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Jari had hatched several different plans for his day off, some more involved or elaborate than others, but finally settled on a national park about an hour outside of Tbilisi where some friends of his had camped before. We were just going to go for a day hike near Birvtisi. As we were starting off early in the day, we had enough time before the predicted evening rain.
In a language that’s not your own and with a system that seems more ad hoc than systematic, it takes a lot more trust in other people and trial by error to get things right. This especially applies when you’re not traveling in a car or with a guide, but relying on buses, other public transportation and the kindness of strangers.
We first boarded the metro from Rustaveli station in the center of town for Samgori on the eastern edge of town. Above the Samgori metro stop is a train station, a marshrutka hub (marshrutka is the name for a minibus that follows a set route) and a sprawling open air market. We had been to the market before because they sell everything – all kind of fruits, vegetables, nuts and dried goods, eggs, meat and fish, sauces and more – for much better quality and for much less money than the supermarket.
Asking around once we got to the market, we found the marshrutka going toward Tbisi. Tbisi is the name of the town that shows up on the map as being closest to the the Trialeti Planned National Park, and was in our directions. The marshrutka we got onto was actually bound for Tetri Tskaro, but looking at a map on my phone, we guessed that we would just get off a little early and hitchhike the rest of the way to the park. The ride on the marshrutka took about an hour and was uneventful. As a frequent passenger on minibuses in this corner of the world, uneventful is usually preferable to anything else.
We got off at the crossroads after passing Saghrasheni before reaching Tbisi and started wandering around the village. We walked up the hill toward the ruins of a castle and Jari started chatting with a man working by the road in a broken mixture of Georgian and Russian. He asked for the directions to the castle and then came all the normal questions: “Where are you from?”; “What are you doing in Georgia?”; “Which is more beautiful, the US or Georgia?” At the end, he told us to go to “Birvtisi” and used his only English word and two thumbs up for emphasis, or perhaps for my benefit: “good.”
We had what seemed to be detailed directions on a facebook message thread from the same friends who had camped there before:
You go up 🙂
So when you see the brown park sign take the dirt rd it points at.
Keep left on all the turn off as you pass the houses.
You will come to a dead end of someone’s driveway and there will be a path.
Follow the path and you will see the valley along your left.
Keep on that trail until you fall into a narrow gorge. When you get to the bottom, keep left and you find a long gorge.
Follow that gorge and at the end you will see a fortress outpost against the cliff.
Follow the cliff which the outpost of the castle is on up a bit and after maybe 7 minutes you will see a path heading back up.
If it is the right path there will be a large boulder suspended by the cliff that you climb under. Then follow the rest of the path to the fortress.
Take the stone stairs carved into the rock up to the top. It is very steep so be careful.
After wandering through the village, we got back onto the main road to find the path to the fortress. Jari had been told to go to Tbisi, so that was the goal. We easily found a guy to give us a short ride to the park. We told him Tbisi and he started to drive. He made a stop a minute or two after we got into his car at a mountain spring on the side of the road. There was a another car parked, also collecting water from the fountain. We stopped too and it was delicious. We got back in the car and kept driving. Just as I thought to look at my phone to check the map, Jari asked the driver if we were there yet. He said something like he didn’t really know where Tbisi was and that maybe we passed it, so we immediately got out of the car.
So we started walking back in the direction we had come from with our thumbs out. Almost immediately a truck picked us up; judging by the “mashallah” stickers on the back and inside the cabin, I was in luck because it meant that we could all speak Turkish. The Azeri driver was so hospitable. He dropped us exactly where we told him we wanted to go (a sign that said “Tbisi 1”) and wouldn’t let us leave without three cucumbers from the back of his truck and an entire shoti – a salty, flat, canoe-shaped Georgian bread that is cooked in a tandoor oven called tone (“ton-ay”).
“Yolda yersin (You’ll eat it on the way),” he said when I tried to refuse.
A short note about hitchhiking in Georgia: it was pretty easy and with our combination of one male/one female it was both safer and pretty efficient. As long as the route isn’t too far and you’re going somewhere popular, people are very friendly and open to picking up tourists. Going to and from Mshketa from Tbilisi a month before was a breeze; we got rides almost immediately. Our ride all the way back from Mshketa to Tblisi was a sign-of-the-cross-filled, edge-of-your-seats, buckle-up, kind of automobile adventure. If you like that kind of thing, it can be an expedient way to meet and share your fate with some locals.
What we did get to see, was worth all the time taken to get there. Walking through the gorges is a bit like walking into a brilliantly green fairy world.KY
It ended up that Tbisi was not where we were supposed to be. We walked to the end of the road, found it blocked off and locked and a guy on his cellphone who was meant to be guarding the entrance. He stopped us from continuing through. Thinking that the locked road was where we were supposed to be to get to the fortress, we started on our dejected way back out to the main road – turning our sights toward Birvtisi instead – as per the man’s suggestion.
We took one more wrong turn that day, turning left on the main road instead of right and found ourselves back at the water fountain we had already been too. We collected more water and turned around until we finally found the brown sign pointing to Birvtisi. As we walked up the dirt road into another village. I said, “wouldn’t it be weird if Birvtisi was where we were supposed to be going the whole time and not Tbisi?”
As we kept walking, asking for directions and backtracking one last time, it became obvious that, in fact, the place we were trying to go had been Birvtisi all along. The directions were good ones and if we had been looking for “Birvtisi” instead of “Tbisi” we might have gotten there a little sooner. After so many missteps involved with getting into the gorge in the first place, we didn’t have much daylight left. We only made it to the long gorge after the very narrow gorge (which was a little more than an hour of hiking mostly uphill) before we needed to turn around.
What we did get to see was worth all the time taken to get there. Walking through the gorges is a bit like walking into a brilliantly green fairy world. In a more planned reality, we would have brought a tent and camping supplies to stay the night; many before us had done exactly that, as evidenced by the charred circles on the forest floor. Or next time, maybe some climbing gear and more friends; I saw at least one bolted route in the long gorge before we needed to turn around.
I leave the directions here for all of you, and also for the next time that I try to find the Birvtisi fortress or go to get lost a little among the trees.
Also check out, Wadi Rum, Jordan.