The Road to Mestia, Georgia

I visited Delhi on a work trip a few years ago. The flight was delayed by seven hours which meant getting to the hotel in the middle of the night, exhausted, and I was up for work just three hours later. Bleary eyed, I went downstairs and outside to the hotel taxi rank, hit by the awful dry heat as I left the lobby. The driver was an older guy, a fairly quiet guy, and after I jumped in the car, he drove us off.

The hotel was next to a busy road, a major commuter road in one direction at this time of the morning, and he seemed uninterested in waiting for a gap in the traffic… so he didn’t. He turned in the right direction, but down the wrong side of the road, dodging in and out of traffic to the sound of car horns for a couple of hundred yards until he reached a turn off. That was my introduction to India: thinking I was going to end up in a head-on collision as the driver weaved his way around the on-coming cars as I watched on in horror in my knackered, jet-lagged state.

Georgia brought it all back.

Our introduction to driving in Georgia was pulling out of the car rental car park in Tbilisi onto what looked like a four-lane roundabout but seemed more like a free-for-all, with no obvious lanes. Just a little further down the road we had to cross directly over a busy motorway with no help from traffic lights, eventually tailing another car in the hope that they knew what they were doing and might provide safety in numbers. And those were the more pleasant parts of inter-city driving in the country.

There was a clear distinction between the towns and the countryside. The country roads (aside from some of the more treacherous mountain routes) were fairly pleasant and relaxed. The roads in towns seemed to be lacking infrastructure and order – severe potholes, three lanes of traffic on a two-lane road, terrifying weaving in and out of busy traffic, passers-by (of the human and bovine variety) with free roam to wander across busy roundabouts or junctions. It wasn’t uncommon, especially in Kutaisi, to have a route in mind to get from one place to another only to find mass roadworks blocking the route, and the diversion going the wrong way up a one-way street, into on-coming cars.

But it kind of just worked.

There wasn’t any obvious anger, beeping of horns, any accidents. I saw a few cars lacking a front bumper and some that looked like they had seen far better days but didn’t see any accidents. The closest to it was an impatient driver in front of us looking to overtake and avoiding a head-on collision at the last second. The chaos of driving in Georgia seems to be a thing people accept and some kind of order comes from it.

Some of the mountainous roads are a different story. The road to Tusheti is thought to be the most dangerous in the world and watching videos of it is terrifying enough. Heading to the more remote areas, roads often descend into dirt tracks, which could be blocked or part washed away by heavy rain, snow or ice. Driving here needs a reliable car, patience and concentration.

My favourite part of the trip was the road to Mestia, driving between Kutaisi and the little Svaneti town. The area around Kutaisi is lovely, with mountain views all round, and it gets better on the route to Mestia. After the white-knuckle ride of the Kutaisi roads, we drove west for a while before heading north through Zugdidi (back into traffic chaos). And from there, along the Georgia/Abkhazia border, the scenery starts to get stunning. It was snow-peaked mountains against the blue sky.

The roads on this route are generally okay but with some interesting moments. Part of driving in Georgia is being on the lookout for roadside animals – they’re everywhere and have free roam. Pigs, goats, horses, cows, and the stray dogs. The dogs are all over the place and some ended up chasing the car at times.

This video is from the Road to Mestia, showing some of the more memorable moments. I couldn’t capture much footage in the cities due to needing to navigate the inevitable diversions, so these are the country roads. It’s set to music that was playing on our last day, as our taxi driver drove to the airport the wrong way down the road, only dodging on-coming traffic at the last second before pulling out again for more overtaking adventures. “I ain’t gonna live for ever”, the lyrics blasted. Yup, we certainly won’t with this kind of driving.

 

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