brings me to today. We take Alexine for a spin. Hopefully tomorrow we will be having a small road trip with the other T3 guys which will be fun. Up to now she feels fine but to be honest, we have some trust issues now. Every strange sound we hear makes us scared. Especially me, Milene, because I adjusted the valves, which is a very critical thing. Too tight is a disaster, too wide is a disaster and I’m not the one for the perfect timing. Perfection has never been in my vocabulary, i just hope I’ve got the valves to nearly perfect.
Georgia is a great country, but full with Soviet cars, not Germans. So any problem on our van and we are kinda screwed.
Locals say it isn’t possible, they call us crazy, look at us with doubt. Call us crazy but we have believe in the power of Alexine. We have no doubt whatsoever that she can manage to climb up a pass, located at 2900 mtrs, also known as one of the most dangerous roads of Georgia. Or the world for that matter.
Still, all this didn’t scare us. Sometimes we feel fearless, and so does the van. Because we had to skip one of the most beautiful parts of Georgia (Svaneti) we thought this would be a good second.
Late, was the hour on which we arrived at the bottom of the pass. We decided to drive up for a while and find a nice camping place. Little did we know that we just passed the last possible camping spot before the pass. And so, steady, slowly but strongly we drove up.
Little sharp stones everywhere, hairpin corners all around and steep steep climbs. We have no 4×4, but we have the engine in the back and that helps a lot. The beginning of the pass is a lovely, rocky, ride next to the river through a beautiful forest.
Something to note; this pass is open only 4 months a year and in these 4 months it happens often that people die driving the road. The locals call it ‘inexperienced driving’, but however experienced you are this is a pass you shouldn’t mess with.
Once we’re out of the forest and leave the treeline behind us the road gets less rocky but more dangerous. There are bumps in the road so deep a mini would fit in it entirely. Other than that one has to drive through many water streams coming from falls of which some are quite deep. On the one side there are the steep rocks of which some have rollen off and located themselves in the middle of the road. On the other side is the deep ascend. When I write deep, I mean deeeeeeep. Some corners are quite narrow and incredibly steep. Alexine manages, but just.
At 8PM we arrived at the top of the pass, it took us about two hours to get here. That’s two hours for 25km’s. You can imagine how quick it goes. But, we made it to the top, at last. Because we moved quite late in the day we didn’t have a lot of oncoming traffic. There are some places to pass but there is not too much space, so we are happy we didn’t have to pass a truck or anything else big enough to make us drive backwards.
We slept at the top of the pass. A lot of wind and rain at night, but other than that a good relaxing stay. The next morning we were welcomed by a shepherd, who looked astonished. Not at us but at the van.
Today we would go down a bit, feeling quite confident we hit the road early and managed without too much difficulty. Alexine is quite high on her wheels which is definitely helpful at some of the deep holes in the road. We pass some motorbikers, some hikers but most we pass tourists in 4×4 minivans, all have the same astonishing look on their faces as the shepherd. The people in the villages here mostly live from tourism, they all have minivans with which they pick up tourists on the other side of the pass and bring them here to one of their guesthouses. Some tourists rent a car themselves but most go by minivan and have a great hike in the valley.
We will tell more about Tusheti National Park in another post. This post is all about the incredible road to and out of this somewhat remote area of Georgia.
Cause, we were in Tusheti now. Very nice, but will we get out? And more important: will we get out without any damage?
Fast forward; the way back!
We slept at the rangers station right before the pass to go back. At 9 in the morning we decided to hit the road. Not much of a road, more like a path, a rocky pathway through the mountains. The way up from the Tusheti side is a lot shorter, also a lot steeper? We would find out. Going down is of course very different from going up.
Some of the corners on this side were so steep and were covered with big stones in the middle of the road that one time Alexine couldn’t make it and we needed to back up a little. Luckily at some of the corners they made space to back up and try it again. But that was about it. She did well and it almost looked easy. From far away. From the drone, maybe. It wasn’t, we can tell you that.
At the top of the Abano pass we had a break and enjoyed the scenery. The hardest part is behind us, right? Then it was time for the descent. Not very eventful. Alexine did what she had to do, although she doesn’t really like to go down in gear 1 or 2, or any gear at all, and she struggled a little bit. Struggled in the sense of; turning off her engine and sputtering. But other than that, it went quite easy. There was a lot more traffic now then on the way up but nothing that we couldn’t pass or handle. After half way we decided to check out the medical water of Georgia as Alexine deserved a rest and our muscles as well. We stopped at a little house on the cliff and drank home made brandy and chacha (a local drink, quite strong and not recommended when one drives the most dangerous road, but well, it calms the nerves) and had some pears. We checked out the baths, which were quite nice actually. Refreshing and with a very beautiful view.
Fresh and delighted we started the last part of the trip down. The road is worse on this side and some moments we feared for the wellbeing of Alexine and her tires. But, after one hour we arrived at the bottom of the mountain alive and well. High five time.
So, we made it! A Volkswagen T2 can actually drive over the Abano Pass, one of the most dangerous roads, for us definitely the most dangerous one we ever drove. A friend of us said that we are probably the first Volkswagen T2 in Tusheti National Park. Wow, wouldn’t that be amazing? Alexine being the first T2 to cross the pass. I’m sure the name giver Alexine would be proud of her. An explorer by heart & engine!
Hi there! We are Milene & Yuri. We are travelling the world together since 2015. Our endless curiosity and will to explore has resulted in many cool, and somewhat extreme, adventures. On MYgrations you'll read all about our adventures, you'll find lots of information about the countries we visit you won't find anywhere else and more. Enjoy!
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