Saturday, November 19, 2011

Georgia and the high Caucasus mountains

By the time we made it into the center of Batumi, Georgia's big summer beach town, we were cold and starving, and we couldn't make any sense of the Georgian alphabet. So, in the interest of not getting terribly lost or eating something gross on our first day in the country, we broke one of our cardinal rules and opted to eat in a restaurant recommended by the Lonely Planet.  Zakara was said to have the best khinkali in town, and we had been dying to try these things for over a year now, so we figured we could risk ending up in a tourist trap if they were delicious enough. (Also on the food radar? Khachapuri) Lucky for us, it was a slam dunk; saloon-style decor, dark wood tables and benches, and plenty of rotund Georgians chugging down beers while hard-working diner-esque waitresses with rosy cheeks and dyed-blonde poofy hair briskly carried plates piled high with steaming hot khinkali out from the kitchen to the customers.

We left a couple hours later with full bellies and slightly wobbly heads, delighted with our amazingly delicious and cheap lunch. ($16 USD for 8 pints of quality beer and 12 huge dumplings!) We got in touch with our next host, Ruslan, who was located about 30 kilometers to the north, in a smaller beach resort town called Kobuleti. One short ride on the mashrutka (minibus) later, we arrived in Kobuleti and were picked up by Ruslan and his buddy Adam.  Ruslan's house happened to have a hotel in the back, which was usually packed full of Armenians and Iranians during the summer tourist season, but completely empty during our late September visit. He opened up a room and told us to make ourselves at home, and that dinner would soon be served. We had absolutely no space inside our bellies for dinner, but we dutifully put our bags down and went out to attempt to eat and drink with them. Eventually we admitted defeat and called it a night.

The next couple of days, we found ourselves in a similar pattern, going from utter starvation, as Ruslan insisted that we don't eat anything not made by his mother, to the familiar bellyache of being overstuffed. When it rains it pours! And rain it did, preventing us from doing much of anything besides eating and playing cards. There wasn't much to do in Kobuleti, but he lived near a nice promenade along the beach, and we enjoyed a few walks and even managed to fit in a fun run! When the rain finally stopped, it was time to hit the road. We wanted to visit Svaneti, a high mountainous region, before the real cold hit.

We left Kobuleti in a blur, thanks to his mom's cooking and Ruslan's manic driving style. While our bodies were digesting massive amounts of delicious home-cooked food, our brains were whooshed back in our heads as the car pulled into the wrong lane at 150 kph, over-taking three cars at a time (the one in front being a police car) and only narrowly dodging the oncoming trucks. While laughing about the cop's nonchalance about such reckless driving, we got pulled over by the police cruiser that we had just cut in front of. Ruslan spoke excitedly to the cop and we were sure he would be arrested, but the policeman just smiled and gave us a thumbs-up, and retreated back to his car. While accelerating madly, Ruslan related that he had told the cop that we were Americans heading to the airport to catch a flight, and the cop in turn suggested that we hurry up, and he hoped that we had enjoyed our stay. After a brief roadside hat-stop, he dropped us off at a highway junction, where we hopped a mashrutka to Zugdidi en route to Mestia.

We were headed to the high mountains of Upper Svaneti, a remote area in the northeast of Georgia, prepared to sit through 12 hours of travel in a 4x4 jeep taxi over rugged roads. Luckily, the road to Mestia (and there is only one) was recently re-surfaced, cutting the previously eight-hour drive down to three. We arrived in Zugdidi late in the evening and, with the help of some new found Polish friends, learned that a deal had been agreed upon between our hostel owner and the mashrutka driver, so that we would be picked up from the hostel at 7:30 am and driven to Mestia, for the agreed-upon price of 15 Georgian Lari each (a little less than $10 USD). But the next morning, our new driver insisted that the price was 20 Lari each, and after a 45-minute battle of wits (in Russian, the de facto means of communication) we, along with the seven Polish travelers, left the mashrutka in righteous indignation. Honestly, ten Lari was not such a big deal, but we were helpless without our Russian-speaking Polish friends who refused to ride with a trickster! And lo, the light of justice shown down on us, as we found our original driver who, upon hearing our story, stormed off and really rained down upon the morning driver.  Long story short, we got an apology and a ride at the stated price, albeit an hour late. And so began the long winding drive to Svaneti.

Not our driver, but friends with him.
Georgian license plates all seem to spell out something fun!
Mestia (population 2600) is the largest city in the region of Svaneti. It sports a tourist information center, ethnographic museum, and a small airport amongst its medieval defensive towers and ultramodern architecture. It might be considered pleasant if not for the massive amounts of construction going on, creating a dirty, muddy, noisy, old-west atmosphere, and not in a good way. Tourism is exploding in Svaneti, and the traditionally reclusive population is trying their best to adapt. The villages of upper Svaneti have repelled invaders for hundreds of centuries, but the insidious fingers of modern tourism have finally penetrated their defenses, and so despite the extremely remote location, tourists are pouring in faster than ever. Already, plans are already underway to build a ski resort. As always, we were conflicted about our role as tourists, but we were promised "unmissable beauty" and decided to check it out.
Deer pigs!
We teamed up with some other tourists and rented a 4x4 jeep taxi to take all seven of us to Ushguli, the highest-elevated settlement in Europe. We had originally intended to hike the three days up to Ushguli, but the opportunity presented itself and we jumped in, opting instead to hike the three days back down to Mestia. Three bumpy hours later we arrived at a quaint little village that appeared untouched since the middle ages, all stone houses and defensive towers, cradled between massive towering snow-capped mountains, and crawling with adorable baby pigs and glassy-eyed cows. This picture-perfect scene was completed by a luminescent rainbow descending right into the heart of the town.

Our taxi
View from inside
My butt's asleep!
Ushguli with glacier in the background
After shopping around for the best homestay, we hid in our tent and did crossword puzzles. We had been sitting on our butts for seven hours and needed some time to relax. At dinner, our Polish friends Norbert and Agata spoke Russian and translated everything, saving us from a long night of awkward communication. Dinner was a meager affair of potatoes, old bread and hard salty cheese, but Norbert convinced Ariel, our Svani host, to cook shashlik (seasoned pork roasted on skewers in a wood oven). Dinner was followed with a Georgian tradition of grandiose speeches and toasts to the guests, which required us to drink copious amounts of homemade liquor called chacha. We learned that Norbert and Agata had only been married for ten days, and that we were tagging along on their honeymoon. Cheers!

Who invited the pooch?
We're on the New York Times "Thursdays" book
Serious business
We awoke in the morning with mean hangovers and an ice-crusted tent, but upon opening the tent flap door, the scene of Ushguli at sunrise was too beautiful to stay grumpy. With crisp air in our lungs and hot tea in our hands, we made plans to hike to the Shkala glacier, during which we took too many photos and cooed over adorable baby pigs.

The glacier itself was just a dirty wall of ice, not physically beautiful, but very much alive and dying, gushing water from its belly, and as the warm sunshine scrubbed away the glacier's pebbly skin, fist-sized rocks tumbled down violently as if thrown at us for photographing its humiliating defeat.

Back in Ushguli, we stopped at the restaurant for a snack, which turned into a long and complicated affair. Norbert in particular was excited for the kubdari (khachapuri filled with grilled meat), but sadly the restaurant was all out. Sarah ordered the vegetable soup, but rescinded her order when she caught the chef beginning to crack open some ramen noodle packets in lieu of actual vegetables. About half an hour later we finally were served. For all their faults, the restaurant made the best cheese khachapuri that we ate in all of Georgia.

We stopped at the gift shop, where the owner proudly showed us a photo of himself with John McCain dressed in traditional Svani garments when we noticed that the weather was turning sour. We hurried back to the house as the clouds descended, bringing a misty rain. Keeping warm in front of the wood stove, we made some more progress in our crossword puzzles. Dinner came early (or rather, lunch came late) and we weren't that hungry, which was lucky, as that night our host served us the same leftover dry bread, cheese, and re-fried potatoes for the third time. Outside, the rain steadily increased, and it was clear from the look on our faces (and our cold-induced sniffles) that we did not want to spend the night in a cold tent or hike in the rain or spend any more time arguing with the Svani people. Ariel insisted that we stay the night inside and we consented, and slept soundly. The next morning we woke up and saw all of Ushguli covered in a thin layer of snow, which continued to fall. In what may be the earliest snowfall of our lives (before October even), we made the decision not to hike, but to join the Poles in their jeep taxi back to Mestia, Zugdidi, and beyond. Our desire to go hiking in the magnificent high Caucus mountains turned into a one-day hike, buttressed by 8-hour jeep rides, at a high cost of 130 Lari round-trip ($78 USD, way more than we intended to spend but still insanely reasonable). Yeah, travel with bikes was cheaper, but as we bounced along the bumpy, muddy road in the pouring rain, we didn't regret our choice for a minute.

1 comment:

Ken (Dad) said...

Another beautiful account of some very unique travels.
Really enjoyed this chapter and I am sorry to see this adventure coming to an end - although I look forward to seeing you both in person.