We’re in Svaneti, a region of Northwest Georgia full of cultural treasures. Getting here was dramatic.
First step: an overnight train from Tbilisi to Zugdidi. This is the part of the trip that had stressed me out the most. As it happened, the journey was uneventful, even pleasant. We showed up at the Tbilisi train station at night, expecting the usual train station mayhem and sketchy characters. Instead we found a quiet, clean, safe station. A woman checked our passports before we were allowed to enter the car and no one without a ticket was allowed to enter.
We splurged for a first class, private car, which cost about $12 each through the Georgia Railway website.
I had been anxious about the safety of the sleeper cars, and now I am here to reassure you that they are safe. There’s a sort of big bucket underneath the red cushion you sleep on, and once you put your bag in there, no one’s going to steal it from you. And at any rate, the door locks from the inside.
Soon after departure, a train attendant checked our passports again, and handed us two packets. The packets turned out to be paper sheet sets. We used them to make our beds, and then nighty-night! (Don’t get used to seeing picture of me without lipstick—this is an exception, okay?)
In case you were wondering about the bathroom, which would be the first thing I’d want to know about, there was just one per car which was a hassle, and while it was not the most skanky bathroom I’ve ever used, it was far from ideal.
Our train arrived in Zugdidi at around 6:00 am. We rushed out to the front of the station to find a marshrutka bound for Mestia. Marshrutkas are the transportation of choice in Georgia. They’re like a combination van/bus that, instead of running on a schedule, take off once they’re full of customers. Seatbelts? Don’t even think about it.
The marshrutka took off, steadily rising through the mountains, almost entirely on the edge of a steep cliff. The driver whipped around corners well to the left of the meridian, dodging cattle, pigs, dogs and humans. At first we skirted a few piles of rocks, which became piles of boulders, which became undeniably mini-landslides. I tried not to think about what would happen if a car approached from the other direction on one of the many blind curves.
Unexpectedly, our marshrutka stopped at a blue painted hut and along with our fellow passengers we lined up to use a squatty potty. Inside the hut was a tiny café with a wood stove. Our driver started chopping wood to feed the stove, and a woman cooked up khachapuri and Turkish coffee. Someone, I think the Russian man, bought khachapuri to share and we all bonded over home-cooked snacks and marshrutka terror. There was a passenger everyone was calling The Japanese Guy, even though he was from Shanghai. This fellow seemed to have no idea why he was going to Svaneti, and was looking for a five star hotel. We were an object of curiosity, and of course, since we’re from Chicago, someone wanted to know if we were gangsters.
The marshrutka finally delivered us from imminent death to the center of Mestia.
Mestia’s graveyards are full of sad gravestones with engraved pictures of men who died young, presumably in car accidents. See that bottle and glass next to the gravestone? That’s so you can toast the departed. (The red egg is leftover from Easter).
More of Svaneti is coming soon, don’t worry. Here’s a peek: