The Georgian Adventure - Hike To The Cross (Koruldi Lakes)

After our scare on Mezari with insufficient food and water, this time we came prepared. We asked for packed lunch from our guesthouse (they only packed us, each, a kachapuri, an apple, a whole cucumber and a whole tomato..... we took the kachapuri and apple).


This trail starts from Mestia, so marshrutkas and non-English speaking drivers are unnecessary :) From the town centre to the start of trail took 10-15 minutes, with us taking a wrong route and doubling back.


This hike was rated "Difficult", with steep gradients averaging 11-12%. To me, the most challenging part was getting a solid footing on the loose stones. At particularly slippy areas, I had to get down on all fours otherwise I would fall splat on my face! This was while ascending - can you imagine the terrors of going DOWN the slippery slope?!



This is another beautiful trail in Georgia (all of them are, really!), and still very different from Mazeri. In Mazeri, the highlights were the alpine forest, here we have vast rolling hills, and quaint wooded forest complete with stiles - scenes straight out of children's storybook. The day itself was pleasant for hiking - cloudy, with drizzles of rain.




The Cross is a halfway point to the Koruldi Lakes. Total hiking time to the Koruldi lakes is estimated 7-8 hours. Most opt to camp in Koruldi Lakes for a night and head back the next day.

We met this Ukrainian couple who are set to camp for the hike to Koruldi Lakes. 



The hike took us 3.5 hours one way (done leisurely as we went off-trail to photograph, should be faster for some) to reach The Cross. 


Panorama at The Cross. The base of the actual Cross is taller than my head! I had wanted to do a pole pose on it, hehe but couldn't even reach the pole. Here, you get a great bird's eye view of Mestia town. At this point, it started pouring heavily. We sought shelter under a viewpoint structure -with a stray dog that followed us up the hike. We shared our kachapuri with the dog (it seemed to enjoy the bread). It got colder from the rain, and we decided to start our dreaded descend - which took another 3.5 hours, for a total of 7 hours hiking time. This being our longest hike in Georgia. 

The Georgian Adventure - Mazeri & Ushba Waterfall Hike

Can anywhere else be prettier than the stunning Mazeri?!

.

From Mestia town, we hired a marshrutka - comes with a driver who barely speaks a word of English. No problem, we thought. We only needed to send the "Mazeri" message across. The drive is approximately 30-40 minutes and we were charged 100 GEL (~USD42) for a return trip. It's a fair rate as it includes waiting time for us to finish hiking.

(In all our marshrutka rides, we did not attempt to bargain. All of them priced the rides accordingly, and thus far, we've not met any crooks who overcharge us. Let's hope Georgia retains its honest tourism!)

On the way out, we realized a huge mistake on our part: we were hardly prepared for the hike! We expected to purchase some chocolate bars and drinking water from nearby Mazeri town, but as we approached the start of the trek, we realized the nearest village is going to be another 15-20 minutes drive. We got annoyed at ourselves, it was getting late, and we are missing precious time we could be outdoors. 

We gestured to our driver that we needed water, and he signalled back that he can bring us to a nearby water source where we can fill our bottles. We came to a little water well, and our driver proceeded to fill up his bottle. I took a sip, and just couldn't swallow, so I spat it out. It's fizzy, and tasted a lot like sparkling water - something I cannot stomach. "Borjomi!", he exclaimed proudly, naming one of Georgia's biggest drinking water regions. 

Frustrated, we tried to relay to him that we needed to head to town to stock up. We called Davit, a Georgian who we have been consulting for hiking advice, to translate our needs. Davit informed us that there is a military outpost 30-40 minutes into the hike where we can fill up our bottles with mountain spring water. What a relief!


On the drive from Mazeri, towards the Ushba Glacier hike. We were already wowed by the view from the car - beautiful alpine forest, complete with snow capped mountains.



Every turn unveils a jaw-dropping sight. Tall alpine forests towered over us, only to be dwarfed by mammoth snow-capped mountains. Rumbling streams rushed past us and the thundering of waterfalls could be heard from a distance.



The trail continues on to the Ushba Glacier, which requires a full day hike. We'd started out late, with insufficient water and food. We have to give the Glacier a miss, but the waterfalls halfway into the trail more than make up for it.

30 minutes into the hike, we found the military outpost. Here we gratefully refilled our water supplies (crisp, fresh mountain spring water) and politely refused an invitation for cha-cha (Georgian vodka) from the militants on duty, hehe.


Another 10-15 minutes hike later, we diverged from the main trail and trekked towards the waterfalls.




We spent a good 15-20 minutes just snapping photos, and basking in the view. I am still in awe of such view! I fear my photos do not do justice to the beauty of this place. The intensity of the panaroma is diluted on a 2-dimensional photo.



It started drizzling, and we decided to move before the rain gets worse. Cameras + water = not a good combination!


Good thing we left when we did: 


An ominous-looking cloud that poured heavily 5 minutes after this shot was taken.

The Georgian Adventure - Ushguli, Svaneti




Svaneti is a region north of Georgia, forming part of the Caucasus range. It is easily one of the most beautiful places I've been. We spent 5 days just in this region, exploring and hiking different trails each day. 

This remote area is home to majestic mountain ranges of over 4000 meters high, ruins of old defense towers, rolling valleys and flower-speckled fields. Due to its location, access is confined to warmer seasons. In the old days, treasures are hidden here for safe keeping, due to its difficult access.

Getting to Mestia, the largest town in Svaneti, wasn't very straightforward. From Tbilisi, we took an overnight sleeper train to Zugdidi - a first for me on a sleeper train!


The train looks old, but we were given clean sheets for the "bunk" and pillow. It is tight squeeze for V, but serves me fine, hehe. There's a door on every sleeper unit for privacy. Slept through the night, and woke up to stretches of green valleys!


Out of focus, but you get the idea.


From Zugdidi, we took a marshrutka (a shared taxi/minivan) onwards to Mestia. The marshrutka was filled to the brim with 12 travellers, plus luggages. Our bags had to be stowed on the roof of the marshrutka, which got me nervous.

The driver sped on the road, and 10 minutes into the drive, the rear doors opened suddenly and several luggages fell onto the road. Our vehicle screeched to a stop, bags were reloaded and we continued the journey as if nothing out of the ordinary happened.


Still, views were gorgeous as we approach Mestia.

It was 10am once we arrived Mestia. That's 8 hours on the train, and 4 hours on the road. Our hosts picked us up and we settled into our guesthouse.


Georgian hospitality is a thing of legend. We were served nothing short of a feast at every meal in guesthouses. I do wonder, what happens to the leftovers? We could only manage to finish half of this!

Kachapuri, chicken salad, bread, tomato and cucumber slices, cheeses, fish stew, apples, banana cake and plum juice!

At Mestia town centre, several marshrutkas stood idle with its destination written on cardboard propped on dashboards. It takes 2.5 hours to Ushguli, and costs 150 GEL total. English is not commonly spoken, especially further away from the city. As it will be difficult to communicate with the driver, it may be worth to hire an English-speaking guide. 


I love fruits stalls. How can you resist taking photos of this myriad of colours??

2.5 hours of bumpy, potholed winding roads and driving over streams...



That white block with brown specks is a little glacier!

Our hike towards Shkara Glacier -


We did not finish the hike, as we only have 3-4 hours daylight left, even during the long summer days.



Old defense tower with Mount Shkara in the background.



Small village Ushguli.






Mount Shkara.


Wild flowers - aren't they just so pretty!

Ushguli was just the tip of the glacier, next we ventured to Mazeri, a jaw-droppingly gorgeous alpine forest mountain. 

The Georgian Adventure - Tbilisi

I can't honestly say I've always wanted to travel to Georgia, hehe - not that Georgia is short on breathtakingly beautiful destinations, mind you, but we've just been ignorant about this little-known country. 

Why Georgia then? We were chatting about where we should head next for a holiday, and really just throwing out suggestions. Italy, Iran, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Georgia? - Oooh, hey. That resulted in frantic typing and googling. Our screens were filled with surreal photos of valleys, majestic snow-capped mountains and magnificent ruins. We ooh-ed and aah-ed, and by the end of it, totally convinced that we have been wanting to visit Georgia all our lives. 



We spent 2 weeks in Georgia (I had initially suggested a week each in Armenia and Georgia, but V insists that isn't enough time to explore Georgia). And to give credit to V, he has dedicated a significant chunk of his time to design our itinerary. We combed through websites after websites, got in touch with a Georgian guide and exchanged calls to fine tune our itinerary! 

A few friends have asked to share our itinerary, so here goes:

Day 1 : Arrive Tbilisi
Day 2 : Explore Tbilisi 
Day 3 : Explore Tbilisi, night train to Zugdidi (to Mestia)
Day 4 : Mestia, day hike to Ushguli
Day 5 : Mestia, day hike to Mezari & Ushba waterfall 
Day 6 : Mestia, day hike to the Cross (towards Koruldi Lakes)
Day 7 : Mestia, day hike to Chalaadi Glacier
Day 8 : Return to Tbilisi, drive to Signagi
Day 9 : Explore Signagi
Day 10 : Drive to Davit Gareja, en route to Mskheta
Day 11 : Drive to Kazbegi (Stepantsminda) along Georgian Military Highway
Day 12 : Drive to Juta
Day 13 : Short hike to Chaukhi Pass
Day 14 : Drive to Roshka 
Day 15 : Roshka, day hike to the Abudelauri Lakes
Day 16 : Drive to Shatili, explore Shatili
Day 17 : Drive back to Tbilisi, departure.

I'll link them up once the posts are ready.


***

So what's Georgia like?

That's a tough question. There's no other country quite like it. Although it sits on West Asia, Georgia appears more European than Asian. An Orthodox Christian country, with motorists who drive possessed. We have met some truly welcoming and generous people in our trip. Always accommodating, always too much food on the table, genuinely friendly people who would have loved to chat with us, had there not been a language barrier.

The food is as complicated to describe: A hodgepodge of culture, not surprisingly, considering its geographical location on ancient crossroads of trading routes. Herbs and spices are used in excess for curing meats, flavouring stews and lending to a beautiful aroma and flavour. Bread is a staple, cha cha (vodka) or wine for breakfast is encouraged here.

Attire for women - it is best to dress conservatively. While there is that odd miniskirt or two, in general, the women are dressed modestly. I noticed the older women are dressed all in black, complete with a babushka (headscarf tied under the chin). When entering places of worship, it is necessary to cover your hair. Long skirts are permitted in churches, whereas pants are not. Fret not, there are wraparounds available at church entrances to cover yourself.

We felt very safe in the city, too. We chatted with our taxi driver, and he confirmed that crime rates are low. Police presence is strong in the city.


***


Now, I'm not an advocate of speedy tours around the city, but we were so excited to be in Georgia, we revved up and completed most sights of Tbilisi in a day. If you're short on time, it's manageable! Be warned, you'll have tired, jelly legs by the end of the day (which explains our relaxing and mostly chilling out the following day).

We stayed at Hotel Sololaki, an apartment unit turned into a hotel. The place was humongous, complete with a sitting area, a hallway leading to wardrobe and a balcony. We were warmly greeted with homemade Georgian wine. 

Our walk started from Freedom Square (a mere 100m from where we stayed), and from there we made our way towards the Old Town, stopping for breakfast of kachapuri (baked dough with cheese filling) in between. 


Ubiquitous bakeries scattered throughout Tbilisi.


The typical Tbilisi building fa├žade, complete with intricate balustrade on balcony.

In addition to bakeries, churches are also found in abundance throughout the country. Georgia is the second country to formally adopt Christianity in the 5th century. 


Inside one of the oldest church in Tbilisi, the Anchiskhati Basilica.

A Tbilisi fact - in 1795, the Persians invaded Tbilisi and had the entire city burnt. Sadly, most of the city is gone with some salvaged remains.



V managed to make some friends, surprise, surprise! Throughout Georgia, he's been exceedingly popular with numerous dogs and even horses. I blame his perfume, they were probably similar to doggie pheromones. 


The Peace bridge, a modern addition over Mtkvari river, all glass and steel structure.




Sioni Cathedral, home to the sacred cross of St Nino


Those knobbly things hanging from top of shop - they look deceivingly like sausages, but they are not. Churchkelas are walnuts coated in layers of thick grape juice, dried out and sold as snacks.


Outside the Parliament along Rustaveli Avenue, a protest was taking place to free a Georgian teacher, Mustafa Emre Cabuk, who was captured by the Turkish government although he was innocent. 

Even here, a local took time to explain to us what the protest was about!


We used the metro to get around Tbilisi - each MetroMoney card is 2 GEL, and can be shared between a few people. What boggled me was how deep the subway was! I swear, judging by the depth and speed we were traveling down the escalator, the metro must be at least 8 or 9 storeys below ground.

Ok, that just prompted me to do a quick search: The Tbilisi metro station opened in 1966, is 60m underground and the escalators are 120m in length!


Rustaveli metro, 60m underground.


The Dry Bridge market:


... where I got a couple of Pirosmani-esque paintings on a wooden board, perfect for the kitchen!

Georgian books, remnants of Soviet era knick-knacks, drinking horns, paintings, and all manner of souvenirs can be found here. I'm not sure about haggling, but the painting that I bought were discounted because I purchased two of them. And besides, they weren't atrociously priced.


I love browsing through markets, both the dry and wet variety. In a wet market, the produce are in beautiful, vibrant colours which I love to photograph (V can vouch for that), while in a flea market, there's so much to see and a great chance to interact with the locals. 

Between 2-3pm, it got increasingly warm, so we popped into the National Museum. We spent a good couple of hours there, poring over a whole floor documenting the Soviet Union rule.

By the time we were done, we were keen to photograph sunset over Tbilisi. We walked towards Tromba monastery, when a passer by warned us about vicious dogs in the area, and offered to drive us up towards the monastery. V was shrewd enough to reckon he was doing us in, and we politely declined his offer.

No dogs were seen along the way, although we do have to do a bit of trespassing and climbing over ledges, hehe.

The reward is great -


Colours grew more intense, lights turned the city into a dramatic scenery.


By dusk, the city lights turn on and transformed the city once again.


Photo is not crisp - did not have a tripod at this stage.


Probably the only photo of myself in this trip!


A mosque in Tbilisi, with a synagogue, and a church within close distance to each other.




Cable car towards the Mother of Georgia and Narikala Fortress. 






Statue of Mother Georgia, holding a bowl of wine on one hand, and a sword on the other. Its wine is symbolic for friends, and sword for foes.


Monument of King Vakhtang Gorgasali, a former king of Iberia, with the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in the background.



Abundance of summer fruits in anticipation of our long train ride tonight!

Next, our overnight train ride to Zugdidi, then to Svaneti, one of the most beautiful regions of Georgia!

The Georgian Adventure - Hike to Chalaadi Glacier

Our third, and last hike in Svaneti. There are so many more places to hike and explore around Georgia, it was a hard decision to premature...