Exploring the canyons to the southwest of Tbilisi
As temperatures rise in the summer, Tbilisi’s residents retreat to the mountains or the Black Sea coast. An alternative getaway away from the crowds is the quiet and cool Algeti Valley, a short drive southwest on the Tbilisi-Tsalka road.
The road climbs from the Tbilisi resort-suburbs of Tsqneti and Kiketi, follows the ridge above the Vere River, and passes the roadside settlements of Orbeti and Pantiani. Two new roads intersect the Tbilisi-Tsalka road, providing a shortcut to the Algeti Reservoir. Near the village of Didi Toneti, women sell thick braids of smoked sulgini and other local cheeses, honey, and walnuts.
The thick textured landscapes of the Algeti Valley feature long meadows that drop into steep red-green fissures of oak and hornbeam forests.
I rented a room in Manglisi, a faded Soviet kurort (resort) and a center of early Georgian Christianity. The summer cottages, with deshabille carved wooden balconies, are patched together with cinderblock and blue tarps. Manglisi features two large public forest parks, and linden- and walnut-lined streets. Trailheads for the Algeti National Park start next to the 4th century Manglisi’s Sioni. A kilometer from Sioni is Torghva Canyon, where I spent the afternoon in a water-carved stone swimming hole.
From the Tsalka Road, I explored the villages of Axal Sopeli (“New Village”) and Sapudzrebi (“Place for Bread Stuff”), plateau settlements in the matrix of forests and meadows. For a return visit, I’ve bookmarked the the Bzistsqali River waterfall near Sapudzrebi, and the Gokhnari Megalithic Fortress.
On Sunday the heat found Manglisi, so I drove to the settlement of Mokhisi. As Mokhisi was still too hot and horse-flied, I continued to the Nichbisi-Toneti Road and hiked along the Didgori Pass ridgeline. Not far from the ridge is Didgori Monument complex, which celebrates the Georgian army’s “miraculous victory” over the legions of Seljuk Turks in 1121.
Descending the road, I passed a stalled truckload of sheep. The driver stood in the shade of the cab, hood open, engine steaming. As I handed him bottles of water, we cursed the road’s unrelenting 7-8 percent grades. Further up the pass, faded Opels and BMWs were likewise disabled. Shepherds drove their flocks towards crest to the north, while cowboys herded steer to the south.
Returning from the Didgori pass, I visited our friend Malkhaz at the Didi Toneti Sanerge (tree nursery). He is growing endemic Georgian saplings on a south-facing ridge. “These are all adapted to this climate - 1200 meters - and the seed is sourced locally.” Species include: Fraxinus angustifolia subsp. oxycarpa, Pinus sosnovsky, Pinus brutia, Tilia Caucasica, Celtis caucasica, Quercus Iberica, Mespilus, and Creteagus Pentygyna. More on Malkhaz in a future post!