Georgia is gaining its popularity on the world travel map very rapidly. Every traveller I met, who has been there had only one thing to say about Georgia; it is one of the most beautiful countries they have so far visited. The hammering of this fact, time and again, made me choose it as my next travel destination. Moreover, I am glad I picked it and that too just at the right time. In the coming few years Georgia’s tourism industry is expected to witness a steep rise which may spoil its pristine nature and disturb its serene vibes.
The country shares its south, east and north borders with Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia respectively while on the west the land terminates in the Black Sea.
This article will not only inspire you to explore this heaven on earth before its too late, but it will also serve as a comprehensive guide to trigger your further research and help you plan your trip.
Georgia is such a small dot on the world map that it requires some effort to locate for the first time. Standing on a significant trade route and acting as a bridge between Europe and Asia, it has witnessed numerous invasion attempts in the course of history but still managed to remain free. Zoom in one time to see the country’s location.
Being a former USSR state, Georgia also had its rough time dealing with the Russian attempts of invasion. The most recent war ended in 2008, and one can imagine that Georgia has witnessed stability only recently.
Georgia can boast of a vibrant and unique culture and language, the oldest wine recipes, being the bastion of orthodox Christianity for ages, being one of the most varied topographies even in such a small area, 25000 rivers which flow inside its boundary and being home to the highest continuously inhabited village in Europe.
“John Steinbeck, a famous war photographer once said the Russians admired Georgia so much that they thought of it as second heaven and Georgians as great lovers, drinkers, dancers and artists. They wished that they not go to heaven when they die but to Georgia instead.”
THE TEN TREASURABLE MEMORIES
- Receiving a bottle of wine from the Georgian Immigration Officer at the airport.
- Dancing all night to EDM in Bassiani in Tbilisi.
- Failing to hike through the snowy trail to the Gergeti Trinity Church / Stepantsmida Sameba and getting lost in the dark while returning, with the town lights being the only source of direction.
- Partying with the locals in Borjomi.
- Making new Turkish friends in our hostel in Batumi, drinking their cocktail which came from hell, playing their crazy games and signing off with a win.
- Getting a private scrub massage in the ‘sulfur baths’ in Tbilisi to feel like a king.
- Gazing at the Shangri-La from the cave city of Uplistsikhe.
- Organising a CS meetup that brought together more than 35 people to party on the New Years Eve in Tbilisi.
- Driving our rented Pajero on the Georgian Military Highway.
- Riding the snow tuk-tuk to the top of a hill amidst heavy snowfall in Borjomi.
Things To Know Before You Go!
- Currency – Georgian Lari (GEL). Each Lari comprises of 100 Tetri. Take a look at the current conversion rate here. All the exchange centres in the country have different rates so do your research before converting your currency. Exchange at the airport is as always expensive.
- Visa and Immigration – Georgia offers the facility of e-visa to most countries on the planet. The application procedure is simple, and the application processing time falls within four working days. You can submit the application on their portal – https://www.evisa.gov.ge/GeoVisa/
However, if you do not already have a European (Schengen) or a US visa stamped on your passport from your previous travels, I strongly recommend you to opt for a stamped visa from Georgian embassy in India. Otherwise, you hold decent probability of not being allowed to board the flight or being deported. Fresh Indian passports are the worst case in such a scenario.
Immigration can be tricky if you come from an Asian country. A policeman greeted us on arrival and verified our travel documents, stay bookings and cash in hand. After judging us by our body language and having a word with his senior, he allowed us to proceed to the immigration counter. We helped ourselves to the desk expecting another round of scrutiny, but to our pleasant surprise, the officer did not ask even a single question. To surprise us further and as if they had pre-planned to act funny with us, the officer at immigration gifted us a bottle of Georgian wine. Whoa! ‘Welcome to the land of hospitality finally’ we said to ourselves.
- Prominent Airports –
Tbilisi – connects to major international airlines
Kutaisi – most of the low-cost carriers to Europe and neighbouring countries operate from this airport.
- Driving License and Driving Conditions – As India and Georgia are parties to Geneva Convention, an Indian driving license in English or an International Driving Permit (if not in English) are valid documents to drive in Georgia for up to a month. You will find both left and right-hand drive cars in Georgia, but the country obeys the right-hand traffic system (opposite of what we have in India). Georgians driving habits are rogue, and the driving conditions back home make you a winner in such a case 😉
You can mostly rely on Google Maps for navigation. The only exception is driving through Tbilisi city where you have to make sure you do not enter any one-way street or don’t make a turn in a no turning zone.
- Safety – In 2005 Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili fired “the entire traffic police force” of the Georgian National Police to eradicate corruption. Since then the country has been very safe within the limitations of common sense. The separatist (pro-Russia) regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are totally not recommended for tourists.
- Food and Drinks – Being a vegetarian in Georgia is such an easy task. Georgian cuisine is rich, vast, cheap and therefore the country is a foodie’s paradise irrespective of what you eat. Khachapuri, Khinkali, Lobio and Ajapsandali are a few of Georgia’s famous vegetarian dishes. Mexican potatoes and pizza are an easy find as well.
Tap water is safe to drink in most places, while at the same time the super famous and exceptionally healthy Georgian mineral water ‘Borjomi’ is not expensive as well.
Georgian wine is legendary and cheap, beer is definitely worth the cost as well but Chacha, a strong alcoholic drink (brandy) made out of the residue left after taking out wine from the grapes, is what the locals will force you to drink if you ever happen to party with them 😉
- Accommodation – While Couchsurfing is definitely a difficult task in Georgia, alternative lodging options like Airbnb’s, cheap hostels and homestays come to the rescue. A dorm bed can cost you as cheap as 7 Lari per night, and booking an entire apartment is possible under 35 Lari without any fuss. Download Booking.com and Airbnb on your phones as these will be the only platforms you use to compare prices.
- Transportation – Georgia is a tiny country and has an excellent and affordable network of road and rail transport for inter-city travel. If you are a group the best way to see the country is by renting a car. Marshrutkas (mini bus) are the most common mode of transport within the city/town with each ride costing 50 tetri (.5 Lari) irrespective of the distance. We took the bus 37 from Tbilisi airport to city centre (16 Km approx) for 50 tetri (12 Rs), the cheapest airport ride of my life.
Taxi drivers in Georgia are completely untrustworthy. The fares are very cheap in reality, but the drivers cheat you to the maximum possible extent. One of them charged me 25 Lari for a 4 Lari ride. A lesson learnt!
Cities and towns are easy to cover on foot. Prefer walking instead of using the taxis to enrich your experience with the otherwise ignored local way of life.
- Weather – As an Indian, every season is equally impressive to be in Georgia since we do not have snow in most parts of the country. Preparing yourself for the winters when the temperature in the country falls as low as -10-degree Celsius is critical though.
The country is breathtakingly beautiful throughout the year but better known in the international community for its colours during the summer.
- Budget – Georgia is a super cheap country to travel. A one month trip to Georgia during Dec 16-Jan 17 cost me Rs 75K (1000 USD) every expense paid (I splurged a bit). On a backpackers budget, each day should not cost you more than 35 GEL ( Rs 900 approx) including your drinks. I would say a month long backpacking trip from India to Georgia is easily possible under Rs 65k, inclusive even of the cab you take back home, while a luxury trip should be possible under Rs 100k.
To know the ways cut down the flight cost, which is inarguably the biggest expense of any trip, you can refer to my article – “8 SECRET TIPS WHICH CAN HELP YOU FIND A CHEAP FLIGHT“. It already has more than 158 K views on Tripoto. Hurray!
- Wifi and Data – Any hostel or apartment you stay at and most of the restaurants will provide you with free wifi access. The capital Tbilisi also has a free wifi ‘Tbilisi Loves You’in the central touristy area. Rest of the places you need a data connection to use the internet. Data SIM from Magti and Geocell are very cheap and have a good network all over the country. I bought 5 GB data with a validity of 1 month for 20 Lari (Rs 500 approx) from Magti.
- Language – Georgian language is like no other on this planet. It sounds like nothing you must’ve ever heard nor does it look like any script that you must’ve seen before. The roots of this individual linguistic system come from the very ancient Georgian script.
Most of the youth population speak English, and most of the older generation does not. However, that in no way is the roadblock to your experience in Georgia. The hospitality is so much into the culture that the Georgians do not care if you can communicate with them in words. To top up the experience enjoy a celebrity treatment all you need to know are the songs Jimmy-Jimmy, Disco Dancer and Mera Joota Hai Japani which are an integral part of the Georgian culture.
- Festivals – According to the calendar of Orthodox Christianity, Georgians celebrate Christmas on 7th of January and the New Year on the 14th of January. Georgia is a deeply religious country, but still, the influence of West is gaining prominence rapidly lately. The major celebrations take place on 25th and 31st of January like as per the international trend. So if you wish to celebrate Christmas and New Year ‘twice’ in a given year, Georgia is the place for you!
- Can I travel through Georgia by my own? Absolutely Yes! You do not need to worry about anything when the country is Georgia. Any money that you pay to any agency is completely not required. Although I travel without any plan most of the times, planning everything in advance for your trip to Georgia is easily possible as well. I will try and cover as much detail as I can, in this post, to be by your side virtually 😉
- What to pack? Apart from the usual travel gear, a list of which is available in my article – “A 15 STEP GUIDE TO PICKING AND PACKING YOUR TRAVEL GEAR OPTIMALLY“, you need to top up your gear with winter clothing namely a down jacket with temperature tolerance of up to 0 degrees and thermal wear.
- Other possible Issues – Apart from the above factors, two important issues came up consistently during my trip and should be kept in mind – over the top smoking habit of the locals and the behaviour of select Georgian males.
Georgians smoke a lot. To the extent, that even if you are a smoker, a few hours in a confined area will leave your clothes and hairs noxious.
Secondly, the behaviour of a few Georgian males looked surprising. The first impression was that the Georgian females take care of the businesses and homes while the men make up for the more challenging and physical mountain life issues. On spending some time in the country and breaking the ice with a few Georgian ladies, I realised that the males are lazy and dominating in general. Sometimes I observed the boys in their early twenties yelling at their girlfriends in public. A few girls even confessed that they would not prefer to marry a Georgian male. A guy I supposedly became friends with on Instagram before my trip, successfully made some financial gains from me. I share this not to convey any negativity but only as a word of caution, real people are always just a shout away at any given place on this planet, and this information in no way should hold you back, like a true traveller!
YOUR VIRTUAL COMPASS TO GEORGIA
Starting with the capital Tbilisi in Dec 2016, I spent one-month backpacking through Georgia. A part of it was with a few friends who decided to join me on my trip once they came to know about it through the ‘Travel With Me‘ section of my blog.
There are several ways travellers make their journey through Georgia. Some stick to the famous cities and towns while other choose the road less travelled. Moreover, since Georgia is a small country, it makes it very easy to remain flexible with your plans. Also, although no guide can match the richness of exploring in a self-driven plan-less crazy way, I still pen down my experiences if they can be of any assistance to you.
Even after spending a month in Georgia, I still feel I need to go back again one day. A few plans couldn’t be accomplished because my time was up and some new information always kept popping up, which I could never find in guidebooks, as I met more and more locals during my stay.
- Visiting Ushguli, the highest continuously inhabited village in Europe. When I began planning my trip, visiting this village was on the top pf my list. The things I’ve heard and the pictures that I saw from Ushguli were spellbinding. I knew it would be difficult in winters because of the subfreezing climatic conditions and limited transport facilities, but I still wanted to give it a try. I decided I will go and talk to a few locals on how the dream can be accomplished. As expected everyone informed me that visiting Svaneti (the region Ushguli lies in) and Mestia (another beautiful region in Upper Caucasus) isn’t a good idea in winters andI took their advice to drop my plan.
To reach Ushguli by road you need to take a bus from Zugdidi.
A couple days before my departure I met a Georgian girl who informed me that low-cost local carriers operate between Tbilisi and Mestia twice every week from each place. This information made me sad and happy at the same time as it was a great piece of data but my chances to benefit from it were zero.
The online booking facility is not yet available, and you will have to reach out the tourist centre to assist you with the same. The prices are low and cost only 50-60 Lari each way.
Ushguli will be the biggest reason I will go back to Georgia one day.
- Visiting the Rabati Castle in Akhaltsikhe and the Vardzia Monastery. Although I already knew about both of these places, the time wasn’t just enough to visit them in a relaxed way. The Rabati Castle has been restored significantly by Georgian government which spending a lot of money to bring it back to life. Vardzia, on the other hand, is a cave city close to Akhaltsikhe known for its fantastic views, huge scale and rich history.
- Taking an intensive wine tour through Kakheti. This is the region where most of the wine coming from Georgia is produced. The main city in the area is Telavi, and all the major wineries have their offices here. Me being a big fan of Georgian wine and the variety they have, Kakheti comes as a natural choice, but my curiosity to visit the area was just multiplied when I came to know that some of the wineries are so protective of their recipe that no visitor is allowed even in the vineyards. The romantic setting of the town of Telavi is the icing on the cake.
- Travelling through Georgia in summers ( June-August) to witness all the colours. Most of the western travellers visit Georgia in summers. They say it is so colourful and vibrant. And though winters for an Indian is more exciting than for a westerner, to witness the colours and the numerous possibilities of hiking and camping definitely make Georgia a great destination for visiting in summers as well. The topography is so varied in this small country that I’m sure I’d be left awestruck again but in a different way.
- Hiking and camping for a day or two in Borjomi National Park. While we were hanging out in the Borjomi City Park amidst the snowfall, I saw a lot of people returning towards the town with the backpack and other gear. Only later I came to know that the whole national park is open for camping and it takes a day or two to cover it decently. There are basic cabins inside the park available for rent, and it should be a good experience to go back to stay in the wild next time.