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The most popular destination in the Caucasus
Tbilisi (Georgia), May 14th 2014

You wouldn’t probably expect it, but Georgia is nowadays a popular holiday destination for the more adventurous traveller. Especially people from Poland and Israel have discovered Georgia as a beautiful destination with great potential. From Poland, there are even daily budget flights, which means that most Poles can fly up and down to Georgia for less than a hundred Euros. And that's a great deal for this Caucasian destination. In addition, most western nationalities do not need a visa anymore for this mountainous Caucasus country, which means that the formalities are kept to a minimum. Georgia wants to be a popular holiday destination and it makes good progress. However, we came overland from Armenia and our first main conclusion was that Georgia looks much more developed than its smaller southern neighbour.

Georgia has left most of its visible Soviet past behind, this in contrast to for example Armenia, in where the Soviet past is still very visible. Slowly but surely, all visible "Soviet relics" are disappearing from the streets. Russian-made cars are becoming rarer and also the small kiosks that used to be present on every street corner of the Soviet Union, are making way for more modern shops. But they are still there, especially in the suburbs of the cities, where you can also still see the typical dilapidated Soviet apartment buildings. About ten years ago, the country was still to a large extent run by criminal gangs and large parts of Georgia were unsafe because of the risk of robbery and kidnapping. The government was ineffective due to a gigantic level of corruption. But lots has changed. Large-scale and profound reforms have gotten the country back on track, and many criminal organizations have disappeared because it became too hot under their feet. But those dark days are history; nowadays Georgia is a safe travel destination.

The beautifully located Tsminda Sameba Church in Kazbegi

Some destinations in Georgia are immensely popular and are visited by almost every traveller. That means these destinations can be busy, especially in the high season; think of Kazbegi, Mestia and the Black Sea coast. But there are also many beautiful destinations that are further away from the tourist trail, making it relatively easy to circumvent the tour groups. A special destination in Georgia and worthwhile mentioning it, is the Stalin Museum in the city of Gori. Joseph Stalin was Georgian, a fact that seems to blind many people of Gori for the horrific things the former Soviet leader has committed during his rule. People prefer to see him as one of the key figures that led to the downfall of Nazi Germany. The Stalin Museum in Gori is primarily a tribute to the man who (also) has been responsible for millions of deaths during his regime, but the museum spends little space on this part of his rule. But they have enough space in the building to run a souvenir shop where you can buy all sorts of Stalin knickknacks, from Stalin wine and lighters, to mugs bearing the effigy of former Soviet ruler.

Stalin wine and thermos bottles for sale in the Stalin Museum in Gori

For most people, the high Caucasian mountains are the main reason to visit Georgia. The highest mountain in Georgia is Mount Kazbek (5047 m), and together with its slightly lower siblings they provide an extremely spectacular scenery in the north of the country. The highest peaks of the mountain ranges define the natural separation between the northern part of the Caucasus (Russian territory), and the three typical South Caucasian countries: Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. However, most areas in the high part of the Caucasus are inaccessible from late autumn to early spring. Large amounts of snow block the higher passes which means that spectacular areas like Khevsureti and Tusheti are not accessible. The government is trying to keep the roads to the most popular tourist destinations open, which means that the Kazbek and Svaneti regions are accessible year round.

However, we have tried to reach the Khevsureti area early May. And despite the fact that the road was officially open (snow disappeared on the Datvis-Jvari pass), we had to cancel the trip. The bumpy dirt road takes you through extremely sharp hairpin bends to a pass of 2876 meters, but due to recent heavy rains, the ride was discouraged by local people. The rain caused not only a muddy and slippery path, but also an increased risk of landslides. The dirt road to Tusheti, the other spectacular area, which goes over a pass of around 2900 meters, usually opens in mid-June. But we are not going to wait for that. It is a good reason to come back; perhaps this autumn, after our visit to central Asia.

Collecting wood with horse and cart
A petrol station from the Soviet era
The old fashioned way of keeping animals
Sighnagi village with the High Caucasus in the background
Great home made food in a home stay in Lagodekhi

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