It can feel chaotic, but will get you there in the end.
I’ve written about the chaos of Georgian public transport back when I was finishing up my travel posts from Georgia, but it seems I forgot to finish this one with some tips on how to navigate it. Since Europe is opening up for travel a bit after all the coronavirus lockdowns, some of you may want to visit this wonderful Caucasian nation and this post should make your life easier if you aren’t planning to rent a car and drive around on your own. Personally, I’d advise against it unless you’re an experienced driver, because Georgian roads are often not in the best conditions and the locals like to think of traffic rules as optional. However, if you’ve driven around in southern Italy, India or Eastern Europe before and that didn’t freak you out, then go for it!
#1: Marshrutka public vans
First off, the public vans, which are the most common mode of Georgian public transport instead of intercity bus lines. They’re called marshrutka or marshrutky in plural form and they are everywhere. The name comes from the German marcheroute, which originated in the French military term meaning route of march and was later adopted into Russian and tied to the word marshrut, which simply means route.
A marshrutka is usually the oldest, most messed up unmarked van around with a roomy interior of about 3-4 rows of seats. The word seat is used in the loosest term possible here as the drivers are paid based on the amount of people they can squeeze into the vans and seatbelts are most often a foreign concept, but luckily there’s no standing space so at least you get to seat for the ride. However, even if everything else that should be a part of the usual van interior is missing, there will always be disgusting window curtains full of decades old filth for sure, so you can pick between being squashed amongst two people or one person and the notorious curtain. Also, there’s not a lot of luggage space, so it’s best to pack light, i.e. a backpack as opposed to a hard shell suitcase.
You’ll find marshrutky parked in large open parking lots by the main road or in the designated part of town. Even if something is called “the bus station”, it will just be a parking lot with a small terminal building for tickets at best (they’re called vagzali in Georgian). However, the existence of a ticket building doesn’t also mean that the vans will be parked in any or even the right order, although they will sometimes have signs stating their final destination town in the window. Unfortunately, most of the time these signs will not be in the Latin alphabet, but rather in the Georgian scribbles one, so don’t even bother.
Same goes for the schedule, or rather the lack of one. There is an official schedule that they sort of stick to, which you can find at the station or ask around at the hotel you’re staying in, but you’ll need to plan for flexibility. The drivers usually stand around their respective vans waiting for enough people to show up and the van will depart when it’s full, so embrace the wait or you’ll go crazy. It can take a while for the van to fill up in smaller towns, but they usually won’t leave you hanging for more than an hour if it’s at least half full. However, if the van fills up quickly, it will leave early no matter the schedule. Marshrutky normally start running around 8 am, with last departure being around 6 pm. For popular destinations there will be a van every 20 – 40 minutes and about 1 every hour for less popular ones, with a longer break around lunchtime. There’s no official website with marshrutka schedules as they are not run by a single company, but you can find some routes posted on travel forums across the Internet and the schedule doesn’t change much.
The best thing to do is to arrive to the marshurtka gathering point early and walk around asking the drivers if they’re going to the place you want to go to. Sometimes the names are unpronounceable for a foreigner and some of the drivers don’t read Latin alphabet, so it’s good to have a written form of the Georgian town name either on paper or on your phone to avoid misunderstandings. You’ll also need to have cash, because most of Georgian public transport services still operate on a cash only basis. The fare is fixed and you pay it directly to the driver before or after the trip, they’ll tell you which. As far as I could tell, there was no double pricing for tourists and the drivers always had plenty of change handy.
Marshrutky usually have a set route from point A to B, but will stop in smaller towns on the way if someone wants to get off. They’ll even stop for toilet breaks if necessary, so if you need the driver to stop, the phrase in Georgian is aq gaacheret. You can also stop one by the side of the road by waving at them (which is how most transfers work), but make sure to ask if it’s the right one before getting on board. The drivers are usually very friendly and willing to help you out, so if you’re in a hurry, try to communicate your plans with the driver and they might even call ahead to the next van to set things up for you.
If you’re not used to travelling in less Western countries, a marshrutka ride can be quite the shock to the system, so be prepared to throw your life in the wind and trust lady luck. The first time we took a ride in one of the vans, the driver was old enough to have met the original inventor of internal combustion engines and he drove like Death was on his heels even on dirt roads, but we survived. Which brings us to the all important question – why would you even want to take a marshrutka ride? Well, it’s cheap – like 1-3 GEL (less than 1 €) for short trips and up to 25 GEL (7 €) for a 6 hour trip cheap, which is amazing if you’re on a budget. It’s also the most authentic way of getting around Georgia. You’ll really get to experience the local life, which is what travelling is all about, and you’re bound to have some crazy stories to tell back home. Even though it looks and feels wildly unsafe and may not be the most comfortable mode of transport, the locals have been doing it for years, so just try to get a window seat and embrace the experience!
Georgia also has a relatively decent train network, but it consists of old, slow Soviet trains, so it’s best to book an overnight train and sleep onboard. You can check the schedules here. However, be aware that some night trains and longer journeys still work on an even and odd day system and plan accordingly. We took a night train from Tbilisi to Batumi, which runs one way on even days and the return way on odd days, so double check the dates and reserve a seat in advance, because the trains can fill up fast.
There are usually luggage storage rooms at the train stations in larger cities, but they’re quite rudimentary, so I wouldn’t leave anything valuable there. Also, you can easily take a train or a marshrutka to Armenia and Azerbaijan, although crossing the border to Russia and Turkey can be a bit more complicated due to security measures.
The last Georgian public transport option is hiring a taxi, which is pretty straightforward like everywhere. Taxi drivers will usually hang around marshrutka parking lots and try to offer you a better route than the public vans, so it all depends on your budget. They’re very useful for visiting tourist attractions without public transport connections, but make sure you negotiate the price in advance and look up online what the approximate cost for your destination should be so you don’t get overcharged as a stupid tourist. Like everything in Georgia, a taxi ride is relatively cheap for travellers from Western countries, but it can add up for longer trips. You can usually find taxi drivers offering package deals for nearby destinations and they’ll have the prices printed out on little laminated sheets with photos of the attraction, so that can be a cost saving option. You can also book a private car and a driver at companies like GoTrip Georgia, which is more like a travel agency service.
Most of the taxi drivers speak Russian and at least functional English, so you should be able to arrange a satisfactory deal. We had a really good experience with our taxi driver on the trip to Vardzia and the Sapara monastery from Akhaltsikhe and paid about 35 € for 2 days of driving around, including a tip. He was super friendly and helped us get settled in the accommodation where the owner didn’t speak anything except Georgian, told us all about the local history, inside ways to see some of the sights for free and even bought us bread after we said we hadn’t tried it yet. Of course he also had Georgian chaca liquor in the trunk for an impromptu tasting while we were waiting for the cows to move off the road. 🙂
So that’s it! I hope it helps and I wish you all the best when navigating the Georgian public transport – although it will be frustrating at times, I promise you the experience is worth it and Georgia is a great place to experience.