Surprise-filled Day 3. Wherever do I start? After a wonderful stay in Batumi we were loth to go and so we spent the morning walking outdoors and enjoying the beautiful view from out hotel window as we waited for our pick up to arrive. We were all set to go to Tskaltubo. Our initial plan had been to book a hotel in Kutaisi, but as we were making the final payments, the booking fell through and we were offered a last minute alternative in the shape of the Tskaltubo Spa Resort. We literally had less than a minute to vet the hotel and decided to just go for it since there was no time to propose and alternative. We were all packed and ready for the long drive to our mysterious hotel and were hoping to get some rest before Day 4, which is when we were scheduled to visit Okatse Canyon and Martvili Canyon. Fate, also called Meghi, our guide, however, had other plans.
She arrived with her husband Levan, at around 11am and we were off, away from the city and into the lush green countryside. I never knew that Georgia was so green, and so many varying shades of green at that. It was wonderful. The vast stretches of green under a bright blue sky, the horses and cows grazing in the fields, the towering trees that lined the roads, the monotonous hum of crickets – it was so real, a far-cry from the sterilized cities filled with artificial sounds and smells that we’ve gotten so used to. As we drove on, we learnt that Georgia was home to hundreds if not thousands of rivers and we stumbled across so many of them on our road trip, every road suddenly seeming to cross over rivers, large and small.
It is no wonder then, that the country faces no shortage of fresh water, and consequently has such varied produce, from the tasty melons and watermelons which we’d had the luck to sample, to its apples, peaches, berries… and even tea! Who knew we would find tea plantations in Georgia. The most fascinating thing about the plantations was that, unlike in Sri Lanka, where you’re can see the slopes covered with tea, these plantations seemed to be lie flat stretching along the roadsides that carved through the mountains. We had gone up into the mountains so subtly, that I didn’t notice it, until the nausea began, that is.
A sudden and brief downpour interrupted the mostly sunny ride and as we sped through the two way roads lined with trees, a leafy green canopy overhead, cars precariously overtaking each other, trains passing us on one side, we slowly began to realize that our destination for the day, was not in fact the hotel. We were, as it were, headed straight to Martvili Canyon. Whatever happened to Day 4? And Okatse? Well it turned out that Martvili Canyon was on the way to Tskaltubo, so it made more sense to stop by today. And as for Okatse… THE Okatse, where I was supposed to convince my mum to be super adventurous, was temporarily closed for renovations. Clearly, someone had heard my mum’s prayers.
So Martvili it was. Meghi was super excited to take us on a boat ride, and as she chattered away happily telling us all about Martvili, the fluffy white clouds that had been sailing the skies suddenly turned a sullen grey and began to cry. Boat rides, Meghi informed us, are cancelled when there’s a heavy downpour. But she wasn’t one to be dissuaded by something as trivial as a downpour. As the car pulled up in the parking lot, she pointed at an invisible blue sky somewhere in the distance and insisted that we wait it out while enjoying a warm cup of tea.
And aren’t we glad we did. After enjoying the fresh air, good conversation and the sound of rain as it pounded on the canopies above us, as we waited at the coffee shop in the parking lot in the company of sleepy dogs, the rain finally stopped, quite as suddenly as it had started. We were now all set to head down for the much talked about boat ride in the canyon.
We bundled up in life vests and headed down to the pier. Thanks to the rain, the steps down to the pier were terribly slippery and since this hadn’t been part of the plan, we were most definitely not dressed for the occasion, wearing rather slippery shoes which compounded the problem. We made it down eventually without incident and found ourselves waiting in line to ride a bright and orange boat under a now bright and blue sky. Just as the heat was beginning to become quite unbearable in our stuffy jackets, we were assigned a boat, stumbled our way in and set off, our guide and a dedicated crew member steering us into the canyon.
The canyon was absolutely mesmerizing. The water had turned from a crystal clear bluish green to a slightly murky green thanks to the rain, but oh how beautiful it was. We drifted through the canyon, shaded overhead by the canopy of trees, the roots of which twisted and made their way through the rocks. At one point we could see a small waterfall of sorts as well, water gushing its way forth through the seemingly impenetrable rocky canyon walls.
“And yet, after all this, your hearts hardened and became like rocks, or even harder: for, behold, there are rocks from which streams gush forth; and, behold, there are some from which, when they are cleft, water issues; and, behold, there are some that fall down for awe of God. And God is not unmindful of what you do” (Quran 2:74)
We stopped our boat for a short time to enjoy the sound of the water flowing, the water gushing, the water lapping against our boat, to enjoy the lingering smell of the rain and the rays of the light as they filtered through the branches and sparkled on the surface of the water. At this point, mum was more than ready to get off the boat and settle onto a rock if it meant we could stay longer. We had to leave eventually, and once we were back on land, it was time to head to the waterfalls. The falls and the surrounding beauty reminded me of Jeju, everything except the weather that is. Had there been a bench, I could have sat there forever.
But forever wasn’t meant to be, neither was our hope of some rest. Since Okatse was closed, our guide had decided to take us to Prometheus cave instead, insisting that anyone who visited Georgia but didn’t visit the caves hadn’t really seen anything of importance. We weren’t quite sold, but were willing to go along and decided once we reached our destination.
We pulled into the parking lot at the cave and began to have second thoughts. The last thing either of us wanted was a rehash of the fiasco that was Sunrise Peak on Jeju. No stairs… no climbing up mountains and no descending into the bowels of the earth. Just flat walking terrain thank you. We asked our guide to rate the difficulty of the walk, and after some contemplation she concluded that we would have maybe one tough set of stairs and the rest would be pretty straightforward especially since the caves would be nice and cool at around thirteen degrees. With that, we hesitantly decided to take the plunge and journey to the centre of the earth minus the boat ride in the underground river.
There were lots of tourists and we were lucky to make it into what seemed like the last batch of the day. We began… with stairs. Good thing climbing down is not as bad as climbing up. We took it slow and the group didn’t really seem to be in a hurry, which was great. The guide divided us into two groups based on language preference, Russian or English, so she could explain everything about the cave to us. There were quite a lot of tourists though, and as everyone wanted to walk and explore at their own pace after the first stop, the guide didn’t really explain much at all, which was a pity. I’d have loved to learn more about the caves- like if there have been any sighting of blind white fish in the underground river?
Mum took her medication at the first stop just in case but I was beginning to wonder what we’d gotten into. There were stairs everywhere. Not steep for the most part, but muddy and slippery owing to the humidity in the caves. This is precisely why I’d asked mum to skip the Ice Cave in Japan. We decided to go at our own pace and not be pressured into walking any faster than we could, which meant we had ample time to admire the surroundings and not feel too exhausted. But hearing the guy behind us huffing and puffing got me super worried for mum – if a guy my age couldn’t handle the stairs, I was beginning to wonder if we’d done the right thing by letting mum coming down. Our guide had assured us that she’d led a group of 80 year old people down before, who’d insisted on going into the caves and who’d all made it out very much alive. I was reassured… if only slightly. They could have been really healthy Japanese 80 year olds for all I knew, and we all know they can walk for miles and live forever. At least mum wasn’t panting like Mr. Guy Behind Us. That was definitely reassuring.
The caves were lit up in a rainbow of lights illuminating the stunning ongoing artwork of stalactites and stalagmites on the walls and at one point I was convinced that this cave must have been the inspiration for countless Hollywood alien movies- it was like walking in a scene out of Alien vs Predator. The network of caves is quite vast out of which only about a kilometer or so is open to the public. It’s amazing how so much beauty can exist beneath our feet and how far man is willing to go to discover and explore such hidden wonders. I can’t imagine how all the staircases and bridges we were using had been constructed. With no light allowed in the cave to avoid the growth of moss and to maintain the condition of the caves, it couldn’t have been easy.
We finally emerged from the cool caves out into bright sunlight which revealed in all brutal honesty that we were quite mud-splattered and quite exhausted. The place we got out was most definitely not the entrance where we’d started out, so we were a bit confused- where exactly were we supposed to meet our guide? We asked around and it turned out that a bus would take us back to the entrance so a whole crowd us squashed ourselves in, quite like we used to back in uni, a lot of us standing and grabbing on to the seat edges so we wouldn’t fall over. Thankfully it was a short ride and we met Levan at the entrance while his wife was helping other tourists shop for semi-precious stones.
It was now time to head home… except where exactly home was proved to be the source of some confusion. While I could see our hotel on Google maps, most locals didn’t seem to recognize the name and confused it with another hotel in the area – the Tskaltubo Plaza Hotel, which was most definitely not our destination. In any case, just to be on the safe side, we double checked if they had any reservation in our name, which they didn’t and then set off to find the mysteriously well-hidden Tskaltubo Spa Resort. It wasn’t too far off and after getting past security, we were relieved to find that we were in the right place. Mum literally sank into a sofa at the reception while we waited for our keys and contemplated whether we should rest the next day or ask our guides for a tour of Kutaisi, since all tours arranged by the hotel would only be in Russian or Georgian. Mum’s sole purpose in retaining them was just in case she felt poorly the next morning so we would have someone who spoke English and so I wouldn’t panic. Tour of Kutaisi on Day 4 it was then and we were finally ready to call it a night except it wasn’t night of course. There was still the matter of dinner, which was settled quite amicably with a shared vegetable sandwich. Thoughts of the cave and the hotel would have to wait till tomorrow.