Should you visit the Republic of Georgia? Absolutely. Can you travel independently in Georgia? Yes, but only if you do your homework. Focus your travel planning on transportation, finding great guest houses, and be prepared to respectfully appreciate Georgia’s religious culture.
Before I traveled in Georgia I was confused and intimidated by the transportation infrastructure. From the outside it seemed chaotic and not accessible for tourists. As it turns out, Georgian transportation is not chaotic—it’s a system that works well, but yes, it can be confusing for a tourist.
Georgian trains are pleasant and safe (and the overnight train comes with paper sheets). The problem is that trains can’t get you to the more intriguing areas of Georgia, and who wants to miss out? Here’s where the marshrutka steps in.
Marshrutkas are privately operated vans that function as buses. They have set starting and ending locations, but no schedules. Marshrutkas leave when they are full of people and whatever those people happen to be schlepping (and as we discovered, transporting large chunks of building materials is totally a legit option.) In larger cities, marshrutkas are continually loading and taking off, while villages may just have one or two daily options. They are cheap, a great way to meet locals and dangerous as hell (more on that later).
Here’s a tip: before your trip, print a document with all your possible destinations written in the Georgian alphabet. While some trains and marshrutkas may have signs in the Latin alphabet, most will not and you’re going to be screwed if you can’t read Georgian. Use the document to match your destination to the sign on the bus, or if desperate, stop a local and point to it on your sheet, saying “Too sheh-eedz-leh-bah, sahd ah-rees marshrutka?”
If you’re anything like me, you’re dying to know if marshrutkas make bathroom breaks and I’m relieved (pun intended) to tell you that they do. All of our marshrutkas made pit stops, though the facilities we stopped at ranged widely in quality. The more pleasant pee breaks were in places like the one above (look closely to see toilet paper mounted outside the door). They had clean squatty potties with a grandmother collecting coins at the door. Other were nasty outhouses including one so vile that I ran behind the potty and did my business there, more of less in view of whoever was looking.
Marshrutkas also make snack stops, at stores, cafes or cute khachapuri stands like this (because you need even more opportunities to eat bread in Georgia, right?)
The best way to experience Georgian culture is to stay at a guest house. I strongly advise you to carefully research in order to find guest houses with a reputation for helpful hosts and a convivial environment. (I was having a hard time finding the perfect place, so I went to the recitial of a Georgian choir in Chicago and asked around until I received a reference for what turned out to be the ideal guest house in Svaneti.) Georgians are famous for their hospitality for a reason—a great guest house host will help you sort out confusing public transportation, open doors for you, and generally do everything in their power so that your feel part of a warm Georgian family.
Guest houses also cook the tastiest food in the country. Try to find a guest house that serves meals, eat heartily in the company of friendly strangers, and don’t blame me if you start busting out of your travel pants.
Georgia is by far the most religious place I’ve ever visited. Want to find a church in Georgia? Just watch for people elaborately crossing themselves and look around, there’s sure to be a church nearby and that church will be crowded. Georgian churches and monasteries are choice spots to hear ethereal singing. The religious architecture is dramatic and you may well see lovely frescoes and mosaics inside.
Most Georgians are Orthodox Christians and in case you haven’t visited an Orthodox church before, be mindful that there’s a dress code. Women should cover their hair with a scarf and men should remove their hats. Modest dress is required for women and if you’ve got a short skirt or pants on you can borrow a sort of wrap-around skirt to cover up your bits. Women should not walk near the iconostasis, which is gate-like entry to the nave that’s covered with icons. Photos are sometimes allowed but be careful—we assumed that since they were allowed at one church they were allowed at the one next door and were yelled at in two languages by a finger waving nun.
You’re going to want a lot of layers in Georgia, especially if you’re travelling in the mountains. In early may I alternated between a t-shirt and sunhat, a raincoat, and several layers topped by a winter coat in the course of two weeks. Remember how I warned you about the mud? That’s why you’ll need some decent waterproof hiking shoes. In addition, bringing a flashlight is a smart idea since electricity seems to go out somewhat randomly (even in the National Museum of Tbilisi). Finally, this is a cash economy—hit up the ATM machine because your credit cards are not much use in Georgia.
Is it safe?
The first thing people ask about Georgia is usually “Is it safe?” This is an understandable question for any country, though for Georgia the best answer I can give is “It’s complicated.” Two regions of Georgia—Abkhazia and South Ossetia—are said to be unsafe so we didn’t travel there and neither should you. Otherwise, the places we visited felt quite safe and I never had fears of being robbed. (Certainly I’m in more danger of violent crime at home in Chicago then I was in Georgia). In our experience Georgians are ridiculously friendly and kind to tourists. A more realistic danger would be from the extensive toasting that goes on over dinner—beware of drinking to much since Georgians expect you to drain the entire glass with each toast!
Georgian driving is not safe. I’m not sure what turns these relaxed and well meaning people into such demons behind the wheel but it is a serious hazard. Riding in a marshrutka is straight up dangerous. We had drivers racing around blind curves passing three cars in a row while cattle crossed the road. Landslides, crumbling guard rails, no guard rails, even a road with a stream crossing it—-we bumped and jostled at race car speeds over them. Still, this is how people get around in Georgia and there’s is something really handy about this terrifying form of transportation.
Poor infrastructure is also a potential hazard in cities; unmarked holes fill the sidewalks in Tbilisi and random wires and pipes jut out of walls. People with disabilities would have a difficult time of it.
Dogs in the villages are scary. These dogs are bred to protect livestock against predators. They are fierce and you should avoid them. If approached, pick up a rock and the dog will keep his distance.
Here’s what it comes down to: you could go on a package tour of Georgia, or figure out how to do it on your own using public transportation. I’m sure there are some super package tours available, but from my experience independent travel puts you smack dab in the center of the endearing culture of Georgia. Not going to lie—marshrutkas are scary but riding them allowed us to meet a variety of fascinating people (including a group of Russians who taught us to sing a Communist children’s song). My favorite part of Georgian public transportation is that apparently they make site-seeing stops. We’d met a Georgian photographer at a guest house who told me about a gorgeous church in a town called Nakipari, which is somewhere near the road from Mestia to Ushguli. “I’d like to visit” I told the photographer “but I don’t know how to get there”. “Just ask your driver to stop” he said, as if it were obvious. So I tried it—during our jeep ride up into the mountains of Svaneti I found a fellow passenger who spoke some English and said, cave woman style “Beautiful church–Nakipari–you tell driver–we stop.” Sure enough, the driver pulled over in front of a 12th century church and all the passengers jumped out and went inside to see this:
Did I tell you the marshutaka ride was worth it?