I wake up on Friday morning incredibly conscious that I have not had a shower since Monday. I had bought baby wipes the day before for that very reason but my room is freezing and the prospect of stripping off does not appeal. In the end I make a tent of my duvet and sit under it with my torch and have my ‘shower’ that way. Bet not many people have done that before! The plan is to meet the others in Khashuri that evening and, given they’re a couple of hours closer to it than I am I’m hoping to get out of school early. As luck would have it one of the teachers is sick so Eka takes her class while I teach the sixth grade and we’re done an hour early. I love it when I get to teach the older kids on my own so it’s a good start to what will turn out to be a great weekend. As Eka and I are waiting for a marshrutka outside the school I drop a particularly unsubtle hint and promptly get Monday off school. Eka knows it’s Ally’s birthday on Sunday so I tell her that I will be late home on Sunday on account of the supra they will be having at his house in Terjola. She asks if I want to stay there and I point out I have school on Monday and she tells me not to worry about it. To be fair she has no classes on Monday anyway so it makes no difference to her. I jump on the 2pm marshrutka to Khashuri and text the others to let them know I’m on my way. A couple of hours later we’re making a pit stop just outside Terjola so I send Jane a message to get up update on their progress. She tells me they’ve just left Terjola so I’m not far behind them! Twenty minutes later Ara calls me to ask if I’ve gone through Zestaponi yet, which I have about ten minutes before. He asks if there’s any way I can come back because they’ve decided to take a train from Zestaponi to Khashuri. A train that doesn’t leave until 5pm and takes over two hours. Irritatingly, if he’s called me five minutes earlier I could have gone and joined them but by this point we’ve hit the mountain and there’s no way I’m getting off the bus on the mountain pass and trying to flag one down going the other way so I have no choice but to resign myself to a long and lonely wait in Zestaponi. I shouldn’t be surprised really; I seem to spend half my life waiting for those guys! An uneventful hour later I reach Khashuri. It’s freezing cold and the roads are covered in snow. I’m still wearing my school shoes which are not made for walking but, being naturally unsociable by nature, what I really want to do is find a quiet bar somewhere where I can have a beer and read my book in peace. I walk for about five minutes, quickly reach the conclusion that there’s absolutely fuck all in Khashuri, give up and go back to the little café where I met Ally last time I was here. In fairness the couple there are lovely. They remember my name and we chat happily for a while until I’ve exhausted all my Georgian (this does not take long). I have a couple of beers and the woman brings me a fish and a loaf of bread, most of which I consume over the next two hours out of sheer boredom. When Ara called me he had told me that Clare was an hour away from Khashuri so I’m expecting her to arrive at about the same time as me but when I call her she tells me she’s still 45 minutes away. After an hour and a half I try calling her and get no reply so I call the boys instead. Honestly, I worry like an old woman when people are late! It turns out they’d stopped for refreshments on the way and she’d been given a meal and cha cha by the driver and his cohorts. She arrives eventually and takes her turn chatting to the café owners and we get a chance to catch up. I haven’t seen her since the weekend we went to Batumi! It’s hard to believe it was warm enough then for us to swim in the sea and now it’s snowing. As we’re chatting the woman sits by the fire and reads my phrasebook. After a while she shows us the phrase, ‘I’m in a hurry,’ and we realise this is her way of telling us she’s closing and wants us to leave! It’s almost time for the others’ train to get in anyway so I promise that I’ll return with Ally on our way back through on Sunday (a promise I end up breaking) and Clare and I grab a cab to the train station where we’re joined by Ara, Ally and Jane not long after. It’s the first time we’ve all been together in well over a month so it’s really nice to be there. Ara does his usual haggling trick and the five of us squeeze in a cab to Borjomi and swap stories as to what we’ve all been up to. Ally and I take the others to Leo’s place (having warned him in advance that we’re coming) and we quickly deposit our stuff and drag Leo out to dinner with us, stopping at his friend’s along the way to arrange to hire ski equipment the following morning. We eat dinner in a restaurant/disco where we see, and avoid, a bunch of other TLGers we’ve bumped into a few times on out travels. On the way back to Leo’s we find some abandoned cardboard and use it to go sledging. Funnily enough Leo disappears at this point and tells us he’ll meet us back at the house. Could it be we were embarrassing him?!
We’re up fairly early the next morning but even so, with five people it takes forever to get everyone ready to go. Jane (the yoga instructor) does her morning stretches and Ally decides to join in…in his long johns. This is not something I care to see first thing in the morning. We pile on as many layers as possible and Leo drives us to his friend’s place to pick up our boots and skis before taking us to the bus station where we stow our things on a marshrutka heading for Bakoriami. We have some time to kill so we have a wander around and end up in a big supermarket (well, big for Georgia anyway). While Ally’s not looking I order a big cake for his birthday the following day and Leo comes in on the conspiracy and offers to pick it up for me later. Finally we’re on our way to Bakoriami and the slopes (well, slope actually). I get put in the front seat, as usual, while all the others pile in the back with the Georgian passengers. Why this continually happens to me, I don’t know. Apart from very nearly sliding off the road at one point it’s a pretty quiet journey but the views are beautiful. Baroriami really is a stunning place, especially in the snow and the skiing was wonderful. I’ve been looking forward to it ever since I found out you could ski in Georgia but even so I’d forgotten how much I love it – it’s been about 15 years since I last went. And the entire experience costs 20 lari (about £8), which makes it even better! We arrive in town and lug our skis and boots to where the slope in, stopping to say hello to a donkey being ridden by a little girl and to use the toilet in a swanky hotel en route. It’s still out of season (season doesn’t start until December 25) so only one run is open but the upside of that is that it’s pretty quiet. I spend the first couple of hours just going up the lift and down the slope on a more or less continuous loop until that gets boring and Ally and I decide to race. He’s better than I expect and beats me two out of three, although in my unbiased opinion I think the second one was a draw. Growing bored of the same run I decide to go off piste and check out the powder to the side of the slope. It’s going fine until I hit the jump. The jump itself is fine and I actually land well but after that I lose control and take a dive (I’d like to point out to anyone that’s never skied before that trying to ski in powder is a lot harder than on compact snow.) At least I didn’t fall off the ski lift like most of the others – how the hell do you fall off a ski lift I ask you?! Now what I should probably have pointed out before is that I am in no way kitted out to be skiing. In particular, I’m not wearing gloves. I was assured I would be able to buy them in Bakoriami but we saw nowhere selling them. Plunging your bare hands into two feet of snow is not an experience I’d recommend to anyone. On top of that my right boot doesn’t come out of the bindings as cleanly as I’d like and I wrench my ankle. My left boot is still in its ski which actually makes it ten times harder to get up. By the time I eventually struggle to my feet and make it down to the bottom I decide it’s high time I took a break and found a drink so I change back into my shoes and go in search of a shop. I find a tiny little store and walk on the cardboard laid on the floor to the counter. No problem. Then I decide I want to go to the fridge on the other side of the shop to grab a bottle of beer. Now, the thing about my boots is that, whilst they are waterproof, they have zero grip on the bottom. Plus they’ve got snow on them, so the second I step off the cardboard I go sliding across the floor. As usual there’s a small huddle of Georgian men hanging out in the shop and in the end one of them has to come and escort me, on his arm, from the counter to the fridge and back again, like I’m infirm old lady. Very embarrassing but quite entertaining for all concerned. When I get back to the slope I find that Ally has selflessly lent my skis to one of the other volunteers, a guy called Dan who I think was part of our training group. By the time I get them back everyone’s about ready to go so I have one farewell run down the slope and call it a day. We wander back into town and, on the way we see a little old woman selling handmade woollen socks from the window of a little shop so I stop and buy a pair. I can say now they’re about the best thing I’ve ever bought and they keep me warm for the rest of the weekend. While I’m busy haggling the others rent a couple of little kids’ sleds and have races down the hill. We have about an hour to kill until the last marshrutka leaves at 5pm and it’s too cold to wait outside so we find a little restaurant and order coffee. There are a couple of other volunteers at the next table; a middle aged woman and a young guy so we ask them to join us. We chat and I find out they’re from Zugdidi. I ask the guy whereabouts he lives and he says Orsantia. Ah, so you must be Duncan. It’s odd that all this time he’s been living in the same village and when I eventually meet him it’s in Bakoriami. To be honest I needn’t have bothered. We make our way outside to where the marshrutka departs from, only to see it sail past us full to bursting. No worries, we’re not going to let a little thing like missing the last bus and being stuck on top of a mountain bother us. We split into teams and decide to have a hitch hiking race back to Borjomi…until we realise Ara has left his skis and books back at the slope. I feel mildly guilty simply because the reason he left them was because he thought the skis Dan was carrying were his when they were actually mine. Then again I at least had the good sense to make sure somebody had my equipment before wandering off so fuck him. Clare dutifully agrees to return to the slopes with Ara and the rest of us head off towards the road that leads out of town. We’re lucky and we actually get picked up by an out of service marshrutka within about five minutes. When we get back to town I ask the driver how much we owe him and it’s clear from the look on his face he wasn’t really planning on charging us but in the end he says 10 lari for all of us. Ara and Clare arrive about twenty minutes later and promptly disqualify us from the hitching race for paying. Ally’s furious with me! Leo had told us earlier that his mother was going to make some food for us when we got back so I call him to make sure it’s ok for Dan to join us and we all head back to the house for chicken and potatoes before heading out. Leo decides not to come with us on this occasion but does give us directions to a restaurant run by a friend of his. This turns out to be a drunken old man who takes an immediate shine to Ally and won’t stop stroking his hair and kissing his cheek! For reasons unknown I’m not feeling particularly well by the time we leave the restaurant and the others are keen to carry on drinking so I tell them I’m going to head back to the guest house to sleep. Unfortunately it turns out turning 22 has matured Ally not at all and he sulks when I tell him I’m leaving (it’s not even his birthday for another couple of hours!) so I agree to stay. As it turns out none of us are out for much longer. We go in search of somewhere to get a drink and we’re walking through a little park when we meet a bunch of young Georgian guys drinking cha cha. As usual Ally and I are ahead of the group and when Jane arrives she decides the best way to introduce herself is by leaping onto Ally’s back, resulting in the Georgian guys dubbing her Jackie Chan and Jane crying plaintively, ‘Me gogo, ara bichi!’ (I’m a girl, not a boy!). The guys we’ve met are quick to inform us that there’s nowhere open in Borjomi (despite the fact it’s about 10.30pm on a Saturday night) so we head back to Leo’s and stay awake just long enough to wish Ally a happy birthday before passing out.
Despite Sunday being Ally’s birthday he ends up going out to buy and then cooking breakfast, but no one’s complaining. Over the course of breakfast we manage to persuade Clare to stay for the day and to take Monday off school. This is great because normally every Sunday myself, or Clare, or both of us has to leave early because we have such long journeys home so on this occasion it’s nice that we can just relax and all spend the day together. And what a great day it turned out to be. Our plan is to do what Ally and I had planned to do last time we were in Borjomi but didn’t have time for – to go to the outdoor hot pool. But first, Ally gets to drive the Lada Niva. I should probably explain that Ally has a weird obsession with these little cars and that Leo has one which, as a birthday gift to Ally he allows him to drive. Given how icy the roads are it’s not actually as scary as it could have been. We drive to the entrance to Borjomi water park and arrive more or less in one piece. And Ally’s happy, which is the main thing. Just outside the entrance to the park there is an outside spring where you can try the mineral water Borjomi is famous for. Unfortunately, in order to get to it, one must make one’s way gingerly across a narrow snow covered bridge, along a windy path and down some icy metal steps, but we all make it with only a few scrapes and bruises. Well, it’s fucking foul; naturally carbonated and with the taste of slightly out of date eggs about it. Still, at least we can say we’ve tried it. We struggle back to the road and make our way towards the entrance to the park but before we reach it we pass a truly stunning house being renovated by some workman and, as usual, the boys ask if we can go have a poke around inside. One of the workmen gives us a little tour and tells us a bit about the building. Apparently it used to belong to a Sheik who is now renovating it into a hotel. It’s one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen and we linger for a while. I’d love to come back and see it when it’s finished, which the workman tells us will be in about sixth months’ time, although that’s kind of hard to believe looking at the current state of it. The park’s very fetching in the snow but it’s when we pass out the other side and into the woods that things get really beautiful. Leo told us we’d need to walk for about two kilometres to reach the pool and we take our time, strolling under trees laden with snow beside what could best be described as a babbling brook. Eventually we cross a little makeshift bridge and find the pool in front of us. Leo warned us we’d need to build a fire before we went in so we set about gathering wood. To be honest I’m not overly keen on the idea of stripping off in the middle of a forest blanketed in snow but it’s Ally’s birthday which means we have to do what he wants and what he wants is for us all to go in the pool. Only Ara escapes on account of being ‘sick’ (a likely story) so we put him on fire duty. Now, the thing that makes this truly torturous is that the ‘hot’ in hot pool is a gross exaggeration. It’s marginally warmer than the surrounding air. Despite the snow and the sub-zero temperature it’s not the stripping off that’s the hard part. It’s not even getting into the pool (although that’s no picnic) and actually swimming in the pool isn’t too bad as long as you stay under the water and keep moving. Getting out, on the other hand, is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. It was fucking freezing; there’s simply no other term for it. We get dried and dressed as quickly as possible but even so I’m picking ice out of my hair within seconds of getting out. I also make the mistake of leaving my swim wear on under my clothes and it more or less freezes to my body. At one point on the way back I got slightly concerned by lungs might be shutting down. Ara gets the fire going and we huddle around it for a while but we’re all cold and hungry so we decide the best course of action is to make our way back to town, a hell of a lot faster than the way we came, and find a nice warm restaurant to sit in. Fortunately Ara is sweet enough to lend me his massive coat so the walk back isn’t as miserable as it might have been and when we get back to town we discover that the first restaurant Ally and I ate in when we came to Borjomi before is open so before long we’re sat in the warm with a jug of wine waiting for our food to arrive. When it does it’s like a swarm of locusts descending on it. I don’t think any of us realised how hungry we were and it’s all gone in minutes. We head back to Leo’s to pack up our stuff and find the birthday cake waiting for us. Despite the meal we’ve just eaten that doesn’t last long either.
The rest of the day seems to be spent in various vehicles of one sort or another. We catch a marshrutka from Borjomi to Khashuri and another from Khashuri to Terjola. Again it’s nice that we’re all going back to the same place (Ara, Clare and I are staying at Jane’s and Ally lives there anyway) instead of splitting up and going our separate ways like we normally would on a Sunday. The marshrutka we take from Borjomi drops us at the main road outside Terjola, which is about four kilometres from the centre. We don’t want to pay for a cab so we decide to start walking and have a go at hitch hiking along the way. I think our chances our pretty slim given there are five of us with all our bags but it’s a nice evening and we’re having fun on the walk anyway. Not that that stops the boys having a go. Eventually a refrigerator truck pulls up. Ara or Ally, I can’t remember which, asks the driver if he can take us into Terjola. From what I can tell his response was, ‘Where are you going to sit?!’ Ara suggests the back, which is just silly, it’s just a series of refrigerator compartments. But this doesn’t stop the guy saying we can sit in the front. I honestly don’t see how we’re all going to fit but somehow we do. So there’re five of us, all with big weekend bags, somehow squeezed into the two seats beside the driver at the front of the truck. I think this will remain one of my favourite memories of Georgia. That and the look on the face of the woman working in the shop we pulled up outside as we all piled out of the truck, one by one. Ally can’t be persuaded to come back to Jane’s with us so we have one last drink together, sitting on the benches outside the gym in town, before he leaves us to head back to his house and the rest of us start towards Jane’s. A car soon stops to give us a lift but the driver’s going pretty fast and it seems Jane can’t recognise the entrance to the road to her house in the dark so we overshoot it by about two kilometres and have to get out and hitch back the other way. The car that stops this time turns out to be driven by a friend of Ara’s host brother and he’s kind enough to drive us all the way to Jane’s front door. This puts our total vehicle tally for the day at six – one Lada Niva, two marshrutkas, two cars and a refrigerator truck. It’s nice to see Jane’s family again and within about five minutes of arriving the four of us are sat in the living room stuffing ourselves with delicious food – the sort of food where you know you really should stop eating but you just can’t. It’s freezing in Jane’s room so I end up sleeping fully clothed, covered by a massive heap of blankets, but it’s the first proper night’s sleep I’ve had all week and I couldn’t be happier.
We’re up early on Monday as Jane and Ara have to go to school, but not before a massive breakfast (involving pizza, amongst other things) during which I once again eat far too much. We get the opportunity to hitch to the end of Jane’s road but the view’s too beautiful and I insist on walking. After breakfast I feel like I need it anyway! Ara needs to go the opposite way from us to get to school so Clare and I stand on the other side of the road waiting for a marshrutka/trying to hitch hike. It sounds silly but neither of us has ever hitched without other people before so it’s a new experience for both of us. A car stops and the lady tells us she’s not going to Kutaisi but she’ll take us to the main road. We’re chatting and she asks where we’re from and when we tell her she says something about Scotland so we say, ‘Ally?’ Well who else would she be talking about?! I swear that boy knows everybody in Georgia. We walk from the main road to the truck stop down the road and there’s a marshrutka to Zugdidi but I don’t want to leave Clare on her own so we walk back to the main road and manage to flag one down going to Kutaisi in a couple of minutes. When we get there Clare manages to find a bus back to Kobuleti straight away so I say goodbye and have a wander round the bizarre before it’s time for mine to leave. The bus leaves late so I’m sure I’ll miss the 2pm marshrutka home but I doze off and when I wake up we’re in Zugdidi and we seem to have made it in record time. I’m even home in time for lunch! I spend the evening helping Mari with her homework and Gio write some exercises for the extra English classes he takes in Zugdidi. I read in my chair until late and finally crawl thankfully into my own bed.
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