My favourite kind of travelling days are the ones which unfold on their own and are full of twists and turns and wonderful surprises. I had such a day on my second last day in Georgia.
After our few days roaming across the country, my mom and her partner Tony wanted a quiet day in Tbilisi. I then decided to get out to the eastern region to see a little more of the country. I set my sights on Sighnaghi, a hilltop town surrounded by a medieval fortress wall. But it was the town’s unobstructed view of the Caucasus Mountains that drew me there.
Getting there looked fairly simple: take the metro for a few stops, find the bus station and hop on a 9am mashukra (local minivan). I left the house on time, but also offered up the day to the universe, trusting that things would work out without me pushing and chasing time. Good thing too because I threw a spanner in the works by looking for the metro stop up the wrong street. I eventually found it after a brisk walk down the awakening city streets.
The last underground I rode was in Stockholm and I enjoyed the vast differences with Tbilisi’s train; more rattle and crank than smooth efficiency. If you ever find yourself on this line, listen out for the station names as the train departs each station as I didn’t see visible signs at the stops.
Four stops later I climbed off and made my way up the daylight via an underground retail area. I popped out on the other side of the street and it didn’t feel right so I went back down and followed the tunnel further, and further, and a little more past shoe shops and cigarette kiosks and between the crowds on their way to work. I climbed a steep staircase and found myself above the train tracks on the side of a highway. This didn’t look like a bus station. I asked someone if I was in the right place – pointing to my map to show where I wanted to go – and he shook his head, indicating that I needed to go back down and under the train tracks.
So I did, feeling that I was cutting the time very short. Back on the street I asked a mashukra driver where I needed to go. I didn’t understand his Georgian or Russian and he didn’t understand my English so he just took me down the street to the bus station. Finally, and just in time to find the right mashukra… which had left 8 minutes earlier.
Now what? This is where the magic happens. Having decided to let go of a fixed plan I was happy to take the next mashukra east. I found one leaving for Telavi in 20 minutes. Good. That gave me time to break my 100 lari bill into smaller notes, poke my head into the market and pick the front seat.
I had missed the bus but I was still going on an excursion into the countryside. And what a drive it turned out to be. City sprawl gave way to smaller towns which became farmsteads and vineyards, the vines hanging brown and bare in the brisk, sunny light. And then, as luck would have it, I spotted a sign to Sighaghi – where I had planned to go. I paid the driver the 5 lari for the ride and hopped off at the turn.
Getting around in Georgia seems to involve standing on the side of the road for a free or paid ride, whichever comes first. And hitchhiking works without sticking out a thumb. After looking hopeful for about 15 minutes a car pulled over and I got in, along with another woman going the same way. The two old guys in the car barely stopped to ask where we were going and didn’t care to chat either. They did pass a sweet back to me though, and played some groovy local tunes.
This stretch of road was worth coming out for. Forest lined the windy road and the hills rolled out and over each other, until we rounded a corner and I saw the white tops of the Caucasus Mountains. Yup, definitely worth the ride out.
Sighaghi is beautiful. I picked the first small road out of the main square and headed up the hill. I passed a friendly dog which trotted after me. I had made my first friend. This dog followed me all around town that day, responding to my whistles, climbing up and down steps along the city wall and catching grapes like a pro.
It was a day of wandering around the town, following small roads and stone tracks to yet another quiet spot and great viewpoint, of stopping to wonder at the view down to the flat valley and across to the mountains which rise blue and majestic from the plain, their snow-covered ridges meeting the blue sky. It’s quite something to know that Russia lies behind those mountains. And all along I felt the contentment of knowing I was in the right place, enjoying the views and sharing smiles, creating a story that makes travelling the best adventure.