Friday, October 9, 2015

Georgia: An Overview

So, you want to go to Georgia, but aren't sure where to go? Now that we've covered a large swath of the country during our two visits there, we hope that this guide will help you get a feel for the country and figure out what areas might be of interest to you. Here goes!

Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo by Mitya Gimon, 2013.

Tbilisi and surrounding areas

You will most likely be flying into Tbilisi. This hilly city along the river, with its 5th century churches, elegantly decaying residences, and contemporary architecture, is definitely worth a few days' stay. You can wander through Old Town, hike up to the Narinkala Fortress and Mother of Georgia statue, visit the churches, wander along Rustaveli Avenue and the Marjanshvili neighborhood, visit the National Museum, catch a puppet show at the Gabriadze Theater, check out Georgian and Soviet antiques at the Dry Bridge Flea Market, walk around the Botanical Garden, and watch the sunset from the amusement park on top of the hill overlooking the city. You can also sample delicious Georgian food, from khinkali to khachapuri to achma to lavash to churchkhela, at restaurants and food stalls around the city.

See more on Tbilisi here.

The hike to Jvari Monastery, Mtskheta, Georgia. Photo by Mitya, 2013.

About 30 minutes west of Tbilisi lies a town called Mtskheta. It is home to the Jvari Monastery, a 6th century monastery perched on a rocky hilltop, overlooking the town and the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers. To truly appreciate the experience, we recommend hiking to the monastery from a drop-off point on the highway, which is what we did. Unfortunately, I can't remember the exact route we took and the directions we used were in Russian. Once I find more specific information for this hike, I will post it here.

View of Mkskheta from the Jvari Monastery. Photo by Mitya, 2013.
There is also a holy spring, but it is quite a hike down from the monastery and I don't recommend it if the weather is hot.

We took a cab down to Mtskheta afterwards and saw their police station, which looks a bit like a hobbit hole.

Mkskheta police station, Georgia. Photo by Mitya, 2013.

Gori is about 45 minutes from Tbilisi and is the birthplace and hometown of the most famous Georgian, Joseph Stalin. The first time we went to Georgia, Mitya's French friend who lives in Moscow asked us if we went to Gori. When we told her that we didn't go and that we had no interest in visiting Stalin's home, she threw a hissy fit.'s so incomprehensible that we wouldn't want to visit a museum dedicated to one of the most brutal dictators and mass murderers of the 20th century. Don't know who wouldn't want to do that!

View of the Uplistsikhe cave city. Photo by Mitya, 2015.

The second time we went to Georgia, we actually did go to Gori, but not to Stalin's house. Our friend Vika, who lives in Tbilisi, took us to the Uplistsikhe Cave city outside of Gori. Parts of Uplistsikhe date from 1000 BC, and the town was inhabited up until the 13th century. It experienced two heydays: one prior to the Christianization of Georgia in the 4th century (then known as the kingdom of Kartli) and the second during the 8th and 9th centuries. Uplistsikhe is divided into a lower, middle, and upper level, and you access the middle and upper levels through a steep tunnel carved into the rock. Once you emerge from the tunnel, you can walk around the cave town, where you'll find a 10th century basilica perched above cave homes, Queen Tamar's Hall, a pharmacy, bakery, prison, amphitheater, and winery. There are also some pretty birds with pink heads and spotted wings that live here.

There is also a 4th century church outside of Gori, directly south of the Uplistsikhe.
Mitya and Vika by the 4th century church in Gori. Photo by Michelle, 2015.

Another cave structure that's an easy day trip from Tbilisi is the Davit Gareja monastery on the Georgian-Azerbaijani border. Founded in the 6th century, Davit Gareja is situated on the slopes of Mount Gareja. The complex includes hundreds of cave cells, churches, chapels, refectories, and living quarters. You can take a walk from the main complex around the side of the mountain, where you can see Azerbaijan (and occasionally cross inadvertently into Azerbaijan, as we did) and explore more cave structures. We saw several impressive frescoes here, including one of the Last Supper.

Unfortunately, I seem to have lost our photos from Davit Gareja, but if I do find them, I will post one here!


If you've seen breathtaking photos of a church on a hill against the backdrop of a snowy mountain range, it's likely that you've seen the Tsminda Sameba church in Kazbegi. Directly north of Tbilisi on the Georgian Military Highway, on the border with Russia, Kazbegi is accessible as a day trip from the capital, but we recommend staying there overnight for the full experience. Most tourists will walk from Kazbegi town up to the church and then go back down again and head back to Tbilisi the same day. I don't recommend hiking up to the church from the town because it's quite unpleasant. You share the same road as the cars, and the road is unpaved and full of ruts and holes so the cars are going all over the road at high speeds trying to avoid the holes. Also, if you hike up to the church you will likely be so tired that you won't want to hike anymore, and you will need to hike more if you want to see the views of Tsminda Sameba that you've seen in the photos.

Tsminda Sameba Church, Kazbegi, Georgia. Photo by Mitya, 2013.

We recommend taking a tent and sleeping bags, taking a car up to the church, exploring the church, and then hiking to the Gergeti Glacier. The glacier is about a 4-5 hour hike from the church, so you can either stop to camp on the way there, or on the way back, depending on time. We actually didn't see the glacier because we needed to make it back to the town before it got dark (which is why we recommend camping, as the accommodation and food options in Kazbegi are not impressive). The hike is HARD, but after I did this hike, I felt like I could do anything! We went to San Francisco a few weeks after this, and I was walking up and down the hills like it was nothing.


I've already sung my praises for this mountain region here and here, but in short, if you want to really see Svaneti, you should either rent a car and explore villages around Mestia and spend a night or two in Ushguli. You can also hike from Mestia to Ushguli and stay in villages in between those two places (it's a 4-day hike).

Batumi and the coast

Morning life in old Batumi, Georgia. Photo by Mitya, 2015.
Before the conflict, Abkhazia was the place to go in Georgia if you wanted to see the coast. I haven't been there, but Mitya's parents, grandparents, aunt, and Russian friends all told us it was beautiful. However, since the U.S. and many European countries don't recognize Abkhazia, citizens of these countries would not have any diplomatic protection were something to happen to you while you were there, so it's not recommended to go there.

Fishing in the park, Batumi. Photo by Mitya, 2015.

Nowadays, people flock to Batumi. We were worried that it would be an overcrowded, touristy resort area like Cancun, so we didn't go there during our first visit. On our second visit, though,with two open days between Svaneti and returning to Tbilisi/leaving for Armenia, we decided to check it out. Batumi was actually a pleasant surprise. While there are elements of the city bordering on Vegas and Dubai (not a positive sign, in our opinion), there are also several nice areas and lots of open spaces. Old Batumi, for example, is a nice neighborhood, with an open square and old architecture. We also walked to a pleasant park. And Batumi is also home to several contemporary architecture structures (another sign of Saakashvili's legacy). The city is also very flat, so it's nice for cycling. We rented bikes and rode to the beach, which was surprisingly uncrowded. In fact, we were the only people on the beach when we went there! More people came later, but not the hordes that we were expecting. We were told later that the busy season is actually in July (we were there in mid-June). Just a warning, though: it's a pebble beach!

Pebble beach in Batumi, Georgia. Photo by Mitya, 2015.
One last note about this region: Batumi is located in the Adjara region of Georgia, which is home to Adjarian khachapuri, which I love. So it was quite ironic that I wasn't able to eat Adjarian khachapuri when I was in Adjara!


Kakheti, Georgia's wine region, is in the southeast part of the country, and is famous for its excellent wines. Georgian wine is still relatively undiscovered for Americans, but Russians have known about this well-kept secret for a long time. Kindzmarauli is perhaps the most well-known Georgian wine. We spent a night in the valley, visited Telavi (we had heard rave reviews about its market, but I found it hot, stuffy, with a disturbing amount of flies and the smell of dead meat everywhere), and stayed in Signaghi for another 3 days. We visited several wineries in the area, as well as the Davit Gareja monastery. There are also several old women who sell hand-knit items on the streets of Signaghi; we bought a pair of socks, a hat, and baby booties for my friend from them. The town is on a hill and you have some pretty spectacular views of the valley below.

Cat sleeping in vineyard, Kakheti, Georgia. Photo by Mitya, 2013.

There are some other regions of Georgia that we haven't visited yet, but are interested in, such as Tusheti (north of Kakheti, and similar to Svaneti in its remoteness and unique folk culture) and Borjomi (a mineral springs resort in southern Georgia). It's a big country, and there are many things to do there. I hope this guide is a good start for your trip to Georgia!

Getting there: There are direct flights between Moscow and Tbilisi daily. The flight is about 2.5 hours long and average price is $250 for a round-trip ticket.

There are no direct flights from the US to Georgia, but many flights have a layover in Europe. We were told that you can find extremely cheap (50 euros or less) tickets from Vilnius, Lithuania, to Kutaisi, Georgia. They have a shuttle at the airport that will take you to Tbilisi.

Language: If you know Georgian or Russian, it will be a huge plus. Georgia was part of the former USSR, so Russian language education was compulsory. Everyone over the age of 30 is fluent in Russian. Mitya believes that even someone with a high beginner/low intermediate level in Russian (i.e., my level) would be able to get around Georgia using Russian.

Most people who work in the service industry in Tbilisi will speak English. We also spoke to a few tourists who were trying to get around using English. One told us you could get around using only English in Tbilisi, but that it was harder in other parts of Georgia. Another tourist we met in Armenia told us he believed you could get around Georgia okay with English, but that it was much harder in Armenia.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Tbilisi: A City of Contrasts

View through the Bridge of Peace, Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo by Mitya Gimon, 2015.
The morning before we were about to leave for Tbilisi, Mitya woke me up with the following news: that there had been a huge flood in Tbilisi the night before, and that because of the flood, many of the cages in the zoo had broken and a bunch of animals - including lions, tigers, and a hippo - had escaped! People were being told to stay in their homes while the police and military searched for the escaped animals, and we saw photos of various animals, including the hippo, being captured.

Our friend Vika, who lives in Tbilisi, told us that it would be safe and that the flood didn't affect the Old Town, so the next day, we hopped on a plane in Moscow and landed in Tbilisi. This was our second visit to Tbilisi and to Georgia, and it was great to be back, in spite of the unfortunate circumstances (the flood destroying part of the town, zoo animals mauling people).

One of the first things you may notice on a walk around Tbilisi are the grapevines dangling from almost every window and balcony in the city. Because the city is so far south (at least, compared to Moscow and many cities in the Soviet Union), the climate is very conducive to fruit cultivation.

Grapevine on balcony in Old Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo by Mitya Gimon, 2015.

You will also find many fruit trees, from pomegranates to apricots to figs.

Pomegranate tree in Tbilisi. Photo by Mitya, 2015.
Loquat tree in Tbilisi. Photo by Mitya, 2015.

And it's impossible not to notice Tbilisi's state of elegant decay. I think it beats Rome on that count! The best area to see this is in the maze-like, hilly streets of Old Tbilisi.

Crumbling facade of an apartment building in Old Tbilisi. Photo by Mitya, 2015

We have a favorite small park and lavash (Georgian bread) place in Old Tbilisi. Surprisingly, there are few tourists there. At all hours, you can see men playing checkers or chess and children running around. On hot days, birds will perch on top of the umbrella statue/fountain and drink from it.

Small park in Old Tbilisi, Georgia. Taken on film by Michelle

Another architectural point of interest you may notice are the churches. Georgia's churches are quite old, as it was the second country to convert to Christianity, in the 4th century. (The first country to convert to Christianity was Armenia.) The style of most churches you will see in Tbilisi and the rest of the country was developed during the 9th century, and is known as the "Georgian cross-dome style", consisting of a cone-shaped dome raised on a drum over a rectangular or cross-shaped lower structure.

Typical church architecture of Tbilisi. Photo by Mitya, 2015.

As we mentioned earlier, former president Saakashvili was a huge proponent of contemporary architecture, and he had several cutting-edge architectural structures built in Tbilisi and all across the country. In Tbilisi, you can find the bow-shaped Bridge of Peace, which leads to Rike Park (which has its own contemporary concert and exhibition hall); the Presidential Palace; and the Georgian Public Service Hall, to name a few. This pastiche of new and old architecture is why I call Tbilisi a "city of contrasts."

The Bridge of Peace in Tbilisi. Photo by Michelle
Georgia Public Service Hall in Tbilisi, designed by architects Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas. Photo by Mitya Gimon, 2013
The Presidential Palace and Concert Hall, Rike Park, Tbilisi. Photo by Mitya Gimon, 2015

If you are wandering around Old Tbilisi and hike up to the Narinkala Fortress, you are likely to run into several cute kittens and cats.
Cats in old Tbilisi. Photo by Mitya Gimon, 2013

And there are still cats, 2 years later! Photo by Mitya, 2015.

The Narinkala Fortress in Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo by Mitya Gimon, 2013.

We also hiked up to this church on the hill, in the middle of the photo below. It's east of the Narinkala Fortress. You can also get a nice view of Tbilisi from here.

Tbilisi and the Kura river. We hiked up to the church on the hill in the middle of this photo. Photo by Mitya Gimon, 2015.

View of Tbilisi from the church. Photo by Mitya Gimon, 2013.

You can catch a nice sunset from the amusement park on the hill, west of the Narinkala Fortress.

Sunset view in amusement park in Tbilisi. Photo by Mitya, 2013.
Another sunset view of Tbilisi. Photo by Mitya, 2013.

Strolling down Rustaveli Avenue, you can check out the works of Georgian folk artist Nikos Pirosmani and other Georgian artists at the Georgian National Museum.

You can go off the beaten path and explore the Marjanshvili neighborhood on the other side of the Kura River.

Marjanshvili neighborhood. There were NO tourists here, except for us. Photo by Mitya, 2015.
Park installation in Marjanshvili. Photo by Mitya, 2015.

And you can end your evening by watching a puppet show at the Gabriadze Theater. (I recommend Ramona, which we saw during our first visit, over The Autumn of my Spring.) If you know Russian, the Russian dubbing of his plays is much more accurate than the English subtitles.  Mitya's grandparents actually ran into Gabriadze in the late 1970s when they were traveling in the Georgian S.S.R., and he told them very excitedly about the new puppet theater he was building. He invited them to come when the theater would be built. So a few years later, when they were in Georgia again, they came to the newly built Gabriadze Theater, told the people at the ticket office that Gabriadze had invited them, and they were seated - on the house!

Tbilisi is also beautiful at night, when they light up the fortress, churches, and all the monuments. A stroll in the night, either before or after dinner, is a perfect way to end the day.

Honorable mentions:
- The Botanical Garden in Tbilisi - one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world. It's beautiful and wild.
- Dry Bridge Flea Market - like all flea markets catering to tourists, it can be pricey, but you can find deals on some gems.

Tbilisi at night. Photo by Mitya, 2015.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

In the Land of the Svans, Part 2

Sunset on one of the four villages of Ushguli. Photo taken on film by Michelle
Lying at the end of a long, bumpy, unpaved road from Mestia is the village of Ushguli. Actually, Ushguli is comprised of four villages: Zhibiani, Chvibiani, Chazhashi, and Murqmeli. The villages lie at the foot of Georgia's highest mountain, Mount Shkhara, and at 2200 meters (7,217 feet) above sea level, Ushguli is Europe's highest inhabited village. (However, having been at elevations of 15,000 feet above sea level earlier this year, during our trip to Parque Nacionale Lauca in Chile, we weren't too phased by the elevation.)

A visit to Ushguli is definitely recommended if you're in Svaneti. There are a few ways to see Ushguli. The most popular is to do it as a day trip from Mestia. You would leave in a van with people from your guesthouse at around 9 am, get into Ushguli at 12 pm, and then have 4 hours to wander around before getting back on the bus at 4 pm. I would not recommend this, as you would practically be rushing around trying to see everything in this time frame. You may not think there's a lot to see in a small mountain village (or four), but everyone on our bus was running to and from the sites, trying to see everything in that small time frame.

The other ways to see and get to Ushguli are:

1) Take a van from your guesthouse, but stay there overnight and find a ride the next day (or however long you want to stay there). This is what we did. We had a lovely time and we really enjoyed our hosts and our guesthouse experience. We were also able to explore the mountain and the villages at our own pace, without feeling pressed for time. The only downside was that the ride back to Mestia was pretty expensive!

2) Hike from Mestia to Ushguli and camp and/or stay in guesthouses in villages along the way. This is what the folks from Uncornered Market did. We also spoke with a guy from India who had just finished hiking to Ushguli from Mestia and stayed in guesthouses along the way. The hike takes 4 days. If you like camping, hiking, and have time, I think this is a great and unique way to see this region. You would also explore lots of villages that people who go on day trips and people like us bypass. As with option 1, though, you would have the issue of finding transportation back to Mestia.

3) Cycle or ride your motorbike/4x4 car to Ushguli. (We would not recommend taking a regular car as there are some parts of the road that a regular car would not be able to pass.) We did pass two men who were cycling to Ushguli. Our van driver snickered at them and said in Russian, "Good luck cycling to Ushguli!" But we saw them in the cafe in Ushguli later in the afternoon. We also saw two people on motorbikes coming in as well. So these options are definitely doable and you wouldn't be reliant on anyone for transportation. You would also have the advantage of exploring Ushguli at your own pace.

So, what did we do there? Well, after dropping our bags off at our guesthouse, we walked through the villages towards Mount Shkhara. It's a beautiful walk, and you are rewarded with majestic views of the mountains, pretty flowers, and grazing cows. Very bucolic.

Cows on mountainside by Mt. Shkhara, Usguli, Svaneti, Georgia. Taken on film by Michelle
Orange poppies, daisies, and wildflowers on the trail to Mt. Shkhara. Photo by Mitya

Bird on hillside, against backdrop of Svan tower and mountains. Photo taken by Mitya
Cows grazing on the mountainside. Photo by Mitya
After about an hour or so on this trail, you are rewarded with this beautiful view:

Panorama of Mt. Shkhara and Caucasus Mountain range. Photo by Mitya
We ran into the people in our van on this trail, and they were all running back to catch the van. No stopping to smell the roses for them!

You can keep hiking on this trail for another few hours, but we decided to turn back and visit the villages.

I love the detail of the stones in this photo. Taken by Mitya
Two of the four villages of Ushguli. Photo by Mitya
Cow grazing by a Svan Tower. Photo by Mitya
Teaching Svan children how to ride a horse in Ushguli. Photo by Mitya
Sunset in Ushguli. Photo by Mitya

While we were walking around, a cow started to approach me. I froze up, not knowing what to do, and then, it licked my camera lens!

Once the sun set, we came back to our guesthouse and were treated to a huge dinner by our host, which included khachapuri (a Georgian cheese pie). They had some very cool midcentury modern furniture, and I loved how they stored their books:

Georgian books at the guesthouse of Nina Nijaradze, Ushguli. Photo by Michelle
 In the morning, we were treated again to a large and generous meal for breakfast. We were told by the hotel owner's son that his grandmother made the cheese!

Our breakfast at the guesthouse of Nina Nijaradze. Photo by Mitya
The neighbor of the family we stayed with also owns a Svan tower, so we were given a tour of it as well!

Svan tower we visited, Ushguli. Photo by Michelle.
The day before, we spoke to the owner of the Ethnography museum, who encouraged us to come inside. We told him we would come back the next day, although now I regret not going in when the owner was there, because the man who opened up the museum for us the next day was quite grouchy and didn't even try to explain what the various objects in the museum were. Oh, well.

Before heading back to Mestia, we took one last walk around the village, and saw this:

Svan child on horse, Ushguli. Photo by Mitya
Overall, we had a great stay in Ushguli and I would highly recommend anyone coming here to stay at least one night. If you'd like to stay at the same guesthouse where we stayed, our host's name is Nina Nijaradze and their phone number is +995595854749. He speaks Russian fluently and his son speaks some English. We paid 50 GEL (approximately $25 USD) for a one night stay, including meals.

Related posts:
In the Land of the Svans, Part 1
The Road to Svaneti

Useful resources:
Uncornered Market blog
WikiTravel on Ushguli
WikiTravel on Svaneti (has details about hikes in the region as well as the hike from Mestia to Ushguli)

Monday, August 31, 2015

In the Land of the Svans, Part 1

Mestia, the regional capital of Svaneti. Photo by Mitya

"When I was a kid, my mom always told me not to go to Svaneti. It's too dangerous there!, she said. And now, it's become the most popular tourist destination in Georgia! And this Ushguli - everyone goes to Ushguli now. I never heard about it growing up!"

This is what our friend Natasha (who grew up in Tbilisi and moved to Moscow in the late 90s) said to us when we told her about our most recent trip to Georgia. Many places in the world have changed since the late 1990s, though, and Svaneti is among them. The execution of the main robber baron in 2004 brought the crime rate down and made it safe for tourists to travel there. And in 2012, the current Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili had the road to Mestia (Svaneti's regional capital) paved, which reduced the travel time from 8 to 3 hours from Zugdidi.

That being said, I wouldn't say that Svaneti (or Georgia in general) is crawling with tourists. They're definitely there, but it doesn't approach anything you see in parts of Western Europe, Croatia, or Prague. So you can still come here and feel like you are discovering something new.

Svan child learning how to ride in Ushguli, taken on film by Michelle

Svaneti is situated in northeast Georgia, in the Caucasus mountains. The people who live there, also known as Svans, are believed by some to be descended from Sumerian slaves, and were once a fierce warrior culture. This is still visible in the Svans' reliance on horses today. The Svans have their own unwritten language (aptly called Svan), and because of the region's geographic isolation, they were able to preserve many of their traditions. They built towers in their villages to protect themselves from invasion and avalanches. The towers still exist today, some in good shape, others, in ruins.

Last time, we discussed how to get to Svaneti. Now, we will talk about what to do while you're there. The typical tourist itinerary would be to stay in Mestia for a few days and take a day trip to Ushguli. Your host would probably suggest that you take one of two hikes in Mestia (one is a grueling, all-day affair to a glacier, the other is a less grueling, 2-3 hour affair to another glacier), take the ski lift to the top of one of the mountains, and go to the Ethnographic Museum in Mestia. Then, on another day, you would be schlepped in a van with 6-8 other people for a long, bumpy, 3 hour ride to Ushguli. You would then have 4 hours to see this UNESCO World Heritage site before you would be loaded back onto the bus for the bumpy 3 hour ride back to Mestia. (You may think that 4 hours is enough time to see a small mountain village, but trust me, the people with whom we shared the van were practically running to see all the sights and make it back to the bus by 4 pm.)

Mestia airport. Flights are frequently canceled because of the winds. Photo by Mitya

And you may be happy with this itinerary, but the truth is, if the only places you've been to in Svaneti are Mestia and a 4-hour jaunt to Ushguli, you are seriously missing out. First of all, get out of Mestia. It is where you will probably stay a night or two, and it's home to some great postmodern architecture (such as the police station and the airport; another legacy of Saakashvili), but seriously, if you're going to Svaneti and you want to see authentic village life, you ain't gonna find it in the big city. Even if the big city has only a population of 14,000 people.

Hike to the glacier. Photo by Mitya

Here's what we did:

1) Took a hike (literally) to one of the glaciers. Yes, this is part of the typical tourist itinerary, but Svaneti is known just as well for its spectacular nature as it is for its preserved ancient traditions. We did the 2-3 hour hike because we wanted to visit villages in the afternoon.

Village off the main road, near Mestia. Photo by Michelle

Cows grazing at the entrance to Mazeri, Svaneti, Georgia. Taken by Mitya.

2) Explored some villages that were off the main road. This is where our previous suggestion to rent a car comes in handy.  We stopped in a few small villages off the road on the way to Mestia, and then we turned off onto a dirt road that led to the village of Mazeri. (There are also several small villages on the way here.) We saw a total of five tourists, a well-heeled mother walking on a dirt path with her children, an old man in a Svan hat, and a group of children playing cards, with the mountains in the backdrop.

Children in Mazeri playing cards. Photo by Mitya

We also saw stone houses that were most likely several centuries old, as well as a few Svan towers in ruins. We also saw pigs rolling in the mud, cows, horses, and a beautiful flower-filled meadow in front of the Caucasus mountains.

Pigs having a good time in Mazeri, Svaneti, Georgia. Photo by Mitya

Afternoon stroll in Mazeri. Photo by Mitya

A meadow filled with flowers just outside of Mazeri. Photo by Michelle

After Mazeri, we got back onto the main road and then took another turn down a dirt path that took us to the bottom of the valley, then up to the mountains on the other side. We wound up in what I believe is the village of Svipi. Now, Mazeri, while off the beaten path, is listed in Lonely Planet, so it does get some tourists (all seven of us the day we were there). Svipi, however, was not mentioned at all.

Cows hanging out in front of a house in Svipi, Georgia. Photo by Mitya

When we came to the village, we noticed that the main hangout in town was a small wooden shed to the right of the abandoned house in the above photo. A group of Svan men invited us in to eat (they had vegetables that looked like overgrown bean sprouts) and drink raki (homemade alcohol). (I faked it.) There was also a pool of mineral water in the shed; we were invited to drink some from the cup that was dangling over it by a chain. They were very excited and curious about us, as I'm sure many tourists simply bypass this village.  They called their children over so we could take pictures of them, and debated among themselves whether they should allow us to take pictures of themselves (ultimate verdict: no).  One man also invited us to stay at his house for the night, but since we already had accommodation, we declined.

The local watering hole in Svipi. Photo by Mitya

Svan children in Svipi, Georgia. Photo by Mitya

Mountaintop seen through the window of an abandoned house in Svipi, Georgia. Photo by Mitya

We also talked to another man who told us that he was born in the village, but then moved and lived in Sokhumi (in Abkhazia) for 40 years and then, presumably due to the conflict, moved back here a few years ago. And, when we were about to leave, I saw a Svan man riding a horse through the village! Unfortunately, I didn't catch it on camera. If you're in Svaneti, I strongly encourage you to think outside the box and go outside of Mestia while you're there!

Next time: Ushguli!