Monday, October 13, 2014

I'll be your lover on the line

(cont'd from last week)

My first steps into the wagon were like entering a sauna, an experience I normally enjoy, complete with booze, birch branches and the cold pool. But here was different, here the humidity was not pure spring water rising from the bosom of our fair Earth, but rather sweat dripping from the pours of an angry Russian lady who was busy arguing with another conductor about allowing her screaming and whining child to ride free. It was from the sweat of the three Adidas-decked "athletes" drinking beer and laughing in the first cabin. It was from the sweat of the running and screaming children, who were back and forth wrestling up and down corridor. All the annoyances of Eastern European train travel combined. Except for gypsies. At least there were no gypsies.

Wait, those are gypsies! Too bad there weren't any gypsies then!
Once we got settled, the chaos died down a bit, but the heat didn't. It robbed everyone of the will to live, and came something akin to the ill-fated sauna contests of Finland, where the winners are determined simply by who is the last man standing. Most people were hanging out the windows, trying to breathe, but the sadistic conductor, ever with inspiration from the Marquis de Sade himself, kept returning and yelling at people to get back in their cabins. Then he would close the windows to keep the heat going. As if to add on the top a little bit of icing of hope - so that he could later crush it - he reassured us that the air conditioning would come on as long as the windows were closed.

And the air conditioning came on.

After we were soaked in sweat and the room was dripping, the air conditioning slowly began its labor. At first it wasn't felt, but like the outbreak of a terrible plague, it was on us before we knew to take action. For some reason, the train conductor decided not to hand out blankets - blankets can be expected in trains across Europe - and just left us with a pillow. We slept in our wet clothes which soon became traps of ice and chill. Several times during the night, when I would wake up, I thought I could see the frost from my breath. The experience seemed to replicate that of someone dying from influenza - intense heat one moment, intense cold another, never feeling the same temperature, never comfortable, and too weak to do anything about it. It was a replication of an experience that could be described as the opposite of awesome.

At last the train arrived in Zugdidi. None of us had slept any and we left the train like miscarried babies, shuffling our feet in a world of such light that we weren't yet prepared for, confused by the new reality that had descended upon us. Even harder yet - no one was speaking a language any of us knew. Here they spoke Megrelian (fun fact: when Russians say "Megrelian", they add a mysterious "n" saying "Mengrelian"), which was, of course, not at all related to Russian, and though a Kartvelian tongue, has very little to do with Georgian. Though at least everyone speaks Georgian just as fluently, they like to collaborate behind your back in Mengrelian.

I went directly to the restroom after our stop. The bathroom structure seemed to come out of Sleepers, something like Woody Allen might picture the future of public toilets. The outside was like a dome with small little pods connected to it, and it was all painted bright blue (forty years ago, now it was painted a dirty and chipped not-so-bright blue). I walked in and found myself in a dark, circular room. There were no sinks here, no thought of sanitation. Instead I found myself in a kind of fecal panopticon, where I could see all those using the toilets around me. The toilets themselves were squatters, which meant that several were occupied with men squatting down. They seemed to me to have the same glazed over look of concentration that cats or dogs have when they empty themselves. In that moment, the ultimate illumination of how basically animal we are was summed up to me. Why even bother with this podlike concrete creation? Why are we not all simply shitting in a field without shame or embarrasment? Was our first sin, our original sin, not that of pride, but rather of claiming that we were ever anything more than mere animals? And we pretend ourselves kings over nature, sitting on porcelain thrones, wiping ourselves with feathery, triple-ply toilettes.

I left my existential crisis in the bathroom and joined the others. We walked over to the marshrutka stop, which was also crowded with taxis. None of the marshrutkas were the modern ones I had seen years ago. All of these seemed the typical white, aged Ford Transits that seem to be moments from breaking down and rolling off a cliff, with the cigarette smoking driver deftly rolling out minutes before take off, shrugging and getting another beer with his comrades.

My mother, from her last trip to the Caucasus, had been wise enough to develop a fear of such machines - whereas I take some sort of weird, masochistic pleasure out of them, especially when a beer is in hand. They're like riding a motorcycle, except there's absolute zero control of your fate, there's no comfort, no wind, and well, actually it's nothing like riding a motorcycle. No, it's more like riding a cattle car to a concentration camp. There's nothing fun about it. There's heat, chickens, puking babies, and bad Russian pop music - that's what always comes to my mind when I think of marshrutkas.


My mother wanted to avoid them, so we opted for one of the taxis. The first guy offered us 100 lari. That sounded good for a two-and-a-half hour drive into the mountains.

"Okay, let's go."

"No, I don't feel like driving. If I were, that would be the price. Go with him."

He pointed me to a smiling, gold toothed man. "120," he said.

"But that guy just said 100."

"He does not have a TV, I have a TV," he said, pointing inside his 15 year old Chevy station wagon at the television that was installed on his dash. "It is luxury."

"Er," I said. "100?"

"120, no less, have TV." He then addressed all the other drivers in the area in Megrelian. There seemed to be some consensus that nobody would take us for less, and that it would be him taking us. I began to see the futility of it.

"What is he saying?" my parents asked.

"He wants 120."

"But you said the other guy wants 100. Can't we go with him?" my mom asked.

"No, apparently not."

"Why is he wanting 120?" my dad asked.

"He has a television. Look," I looked around at all the drivers watching us, realizing our fate was sealed, "I think we'll just have to accept the 120."

In the end, the extra 20 for the television was worth it. On rotation was a music video of the highest class and quality, and without that ride I would have never been exposed to this Estonian music sensation, which played on repeat no less than twenty times:

So remember, when in Georgia, if you're offered a ride for 20 more lari than necessary because of a television, you say yes!

Monday, October 6, 2014

the way to the west

My family and friends were gathering for my upcoming wedding. Again came my parents to Georgia, a country they didn't really think they would come back to (the last they were in the country was four years ago). Also came my best man, Joseph, who was also visiting a second time, though he had just been there only one year ago. I had arranged so that they came within an hour of each other, so I didn't have to take too many midnight trips to the airport - Tbilisi planes infamously operate in the middle of the night and early in the morning; it's a lucky man who comes or leaves at a normal time of day. But then, no matter what, the layover in Turkey will be from 4 to 7 hours anyway, so it doesn't matter too much, your sense of time will be jacked. I bought some beer, found Joseph, and we spent a couple of hours drinking said beer in the parking lot, waiting for my folks.
Vake Park, image from wikimapia
We spent the first few days in Tbilisi sweltering. Tbilisi in August is an oven. A terrible oven that's on really high. The only thing to do there is to sweat and suffer and to drink beer. There's no air conditioning in most places, so there's no real relief to be found anywhere. Only suffering or hot pants yoga, but I, the existentialist that I am, am not so much into hot pants yoga. This is a pity, living in Tbilisi as I was, in August. So we opted to drink beer. The best beergarden in Tbilisi is at Vera Park, just through the tunnel from the Philharmonic. There you can find a variety of places, whether you prefer to people watch, to sit in nature, or to enjoy your time next to the plaza fountain where children are constantly running and playing. Fun for the whole family.

Our plan was to go to Svaneti by plane or by train. There was a new plane service by Vanilla Sky (a comforting name, if anyone's seen the movie), that had started up earlier that summer, flying small planes out of a field near Mskheta. The planes leave in the morning of every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The train service on the other hand would be overnight and arrive in Zugdidi, transferring to marshrutka or taxi to get to Mestia in Svaneti. 

The last and most terrible option would be to drive ourselves. The drive there is quite gut wrenching, complete with all the winding roads, two narrow lanes through mountains and Georgian driving that resembles more of style of stock car racing found on games like F-Zero or Mario Cart, complete with rockets, banana peels and launched turtle shells.

We wanted to take the plane, so I looked at the website online. It didn't accept any payments and there wasn't any place to send for reservations, so I decided to visit the office, which is on Maidan. I sat down with the agent and started to inquire about booking a flight. 

"Sorry, the seats are all booked through three weeks," she told me.

"Er," I said.

"Here's a card with our correct number, the one on the web page isn't correct. You can call us there for future reservations."

"Er," I said. What I was thinking was - if the number on the web page was not correct, and there was no email or anything on which to reserve the tickets, how on Earth were they all booked for the next three weeks?! I unfortunately didn't keep the right number, so I can't pass it on to you all here.

This meant we would take the night train. I hadn't taken this one before, so it was still a fun and new experience to me. This and thank God I bought some vodka, were the exact things I was thinking to myself as my parents, Joseph and I were sitting in a train cabin that night. 

When we first came down from the train station to the train, I didn't think the train was overly bad. It sat there, a gigantic iron hulk, bemoaning its fate of movement, eating up its passengers in the same lugubrious way Georgians eat up their food at a supra table. We had booked our tickets online through the Georgian Railways site, so we didn't need to wait at the chaotic ticket windows above and we could just hand the slip to the train conductor. 
The Tbilisi main rail station, image from 

Joseph looked at the train and the station and commented, "Usually there's some sort of romanticism in riding trains. Not here." 

After giving us a grim look, and Joseph and even more particularly grim look, the conductor let us all on board.

(cont'd next week)

Monday, September 29, 2014

how one became an alpinist

The gondolas and the black waters of the Qvirila River aren't the only things to see in Chiatura, which again expands my faith for Chiatura to have at least some tourist traffic in the future, with the right planning. The first stop was Mgvimevi Monastery, which lies a 15 minute walk north from the center of Chiatura. The stairs that lead up to this cliffside monastery were hidden among a construction site, a candle and ikon shop, and a house. There's a small sign marking the ascent, but little more than realizing you'll have to go straight up to get to the monastery. A small cable car sits above the shop, used to carry supplies up the monks that live above.

Mgvimevi on the cliff, looks steeper IRL
Despite being impossible to pronounce, Mgvimevi hosts a cave chapel and a large number of beautiful carvings chiseled into the stone walls of square chapels carved out of the rockside. The monks remain out of sight, leaving only old ladies to tend the candles and mop and to allow you for your own contemplation in a cave. There is continued construction behind closed doors (that further church in the picture), winding around the cliffside - but no worries, the main part of the monastery is from the 13th century, though the carvings and outer structures seem to be more recent, so if it's ancient dwellings you're after, this still suffices.

Mgvimevi monastery
 When we finished our sightseeing in the main part of Chiatura, we had to get a taxi, since the last three sights weren't exactly convenient. First on Ben's list, was to see the house museum of some Japaridze fellow, who was a world famous mountaineer or something. I'm not sure, I had never heard of him, but he was famous among those in the know of the Georgian alpinist community. The house was in the nearby village of Khreiti and was not at all walkable, having to ascend above the canyon and then down into a neighboring valley towards Racha. The other two sights, the Katskhi monastery and pillar, were both easy stops along the way to Kutaisi, where we were staying the night, so we decided to just negotiate with a taxi driver and worked a large, possibly mentally handicapped guy for 80 lari. I had thought that was steep at the moment, but then realized what a trip Khreiti was.

The road to Khreiti was more of a rocky trail, with the driver's VW Golf sedan barely making it over some of the holes and humps of the road. Though the driver knew that the Japaridze house museum existed and was in Khreiti, he didn't precisely know where either was. We drove on the trail for nearly an hour, continually stoppig for directions, and the finally he let us off at the base of a hill, where the road went straight up and was impossible for the Golf to make. "There," he pointed up, "the museum is that way, 1 or 2 kilometers."

A city street (and pig) in the village Khreiti
Up the hill we went. After about one or two kilometers of going up and completely understanding how this Japaridze became an alpinist, we came to a village. The forest broke for houses and small farms, where the style of life hadn't seemed to have changed for hundred of years - not even most cars were accessible here, though occasionally an old Soviet UAZ could be found. We had to keep peering into people's garden to ask for directions. Always, "Oh, it's just around that corner," or "It's just around this corner." No surprise to anyone that two foreigners were looking for it, must have happened all the time.

After turning enough corners, we were nearly sure we were lost and that this museum only existed in some dual, metaphysical plane that overlapped on top of our reality of Khreiti. But then a boy showed up and brought us down more twists and turns and finally to the house.

The Japaridze House Museum
The house itself was in the old Georgian style, with a stone first floor for wine storage and a second floor made of wood, with a large balcony to enjoy the mountain views. As Ben began to climb the stairs, a drunk guy stirred from a nearby bench and yelled at us. "No, no, no! Not allowed! It is closed."

Ben backed down and we examined the building further. Outside was a poster that advertised a festival from 1988. Through the windows of the first floor, there were stacks of furniture in disarray. The last time anything appeared to be touched seemed to match the date of the poster.

As we walked back in defeat, Ben noted, "Everyone knew of the museum. They all led us here, but no one bothered telling us it hadn't been open in twenty years."

"I wonder if anyone even knew that it's been closed," I said. "I mean, it can't be a museum that's really visited that often. Though it is strange how no one seemed it strange we were asking about it. Like people come all the time to visit."

Katskhi Monastery
We reunited with our driver and went on to the Katskhi monastery, again, just on the roadside to Zestaponi. We stopped and had a look. The monastery church was interesting to me due to the shape. It was an hexagon, which was altogether unusual in Georgian religious architecture, the only churches I had seen or heard like it were in Armenia and Oni, though both of those had long since been in ruins. It was built in the 10th century AD, and covered in ornate carvings, the like of which are barely seen anymore in Georgia, but probably covered most of the older churches prior to earthquakes and Mongol, Persian and Turkish invasions.

When we got back to the car, the driver started complaining about the price. "It should be more, gas is so expensive and it is hard to get to the pillar."

"The pillar is on the way and we already paid you and agreed!" I said back. I started getting a sick feeling in my gut, the feeling of utter disgust I get when people go back on their agreements, or when taxi drivers start complaining about their previously agreed fare. The man became less of a man to me, and seemed more like some miserable mass of talking bile and compost. Such is how I feel of weaselly drivers. But I stuck to my guns and refused to change price. Likewise, he refused to stop at the pillar, even for a view, despite it being on the road to Zestaponi. So we missed that sight, though we did get a peak of the pillar from the windows of the speeding car.

In Kutaisi, we stayed at a hostel, Hostel Mana (33 Tabidze, +995 598 7477 44, 20 euros for a private room), that was more of a guesthouse than a hostel. It was run by an amicable, middle aged man who seemed more than happy to have our business. The only problem with the place was the locked front door and lack of key, which meant if we had come home late, he would have to get up to open the door, though he didn't seem to mind when he did have to do that. The place was also hot, but there was a fan in our room, so it wasn't so bad.  

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

the disaster porn of Chiatura

My wedding was approaching. It couldn't have come quick enough, since I hated to be away from the sweet arms of my love. She had to go to Prague for the summer, where we would share our mutual home after the wedding. But for the time being, I was stuck in Tbilisi, working as much as I could to save money for the wedding and/or move and/or period of unemployment I could look forward to after moving.

Sign reading "Chiatura" in Georgian and Russian
The wedding festivities would begin with my parents and my best man coming to visit, one and a half weeks before the wedding itself. But first, I had one last trip with Ben to attend to: Chiatura.

Chiatura first came into my radar when I was reading Simon Montefiore's half-adventure, half-history book, Young Stalin. If ever you want to read an Eastern European history book that somewhat resembles a Western flick about an evil version of Jesse James, check that one out. But anyway, after many of Young Stalin's bank robbery schemes, he would take his bags of gold by donkey over the mountains to the small mining town of Chiatura, which was, in 1910s Georgia, a Bolshevik stronghold. The people of Chiatura were rewarded for their fidelity too: under Stalin, development soared, with electrification, a road link to Tbilisi, and new housing blocks piling up. It also soon became the Manganese mining capital of the world. The more than unique thing about this canyon community, besides the Manganese mining, is how many of the city outlets and work areas are connected by a network of gondolas.

One of the gondola stations in Chiatura
It was the gondolas that led me to really want to go to Chiatura. This article from the Atlantic and this one from the Daily Mail on the things went viral, talking about how rusted, old and dangerous they were and how they hadn't been updated since their construction 70 years ago. It also wrote that the town Chiatura itself was somewhat of a post-apocalyptic nightmare community, and that heading their might get you killed via pollution, frog plague or whatever have you.

The road to Chiatura was under renovation. For the most part, most of it has been fixed up and smoothed over - we'll see how long that lasts, due to the nature of Georgian road construction, but at least someone is trying. The road itself is riddled with scenic outdoor cafes, snuggled amidst the forests and brooks that litter the Shida Kartli and Imeretian countryside. When the forests end, rolling hills take over, with the vaguest outline of the towering Caucasus in the distance. Most of the hillside lies mysteriously unused, as it seems to be premium farming land, but for the proximity to the disputed territory of South Ossetia just nearby. Finally, after entering well into Imereti, the road descends back towards the main East-West highway, following a sharp and huge canyon, not so grand as America's Grand Canyon, but big enough to mystify any common viewer, and steep enough to send any cliff climber into spasms of ecstasy. If you go to Chiatura, forget going for a dilapitated town, go for the countryside, preferably with a car of your own so you can take as much advantage as you can.

Chiatura's bazaar district on the bank of the Kvirila
In fact, contrary to what that aforementioned article hints at, Chiatura is quite a nice little town, once you get past the complete black waters of the lazy Kvirila River that it traverses. The river is black from some process of the Manganese mine, and littered with Coke and lemonati bottles and cigarette packs, but that latter part is to be expected in any Georgian town. Besides all that, the center of the town shows some beauty, and perhaps even potential for tourism. The buildings are a mix between the grand Soviet styles and the more blocky housing units, but most are painted and fairly nice looking. We stopped at one hole-in-the-wall cafe that was on the park which served as a boardwalk along the inky river. They served a kebab that came in a soup - which ended up being quite amazing and spicy. We also had some Imeruli xatchapuri, which was again better than most places I had tried in Tbilisi.

From the cafe, we went to find a gondola, which wasn't hard to do. All you have to do is look up and follow one of the lines that hang over the skies to its base and there you can find your Soviet-era pot of gold. Some of the lines have been retired from lack of use - more than half the town is a ghost town - but there are still many that continually function. They operate on a "jig back" system, where there is one car for each way and they run on the same line; as one car goes up, the other goes down. We walked up to one, where three guys were sitting on the bench. Assuming they weren't the workers, I asked in Georgian, "Where is the operator?"

"I am the operator," one of the sitting guys said.

"Oh," I said.

We stood silently. They sat silently.

"Can we take a ride?" I asked.

"Yes," he said. He still didn't move.

"Good," I said, trying to figure out the trick to this exchange. "How much does it cost?"

"It's free."

View from the gondola
We decided we should just get on, and maybe the guy would do whatever it was he had to do. And he did. He stood up, rang a bell and sat back down. The gondola itself was a blue box, not unlike Doctor Who's TARDIS, but instead of flying through space and time, this thing flew up the cliffside, in about the same wibbly wobbly manner. However, I was a bit disenchanted. The construction, though clearly old, looked solid, and nothing about the trip seemed dangerous or even that exhilarating, except the fact that you were hanging by a steel thread some 500 feet in the air. But fear of heights aside, it wasn't really that big of a deal to worry about, or to write an article commending the bravery of the author on.

Cross marks the spot where there should be a cafe
At the top of the gondola was a big patch of dirt, a block of apartments, and a road block, behind which was some operation going on that was probably linked to the mines. There was also an amazing view of Chiatura, and a great place to at least put a beergarden, of which there was none. In fact, the most terrifying thing in Chiatura is the locals lack of vision when it came to the beauty of their landscape and the tourism potential. This is something Ben and I discussed, as well as the failure of that article to accurately portray the town.

View of the left bank from one of the gondolas, another gondola can be seen

The article showed a common tendency in media today, to show that the photographer or writer was in much more danger than they were in reality, whether it's showing the gondolas of Chiatura, the riots in Turkey or the streets of Detroit. Ben called it, "Disaster Porn," when the writer wants to portray himself or herself as some brave adventurer, spurred on by a crowd of armchair readers too lazy or ignorant or inexperienced to know that much of the world isn't actually that dangerous and most people in the world are simply people trying to get by.* It's a secret that most travelers don't want to let out, because then all that mystery we create at a bar while trying to pick up women just drifts away like a puff of smoke from a nargile out the window of a seedy Arabic cafe filled with sheikhs and businessmen. The truth makes some disaster seekers ever more disappointed and ever more willing to take real risks, until they end up backpacking on the borders of Iran and Iraq and sent to an Iranian prison, accused of spying. What Iranian officer could ever believe that, "Well, we were just looking for adventure" could actually be the truth? People who live in the bonafide dangerous areas, or those who have had to deal with the real dangers of life, are probably hugely confused by disaster porn and its pornographers. And when reading disaster porn on the net, one should remember that it has about as much to do with real disaster as porn has to do with real sex, that is to say, about nothing.

Spot the gondolas!

*With a great number of exceptions.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

and down the mountain

"There's the trail!"
The trail wasn't at all visible from where we were, not even a cairn marked where the ascent should begin. Hikers just have to press on into the gully until the thin shale trail that passes through the green is seen. Bees hovered about, exploring their new guests as we sat in the sweltering sun. It was a huge difference in temperature and it wouldn't get any cooler from there on out.

We found ourselves in a valley, with one side a steep slope and the other a steep continuous mound that wound side by side with the trail. As the trail went on, Ben continued to get more and more nervous about missing the lakes - the main site to see on the trail. He stopped us and decided to climb up the mound. "Nope, nothing," he reported.

"I told you it's further down," I said, pointing at the map that was unfolded in my hands.

"I just don't want to miss them," he said.

"It's pretty well traveled, the trail should be obvious enough. You heard how everyone we told that we were taking this trail told us about the lakes. We'll see it."

The Abedulauri Lakes(?)
The trail to the lakes was obvious and well marked, too. When we came upon them we found the two at the bottom, and further on, we followed the trail on towards the left to find the third. The two at the bottom were a very strange blue tint. We sat on the small bridge that divided on them and regained some strength. Or at least Ben did. The third lake we didn't stop at, but continued on the trail which led us onward to Roshka.

The third lake
After about two hours of hiking, we finally spied Roshka through the hills, snuggled down in the valley at a point in the river where it became a strong set of rapids. Ben's energy jolted up, "There must be beer there!" and he started at a quick trot down the mountainside. I myself was sore and aching, with blisters on every corner of my feet, limping down and constantly yelling after Ben to slow down. We came through a gauntlet of cattle, dried mud and shit all across the meadows that we had to tread through, him far ahead of me and me passing all sorts of farmers and monks, listening to their exclamations of how these foreigners know Georgian. "Sorry guys, can't chat, gotta go, my friend wants beer," I kept having to repeat like some ancient prayer said in whispers at a monastery.

And at Roshka, we discovered there was nothing there. Just some houses, but no cafe, not even a shop. Questioning a drunk local, we discovered the next shop was fourteen kilometers away. Deciding at ask about our route to some decidedly less drunk people, we learned that the trail would go on for only 5 kilometers before hitting the village of Barisaxlo, which was our goal. We decided to go for it, despite only having 2 hours of sunlight left. "5 clicks, that's not far," we thought.

The map also represented something that was "not far". After one hour of hiking, it seemed we would be approaching the main highway from Shatili to Barisaxlo (by main highway, I mean, of course, a dirt road). What was not shown on the map nor told to us by our friends who had told us the distance and then climbed in their Land Rover, was that there was a set of switchbacks that would add another hour and a half on our hike. One switchback after another after another, taking us down at least one thousand meters in elevation. As the darkness ebbed ever onward, we thought we would never make it down. On the last five switchbacks, we were practically running, hoping that at the bottom there would be some place to pitch a tent.

At the bottom was a sheer cliff on one side going upward, and a sheer cliff going down to white water rapids on the other side. No place for a tent. So we had to continue on, walking on the side of the mountain highway. No cars passing, except occasionally going the other way, and no other sign of life. At some point I called out to Ben, "I'm at my limit man, I can't go any further. Look, there's a small area there we can pitch our tent on."

The area in question was thankfully at the bottom of a not so steep slope. We could hear the occasional rock clatter down the cliffs nearby, but were too tired to care. We tossed away several rocks, trying to make a decently comfortable place for the tent. We pitched it and crawled inside, quickly falling to sleep from our weariness. "My only concern," Ben said before we passed out, "is being so close to the road and some drunk Georgians disturb us or crash into us." A roadside shrine for the dead was not an uncommon sight in the mountains of the Caucasus.

About an hour into our slumber, lights began to flash into our tent. And there were voices. Polish voices. Poles had stumbled onto us. I unzipped the tent flap.

"Hello? You guys need help?" I asked the two Poles standing before me. They were a guy and a girl, as confused as any Pole ever is.

"It is a good place to camp?" the man asked in English.

"We're camped here," I replied. "It's not ideal, but all we could find."

"Maybe you know how far the next village is?"

"Some guy 20 kilometers ago told us it was 5 kilometers," I said, shrugging. "We have a map, if you'd like it."

"We have the same one, I don't think it's accurate."

The girl chimed in, "Maybe it's not such a good place to camp. We saw some rocks falling back there. I don't think we should camp there."

"Rocks falling where?" I asked. "Where there's a cliff?"

"Yeah, there was a big boulder there, it fell on the road."

"Exciting. But we're not under a steep cliff and we're not moving. There's enough room for another tent if you want. But if you don't, good luck."

They moved off for a few moments, whispering to each other and arguing. No doubt the girl was going on about falling rocks and the guy was going on about the fatigue that both Ben and I were feeling that drove us to strike camp in such a spot, falling rocks and all.

They came back with their consensus. "Okay," the guy said. "We will camp next to you, if that's okay."

"But still, it's not safe, there are rocks," the girl said, as if to formally log her objection.

It took them nearly an hour of throwing rocks, flashing lights, clanking poles, zipping un-zipping and fucking to finally finish their process and be silent so that we could continue sleeping. We finally fell asleep.

And then the bright lights. And the yelling. And the loud bass beat of a Russian pop song, amplified by millions of decimals through a subwoofer. Both Ben and I woke up immediately, expecting a car to come crashing over us and into the mountainside. But nothing. Then our next fears came to us, that a bunch of Georgian guys would run out with tchatcha in hands and force us to drink until we passed out and secured our fates of having a hangover in the morning.

But then there was silence. It's always quietest before the storm I couldn't help but to think. But then there was nothing, and nothing. I stayed awake for another hour fearing what never came to be.

The next morning, we packed up the tents before the Poles woke up. We continued our hike, wanting to make it to Barisaxlo before the bus came through. Five minutes from where we had camped, we found some perfect sites for setting up a tent, none beside the road or against a cliff, with the danger of huge rocks smashing into our heads. One place a beautiful scene along the river, another a strange, surreal and abandoned Soviet mining and/or tunnel building site.

The Soviet "drilling large holes" camp

In Barisaxlo, we found the town center, which consisted of a tree with a bunch of trash and a small shop that sold beer. The shop opened at nine, so we had a quick Xevsuruli, the beer brand named after the region we were in. The bus came at about 9:30 and took us at a somewhat slow pace - it was a 30 or 40 year old bus - back to Didube station in Tbilisi, for only 5 lari a person. We were quick to go back to the apartment, shower up, and find a khinkali bar to settle our tired bones and growling stomachs.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

over the pass

The pass is to the left
Ben and I woke in the morning, ready to tackle the pass. From the base camp, the trail curved to the left of jagged Chauxi, following a stream, where at several times the trail seemed to split into pieces, crossing the fast flowing brook or simply staying on one side. We opted to stay on one side, which brought us up the face of a steep hill. "When I was here with Moomoo and Enda," Ben recalled his last attempt at the trail, "we got lost wandering back and forth across the stream. Then we rejoined the trailI I think just past the waterfall, but then it just ended, anyway, there was snow everywhere." We stayed true on the trail, which took us past the waterfall and then over the river, to rejoin the other trail strands. We saw the probable spot the trail would take us, which looked like a series of switchbacks on shale rock that snaked up the rocky pass. But as we got closer and closer, it began to look more like a trail made from runoff rather than the feet of men, though it could have been both.

I became anxious. I didn't really want to attempt something where an alternative would have been easier. So when we came to the part where the trail ended, and it indeed did end quite abruptly, I started looking around.

"That's where we went," Ben said, pointing at the switch backs. I was not so sure, especially after hearing his story. When they had got to the top, they were lost in feet of snow. Moomoo had been yelling at them to press on, calling them pussy Westerners, that she had traveled the world. But neither Enda nor Ben wanted to scale down the sheer, frosted cliff that was below them. They convinced Moomoo to turn back, though with her constant haranguing, until her ill-fitting boots had caused so many blisters that they were forced to carry her. Which shut her up of her complaining. But it was reasonable that she was mad, since the trail defeated her once again, and only in the matter of a few months.

"Look," I said, after a few minutes of catching my breath and taking in the surroundings. "That just might be a trail marker." I pointed to a stack of rocks that could have been a cairn. We hiked up to it, and sure enough, it was. And there was another, and another, snaking up a slope that seemed much less steep and ferocious as the one we had assumed we had to take.

Hiking up the pass
There was a small stream that slowly trickled down the mountain, which is where we decided to refill our water. We scrambled across the shale to get there. When we turned back, I started looking down, realizing just then how steep of a cliff we were scrambling across. Ben easily and swiftly darted back across, regaining the trail, but I was caught by a wave of vertigo and heavy breathing. I plopped down on my butt and slid myself over to the trail, one to prefer shame to what I felt was imminent death.

Ben and I at the top of the pass
Another thirty or so minutes, we gained the pass. On one side of us was a row of knife edged peaks, forming the border between Georgia and Ingushetia. To our back was Kazbegi, towering over everything near it, and onward were the wild summits of Tusheti, which was dotted with ancient villages full of defensive towers, not that dissimilar from the more famous Svaneti towers. Ben had been up Kazbegi, and as we sat on our vantage point resting and eating nuts, he recalled the time to me, telling me about how they had to wait out the weather for two days at the camp next to the glacier. The first night, the wind was howling so strong and nearly ripped out their tents with him and Enda in them that they had decided to rent floor space in the camp house on which to sleep. Kazbegi was always a crapshoot, as I've heard different results from different people about it. Ben and Enda went up its steep glacier only successful with the help of a guide and ice picks, having several times to fall on their ice picks to keep from sliding down. Another friend, in better weather, went up with no gear at all and did quite fine. Mountains are things of great mood, sometimes easy on you and sometimes hard, and ready to change at their finest whims. In other words, it`s an easy thing to compare mountains to women, to such an extent that Georgian poetry is full of the comparison.

We continued to follow the cairns a bit further up, on top of a the mountaintop covered with shale. When finally we ascertained that at some point there should be a way down, we were left to another hard scan with our eyes. All we could immediately tell were steep cliffs, the wind ripping up dust and scowling out curses at us. I edged up to each place that could have been a trail, and decided it couldn't have been, and at last Ben and I came to some sort of agreement. There was a very tiny sliver of a trail hugging the steep shale mountainside, and that must have been the way down. So we took it. 

The way down
The trail was somewhat incredulous, and I decided the best way was to simply not stop. The slower you went, the more likely you'd lose balance and fall, the same principle as a bicycle or motorcycle. Soon the trail turned from something somewhat stable to an all-out shale slide, with each step taking us three to four feet down. After an hour of this, we had made it to the bottom, knees aching and boots full of rocks and pebbles.

Monday, August 18, 2014

strangers on the road

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.