12. Georgia 1
Tbilisi and the road to Tusheti
Justine – The cool of Armenia’s gorgeous Debden Canyon became a haze of heat as Kabylie
trundled out onto the wide open plain leading to the Georgian border. Immediately declaring he was too hot, Tom refused to stop to give Petra and I time to find a hotel in Tbilisi. By the time we got to the border, I was cross with Tom for not stopping and he was cross because he was now even hotter. When an Armenian border guard told we had use an ‘Agent’ to help us check out of Armenia, he became even more cross as it was clearly a scam as the ‘agent’ stamped one flimsy bit of paper and charged us 30 quid!
Georgia and Armenia did not compete about who had the biggest flags at the border and both were disappointingly modest affairs. We delayed at passport control to savour the air-conditioning and then took the door tops off Kabylie to make our own alternative.
Georgia’s landscape was not such a startling a change as Iran’s had been compared to Armenia’s but there was still a marked difference. One was the hot flat plain we were on after the lush Armenian mountains. Another was the basin of cultivation we were driving through, no longer the occasional small strip fields dotted amongst the flower meadows, but very large fields clearly being worked by large farms.
The roads were also a great improvement. The kids could actually write their diaries and do their school work without scrawling everywhere with the bumps and twists. The quality of driving, though, had deteriorated – Georgians are renowned for their alarming driving.
Before leaving Armenia, we stopped to buy apricots on the roadside having discovered very late that Armenia has the most heavenly fresh apricots in the world and is where they were first cultivated. Another heavenly thing we learnt before leaving was that Noah was both born and died in Armenia and that Adam (as in Adam and Eve) was Armenian. I guess if you are the first country to become Christian, you can baggsi all the main characters.
As well as the occasional fruit stall, the road leading from the border was totally jammed with people selling giant bags of Persil automatic and Fairy washing powder. It was really bizarre as mile after mile the traders sold nothing else. They had clearly heard that there was an un-washed family heading their direction.
As Petra was about to press ‘book’ on the chosen Tbilisi hotel, the Sim card ran out so we decided to camp. We turned off the road to look for a suitable roost and spotted a monastery perched on a hill. It was the first one we had seen that was still being used and when I enquired of the monks if it was safe to camp in the wood next door they said ‘no, not safe.’ This was not the response we wanted so I tried again ‘It is not dangerous to camp is it?’ ‘Yes dangerous’ came the reply. Hummm still not the response we wanted so we decided to ignore their advice and headed for the wood.
Unlike Armenia, there is grazing everywhere that makes a lovely close cut grass surface to camp on, but it also means far less flowers and butterflies. Just when we had set up camp and Petra was having a shower made out of a water bottle with holes cut in it, a Lada bumped through the trees towards us. Darn it! A bunch of blokes looking for a place to get pissed. They came to say hello and informed us they intended to get blindingly drunk. Oh good!
Actually they turned out to be very nice. made no noise and crept away at lights out.
We usually start thinking about where we are going to spend the night at about 18.00. Most of the time we camp and we usually head for the nearest hill or riverbed as there is often common land in these types of places, and they are fairly deserted apart from the odd shepherd returning home with his flock. The trick is to tuck behind something hidden from any road, reducing the exposure to drive-by nutters. It’s almost invariably up a dirt track and this is when Kabylies 4×4 is invaluable. It would be a very different trip if we did not have 4×4 capability as with it we almost always find a fantastic secluded camp spot. This may not be quite so easy once we cross the Black Sea into Europe during the summer!
We returned to the monastery the following morning to see what a working monastery was like. The place was deserted, but we followed the chanting to a little church. Looking fairly like the Armenian churches from the outside, it was very different inside as the walls were totally covered in frescos. It was magical. The singer was a cleric all in black with a very long orthodox beard swaying and chanting at high speed as incense burners swung to and fro. At the side was another long bearded cleric in wonderful white and gold robes and a big rounded hat, taking the confession of an over-weight man on his knees. He had obviously done something very bad as he was getting a roasting from the priest. There was straw all over the floor and we couldn’t work out why. Just as Petra and I were taking off our veils (women have to wear darn veils again) we saw a group of men pulling a reluctant sheep up to the church. They proceeded to walk round the church several times dragging the poor beast by its horns. We enquired whether they were going to sacrifice it and told us ‘yes’ delightedly, for a wedding. Petra refused to stay. Having seen two horses sacrificed in Indonesia last year, she muttered something about being a vegetarian and plodded off down the hill. The rest of us stayed for a while but then realising it could be some time before poor sheepy was dispatched we decided to make our way to Tbilisi.
Tbilisi was a wonderfully welcome surprise. We had no idea what to expect but thought it would probably be similar to Yeravan. In fact Tbilisi is a far more sophisticated and beautiful city, as beautiful as any in Europe. A great effort has been made to expunge the Soviet past and large amounts of money are being spent restoring the fabulous old town, full of colourful houses with large wooden balconies. About a third of Georgia’s population 1.17m to 5.5m) live in Tbilisi and we can see why. It’s a darn nice city that appears to be growing wealthy fast. The Georgians have beautiful architecture that they are preserving and it’s the most litter free country we have visited so far. Tbilisi should definitely be on people’s city break list – it is fabulous.
After gorging on gelato ice cream and milkshakes, we headed for the hills once again. ‘One of the most dangerous roads in the world’ is how the BBC describes the road to Tusheti, a region in a beautiful but inaccessible corner of Georgia, along the border with the infamous regions of Chechnya and Dagestan in Russia. Nestled in the massive Caucasus mountain range, which is higher than the Alps and runs from the Caspian to the Black Sea, Tusheti is cut off from the rest of Georgia for 6 months of the year as it’s only steep, muddy, single track road, is blocked by deep snow. It is so desolate and cold in Tusheti in winter that almost all the inhabitants leave for the bottom of the mountains until the snow melts, when they take their flocks and herds back up to Tusheti for the summer pastures. About 5 families remain, completely cut off from the world for 6 months. In June the herders return with the transhumance, spending five days and nights driving their vast flocks from the plains around Tbilisi up into the high pastures. If it rains, the single track becomes a sticky, sheer sided quagmire through which they chivvy their livestock with little food and water, on and up. They themselves sleep seated with their wool cloaks pulled tightly around them like a tent.
We turned onto the Tusheti road and wondered what all the fuss was about. We saw a pretty meadow and a dirt track through the trees where several long trailers were parked, packed tightly with beehives. Throughout this part of the world, stretching into Central Asia, beekeepers transport their beehives on vast soviet-era trucks and trailers. They transport their hives all over the summer pastures to find the best flowers and it is a wonderful sight seeing them all on the move.
The ‘fuss’ about the road turned out to be justified, for it was not long before Kabylie was grinding up the mountainside in the lowest of her 8 gears. The problem is the single road, if you can call it that. It’s only passable with a good 4×4, so it was with good reason that we wondered if our 60 year old Kabylie could make it. Videos on You Tube hadn’t reassured us. It’s only 75km long but the first section rises almost vertically for over 2500m from the valley floor to cross the 2900m Abano pass and all on a crumbling dirt road with switch-backs that wind terrifyingly up the near vertical mountain side. In Britain maybe we are used to exaggeration so we took ” the most dangerous road in the world” as clever tourist-board branding. Clearly there are many many more dangerous roads in terms of fatalities but it quickly became obvious that you should never risk assuming that a Georgian is exaggerating when it comes to bad roads.
In the first few kms Petra counted 14 graves by the roadside one of which was built around the front end of a Land Cruiser. The problem was that by the time we had passed them it was really too late. The road is far too steep and narrow to turn around and one false move near the crumbling edge and there would be a nasty if spectacular end to the Retroroadtrip
To add to the excitement the weather begun to close in about half way up, leaving us peering at the ridiculously steep road with glacial rivers pouring over it through the tiny area swept by our wiper blade. Actually Kabylie didn’t slip once and we were all collectively astounded and relieved at what she is evidently capable of. Our only problem was her turning circle, which left us often unable to make the tight switchbacks in one sweep. It was a terrifying manoeuvre, holding such an old car on the not very good handbrake on a extremely steep corner with a 1000m drop a metre from the bumper.
After the pass we descended into the stunning, vertically-sided Tusheti Valley. However, the road had not finished with us as it now turned into axle-deep mud, deep enough to hit the radiator fan and spray paint the engine. We arrived with a very muddy car and a whole new admiration for Kabylie. We weren’t the only ones. The locals were satisfactorily impressed by what everyone seemed to think is the oldest car to cross the Abano pass. Quite cool as some geographers believe the Abano pass to be the geological dividing line between Europe and Asia.
Here is another of Tom’s car porn videos. Hector’s comment on seeing it was “dad, there is a bit too much car” and Petra and I agree, so he has reluctantly added some horse and foals.
Our guesthouse in Omalo was a very basic family house, where the babushka cooked us huge meals and our four beds all sloped downhill. We were amazed at the huge quantity of dishes that were laid on the table for supper and wondered eagerly what our breakfast would be. The next morning, the same quantity of dishes arrived for breakfast, with exactly the same contents, bar one new dish, of cold spaghetti. I poured the kids a glass of apple juice only to discover it was home brewed wine. I opted for the mineral water, but that turned out to be ‘cha-cha’ a home brewed vodka. The very good looking Slovakian man who was staying in the guest house advised that he always had cha-cha for breakfast because Georgians always start the day with it, because it clears the system and kills all bacteria in the digestive tract. He was so good-looking that I immediately complied, much to the amusement of Tom and the kids.
We climbed the hill to Upper Omalo, another village about a km up a very steep hill. The views were incredible. The Caucasus mountains are snowy and spectacular and the lower mountains are green and verdant, with spruce and silver birch. The wonderful lush summer pastures are a sea of buttercups and forget-me-nots, dotted with horses and cows. Above the village loom six huge defensive slate tower houses unique to the Caucasus. These were defences when warring tribes came over the mountains from Dagestan and Chechnya to plunder the Tusheti villages. The Caucasus have a long history of bitter tribal vengeance and vendetta that could continue through four generations until no one in the entire family was left to fight. They marked their victories by hanging the hands and ears of the defeated around their saddles.
Apparently men only stopped wearing chain mail here well into the 20th Century and these defensive towers were rather crucial if the Tushetians were going to survive to carry out their vengeance on the Chechens the other side of the mountains. During the winter, when the snow blocked the few passes over the mountains, the Tushetians of the past lived in the villages below the towers as they were safe from attack. When the snow melted, they moved into the 6 story towers, each one holding an extended family with cows on the ground floor. The towers have a base of about 4m x4m and go up six stories with tiny windows and each floor a very low ceiling. Thus in summer, it was beautiful but you lived in a prison and in winter you were safe and lived in a house that was so cold you nearly died. Tough as old boots these Tushetians.
We ate the picnic lunch provided by the guesthouse and were surprised to discover the contents of breakfast now between chunks of bread. It turns out that cold spaghetti sandwiches are surprisingly good and it made me realise how regimented we are in our diet. I never think of beetroot, chicken wings and vodka for breakfast, nor pasta sandwiches for lunch. A whole new culinary world is opening up – Good bye Fruit and Fiber.
That evening I decided to ask if this little mountain village had a doctor because Hector’s eye had been swelling up over the previous three days. I had expected a wizened old babushka who had some ancient herbal compress of cow-pat and sheep toe-nails, but amazingly we were taken down the hill by the little boy from our guesthouse to a new medical centre paid for by the Czech government. The doctor was charming. He gave us some anti-biotics for Hector’s eye and then took us outside for some cha-cha with his drinking buddies. Poor Tom and in fact poor me. As Tom gets 3 day hangovers from even a thimble of alcohol, I have to do the drinking for both of us to uphold the honour of Britain. On this occasion I was rather pleased I had fortified myself with cha-cha because, as we walked back up the hill to our guest-house, Hector spotted a horse that was haemorrhaging blood out of its backside. Its head was bent low, it was breathing in a very laboured way and was clearly dying. We quickly ran to a house and beckoned the cha-cha drinking group of men to come. One carried a large knife, a very ominous sign. The little boy from the guesthouse explained that the men thought the horse had been bitten by a snake…….or a spider. Blimey! – avoid all spiders.
Sadly the men folk decided not to dispatch the horse, but the owner laid it down and plied it with cha-cha! Hopefully it went to it’s heavenly resting place in an alcohol haze.