I have more stamps in my passport from the Republic of Georgia (not to be confused with the state of Georgia) than from anywhere else – 10 altogether, 5 entrance and 5 exit.
How did this happen? Well, let’s just say the Republic of Georgia is really convenient. It probably enjoys the best flight connections out of the three Caucasus capitals and as an American, I can visit visa-free for up to ninety days (maybe even more?). More importantly, with the borders closed between Armenia and Azerbaijan and between Armenia and Turkey, Georgia can be a necessary transit country if you are traveling in the region.
Arriving by sea
I first arrived in Georgia by sea after I took the ferry across the Black Sea from Ilyichevsk, Ukraine. This was a long-awaited arrival as we were delayed by several days and I was about to lose my mind when we finally docked. A new Georgian friend (who I think proposed marriage to me) announced me to the immigration officers seated behind the reception desk on the boat. As I stepped up to the counter and handed over my American passport, the officer greeted me with “ahhhh, America! Welcome! You are always welcome here!”
As I said “spasibo” (Russian for thank you) out of habit, he graciously corrected me with “madloba” (Georgian for thank you). He then proceeded to teach me how to say hello (gamarjoba) as well. We shared a smile and laugh as I repeated both after him several times. It was possibly the warmest welcome I have ever received in a country.
My first stay lasted just four days as I was on my way to volunteer in Armenia. I spent one night in Batumi before taking the overnight train to Tbilisi, where I spent just two nights. I didn’t do or see much because I knew I would be back.
Arriving by land from Armenia
About six weeks later, I arrived in Georgia for the second time after finishing my volunteer stint in Armenia. I was hot and sweaty from sitting next to the window of a stuffy, packed marshrutka. And I was sad to be leaving Armenia after just five weeks. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I walked across the bridge to enter Georgia and I don’t even remember my interaction with the immigration officer who checked my passport.
My second stay was also short as I spent just two nights in Tbilisi before flying out to Rome for the Travel Bloggers Unite conference. But, I did manage to squeeze in a day trip to Davit Gareja with two girls staying at my hostel. As it turns out, our trip was fortuitous because the site was closed to visitors several weeks later over a border dispute with Azerbaijan.
Arriving by land from Turkey
My third arrival in Georgia may have been the most nerve-wreaking – my not-so-by-the-book border crossing from Turkey. I came through the less popular Posof/Vale border via a mini-bus, taxi, mini-bus, taxi and, finally, another mini-bus, all the while accompanied by a Turkish guy who I was convinced was trying to scam me.
This third trip to Georgia, though, was for real – I spent nearly two weeks finally exploring the country I kept passing through. I spent a week in Tbilisi, taking day trips to Mtskheta, Gori and Uplistsikhe. I headed to Mestia for a weekend and I spent three days in Telavi, exploring the monasteries and wineries of the Kakheti region. While I already knew I loved Tbilisi, this third time was the charm for me as I fell in love with the rest of the country as well.
Arriving by land from Azerbaijan
I entered Georgia for the fourth time via the Krasny Most (“Red Bridge”) border point with Azerbaijan. All seemed good as we arrived at the border much faster than I thought and the immigration officer who checked my passport gave me a “wow” and a smile as she flipped through my stamps and visas. But then things got a little sketchy as the bus driver decided he didn’t want to continue all the way to Tbilisi for just me and the one other guy on the bus going that far.
This fourth stay in Tbilisi was incredibly short as I stayed just two nights and left for Armenia less than 48 hours after I arrived.
Arriving by land from Armenia (again)
And finally, trip number five. As I walked through the border to Georgia for a fifth time, I kind of felt like I was on a six hour marshrutka ride of shame. I had stumbled into my hostel around 5:30 a.m. after a crazy last night in Yerevan, managed to wake up at 9:30 on the dot and somehow made it to Kilikia bus station and onto a marshrutka by 10:00 – 9:56 to be exact. In the rush, I neglected to shower or change clothes, aside from putting on capris instead of the skirt from the previous night. By some miracle, the marshrutka was half empty (that never happens!) so no one had to sit next to my gross self that smelled like smoke and alcohol.
As for the border checkpoint itself? Well, I don’t really recall aside from that it went incredibly fast. Everyone on the marshrutka was through in about 15 minutes.
This last trip was another short one as I was flying to Tajikistan the next afternoon. I ran some errands, sent some emails and met up with Sylvia for dinner as she was in Tbilisi for the weekend. Then I headed to the airport less than 24 hours after arriving, feeling sad and scared and anxious.
The Republic of Georgia had become so comfortable for me; I hated the idea of leaving even though I knew it was time to move on to something new.
And even though I technically visited five times and spent a total of 26 days there, I am already looking forward to trip number six. There is still more to see.
What country have you visited the most?