Desperate to escape the heat and tedium of Batumi, we headed to the hills of Borjomi one day earlier than planned via the night train to Kashuri. After a sweaty start (the air-conditioning wasn’t switched on until much later), it turned out to be a pretty comfortable journey. We shared a cabin with a friendly Iranian who had gone to Batumi for some sea and sun. It turned out that he owned a jewellery shop in Tabriz and was also studying English (he had brought along his homework to do on the train). Visibly thrilled to find out that we were from Malaysia, he invited us to visit him in Iran.
The train was scheduled to arrive in Kashuri at 4.49am. We were up much earlier to keep an eye out for our stop. Just how we would recognise our stop, we weren’t actually sure, as the station signs were all in Georgian. But it turned out that there was no need to worry after all, as the train attendant was kind enough to wake up from his sleep to alert us as the train pulled into the station.
The marshutkas (mini buses) were not running yet, so we took a taxi to Borjomi. The taxi driver was chirpy and chatty throughout the 40 minute journey, even though it was five in the morning and we couldn’t understand a word he was saying.
We reached Leo’s Homestay at 5.45am and waited a good 15 minutes before giving Leo a wake-up call. We felt a little bit guilty when Leo and his mother, Marina emerged bleary eyed. While Marina began preparing breakfast, we followed Leo on his morning walk at the Mineral Water Park.
The Mineral Water Park was established in the 1850s, and had been a popular destination for Russian tourists, including the Tsars, during the Soviet era. The water here is said to have curative properties, namely for diabetes and various stomach related illnesses. The park also has a very nice amusement park as well as free wifi!
There are two types to choose from: cold river water (above photo), which is strangely carbonated and tastes just a little bit salty, or hot spring water, which is nice if you like sulphur. Here, Leo is showing us the gas bubbling up from the cold river water
This is Leo’s neighbour, who works at the Mineral Water Park. In the morning he cuts the grass with a long sickle, and in the afternoon he mans the trampolines. He’s 70 years old and still has a physique “like Stallone”. He took off his shirt to show us
We went back later that day to check out the hot swimming pool, which is a pleasant 2.5km walk through the woods behind the park. It seems that the thing to do here is to jump into the pool. Dylan tried it and soon discovered he’s not twenty-something anymore
Genius seems to run in Leo’s family. Leo himself is a champion pianist and chess player. He would delight his guests by performing one or two pieces on the piano each day, making the apartment seem like a concert hall (check out a live recording here). He also invited us to a game chess but we politely declined, not wanting to embarrass Malaysia. Marina taught herself to speak English, and is now one of the few people in town who can speak it. In her younger days, she also taught herself to read and write Russian, and spent her time translating a few Russian books to Georgian, just for fun.
While poverty was an obvious feature of Batumi, people here seemed to be better off (our indicator was that there was no one begging on the streets). Still, Leo says, jobs are hard to come by, and many are unemployed. No doubt due to their resourcefulness, Leo’s family seems to get by particularly well. A few years ago they turned their first floor, one-bedroom apartment into a guesthouse, and constructed a small wooden extension on the side, where Leo and his parents now sleep. The guesthouse can fit seven quite comfortably, with three beds in the original bedroom and four in the living room.
As there were few guests, we had the original bedroom to ourselves, for just 20 GEL (10 Euros) per person
Breakfast at Leo’s is a feast. Marina prepares up to five dishes single-handedly every morning (sometimes preparation even starts the night before). All this at only 5 GEL (2.50 Euro) per person
Breakfast in the living room on the second day. The menu was totally different each day!
Leo recommended taking the old narrow gauge railway up to the Bakuriani resort. While the hill resort was rather dead since there was no snow, the two and a half hour train ride was quite pleasant and passed through some beautiful pine forests and meadows. The two-carriage train functioned as somewhat more of a mini-bus, stopping to pick up passengers (villagers, woodcutters, etc.) anywhere along the tracks.
One of many meadows along the way that looked like something out of Forks (Twilight fans would understand)
That night we walked down to the town square to watch the Euro 2012 semi-final game between Spain and Portugal. A projector had been set up, with the side of a building used as a giant screen. It was a BYOB (Bring-your-own-bench) event, and we only watched till half-time as our legs had gotten a bit tired from standing throughout.
We psyched ourselves up to do a walk in the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park the next day. After checking in at the park office (no entry fees, but donations are accepted), Leo gave us a lift to the start of the trail, which was 2km away.
In line with the Cabutlari policy on hiking, i.e. when given a choice, go around rather than up the mountain, we chose Trail 6 (Wildlife Traces Trail), which at 13km was one of the shortest trails on offer and from the topographic map, did not seem to lead up to any scary peaks.
As has become tradition for our hikes, the rain and howling wind joined us just one hour in. It was a pity, as the mountains looked as though they would have been stunning had they not been almost totally enveloped in clouds; and the meadows full of wild flowers looked like they would have been a nice place to sit or roll around, had the cold wind and rain not been piercing through our wet clothes and into our bones. On the bright side, the trail did live up to its name. We did indeed come across many traces of wildlife – fresh scat (technical term for animal poo) of what could have been deer, bear, lynx and horse were spotted at many points on the trail. We also played hide and seek with a cheeky squirrel.
Looking for wildlife traces. The Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park was established in 1995 with assistance from WWF and the government of Germany. It’s the largest park in the Caucasus
The meadows on the ridges are filled with pretty wildflowers, many of which are supposed to be endemic (not that we know which ones)
The underside of one wildflower that we found quite interesting. Notice the beetles feeding on the nectar
Flowers on a different bract of the same plant, yet to bloom
On hindsight, it might have been a good idea to have either checked the weather forecast, or worn our waterproof pants
After crawling laboriously uphill, then slipping and sliding downhill for what seemed to be forever (but was actually just six hours), we made it back to flat land. It was still some 2km to the main road, so we were happy to pay 20 GEL for a taxi from the park back to Bojormi. And the rain continued incessantly till the next morning.
All in all, it was a great three days. And if all goes according to plan, we will be back in a few years to visit Leo and Marina, and purchase a second-, third- or fourth-hand Lada Niva to drive back to Malaysia with.
Leo’s trusty Lada Niva, a Russian-made car that’s ubiquitous in these parts. He had an LPG engine installed. We’re crazy about it