We have just spent 3 nights in Gyumri, Armenia.
We now go to our first stop in Georgia: Akhaltsikhe.
The currency in Georgia is the Lari (or the ‘GEL’). I will refer to them as G$s. At the time of writing:
Over time, these exchange rates will change. Please check the current rates.
Minibuses are the most common form of transport in this part of the World. The problem with these minibuses is that most don’t have any luggage space. If you have a big backpack or a big suitcase (like me), your luggage may have to go inside the minibus. If it goes inside, you may be charged for your luggage taking up a seat.
I had a good experience in Goris, Armenia when I pre-booked my ticket on a minibus from there to Yerevan: I was not charged extra for my suitcase. So, I decided to try the same in Gyumri. Two days before leaving, I went to the Gyumri Central Bus Station.
The lady at the ticket office was helpful. She told me that the bus left each day at 10am. The price to Tblisi was AMD5,200 / US$11.25, to Akhalkalaki AMD2,500 / US$5.50, and to Akhaltsikhe AMD4,000 / US$8.75. She told me to just turn up on the day and pay the driver. I was at the Bus Station at 9:20am. I found the minibus. He had nowhere to put luggage and he said that he was full anyway. The 2nd and last minibus that day left at 2pm (with no guarantee of a seat).
Luckily, 2 other local men were in the same predicament. One was going to the border and the other to Akhalkalaki. They asked if I wanted to share a taxi. The taxi price to Akhaltsikhe started at AMD30,000 / US$65 but the locals negotiated him down to AMD20,000 / US$43. This is a pretty good price for a 3 hour taxi journey across a border … but, I always try to use public transport if I can …
The first man was willing to pay AMD2,000, the other AMD3,000 and they wanted me to pay the rest: AMD15,000. I declined and said that I wanted to go to Akhalkalaki instead for the same price of AMD3,000. The man going to the border said that his car was parked there and that he could take us to Akhalkalaki. All we needed was a taxi to the border. We agreed a total price of AMD6,000 / US$13 with the taxi driver. Two of us paid AMD3,000 each so that the man with the car paid nothing. It seemed fair as he was giving us a free lift on the other side of the border. We left at 9:50am and arrived at the border about 1 hour later. It took less than 15 minutes to clear the border. We arrived at the Akhalkalaki Bus Station just after noon.
The next minibus to Akhaltsikhe left at 1pm. My suitcase went under the back seat. The price was G$6 / US$2. We arrived at the Akhaltsikhe Bus Station just before 2:30pm.
Akhaltsikhe means “new castle” and it was formerly known as Lomsia. It is a small city in southwest Georgia. It is situated on both banks of a small river (the Potskhovi), which separates the old city in the north and new city in the south. The population is about 18,000.
On the northeastern outskirts of the city is the archaeological site of Amiranis Gora which shows that human occupation dates back to at least the 4th millennium BC. Roman artefacts have been found in the area. Akhaltsikhe city is first mentioned in chronicles from the 12th century. The Ottomans conquered the city in 1576. The Russian Empire captured it in 1828.
Georgia achieved full independence in 1991.
Our walk starts at the Central Bus Station. We have a quick look at the streets between there and the river (some cheap guesthouse accommodation is found in this area). We, then, have a look at the Rabati old city streets below the Castle before crossing the river into the new city. We complete our tour in the streets east of the central park.
The old city is the nicest area.
This is what GRANDPAckers can expect to find at short notice in late September:
PLEASE NOTE: HOTELS usually display prices INCLUSIVE of TAXES. But many search sites (like HOTELS) don’t provide a ‘private bathroom’ filter, so be careful with some of the cheap hotels and make sure that you read the room details.
AIRBnB / HOLIDAY RENTALS:
PLEASE NOTE: Other sites (such as Homeaway, FlipKey and VRBO are also worth a look).
Guest House / Homestay accommodation is very popular in this part of the World. This means that sites like AirBnB usually have several listings. That said, many such listings are also now available on BOOKING.COM where you tend to get better value for money (because you avoid AirBnB’s service and cleaning fees). HOTELS does not do well in the Georgian marketplace. There are several accommodation options within our GRANDPAcking price range. BUT you need to be careful about your location … read on …
Before I came, I used BOOKING to pre-book a Deluxe Double Room with Private Bathroom and Breakfast at Wine Garden Rabati. To get there, I had to walk up the hill past the castle to Old Rabati village.
I arrived at the property just before 3:30pm. I was shown a room with 2 single beds and told that someone else was in the other bed. I showed her my private room booking. The room that I had booked was taken. There was no private bathroom … one bathroom was shared by the host and all of her guests. I cancelled the booking and found another hotel.
I used BOOKING to book a Double Room with Breakfast at the My House Hotel. It was located over 2 kms away on the other side of town. I walked … at least the first part was downhill 🙂 The price was G$28 / US$10 per night for 6 nights. Due to lack of time and research, I didn’t check the location thoroughly enough …
It was a small and basic room with a small bathroom. No fridge. No TV. The wifi was slow and not fast enough to stream videos. For better wifi you had to go down to reception.
WHERE TO STAY:
You want to be in the Old City north of the E691. If you cannot afford those prices, you can look in the New City north of the park …
The area opposite the Railway / Bus Station is run down. So is the area south of the park. The streets north of the Referral Hospital are run-down residential and too far away from everything.
Have a look yourself:
EAT & DRINK:
Yet again, Tripadvisor is inaccurate. The people who score restaurants and bars on Tripadvisor are, obviously, not ‘budget’ travellers. You can expect almost everything near the castle to be over-priced compared to the rest of town.
At Fast Food outlets in the new town you can get something like a Shawarma for G$5. Away from the castle, you can get a cheap local meal for G$10.
I was going to go from here to Batumi on the Black Sea. However, I discovered that the road is BAD and one bus per day only does the run in summer months and it takes 6 hours going at 15 kms / hour in first gear. The best way out of town is to take the highway northeast and to connect in Borjomi. Expect to pay about G$5 by minibus to get to Borjomi.
Taxis are relatively cheap in Georgia. Expect to pay 10x the price of a minibus. Once shared between 5 people, a taxi should be no more than double the price of a minibus.
There are several Banks and ATMs around town.
INTERNET / WIFI:
Don’t trust your hotel to provide good wifi in our GRANDPAcking price range.
There are 3 main prepaid providers in Georgia.
I chose Beeline.
I didn’t muck around. The Champions League football was starting and I wanted to guarantee that I could watch some games. I purchased 30GBs for 1 month with a SIM for G$35. The 30GBs was G$25 but, somehow, I was charged G$10 for the SIM. I suspect that the lady who configured it up for me took a tip.
I walked out of the shop with a working smartphone and immediately I downloaded the Beeline Georgia app. The app has an English option.
HEALTH & SAFETY:
There is no reason to feel unsafe. As always, exercise normal levels of caution … don’t make yourself an obvious target.
WHEN TO GO
The best time to come is May through September.
WHAT TO DO:
There are several nice places that you can get to on public transport.
VISIT AKHALTSIKHE CASTLE (2 HOURS):
The castle is the main attraction in town. Entry into the lower section is free.
To get into the upper section where the mosque is, you need to buy a ticket for G$6.
VARDZIA CAVE MONASTERY:
I came to Akhaltsikhe to see the famous Vardzia Cave Monastery. You catch a minibus from the Bus Station at 10:30am. It takes 1.5 hours to get to Vardzia. The bus returns to Akhaltsikhe at 3pm. The price is G$5 each way.
LESSON LEARNT: The minibus can be full. I advise you to buy a return ticket from the Bus Station ticketing office in advance. People with a ticket get on the bus first. Those without a ticket may have to stand in the aisle. The driver also picks up locals along the way so more people may stand. It can get quite full. Whether you have a ticket or not, priority for seats is always given to old ladies, then old men, then ladies. If you are young, even with a ticket, you may end up standing in the aisle … or girlfriends sitting on their boyfriend’s knee.
Entry to the monastery is G$7. You pay G$10 more if you want personal audio. I suggest that you get the audio as it makes the tour a lot more interesting. To get audio, you need to leave some formal ID (e.g. driving license or passport) at the office as a security deposit.
Allow 2 hours for the cave tour. If there is a group of you, you can hire a taxi at the Central Bus Station. For a total of G$60 he will take you on a Vardzia area tour. For a little extra, you could do Khertvisi Castle, Tmogvi Fortress, Vanis Kvabebe, The Monastery, The Sulphur Bath, The Nunnery (see, below), and the Convent in the same day trip. For, say, G$20 each between 4 people (excluding entry fees) this would be excellent value for money.
The Convent is 5 kms west of the Cave Monastery. It gets 5* reviews … so, I decided to take a 2nd trip to Vardzia to have a look. On public transport, it is not possible to do the monastery and the Convent in the same day. The minibus drops you off at the Cave Monastery. From there, I decided to walk.
It was a bit of a ‘non-event’. You are not allowed to walk around the Nun’s Monastery, the church was ‘average’, and you can’t get to the Convent. But, it was a very pleasant country walk 🙂 The round trip was about 13 kms. Below the Convent is a restaurant where you can take a break.
Read About – GRANDPAcking Costs if you don’t know how to interpret my figures.
As this is a ‘Living Idea’, I have deviated from providing a 1 month budget and reduced it to a 1 week budget.
My costs are broken down into:
- Cost of Existence: The basic costs of just being there
- Cost of Living: The additional costs that make being there fun
COST OF EXISTENCE (COE):
I EXISTED to GRANDPAcking standard.
My accommodation was G$28 / US$10 per night and this price included Breakfast.
For G$35, I purchased a Beeline SIMcard with 30GBs of data that lasted 1 month.
I averaged G$15 each day on Food and Water.
My COE worked out to be about G$42 (US$14) per day.
COST OF LIVING (COL):
I LIVED to GRANDPAcking standard.
Living Costs: I averaged about G4 / US$1.40 per night on drinks.
Entertainment: I spent G$43 / US$14 on excursions.
Shopping: I spent G$50 on a new smartphone battery.
In / Out Costs: I spent G$6 on the bus from Akhalkalaki to Akhaltsikhe.
My total COL was about G$59 / US$21 per day. This was 41% of my budget.
COSTS FOR 2 GRANDPAckers:
Again, costs are broken down into Cost Of Existence (COE) and Cost Of Living (COL).
COST OF EXISTENCE (COE):
Accommodation: I have booked you something in one of the nicest areas at G$45 / US$15 per night excluding Breakfast.
Transportation: There is no budget for local transport … you will be going on trips to the local sites.
Communications & Fees: I have budgeted a 1 month 4GB Beeline SIMcard Package for G$19.
Food & Water: Your budget averages about G$70 / US$24 per day for 2 people. This is to eat all of your meals in Cheap Restaurants.
Your COE is about G$103 / US$36 per day. This is 30% UNDER budget.
COST OF LIVING (COL):
This leaves you G$43 / US$15 per day to LIVE on.
It is worth coming here just to see the Cave Monastery. Enjoy.