Gamardschoba Sakartwelo – Hello Georgia
Georgia was the second country in the Caucasus on my trip. And you can already see by the title of this blog: The Georgian language is difficult. Sakartwelo’ means ‘Georgia’ in Georgian – land of the Kartvelians.
So the language also belongs to the Kartvelian language group. And this language is complex. 33 letters, 28 of them consonants and only 5 vocals. Then you get something like ‘Mzcheta’, the name of a city.
In addition three kinds of negation, 7 cases and 11 different times. And all this in Georgian font, called ‘Mchedruli’. Probably 2000 years old or more. ‘Hello Georgia’ looks something like this in Georgian: გამარჯობა საქართველო.
But don’t worry, even as a tourist you can find your way around. All information and place name signs are bilingual (Georgian and English).
Many younger Georgians also speak English. And and the Georgian people know how to help themselves in an uncomplicated way. If necessary, someone who understands English is quickly called in.
It is really funny that every Georgian noun ends in a vocal in the nominative. For example all places (Gori, Batumi, Omalo, Sadakhlo, …). And the currency here is called Lari and Tetri.
Round trip through the east of Georgia
Since Baku/Azerbaijan my son has accompanied me in the Caucasus. And later he had to fly back from Tbilisi. So these 7 days and 780 km in Georgia were less a continuation of my road trip from Australia to Germany. Rather it was a round trip through eastern Georgia. From the Azerbaijani border to the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi. And from there to the northeast to the Kazbegi region. Then on to the southeast of Georgia to the Tusheti region. Both are located in the Greater Caucasus. And finally back to the south via Tbilisi. To the border with Armenia. In the Lesser Caucasus.
Georgia is somewhat smaller than Bavaria. But almost 90% of the country is mountainous. In the north is the Great Caucasus. Which I also chose for the cover picture. And in the south is the Lesser Caucasus. Only in between it is flat. And this is also where the main road leads across the country. From Tbilisi via Gori and Kutaissi to Batumi on the Black Sea.
Tbilisi is the capital of Georgia
The official name is Tbilisi. But sometimes you see Tbilissi. Especially in German language. In German the voiceless ‘-S’ is written as double ‘-SS’. In the Georgian script there is no double ‘-SS’. Hence the difference. And both versions are correct. In any case, the former Russian name ‘Tiflis’ is wrong. Already in 1936 the city was renamed. First in Tbili, then in Tbilisi. Place of the warm springs. Because warm in Georgian means ‘tbili’.
And the river through Tbilisi is called Mtkwari in Georgian. Because the Russians could not pronounce the name, it was renamed into Kura. By the way, so was Georgia itself. In Russian the country was called Gruzija, in German Grusinien. But this name from the time of the Russian occupation is no longer popular among Georgians.
By the way: The Armenians call Georgia ‘Wrastan’. And the Azerbaijanis (and Turks) call it Gürcüstan. All these names can be found in travel guides. And also in navigation systems and on the Internet. A lively mess 😉
The best way to discover Tbilisi is to walk through the city
In the afternoon we arrived in Tbilisi. And we made the mistake to book a hotel in the middle of the city for 2 nights. Because we wanted to explore it on foot.
But we had not expected the heavy traffic in the city.
Not only the amount of cars and countless large construction sites. But above all, we hadn’t expected the – I’ll say fast – driving style of the Georgians. The German Foreign Office expresses it more drastically: ‘illegal and inconsiderate driving behavior’.
In any case, we always had problems when we wanted to leave a parking space. Nobody stopped to have us cut in. Driving a car in Tbilisi and other cities in Georgia is very special… In the countryside it was much more relaxed later.
In the evening we only bought a SIM card. We had already bought the car insurance shortly after the border. And afterwards we had a great Georgian dinner.
In the morning through the city center
First we had to survive the elevator in the hotel in the morning. It was somehow attached to a corner of the high-rise building outside. And swayed like the ferry on the Caspian Sea. But I hadn’t found any stairway anywhere. And at some point we got used to its swaying.
On the way to the old town we were accompanied by (abandoned?) dogs. Like later in many other parts of Georgia.
I would have liked to take one with me. Especially the bright husky at Mount Kazbek. But because of the borders, which were still to come, we decided not to take one with us.
Tbilisi has – especially around the old town – two faces. One with modern new buildings and wonderfully renovated old buildings.
And another one with almost dilapidated houses or collapsed roofs. Sometimes both in one street on opposite sides.
One can see that Georgia is not ‘swimming in oil’ like Azerbaijan.
And there is not much left of the old caravanserais of the old Silk Road. Because in the past, the Silk Road also led through the old city of Tbilisi.
Narikala Fortress – the most important castle in Georgia
The oldest building in the city from the 3rd century is the Narikala Fortress. It is the most important medieval castle in Georgia.
We could have walked there. But the path is quite steep, with a long staircase at the end. And so we decided to take a cable car ride from Rike Park on the opposite bank of the river. Over the river Kura and the old town up to the castle.
Strategically the fortress was quite well designed. On a hill at the narrowest part of the river Kura. And on three sides with vertically sloping mountain slopes.
So it guarded two trade routes. From India to Europe (east-west) and from Russia to the Middle East (north-south). At the beginning of the 19th century, lightning struck a powder magazine and the explosion destroyed the castle. Since it had no longer any strategic importance, it was not rebuilt.
But the economic importance of Tbilisi remained. In 1825, the French consul wrote: “In Tbilisi you can meet in a single day merchants from Paris, couriers from Petersburg, businessmen from Constantinople, English people from Calcutta and Madras, Armenians from Smirna and Uzbeks from Bukhara.”
A great view over the city
Today the ruins of the fortress offer a great view over the city. And those who want to – and are free from giddiness – can climb up to the highest points of the walls. But: There are no barriers. Here everyone is responsible for himself. We noticed that later on, too. A fully comprehensive insurance mentality like in Germany or Western Europe is unknown in Georgia.
From the fortress you can walk on a panoramic path to the statue Kartlis Deda. The 20m high ‘Mother of Georgia’ from 1958 in a Georgian traditional costume is a landmark of Tbilisi. And she symbolizes strength and pride of the country. In her left hand she holds a bowl of wine for her friends. And in her right hand a sword against her enemies. By the way, the Georgian word ‘deda’ means mother. While in Georgian father is called ‘mama’.
In the afternoon on the Mtazminda mountain
Mtazminda is the highest mountain of Tbilisi. Right next to the Narikala Hill. Not only is the city’s television tower located here. But there is also an amusement park, mostly for children. But with a big ferris wheel.
And from there you can experience the city from a completely different perspective.
Small houses with brick and corrugated iron roofs. In between high-rise buildings made of steel and glass. And a whole lot of churches. By the way, they all look almost the same in Georgia.
And you have a look of the (rather dreary) apartment blocks in the periphery from the Soviet era. You can get to the 730m high Mtazminda mountain with a cable car at Vilnius Square.
In the evening into the Rike Park again
In Tbilisi we really wanted to take some fancy drone photos. To do this, we went to Rike Park again in the evening. And let our drone take off there from a not so busy place. For beautiful shots of the city panorama.
A picture of the Peace Bridge over the Kura. By the way, it is illuminated by thousands of LEDs in the dark. And very slowly the image of the Georgian flag is changing into the flag of the EU.
And a picture of the futuristic music and exhibition hall. Two long shiny metallic tubes at one end of the park. Because there were probably reservations about its construction, it was supposedly only externally finished. But unfortunately not yet put into operation. It’s a pity actually!
You can also see the roof mushrooms of the ‘Public Service Hall’. Something like a citizen office. Here the residents can make use of all administrative services.
ID cards, car registration etc. The focus is on efficiency, customer friendliness and service. And nobody has to wait longer than 5 minutes for their turn. Sometimes I would like to experience something like that in Germany as well…
In the end we looked in the other direction with the drone.
On the presidential palace and behind it to the Sambea Cathedral.
The main church of Tbilisi. And on the new residential areas on the periphery of the city.
One day is much too short for the capital of Georgia
One day is much too short to see everything of Tbilisi. So what did we miss? Definitely Abanotubani. The bathing district in Tbilisi. With hot sulfur springs.
Then the flower market and a flea market. And the botanical garden behind the Kartlis Deda monument. And certainly much more.
But we like Tbilissi. It is a city that has something for everyone.
We felt right at home here – at least without a car 😉 And we will definitely come back for a long weekend.
To the Kazbegi district
The next morning we started on the well-developed highway heading northeast. We wanted to go to the Kazbegi district, near the border with Russia.
Actually only the National Park there is now called Kazbegi. And of course the 5000m high mountain. But it’s better to find it under it’s name Mount Kazbek. Instead of using its Georgian name Qasbegi. The capital of the district on the other hand, got its old name back in 2006, Stepantsminda.
All in all a nice day’s stage. Not to be compared with the routes that I had previously driven in the large area states. Because the distance from Tbilisi to Stepantsminda is only about 160 km. And so we had enough time to have a look around on the route.
Already after the first 30 kilometers, we took our first coffee break. In Mtskheta, a small town. At the confluence of Kura and Aragvi.
Because Mtskheta was Georgia’s capital for more than 1000 years until the year 600. But it was not the capital of today’s Georgia. Because the country didn’t exist back then. It was the capital of the former Iberian Empire in the southeast of today’s Georgia. And please be don’t confused. There were two Iberias back in that time. The today’s Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) and this small country in the Caucasus.
And Mtskheta was also an important trading city on the ancient Silk Road between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. So here we have at least taken a look at the medieval Svetitskhoveli Cathedral from the 11th century.
Just 40 km further north we reached our next stop. The 102m high Zhinvali dam. I would have passed it smoothly.
But my son showed a good eye and said we could let the drone go up. And he was right.
The size of the reservoir can only be seen from the air. A hydroelectric power station generates electricity there. And Tbilisi is also supplied with drinking water from there via a pipeline.
So while he was piloting the drone, I had the task of keeping two dogs at a distance during take-off and landing.
That worked out quite well, although I had the feeling that they would have liked to come with us.
The Monument of friendship between Georgia and Russia
We were on the Georgian Military Road. This is the historic name for a major route through the Greater Caucasus from Georgia to Russia. Also called Grusinian Military Road. But the Georgians don’t really like to hear that name from former times. The road has been used by traders and armies for thousands of years. However, that day only armies of cars, trucks and tourist buses came towards us.
During the Soviet era, the road was extended and partially covered with tunnels in the mountains. Probably against rubble and/or snow. We ventured a little on foot into a tunnel that was probably no longer in use. But not very far. Because it didn’t look very inviting there. There is a short clip of a half-open tunnel we drove through in the video below.
A little north of the village Gudauri we saw a quite full parking lot on the road. We stopped and discovered a monument. For the friendship between Russia and Georgia.
Inside the semicircular open structure there is a mosaic made of tiles. This is supposed to symbolize the entire 200 years of the friendship treaty between the two countries from 1783 to 1983. Unfortunately, the building looks a bit run-down, but it should probably be renovated.
You also have a great view of the mountains of the Greater Caucasus from here. Maybe because of that – or because the friendship is no longer that close anymore 😉 – the monument can only be found in Google Maps under ‘Gudauri View Point’ or ‘Peace Monument’.
At a campsite near Stepantsminda
The last 30 km to Stepantsminda were quickly behind us. When we passed a campsite on the road my son suggested we go camping. It was actually a bit too cold for me at the beginning of September at an altitude of almost 2,000m, but well.
Because the place was locked we called the phone number given on the sign. And after a short time the owner appeared and opened the gate for us. A few other guests came later, but it was pretty empty.
We paid already in the evening, because we wanted to leave for Mount Kazbek very early the next morning. In the middle of a breathtaking mountain landscape of the Greater Caucasus in Georgia.
Mount Kazbek is the third highest mountain in Georgia at 5,000m. The border between Georgia and Russia runs over its summit. 362 days a year it covers its summit in clouds. And if you want to have a chance of a clear view, you have to take photos very early in the morning. So we were told. So we were already at 7 in the morning in a district of Stepantsminda, from where you could see the mountain well.
There is a narrow footpath a little further up. To the most photographed church in Georgia, which is not missing in any travel guide.
The Gergetier Trinity Church. But for me the path was already over after 100m. Because this footpath led over mounds of earth and rubble. One foot width along the abyss. Absolutely nothing for me.
So my son set out on his own.
A husky accompanied him for a while on the way. While I stayed near the car.
He came back 2 hours later with beautiful pictures of Mount Kazbek and the Gergeti Trinity Church. In fact, the top of the mountain was cloudless that early morning. Only when we drove on later did it slowly become cloudy.
Later we found out that one probably can also drive up to the church. We hadn’t found this way. Because it branches off a little further outside of Stepantsminda.
From Kazbegi to Tusheti
To the Zhinvali Reservoir we went back on the same route via the Georgian Military Road. But then we did not continue further in the direction of Tbilisi. But in the mountains on a smaller road to the east. Up to a picnic area by a small river behind the village of Pshaveli. About 180 km and easily done in half a day.
This is where the Tusheti region begins. The land of the Georgian ethnic group called Tushs or Tushetians. As big as Berlin. It borders on Chechnya to the north and Dagestan to the east. Both are Russian republics. And here the world ends. In the 2,000 – 4,000 m high mountains there is only one unpaved ‘road’. Or better to say a track. To the high-lying villages of Omalo, Upper Omalo, Diklo, Dartlo and Dano. And a few more. After that it’s over. There is no thoroughfare to Russia here.
The few still remaining families of the Tushs live like their ancestors on sheep breeding, cheese and wool. From the end of June to the end of September in the high places. The rest of the year in the valley. Because the unpaved track from Pshaveli to Omalo is only passable during this time. By the way, you shouldn’t just be careful on the way. But also watch out for the sheepdogs that guard the flocks.
In the evening we just unpacked our camping stove to make a soup. Then a family came to us who had a picnic on the other side of the campground. And we were immediately invited to a sumptuous dinner. Afterwards we quickly brushed our teeth in the river and went to sleep next to our Landcruiser in the tent. Because the next day we wanted to drive the Abano Road to Omalo. At night we heard wolves howling a couple of times. But because this was a bit distant, it didn’t bother us any further.
On the Abano Road to Omalo
I hate cold showers. But here in the morning we had no choice but to take a quick dive into the river. And it was really cold. Well, after that we had a hot coffee. That reconciled me a bit. But I felt really comfortable that morning anyway. Because our today’s adventure was the Abano Road to Omalo that day.
It’s fully name is Pshaveli-Abano-Omalo Road. According to the two villages at the beginning and at the end of the road. And the Abano Pass in the middle. At around 3,000 m above sea level. But sometimes it is also called Tusheti Road. According to the region.
37 hairpin turns
Partly steep, partly with overhanging rocks and partly with broken off edges at the edge of the road. And a total of 37 hairpin turns. One way. Not there and back. The Abano Road is one of the 10 most dangerous roads in the world. And you often see black memorial plaques along the way for travelers who died here.
Guard rails or safety devices to the valley are not on there. Encounters with oncoming vehicles are difficult. Some places are a little wider so that you can evade them. If necessary, someone has to drive backwards. You have to improvise here.
And the weather can change from turn to turn. Sometimes the sun shines brightly. Then again so thick fog that we had to wait 10 minutes. Because you could’t see your hand in front of your face.
That would have been particularly dangerous on the hairpin turns. If you don’t ‘get the curve’ in time. Because even in the bends there was at most a 30cm high earth or gravel wall as a safety device. At least nothing that would have stopped the Landcruiser.
Because my son had suggested the route, he wanted and should of course drive too. While I often held on to the handle on the passenger seat 😉
Video Abano Road (8m 41s, 1.5 GB; Music: Center Ring – Freedom Trail Studio, YouTube Audiolibrary)
This route is very difficult for me to describe.
Therefore I provide here a dashcam video of our drive on the Abano Road (round trip).
Also with drone shots that my son took on the way.
Note: The video will play perfectly on the smartphone. If this is not the case on a PC / laptop, please click with the mouse on the small square. Either left click to play in the same window or right click to play it in a new window.
After 7 1/2 hours we had done the 60 km on the Abano Road. Including a few breaks for photos and drone flights. And arrived in Omalo. Of course we couldn’t book any accommodation here. But we had to ask on site. However, we were lucky. In the first larger wooden house we got already a small room for the night.
In the evening there was a joint dinner for all guests. Because besides us there was a group of older Russians as guests. Unfortunately they couldn’t speak English. So our communication was a bit difficult. Only a young woman could translate. She was here because she wanted to offer bicycle tours in this area next summer. So – if you want – you can also ride the Abano Road by bike…
After a good breakfast, we started our way back the next morning.
The way back to the valley was an hour shorter than the way to Omalo. No idea why. Although we stopped for some photos again here.
Back to Tbilisi
The 110 km from Pshaveli back to Tbilisi were no problem anymore. And this time we had looked for a hotel in Tbilisi on the outskirts of the city. Because we didn’t want to walk around in the city anymore. So we avoided the traffic. But getting out of a parking lot the next morning was just as difficult as in the city center.
On to the Armenia border
It is only 70 km from Tbilisi to the Customs Check Point Bagratashen in Armenia. Just like on the border from Azerbaijan to Georgia, almost everything worked perfectly on the border between Georgia and Armenia. Only when printing the border forms for the Landcruiser there was some confusion because of the Australian registration. But we were able to clear that up quickly.
This time we didn’t have to worry about the exchange of Lari and Tetri. Because we came back to Georgia later.
In any case, Georgia was by far the third highlight on my way from Australia to Germany. Together with Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan. And I would like to travel again to this great country with its spectacular mountain landscapes, the cool capital Tbilisi and its warm people. With pleasure also with the car. For today bye bye Georgia – Nachvamdis Sakartwelo – ნახვამდის საქართველო!
In the next post I will tell you how our trip through the Caucasus continued then in Armenia.
Cheers, Ruediger 😎
Finally, as always, here is a dashcam-video about Georgia (3m 44s, 630 MB; Music: Boardwalk – Track Tribe, YouTube Audiolibrary)
- To and in Tbilisi
- Zhinvali Reservoir
- Georgian Military Road
- Mount Kazbek
- To Tusheti
- Abano Road and Omalo
- Via Tbilisi to the Armenian border