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An unexpected change of plans
Sighnaghi (Georgia) to Tbilisi (Georgia), May 2014

We got to know Georgia as a wonderful and beautiful destination. The limited size of this country in the Caucasus makes it possible to traverse the entire country in a long travel day. We ended up visiting almost every corner of Georgia and must admit that the high mountains in the north, have made the most impression on us. The regions around Mestia (Svaneti) and Kazbegi are wonderfully beautiful, but the remote and ancient villages of Shatili and Mutso, on the border with Chechnya, have really stolen our hearts (see also the photo impression about Shatili and Mutso). We were not able to visit the region of Tusheti (around the village of Omalo) due to bad weather, but we see that as a good reason to come back to Georgia somewhere in the future.

You won’t see many tourists in Georgia yet, despite the fact that the country is doing everything to attract foreign travellers (e.g. visa free regime for many nationalities). Of all the tourists that you see, most are from Poland, Israel and Russia, where the Russians have particular interest in the beaches of the Black Sea coast. Polish travellers told us that Georgia is very interesting for them because of the budget airline Whizzair, offering ridiculously low prices for flights to Georgia from Warsaw and Katowice.

Georgia's most beautiful village: Shatili

We have spent a week in the capital Tbilisi where we had to wait for our Kazakh visa. Eventually everything went well and we made the drive over the Military Highway to Kazbegi for the second time. However, this time we're not going to explore this lovely area but we want to cross the border into Russia on our way to Central Asia. The border crossing near Kazbegi is the only land connection between Georgia and Russia at the time. The relations between the two countries are still fragile, because of the short war that has raged in 2008, because of the breakaway (Georgian) region of Abkhazia (supported by Russia). But the situation has tempered somewhat, with the result that the Kazbegi border has also been opened for foreign travellers in 2012.

But during the ride on the Military Highway in the direction of the border, we were surprised that it was so quiet. Normally, this road is busy because of the many truck traffic between the two countries. We were regularly passed by police cars with high speed and flashing lights, also driving into the direction of Kazbegi. As we enter the village of Kazbegi, the last village before the border, we notice that something is wrong. We were here also a few weeks ago, and at that time there was no large presence of soldiers and police. "Russia has invaded Georgia again" we joke together. But it was not long before we were told the truth about what happened. Part of a mountain had collapsed with the result that the Dariali Gorge, which is the way to Russia, is blocked by a huge amount of mud and rocks. And the scary thing is that it just happened a couple of hours ago.

We then drove to the guesthouse where we also stayed the previous time to get more information about the situation. The lady of the house tells us that the catastrophe occurred a few hours ago. The next morning we hear on the news that seven fatalities have already been recovered, mostly truck drivers who were at the wrong time in the wrong place. While watching the TV, a helicopter arrives in Kazbegi with the Georgian president, to judge the situation in person. This is a serious incident. Of course, we hated the fact that the border just closed a few hours before we arrived, but we also fully realized that it could have ended very differently for us if we had decided to cross the border earlier that day. The initial predictions reported in the media was that the border is probably closed for at least two weeks, to recover the victims, to clean up debris, and to repair the infrastructure. The gas pipeline between Russia and Armenia is also destroyed and the high voltage line that runs through the same gorge isn’t there anymore either. We decided to drive back to the lowlands of Georgia to visit a few things that we had missed.

Landslide tunnels on the Military Highway on our way to the Russian border

We regularly kept an eye on the news to hear if there were any developments. After the first two weeks, the road wasn’t open yet. We were told that we still had to count on at least ten days more. When we were back in the capital Tbilisi more than a week later, and the disaster had occurred three weeks earlier, there was still no target date regarding the reopening of the border post. "It is going to last at least a week or two more before the crossing opens again” is what we kept hearing. Through the internet we understood from other travellers that some of them were considering the border crossing between Azerbaijan and Russia (via Dagestan). But for us that is no option, because it is simply too dangerous for western people to travel through Dagestan at the moment.

After much thinking and talking, supported by many beers, more wines and a sporadic chachar (local vodka), we decided to turn around and cancel the trip to Central Asia. We were tired of waiting and since it didn’t look like the border crossing would be reopened within a few days, we decided to make new plans. We spent six weeks in Georgia and now it was time to move on again. Our new goal is the Balkans, where we still want to see lots of things. And with regard to Central Asia, the plans are back in the refrigerator and definitely did not end up in the trash can.

Centuries old defensive towers in Svaneti
Work to do: clearing a landslide by hand on the way back from Shatili
The picturesque Sno Valley near the village of Juta
Waiting for the landslide to be cleared
The Prometheus Caves near Kutaisi
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