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Daytripping through Kvemo Kartli to Dashbashi Canyon

City life became a bit too much for us lately. We’ve only been in Tbilisi for a month but after spending so much time in the nature before that, combined with somewhat stressful jobs after not working for while, we need a little escape. Hikes are difficult at this time of the year and unfortunately, we’re not aware of the amazing snowshoe trail in Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park yet! I honestly don’t remember how we found out about Dashbashi canyons anymore. All I know is that we were looking for a winter day trip from Tbilisi that wasn’t Mtskheta. And we don’t even have a clue that Tsveri church exists just yet on this Saturday morning, as we set off to get out of the city to explore the Kvemo Kartli region.

As always, we want to leave early but life just gets in the way. Today, we discover that the front tire of the car went flat. Not surprising really. The poor car endured many potholes since entering Georgia. Where to get that fixed on a Saturday morning though? Even if garages are open today, 8.30am is definitely too early. We try a garage but it’s closed, and then a tire shop. They don’t fix tires there but point us down the “road”. It’s a tiny dirt road leading behind some flat blocks. A big garage comes into view. The nice dude pumps up our tire, refuses a tip and gestures that unfortunately he can’t fix it, just put air in it. But… this is a tire repair?

Kvemo Kartli’s little secret

Never mind, we think. Maybe the puncture isn’t so bad? Maybe there isn’t even a puncture? Surely he wouldn’t just act so casual if it was actually a puncture. Maybe we just hadn’t closed the valve properly when we put air in it the last time. Also we’re not going mega far. Let’s just roll. We drive out westwards of Tbilisi, through and up the hills, past Bagebi where the posh people live, past some private schools where their posh kids go to school. Tskneti highway snakes up through Kvemo Kartli to a considerable height quite quickly, and before we know it we’re zooming through a forest in thick fog.

To our right, the landscape opens up below the road. The panoramic view over Kvemo Kartli here is amazing, so we pull over to take a closer look. There’s hill after hill, not a single sign of life anywhere. Except for a tiny white building, towering lonesome on a hilltop in the distance. We narrow our eyes – what on earth is this, and how far could it possibly be? In this very instance we both decide to try and get there on our way back. First Dashbashi!

Highlights of Kvemo Kartli: Historical Tsalka, magical Dashbashi

Dashbashi canyons are close to the village Tsalka in the Kvemo Kartli region, in a gorge through which Khrami river flows. Tsalka’s architecture might not be particularly exciting but its history sure is! In the 19th century, Greeks settled here all the way from Kars in Turkey. The community grew until there were about 20 000 Caucasus Greeks in Tsalka in the 1980ies – out of a total population of 30 000! Nowadays Caucasus Greeks make up about 7% of Tsalka’s population and there’s only about 2000 left in the whole Kvemo Kartli region.

The waterfalls are at the bottom of a deep, narrow gorge. We drive down the little lane, park on what we think is the designated space and almost have a heart attack when we get out of the car. There’s a loud, continuous PPPPFFFFFFTTTTTT sound coming from the front tire. So definitely a puncture. Nothing we can do about that now anyway, so we decide to worry later and enjoy now. We pass the small St. George’s church and start our way down to the bottom. Luckily there’s not really much snow, otherwise the descend could be quite tricky; the path is steep and there’s no barrier protecting you from tumbling all the way down if you slip.

Gorgeous waterfalls

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From concrete to sparkles

Once at the bottom, we discover what looks like a small hydroelectric power station(?). It’s hard for us to tell if it’s abandoned or still used, or something in between. What we know for sure is that it’s not particularly new. The red star and the 1935 on the little bridge proves it. At this point we’ve lost the path and continue through some undergrowth until we end up on an island in the middle of Khrami River which flows through Kvemo Kartli all the way to Azerbaijan. Don’t ask me how. We track back, past the power station, and see the obvious path turning left into the canyon.

From there, we climb over rocks for a few hundred meters until the sound of water falling down gets louder. All of a sudden, the waterfalls open up in front of us. The moss on the bottom of the river colours the water vibrant green and the waterfalls sparkle in the sunlight. What a nice change from all the greys and browns of winter time! The waterfalls continue to line the canyon walls but it’s a bit tricky to venture further as the path disappeared. In better weather, I think to myself, and enjoy the view I have in front of me.

After Aydin packed his camera gear away we head back up. Unsurprisingly, this is a lot harder than going down. Panic sets in as well. Will we even be able to drive off with a flat tire? Once we get to the car we’re sweaty from fear and exercise but ultimately relieved as the tire didn’t change! That’s definitely a sign to explore Tsalka and try to find the church we’ve seen in the distance on the way here, right?

Linguistic landscapes in Kvemo Kartli

We see a restaurant called Pontia in the village. Written in Cyrillic, with some Georgian letters above it, I wonder if it’s a reference to Pontic Greeks who lived in the regions in nowadays Turkey where most Caucasus Greeks migrated from. A lot of ethnic Greeks left for Greece in the 90ies. As a result, a lot of houses sit in ruins. According to Democracy and Freedom Watch, a direct bus still goes from Thessaloniki in Greece to Tsalka in the Kvemo Kartli region – three times a week! We pass a tiny Greek chapel and head towards Tsalka reservoir which stretches out with the Caucasus behind it.

Tsalka reservoir is not only the largest reservoir in Kvemo Kartli but in the whole of Georgia! It sits in the middle of the Tsalka Plateau. This volcanic plateau is where traces of the ancient Trialeti culture dating back to the 2nd millenium BC were found. They’re known for their special burial practices; people were buried under cairns in the earth – often with four wheeled cards and lots of gold.

This types of graves are called tumulus but what’s really interesting here is that the style of and the objects found in these burial sites correspond to Kurgan burial sites. Kurgan culture is assumed to be the culture of speakers of Proto-Indo-European, the language from which most European languages nowadays have developed! Kvemo Kartli is heaven for a linguist nerd like me.

Tracing Kvemo Kartli’s mystery church

Then it’s time to move on. Back to the side of the road where we spotted the small church. We can see a little road going down to the left. Since we don’t have all that much time left anymore we don’t think and just drive. It seems to have rained in the meantime because the steep dirt road is wet and slippy. It flattens out soon but only gets worse. The car slides left to right and gets dangerously close to the edge. Best not to mention how far down it goes from there. We drive as far as we can but at some point we just have to pull over. On foot we shall continue!

We’re in the middle of nowhere now. A path snakes through some fields upwards. We don’t have the slightest clue if it’ll really lead to the church. In fact, it was rather difficult to estimate from the road plateau how far away it actually was. Could be 3 kilometres, could be 30? We can see the path on maps.me, and there is a sign saying გიორგი which I decipher as Giorgi. Detective Caroline concludes that it must be the church because every other church in Georgia is called Saint Giorgi. So we’ll just follow the path until we run out of time.

Tiny Tsveri church, tremendous thunderstorm

It started raining again but the walk is quite nice, or better said it would be in good weather. The path goes up the hill with pretty views on the surrounding landscape, then leads into a forest. The rain is quite heavy now but as the trees thin out, we can see the tiny church perched on a rock! It’s even smaller than it looked from afar. I’m starting to get a bit worried now though – being Austrian, a church so remote would definitely be locked. Praised be Georgia though, the door opens and we step inside.

The church is about 20sqm big. Its blackened walls are lined with icons, drawings, paintings, photos and messages. There’s a small altar and a lit candle on top of it. Mustn’t have been long since it’s last visitor! I sit down and take a deep breath. The atmosphere in here is special. Despite its size it feels like an important place, like people gather here regularly. When I step back outside, the panoramic view is gone. Clouds completely engulf us and we hear distant thunder rolling.

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Mud race home through Kvemo Kartli

I don’t want to leave yet but it’s getting dark and the weather is worrying. We half-run back to the car. The dirt road is a mud pit now. I decide to walk for the first part of the road and push the car when necessary while Aydin is trying his hardest to keep the car on the road and not get stuck. It works mostly but it’s nerve-racking and exhausting. We agree that it’s best for me to stay out of the car while Aydin drives it up to the main road in order to make it lighter. I’ve not been this terrified for a while as I keep on listening to the sound of the motor roaring and the tires finding no grip, spraying mud everywhere.

Eventually we meet at the main road again. At least I’m not cold anymore! We head back to Tbilisi, happy to have found this hidden but plain-in-sight place and ready for a giant khachapuri. Finding a tire repair will have to wait a bit.

FACTS FACTS FACTS

How to get there

Marshrutkas to Tsalka leave Samgori station in Tbilisi from 8am on. The last one back should go at 5pm but check with the driver to make sure. This page is super helpful when it comes to navigating marshrutkas from Tbilisi. The ride takes about 2,5 hours. Once you get to Tsalka, you’ll have to walk another 2,5km to the entrance of Dashbashi canyon. It seems like a rather long journey for one day but people have reported visiting both Dashbashi and Tsalka reservoir in one day via marshrutka without problems.

For Tsveri church, jump out of the marshrutka here. It’s a 4.2km walk to the church from the main road. Just follow the dirt road down and once it splits, continue on the path that goes up the hill in front of you. There is a yellow arrow pointing in that direction where the road splits.

Doing both places in one day will not the possible with marshrutkas but doable if you have your own means of transport. Driving down the dirt road to where the path up the hill to Tsveri church starts already knocks off 2,5km each way.

Things to do

We will update this post with more first hand experiences as we explore more of Kvemo Kartli from the list below:

  • Dashbashi canyons
  • Tsalka and Tsalka reservoir
  • Tsveri church
  • Bolnisi monastery: one of the oldest churches in Georgia
  • Kolagiri Fortress: built under Queen Darejan in the 18th century, one of the last standing fortresses in the region
  • Samshvilde: one of the oldest walled settlements in Georgia, nowadays in ruins
  • Dmanisi: historical and archeological site with ongoing excavations
Dmanisi Church in Georgia
Dmanisi church in Kvemo Kartli

Accommodation

CouCou Hostel in Tsalka looks like a nice option if you want to spend the night. Currently dorms are about EUR 10,– and privates around EUR 20,—. The bathroom is outside!

Pro Tip

Grab some food at Pontia restaurant in Tsalka. The cuisine will be Georgian and not Greek though…

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