It wasn’t really my intention to visit these two untold historical sites of Georgia, the Uplistsikhe and Vardzia, the hidden gems of this magnificent country. My original plan is – to head off to Batumi after sightseeing Tbilisi. However, during my excursion at Tbilisi, I’ve met two working professionals (Lim & Kenny) from Malaysia who were also working in the Middle East. Our accidental meeting turns out to be the start of a new friendship, and they’ve invited me to join them with their itinerary on the following day.
Without any hesitation, I’ve canceled my plan to visit Batumi and decided to come along with them to Uplistsikhe and Vardzia. It was a gloomy Tuesday morning, the sky was dark and overcast when we meet up to prepare for a long day trip. We’ve chartered a vehicle with a local driver named Robert, a quiet, reserved guy with a friendly smile. Along the way, we’ve stopped at a local bakery to take our breakfast and ordered a variety of bread with cheesy fillings.
A quick stop at Gori to visit Joseph Stalin’s Museum
On our way, we had a quick stop at Gori, a town located in the eastern part of Georgia to visit the museum of Joseph Stalin. Stalin was a Soviet revolutionary leader and politician born in Gori. We didn’t really get inside the museum but only at the lobby and had a picture taken with his statue.
From Tbilisi to Uplistsikhe is more than an hour drive (1h 36 min, 99 km), the road is fully cemented except for a few meters rough roads nearing the site. Uplistsikhe is a medieval rock-carved town in eastern Georgia, about 10 kilometers east of Gori. Which had been an integral part of Georgian history, the place was built during the late Bronze Age. Uplistsikhe was deemed as the most significant political and religious point of pre-Christian Kartli.
My impression with Uplistsikhe
Before getting into the site, a fee of 7 Lari will be collected at the entrance booth. The site is extremely popular among locals and tourists, expect a number of tourists would be with you. There is a steel ladder to help you climb up into the actual site, the entire area is covered with metamorphic or igneous rocks. These rocks were carved out to form what was known as their early civilization.
As I wander around the place, I can’t help but mesmerized by the view of the surrounding. No wonder why the early Georgian chose this place because of its strategic location. Just on the foot of the slope is the tranquil Mtkvari River, the source of water by the early Uplistsikhe settlers.
On the top of the compound is an ancient Christian Basilica made out of stone and bricks, believed to have been constructed in the 9th/10th centuries. There are chambers and cells just underneath the Basilica’s hill which served as rooms, repository and hiding place. Our agreement is to finish the site-seeing after an hour and head on to our next stop but ended up almost stuck at Uplistsikhe not because of something untoward happened, but because of its captivating beauty.
Side trip to Borjomi
Our next destination is the town of Borjomi, Borjomi is one of the districts of the Samtskhe-Javakheti region and is situated in the northwestern part of Georgia. It is known for being the greenest part of the country. The ride was smooth and sound, the road was fully paved. On our way, I’ve seen the most scenic views of Georgia. Lush vegetation, green mountains, fresh rivers, and streams.
From Tbilisi to Borjomi is about 2 hours and a half, and from Gori to Borjomi is around 1 hour and 20 minutes by car. I was awed with the landscape as I looked out over the window, the terrain changes from vast green grassland to a vibrant colorful canopy of the jungle side. Arriving in Borjomi we went straight to the cable car station just right at the entrance of the Mineral Water Park.
Like in Tbilisi, there is also a popular cable car in Borjomi located at the Mineral Water Park. Borjomi is known for its mineral water production which is exported abroad. Inside the cable car, I was frantic as it looks very old and frail, there were around 10 (more or less) people inside of it riding altogether.
My heart palpitated as it began moving towards uphill; however, my worries turned excitement as it continued ascending up unveiling the most panoramic landscape of Borjomi. Up in the cable car, there is nothing left to see but the green canopy of the thick forest that sprawls a distance. We didn’t really stay very long there and decided to head on to our final destination – Vardzia.
Traveling to Vardzia our final destination
It was late when we left Borjomi, and Vardzia is around 2 hours ride from there, we’re worried we might unable to come on time before the sundown. Vardzia is approximately 260 kilometers from the mainland Tbilisi or almost 5 hours smooth drive by car. If your accommodation is based in Tbilisi, it’s recommended to leave early to reach there earlier.
Just like Uplistsikhe, Vardzia is another abandoned ancient cave town in Georgia. In a desperate move to escape from the Mongols’ invasion. Legendary Queen Tamar of Georgia ordered the construction of this underground haven carved out at the cliff of Erusheli mountain, situated in the southern part of Georgia nearby the town of Aspindza. Before Vardzia was partly destroyed by the earthquake, this underground stronghold had 13 levels, 6000 chambers, royal’s room and monastery.
Breathtaking landscape along the way
As we drove towards Vardzia the landscape transitioned from a lush vegetation to a greener extensive grassland. The terrain became steeper and the altitude becoming higher and higher if you opened the window of the car, you’d smell the sting of the cow’s manure or come across with the tamed cattle crossing down the road.
Despite the relentless journey, everyone seemed excited to reach Vardzia and didn’t even bother to take a nap while in the car. Instead, we enjoyed the groove of the local song played on the stereo by our driver although I could barely understand any single Georgian words. After tedious hours of driving (from Borjomi) we’ve reached Vardzia just right on time before the sunset.
Got in Vardzia just on time
It was about twilight when we’ve arrived there and a very few remaining tourists left. We’ve rushed to the ticket booth and we’re ready to explore. From the ticket booth, a vehicle would drop you halfway to the entrance of the complex. As we trekked up along the edge of the cliff overlooking the lower ground below, we’re left dumbfounded with the picturesque of the view up there.
For the safety of the tourists, there are steel handrails, ladders, and steps specifically installed along the edges of the cliff. Venturing this place is only for the bold and not for the fainthearted, it’s an unmistakable and exciting place to visit. One wrong move and you’ll end up plunging hundreds of feet down below the rocky mountain.
Just when I thought there is nothing more to see, was just the beginning of a more spectacular sight to behold. Prepare to be marveled as you delve into the intricate passages inside the tunnel, some chambers are so spacious that could fit-in one family. There are also secret labyrinths obviously made for immediate escapes, as you dive further into the narrow access the temperature became cooler and colder as if like an airconditioned room.
Be extremely cautious as you pass through the tight inlets as you might injure your head. Inside one of the chambers, there is a small pond that seemed like a bathtub full of fresh water. During our visit, the church inside the cave was closed and that we weren’t able to see what’s in it. After more than an hour of admiring the magical complexities of the cave, we head down back to our vehicle and decided to leave Vardzia.
It was already dark when moved out from there, on our way back we’d stopped in a roadside restaurant to fill our starving tummy. Our meal was composed of local Georgian goodies such as barbecued lamb, trout fish, chicken soup, bread and of course our all-time favorite – “king khali.” I remember how sumptuous dinner it was! talking about it makes me drool now. Full and satisfied, we went off back to Tbilisi and arrived there early in the morning.
How to go there?
Should you decide to visit these places, there are plenty of travel and agencies in Tbilisi where you can book with. A prearranged itinerary will then be shared with you, take note: traveling by tour agency means you will go with other people. This is great especially if you’re a lone traveler and wanted to cut cost. However, if you have extra budget and willing to pay the added price for a better travel experience. You can hire a local driver like what we did.
Conclusion and summary
In summary, visiting these two significant sites of Georgia is like traveling back to its past and having an in-depth understanding of its opulent history. A side trip along nearby towns are also something you wouldn’t wanna miss. Both Uplistsikhe and Vardzia are incredibly enchanting leaving every visitor in awe.
Have you ever been to Georgia? How was your overall experience? Do you know any other exciting places to visit there? Let me know in the comment box below! Don’t forget to pin and share this blog with your friends.
The author is currently based in Saudi Arabia, the holiest land of Islam. He’s a full-time employee of the largest energy company in the world. He’s a graduate of Communication Management, loves to write and travel.