It's been 9 months now since we hitched our first ride in Georgia. During that time we lived in Tbilisi and Batumi and are now living in Gori. We didn't expect to live here for so long but life had other plans for us. We took advantage of that time to explore Georgia to the fullest. Hitchhiking in Georgia isn't something I will easily forget.
It's not only very easy to hitchhike here but almost every ride has been an adventure on its own, whether a good or a scary one. Aside from the short stories on our Facebook page or Instagram account, I haven't written much about hitchhiking in Georgia. The past week I went on a trip through memory lane and wrote down our best and worst hitchhiking stories from the past 9 months. Make yourself comfortable, grab a glass of wine to feel the Georgian spirit and enjoy the ride!
Making the transition between 2 countries and cultures
The first hour in Georgia started on a good note. We happily crossed the Turkish-Georgian border in Sarpi after not having any severe consequences for overstaying our Turkish visa by 6 months. Georgian customs welcomed us with the thumping sound of the visa stamp which allowed us to stay for one year. It turned out we would need it. And so our journey in Georgia began.
The area behind the border was a little chaotic with many cars, buses and mini-vans waiting to enter or exit Georgia. Taxi drivers were trying to hustle us so we decided to walk further down the road to find a quieter and less hectic place to start hitching for our first ride. Many cars were passing by but none stopped. Turkey had spoiled us with an average waiting time of 10 minutes and we almost forgot how it felt like to wait patiently at the side of the road.
After about half an hour a car stopped for us. The driver was Georgian but he also spoke some Turkish as he lived near the border so we could easily chat with him. While I was looking out the window, I could see the landscape slowly changing. When you travel overland from country to country, you can see and feel the transition between two countries and cultures.
Mosques were making place for churches, the architecture of the houses started to look different and cows became part of the street view. It was weird to suddenly see those animals walking on the road. I hadn't seen cows in a long time! I also had to get used to seeing women wearing short skirts and tops and men walking around bare-chested. We just had spent three months in a small Turkish village and my eyes had to adapt to seeing all the naked skin again.
Driving on the right, steering on the right
Something else that caught my attention was the place of the steering wheel. Georgians have to drive on the right-hand side of the road so normally the steering wheel should be on the left-hand side of the car. However, our driver was sitting on the right-hand side. I first thought his car was an exception but I started noticing that there were more cars like his. I found it odd. Aren't the drivers supposed to sit on the left-hand side when they drive on the right-hand side of the road?
When Niko asked the driver about this, he explained to us that Georgia is a major re-export hub for cars. Dealers purchase second-hand cars from Japan and Europe, ship them to Georgia and sell them here or transport them to neighboring countries. The Japanese imported cars are some of the cheapest cars on the Georgian market so many Georgians drive in cars where the steering wheel is located on the right-hand side.
This means they have a limited view of what's happening on the road. During this ride, I didn't fully understand yet how dangerous this was. My mind was more occupied with the excitement of being in a new country than paying attention to the driving behavior of the Georgians. Little did I know what was to come...
Sit back and hold tight!
Our first ride was an easy and comfortable one. We were able to speak Turkish with our driver and he was very cautious on the road. The real challenge started after we hitched our second ride.
First, we had to say goodbye to the comfort of speaking a common language. The two young men who gave us a ride only spoke Georgian and Russian. We hadn't taken the time yet to learn those languages and we were sad we couldn't properly communicate with them. There's just that much you can say with gestures!
The first thing I would definitely recommend to you if you're interested in hitchhiking in Georgia is to learn Russian. Almost everybody in Georgia speaks Russian as a second language because they used to be part of the former USSR. If you like a good challenge, you can also try to learn Georgian. It's one of the oldest and most unique languages in the world and probably one of the hardest ones to learn with its difficult grammar rules and weird throat sounds.
My second suggestion? Buckle up!! Georgians are crazy drivers! Have you ever seen “the Fast and Furious” film series? I think that most Georgians are trying to re-enact some of the movie scenes. They're always in a hurry or in a race. They drive at a speed of 120-150 km/hour while swerving around the cows and dogs on the small roads.
They overtake each other while cars and trucks are approaching fast from the opposite direction, they cut sharp corners using both lanes and they do all of this while they're texting or calling their friends. I would be impressed by their driving skills if I wouldn't feel so scared. A few times I closed my eyes and prayed we wouldn't end up in a car (or cow) crash. Hitchhiking isn't only about having faith in the good intentions of your driver but also in their driving skills!
Luckily not all Georgian drivers are as reckless but I think 75% of our rides weren't exactly relaxing. I still remember how frightened I was during one of our first rides. A car full of young people stopped for us. I had to sit on Niko's lap so we could fit in the backseat next to the other three passengers. The car must have been imported from Japan because the driver was sitting on the right-hand side.
Although he couldn't clearly see the traffic coming from the other direction, he overtook cars at a speed of 170km/hour (!!!) on a bumpy windy road while swerving around cows. I was squeezing Niko's hand so hard that I almost broke it. The other passengers didn't show any reactions but I was scared as hell! I shut my eyes and all I could think of was “Thank God I didn't cancel my health insurance”!
I felt Niko's body tightening underneath mine so I knew I wasn't the only one feeling this way. The girl who was sitting next to me noticed my reaction and motioned her friend to drive slower while apologizing for his driving behavior. I felt a bit stupid but at the same time, I was very relieved to see the speedometer going down. I was happy to get out of that car in one piece!
It wasn't the only time I almost got a heart attack. Even after nine months I still don't feel 100% comfortable on the Georgian roads. When we were living in Tbilisi we often had to take a mashrutka (mini-buses) to get around the city. Some of those mini-buses weren't in the best conditions and we could hear the engines squeaking whenever the driver pushed the gas pedal. The whole thing was shaking with effort when the driver wanted to overtake other cars.
Luckily the brakes still worked pretty well and we often avoided a car crash by seconds. I sometimes felt like hitting the driver on his head to get some sense into his mind. It wasn't just his own life that he was putting at stake but also that of his passengers. It's surprising that we only saw one accident happening in the course of nine months!
To see it on the bright side, this is probably a mental preparation for what is to come on our journey through Central and Southeast Asia.
Pack light and get ready
to get drunk for some toasting!
Okay, so they might be some of the most dangerous drivers I've ever seen but the Georgians are also some of the most hospitable people I've met! They're a little shy, won't always take the first step to greet you but instead will stare at you with a curious look. But once you smile at them and say “Gamarjobat” (Georgian word to greet people), there's no point of return. A smile will lighten up their faces, they'll start asking you questions and you'll end up at a table filled with food and unfeasible quantities of homemade wine.
Georgians believe that guests are a gift from God and will receive you with their best food and wine. They'll keep feeding you until you burst out of your pants. Then they'll insist you should eat some more. Be also ready to drink. A lot. The wine is poured as a symbol of good energy and love and the more the wine flows, the more love, and energy will be given to the guests.
Georgia is one of the oldest wine regions in the world and the wine is one of the central pillars of the Georgian culture. With every glass you drink, they will make a beautiful and often heartfelt toast. The more the wine flows, the more loving and emotional the toasts become but that's probably due to the massive amount of alcohol ...
You can read more about their wine tradition in Oh Georgia, sweet mother of wine, including some tips on how to avoid a hang-over. So when a Georgian offers you wine, he's symbolically offering you his friendship. I guarantee you'll make a lot of new friends in Georgia!
During one of our hitchhiking trips, Niko and I got a ride from a female driver, which isn't so common. She was a sweet and bossy woman, one that could chase her husband around with a wooden spoon if he did something wrong. She made it very clear that she wouldn't take a no for an answer when she invited us for a meal in her home. We ended up joining her family at her kitchen table on which there was so much food and wine that it could get a whole army drunk.
It was 10 o'clock in the morning when we started toasting... I felt so full and a little wonky when we left her house. To make sure we wouldn't get thirsty while we continued our journey, she gave us a gallon of wine that we couldn't possibly fit in our backpacks. We hitchhiked the rest of the way carrying this gallon of wine. Normally I wouldn't recommend doing this as people might believe you're a hitchhiking alcoholic but here in Georgia nobody minds. The driver will probably grab his own wine bottle from the car boot and join you for a drink!
Just be careful with all that alcohol, especially when you're high up in the mountains:
Don't drink vodka with Polish people in high altitudes
On a cold and snowy November day, we hitchhiked to Stepantsminda, a small town high up in the Greater Caucasus Mountains (also known as Kazbegi). Along the way, we got picked up by a Polish couple who were on a little road trip around Georgia. We got along well and after a crazy drive on the slippery snow-covered road, the four of us decided to spend the night in the same guesthouse. With a temperature of -10 °C we didn't really feel like camping outside. I've learned three things that night: one, Polish people love drinking vodka; two, I should stop drinking after three glasses, not after three bottles; three, I'm not the only one who had some misadventures in Kazbegi.
To put it mildly, I didn't feel very well in the morning. I felt light-headed the night before because I wasn't used to being in high altitudes. This combined with a hangover was a recipe for disaster. Niko didn't drink as much as I did so he felt relatively fine and the Polish couple looked as if they had only been drinking lemonade. I was the only one feeling like someone had bashed my head with a hammer. I just wanted to stay in bed and sleep but we had to return to Tbilisi.
Our Polish friends were heading in that direction so we joined them for the ride back. While I was waiting for our friends to collect their stuff, the owner of the guesthouse, a 75-year-old-woman, looked at me and asked if I wanted some chacha. This famous Georgian vodka is made with the grape residue left after making wine and can easily contain 65% alcohol. She saw my face turning green and was laughing so hard but she kept on telling me to drink some. I thought she was making fun of me but she meant well. She promised I would feel better after drinking a shot but I couldn't stand the thought of drinking one more drop. I should have taken her offer because things only got worse...
The road seemed to be more windy and curvy than the day before. I felt my stomach turn with every corner. I tried to close my eyes but my thumping headache kept me awake. When we stopped to visit the Russia – Georgia friendship monument on the Jvari pass, I had a hard time standing on my feet. The snow was knee-deep and I had troubles finding my balance. By the time I reached the colorful monument, Niko told me that my face was as pale as the snow around us. I still wonder how I was able to take some pictures before I staggered back to the car. My love for photography must be stronger than the force of a hang-over ...
It didn't take long before we made another stop. This time on my request. I had the feeling that whatever was left in my stomach was making its way out. People who know me well, know that I have this weird fear of vomiting. While I was running to the side of the road, I didn't only felt horrible but also terrified that I had to vomit.
I sat down with my head between my knees, sobbing, and retching while Niko was gently rubbing my back. Our Polish friends insisted that I should drink some beer. They promised it would make me feel a lot better. They grabbed a can of beer out of the car boot and handed it over. This time I accepted the alcohol. I forced myself to drink at least half of the can. I was scared I wouldn't be able to keep it down but after fifteen minutes and a few powerful burps, I indeed started to feel a lot better! I vowed never to drink vodka again. Until this very day I have kept my promise!
Keep the gates closed for cows and drunk neighbors
I noticed that I'm not the only one who can get carried away while drinking. One evening, during our trip to the Katskhi Pillar, we were searching for a camping place in a rural area. We were in the company of a German couple we had met in Batumi. They were traveling with their jeep so we looked for a nice meadow to set up camp for the night.
Whenever we want to camp on a piece of land that looks like it belongs to someone, we always go in search of the owner to ask permission. In Georgia, it would be exceptional that the landowner refuses. In this situation, the owner even brought us some tea and cake while asking us questions about who we were and what we were doing. Niko had started learning Russian and was able to have a brief conversation with her. She wasn't the only curious person in the neighborhood.
While we were setting ourselves up for the night, we received many visits from curious neighbors. The people weren't used to see many foreigners so the news of our presence was spreading fast. We had to refuse many invitations for meals, drinks and even a sleeping place in one of the neighboring houses.
One local became a little annoying because he kept insisting on us drinking with him. We didn't want to be impolite but we were very tired, didn't feel like drinking alcohol and just wanted to have an early night. He kept coming back, every time a bit more drunk and insisting, so eventually we had to close the entrance gate to the meadow, not only to keep the cows out from bashing into our tent but also to gently show our drunk neighbor that his visits and invitations were becoming a bit too much for us to handle. There's a difference between being hospitable and imposing yourself on others.
The morning after was more peaceful. Luckily we had closed the gates because we woke up to the sight of a herd of cows trying to get in the meadow. One of the owners, an elderly woman, was still wearing her bathrobe when she walked to the gate to greet us. She had such a beautiful smile and was genuinely happy to see us. We exchanged some words before she continued leading her cows to a nearby field.
We packed up our tent and were ready to go when she came back with a big plate of food. After she met us, she had quickly gone home to prepare us a mighty breakfast with freshly baked khachapuri (Georgian cheese bread), mchadi (cornbread) and fresh vegetables from her garden. We were speechless! Her eyes were twinkling with joy when she gave us the food and her smile became brighter with every bite we took. Those moments are great reminders that there are still a lot of genuinely good people in this world!
Sometimes it isn't only a drunk neighbor that we want to keep out:
Haunted by ghosts from the past
From the moment you arrive in Georgia, you'll see a notable amount of deserted buildings in and around small towns. After the fall of the USSR in 1991, the unemployment in Georgia was so high that the majority of the population had to leave their homes in the villages to move to the big cities to find a job. The unemployment rate was at one point so big that a lot of people even moved to other countries. Georgia has one of the largest emigration numbers in the world with the result that there are now a lot of empty and neglected buildings.
During one of our first evenings in Georgia, we got dropped off at a private domain near the village Goraberezhouli. The young people who gave us a lift asked the caretaker if we could camp there for the night. The caretaker didn't mind and he even gave us a tour around the site. It was truly a fascinating place! It used to be a resort for the Russian Elite during the USSR. The domain was mainly covered by a small forest with rusty old cars hidden among the trees.
There were a few mansions, villas and something that looked like a nightclub in the open spaces and the right side of the domain was delineated by a huge concrete building. The whole area was now deserted, except for one room in the building where the caretaker lived. He led us into one of the mansions and it looked like the people who used to live there had left in a hurry, leaving all their belongings behind. There were huge paintings and portraits on the wall, the furniture looked a little dusty but still intact and there was even a crib that was rocking like someone had just taken the baby out of it. It was eerie and fascinating at the same time!
Right after we had set up camp, we got caught in a huge thunderstorm. It became suddenly pitch black outside our tent and it started raining hard. Lightning was flashing through the dark sky so we decided to look for shelter in the nearest building instead of staying underneath the trees. We left our tent and ran through the rain towards the building where the caretaker lived. Entering the building was like entering a scene from a horror movie.
The entrance was poorly lit by a small light. It was casting shadows on the black-and-white photos that were hanging on the walls. It felt like the people in the pictures were looking at us. We walked through a long and dark hallway towards the caretaker's flat. It was the only place where we heard voices but when we arrived there, we couldn't find anyone. I got spooked – I watched too many horror movies when I was a teenager – and decided I'd rather spend the night outside in the thunderstorm than staying longer in this place. Niko wasn't scared but he also noticed how creepy the whole situation was.
I started to believe that this place was haunted. We didn't sleep much that night because of the thunderstorm but at least no ghosts felt like paying us a visit in the tent! You can watch the footage of this 'haunted place' in this video.
To end this article, here's one last story about how easy (and beautiful) it is to hitchhike in Georgia:
Getting high in one of the highest villages of Europe
We've heard many stories about the beauty of Svaneti, an ancient region locked in the Greater Caucasus mountains in northwest Georgia. It's only since the mid-2000's that this isolated region became accessible to tourists. The area was feared as an outlaw territory where bandits and criminal gangs took refuge. We were intrigued by the stories so in the beginning of the autumn before the roads would get blocked by the snow, we took some time off from our jobs as online teachers and hitchhiked to “the Wild Heart of the Caucasus”.
The only way we could get there was by hitchhiking (or driving) from Zugdidi to Mestia. A kind driver offered us a free ride in his mashrutka. He was driving carefully (note: there are also responsible drivers in Georgia) along a steep windy road that looked over beautiful gorges, wild rivers, and majestic mountains. We were the only foreigners in his mini-bus and he often stopped along the road so we could take photos. The other four passengers, who were locals, didn't mind because they were visibly enjoying the beauty too. Even the local people will never get tired of these stunning views!
By the time we arrived in Mestia, the 'capital town' of Upper Svaneti, darkness had fallen. It was too late for us to start searching for a camping place so we stayed in a little guesthouse (by the way, accommodation in Georgia is very cheap!). The other guests, a lovely family from Ukraine, were telling us about Ushguli, a community of four mini-villages that is considered as one of Europe's highest continuously inhabited settlements. The community is located at 2200 m above sea level and is only accessible by an unpaved road. The only road to get there is sometimes blocked for a few weeks during the winter and the 250 inhabitants live isolated from the rest of the world during that time.
Ushguli is about 45 km from Mestia, not a big distance but the villages are very hard to access and can only be reached in 4x4 Jeeps. Or so we were told by tourist guides and local taxi-drivers. They said it wasn't possible to hitchhike there. Another option was to hike the distance - did I already mention that Georgia is a hiker's paradise? We like to have a good challenge from time to time and decided against all advice to hitchhike there. In worst case scenario we had our tent and could always hike the distance.
After walking for two kilometers, two cars stopped. In the first car were three young guys, in the second their parents. They were from Israel and were making a road trip around Georgia. The family was heading towards Ushguli and offered us a lift. It was our lucky day! We jumped in the car with the parents and off we went on the rough, small and bumpy road to Ushguli. It took us about three hours to get there. It was true that the road wasn't super smooth but even if you don't have a 4x4, you can still get there. You might have to give your car a good scrub afterwards but it'll be worth it! This drive was for me one of the best we had in Georgia. The road took us along magnificent gorges, wild rivers and breath-taking valleys where horses and cows were grazing in the autumn colored fields.
During one of our stops, I rolled myself a little cigarette with some fine herbs – courtesy of a friend. It had been more than two years since I had a special smoke like this and I thought it'd give a nice touch to the already amazing experience. I started feeling high when we resumed our way and I'll never forget the moment when the song “My way” from Frank Sinatra started playing in the car. I started thinking about the choices I had made and the hardships I had overcome. They all made me into the person I am today. I started singing along with Frank Sinatra while looking out on the magnificent beauty of the Georgian mountains. I couldn't stop smiling. I was overwhelmed with gratitude and love. Man, that was a good smoke!
The high was wearing off when we arrived in Ushguli but it didn't change my mood. This time I was getting high on the mountain air and the beauty of what I was seeing. I had this weird sense of recognition in Ushguli, like I had been there before. This area is becoming more and more touristic but that day we didn't see many foreigners around.
We walked by ourselves on the narrow cobbled lanes between old tower-houses. Goats, pigs, cows, and dogs were happily walking along with us while locals were riding their horses through the small streets. We walked around for a few hours and that evening we returned to Mestia with our Israeli friends. We got along so well that we even joined them for a few more days on their road trip around Georgia. You can watch the video of this trip here.
I'm not exaggerating when I say that Georgia is a mighty country and that I'm very glad we stayed here for so long to discover not only its beauty but also to learn about its culture and traditions. It's an underrated country where even the police will help hitchhikers. Hitchhiking in Georgia is a fun experience where every lift is an adventure on its own.
More useful articles about hitchhiking in Georgia:
Did you like these stories? You might also like:
- One year of hitchhiking part 1 – Europe: The good, the bad and the untold stories.
- One year of hitchhiking part 2 – Turkey: The good, the bad and the untold stories.
Are you planning a hitchhiking trip or do you have any hitchhiking experiences in Georgia? Let us know in the comments. We would love to hear your stories!