Turkey to Georgia Overland, Part 1

I flew to Ankara to start my overland travel across Asia. Ankara is the capital of Turkey. It rises dramatically on a steep incline from the banks of the Enguri Su River. It is Turkey’s second most populous city. Architecturally, the downtown area that I was in was as uninspiring as it gets.

I visited the castle and the Erimtan Archaeology and Art Museum. On display were some fine exhibits from the ancient Anatolians and the Sumerians. There were many cuneiform texts and tablets on display. Some of the seals were only as big as the little finger of a child.

Cooling Off Under The Fountain, Batumi
The Castle, Akhaltsikhe
Vardzia
Vardzia
Saparo Monastery, Akhaltsikhe

The bus station is miles from the centre, so I hopped on a bus to find out about buses to Safranbolu for the following day. It was 160 KM to Safranbolu and then I had to take a local bus to Safronbolu’s old town which is known as Çarşı. I booked a room in an old Ottoman house which was a little hot at this time of year. Çarşı has some wonderful Ottoman architecture: timber and adobe buildings with red-tiled roofs. The centre of the town is the old stone mosque and caravanserai (a road-side inn). The alleys meander from this point and are chock-a-block full of candy stores, cobblers, tea shops and restaurants etc.

Old Town, Tbilisi

I took an overnight bus to the port of Trabzon on the Black Sea coast. It is a major port with Russia and has a lot of Russian visitors. I spent a day taking in the few sights, in particular, the Byzantine churches.

On my second day, I took a dolmus (a shared taxi with a set route) to visit the Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Virgin Mary, better known as Sumela Monastery. It was built in the fourth century. Today was the first day in many years that Greeks were allowed to visit the monastery. They were here in the hundreds. I gave up on any notion of entering the monastery as ceremonies were taking place and there were long queues. Instead, I walked through the forests with superb views of the monastery. It’s in a superb setting, built into the sheer cliff face of the Mela Mountain.

Crossing the border into Georgia, my next stop was Batumi. This is the tourist capital of Georgia and its major port. The centre is undergoing major redevelopment with pedestrianised areas. As it was hot, folks were standing under the fountains to cool off. I went down to the pebbled beach for my first swim in the warm waters of the Black Sea.

I found out that I could travel by marshrutka (another type of shared mini-bus taxi) through the southern Caucus mountains to Akhaltsikhi. I left at 7:00 AM for a long day’s drive. Luckily, I was early and got the front seat. The scenery was superb as we wound our way through the mountains passing small hamlets and villages. Akhaltsikhe, meaning “new castle” in Georgian, was built in the 12th century. The bus stopped near the imposing castle.

After finding a place to stay, I went in search for food and found a small bar in a basement serving meals. I sat down and ordered what was on offer. Two Georgian couples were sitting at the table next to me and invited me to join them. I was given a shot of vodka. After a speech by one of the guys, we had to down the shot in one gulp. This was followed by a beer and another speech and my last gulp. Luckily, my food came. No way could I keep up with that pace!

I came to visit the Cave Monastery of Vardzia which dates from the twelfth century. It took an hour to reach the site in a dolmus. The site is in a picturesque valley through which the Kura River flows. The complex was carved and hewn out of the side of Erusheti Mountain. The caves traverse 500 metres along the cliff face and is complete with a church. The hermit cells are on nineteen levels, accessible by stone stairs. It was abandoned after the Ottoman takeover in the 16th Century.

In the morning I took a taxi to visit Sapara Monastery. It is situated on the edge of Akhaltsikhe in a beautiful setting surrounded by trees and with a superb view of the countryside. Upon arrival I could hear the choir singing and stayed to listen to some exquisite chanting. The driver waited until I had finished and took me back to town.

Traveling towards Tbilisi I stopped in Bonjourmi. It is famous for its mineral-rich spring water that is naturally carbonated and is bottled and sold in shops. If you have not acquired a taste for it, it takes some doing to drink a bottle in one go. I went into the attractive gardens where the spring is located, filled my bottle and drank. It is a strange taste to say the least.

After a pleasant stay in Bonjourmi I continued on to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. It has a population of approximately 1.5 million and lies on the banks of the Kura River. Tbilisi means “warm location.” With its central location between Asia and Europe and proximity to the Silk Roads, it has always been in the sights of the global powers. The city is also undergoing a renaissance, with the old centres being being revitalized with cafes, bars, hotels, and restaurants. Walking up to the castle gives commanding views of the city, a pleasant place to meander.

For the first time in Georgia I met some other travelers. The driver offered to stop at the various places of interest for an additional fee. We all agreed and headed along the military highway into the Mountains of Kazbegi. The military highway was built by German prisoners of war to connect Georgia with Russia. Very few Germans who built the road survived.

Military Highway

The first stop was at the Ananuri Fortress, consisting of both a church and fortress near the Aragi River. It was also the first of the many watch towers that I saw in that region. The road ascended into the mountains with some dramatic scenery. From the area of the Georgia-Russia Friendship Monument there are some superb panoramic views of the mountains. When I climbed higher into the mountains I could see several of the ancient watch towers that remain imposing over the landscape. The journey ended in the town of Kazbegi.

Watch Towers, Caucasus

My breakfast in the homestay had enough food for a whole day. I ate some and packed some for lunch and still had plenty. I set off hiking into the mountains, with the mountain of Kazbegi at 5047 metres always in view. I watched as a woman milked her cow and headed to the iconic Tsminda Sameba Church which was built in the 14th century at an elevation of 2200 metres and is one of the most remote churches to visit with a spectacular setting.

Tsminda Sameba Church