In the country of Georgia, you travel by marshrutka, van-like mini-buses running from town to town across the widely varying terrain of the Caucasus. These buses sometimes have seat belts, but sometimes you’re lucky to brace your legs against a rickety door as the van winds around tight mountain curves. You’re in there with whoever else shows up that day and the bus leaves when it’s full. There’s one stop per route, you’re holding out through bumpy roads until the driver’s smoke break.
We were on a marshrutka headed for Kutaisi, two Minnesota girls rolling through the outskirts of capital city Tbilisi into rural Georgia. Trying not to be the worst tourists ever, we memorized a few phrases in Georgian: hello, please, thank you, where is, etc. Savanna helpfully spoke Russian (learned during semesters studying abroad in St. Petersburg) and I helplessly smiled a lot (a very American habit that confused local Georgians and Russian tourists alike but usually helped indicate our general intent). The combination was enough to get around.
Or so we thought.
Coming off two days in the northern Kazbegi mountains, we were feeling confident. We loved everything about Georgia. We climbed up to the most famous landmark in the country the day before, a church built 7,000 feet above sea level. We craved Georgian food at all times of the day and knew how much to order since portion sizes were generous and dishes were hearty. We understood that marshrutkas wouldn’t wait for us and that it was crucial to bring a bland snack to settle a motion sick stomach, as well as drinking water sparingly onboard because of the lack of bathroom stops.
So when we pulled into the intimidatingly chaotic Didube station in Tbilisi after the stunning four-hour alpine drive from Kazbegi, we asked our marshrutka driver if he could point us toward a bus to Kutaisi. He seemed amused by his two excitable, clueless American passengers: He showed us the way to coffee before leaving the mountain town, fetched us from the cafe ten minutes prior to departure and patiently explained the length of the halfway break so we wouldn’t be left behind. (“Fifteen-minute stop. Fifteen minutes.”) He agreed to help again, leading us on a winding route between ticket booths, street food vendors, marshrutkas and taxis.
The driver stopped in front of a marshrutka seconds from speeding out of the station. There was only one seat left.
All the negotiation that happened next was in rapid Georgian, with the speed of the conversation picking up as tones got heated. Then one young guy got out of the van, leaving two spots open. We checked the Georgian letters on the window against the ones listed on our map as Kutaisi. “ქუთაისი.” They matched. Helpful hands reached for our backpacks and we were ushered into the marshrutka, paying 10 Georgian lari ($4) and settling in for the five-hour drive. “Madloba,” we said. მადლობა. Thank you.
Our halfway point was a truck stop, with two bare-bones restaurants and lots of curious eyes fixated on the two English-speaking girls traveling alone. We nibbled on granola bars and Ювлейное (yuvleniye), crumbly Russian tea biscuits, as we waited. It started to rain, changing our interpretation of the place from just out of our comfort zone to slightly ominous, and we started tapping our toes as the driver showed little interest in getting back into the van.
Finally, we saw the mother and child pair from our marshrutka make a run for the bus through the downpour and we followed her lead. The driver put us back on the highway shortly after, Savanna following the little blue dot on her offline map to ensure we were still headed for Kutaisi (we had no cell data in Georgia). Our dot steadily moved closer to the city and we estimated another hour until we’d make it to the bus station. The rain kicked my paranoia into high gear; I was ready to be settled into our Kutaisi hostel and to crack open the bottle of Georgian wine stowed in Savanna’s backpack.
An hour later, we drove slowly through a small city. The driver scanned the side of the road, I assumed he was watching for a turn-off into a bus station. Instead, he pulled over to hand a stuffed envelope to two men on the curb in a split-second exchange. We kept driving.
My gut twisted with worry. Where was the bus station? Savanna, still following our little dot on the map, indicated it had to be soon as she tried to find our location without the help of automatically-orienting online map.
We drove further, trading the bustle of the city for cow-filled fields. Our fellow passengers traded confused glances. Savanna and I peeked around the bus to see everyone looking at us.
The mother in the seat in front of us turned around to meet our eyes. “Kutaisi?” she asked.
We nodded. Yes, Kutaisi.
“Kutaisi, bye-bye.” She waved her hands like you might wave to a child to explain the concept of long-gone.
We panicked as she explained to the driver that the two American dummies in the back had wanted to get off in Kutaisi — apparently the city we’d passed twenty minutes ago. He screeched to a stop, opened the trunk, grabbed our backpacks and dumped them on the ground. As soon as we hopped out of the marshrutka, he drove away, leaving us alone with the cows on the side of the road.
It took us a minute to recover. We stood on a highway somewhere outside Kutaisi, weighing our options. There weren’t many. We could find someone to give us directions or try our luck at hitchhiking. Promising each other we wouldn’t cry yet, we wandered back the way we came until we spotted a gas station filled with mechanics.
Savanna tried explaining our predicament in Russian, but we were farther from the Russian border than in northern Kazbegi and far off the Russian tourist track in Tbilisi. The sole woman onsite gestured toward a huge guy with a car, saying “Kutaisi.”
Nope. We were not going to get in a car with a muscle man who we’d just seen swinging car parts around with far too much ease. He could be the most gentle guy to ever operate a tire iron, but we weren’t in the mood to take that gamble. Other concerned mechanics came to join the debate, speaking in Georgian. We recognized the words “Kutaisi” and “marshrutka.” That was enough of a plan for us, so we watched our saviors wave down a passing bus and tell the driver what we assumed was “these silly lost American girls need to get to Kutaisi.” He waved us onto the empty bus. “Madloba, madloba,” we repeated pathetically.
We sat anxiously on the marshrutka for less than fifteen minutes until the bus driver pulled over, announcing “Kutaisi” and depositing us on the street corner. It was Kutaisi alright, but we were nowhere near the bus station or our hostel.
Our hostel was about three miles away, according to Savanna’s map. We could walk with our giant backpacks through a strange city or we could see how much it would be to flag a taxi across town. Savanna asked a taxi driver on our corner. Seven lari (about $2), he said. Sold. He didn’t know quite where our hostel was but he was sure he could figure it out.
But he couldn’t seem to figure out how to start his car. The driver turned his key in the ignition again and again. Nothing. Without warning, he hopped out and took our backpacks with him, gesturing to another car across the street. We leapt to follow our bags. We hadn’t made it all the way here to lose our clothes now.
The other car pulled around and our new taxi driver greeted us with a grin. “Hello! Where are you going?”
Beaming back with what were probably less grateful smiles and more manic grimaces, we gave him the hostel address and, although he’d never heard of it, he gamely drove in the direction of his best guess. On the edge of exhausted tears, we chatted with him about Kutaisi as he pointed out fountains and churches. We inched along the street where the hostel supposedly was located, looking for the street numbers on buildings adorned with slightly worn intricate railings.
When we spotted the tiny sign, we hit our last bit of adrenaline. We thanked the kind taxi driver in English and Georgian and headed inside. We dropped our bags on the riverside patio and requested to borrow two cups and a corkscrew before we even saw our room. Giggling like lunatics, we popped the cork out of a bottle of Saperavi and poured two healthy helpings of red wine.
The first glass we drank for the nerves. On the second glass, we toasted the end of our first week of Georgian adventures and the start of our second. There was still so much more to come.
I was in Georgia on assignment for Swirled and I published a bunch of stories about this trip there.
If that bottle of calming saperavi sounded super, check out my guide to Georgian wine:
If you were intrigued by the food, read my rave about Georgian cuisine:
That famous Georgian landmark I mentioned? It’s Gergeti Trinity Church.
I also wrote about the highlight of being in Kutaisi, Prometheus Cave:
And I bragged about hiking the mountainous region of Svaneti, where Savanna and I headed after Kutaisi.