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Georgia is still on my mind. Part 2: Getting into the Mountains

The beautiful blue bird weather saw us leaving Tbilisi for the countryside and the iconic Kasbegi Mountain, via the lush alluvial valleys and foothills of central Georgia. We were out of Tbilisi quite quickly and onto the E60, which I have just discovered is the second longest E road in the world running from the Atlantic coast in France to the Chinese border in Kyrgyzstan. In Georgia it takes traffic from the Black Sea through to Tbilisi and on to Azerbaijan. A turn off onto the Russian Military Road meant we were on our way into the mountains and onto one of Georgia’s most iconic roads. It began by passing through low villages with every second house selling overflowing buckets of ripe tomatoes, cucumbers, stone fruit and local honey. Beautiful lakes, old forts and castles and lush greenery meant we felt about a million miles from Saudi despite being only 4 hours away by air.

The scenery became more rugged with chains of mountains dictating our way slowly towards the Russian border. We passed through Georgia’s most well-known ski district which was like a giant green meadow at this time of year. At the Jvari pass, between mountains of impossible mineral hues the paragliders were making the most of the glorious weather before the afternoon cloud rolled in. We stopped for a while and watched them, marveling at the beauty and the unexpectedness of it all.

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Into a narrow winding valley we travelled past road works with no safety warnings, bridges being rebuilt, cows on the road and mad Georgian driving antics (a habit of overtaking on blind hairpin corners) and truck after truck heading into Russia. Russian Roulette on the roads really.

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2.5 hours later we arrived in the town of Stepantsminda, which pretty much everyone calls Kasbegi after the peak that towers over it. It’s the end of summer and there is little snow apart from the glacier that is currently receding alarmingly.

 We found our guesthouse and discovered, sadly that we weren’t going to get very good sleep there. The bed was super short with a high and sharp footboard at the end meaning we couldn’t stretch out and it was a bit of a banana too. As Georgia is fairly new on the western tourist itinerary (it gets lots of Russian tourists) we have noticed that there are a growing number of 5 star hotels and 1 and 2 star guesthouses but nothing much in between. I have to confess shared bathrooms are not my thing. Short beds are not Ricks. We decided that perhaps we would just stay 1 night if we could find something a little more to our taste back in Tbilisi given Rick had developed a nasty flu which meant walking in the local area as we had planned was out . This sorted we walked 5 minutes up the hill for some lunch at the only 5 star place in town, the sister hotel to the Rooms Hotel in Tbilisi. This is an old Russian holiday sanitorium that has been modernized and made into a stunning property. Another delicious lunch on the balcony overlooking the town and up to the Gergeti Church on the hill with Kasbegi peak behind was a highlight. Watching large Russians walk around the terrace in their hotel bathrobes, smoking and talking loudly on their mobiles was not such a highlight but it was certainly amusing.

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If we were to have only one night here we needed to head out to see the sights. First being to head to the Russian border that leads into the restricted and currently pretty dangerous South Ossetia. I had heard that the Georgians were building a large church to all of the Archangels (going for broke there!) just by the border gates. Sure enough this new church and monastery is reputed to provide spiritual protection for the region and was still being finished. Countless marauding hordes had poured through this pass in the mountains for millennia and Georgia continues to have a twitchy relationship with Russia to this day so perhaps they felt they needed all the help they can get.

The Gergeti church on the hill in front of Mt Kasbeg is said to have hidden all of the icons and treasures of the village whenever it was under threat from new conquerors and indeed it must have been a good hiding place as they had never been plundered. We definitely needed to go up there to see this little haven and the view it affords of the whole narrow valley. Unfortunately we didn’t do our research very well. Despite arriving in Stepantsminda by car or even 4wd most people elect to either walk or take a small 4wd minivan up to the church we found out later. We puzzled over Google maps saying that it would take 1.5 hours to drive the 7 kilometres to its perch on the hill. We should have trusted our technology. Goat track doesn’t fully describe the road. All unpaved and unmaintained it wound perilously through the village (where we were stopped for what felt like 20 minutes whilst 2 minivan drivers, who knew each other, screamed at the top of their lungs, each unwilling to reverse to let the other pass). We thought at this point it might be good to turn around but the snaking line of bumper to bumper vans behind us meant we had managed to get ourselves onto the worlds bumpiest travellator with no way off until the top and nowhere to turn around if we did manage to find ourselves alone on the track. So we made the best of it. Rick driving like a champion as the minivans with high undercarriages, tried overtaking us on blind corners. They barely missed the oncoming downhill traffic that were trying to get back as quickly as possible in order to pick up another lot of tourists whilst the light remained and before the creeping low cloud enveloped the mountains all around.

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 We arrived, yes, 1.5 hours later, shaken and jarred from being thrown around on that lively track and pretty relieved to have made it in one piece and with no damage to the car. I stopped my mind from imagining the downward journey and instead concentrated on being in the moment. And what a great moment it was. The grassy plateau stretched up towards Kasbegi peak and a group of walkers were setting up their brightly coloured tents on the high slopes, well away from the continuous stream of disorderly cars and vans. The peak looked close enough to touch but I knew it was an 8 hour return trip to the base of the glacier. Spinning around to the other direction lay a range of the same unusual jagged saw-toothed mountains we had seen driving into the region. They were not high but looked as if no one had ever climbed them as they gave off an aura of being inhospitable and wild. They were bare and blue-tinted in the afternoon light. In the foreground was the little church itself. People streamed like ants up the new stone walkway to the entrance of the enclosure. Once inside people milled about taking selfies and group shots of themselves and the spectacular view. Only some ventured into the church. To enter women needed to cover their heads and wear a skirt – that’s a first! I always carry a scarf to cover my head or shoulders or both when I am travelling but given I didn’t have a spare skirt in my bag (when had I ever) I was relieved to see a pile of what looked like black wrap around waiters aprons available to borrow. I dressed up getting my camera all tangled in my long scarf as I wrestled with the apron/skirt and launched myself in through the door. The carnival atmosphere that was outside was replaced by silence and reverence. There were some beautiful icons in there. The light of hundreds of candles warmed the inside considerably and the soft glow made the gold on the icons shine with a beautiful lustre. I imagine this was exactly why they were painted in this fashion. Modern lighting has taken a lot of the mystery out of the work even if it has offered up detail in exchange. It was truly beautiful in there. I think they have been wise to forbid photography as it means people need to stop and look and not rush in and out knowing they have an image they can look over later. It means they are less likely to talk and less likely to treat it as a tourist attraction and instead see it as a living breathing church.

 When I came back out into the bright sunlight the clouds had rolled in and the village and the mountains on the other side of the valley were disappearing. Time to go. Time to get the drive down over with. Remarkably it was easier than the drive up and was much quicker but I was still glad when it was over.

 Dinner at our homestay was around the communal table with dish after dish of beautiful, largely vegetarian food being bought out. Leila, our host, only stopped at 10 pm when we were putting plates on top of each other and the table was groaning with uneaten food. The food was honest and simple, made from local vegetables, cheese and grains. Leila plied us with wine and cha cha and we enjoyed a long evening with a young Russian couple, Boris and Olga, who were on their honeymoon. They were such thoughtful and lovely people and we spoke about the difficulties in their lives and their dreams of living in Canada one day and how close to an impossibility this was for them. We spoke about freedom and government. They told me how they had to take care what they said all the time, even in this era. Olga was an artist and was always conscious of creating art that could not be misconstrued as being political in any way. They just wanted to be able to create art that moved them, have an organic garden, ride their bikes and earn a living good enough to be able to afford to have kids. I gave them little toy kangaroo keyrings and in the morning was greeted, shyly with a beautiful ink drawing Boris made for me that evening. It was very touching and I was really glad we had stayed there to meet people from a world so different to our own.

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 The next morning it was back up to the outdoor terrace of the Rooms Kasbegi Hotel for coffee before anyone awoke. It was peaceful and perfect as we sat alone and watched the sun light up Mt Kasbegi and crawl slowly down to the church and then down the mountainside and into the village. After breakfast with all the other people staying at our homestay we made our awkward excuses to an offended Leila that we were heading back to Tbilisi early and made a hasty getaway.

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I had booked an Airbnb studio apartment in the old town for the next few nights and we met the host outside in a small side street and he took us into an old building and up to the apartment.

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I have a fairly vivid imagination and as he took us through this dilapidated open doorway with no door on it I felt like I had fallen through a gap in time and into the Warsaw Ghetto (I have no idea why this image came to me except that this was a Jewish neighbourhood) Up a set of steps that had so much woodworm in them that the banister was waving about so much it felt like a hazard to hold onto it and I found myself treading as lightly as I could up the rickety stairs. We had to duck our heads at the top of the first flight to miss getting caught up in the gas pipe that looped itself at head height across the entrance to the landing and was all tangled with the electrical wiring hanging there waiting to garrote the unsuspecting. The floor boards were dusty and unpainted and as we got to the top of the second flight of stairs we narrowly missed being drenched by a laundry tub of water that was being sluiced out across the floor. The woman doing her washing and cutting down on the summer dust was very large and was wearing a headscarf to keep her hair out of her eyes, her bra, a shortish skirt and not much else. She nodded to us and continued to do her washing in the open doorway to her house. The host gathered keys from an impossibly old lady from the apartment next door while washing flapped lazily in the hot breeze and the rickety balcony alongside our door just held up a young skinny guy, smoking and talking on his phone. From outside this building looked abandoned but inside there was a rabbit warren of doorways, broken furniture and the detritus of human inhabitation. Inside the apartment I hoped the floors were reinforced and wondered how the plumbing would be but it was super funky, arty and comfortable and the bed was flat and long enough to accommodate us. I was charmed. We bought cheese and red wine and sat at the table overlooking the view as the warm breeze floated in the window and the sun began to set.

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We had many more good adventures that included drinking too much Qvervi wine, eating an extraordinary dinner in the gardens of the Art Deco Tbilisi Literary Society Building amongst flickering candles and leafy greenery and tall trees swaying gently in the breeze. We went to the wine country for the day to see their amazing method of brewing, Rick played piano, we heard great jazz, drank good coffee and came home to Saudi feeling sated and marveling at how lucky we were to have had Georgia on our minds. It was now in our hearts too.

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We loved it so much we are head back there in January for a long weekend in the snow over their Orthodox New Year on the 14th. And we cannot wait to see her again and this time in her winter clothing.

 

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