Similar to my travels in Albania, I was drawn to Georgia (yes, the country) by the allure of the unknown. Before traveling here myself, I hadn’t met anyone who had visited, and when speaking to friends from home, most would first think of the U.S. State of Georgia, rather than the country. With very little political or economic relevance to Canada, Georgia simply does not get much media coverage. In my eyes, this lack of attention (and lack of tourism) was exactly what I was looking for. It presented the opportunity to discover a place on my own - unfettered by any preconceived notions.
I set off for Tbilisi (the capital of Georgia) on October 8th, eager to go trekking in Europe’s highest mountain range and learn what life is like in another post-Soviet country. Beyond highlighting my many hikes, this blog post will attempt to cover the unique culture and history of Georgia as well as the complex current events that the country was grappling with at the time I visited.
I arrived at the Tbilisi Airport in the early hours of a Saturday morning and needed to wait for the bus into the city. My first interaction was with a Russian fellow who had come to Georgia with just a small backpack to flee conscription from the war in Ukraine. I was aware that Putin’s recent announcement to conscript an additional three hundered thousand Russian soldiers was going to have an influence on this trip but didn’t think that I’d be chatting with a Russian defector within the first few hours of my arrival. This quick exchange was my first glimpse into how much the demographic makeup of Tbilisi had changed in less than a month since the announcement (more on this later).
Tbilisi is a city with an incredible amount of variety and character. The former silk road trading hub had been destroyed and rebuilt many times over resulting in a fascinating urban space of “new meets old”. There are castles, monasteries, and cobblestone roads scattered throughout the city, as well as modern architecture, skyscrapers, and a bustling nightlife. The city also has a sizeable waterfall in the heart of old town, a cable car, and a Soviet-style amusement park. During my 15 days in Georgia, I would use Tbilisi as my home base, returning three times to regroup before leaving to explore the Caucasus mountains.
In my short time in Georgia, I had ambitious plans to visit both the Kazbegi and Svaneti regions in the mountains. Kazbegi is just a three-hour drive north of Tbilisi, whereas Svaneti (located in the North West) would take five hours by train, followed by four hours on a Marshrutka (Georgian term for minibus). I hadn’t pre-booked any accommodation or transportation for this trip as I wanted to be as flexible as possible in case of variable weather (mid-October is quite late to be trekking in the Caucasus).
Luckily, a weather window presented itself in the Kazbegi region a couple of days after my arrival and I made the quick journey North to Stepantsminda (a small town located less than 10km from the Russian border at the base of Mt. Kazbek). Once here, I opted to stay at a local hostel called Nove Sujashvili (which had more of a homestay feel) where I would meet some of the most interesting fellow travellers to date.
Similar to myself, the others at this hostel were quite seasoned backpackers, each on their own quest for adventure and with a unique story to tell:
- Jonathan from Germany had just completed a 10+ day solo trek across a very remote area of the Caucasus carrying food required for 5-6 days at a time. He was now moving on to Turkey with the hopes of trekking through some of the most remote regions of that country
- Nora from Norway had been travelling on a budget, mainly using social travel platforms such as workaway and couchsurfing to get by. She had made her way to Georgia by taking busses, trains and hitchhiking in an effort to reduce her carbon footprint
- Hans from Belgium had been travelling for four consecutive years pre-COVID. He had spent time in some of the most interesting and remote regions of the world including an extended workaway in Mongolia. He was now contemplating extending his stay in Georgia
- Cristabell, a lawyer from Australia, left home with the intention of traveling for just a few weeks in South East Asia. She now finds herself in Georgia more than four months later and has made plans to relocate permanently to Europe
- Andre from Russia had flown into Batumi a few weeks prior with his road bike. He had cycled across the country and was now just 10km from the border back home. Putin’s conscription announcement had been made during his absence and he was now returning to a very different Russia
This is but one example of how travel can inadvertently bring together an eclectic mix of like-minded dreamers and adventurers. As we shared some stories and laughs over a homemade shakshuka dinner, I reflected on the wonderful diversity of thought in the room. We all came from different backgrounds, having learned different first languages and having been taught different political and religious beliefs growing up. It is these moments that remind me why I love solo travel. With an open mind and heart, you can learn so much about the world and become inspired by the life path that others have chosen. These interactions simply wouldn’t happen without a shared ambition to explore some of the lesser-known parts of the world — and for that, I am thankful.
Now onto the hiking. Stepantsminda is situated at the base of Mt. Kazbek which stands at 5,034m (over 200m taller than Mt. Blanc). With only a two-day weather window, I was forced to prioritize which hikes I wanted to do. The first objective was to reach the Gergeti Glacier on Mt. Kazbek at 3,650m. This 1,600m elevation gain hike was a great way to acclimatize my body to a higher altitude and train my legs for the longer days I had planned ahead (my travels in Nepal would begin in less than 20 days). Once up on the glacier, there were incredible views of the surrounding peaks as well as the valley below, which extended over into Russia (we heard rumors that this trail would sometimes be navigated by Russians illegally crossing the border into Georgia).
The second day of hiking was designed to be more leisurely. Having organized a Marshutka to facilitate drop off and pickup in the town of Jut’a, we had just 6 hours to explore what some call the Dolomites of the Caucasus. This area is also known for its vibrant green grass with many farm animals freely grazing. This time of year, the grass was more yellow, but I’ve attached a photo of what it would be like during summer.
Tbilisi and the Svaneti Region
Seeing photos of Georgia’s Svaneti region years ago is what initially prompted me to travel here. And as my time in Kazbegi came to a close, I was getting more excited about making my way to a location that had been on my bucket list for years.
But first, I would have to regroup back in Tbilisi, where I would also take the opportunity to check out the supposed bustling nightlife with my new hostel friends. Unfortunately, none of us could secure the same accommodation in the city. The reasoning for this was once again due to the mass exodus of Russians fleeing conscription. Every hostel I stayed at in Tbilisi was full of long-term Russian guests who appeared to have nowhere better to live. Since conscription was announced, real estate prices, rental rates, and hotel occupancy in major Georgian cities had all skyrocketed. During my three nights in Tbilisi, I had to move between hostels each night to secure a bed.
Now, onto the nightlife! Before arriving in Georgia, I had heard that it was considered to be the birthplace of wine (with the first people fermenting grapes here back in 6,000BC), however, what I didn’t know was how proudly the locals preserve their drinking culture by enjoying bountiful amounts of wine and chacha (local brandy) themselves. If you didn’t think Tbilisi was unique enough as is, it’s also home to a low-key yet famous nightclub called Bassiani (with some sources even ranking the nightclub #1 globally over the likes of the most prestigious clubs in Berlin and Ibiza). Bassiani is found underneath the massive Dinamo Arena (Georgia’s national football stadium) and the club does not get busy until around 3-4am. Without the pretentious queuing and dress policy of other famous clubs in Europe, Bassiani is absolutely worth a visit. Interestingly enough, when I went to Bassiani, they had a strong stance on Russian citizens, denying entry at the door to anyone with Russian identification (I had seen this in a few other places including a guiding company in Kazbegi). The club’s entry stamp read “Russia is an occupier”.
After a very fun and exhausting time back in Tbilisi, it was time for my long commute to Mestia, the main adventure hub in the Svaneti region. The town of Mestia is situated deep in the Caucasus Mountains and is famous for its unique-looking Svan Towers (a series of defense towers built between the 9th and 12th centuries). The Svan people are a subgroup of Georgians who, to this day, have a very distinct subculture and continue to speak their own unwritten language.
There are plenty of great activities that you can do from Mestia (this short ski film and day hike were the two main sources that inspired me to visit), however, the reason I came here was to complete the four-day trek from Mestia to Ushguli. In high season, the trails leading to Ushguli can have as many as 150 trekkers leaving per day, however, while I was here in mid-October, there appeared to be only a handful of others. This made for quiet trials and flexibility with accommodation.
Day one was fairly easy walking with some nice views and moderate cloud cover. Although there shouldn’t have been any need to worry about wildlife, I had two slightly scary animal encounters this day: one with a dog guarding its cattle and another with a wild boar protecting its young. In both cases, my sturdy walking stick came to my defense as I waived it in the face of my predators. Once in the small village of Zhamushi, I stayed at a fantastic homestay that cost me $35 and included both breakfast and dinner.
Day two was slightly more challenging, but with nice weather and spectacular views, it proved to be one of my all-time favourite hiking days. One benefit of hiking alone is that you get to set your own pace and can take as long of breaks as you wish. On this particular day, after a steep morning climb up the slopes of a ski resort, I would stop to read a few chapters of my book while basking in the 15-degree Georgian sun with views of the picturesque Mount Ushba to my West.
Pictured above is the small town of Adishi (which has no road access) where I would spend the night. I would also finally meet some fellow trekkers this evening (a group of three Germans and another solo traveller from Australia). We enjoyed dinner together and discussed plans for the following day. Unfortunately, a storm was forecast to hit in two days, thus prompting a discussion of how far we should attempt to hike tomorrow. Collectively, we decided that if anyone wanted to finish the trek as intended, they would have to combine days three and four in a push to arrive in Ushguli by tomorrow evening.
Day three would require rising early and subjecting ourselves to the freezing temperatures down in the Adishi Valley. After a quick breakfast, Charlie (my new Australian friend) and I set out together for Ushguli, leaving at 7 am. On our way out of the homestay, two dogs quickly greeted us, seeming to ask permission to hike with us for the day. I had read about the Georgian “trekking” dogs before and Charlie and I were both delighted to have been chosen as their trekking companions for the day. These two dogs (pictured below) are stray community dogs that walk most days between villages with hikers, providing their companionship and good vibes in exchange for a few tasty snacks.
Day three was the culmination of the trek. Shortly into our hike, we were greeted by sights of the mighty Adishi glacier which has a fairly significant river flowing from it. With no bridges over the glacial outflow, trekkers are forced to wade through the freezing cold water. During high season, a local man is stationed at the crossing point with a horse who charges $10 for safe passage, but seeing as we were hiking in mid-October, we would not have this option. Luckily for us, the river proved not to be an issue (when the weather is warm, the glacial outflow can be waist-deep or higher), and after a short climb over a pass, we were greeted to one of the most spectacular views I have ever seen.
However, our day was only half complete. We still had another river crossing, another high pass (over 3,000m), and plenty of distance to cover (some of it spent bushwhacking). When all was said and done, (because we combined two days into one) the hike was ~30km with ~1,800m of elevation (which at the time, was the biggest hiking day I had ever done). Happily in Ushguli, we enjoyed some beers and a nice night’s rest.
The following day, we woke to torrential downpours and an urgent message from our guesthouse owners that if we didn’t leave Ushguli now, the road would almost certainly be closed and we would be stuck. Charlie and I quickly packed our belongings and got the hell out. Unfortunately, this meant that we didn’t get to see all that much of Ushguli, which is the only village in Svaneti to be recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (the village is also famous for having over 200 Svan Towers - one tower for each of the villages 200 permanent residents). That day, over 50mm of rain fell, dropping almost two feet of snow on the mountain passes that we had crossed one day prior. This news made me reflect on how lucky I had been throughout all of my travels in Georgia. October is not ideal for hiking here. It’s cold this time of year and just one deadly storm can wash out roads or make the mountain passes impassable. Charlie and I would almost certainly be the last two trekkers to complete the trail in reasonable conditions for the season.
The next day, I was lucky enough to have secured a ticket for a flight back to Tbilisi (saving me from spending four hours on a marshrutka and five hours on a train). This particular flight sells out very fast and is often canceled due to poor visibility in the mountains. Luckily for me, the rain clouds cleared that morning, and my plane, an Embraer EMB 120 Brasilia (a small passenger plane that only takes 30 passengers) was able to take off. This was without a doubt the most stunning flight I have ever been on. Fall colours lined the valleys and the fresh snowfall blanketed the tops of the mountains. We even got a view of Mt. Elbrus (Europe’s tallest peak at 5,642m which is located in Russia).
Another interesting note about this flight is that it does not take a direct route to Tbilisi. This is because Russia occupies the Georgian territory of South Ossetia which is situated between Mestia and Tbilisi. Similar to the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia invaded two Georgian territories (South Ossetia and Abkhazia) in 2008. Evidently, the airline does not risk flying over South Ossetia’s airspace and is forced to take a longer less direct route.
Amazingly, the cost of the flight was only $45 and included a transfer from the airport to the city center. This was now my third time back to Tbilisi, but this time, I wouldn’t be staying for long. Instead, I had booked an overnight train ride from Tbilisi to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. Traveling to Armenia by train was not the most efficient, nor the most affordable way to make the 300km journey South, but I thought that riding an old Soviet-style train might be kind of fun.
While on the train, I had some time to reflect on my last two weeks of solo travel in Georgia. As previously mentioned, Georgia does not get much attention from the tourism industry back home. During my visit, I did not meet a single other Canadian and only encountered a couple of Americans. I was grateful for this. Being a tourist in a country before it gains popularity brings out its authenticity and local charm. Contrary to walking the tourist-designed streets of Athens or Florence, I was able to see the real culture of Georgia without having to seek it out. As the trip came to a close, I now would have a confident answer to the classic travellers question: “what is your favourite country?”
Now onto Armenia - the political misfit of the Caucasus. I say this because outside of Georgia, Armenia does not have friendly relations with its geographic neighbours. The geopolitical issues are complex but are amplified further by the strict differences in religious beliefs. For context, Armenia is very religious. They were the first country to declare Christianity as the official state religion in 301 AD and ninety-seven percent of inhabitants still identify with being Christian. As such, they do not have very much common ground with Turkey, Iran, or Azerbaijan. Moreover, while the rest of the world was distracted by the war in Ukraine, Azerbaijan began exercising its military force on Armenia. Between September 12th and 14th (just a month before I arrived), over three hundred Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers died in border conflicts. Despite a ceasefire agreement on September 14th (with Russia as the mediator), tensions between the two nations remain very high. This brief “war” put a spotlight on just how challenging the geopolitical environment is for the small landlocked nation of Armenia. For a more in-depth explanation of the conflict, I highly recommend watching this video.
Unfortunately, I only had four days in Armenia. With this limited time, I decided to spend most of it in Yerevan, which turned out to be an incredibly charming city. Dubbed by the locals as the pink city (due to the pink volcanic rock from which most of the buildings are constructed), Yerevan boasts plenty of attractions. Some of my favourites were as follows:
- The Mother Armenia Statue - an enormous statue erected in 1967 in replacement of a statue of Joseph Stalin;
- The Cascade Complex - a functional art installation with 750 steps up to a viewpoint overlooking the city;
- The Kond Pedestrian Tunnel - a precariously long Soviet-built underground pedestrian tunnel connecting a children’s amusement park to the center of the city;
- The Armenian Genocide Memorial, and
- Countless other grand Soviet-style buildings
As my time in the Caucasus was coming to a close, I gained a much greater appreciation for the importance and privilege of geopolitical stability. Both Georgia and Armenia have been put in challenging situations and are now forced to grapple with the undue consequences. There is no shortage of complexity in this part of the world, and I am very humbled that I got to experience a small part of their history.
Additional drone clips: