We eventually found ourselves arriving at the port of Batumi, Georgia. There was some ultra chill-out Jazz music on the radio. We soon met up with a guy off couchsurfing called ZaZa. ZaZa was very friendly and gave us a little tour round the town and we went for some food and drinks etc.
Batumi was not how I expected, the town was full of lights, casino’s, interesting modern buildings including a skyscraper with a ferris wheel actually built into the structure of the building itself. Overall it seemed like a pretty cool beach town.
ZaZa showed us some Georgian food called “a boat” which is basically this massive boat shaped piece of salty bread full of cheese, egg and potatoes. This was nice enough, but really quite an undertaking to eat. While ZaZa gobbled his down, us three could only manage less than a quarter of each of ours, it was massively rich and filling! Apparantly the Georgians call eating this dish “paying your dues…”.
It was getting late though so soon enough we started driving round looking for a place to camp. There weren’t that many great spots in Batumi itself, and at one point we were scoping out a potential camping ground but out of the darkness appeared a guy holding an AK-47, indicating that he didn’t want us there. So we went elsewhere! We ended up camping on a random bit of wasteland somewhere.
We set off the next day on a long trip through the countryside, making our way to the capital Tbilisi, in order to head up north to the mountains, right on the Russian border. The journey was long but fun, the countryside is really beautiful. There are cows all over the place. There was also a lot of extremely old battered soviet style looking industrial buildings. Progress by road is pretty slow as there are no proper highways.
Another word about the food, to me if it wasn’t these overwhelming boat things, it was difficult to find any food that wasn’t a kebab of some description. We also came across some beautiful castles and the rounded curves of the Georgian script combined to give me this general feeling of a country that is kind of a bit off an odd mix between Eastern Europe and the Middle-East, but also with definite hint of medieval-ness mixed in.
Interestingly, in a relatively recent drive to combat engrained police corruption in the country, all the police cars must drive with their flashing lights permantly on. Also, the police stations are glass walled buildings, to indicate ‘transparency’. We had no issues with police in this country.
We stopped for some food when it got dark and found ourselves in the midst of a Georgian wedding celebration complete with live Georgian folk music, and everybody was dancing in what looked a bit like some kind of tango dancing style or something similar, it was a cool atmosphere.
The next day we went for a bit of hike up to a monastery in the mountains. We set up camp there, it was a really beautiful place with awesome views of the mountains. It was pretty windy up there and cold so we went to collect some wood and make a huge fire. We went into the woods and managed to find three dead trees, which was enough to keep a strong fire going all night.
One word of warning about the Georgian alcohol! We bought beer that claimed to be 12% strength but tasted way suspiciously too nice for it to actually be that strong. Most strange was the vodka, we got through a big bottle of this between three of us, but we were all only mildly tipsy afterwards which didn’t make any sense! It sure tasted as strong as vodka should be so I don’t know what was going on with that!
I had a cool moment of reflection that night evening looking up into the stars, with a fire in the mountains and thinking damn this is cool, it was kind a moment of realisation where the reality that I am now travelling indefinitely started to properly sink in, as the past few weeks had been generally pretty intensely surreal and I hadn’t really had a proper chance to reflect on what I’d been getting up to before that point. It was a good moment! We also saw the International Space Station fly overhead and a few shooting stars.
After our little mountain trip, we headed to the capital, Tbilisi and stayed in a hostel for a few days. The capital itself was nothing special in my opinion, it took us ages to find anything that resembled nightlife and had real difficulty just finding a normal bar. We did eventually find this strange bar with a foam party and had a few drinks there…we also checked out the “English Pub” – with absolutely no English people in there and they didn’t know what a pint was. Similar deal with the “Irish Pub”, which didn’t have guiness on tap and was ridiculously expensive!
On the positive side, in two cases we stumbled across Georgian people having a party and were given free birthday cake and vodka! Bit of an odd combination but pretty funny tho it did make Radu puke, kind of unsurprising really!
The final thing I’ll say about Georgia is that the country had something oddly mysterious about it. It was a country that suffered badly after the fall of the soviet union as it is heavily dependent on imports. We struggled to figure out where the money that is clearly centred around Batumi and Tbilisi was coming from, where the countryside was obviously all pretty poor.
I found out some small clues from later conversations, e.g. the country’s economy is benefitting from tourism from rich Iranians and also from gambling turks who come across the border to the casino’s in Batumi which are less regulated than in Turkey.
Also, the Georgian people we spoke to had an air of general melancholy about them…don’t get me wrong, the people are extremely hospitable and friendly and in most cases relish the opportunity to talk with foreigners in their country. However, I got this distinct sense that the people there felt pretty trapped in this country that is somewhat excluded politically. For example, we spoke to some musicians that wish they actually had places they could go and play as a band, where there is an actual music scene, like London for example…but obtaining visa’s to go to UK or anywhere else is very challenging.
As a visitor, none of this will impact on your ability to enjoy Georgia, which is a cheap and hospitable country for tourists, but is also definately a bit of an adventure with lots of interesting mysteries to unravel. My personal advice would be to stay out on the road, easy places for camping in the awesome countryside. Oh, and Georgian driving is pretty bad, so watch out for that, and whatever you do don't crash! More about that in the next section :)