Dogs, Guns, and Police

Greetings from Sakartvelo!

My last post was written from the largest province in Georgia, Kakheti, the famed center of the Iberian kingdom and the universally-acknowledged capital of Georgian wine where they still use qvevri (egg-shaped clay vessels) to produce wine.

My first few days in Kakheti were fairly nondescript.  Hitches brought me to churches and monasteries, and after I had finished viewing them, I moved on to more hitches and monasteries.  I considered going to Vashlovani National Park, but when I got to the final segment, I found that my only options were to spend a lot of money seeing scenery that, based on the photos and on local report, was not particularly impressive.  So, after some local hikes, I headed north to the much more famous and beautiful Lagodekhi National Park.

This was the first National Park in the Caucasus and is famed for both its mountains and impressive waterfalls.  I arrived fairly late in the day, but with enough time to hike up to one of the lesser falls.  I also discussed hiking trails with a ranger who, in the now familiar monotone of Georgian officials, droned on about how the only lengthy trail leads up to a lake…covered with snow…impossible.

Impossible?  I hate that word, so my ears immediately perked up.  I could do that, I thought, and without much further consideration, made plans accordingly.  The following morning, I began the long (48 km) and steep (2200 meters elevation gain and loss) climb to Black Rock Lake.  The atmosphere was extremely foggy and the weather, poor, which felt even more unfortunate since the previous day had been perfect.

After sweating my way up into the mountains, I ran into snow, as the ranger had predicted.  However, there was not, as the desk ranger had proclaimed, ‘six meters of snow everywhere.’  I’ve learned to take the rangers’ words here with a very large grain of salt.  I never once saw a ranger in Georgia on the trail, and I doubt they ever hike unless there is an absolute imperative that they do so.  At any rate, I continued on until I passed a snowy hut.  I assumed it was full of more fat rangers who didn’t climb, and carried on, not paying the least bit attention to a few men yelling at me ten minutes after I passed the hut.

Turns out, I was wrong.  The hut was a military station filled with soldiers guarding the border between Russia and Georgia, and they pursued me with rifles, a guard dog, and walkie-talkies.  After a series of confusing orders that had me sitting, standing, and handing over my passport in various combinations, I was finally able to explain to a walkie-talkie that the ranger had given me permission to hike.  This was eventually confirmed, and at last, I was permitted to hike to the lake.  I noticed on my map that the border between Russia and Georgia ran roughly through the center of the lake, so when I arrived, I walked to the other side, laughed, and walked back.  No one was there to care, anyways.

The trip back down was more scenic, as the skies began to clear somewhat and I got views of the surrounding mountains.  However, it rained on me very heavily as I reached the end of my hike leaving me muddy, wet, cold, and generally miserable.  As I scrounged around for a place to stay, an elderly woman came out of her house and asked if I wanted a guesthouse.  I paused–the offer was extremely tempting.  How much?  I asked.  Ten lari.  Done.

Eteri was the sweetest, kindest Georgian grandma I ever met.  I think she gave me such a deal simply out of compassion, for she fed me (believe me, no small task!) and gave me a shower and bed.  I awoke the next morning completely refreshed and began the hitch to my final destination, Tusheti, one of Georgia’s most famous tourist destinations.

Tusheti, unlike most of the rest of Georgia, cannot really be hitched.  This is because there is only one road into Tusheti, and the only people there are tourists and people serving the tourists.  There is also another reason:  That one road has been featured on BBC’s “World’s Most Dangerous Roads,” and with good reason.  There are plows that operate all summer clearing away landslides which can occur without warning; waterfalls cascade directly onto the road; snow can fall even in summer, and the road winds its way up dizzyingly steep cliffs over Abano Pass before descending to this National Park, a trip of 4-6 hours to make a mere 70 km.

The upshot of all of this was that I was forced to pay some cash for this adventure.  Fortunately, I got lucky on my way in, and two Estonian backpackers spotted my trip.  This was a tremendous blessing.  It was still rainy and foggy, but when we arrived, the rain abated, the sun came out, and we had beautiful skies.

I hiked towards Atsuna Pass, my main destination, and it was at this point that I began to experience some difficulties.  Really ferocious dogs started attacking, and I mean, creatures who had somehow been transformed from guard dogs into feral beasts.  My backpack has also been collapsing, and my water bottle fell out, forcing me to drink from water sources as I went along.  The night was cold, but I got up early the next morning to get to another guard station where I was forbidden to go to the pass–too much snow, they said.  I left my gear there and hiked up a few km before turning around and meeting someone who spoke English.  He told me that I could go up to the pass legally.  I initially had no intent to, but then, after he left, decided to make the trip.  I took his words as permission, and carried on.

At the next border station, I was greeted by quizzical guards who demanded my permit, which I didn’t have–I had thought that my passport at registration was sufficient.  This created a hullabaloo at the station headquarters, where they thought that I had intentionally misguided the police and was most likely a terrorist, though I didn’t know this at the time.  Instead, I went up blissfully with the guards who had found me to a grassy knoll and gazed at the tantalizingly close Atsunta Pass while sharing chocolate bars with the guards.

It was at this point, basking in the sun, admiring the flowers, and taking in the mountains, that I reached an important decision–it was time for me to leave Georgia.  I had seen what I wanted to see, and the time was right to move on.  When I was at last escorted back to headquarters, I didn’t even care or notice what was being said–I was occupied with saying my own farewells to the great Caucausus Mountains.

When we arrived at HQ, I was escorted into a warm room where I was given a brief lecture about safety, and then given coffee, butter, honey, and cheese and explicitly prohibited from going up the pass without a group of other hikers.  So, I learned a valuable lesson: obey the law, stand in the cold rain and go home.  Disobey the law, see awesome views, then dry out by a warm stove and drink coffee and eat snacks.

So now, I find myself in Tbilisi once again, preparing to head off to Armenia, my next adventure.  I have learned a lot from Georgians, from their ability to celebrate a guest at any turn, their ability to find enough good in life and people to make a toast, their intense pride in their heritage.  I had so many beautiful adventures in this country, but the impression I will always retain is that of an Orthodox church set against the background of the stunning Caucausus and, in the valley far below, a tamada making toast after toast amongst a group of warm and hearty Georgians in the verdure and beauty of the land of Sakartvelo.

Thanks for reading!

Daniel “Cloudwalker” Liu

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