Places to visit in Tsopa, Katskhi, Mravaldzali

Georgia. Jeep Tour to Imereti and Racha, Day One, May 13, 2022.


Imereti has a unique history, situated in the heart of Georgia at the crossroads of the eastern kingdom of Kartli and the western kingdom of Colchis. It has been influenced by Pontic culture from the Black Sea coast to the west and Iberian culture in eastern Georgia. Serving as a major trade route from east to west, it is surrounded by fertile low mountains.

Arab conquest engulfed the entirety of Georgia up to Abkhazia. However, during the reign of King Bagrat III in the 11th century, who unified and liberated Georgia from Arab rule, Imereti emerged as a center bridging the gap between the West and East. The capital became Kutaisi, the modern capital of Imereti. Despite periods of division when the West and East struggled against external threats, Imereti maintained its independence, boasting a distinct history, culture, influence, and politics. Surrounding regions to the north and east became subject to Imereti's influence, forming alliances or engaging in conflicts. Racha, the ancient land, to the north, was one such area.

Racha, Imereti's northern neighbor, is nestled in higher mountains, primarily at an elevation of around 1,500 meters above sea level, in contrast to Imereti where settlements are found in valleys and mountains up to a thousand meters high. Imereti features a mild climate, fertile hills, highlands, deciduous forests, and a continuous string of small villages, creating a unique atmosphere.

We will explore the region around the town of Chiatura, where nature has concentrated more than half of the world's manganese ore reserves. Our journey includes visits to the Pillar of Katskhi, enjoying the views of the Cave Monastery of Mgvimevi, savoring the famous imeruli and mchadi, and crossing the breathtaking Shkhmeri Pass to reach Racha. There, we'll encounter the legendary Rioni River, the Lake of Love in Cholvi, and the secluded mountain village of Mravaldzali, surrounded by snowy mountains, bear forests, and otherworldly tranquility. Our day will conclude with a sunset in the pristine forest, where trees will be embraced by the crimson hues of the departing day, and the spring blossoms of medunitsa will remind us that spring has arrived in the mountains. Of course, we won't miss tasting the most delicious Rachin bread and the secrets of the beloved Rachin cuisine, considered the best in all of Georgia.

Languages: RU, EN
Author & Co-authors
Evgeny Praisman (author)
Здравствуйте! Меня зовут Женя, я путешественник и гид. Здесь я публикую свои путешествия и путеводители по городам и странам. Вы можете воспользоваться ими, как готовыми путеводителями, так и ресурсом для создания собственных маршрутов. Некоторые находятся в свободном доступе, некоторые открываются по промо коду. Чтобы получить промо код напишите мне сообщение на телефон +972 537907561 или на и я с радостью вам помогу! Иначе, зачем я всё это делаю?
Nukri Maghradze
I am a professional guide and a Georgian. More precisely, a Kartvelian – that's how we call ourselves. Don't be surprised, for me, being a professional Kartvelian is not a way to make money, but the meaning of life. I love my country, our traditions, culture, and food; most of all, I enjoy sharing them with people. And the most authentic thing, in my opinion, is the feast. Because it's not just a break between eating food and wine; it's a liturgy that makes this world a better place.
170.12 km
8h 8 m
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The road to Sechkhare passes through an elevation situated at an altitude of seven hundred fifty meters above sea level. In winter, the temperature here is on average a few degrees above zero, while in summer, it reaches around twenty degrees. On these pastures, cows graze to produce milk, which is used to make Imeretian cheese – the second most common cheese in Georgia after sulguni cheese. It's noteworthy that Imeretian cheese serves as the raw material for producing sulguni. We crossed the border of Imereti – one of the most fertile and beautiful regions in western Georgia. The capital of Imereti is Kutaisi, the second-largest city in Georgia after Tbilisi. From here, our journey will take us to Racha, once a northern vassal principality of the Kingdom of Imereti, and today, one of the most distinctive and still undiscovered regions in Georgia – Racha-Lechkhumi.

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"The monastery is located near the town of Chiatura. It is famous for its cable cars, which used to serve as urban transportation. Miners used them to reach manganese mines. Nature has hidden half of the world's manganese reserves in these mountains. Industrialization came to Chiatura in the early twentieth century, and the city reached a population of thirty thousand. Today, no more than thirteen thousand people live there. The city is still sustained by manganese ores."

The monastery is located in the mountains, and there is a trail leading up to it.

The monastery was founded in the thirteenth century, likely as a refuge for those seeking to retreat from the valley into the mountains.

The monastery's name translates to "cave." Indeed, its main hall is a large cave with a karst spring in its depths.

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On the monastery grounds, there are two churches. The main and older one is dedicated to the Holy Virgin Mary, while the smaller one is dedicated to Saint Catherine, the heavenly bride of Christ. The smaller church is partly carved into the rock and partly constructed. The image of the Alexandrian Great Martyr Catherine holds great significance for the women's monastic movement. Notably, the Mghvime Monastery is a women's monastery. The central two-nave church has two entrances and features beautiful stone and wood carvings crafted by the skilled artisans of Racha, hinting at the ancient paths from Imereti to Racha.

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From the path connecting the cave to the modern enclosed part of the monastery, you can see a view of the town of Chiatura. If you look closely, there is a large building on the rock above the town. In the 1960s, the Pioneer Palace was constructed there. Once a center of Soviet industry and a stronghold of socialist greatness, the Pioneer Palace ceased to function and was subsequently abandoned. Initially slated for demolition by city authorities, the building was later preserved by zealous guardians of the past.

Monastic obedience was reinstated in the monastery in 2014.

Five neatly written sheets of manuscript narrate to the nuns about the Ascension of Jesus into heaven after the miraculous resurrection. We visited the monastery in May, forty days after Easter.

The monastery was founded during the reign of Bagrat III in the late tenth to early eleventh century of the Common Era. It became the ancestral monastery of various distinguished rulers of Argveti in the historical region of Imereti.

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The area around the village of Katskhi, as well as the entire road between Sachkhere and Zestaponi, were estates of princely Georgian families. These landholdings held particular significance during the reign of Bagrat III, the unifier of Georgia, who ruled in the tenth century, as well as during times of internal conflicts and the country's division in the fifteenth century. The landscapes and territories around Katskhi bear witness to the historical legacy of noble Georgian clans and the enduring influence of pivotal figures like Bagrat III during the shaping of Georgia's history.

The mild climate of these areas, the moderate elevation above sea level, and the combination of forests and valleys have rendered the lands fertile, making agriculture convenient and productive. In the eleventh century, these lands became a reward for the distinguished Liparitid clan, who alternated between supporting Bagrat, the unifier of Georgia, and forming alliances with Byzantine conquerors.


The lands to the east of Katskhi belonged to another distinguished family with a well-known surname - the Tseretelis. They trace their lineage back to the Alan tribes that fled from the Islamization of Tamerlane to Imereti. In the eighteenth century, alongside the Abashidzes, they joined King Solomon II in the war against Turkish Islamization, and eventually, their descendants played a role in Georgia's incorporation into the Russian Empire.

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The politics of princes, wars, internal conflicts, unions, and disintegrations have been inseparably linked to the history of Georgia with the Orthodox faith. It is a profoundly religious country, and the tradition of the Orthodox Church holds significant strength here. The union with Russia, however, posed a threat to the distinctiveness of the Georgian Church, as it risked assimilating into Russian Orthodoxy. Perhaps for this reason, the ecclesiastical and religious self-identification of Georgia began seeking even greater autonomy in the nineteenth century, and especially in recent times, after the dissolution of the USSR. The history of the Katskhi Pillar serves as a vivid example of this.

The modern church at the top of the pillar is very young. It was built by Father Maxim. He settled at the base of the pillar in a small hut that he crafted himself. People started coming to him, and soon, with the help of donations, a church was erected at the summit. At least, that's how the local tradition tells the story.

The height of the monolith is around forty meters. In ancient times, pagan rites were performed at its summit, dedicated to fertility gods. With the advent of Christianity in Georgia, the pagan cult gave way to monotheism. During the Turkish expansion, the temple and cult were abandoned, but not Islamized.

In the nineteenth century, descendants of the Bagrationi family attempted to revive the worship at the pillar, but their efforts were unsuccessful. It was only in 1944 that, for the first time in modern times, a group of researchers managed to climb the Katskhi Pillar and discover the remains of ancient cult structures.

With the dissolution of the USSR and the revival of the Orthodox Church in Georgia, people began to come to Katskhi to hold services at the base of the pillar. Monk Maxim settled here in 1993. From 1999 to 2009, under state auspices, the Katskhi Pillar was researched, and in 2008, the construction of a church at the summit began. By August 2010, the church was completed.

This is indeed the very small hermitage of Monk Maxim at the base of the Katskhi Pillar, where he has been living since 1993. By the way, today marks the official consecration of the church at the summit in honor of Maxim the Confessor.

There is a sheer iron ladder leading to the top of the pillar. Ascending it is only possible with permission from Father Maxim. Women are not allowed to climb to the top. Locals have nicknamed the church at the summit "The Fortress of Solitude."

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The Imeretian cuisine, like that of every region in Georgia, has its own distinctive features. The most well-known dish in Imereti is Imeretian khachapuri, or as they call it here, "imeruli." It features thinly rolled dough with a cheese filling and is completely enclosed. The cheese used is Imeretian, as mentioned earlier - the second most popular after sulguni. Another famous aspect of Imeretian cuisine is cornmeal pastries called "mchadi." Especially in mountainous areas, they are not just magical; a bit of cheese is added, making them light and airy.

The river originates in the upper reaches of the Rachinsky Range. Along its course, there is an ancient path leading to Racha. Today, this is a convenient and scenic road. By the way, it became so only in 2021.

Human settlements along the Dzhurchula River have a very ancient history. Archaeologists studying prehistoric humans are familiar with the Dzhurchula Cave. Two cultural layers have been discovered in it. In one of them, amidst tools and fragments of charred animal bones, the fossilized tooth of a person belonging to paleoanthropes was found. This group of people represents a transitional stage from Homo erectus to modern humans (Homo sapiens).

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The discovered human tooth in the cave, belonging to primitive people in the Dzhurchula River area, belonged to an adult. It resembles the teeth of Neanderthals and is especially close to the teeth of paleoanthropes in Asia Minor. Paleoanthropes are commonly referred to as individuals with a diverse morphological structure, combining primitive and progressive features to varying degrees. Typically, three groups of paleoanthropes are distinguished: early (atypical) Europeans, dating back 250-100 thousand years; Near Eastern "progressive" individuals, dating back 70-40 thousand years; and classic (late) Western European Neanderthals, dating back 50-35 thousand years. The paleoanthropic tooth from the Dzhurchula cave indicates a connection between ancient European people and those in the Near East.

A little more, and we will climb higher to the highest point of the road - Khikhata Pass. Its elevation is 2030 meters above sea level. Beyond it, the mountains of the Rachinsky Range will unfold. Directly below us, the two rivers, Dzhurchula and its tributary Krutis Tsqali, merge. To the south, a view opens up to Imereti, from where we came, and further beyond the lowlands - the mountains of the Lesser Caucasus Range.

This is a relatively new road. It was opened in 2021. Previously, there was a dirt road here, and the journey from Sachkhere to Oni took two hours or more.

In the distance, a snow-capped peak is visible - these are the southern slopes of the North Caucasus. The snow-free slopes are part of the Rachinsky Range.

Descending from the summit of the pass, we are retracing an ancient trade and cultural route used by primitive people. This road will lead us to the beautiful and fertile region of Racha, beyond which, over another pass, lies Svaneti - another stage on the journey across the High Caucasus.

To the right of the road, at an altitude of just over one and a half thousand meters, there are several hard-to-reach villages. No roads lead here, and reaching them can only be done on foot. One of such villages is called Kharistvali.

The journey from Imereti to Racha is exceptionally beautiful. A little more, and we will have a view of the Khiori River valley - a major tributary of the Rioni, the main river of Racha.

In the area of the villages Shkmeri and Kharistvali, there is a beautiful lake, and thirteen hiking trails have been established here. These are pristine places where tourist infrastructure is still absent.

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The snow-capped peaks in the distance are part of Svaneti and the High Caucasus. The green slopes around belong to the Rachinsky Range. They do not exceed two thousand meters above sea level and form the most beautiful and enchanting step of the southern slopes of the High Caucasus. The village of Shkmeri, nestled to the left of the road, is well known to everyone. The recipe for chicken in garlic sauce, better known as "tsyplyonok tabaka" or, in Georgian, "shkmeruli," was born here.

To the right of the road, a deep gorge unfolds - this is the bed of the Khuruli River.

The Khuruli River flows strictly to the north and flows into the Rioni.

The Khuruli River gorge, up to its confluence with the Rioni, is the heartland of Racha. Racha stretches from Oni - to the right of the river - to Abloraouri - to the left of the river. The valley between Oni and Abloraouri is essentially the course of the Rioni, and a little further east, beyond Ambrolauri and the village of Khvanchkara, Lechkhumi begins.

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Рacha-Lechkhumi is one of the most beautiful regions of Georgia. Along its expanse flows the largest river in Georgia, which originates and empties into the sea within Georgia's borders - the Rioni River. The snow-capped peaks in the distance belong to Svaneti. We ascended through the pass from Imereti. Racha was a vassal territory of the Kingdom of Imereti, one of the three kingdoms of Georgia after the collapse of the unified state in the fifteenth century. Racha-Lechkhumi consists of three distinct regions. Directly Racha, which we mentioned a little earlier and which is the focus of today. Lechkhumi - the region to the east, bordering Imereti to the south, Mingrelia to the east, and Svaneti to the north. And Kvemo Svaneti - the southern part of Svaneti or Lower Svaneti.

Imereti extended its influence along the northern and southern slopes of the Colchis Lowland. Kutaisi was the capital of Imereti. Racha, shown in the photo on the right, was the most loyal and tranquil region. Slightly more independent was Lechkhumi, depicted in the photo on the left. And absolutely inaccessible and exceptionally independent, without any royal or feudal authority, was Svaneti, shown in the distant snowy photo.

The Rioni stands as Georgia's quintessential river. While ranking second in length after the Kura, it holds paramount importance for Georgia, coursing entirely within the country from its source to its mouth. Known to ancient Greeks as the Phasis, they regarded it as the boundary of the world. It seems the Greeks hadn't explored the shores of the Black Sea north of the Rioni's mouth back then.

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Let's begin our exploration of the village of Mravaldzali with the Church of St. George. Georgia boasts perhaps the largest number of churches dedicated to St. George in the world, and not without reason, as he is the patron saint of the Kartvelians, as well as Moscow and London. Interestingly, George hails from Loda. Although the church is relatively new, dating back to 2009, it incorporates fragments of an early temple from the 11th century. These were the years of the reign of Bagrat III, the king who unified Georgia. The original church survived in its pristine form until the end of the 19th century. In the 1930s, the church was looted, but the helmet of Jelal ad-Din and the sword of Persian Shah Abbas I remained untouched. These items held symbolic significance, as Bagrat III fought against the Arabs to unite Georgia and sought independence from the Persians.

"Racha has its own unique charm, celebrated in songs by the Georgians themselves. Primarily, it's the cuisine of Racha. They say any respectable restaurant in Tbilisi must have a baker from Racha. Here, the bread is truly special."

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"The secret of Racha bread lies in the sourdough. In Racha, there is a shrub called Sve. Its buds are collected in spring, boiled, coated in corn flour, dried, and preserved as yeast. Before baking the bread, these dried buds are soaked in warm water, well wrapped, and left to steep overnight. In the morning, flour, warm water, salt are added, and the dough is kneaded. Before preparing the dough, the molds are heated and greased with butter. Imagine these mountains, meadows, and the scent of fresh bread in the morning, when the village is still asleep and steam rises above the forest."

In Racha cuisine, like in the cuisine of mountainous regions, great importance is given to meat dishes. For example, the dish called Djorma. The sheep's stomach is thoroughly washed, and parts of the hip bone are wrapped in it, like in cabbage leaves, in raw form. Greens and garlic are added, and it is boiled in a cast-iron pot.

Mravaldzali is located at an altitude of 1840 meters above sea level. Spring arrives here only at the end of May. The forest still retains last year's leaves, and mountain trails are full of traces of deer, foxes, wolves, and bears.

The mountain villages of Racha are becoming deserted. Out of several dozen houses, only a few are inhabited. The views, mountains, and clean air attract city dwellers temporarily. Village life is harsh, and the lack of roads makes these places isolated. However, it was not always like this.

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Bagrat III turned Racha into a support and defense for his kingdom. As the heir to the principality of Abkhazia and the continuator of the Bagrationi dynasty, he united western Georgia and established his rule in Uplistsikhe, erecting a temple in Kutaisi. In doing so, he created a unified kingdom based on Imereti, Kartli, and Abkhazia—the heart of the Georgian nation. Tbilisi, however, still remained in the hands of the Arabs, but the strength of his rule was multifaceted. So, Mravaldzili, as this seemingly forgotten village is named today, played a significant role.

One of the various mountain trails leads to Lake Cholevi from the village of Mravaldzali.

Cholevi lies amidst the hills, collecting melted waters.

This road leads to Lake Cholevi and then climbs Mount Khikhata, reaching approximately 2200 meters above sea level, before descending to the village of Shkmeri. Do you remember the road?

May is the month when snow melts abundantly, and streams are babbling all around.

Further passage is impossible. Melting snow is the most dangerous obstacle for the jeep. However, our group of tourists was delighted with the snow like little children.

From this place, it takes twenty minutes on foot to reach the lake.

The lake is surrounded by blooming primroses. The name precisely emphasizes the fact that this plant is the first to bloom after winter. By the way, its Latin name also comes from the Latin word "prīmus," meaning "first."

Picturesque lake with the towering Mount Khikhata in the distance.

The lake collects meltwater, and there is no visible outlet. At the bottom of the lake, there is a karst sinkhole where the water drains.

The lake Cholevi is also known as Mra-valdzali, named after the village.

Another name for the lake Cholevi is the "Lake of Love," not only because of the feelings of the people who visited it but also because the shape of its shore resembles a heart.

We came across bear tracks. According to our guides, it seems that the bear was roaming around here not too long ago.

The forest played in the red hues of the setting sun, displaying indescribable beauty.

The best time of the year for these places is spring, summer, and autumn, with the preferable time of day being the pre-sunset hours.

In addition to the primrose, the forest delighted with wild thyme. This flower is a good source of honey; bees gather their first honey here, thanks to it. In folk tradition, wild thyme is also called "maternica" for its healing power that comes from Mother Earth. In ancient Russia, it was placed under the pillow of newlyweds to ensure a long life and healthy children.

From here, the path leads to Ambrolauri for dinner and overnight stay.

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