|GALLIVANTING THROUGH GEORGIA
The road from Ardahan diminishes to a narrow ribbon. It snakes up through stunning treeless meadows dotted with herdsman and their woolly charges. Clumps of snow remain from the previous winter.
At Posof, The Turkish border point for entry into Georgia, only 5 people remain on the bus. Two drivers. One attendant. Two passengers - myself, and a middle-aged woman who seems to be on first name terms with everyone.
It takes a while for the Georgian customs people to fire-up the scanner, a rusting hulk of a machine which looks and sounds capable of ingesting my pack and her mountain of overstuffed plastic bags in one giant gulp!!
In less than 15 minutes, we are through, with passports stamped and bags reloaded,
The Georgians have made little effort to impress new arrivals to their country. The road is a rutted track running through largely abandoned villages. Once pretty wooden houses are either boarded up or left to rot.
We drop down into The Mtkvari River Valley and things improve. Cows graze sleepily in perfect tree lined pastures. Fishermen cast into the fast flowing river. New alpine style cafes are open for business. Must be a getaway spot for weary Tbilisians and their families.
Our driver, obviously a Georgian pleased to be back on home turf, hands the wheel to his mate and proceeds to remove his uniform, right down to a t-shirt and an inadequate pair of boxer shorts. Perhaps my fellow passenger is impressed by his ample of display of "plumbers crack?"
The river widens as we head through Borjomi. Since independence in 1991, ugly soviet style hi-rises are all that remain of a resort town once famed throughout Russia for it's curative mineral waters.
Then thru Gori, where Iosif Jughashvili was born to a poor cobbler and his wife on Dec 18th 1878. His name became Joseph Stalin!
As we enter Tbilisi, the roads are packed with traffic. The river divides the city. Hotels hang over high cliffs on the opposite bank.
I am staying in the Old Town. An area of decrepid splendour set in a labyrinthe of narrow alleys great for exploring. Wooden houses from the early 1800's lean and bulge, often relying on each other for support. Balconies, crammed with hanging laundry, list and sag defying gravity. Men play chess in hidden leafy squares,
Tbilisi, with a population of 1,700,000 (Georgia is home to 4,700,000 souls), is a great walking city with lots to see. The Ballet, opera, live theatre are all along Rustaveli Street along with Hugo Boss, Cartier and a huge Macdonalds! Second hand booksellers, artists, street entertainers and flower vendors, vie for space among the freshly painted regency-styled buildings.
Outside the grand City Hall, St George tops the column in Golden splendour replacing Lenin who was "toppled" in 1990! Only the parliament building shows the bland hand of Soviet architecture. Started by The Russians in 1938, it was completed by German prisoners of war!
Alexander Dumas and Pushkin raved about The Abanotubani, a subterranean bathouse with beehive domes dating back to the 17th century. What's good for them must be good for me right? Besides, I'm off to the Caucasus mountains tonight so I might as well get a clean start!
I head down the steps and obediently count out a pile of Lari, the local currency, to the gruff female attendant. I've apparently bought a private suite and a 1/2 hour massage.
I am absorbing the modest condition of the place and noting a layer of scum on the pool when there is a knock at the door. My masseur has arrived with a bucket of "tools."
I am nervous when he strips naked and orders me to follow suit. I lie on the marble slab. I am kneaded, slapped, washed and sluiced - Both sides! First with hot water then with cold. My suntan is ground with a loofah into thin rolls of peeling skin before my unsmiling assailant is satisfied!
Then he showers, dresses, and leaves me poaching in the sweltering heat!
Georgia has its problems. The Soviets have backed the breakaway states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, reducing the safe zone to a sliver. I have chosen to spend my last few days in Svaneti, a remote province in The Caucasus Mountains.
I take a taxi to the station - A gleaming marble floored palace of a place. I was too late for a first class sleeper so find myself sharing a 4-berther with a middle-aged strawberry blond. She leads me to the attendant who hands out sheets, pillowcases and a towel.
It is 10pm. The rhythm of the train rocks me to sleep - for a while anyway. My demure strawberry blond has been joined by 4 drunk men bringing copious quantities of "Chacha," the national firewater, and they really want to become my new best friends!
At 5 am I am alone. All that remains of last nights drinkathon are a few plastic glasses and a fetid smell! I am heading to Sugdidi. I scan my ticket for the arrival time. Everything is in cyrillic script.
Help! How will I recognise the station? I anxiously tug the toe of the sleeping attendant. He points forwards, holds up one finger and dozes off. One hour more or?
I needn't have worried. Sugdidi is the end of the line! The marshrutka (van) owner is already rounding up a handful of backpackers. After a breakfast of stew and bread we vie for the best seats for the 4 1/2 hour drive into the mountains.
The views are as incredible as the road is hellish! The potholed track hangs from high cliffs like a jagged eyebrow. Crews busily shore up weak spots. I search for crosses!!
Mestia is remote. Nestled at around 1400 metres in a spectacular mountainous valley, it is the administrative capital of Svaneti. The big deal here are the 175 watch-towers built between the 9th and 13th centuries to house villagers during invasions.
We are a motley group descending on Nino Ratiani's guesthouse. A Korean lawyer. An American photographer. An Israeli couple. Two students from Denmark and Canada. A British engineer. Nothing in common except adventure!
We quickly divide into groups with similar interests. Tomorrow, I will share a jeep and driver with the Israeli couple, Gadi and Revital. Their religion forbids them to eat non-kosher food. Gadi has a stove, pan and an assortment of packets in his backpack for emergencies.
Our goal is to reach Ushguli, around 47 kilometres up The Enguri Valley. Any semblance of road surface disappears when we drive through the first flooding river.
I wedge my feet under the back of the driver's seat and hang on to the roof handle as we bounce through deep ruts at precarious angles!
We pass through tiny hamlets. Many are abandoned despite a magical setting among snow-capped mountains and flower covered pastures. Even the watch-towers are looking ramshackle through neglect. Harsh winters, often isolating these communities for months, have driven many people into the city in search of an easier life.
Still, judging from the curling wisps of smoke and grazing cows, a few hardy souls remain. The only store along the way is a mobile van selling essentials such as toilet paper, plastic buckets and cooking oil.
Ushguli is actually a collection of four villages sporting 20 watch-towers. Sitting at 2100 metres under Mount Shkhara,Georgia's tallest peak, it claims to be the highest permanently inhabited settlement in Europe and made the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1996.
A tiny restaurant, built with the help of "US Aid" according to the sign, survives on the trickle of tourists and hikers that make it this far. Two cheery ladies are offering "soopie!" Gadi spots chicken on the ladle and hasttily digs out a packet, stove, pan and water bottle from his bag. I persuade him to at least buy some bread as he fires up his "kitchen" on the dining table!
It is hoped that tourism will revitalise this area which is rich in ancient churches, stunning scenery and great hiking potential. Just getting here is an adventure in itself!
Georgia has long considered itself to be European. However the current spat with Russia has brought an embargo on Georgian wines which have long graced the tables of Russia's elite. Still, visitors will be welcomed by proud, friendly and patriotic people who have a real zest for life despite the current hardships.
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Copyright © 2011 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.