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.
|Not our driver, but friends with him.|
|Georgian license plates all seem to spell out something fun!|
|View from inside|
|My butt's asleep!|
|Ushguli with glacier in the background|
|Who invited the pooch?|
|We're on the New York Times "Thursdays" book|
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.