I’ve been in Georgia for almost two weeks. I spent my first week in the Tbilisi area and just got back from a road trip to the Black Sea and west side of the country. My friend, Irakli, arranged for a car rental and we paid in cash. He signed some paperwork, but it was the first time I’ve ever rented a car without showing my license or putting a credit card on file. The car drove ok, but it would not be without it’s quirks lending to a more adventurous roads rip.
First off, Georgia is the only country I’ve been to that has cars with both the steering wheel on the right and left side of the car. Everyone drives on the right side, but the car we rented had its steering wheel on the right. Having driven in Scotland I was not worried, and it turned out to be very natural (driving on the left side of the road was much more difficult). Also, this car was an automatic and I didn’t have to deal with the stick shift on my left which also proved a little confusing in Scotland. I always wondered what the postmen felt like in America with the wheel on the right.
So we set out west toward Kutaisi where Irakli grew up and where I had a meeting with some musicians who made panduris, a classical Georgian instrument that I was interested in. The drive to Kutaisi from Tbilisi is about 3.5 hours and pretty much one road the whole time. I had booked a cheep hotel in Batumi which was another 2-3 hours from Kutaisi. The drive was pretty cool… the first hour was mostly flat with the Caucasian mountains covered in snow in the background. There were actually Rocky Mountains both to our north and to our south and even though it was overcast, it was quite beautiful.
After an hour or so, we started to get into what I would call farm territory. Large rolling hills with scattered small villages and lots of cows wandering the street eating grass along the edge of the road (I only needed to slow down to avoid them a couple times). The beginning of this territory I would say started with a village called Surami which was the home of a famous style of bread called “Natsuki” (მაზუქი). Many venders standing outside of shacks along the side of the road waved this sweetbread around trying to get drivers to pull over and buy some. I did end up getting one, but didn’t take any pictures which I regret. The bread was sweet and reminded me a bit of fried dough.
Another two hours through these rolling hills and poor villages and we arrived in Kutaisi. My contact from Georgian Folk Music Instruments (www.hangebi.ge/eng) met us near a bus stop and hopped in the car. He led us five minutes to where they had a little underground workshop and an apartment where they taught lessons on panduri and guitar. We ducked our heads down to enter the little workshop where we saw some instruments at various stages. Levani did his best to translate and I learned how they acquired the different types of wood, how they naturally dried it, and carved every instrument by hand. These instruments are made by musicians who care a lot about the sound of the wood and less about appearance. Not to say they are not beautiful instruments, but they are not decorated to hang on a wall like most of the cheaper panduris I saw in Tbilisi.
After the workshop, we went to an upstairs apartment where I got to play three different panduris. Davit, the resident teacher and musician, showed me some chords and we played together for an hour or so. We played a few Georgian songs and a few recognizable american songs such as “Hotel California” and the theme from the Last of the Mohicans. The panduri only has three strings and is tuned as a major chord (A C# E) and was pretty easy to pick up. The tough part was the right hand strumming style (not unlike flamenco), and the use of the left thumb. They were willing to take $200 for an instrument, but since I’m traveling and trying to save, I told them I would have to order one when back in the states. I fully intend to do so.
After jamming with Davit, Irakli and I went to one of the oldest establishments in Kutaisi, “Bikentias Sakababe”,where they sell Kababe. Clearly a local spot, people stood at little counters and ate these sausage type things and drank beer. When the guy behind the counter learned I was american he became very enthusiastic. He was very interested in my thoughts on the place and offered us complimentary shots of “chacha” the clear Georgian liquor that is like a spicy vodka. The most amazing thing about this place is that it cost 7 GEl (“lari” the Georgian currency) for two kababes, a ton of bread, and a pint. 7 lari is about 3 US dollars.
We said goodbye and decided to head out of town towards Batumi. It was almost 6pm and our 2-3 hour drive would be in the dark. I didn’t get to see much of Kutaisi, but I think its a fairly simple city. We drove by a few statues, parks, and buildings that would have been nice to photograph and explore more, but I think one day would be enough to see most of Georgias second biggest city. Most buildings I saw were pretty run down, and you could tell there was not a ton of money here. Irakli explained that when he was growing up that every street had at least one mafia house and it was a pretty rough city. Batumi would turn out to be quite different.
The drive to Batumi was a bit stressful. The rental car turned out to only have one working headlight and the windshield wipers didn’t work very well. It started to rain and we ran out of wiper fluid. There were many big trucks on the road and it was hard to see. At one point we got pulled over by the police and Irakli explained it was a rental car and not our fault. They let us off with a warning and told us to turn on our emergency lights. I don’t know what I would have done if I didn’t have Irakli with me to translate. Even when I pulled over they said something over a loudspeaker telling me to pull up further. I would’ve been very confused and nervous without a local present. Given, I probably would have rented a car with two working headlights.
A long three hours later we arrived safe in Batumi. It was dark, but I remember the first time I saw the Black Sea off the side of the road. Large waves crashed along the shore… it felt like an ocean. We stopped at a little shop to get some snacks and water for the night and I asked the cashier if she thought it would be raining tomorrow. She said “yes” with a sureness that got me prepared for the worst. Lucky for us, she was quite wrong and we were blessed with the best day in January Batumi gets to see.
I had a nice soup for breakfast and downloaded the map of Batumi for us to navigate this great day. I had a few things I wanted to see and we ended up seeing them all. Piazza square, European square, the boulevard, and of course the Black Sea itself. We also ended up traveling out of the city 30 minutes to Jocho where the famous Adjarian Wine House sat in the mountains and hosted a large wine selection and amazing food. Overall, Batumi is a beautiful and unique city. A mix of Cadiz, Dubai, and Las Vegas, there are many things to do for people of all ages and lifestyles. We didn’t go to any of the casinos, but there were a few garish buildings inviting gamblers and clubers to enjoy the nightlife. Instead, we went to the wine house and had one of the best meals I’ve ever had.
The next day we only had one plan before leaving Batumi… I needed to try the famous Adjarian khachapuri, a breakfast of champions/artery clogging masterpiece of egg, cheese, butter, and bread. Irakli knew a classic resturant in the city to get it and we started our day off in “Laguna”, a cozy resturant in the basement of an old building. We both ordered the small khachapuri and I have no idea how someone would eat a bigger one by themselves. I didn’t even finish and I still felt like I needed to exercise to prevent a serious heart condition. The way Irakli taught me to eat it was to mix the egg and the cheese together and use the bread bowl sides to scoop up the colesterol. It was actually really good and I would eat it again, but I have been eating so much greasy meat and heavy food that I felt burdened by this dish. I really wanted some yogurt and a fruit salad.
With full stomachs and beating hearts we headed out of town towards Oni, Racha where we were going to stay in the mountain region for the night. It was nice to drive out of the city in the daylight, because I didn’t see the landscape when we entered at night. It was gorgeous. We stayed along the coast for a while with the beautiful sea to the west and mountains to the east. We continued to head north east through small villages and eventually ended up climbing virtically towards Racha. Irakli had never been to this area and was going to meet a political ally he had never met before. This friend assured us we had a place to stay and was going to host our evening.
The drive to Racha was stunning. Some of the towns we drove through were interesting and the landscape was beautiful. We started seeing snow as we climbed to 1000 meters and stopped a few times to get snacks and water. At one picturesque point we stopped for photos and fed a hungry dog our leftovers. When we arrived in Oni, we met up with Irakli’s friend who led us to our hotel where we dropped off our stuff. He then told us to drive up into the mountains to Shovi while it was still light out. It was around 430pm and I was a bit skeptical. Irakli had 4% on his phone and I had no internet access.. not to mention we were in a tiny car and the snow was starting to take over the roads. Turns out, this was a reasonable concern.
As we head out of Oni, the roads quickly becomes covered in snow and very slippery. Luckily, my Vermont driving skills are instinctual at this point and I manage to navigate the snow pretty well. At one point we are on such a steep and slippery section on the side of a mountain I share my concern with Irakli and say “maybe we should turn back”. At that point, a Jeep rounds the corner headed towards us and I’m not sure how we will get around eachother. I pull to the side as much as I can and we roll down our window to talk to them. Its a priest and a family and they tell us we need to turn around and cross the bridge we just passed to get to Shovi.
We are able to turn around somehow and cross the bridge and continue our slippery adventure. We are laughing hysterically, but there is a little bit of a concerned undertone. I know what its like to get stuck in the snow with a shitty car and although I told Irakli to turn his phone off incase of emergency I kind of figured it would be dead anyway. We swerve our way up these mountains through a few snowy villages until we reach Shovi. We made it! I turn the car around in an open space at the entrance of the Shovi Sunset hotel and we get out. Wondering if we should try to continue, we see another car coming down the road from further above. We ask the driver if we should continue and he says we can only really go another 200 meters and that we should just walk. He also says that there is a famous water spout with Shovi’s mountain mineral water up ahead. We venture up the road by foot and find the water. It tastes very weird and I wonder if the taste is minerals or something from the actual pipe.
The real excitement begins when we return to the car. The car is facing down the mountain so I try to just go… instead we are met with the familiar spinning wheels I recognize from my youth in Vermont. I remain confident we will free our little car without the need for flares and a fire. Irakli has never been in this situation. After asking him to push from behind and then in front, I try to find sticks and debris to put under the tires. We are now entrenched pretty deep in the snow and Irakli enters emergency mode. He tries to turn his phone on to discover it is dead. There is no way to charge it in the car.
Since I’ve been the driver the whole time I was asking him to push. I noticed he really only pushed a little and then gave up as I spun the wheels. Although finding sticks was difficult, I mananged to break some branches off ad nearby tree, dig out what I could from the front tires and cram a bunch of sticks under the wheels. I asked him to try driving and got behind the car to give it one last shot. As he stood outside the drivers seat pushing the gas as he pushed the car, I rocked the car back and forth feeling that encouraging back and forth. I yelled “PUSH!” as I rocked the car. He started to get the idea as the car moved and continued helping the forward motion. After a couple minutes of digging in, the car plunged forward and we were on the main road.
Although there was still a ton of snow on the road, I was confident we were through the worst of it. We slid down the mountain and passed a family sledding and some older folks trudging up the snowy road. Three hours later, we were back in Oni after sunset. We met Irakli’s friend Basho who treated us to a feast at a small dinner/restuarant in town. Another higher ranking government friend joined us and a fifth guy who played us some songs on accordion and joked about the government pouring wine added to the group. It was a really fun night.
When we woke up, we were asked to eat a little at the hotel with the mother and son who ran the place. The woman made all of the bread and jam homemade and even some pear liqueur that was amazing. I was hesitant to start my day off with a strong drink, but it was amazing how much better it made my sore throat feel. Also, I may have found one of the few Georgians who spoke Spanish. The son who helped run the place had lived in Barcelona for 2 years and spoke better spanish that I did. He couldn’t speak english, but we were able to communicate in spanish and it felt really good for both of us. He showed me how they made wine and the pear liqueur and we spoke about our travels and his time in Europe.
To round up our time in Oni, we met Bacho at the same little restaurant for a delicious soup called “kharcho”. We said our goodbyes and headed back down out of the mountains. It was only a 4.5 hour drive back to Tbilisi and it was on the same main roads. I was excited for a shower and a nap when we got back and slept quite soundly. Its hard to believe we were only gone for 4 days, but I’m getting used to life flying by. I feel incredibly lucky to have these adventures and wouldn’t trade it for anything. This country is beautiful and I will be sad to leave. Luckily, I have made lifelong friends here and am welcomed back. Maybe next time I will come in the summer.