A country with 5 George's crosses on it's flag. Take that England.
16.07.2009 - 19.07.2009
So, there we were at the port of Poti, walking out of the boat onto a mysterious new country, surrounded by abandoned buildings and huge piles of scrap metal. On the dirt outside we got a taxi into town, where we withdrew some money (lari) were immedeately shoved into a minivan heading where we needed to go, a town called Zugdidi, a stepping stone to the mountains of Svaneti where we wanted to be to that night. Even though there isn't any proper organised transport system, it seems quite easy to get around, or rather, our travelling luck is continuing. With the help of the friendly marshrutka people, a quick khachipuri (a staple Georgian cheese pie) later, we were on a jeep heading deep into the mountains.
What struck me about Georgia is the amount of abandoned buildings and ruins, a third of Poti was in ruins and empty. According to some locals, it was much more bustling and full before the war last August, but then many fled and have not returned. Since Poti is the site of the main Georgian naval base, the Russians bombed it last year, and it definitely has a wor-torn atmosphere, although there is no danger now. The town of Zugdidi was packed full of people, standing around and doing nothing. Being the closest town to Abkhazia, it has taken in many Georgian refugees (The Abkhaz were ethnically cleansing the Georgians) from that conflict. The separatist conflict was in the early nineties, and what these refugees are currenly doing and how they are managing to survive is unknown to me, standing around doesn't seem particularly profitable.
Another thing about Georgia are the animals, especially cows, on the all the roads we've seen, just eating grass by the side of the road, or just sitting in the middle of the road. Combined with the giant pot-holes and other cars, driving along the roads involves a lot of swerving, obviously at high speeds.
Our UAZ Soviet jeep up to Mestia in Svaneti was no exception, the road was a dirt track, populated by mountain cows, who seem completely oblivious to the cars driving dangerously close to them. The road led deep into the mountains, with spectacular views of forested mountainsides, rivers and lakes, untouched by human hands (except the occasional Ex-Soviet abandoned building by the side of the road). There were 8 people in total in our jeep, including Avtandil and a slightly drunk Gurgen, who had amusing sounding banter in a highly enunciated but completely incompresible Svan language (same linguistic family as Georgian, so, unlike eveything else). On one of our many stops (the jeep kept breaking down) they introduced us to hospitality Georgian style, lots of booze, and lots of toasts.
We arrived very late to Mestia, and Avtandil even arranged a homestay for us, with lovely woman called Anna, who lives with her mother-in-law and her 3 kids. Highly recommended if anyone's in the area (I'm going to start diversifying into travel recommendations now):
Senaki Street 1
(35-40 GEL all inclusive)
Anyway, having arrived we were immedeately sat down and fed with excellent Svan cheese, bread, and watered with hot milk and chacha (a local grape liqueur) made by the mother-in-law. Our first day we spent hiking around the area, and deciding to push ourselves to the limit, pointed at a nearby snow-capped mountain and decided to climb it. This involved 9 hours in total, walking many arduous kilometers, hanging on to small ledges, and being breathless from the altitude (it was probably around 2500m near the top). The views and the endorphins were definitely worth it though, we saw the glaciers of mt Ushba nearby and the whole of Mestia and the Svaneti mountains around it unfold beneath us. We even had a snowball fight. We just made it down in time before sunset, had it been dark it we my have broken our necks as there was no path and it was very steep. Completely worn out, we stumbled back to Anna's for a heartly Svan meal (and of course chacha), and fell into a deep, deep sleep.
Waking up sore the next day, we decided to take it easy and wandered around town with the aim of getting into one of the Svan towers (big, old, stone towers that every family house used to have) that litter the town. after some wandering we ran into Paata, who I can only describe as a lovable mix between the village idiot and violent drunkard.
It was around 11, he shouted at us and waved us into his house, where it seemed that his sister had locked him in his bedroom (although he escaped through the window and managed to down a bottle of vodka). He was a very proud man, and loudly proclaimed that he was the only jew in town (he did actually live in Tel Aviv for a few years, but said that he didn't feel at home there). He was a sargeant in the Red army, and insised that he is very strong and would never die, he would even kill his enemies from his grave.
We had a variety of adventures with him trying to get into one of the towers which mainly involved going into peoples houses so that Paata could fill up with more booze. Eventually we got into one of the towers, where he embarassed his sister who also turned up leading a very official group of tourists by shouting drunken "truths" at them, which were apparently painful but necessary to hear. There truths were that the Svan towers were created as instruments of death and hatred, and that the Svan, although never invaded by the Mongols, have been killing each other since time immemorial. I guess there is some truth to that. Eventually, after more hilarious ramblings like that he would kill, choke or crush anyone that would give us any problems, that all non-believers in Jesus Christ should be killed we shared some vodka with him and he left us, having found some out of town women to harass.
That night it was also Anna's birthday and we were invited to the festivities. A Georgian feast is really a sight to behold. There is a tamada (a toastmaster) who leads the drinking with long and eloquent toasts to pretty much anything. The wine, chacha and congac drinking was interspersed with some food too. We chatted and danced long into the night with Anna's schoolfriends, and my memory of the occassion gets very hazy...
Next day, with our sore heads, we went into the main square of Mestia to try to find a ride out of Svaneti. A few hours of sitting around and haggling with random drivers we finally managed to get a ride back, agaist all expectations. Another stunning 4-hour drive through the mountains and we found another marshruka going to Tbilisi, which dropped us off at the ancient Georgian capital of Kutaisi, our current location (although we got ripped off a little, but we had no choice).
Getting around has definitely been easy, it seems the old adage needs to be adapted somewhat:
Where there's a will and a wallet, there's a way.