Sunday, May 31, 2015

River Deep, Mountain High

After leaving the wine region, as promised we headed towards Tusheti. The road started out OK, then as expected it got worse. Then it got BAD, really BAD. The next 6km took an hour and was a bit scary. We finally got to a point where we both thought ‘this is getting ridiculous’ and dangerous.

A 15 point turn saw us heading back down the mountain.
Letting air out in preparation for the rough road

Along the road

This is where turned around!!

We stopped at an idyllic looking spot by the river, but the sheep arrived along with the flies and the miasma of pee and poo. We moved.

Luckily a bit further on was a picnic spot, which was idyllic. A local turned up and was so pleased to see us there, as he was responsible for developing the picnic area. He was excited that we were the first people to use it. We really made his day when we found we were from Australia. We had have to publicity shots taken.
Picnic Spot along the Tusheti Road
Later some more locals turned up for a BBQ with the inevitable invitation to join them for drinks. The usual 10 litre plastic bottle of wine and homemade chacha. A fun bunch of guys. They amused me by munching of raw veggies whilst throwing copious amounts of wine down. One of them was a previous Olympic Judo champion – good person to have on your side.
Our new friends!
We also found out that the damn road isn’t fully open yet anyway!

After 2 nights and more bloody rain we headed to the Georgian Military Highway and Kazbegi near the Russian border.
Along the Georgian Military Highway - High Caucasus
The highway is brilliant, beautiful scenery, good road, sunshine! We found a fantastic spot to camp before heading to Sno Valley off the highway. Another fab spot. Georgia is so beautiful with high high mountains, gushing rivers and wonderful forests. We have loved every minute of it. It's really worth visiting, so book your trip.
Monastery along the highway
Sno valley

Next stop Kazbegi where we camped at Nunu’s Guesthouse. Great food, but Nunu complained that we didn’t eat enough!

We paid a guide to take us to look for Lammergeier Vultures and eagles. Everyone said the place is thick with them, but they must have been having day off. Just saw a few griffon vultures and eagle chick high up on a cliff face.
Iconic Monastery in Kazbegi
On Saturday we headed to Russia. The border crossing was much easier than anticipated and the whole thing took one hour and 20 mins, including buying duty free gin. We had been expecting hours of hanging about, but there was virtually no queue (we arrived early – about 7.30am). The queues of trucks waiting to get through was something else however - 2km one way and 4km the other getting into Georgia. It must take them days.

So now we are in Pyatigorsk and having a luxury weekend at a swank hotel. We got a real bargain on and have a suite at the Bristol Spa. We are going to be roughing it pretty much from here on in, so we are having a treat. I think we deserve it!
Slumming it in Pyatigorsk

The weather is warm. We’ve had a few cracking thunderstorms, but so long as it’s warm we don’t care. Next stop Elista and 30 degrees. Can’t wait.

Tips for Travellers

The road to Tusheti is only for serious off-roaders. A Bimobil is not the vehicle for it with its high centre of gravity. The road is not usually open until June. Leave it unit late June, so you can avoid the big mobs of sheep. However if you start the road there is a wonderful picnic area where you can camp (no sheep), about 20 kms or so from the main road. The road that far is fine.

There is a wonderful spot along the Georgian Military Highway just north of Gudauri near an abandoned building. Just behind the building is an old airstrip, so you have hard standing and amazing views. A peaceful spot.
N 42.4928
E 44.4627

Juta in Sno Valley has a small carpark you can park for the night.

Nunu’s guesthouse in Kazbegi has a grass yard you can park in. We slept in our camper, but of course she has beds. Basic but good.

Camping along the highway

A common modification in Georgia

This car just gave up - we saw this a few times!

Friday, May 22, 2015

Wining and Dining in Kakheti

After leaving Armenia, we drove straight to Tbilisi for 3 days. Boris needed some routine maintenance done, so we stayed in a hostel. The weather was dismal. Rain, rain, more rain. The old city is interesting enough but 3 days was plenty.

Boris continues to attract interest everywhere in these parts. A customer at the Toyota dealership came over and said “I know it’s not polite, but may we look inside?”. We are happy to show people as they are genuinely  interested. The Toyota service workshop was brilliant. Let us know if you want more info.

On leaving Tbilisi we headed towards Kakheti – the wine growing region and a national park. The driving continues to be insane and we both have to drive. Me from the left-hand seat and Lawrence at the wheel. I keep an eye on the side mirror “maniac about to pass!”. The favourite manoeuvre is passing a car passing us!! Preferably on a bend. Lawrence thinks it’s a spatial awareness thing, I think it’s a death wish thing.

The sheep on are the move. Great mobs of them are being herded along the roads up to the high country for the summer, along with the stock horses and dogs that just amble about aimlessly. Not that you can buy lamb anywhere!!
Sheep! - and a few goats.
Dogs are everywhere, most of look fairly well fed, but some are definitely malnourished. I save all my meat scraps and leftovers for them. They are very grateful and mostly sweet natured. I of course want to adopt them all but, for some unfathomable reason, Lawrence doesn’t want a camper full of stray dogs.

We were camped near Telavi one night on the edge of the wine region when a car pulled up with people wanting to chat. Off they went, but returned with home made wine, homemade chacha (grappa) and some fruit juice stuff - just for the pleasure of being neighbourly. We drank the rosé style wine (from a cucumber jar) and it wasn’t bad!!
Cucumber Wine
Georgians are lovely, friendly, generous people (except behind the wheel of a car).

We spent 3 sunny, sunny days camped in the beautiful Lagodekhi national park. The weather was divine – at last. We did some walking and generally enjoyed being in the sun. The walk up to the waterfall was thwarted because the bridge had been washed away and the river was too fast and deep for me the brave (not to mention freezing). THAT’S how much rain there has been. I can’t tell what a pleasure it is to get up in the morning and put on shorts and a T-shirt, rather than the usual 4 layers. – sheer bliss.
Man vs Wild

This where the bridge was meant to be

We are currently staying in a winery hotel in Kakheti and managed to do some tasting. The wine is really interesting. Much of it is still fermented in Qvevry (no I can’t pronounce it either) - basically clay amphoras. They make a white wine that is fermented on the skins and left for 6 months. Most unusual.
Schuchman Winery
Our haul from Schuchman Winery

Shopping is an adventure here. There are lots of roadside stalls selling produce straight from the garden. Mainly it’s cucumbers, tomatoes and eggplant. Sometimes old ladies have been foraging in the forest and sell tree mushrooms either outside the market or at the roadside. They are absolutely delicious and make great mushroom soup with the thick lightly soured cream you can buy here. Eggs come in plastic bag – and they are FRESH. The meat is all free range – we know this as the damn animals are all over the road. It’s not the most tender meat but it is certainly tasty.

Butcher shops are scary and we avoid them. Meat is slaughtered by the roadside and refrigeration is rare. Today we braved one in the market before we head off to Tusheti tomorrow. We thought we saw something that looked like it could be cut into chops. No worries. Butcher gets out the axe and hacks it, so now we have 2 huge pieces of pork and no idea how to cook them!

We have just found out that the road to remote Tusheti is open. This is an area where time stands still, so remote that even the Soviets left them alone. Closed most of the year due to snow, they rarely see outsiders and not much changes. Should be an adventure. Road will be terrible of course.

If you don’t hear from us for a while – send out the search party!!

6th century Basilica - Kekheti

11th century Cathedral - Kakheti

Tips for would-be travellers.

Camping in Tbilisi is virtually impossible so a hostel is recommended.

I’m sure you can easily wild camp in the Kakheti wine region, we just chose to stay at Twins Old Winery Hotel. 48 euros per night including breakfast and free, fast WiFi. Dinner here is simple and cheap. Rooms are large and comfortable, and have a balcony. They also have a cheaper option.

The Lagodekhi National park is a fab place to camp. Secure and cheap. 5 lari per person per night.


Camping in Lagodekhi

Monday, May 11, 2015

Monasteries R Us - Armenia

OK, I’m not going to whinge about the weather, but it’s terrible.

Our last stop in Georgia before crossing the border was the incredible Vardzia, a troglodyte city/monastery – an extraordinary place. We stayed at a brilliant hostel (Valodia’s Cottage) and were fed delicious food. Fresh grilled rainbow trout the first night and homemade yoghurt for breakfast, plus lots of other fab food.
Troglodyte Monastery of Vardzia
Next day we crossed the border in Armenia. The road either side of the border was pretty bad. The crossing took about 2 hours as we needed visas, and temporary importation for Boris and a few other bits. Easily done, just tedious (and freezing). Just as we were about to leave the head Customs Officer came over signalling to us. “What now?” we moaned, but he wanted us to come and have a drink with them. “Vin, vin”, so we went downstairs for a glass of Armenian wine, never mind that we had to drive. We escaped after just one vino.

We found a beautiful spot to camp on the steppe at 2028 metres. We were sitting sipping a wonderful Georgian rosé and congratulating ourselves on our fabulous overnight spot, when there was a knock on the door. On opening we found a man with a shotgun. Not being ones to argue with a shotgun, Lawrence tried to communicate politely in Russian, but he was indicating for us to leave. We begged time to at least finish cooking our dinner. He made a few phone calls and left. (A man with a shotgun and a smart phone is not something you expect to find in the middle of nowhere, Armenia).

Back to the rosé.

20 minutes late, bang bang on the door. This time a policeman in an impressively large hat. Lawrence once more tried to communicate in Russian, but he phoned someone who spoke English and got it sorted ie; we weren’t planning on staying permanently. Just one night.

Back to the marvellous rosé – it truly was a stunner.

20 minutes later, bang bang again. Policeman wanting passports and details. The rosé is now finished, and we needed a second bottle. Finally we ate our curry.
Camping on the Steppe
Next morning is was minus 3 degrees – brrr.

We headed to Yerevan, the capital. We finally found a room in a very basic hostel. Apparently the Russians take their holidays in May and come to Georgia and Armenia, so all rooms were booked. This hostel was the kind of place you would have stayed on your first trip to Europe at 18 and no money.

The city is OK, very modern and not really to our liking, so we looked around and moved on.
Ruins of 10th century Zvartnots Cathedral with Mt Ararat in the background
Armenia is heaving with ancient monasteries and we visited quite a few of them, but won’t bore you with the details of each! They are all around 1000 years old, give or take a couple of hundred years and built in wonderful locations. Hard to imagine how they were built back in the day.
Haghpat Monastery
Sevan Monastery
Geghard Monastery

We tried to do some wine tasting, but the wine town of Ijevan hasn’t quite embraced tourism, and we couldn’t find the winery. Some kind man took us to his outdoor café and made us some Turkish coffee. It’s still horrible but we were freezing so it was welcome. He didn’t even charge us!

So now we are staying in a strange sort of hotel/hostel near the border and will head back into Georgia tomorrow.

Tips for would-be travellers.

It’s very hard to wild camp in Armenia – or at least the bits we visited. One reason being that it’s so mountainous – not much flat country around. We did manage one spot by Lake Sevan between the town of Sevan and Lchap. Quiet enough, but expect to be woken at 5am by fishermen.

Otherwise we stayed in hostels, most recommended by the lonely planet. A favourite was Daravand, on the outskirts of Dilijan. Lovely rooms, great hospitality and good food. They even have a decent wine selection.

The roads in Armenia are terrible, really poor condition, made worse by the road crews. They go along cutting out the potholes to make them square for filling, but the filling crew never seem to arrive. The driving is as bad as Georgia, just made more exciting by the roads. It’s like dodgem cars in 2 directions.

Valodia Cottage, Vardzia. Georgia
LPG conversion - soviet style

Friday, May 8, 2015

Georgia On My Mind

First the weather report! It’s raining as I write, but we’ve quite a few sunny days since being in Georgia so I’m not going to whinge.

Our last stop in Turkey saw us driving back into the mountains – one last effort to do some hiking in Turkey. But, alas, it was snowing. The area was really beautiful, reminiscent of Swiss Alps, but too cold to do anything. We had planned to camp up there for the night but the forecast was for minus 5 degrees, and we just couldn’t face it.

So we headed for the coast and the Georgian Border.

The border crossing looked like a real shemozzle, long long queues of trucks, but we got through in 45 minutes with friendly Georgian officers welcoming us to Georgia as though they meant it.

First stop the lovely city of Batumi. We booked into a family run guest house/hotel and enjoyed hot showers everyday. They even did 2 huge loads of washing for us for a mere 8 euros. The room was about 22 euros a night.

The city is a mix of lovely pre-soviet era buildings, most tastefully renovated, grim soviet style apartment blocks and new glass monstrosities. The city centre was really lovely though, with wide tree lined streets, parks and beautiful buildings.
New Batumi

Old Batumi

The coast sported a well used boardwalk and good cafes serving good, cheap food and wine. Plus the sun was shining. We were very happy!!

Next stop was a wetland area (Kolkheti National Park) to look for some birds. The spring migration was over but we took a boat trip (in a tinny!) and saw a White Tailed Sea Eagle and an Osprey who really showed off for us.
Heading further north into the ancient Svaneti area, we took an exciting, beautiful road to Mestia. The road was full of landslips and rock-falls due to heavy recent rain. Luckily none were happening as we drove.

We camped in Boris at a guest house where we were extremely well fed for a very cheap price – details below. The first night we had dinner with some hilarious Ukrainians, who were happy to share their white wine straight from a 10 litre plastic bottle…

Svaneti towers where the locals would hide from marauding neighbours.

Our planned route south again was blocked by snow so we had to return via the same route – oh well.

Next stop Kutaisi, not a town to get excited about but we camped in a hotel ground. More like a park with a pond. Lovely!

From here on in I’m going to put some detail of places we stayed, camped etc for those considering a similar trip. We’ve found other peoples blogs to be extremely helpful in this regard and are happy to add our two cent’s worth.

For those not considering such a crazy journey, you can ignore that bit!

Currently we are in the Lesser Caucasus camped in a beautiful National Park. It was sunny yesterday when we arrived, so we whipped out the BBQ and chilled the wine. We managed a great walk this morning before the worst of the rain. Lawrence was really hoping to see a Lammergeier Vulture as he hasn’t ever managed to do so. (Neither have I, but feel my life is complete nevertheless.) Neither did we see any of the 90 Brown Bears that allegedly live here. Apparently there is a whole lot of interesting wildlife here but you must venture right into the park, and camp out etc. to see it.
Idyllic camping spot
Next we are heading into Armenia before returning to Georgia.

Tips For Would-be Travellers.

First up, the driving in Georgia is crazy. They seem such friendly, helpful people to meet, but turn in to suicidal maniacs when they get behind the wheel. Drive cautiously and give way to everyone. They’ll pass you at great speed on a blind bend and then stop in front of you to turn off or chat to friend. You have been warned.

We stayed in a small family run hotel. It was very cheap and clean, and street parking was fairly easy and free. They also did our washing.
Name: Dzveli Batumi (but the sign outside says ‘Old Batumi Hotel’).
Address: Kostava 24. We found it easily by GPS.

Once again we stayed in a guest house, but parked in the yard and slept in our camper. We ate breakfast and dinner in the Guest house – good food and cheap. Nino speaks some English and is very helpful. Cost 100 lari for 2 nights including meals and hot showers. There is a washing machine.
Name: Nino Ratiani Guesthouse
It’s on the main road into town before you get to the main square, on the right-hand side.

Don’t drive up here during heavy rain as landslips and rock-falls are very common and some of those rocks were BIG. The onward road past Ushguli was still blocked by snow in late April.

We camped in a hotel ground, which was lovely. Hotel Imeri Park is on the main road in from the south, on the right-hand-side, behind a gas station. They were quite happy for us to camp by the pond (full of noisy frogs) for 2 nights. 15 lari per night. It was a really nice place to camp. Taxi into town was about 5 lari.
N42.226063  E42.692704

Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park
We camped in the National Park near the refuge. First you must go to the Visitors Centre just outside Borjomi on the road to the park (right-hand side) to register and pay. They will give you a map and instructions. It’s a beautiful area and well worth visiting
Co-ordinates are:
N 41.7874
E 43.2369

Email us at for any more details.