When I Googled “Georgia” the first links to come up were for peach festivals and gambling in Atlanta. But I was going to the Republic of Georgia, not the state, and a lot farther away.
Russia, the Ukraine, Chechnya, Azerbaijan, and Turkey border Georgia—and they’re all political hot spots. With Russia threatening Georgia again, having already launched a large-scale land, air and sea invasion of Georgia in 2008, we felt, as Americans, we’d better get our asses over there before it became off-limits. As it is, a part of Georgia—South Ossetia, also known as the Tskhinvali Region—is a partially-recognized state in the Caucasus. The Lonely Planet guide states this region “has a reputation for lawlessness” and warns “avoid taking transport in the area with no other passengers.” Adventure is appealing but getting kidnapped, robbed, or worse—is not on my bucket list.
How did Georgia get to be on our travel radar, despite these issues? Four years ago, Jordan and I were wandering around Albania—another country with a sketchy background and nary a tourist in sight. In the lobby of a gangster-funded hotel in a small rocky beach town on the Ionian coast, our eyes locked with those of another couple across the empty room. All of us were shocked—foreigners! English-speaking, perhaps? We gravitated toward each other and started yakking up a storm. They were as starved for stimulating conversation as we were. She was from Kosovo and worked for the United Nations and he was German secret police. Actually, not so secret, it turned out, as he told amazing tales of dangerous derring-do all around the Balkans and Caucasus (that’s how we knew it was a gangster-funded hotel).
We sat down to breakfast, chugging espressos and sharing stories. The German, with startling blue eyes and a travel enthusiasm that was on par with ours, said, “If you like Albania, you will love Georgia!” His recommendation stuck in our heads like a burr in a sock.
Now we’re on a Lufthansa flight to Tbilisi—the capital of the Republic of Georgia—for some long-awaited vagabonding. Ever on the lookout for obscure destinations, we expanded our itinerary to include Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, which are close by.
Most Americans who travel to these places—and there aren’t many—go on an expensive tour. Fortunately my partner and I have the same inclination as each other: spend less and travel for a longer time. Avoid tourists if possible. Use public transport. Stay in inexpensive hostels and guesthouses. But how to plan it? Nobody we knew had done this.
The Lonely Planet Guidebook for Georgia & Armenia was very helpful, especially in detailing how to get around on public transport. We shall be traveling in marshrutkas—public mini-vans that travel all over these countries and are super-cheap.
Because I don’t want to spend a day wandering around a mountain village looking for a comfortable place to stay after riding in a van, bus or train for 3-9 hours, I booked guesthouses on Airbnb and hunted down lodging leads and reviews through Trip Advisor.
My criteria were:
- How quickly does the host respond, and are they friendly and informative?
- Do they communicate in English (the responses in broken English are adorable. I will quote some below). Russian is the 2nd language in these countries and one I don’t speak, though I’ve been studying it a tad to enhance my hand gestures and use of eyebrows and primitive sketches to communicate all manner of messages or questions.
- Are there reviews from past guests? These are very helpful and can include information about rooms, quality of meals served, cleanliness… etc.
- What is the price? Our budget is $15-$30 a night for two people for a private room and usually a shared bath, though the full apartments in the cities of Yerevan and Tibilisi have giant Jacuzzi tubs, washing machines, balconies, and cost $35 night.
- Do they offer meals, and what is the cost? Georgian & Armenian food is supposed to be spectacular and home-cooked meals at the guesthouses are standard and usually result in rave reviews. Many places in the southeast even have wine cellars and make their own wines, which they serve to guests. Fortunately, we will be hiking everywhere so I won’t look like a pork chop when I return.
- Do they have a fully refundable cancellation fee (usually within 24 hours notice)? I need this in case we get waylaid. Flexibility is important. I haven’t cancelled reservations yet (even when visiting Cuba, Albania, and Morocco) but I like the option.
- Do they post photos that show the beds and living spaces? You will be surprised how many show you the surrounding countryside but not your accommodations. Or a nice close-up of the toilet but none of the bedrooms. Weird!
- Do they have pets? (I’m allergic to dogs.)
- If they are in the countryside, how far a walk is it to sights and the town?
- I usually ask for a top floor room with lots of light if possible.
- Wi-Fi is nice as I contact the places we are heading next and bring my iPad mini 4 to do this. Most places have Wi-Fi even in remote villages.
- If the place has lots of beds, hostel style, I worry about partying students and hiking groups. Those Balkan boys can drink and get loud. They don’t seem to need to sleep—just party till the cows come home.
- Will the guesthouse owner meet you at the public transport stop?
You get the drift—there is a reason folks go on tours where everything is figured out ahead of time. But I enjoy contacting people and researching my trips, because I learn so much in the process and get to form a relationship with the locals before I even get there. Here is an example of some of the confirmation emails I’ve received that warm my heart:
“Dear Lisa, Nice to hear you, its very pleasant to know the reason of your traveling. You can stay in our gest house, in this days room with view is free so i can book it for u. The breakfest is inclueded and tea& coffe any time. You will pay 21$ for room for the night. Also I can give you information at places you should to visit. also where you can spend evenings, bars with live music, with great musicians. most of them are my friends. Kutaisi is very cultural city so you will enjoy here. Tamo” (Airbnb in Kutaisi, Georgia)
“Hello dear Lisa, I’m very pleased that you have chosen my apartment. I will wait for you with impatience. Mихаил” (Airbnb in Yerevan, Armenia)
And here is one from Saro Saryan in Shushi, Nagorno-Karabakh:
“Dear Mrs Alpine, excuse me that I am late with unsver! Of course, I have the room that you asking me. And we are waiting you in time you stressed in you messenge to me. Hope, we will hove time for present us to each urtherv more. And you will have one of the quietest time in your life. So, waiting your with your husband with all my family. —All yours, Saro!” (I found his guesthouse on a travel blog).
While thumbing through the Lonely Planet guidebook, Jordan noticed a country within a country. A tiny shoe-shaped area called Nagorno-Karabakh floating between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The two countries are in a border dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, although there is currently a ceasefire. There was even a 10-page section on Nagorno-Karabakh. The first sentence in that chapter reads: “a self-declared republic recognized by no one”—which was music to our ears. A place no one travels to or knows about. That is why I love Jordan—he jumped on the “we must go to Nagorno-Karabakh” train and so we are, though we will avoid hiking near the Azerbaijan border to avoid the “unexploded ordnance” Lonely Planet warns about.
I’ll keep you posted. Our plane is about to land in Tbilisi.
PS: If you love dance, watch this upbeat dance video filmed in Georgia featuring the Georgian National Ballet.