14. Georgia 3
Caucuses to the Black Sea
Justine – With the alarming Tusheti road behind us, we travelled one valley over to the Pankisi valley. Our guide book said nothing about this area, but Clara the punchy French lady we had met in Tusheti had advised we go. The muslim Pankissi valley is marked red on all foreign office websites denoting it is a high risk area. The reason for this, apparently, is that in the early 2000’s Al-Qaida training camps were allegedly functioning in the valley and it was used as a base for transit, training and shipments of arms and financing by Chechen rebels and Islamic militants. More recently, a greater number of jihadists from the valley have gone to join ISIS per-capita than anywhere else in the world. It seemed very unlikely that potential jihadists would be daft enough to stage attacks in their own valley filled with their families so it seemed an obvious place for the retro-road trip to explore.
The inhabitants of the valley are Kist, Chechens who came to Georgia at the invitation of Russia some 200 years ago. At that time the Kists, unlike the rest of the Chechens, were not Muslim but had their own monotheistic religion, and were brought over to help the Russians and Georgians battle against Shamyl, the leader of rebellious Muslim tribes from Chechnya and Dagestan. 200 years on and Russia is no longer so happy with the Kist valley as during that time they became Muslim. Many Chechens fled into the valley during the bitter war between Chechnya and Russia.
We stayed at a guesthouse run by the charming Nazy who had left her job as a lawyer in Tbilisi to return home to try and help her people change the image of the valley. Nazy explained that the valley is so small that everyone knows the families who have lost children to the ISIS cause and that out of a population of 12,000, only 20 young men have gone to Syria to fight, not the 200 maintained by the authorities. The main recruiter was arrested by the authorities several years ago, but the reputation of the valley is hard to change. Nazy has got several NGO projects started in the valley and is determined to improve the lot of her people. She improved our lot no end by cooking us the best food we have tasted on our whole trip.
Out of respect for cultural sensibilities, Petra and I donned our Iranian cover-all garb as we explored the village. In Georgia you quite often seen veiled women (photo) near the churches, all in black wearing what we would consider a very Muslim outfit and this just goes to show the similarities between orthodox religions. Here no women wore black. They only had a short scarf over their heads. It was the men who gave the place away as being a Muslim valley. Clean-shaven Tom looked positively nude compared to the mullah beards. They sat on every street corner and seemed most incongruous, with beer and vodka being sold in all the shops behind them. The beard style here is long, shaved round the mouth, in the orthodox style.
The locals were less friendly than the majority of Georgians we had met, but Nazy told us that they are suspicious of people who might be journalists. Many come to the village and write articles reinforcing the bad reputation they have because it makes a good story. The last journalist, from Aljazeera, wrote an article trying to dispel the negative reputation of the valley, but her editor said it was not very exciting and made her re-write it, bigging up the terrorism aspect. That’s 24 hour news for you.
Not being a Friday, we missed the whirling dervish women who twirl at the old mosque between 9 and 12. As we said our farewells to Nazy, she asked if we had purposely put a Chechen symbol of a wolf howling at the moon on our roof tent. By chance, our tent was the brand ‘Howling Moon’, but I am sure the company has no idea that their logo is the Chechen symbol of resistance – always fighting.
We headed out of the valley towards the Military Highway, which was built by the Russian hero General Yermolov in 1817 with the aim of subjugating the Muslim tribes of the Caucasus. It is renowned for its phenomenal views but sadly we saw none as the cloud descended and heavy raindrops bounced off the bonnet. A police car stopped us to check we were not planning on going to South Ossetia, the border of which runs parallel to the road. South Ossetia is a breakaway region of Georgia which declared independence with the help of the Russians in 1990. It was the cause of the 2008 five day war between Georgia and Russia which saw Russia invade Georgia and march towards Tbilisi. – so recent!
The route passes a turquoise reservoir as it climbs towards the Russian border. Ever since meeting the hilarious Russian couple in Armenia, who kept shouting ‘Putin- Super good’ we had been toying with the idea of changing route by going into Russia and we had started the process of getting visas. The military highway goes to the only open border with Russia but we learned on the way up that there had just been a huge landslide. The road on the Russian side was now blocked by 800m of rubble and would be closed for the next two months. Our route decision was now made; we would have to get the ferry across the Black Sea to Ukraine.
As the rain turned to hail and we got our puffa jackets out we were regretting our decision to come up the military highway. It was a long, steep drive rewarded only by drippy hiking. We couldn’t face driving any longer, so just before Kazbegi, the last town before the border, we turned into the Sno valley to look for a roost for the night. After driving up a dirt track for about 8km, we suddenly saw a black van that was clearly doing an overland trip. We stopped to say hello. Result! She was French and he was Canadian. Help with the kids school work looked hopeful over a cup of tea! We swapped destination tips and then to general amazement all round, discovered that Fanny, the female of the couple, is a cousin of our friends Nathalie and David Diu! Nathalie and David were our first friends in Biarritz and we have since done a house swap with them now that they live in The Hague. What a bizarrely small world!
The next morning, Fanny helped with the kids’ schoolwork as promised and I was delighted when she told me that there were a number of questions that she did not understand at all. To me this confirmed that we were doing the right thing by heading back to France in September. If a French person struggles to explain the revision course the kids are doing, there is no hope that I, with my pigeon French, would have been able to teach them next year’s syllabus if we had carried on to Asia.
The monastery that sits perched on a hilltop above Kazbegi is renowned as being of huge symbolic importance to Georgians. This is what I read to the children as we climbed the muddy hillside in the drizzle. Hector chirped back that every monastery in Georgia is meant to be ‘one of great symbolic importance’ or ‘the heart of Georgian spiritualism’ and he had a point. Whoever writes the guide books in Georgia uses the same line for every religious spot. That said, Georgia is the most devout country we have visited. In every church believers circulate, kissing beautiful byzantine paintings of saints or prostrating themselves over gravestones on the floor. Sunday services are very well attended and many monasteries remain inhabited by monks or nuns. Religion still plays a very important part in people’s lives.
We had spent two days and one night in the rain and we couldn’t wait to get out of it. Packing away a wet tent is never fun, particularly when your bedding is stored inside it. We set off down the military highway, but had not even made it past 10 kmph when Kabylie started shuddering violently. We stopped and checked the wheels and set off again. Every time we hit 10 kmph the shuddering would start once more. Tom could not work out what the problem was, but as the brakes were not affected we decided to continue the five-hour descent to where we hoped there was sun. It was slow going at 10 kmph, but it gave Tom time to check every component of Kabylie’s undercarriage and wheels in his mind. Then he posted an email about our shuddering problem on the ‘Series 1 Land Rover forum,’ in the hope that another enthusiast might know what was wrong. By the time we were halfway down, three responses confirmed his suspicions. What a wonderful resource is this forum, with enthusiasts all around the world willing to diagnose Kabylie’s problems……
We arrived at last in Mshketa, the spiritual heartland of Georgia – have you heard that somewhere before? We booked the cheapest guest house we could find which turned out to be brilliant. “Old Capital” (Mshketa used to be the capital of Georgia) was in the main square of the old town overlooking the monastery, and for 31 euros we had a little 2 bedroom apartment with a large terrace from which we could sketch the monastery garden. A huge complementary breakfast was brought to our kitchen and Kabylie was parked below us – we could not have dreamed of a better spot.
Mshketa is a really pretty little town and as Tom and Hector fiddled about with Kabylie’s wheels, Petra and I meandered through the little streets and shops buying Churchkhela, walnuts on a string dipped in a thick grape juice kind of caramel to make what resembles a salami sausage. ‘Nature’ clearly won the ‘nature versus nurture’ argument regarding what interests the sexes; Petra and I gave a cursory glance at the wheels and metal bits under Kabylie and immersed ourselves in felt slippers and trinkets.
After a strenuous afternoon of prodding and tightening bits of Kabylie’s undercarriage, the boys were hugely hungry. I am generally given the task of ordering as by the time we decide on a restaurant Tom and Hector have usually gone ‘mongy’ (a low blood-sugar induced state of idiocy.) On this occasion the menu was all in Georgian. Gambling, I pointed randomly to four dishes, not knowing if I was going to hit the jack-pot or the ‘rubber squid.’ Tom ended up with a small piece of meat bobbing in boiled dishwater and Hector got a single, tiny, bludgeoned-flat, crispy quail. Petra and I got something delicious that we ate quickly before the boys stole it. Much male grumbling ensued.
We were awoken at 4am with the sound of retching in the bathroom. The crispy quail was taking its revenge for its short life and Hector was heaving his guts out from both ends. How grateful I was that we were in our little apartment and not in the tent, up a ladder with only one tupperware bowl in which to catch projectile emissions! Amazingly, by check-out time Hector had recovered, and we were able to drive into Tbilisi to pick up the kids’ CNED summer school revision course which we had arranged to be sent there in advance. We also wanted to buy our ferry tickets to Ukraine. We had planned to go to the mountain region of Sveneti to do another horse trek but the incessant rain had put us off mountains and we decided to push on to the Black Sea.
Our Tbilisi chores completed, we headed to the ancient cave city of Uplistsikhe inhabited since the early iron age. The hillside is a warren of caves with strange tadpole shaped holes. No one knows for sure what the holes were used for – except Tom, who is convinced that the tail of the tadpole, which always points to the door, would have sucked cool air into the fire and created a convection system which would have provided the caves with rudimentary under-floor heating. It takes a building genius to work out an archeological dimema!
Uplistsikhe is just outside the town of Gori, famed for being the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. The museum there is very good and has a brilliant guide who showed us everything, from the actual wooden house Stalin was born in to the Tsar’s railway carriage that he requisitioned and always travelled in. One of the most fascinating things we learned is that to this day, at least once a month, (but anything up to twice a day), Chinese embassy officials or delegations from the motherland come to the museum to present it with gifts commemorating the magnificent rule of the communist leader. Though the Chinese are well on the way to viewing their own Chairman Mao as having some major failings, for some reason they still revere Stalin and ignore the fact 50 million people died under his rule, excluding war casualties. The museum does not know what to do with all the Chinese presents so stores most of them in the basement. However there is one on display, which was given a couple of years ago and is in the photo below. It is not a photograph of Stalin, but embroidery of silk thread!!!!!!!!
A small section of the museum is dedicated to the 2008 war with Russia over south Ossetia as the Russian troops occupied Gori in August of that year. Our guide informed us that though the EU is here monitoring the border, it moves 400 meters a night and the South Ossetians/ Russians have stealthily taken an additional 7 kilometers! This sounded extraordinary and we were wondering what on earth all the EU officials were doing driving about in Land Cruisers with enormous aerials, if they are unaware of the border moving 400m each night – drinking cha-cha??? This was the only explanation we could come up with until we met an EU representative in the restaurant who informed us that he personally patrols the border and it had not moved a millimetre. The Georgian government seems not averse to a bit of anti-Russian propaganda.
We phoned the ferry company taking us across the Black Sea, to check that it was indeed sailing from Batumi in two days time but they couldn’t tell us whether it would go on the 10th or 11th. This seemed extraordinarily disorganised to us. We get annoyed when our trains are 20 minutes late. We found it hard to believe that every passenger and truck driver taking the ferry had to call the head office to find out when it would sail.
I thought there was just enough time to visit Vardzia, a cave city set in spectacular scenery in the south of Georgia. Tom grumbled the whole way there, saying that there was not time and we should push on to Batumi. Thank goodness for me, Vardzia was indeed incredible otherwise the grumbling would have been unbearable during the long drive the next day! Vardzia is set in a cliff face overlooking a river in a stunning valley, studded with cliff top fortresses. Built mainly in the second half of the 12th century, its cave dwellings are sometimes 13 stories high and houses 13 churches and 25 wine cellars. It is a working monastery to this day and as we camped opposite, we could see three or four lights from the caves which the monks inhabit, with their pot plants and carpets giving the cave rooms a homely feel.
Once again we underestimated the Georgian’s descriptions of their dirt roads. Instead of taking the longer, good road past Kasumi, we decided to take the unpaved road through Adjara as it was only 180km and a mere 50km of that is classed as ‘bad.’ 9 hours later we bumped into Batumi, our bones shaken and poor Kabylie rattled to within a minutes of her rivets coming loose. Luckily Adjara is a stunning province, which soothed our rattling brains somewhat. It has a large Muslim population and it was fun suddenly to hear the mosque call to prayer through the valley. The kids and I rode on the roof of Kabylie for much of the trip, but it was extremely bumpy and my perch had nowhere to hold onto. Having been being nearly catapulted down the valley, I moved inside. Georgia is stunningly beautiful but in addition it’s also the most litter free country we have ever visited. Its rare now to see a river anywhere, with the trees that line it not having plastic caught in their roots but in Georgia there is no litter anywhere. It’s not without effort because there are frequent signs saying don’t litter. The people clearly take pride in their countryside and its noticeable.
The people of Adjara were the most friendly we had met in Georgia and definitely the poorest we have seen on the trip. Kids ran out of their houses to wave and shout at us and old men hobbled up to give us the thumbs up sign and one or two shouted “David Cameron”. Petra noticed the distinct lack of girls and perhaps like many Muslim societies the poor girls stay in the house most of the time. The poverty in this area is marked. On a gorgeous summer day rural poverty is picturesque and has the feeling of yesteryear, but in the snows of winter or when rain churns through the mud streets, this picturesque idyll quickly becomes a very tough grind for existence. The houses were made of planks and flattened metal oil drums. No crazy gas pipes gave any sign that there was heating up here in the mountains (over 2000m) and the few electricity lines looked like they no longer carried the invisible life transforming force. On this sunny, warm, beautiful day, bent old women chopped wood and struggled backwards and forwards carrying bundles of firewood for their winter stores and old men patched up their rickety houses with squares of metal or old planks. The gap between the rich of Tbilisi and poor of this country can be very marked indeed.
Having seen so may beehives and net-clad men taking honey from them, we decided to stop and buy some of the local nectar. A babushka nearby was selling large pots of yoghurt so we prepared to gorge ourselves on yogurt and honey for lunch. Even better than yoghurt, the pots turned out to be full of thick fresh cream so we slathered it on bread and pretended we were in Cornwall eating ‘thunder and lightening’ (a white bap with golden syrup and clotted cream). The Georgian equivalent was even better and we returned to our rattle-trap car feeling very sick after finishing the lot.
Eventually we shook, rattled and rolled into Batumi, its six or seven neon skyscrapers and bustling streets, a world away from the mountain villages of Adjara. Batumi is Georgia’s port on the Black sea and where the Norwegian Nobel brothers (of the prize) were amongst the initiators of the oil trade in 1878. They built the first pipeline from Baku on the Caspian to Batumi. In recent years money has obviously been pouring in once again and the city has been studded with extraordinary architectural statements that rise incongruously out of a sea of decrepit communist apartment blocks. Our hotel was in one of these broken down blocks which seem rather threatening when you are not used to them. To add to the benighted atmosphere there was a large coffin lying in state in the next door apartment, with mourners gathered round knocking back vodka and cake. At first I had thought we were sleeping in same apartment as the dead person but then realised with relief that there was door between us. The Hotel had said nothing about a corpse being included with the booking.
Batumi is where Georgia lets its morals slip. There are huge casinos occupying the bottom of each skyscraper and a lot of Thai massage parlours. Either Batumi has an untold history of Thai immigration or the frangipani baths come with more than the flowers in them. Batumi is becoming a popular destination for tourists from the Middle East, very excited to discover they don’t need to go as far as Thailand for that sort of massage.
While walking through town that night a police car screamed up to a roundabout with officers jumping out as though there had been a mass shooting, screaming at the traffic to move as if their lives depended on it. We were transfixed. Minutes later a blacked out car appeared and the officers, clearly terrified, stood ramrod to attention and saluted for several minutes as the traffic stopped around them. We were not sure who was in the car but one can assume that the police are very scared of whoever runs Batumi.
Petra had planned our night in Batumi meticulously, and after a meal in the delightful old town, we walked around the point with its neon-lit skyscrapers. One had a façade shaped like a hypodermic syringe and had its own Ferris wheel twenty stories up stuck to the outside. It looked like a very appealing children’s toy in Toys R Us. There were some dancing fountains where the Batumi populace promenade at night. We watched them spurt water in time to ‘Time to say goodbye,’ which I suspect is played at all musical fountains around the world. There was a lovely atmosphere as families and kids walked, scooted about in golf carts, perused the souvenir shops or played snooker on rental tables. We hired a ping-pong table until it started to pour with rain and drops bounced higher than the ball. The weather has been really bad this year in the Caucasus and we are forever grateful we are in Kabylie and not on bikes!
As the night closed in we arrived at the ferry to start the long game of “try and guess what the hell you’re meant to do”. Even the time to arrive at the dock was a guess, with different people telling us different times. Tom’s punctuality won the day and we arrived at the dock at 19.30. It was a 7 hour game that must happen every time the ferry loads. Nobody knew what was happening so cars, lorries and even two long trains took it in turns to charge the loading ramp only to be stopped and turned back by the immigration police. Occasionally people were let through and at 10.00pm the kids and I walked onto the ferry, leaving Tom and Kabylie to battle their way forward. During the hour-long wait at the reception desk for our cabin key, I was asked by several Russians if I wanted to start drinking with them. No one seemed to know when the ferry would arrive in Odessa. Scheduled to take 2 nights, one man said “Sometimes it only takes 1 and sometimes 5. When it takes 5 nights, they run out of food and water but not to worry, there is always vodka left”! The kids and I eventually found our cabin, big and airy if a little worn out. We even had a large window that opened looking straight out at the bow – brilliant! As we snuggled into our bunks, poor Tom was still battling to get onto the ferry. He was eventually allowed on (last) at 02:30 after a four and a half hour wait and a search of Kabylie by a very large dog. Then at 04:00, we were awoken to a tannoy asking us all to go to the restaurant for passport control! We woke the kids and stumbled down bleary-eyed with all the other disgruntled passengers.
Sometime between 04.40am when we made it back to bed and 08:00, when breakfast was served, we set sail.
The Black Sea was a gorgeous deep lapis lazuli blue and we watched the sun sink below the horizon directly in front of us out of our window every night. The sea was always glassy smooth, and the boat so stable that it didn’t feel like it was moving at all. As we went past Crimea, we did in fact stop as maybe they had decided we were enjoying our cruise so much that they would give us an extra night onboard. With no internet or phone reception no one could cancel their onward hotel bookings, but as they did not come with a pod of dolphins along side, we all rejoiced at another night on the boat.
We snuggled down in our bunks for our last night before hitting Ukraine and the evocative city of Odessa.
Tom – Only disappointment was that having driven all the way to South Georgia it was sad not to see any penguins.