The Juta-Roshka trail had been taunting my friend Ben for years. Even though he had been able to break on of Georgia's more nearly insurmountable peaks, Kazbegi, he wasn't ever able to take this much lower situated pass. We had first discovered the beauty of the place during a short visit to Juta, wanting to spend some time in the mountains near Tbilisi that wasn't Kazbegi. But we had only hiked to the base camp of the peak, since we didn't know enough about the country. My Chinese friend Moomoo also attempted the trail but could never manage it. On her first attempt, starting at Roshka, a blizzard and lightning storm hit her and as largely unprepared as she was she was forced to spend the night under a rock and then crawl back to Roshka. She would later tell us about the storm, "There was pink lightning!" As if it were some vision to her of her ancestors challenging her to make the hike. The next month, she went with Ben and another friend, and they were surprised about how heavy the snow still was in July, snow which had covered and hidden the trail up and down. Despite Moomoo's furious protestations - "I must finish this trail!" - they turned back down and returned to Juta.
Ben and I prepared. We found a topographical trekking map (available at the GeoLand shop in Tbilisi), picked up a compass at dry bridge, and packed some five pounds of nuts, snickers and apples to munch on for our three day journey. We decided to start on the Juta side - which I'd recommend to everyone who chooses to take this trail.
The marshrutka from Tbilisi can be found at Didube, the dirtiest and most terrible of bus stations in Tbilisi. The marshrutka is typically packed, smelly and with little room, but at a cost of only 10 lari. For 15 lari you can find a shared taxi that's infinitely more comfortable, which is how we ended up in the company of four Poles who wanted to stop and spend great deals of time at each tourist spot on the way to Kazbegi.
I told the driver several times (in Georgian no less) to drop us off at Sno valley, just over the pass. "Yeah, yeah, of course," he kept repeating. But as we made it past the eternal construction zone on the pass leading to Kazbegi, he only picked up more and more speed. We recognized the shop that marked the valley coming closer and closer and yelled for him to stop. Completely unprepared, he slammed on the brakes and veered the van a bit off road so traffic behind him would miss him, which also brought us into the midst of a herd of cattle - cows, not being the smartest of animals - or perhaps being quite a fiendishly evil animal - seem extraordinarily fond of roadways, and especially bridges.
We made it to the valley though, and proceeded onward towards Juta. Our original plan had been to get to the entrance of the valley, then find a taxi, get to Juta, and then start hiking and conquer the pass by the evening. However, with all the touristic dallying we were left to do along the way, we had to make a judgment call. Starting at 2:30 pm at Juta, it would mean that we would be already late in the day hitting the pass, at perhaps five our six, which is usually when the high mountain weather settles in. And if we got over the pass too quickly, then we'd be left with nothing to do on the third day. We decided then to save our money and skip the taxi, going by foot up Sno valley, passing through the three old villages which dotted the way, the most interesting being Sno itself, the hometown of the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, and also the site of an old medieval fortress with similar medieval looking houses and a newly built church.
At this point, my camera ran out of batteries and we were able to find a small shop on the opposite end of the village. She had batteries, but as I later found out, despite being size AA, they were strangely too small for the camera. But I can only wonder what the old lady thought when two obvious foreigners came in speaking Georgian. A smile came up on her face, and probably for the first time in her life she was able to communicate with foreigners - an unlikely sight to begin with in this part of the village - in her own language. I've noticed that in Tbilisi most people could care less about your linguistic efforts to hit at their unconquerable language, or they become overly enthusiastic and treat you like a dog, but in villages they have an honest humility and graciousness towards any of even the most meager of attempts.
Exiting Sno, we were hailed by a man coming down from the side of the mountain, from I assume his house. We addressed him in Georgian and he replied and spoke in Russian, telling us that he was Russian, so why not speak in that. "Where are you from?" he asked.
"The States," I answered in Russian. "You?"
"I am from nowhere. Everywhere. Here there. You know. I came from Russia years ago and decided to stay here. I like it here." As he spoke, I glanced at the faded blue ink tattoos that crawled up his arms. Spider webs, spiders, a crucifix, some words too faded to read. The blue ink was a tell tale sign of Russian prisons, where they make ink for tattoos using the rubber of boot soles.
"Where are you headed?"
"Ah, Juta. Everyone's headed to Juta. Americans, Israelis, Poles, Russians, Germans. Why Juta?" He shrugged. His implication was clear, that he knew Juta was a beautiful place, but don't you see, this also is a beautiful place.
"Listen, brothers, I need two lari to get a drink. Can you spare some money?" I had no change on me, Ben only had about 80 tetri. He looked at his hand after counting it and grunted. "This isn't two lari. I can't get a drink with this." He looked on the verge of giving the money back. But at last he decided to keep it and then gave us his parting words.
A couple of hours later - for a total of 3 and a half hours - we made it to Juta. Just above Juta, there's a cafe and campsite called Zeta, where we decided to break for dinner. The food is all pre-prepared and the beer comes out of plastic bottles, and it's all a bit pricey, considering the nearest store is about a 3 hour hike away and they had to bring their supplies up by horseback, the price wasn't too upsetting. The interior of Zeta was blank and in a manner that they welcomed people to write on them. It seemed most people were from Poland, as the writing was mostly in Polish, including a sketch of a mountain with the Polish flag on top - not quite sure what they meant by that.
From Zeta, it was another two hours hike to the base camp, which was snuggled under the jagged Chauxi peak, which like a spear stuck to the heavens, thrust up by Hades as an attack on Apollo, who sped across the sky on his flaming chariot. The surrounding valley was steep and nearly un-climbable. Groups of mountaineers and tourists were camped in various places in the meadow. Some were going to take the mountain itself, while other tour groups were going to take the lesser technical peaks in the range. We found a decent place near the roaring stream and made our camp.