Trip to Georgia: Part 1 – Tbilisi

I visited Georgia (the country in the Caucasus, not the state in the US) in October 2016 with my wife on our honeymoon. Amazing experience, it was. I am embarrassed to say that I could not pen down my experiences anytime the past 16 months after the trip. Reasons I can quote are laziness and … no, just laziness. But not anymore. So here it goes.

For starters, Georgia is a country surrounded by Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey, and the Black Sea, in clockwise order. If you are too lazy to look it up, here is the map. Kindly note that the areas in green and purple are contested when it comes to who rules them. Please note that this map is from Google and I don’t have any rights over it, whatsoever.

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Georgia’s area is roughly 70,000 sq. km which is a bit less than that of the Indian state of Assam. With a population of 3.7 million, it comes close to the Indian state of Tripura. So now you have a perspective. For more details, here is the Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgia_(country)

One question. Is Georgia in Asia or Europe? Good question. The boundary between Asia and Europe is contested because it’s one huge chunk of land. By most accounts, Georgia falls in Asia. However, it looks to me like the culture and outlook are more East-European than Asian. Being a former Soviet Republic, it’s still caught in between the Russian and western spheres of influence. The last time I checked, it had applied for EU membership and the application is in process.

Why did we choose Georgia of all the places? First of all, we’d heard it’s beautiful and affordable. But the cherry on the cake was e-Visa for Indians. You can apply for an e-Visa without having to go through the hassle of visiting an embassy/ consulate in person. All you need to do is upload scanned copies of passport and photograph. No flight tickets and accommodation booking proof are required. E-Visa charge is USD 20. Usually, within five working days, you will get an email saying your e-Visa has been approved (if they decide to approve it) with a link to download it. When you travel you have to carry a few passport-sized photos, and proof of travel insurance and financial means. Here is the link to Georgia e-Visa portal: https://www.evisa.gov.ge/GeoVisa/

When it comes to matters of visa and immigration, my rule is “read very carefully and obey”.

I have to warn you here. If you are Indian, it is likely that you will be questioned in detail at the Georgian airport. There have been many incidents where Indians with valid e-Visa were denied entry into the country and deported. Please Google this and understand the current situation. I have read that if you have a valid US, UK, or Schengen visa on your passport, you are highly unlikely to be denied entry. If you don’t have one of these precious little colourful things on your passport pages, please do your research, think, and then make a call. Back in 2016, we didn’t have this problems and Indians were welcomed warmly. So, we didn’t face any questions at the Georgian immigration.

Coming back to our trip. It started from Hyderabad airport at 0400 on 8th October and ended at the same place at 0320 on 16th October. So, 8 full days. Outbound and inbound, we took Air Arabia flights between Hyderabad and Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, via Sharjah. It’s an economy airline, worked well as one. No free food but 30 kg check-in baggage. No complaints. Return flights per person including travel insurance cost us INR 43,000. Remember to buy the travel insurance offered along with the flight ticket when you book on Air Arabia website, it saves the trouble of buying one separately. We had booked only a month in advance, I’m sure earlier booking doesn’t cost this much.

Now that we’re started talking currency, here are the conversion rule as per 2016 October rate: GEL 1 = INR 29. GEL is Georgian Lari. I will take the liberty to mention money in INR throughout, please feel free to do the conversion math, if required.

One important fun fact about Georgian Lari. GEL is a closed currency, meaning you can’t get it outside Georgia. So, what you need to do is to carry US dollar, pound, euro, or rubles to Georgia and after you land, you can convert these into GEL. Don’t take your chances by bringing only INR. At all conversion places, I found that only these four currencies are accepted.

We landed at Tbilisi International Airport at around 1700 on 8th October. Like I said, immigration was smooth back in the day. The first thing we did after coming out of the airport was buying SIM cards. Luckily, they are available at the arrivals. One with free local calls and some 2GB of 4G data cost us around INR 750. You can also find currency exchange desks but don’t convert all your currency here. You will find much better rates in the city. You will find a line of taxis whose drivers will be waiting for you with a cigarette between their lips. I didn’t notice an airport pre-paid taxi service. You gotta bargain with these drivers. My wife is good at it and I suck at it. Finally, we got one guy to take us to our host almost 45 minutes away for INR 1450.

My mention of smoking above was not a passing reference. Georgia is a country of smokers (cigarette, to be clear). A lot of people smoke- in front of their kids, while driving, inside the airport at the gate waiting for their flight!

Our choice of accommodation in Tbilisi was an apartment we found and booked through Airbnb. This is not in the city but is close to a metro rail station from where the Old City is only around 20 minutes. The apartment offered what it promised. It cost us around INR 1100 per night. Facilities included one private bedroom, common bathroom which we shared with the host, kitchen, Wi-Fi internet, ironing table etc.

Below are some pictures of Nana’s place, including the room where we stayed. All pictures are from Nana’s page on Airbnb, I have no rights over these.

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View from the balcony

Our host Ms Nana spoke English, was welcoming, and explained to us how to go about the city. We wasted no time, we ventured out to explore our first night in Georgia. Honestly, it didn’t go well because, for a long time, we were unable to find a place to eat. We walked a lot, for more than an hour, to finally find a small cafe. This was where we discovered that language was going to be an issue. English is not that popular there. If you speak Russian, you can manage. The night made us a bit sceptical about the days to come- mostly about food and language. But our concerns ended the next morning.

On the 9th we explored the Old City. We bought metro rail cards from the nearby station, each one costing INR 290. A single journey on the metro costs INR 14.5; this is a flat fare regardless of distance. All stations have signs in English.

Old City, as the name suggests, is a well-preserved and beautiful area with old-style buildings, ancient churches, and pretty streets and shops. Don’t miss the sulphur baths- get naked and enjoy for only around INR 300 per person. Experiment with the food at a range of restaurants- Georgian, Turkish, and more. Let the pictures do the talking.

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The metro stations are deep underground!
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Signs in metro stations are in English too, which is a big relief.

 

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The next day, we had a day trip covering Jvari, Mtskheta, Gori, and Uplistsikhe. You can cover all the four places in around six hours. Your journey begins at the Didube bus station. To get there, take the metro to Didube, exit the station, and head through a tunnel throughout into a market area. Here, you can find taxis and mini-buses called marshrutka. We bargained with a taxi driver who finally agreed for around INR 1900 for the round-trip. It’s also possible to take the marshrutkas to Mtskheta and Jvari which are less than half an hour from the city. A round-trip to Mtskheta in a marshrutka costs INR 29. Yes, it’s cheap. Tickets can be bought from the counter in the market or you can pay directly to the driver.

Jvari has a sixth-century Georgian Orthodox monastery located on a mountaintop. Mtskheta, one of the oldest cities of Georgia- founded in fifth century BC, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which well deserves this honour. Gori, a city of military and strategic importance, is best known as the birthplace of the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Uplistsikhe, around 10 km from Gori, is an ancient rock-hewn town with cave structures dating from the early Iron Age. My point is, this is a beautiful circuit, don’t miss it. You’ll see amazing mountains, nice little village homes, and beautiful buildings.

One word about taxi drivers- they are fast. I don’t know if this is something special about only the taxi drivers or everybody who drives, but those guys are damn fast. Not that their roads are great; so, let’s not compare the scenario with fast-lane driving in the US or Europe. 120 kmph+ is the norm. Seatbelts, please.

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View of Mtskheta from Jvari monastery
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Another view of Mtskheta from Jvari. This rightly deserves to be a World Heritage Site!
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Inside Jvari monastery
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Mtskheta
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Orthodox church in Mtskheta
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Cave structures in Uplistsikhe
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House where Stalin was born!
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Wagon in which Stalin travelled!

The next day we went to Stepantsminda popularly known by its old name Kazbegi. By road, the journey from Tbilisi to Stepantsminda, on the historic Georgian Military Highway connecting Tbilisi and Vladikavkaz in Russia, takes approximately three hours. This is a magnificent route- hills, mountains, and breath-taking views. After reaching the town on Stepantsminda, which was pretty cool even in October, and having a cup of coffee from the pretty Cafe 5047m, one can hire an SUV to go uphill to the ancient Gergeti Trinity church, built in the 14th century, the major attraction here. This takes around 30 minutes one-way, and the round-trip in a shared SUV cost around INR 360 per person.

En route to Stepantsminda, one can stop at Ananuri fortress, an hour from Tbilisi. This is a beautiful 13th-century castle on the Aragvi river.

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View from Ananuri fortress
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Way to an underground tunnel at Ananuri fortress. That’s Amrita, my awesome wife!
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Ananuri fortress
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En route to Stepantsminda
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En route to Stepantsminda
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Cafe 5047m at Stepantsminda. Remember to take a break and spend some time here before going uphill.
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Stepantsminda
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View from Gergeti Trinity Church
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Gergeti Trinity Church
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View from Gergeti Trinity Church
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Gergeti Trinity Church

Let me pause here. In my next post, I’ll talk about the next four days of our trip, mostly spent in the beautiful beach city of Batumi. I’ll also give a detailed account of how much we spent on what which might help you in planning your trip to Georgia.

Thanks for reading!