Lots of Hitching

Hello again, from beautiful Georgia!

I made it once again to an internet cafe, this time in the province of Kakheti, my final area of tourism before continuing on to Armenia.  Actually, I spent roughly half the time since my last post hanging out in cafes and bookstores in Tbilisi, so there’s not much to report for those four days.  So, rather than tell you about how I read books, drank coffee, and played guitar, I will relate to you the story of why I spent nearly four days in Tbilisi.

This story begins with my time in Samegrelo where, as you may recall, I spent some time visiting misery in the form of driving rain and deep snow while pursuing a fruitless search for a mountain lake.  On my return, all of my gear was wet, and this compelled me to rearrange some of my items in order to help things dry out.

A word of background is required to fully appreciate this story.  I have been backpacking long enough that everything I do has a reason–I know exactly where everything is and how it works together.  I know the contents well enough that even if I were in a pitch-black cave, I could set out the entirety of my pack and put it back in and not miss a thing.  I have developed a special routine for every single item in order to make sure that I don’t lose it.  However, I began to tinker with my system.  Several paper items had gotten a little damp, so I removed them to a plastic bag and put them on the top of my backpack to dry out first.  This is not normally something I do.

Later, as I hitchhiked up to Svaneti and stayed the night with some locals, I realized that I was missing something very important–no matter how many times I packed and unpacked my backpack, I could not find my passport.  So, when I arrived in Mestia, I immediately filed a report with the local police and called the US embassy.  Then, unwilling to wait around, I went hiking.

On my return, the police had, joyously, found my passport–it had fallen out of my backpack at a hostel where I was purchasing groceries–and I returned to happily touring Georgia.  I might never have spent those four days in Tbilisi, however, had I not been informed when I tried to report my passport found that all US passports reported missing are invalidated, and consequently, I still needed a replacement.  So, I orchestrated my steps to arrive, somewhat slowly, back in Tbilisi where Ducky (you’ll recall, my friend I met in Mestia when I was hiking in Svaneti–see the picture with the dude with dreads) put me up for a few nights.

So why did it take four days?  I arrived in Tbilisi late on Friday of Memorial Day weekend.  So, I missed opening hours on Friday, then had to stay three more days while waiting for the embassy to reopen on Tuesday.  When I visited, I discovered that because I had filed a report with the police and my passport had been found very quickly, it had never been invalidated, so I spent all that time for no reason.  Actually, I had a great time with Ducky, his wife Teu, and their son, Damien, so it was worth it.

So after all of this, I began a very lengthy hitch up the Georgian Millitary Highway to Kazbegi to see yet another UNESCO site–Gergeti Trinity Church.  This church is set against the background of one of the tallest mountains in Georgia, the kind of place where walking on the mountain ridge can give you vertigo.  I arrived late at night, having hitched a ride with an Armenian, and instantly disliked the nearby town of Stepantsminda.  They are a tourist town and they know it, which means everything is expensive and everything has a 10% commission for tourists.

The hike up to the church was incredible, and I followed it up for several hours past the ancient church, but turned back at snow–I saw no reason to posthole for a few more hours for the sake of seeing more snow.  The trail is mainly there to go up to a glacier and to be used as an access point for mountaineers who are climbing Kazbegi, a technical route that far exceeds my experience as a lowly hiker.  So, turning around, I returned to the village, joined some school group for lunch (the adults poured me shots of chacha) and went down to explore some of the villages, where I was hosted for the evening.

I had intended to go up over a mountain pass and drop down into Shatili the following day, but the locals insisted there was too much snow, and truth be told, I didn’t feel like wrestling with this particular pass.  Unfortunately, this meant another long hitch down the highway with another Armenian and back up the same distance to get to this famous tourist destination.  As an aside, Armenians are generally much closer to Russians in terms of warm fuzzy relations, so they use this road as an access point to Russia.  The last 18 km pass through the Darial Gorge, an interesting geological phenomenon where the mighty Caucasus mountains have basically been split, creating a passage.  This has historically been a very important strategic point, not lessened by Georgia’s recent conflicts with her giant neighbor to the north.

I got very lucky on my way up to Shatili.  The first half of my hitch was with three young men, two of whom were finishing their beers.  They invited me into their car, a sad affair with a massive crack in the windshield and which was somehow missing the bench seat in the back.  This minor detail had been remedied by placing a wooden bench on its side–the only way it would fit–and letting a fourth passenger, in this case me, make futile attempts at comfort.  After an hour of sitting on the edge of the wood half hunched over on a very bumpy road, I was in perpetual misery, lessened only by the jovial mood in the car and the fact that my hosts kept feeding me fruit and bread.

At last, I got out at the halfway point and stretched my legs, happy to be out of the car–until it started raining.  8 km of walking in the rain, several gentlemen told me not to hitch to Shatili, it’s so far, don’t go, stay at my place, and besides this, the tourists had already come back, but I was determined, and several minutes later, got a ride with a local all the way up to Shatili.  His car was in no better condition than that of the one I had just left.  On the way up and over a mountain pass, I started to smell the acrid odor of burning engine, and my suspicions as to the quality of the vehicle were confirmed at the top of the pass when my host pulled over and opened the hood.  Steam emanated from various vents while he twisted and turned several parts with a rag.  My expert mechanical eye was able to detect several engine parts that appeared to be held together with packing tape, but my host was nonplussed.  Pointing at his watch, he indicated that we would be waiting for ten minutes, time which I filled  by taking pictures of the incredible mountains.

This created a pattern–we would go until the engine started burning, stop, and let it cool off.  During one of these stops, my driver pulled out a small container containing a fine green powder.  “Coca,” he said with a smile, and proceeded to snuff it.  Like any good Georgian, he offered me some, but I declined with a smile, and we continued merrily on our way to Shatili, a medieval fortress that had recently been restored.  This town is extremely interesting for several reasons.  First, the fact that such a  city could exist in the middle of the mountains so detached from the world is fascinating.  Second, the towers served both as residence and fortress, being built very closely together and connected by bridges so that its inhabitants could communicate without ever leaving their homes and touching the streets in times of war.  During the course of my investigations, I met up with some German gals who had paid the exorbitant fee of 60 GEL per person to spend the night in the hostel.  We visited, I availed myself of the hostel’s amenities, and we parted ways.

The following day, I visited Mutso, another medieval fortress town high up on a mountain ridge overlooking the gorge.  I was particularly keen to visit this town to see its death houses, specially built for plague victims who would crawl in to these homes to await death.  Besides this, a legendary icon used to exist here.  Local legends say that in the vicinity of this icon is a fabulous treasure, which will only be discovered by the man chosen by divine powers.

I arrived in Mutso after several hours of walking, climbed the ridge, and played in the towers, but after a brief search, came to the conclusion that I was neither Indiana Jones nor was I chosen by any divinity and rapidly gave up the search for buried treasure.  Nevertheless, I was rewarded by excellent mountain views!  I decided, somewhat spontaneously, to hike over another mountain pass into Tusheti, but I was halted by border police.  I attempted to feign ignorance of their warnings, but my attempts were foiled when they produced a walkie talkie with a voice speaking in English which absolutely forbid me to go over the pass.  So, I handed them my passport and began the very long hitch to Kakheti, which is where I am now having taken a lot of time getting over some bad local roads.

Here, I’m looking forward to enjoying local, very famous, Kakhetian wine and exploring the scenery!

Thanks for reading!

Daniel “Cloudwalker” Liu

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