Georgia on my mind Part III: From Svaneti to Tusheti
We weren’t sure where to go next. We’d spent less time in Svaneti than we’d imagined because we’d had such good luck running into the Slovenians and didn’t have to hitch hike out. We had to get back to Tbilisi to get our stuff we’d left at the host’s house, but we had a few days to play around before we needed to be
back. On the Poles’ recommendation, we decided to check out Kutaisi, Georgia’s would-be capital that was somehow beat out by Tbilisi. Kutaisi turned out to be charming, quiet, and as unlike Tbilisi as you could get. We loved it. We found a little guest house with a peeling, deteriorated outside, and a marvelous, soviet-chic bourgeois inside. We haggled with the owner in gestures and written numerals until we had a good price and set out to explore the town. We found a beautifully restored church overlooking the city, the Bagrati
Cathedral from the eleventh century. The restoration job of this incredible monument is really top-notch because instead of trying to replicate the missing stones (many were intricately carved) they’ve replaced them with smooth, modern materials, so you can see where the the deterioration has happened but also appreciate the incredible amount of work put into the church’s original construction. Really tastefully done, and unlike anything
we’d seen in Tbilisi. The church was locked but was lit up beautifully and provided a very nice view of the city below. The Poles had told us about a French restaurant, and we found it. It was run by a French man who’d fallen in love with a Georgian woman and we had a delicious and pricey (for Georgia) meal that was a welcome break from the delicious–but sometimes homogenous–Georgian cuisine. I actually had a salad with lettuce! And the owner gave us free cognac
because I spoke French.
The next morning, we left our bags at the guesthouse and after a heart-attack breakfast of acharuli, a bread boat filled with cheese, butter, and eggs, we took a marshutka up to Gelati monastery. The frescoes there were breathtaking. The tenth century monastery complex houses the grave of the Georgian king David
the Builder (who built the monastery) and is a Unesco World Heritage site. It’s recently been placed on the watch list of the 100 most endangered sites because of prolonged neglect, but I saw that one of the main problems is that Georgians, who really love and cherish their sacred sites, will come in and kiss the saints on the
frescoes. It’s their monument (although once it’s Unesco it’s supposed to be ‘for all of humanity’), so I can’t really complain about it, but I think it’s kind of amusing. The perpetrators of this kind of deterioration are usually old women coming to worship. The faces of most of the saints are all kissed away. I noticed this pattern in many of the amazing churches we visited. The people who love it most are loving it to death.
We hitched (with a bit of trouble) back into Kutaisi, picked up our bags, and then hitch hiked southeast to Borjomi, a spa town in the mountains famous for its healing mineral water. We arrived at about five, had time to find a guest house, get groceries, and figure out our hiking
plan for the morning with the help of the most attentive, customer-service-oriented visitor’s center I have ever encountered anywhere. The Borjom-Kharagauli National Park is part of the PAN Parks Foundation, a European organization that is trying to preserve the last remaining areas of virgin wilderness in Europe (yes, there are a few!). I love them. I want everyone to go out and donate money to them. They are establishing and maintaining national parks how it should be
done. Of course, they still have to let people continue to do with the land what they have always done, like grazing sheep and cows, but there are not extractive human activities within the park boundaries. And tourism is closely monitored and kept ecologically responsible. You have to register to go into the park, you have
to pay a nominal fee to sleep there, and they’ve built shelters to reduce impact from tent camping. The people at the park center in Borjomi can tell you exactly which hike you should do with the time you have. We chose a four-day trek across the entirety of the park;
we’d get on a train back to Tbilisi at the end of the hike. We made store-bought khinkali in our guesthouse kitchen and woke up early to start our trek. We hitch-hiked into the National Park with a very friendly man who drove pretty far out of his way to drop us off at our trailhead and we embarked on a six-hour grueling ascent into a landscape that, above tree-line, opened up into rolling grasslands punctuated by bursts of cliff-faces, like where the grass just couldn’t keep the rocks underground anymore and they dramatically tore through the surface, looking for air. It was beautiful and desolate and full of eagles and very reminiscent of Eastern Oregon. We finally arrived at what seemed to be the backpackers’ shelter. It was a dilapidated shack lined with cigarette cartons as insulation and contained two rusty bed frames and a dangerous-looking wood stove. The
outside was surrounded by trash and the walls were built of scrap lumber and pieces of old machinery. We saw what looked like shepherds and their herd (of cows, not sheep) approaching and I began to wonder if we were in the right place. Austin wandered off to look for the real tourist shelter, and I
confirmed, through gestures of course, with the shepherds that we had in fact stumbled onto their abode and were not where we needed to be. The younger of the two shepherds ascertained that we were American and made the signal (a kind of scratching of the neck that means the same thing everywhere in Eastern Europe) that he wanted to drink with us. I reluctantly agreed, and of course we ended up spending hours in the shack, getting completely shit-faced and eating with the shepherds, in another
illustration of amazing Georgian hospitality. These two men had hauled up all their food, wine, and liquor themselves and were now sharing it with us, insisting we eat to our hearts’ content (and drink well beyond it). We toasted to family, friends, country, their sheepdog Rexy, even Jesus at some point. We
talked, in broken English, about the usual things–brothers and sisters, America, disliking Russia, religion…and I ended up getting so black-out drunk that I was unable to stand up and broke my glasses falling on my face. I don’t remember any of this and I can’t imagine how horrible it was for all the other tourists (10 Israelis, of course, and a couple actual real-life Georgian hikers) who were sleeping in the shelter to have to deal with my violent hiccups. The next day I was wracked with shame and such a horrible hangover, probably the worst of my life, that I couldn’t even stand up until eleven AM. At that point, we decided that we could only continue if I felt well enough to hike, and around two PM I did. We had a long day ahead of us but calculated that if we didn’t get lost, we could make it to the next shelter before sundown. We got lost right off the bat, and after much debate, elected to turn around and just hike out. I was kind of glad, I didn’t want to see all the people I’d surely annoyed to no end with my drunken antics the night before. Apparently I had ended up rolling around in the dirt, sobbing about Israeli politics. I didn’t want to run into the Israelis every night for the rest of our hike, however forgiving they may be. And it’s easier to hike downhill than up with a debilitating hangover. We couldn’t continue because we had a time limit and if we didn’t arrive at the end destination on schedule, we wouldn’t be back to Tbilisi in time. So we
turned around and exited the park that night, sleeping in our tent near the trailhead and not drinking a drop of alcohol. The next morning, we hitched back into Borjomi and decided to go check out their famous springs, whose water turned out to be undrinkably disgusting. We went to what was supposed to be a hot spring but was really an algae-infested concrete tub of lukewarm water, made warmer by how extremely crowded it was. But someone had given us a watermelon (Georgians never stop giving presents, they’re really just the nicest people) and so we had a nice picnic on the grass and enjoyed our walk through the park. We still had one more night left before
we had to head back to Tbilisi, so we decided to check out Bakuriani, a ski resort town frequented by the Russian elite once upon a time. Bakuriani was in the running to host the winter Olympics, and I am frankly quite glad it didn’t win because although we think the Olympics brings in a lot of money, that town
would have been completely destroyed and devoid of charm by the time it was over. It began to pour and we were even happier we’d turned around and weren’t just now beginning our rough descent from the mountains. It was such a violent downpour that there weren’t even any babushkas out in the streets trying to get us to come to their guesthouses, so we managed to find a hotel and negotiate a reasonable price for the most luxurious room we’d stayed in yet. They had hot showers, private bathrooms, balconies, and TVs! We didn’t even leave the hotel it was raining so hard, but the next morning before our 10 AM train back down to Borjomi we explored the village–an interesting contrast between rural Georgian quaintness and modern ski-town. We’d come up to Bakuriani specifically to make the journey back down–in an ancient narrow-gauge train that reaches maximum speeds of an exhilarating twenty-five kilometers per hour! The bus ride up to Bakuriani had taken thirty minutes and the train
ride down took two and a half hours. It was totally worth it. The train wound its way through the forest, going through villages that the highway bypassed, and families seemed to travel routinely between villages using the train. You could walk around outside between the cars even while the train was moving, so of course we did. When we arrived in Borjomi, we had lunch and hitch-hiked back to Tbilisi. We had interesting drivers; our first one was a silent, solemn guy whose mix CD included the theme song of the Phantom of the Opera, No Doubt’s ‘Don’t Speak’, and the latest dance club hits. Next, a van full of Georgian military guys who were coming back from training picked us up and gave us some of their fancy energy water, the cans of which they of course threw directly out of the window and into the river. We passed where we’d camped on our way out to Svaneti what seemed like ages ago, before we’d become wise to the ways of this strange and beautiful country. Our last driver was Armenian and he complained about Georgians’ driving habits, but we found we’d gotten used to them and thought he was terribly slow. Why wasn’t he passing on the blind curves? Why wasn’t he swerving at top speeds around the cows sleeping in the middle of the highway? Why was he slowing down while driving through villages? We’d never get there like this!
Another interesting thing about drivers in Georgia is that the majority have an extra tank in the trunk of their cars that’s filled with natural gas as a cheaper alternative to gasoline. The engines are altered so that you can switch between using regular gas, which you might do when you want to pass someone or go up a hill, and natural gas. I’m not exactly sure how the natural gas extraction method compares with that of petroleum–I do know it’s definitely not ‘clean’, but I am curious as to why Americans and other Europeans don’t have this ingenious money and gas-saving system set up in our cars. Actually, I have my suspicions as to the reason.
Tbilisi was its usual stressful, dirty, noisy self. We were happy to stay with the same family we’d stayed with before and though there were no family feasts this time, our host’s mother made us khachapuri, the Georgian national dish of cheese wrapped in delicious bread fried in butter. Austin
had by that time tired of khachapuri and its ensuing digestive implications, but I scarfed it all down. She also brought down fruit and sat with us while we ate. We showed her some pictures, gesticulating wildly and employing all seven words of Georgian that we knew in order to tell the stories behind the photos. Our favorite word was “shemomedjamo,” which has no English equivalent but means something like “it was so good I accidentally ate the whole thing.” A very useful word in Georgia. Some people, upon our return to Europe, described Georgia as a “third-world country,” which it most definitely is not. One of the best ways to tell is that it is absolutely impossible to starve to death there, even in the freezing remote mountain regions.
We woke up early, intending to head to Tusheti, another national park, but changed our minds upon checking the weather. Instead we went to the national museum (which should probably be called the anti-communism museum), shopped at a relatively expensive grocery store for tourists (but I found dried apricots and prunes!), ate at McDonald’s (not as good as French McDonald’s), and then returned one of our super expensive gas containers at the Polish hostel where we’d bought them. The hostel tricked/convinced us to stay with them that night and gave us a discount for having bought gas. They also told us to go to Mtskheta, another Unesco world heritage site in imminent danger from prolonged neglect. Mtskheta is just outside of Tbilisi and only takes about twenty minutes to get to by marshutka. It’s a cute and idyllic little village at the confluence of rivers that was once a Zoroastrian site but is now uber-Orthodox. Women aren’t even allowed to wear pants in the churches (that doesn’t mean you go bare-legged, it means you have to wear a long skirt), and you have to have your head, legs, and arms completely covered. The frescoes were amazing, particularly the one featuring fantastical sea monsters, but many are of course being kissed into oblivion by the devout and are barely discernible at lip-level. Austin and I were bickering the whole time because I was really pissed about having to be in Tbilisi for even just two nights and really can’t handle the noise and traffic of the place. It’s like LA if there were no traffic laws or crosswalks and a lot of barefoot gypsy children roaming the streets. I love rural Georgia but I really couldn’t stand its capital. I kept thinking that maybe I’d rather just be in the Rockies and avoid all the hassle. My opinion on this would change when we finally went to Tusheti, but the noise Tbilisi so clouded my judgement I began to think negatively again.
The Polish hostel was very bizarre because we were the only non-Poles there and no matter how hard they tried to include us there was a palpable gap between us and the other guests. I think there might have been one random lost French guy sleeping in a tent on their lawn, but other than that, everyone sat around drinking and singing Polish songs and we snuck off to our room to watch TV on the iPad. The luxuries of sleeping somewhere with electrical outlets and tile floors! I even got to do yoga in the morning because I found a mat on the balcony. The next morning it was very confusing getting out of Tbilisi (is it ever easy? That might be why I always hated it so much, it was so easy to get sucked into and so hard to get out of). First we went to the wrong marshutka station, and then we had to take the chaotic metro across town and spend a long time haggling with taxi drivers. We wanted them to take us to a highway intersection from where it would be easy to hitchhike but they had absolutely no idea what we wanted even when we circled the intersection on our map. If it’s not a tourist destination, cab drivers just have no idea why you’d want to go there and refuse to take you. It’s probably different if there’s not such a language barrier. Finally we just walked to the highway, which wasn’t yet a highway since it was still passing through the middle of the city and stuck out our thumbs. Taxis kept pulling over to try to get us to get in, and their prices kept getting higher and higher every time we refused them, then finally some guy in a black Mercedes pulled over and offered to take us all the way to Telavi, about two hours away, for twenty lari, and we got in. We didn’t really understand that it was a taxi situation and he kept pulling over to try to get more people into the car so the whole thing took longer than we’d anticipated, but he had a TV in the front seat that played hilarious Russian and Turkish music videos, all of which prominently featured women in bikinis splashing around in shallow water. The Russian ones all showed women on the beach, splashing around in crystal clear water, and the Turkish ones, maybe because Turks actually have beaches, showed them playing in very clean but small private swimming pools.
In Telavi it began to rain but we were quickly picked up by some plain-clothes policemen (you can tell they’re policemen because they don’t wear seat belts even when they see cops) who took us straight to Kvemi Alvani, which is the where the dirt road that leads to Tusheti meets the paved highway. Most of Tusheti’s population actually lives here, maintaining a second residence in Tusheti but basing themselves in Alvani since Tusheti is extremely isolated and doesn’t have electricity. Our driver gave us his business card, insisting that we call if anything went wrong (“Prrrrroblem? Say me!). Lots of Georgians did this, but I never knew how we could possibly communicate with them over the phone. A very nice gesture nonetheless. He knew a man with a jeep who could take us to Tusheti for the equivalent of fifty dollars. We declined and tried our luck hitching, but we soon found out just how little traffic actually goes to Tusheti. Finally we gave in and paid the man 100 lari to take us, but first we had to go to his house, gather grapes and peaches and apples (yum), pack a dinner, pick up his friend, drive to a watermelon farm and pick a bunch of melons, etc, etc, and what seemed like three hours later, we were finally on our way.
Speaking of food, here’s a quote from the Georgian author Rustaveli: “Spending on feasting and wine is better than hoarding our substance; that which we give makes us richer, that which is hoarded is lost.” That pretty eloquently sums up what we experienced.