From vineyards to national parks

Georgia's flag
Asia » Georgia » Eastern Georgia » Telavi
May 17th 2014
Published: October 15th 2015
Edit Blog Post

14th May

We're on the move again, out of Tbilisi. Out into the countryside, across the dammed Lori river and into the tree laden mountains with cattle grazing amongst the wildflowers below.
In the villages we pass through, houses are built with bits of this and bits of that but are well maintained. Neat rows of greens can be seen in vegetable patches and unripe stone fruit fill the trees in the front gardens.
We try to pronounce the names of towns that could use a few more vowels and a few less consonants for our English tongues to even have a chance of saying them correctly.
Under canopies of overhanging trees and through the dappled sunlight, one can glimpse a ruined fortress on a hilltop or an abandoned solitary house or a distant road that indicates there are several more kilometres of winding roads to come.

A two kilometre detour off the main road brought us to Akhali Shuamta monastery. At the second gate I pulled my sarong over my head, ring the brass bell and almost instantly movement can be heard beyond. One of the 15 nuns who live there opens the door and gestures to the brown Velcro wrap skirts required for women on offer at the door. We put them on and follow her to the church door that she unlocks before standing quietly in the doorway while we look.

From there it's only 11km to Telavi, one of the Georgian wine regions. We collect firewood and soon begin dropping in altitude and in the hazy distance, vineyards began to appear.
Telavi is an odd town, smaller than expected with a population of 21,000. Its buildings and streets are pristine and its people move about with an unknown purpose. Movie set comes to mind and yet it's not. The streets are so empty that when a toddler cried, it echoed.

After a quick visit to see the 900 year old plane tree, we found the rest of the gang in a beer garden near the truck and once Suse returned, we headed out of town and along the wine route. With the rumbling of thunder and the beginning of rain, the tarp sides were nonetheless up as nine pairs of eyes kept a watch on the low wires and gas pipes that snake across the roads.

Once in the countryside, it became apparent that perhaps the Georgians and other wine drinkers are happy to go to the store and buy their wine without caring much for its source. The road was one lane, unsealed and bumpy. It would be better in a car, of course, as the branches wouldn't attack them like they did us, being bent against the front of the truck and then whipping in at speed through the open sides.

Suse stops to show her note to locals who point her in the right direction with a wave of their hand and eventually picks up a man who is going the same way and guides us the last few kilometres. And then where the road forks and we could go no further because of the narrowing roads, we stop. We've put our nose into a small walled field to avoid blocking the road and wait for our new friend to suggest the best place to camp.

He chooses the left fork and we bumble along another few hundred metres, coming to a final halt outside the gates to a cemetery. Alongside it a path guides us to the perfect open field with more than enough space for all however one must navigate older tombs along the way. Passing what could be a mausoleum or a small chapel, our tent ends up amongst the tombstones much to Steph's amusement (and whose tent is as far from them as possible!) but although I'm just the slightest bit hesitate, I figure it's better we sleep on flat ground and hold my tongue.

As we prepare and eat dinner, men and boys pass by with their cattle, heading home for the evening. One lovely man dragging branches for firewood comes over and leaves the bundle for us then carries on his way. He'll later return and enter the cemetery, returning with a sackful of pinecones, some of which he gives us. They make the fire smell nice. Other men wave and call out greetings but continue on their way. I'm sure we'll see them in the morning when they move their cattle back to the open spaces for grazing.


15th May

Another one of those lazy mornings, we wandered over for an 8am breakfast and sat watching the last few cattle wander by without so much as a glance. Most of the men had been out and about several hours earlier, conversing rather loudly outside our tents. But who are we to complain? Two men stopped and had a look at our truck and our goings on before ceremoniously handing us several branches ladened with cherries. Score. Waving off Suse's offer to pay with an indignant joking laugh, they said goodbye (or we assume they did) and continued on their way. I love this country.

We packed things away and walked back down to the crossroad, now taking the right fork. We were spending the day at one of the oldest wineries in the region, still kept in the family after generations. It wasn't just about drinking though, we'd help make kinkale (dumplings) and have lunch there as well.

I'd brought my gluten free flour with me and once I saw that the women were starting to prep, I went in and tried to explain myself. The younger woman had trouble understanding but her mother in law got it straight away. She got me a plastic bowl and took the flour from me, cutting open the plastic and tipping it into the bowl. She was immediately unhappy. Gluten free flour obviously doesn't have the same texture as regular flour and this one more closely resembled corn flour. Which was deemed unusable. There was a lot of sighing on her end and empty reassurances on my part (I was just as sure as she was that it wasn't going to work) and eventually she gave in and let me try. She reminded me of my grandma and I instantly adored her. You don't mess with recipes and here I was messing.

Salads had already been prepared: tomato and cucumber, eggplant in a walnut paste, boiled eggs that soon became devilled eggs and plates of salty cheese. Mama - as we started calling her - barked orders and her daughter in law as well as us jumped to attention to follow. Tables were unfolded and put outside with chairs and tablecloths; plates, cutlery and napkins were brought out; people either helped or tried to stay out of the way. It was all in good fun but you didn't want to mess with Mama.

Having watched meat being freshly minced earlier, it was now in a large bowl with onion and spices next to the bowls of flour. A kettle of hot water waited on the other side. Being handed my bowl, I watched as she poured a generous amount of water into the bowl and starting to mix the flour in, using one hand like my grandma (you know, in case the phone rings and you need to answer it). I followed suit but the silky texture of my flour meant it was never going to look like the real thing. It's also likely that I missed seeing yeast go in her bowl as the mixture expanded under her expert fingers. Sigh. She looked over at my lumpy mess and tutted to herself but smiled at me then mimed that I should wash my hands and go join the others for the wine tasting.

I like wine. I much prefer red or dessert wines and don't pretend to know much more than what I like. Set out on the table were three pitchers of wine ranging from a honey colour to a deep, deep red. Pouring each of us a generous glass of the lightest one, we toasted and then took a sip. It was strong and not to my liking but hey, I drank it anyway, not wanting to offend. Neil (who doesn't drink) gave his to Nat and Steph (who doesn't like wine) gave hers to Quinn and everyone finished it off, helping themselves to the cheese, bread and walnuts (from his own garden) also on offer.
The next wine was slightly better but the red was my favourite. It's known as a black wine for a reason. We chose that one for our lunchtime drink as well as a white and made our way back to the house for our cooking lesson.

Mama found me and put me in front of my bowl, once again muttering at the consistency. She added more water to soften it and then I added more flour to even it out, watching as she rolled her dough and used an upturned glass to cut out circles. From there they were rolled and a spoonful of meat mixture put in the middle and much like the first step of khachapuri, the dough was gathered at the top and sealed. Done.

I rolled out my dough, cut the shapes and rolled one out under the watchful eye of Mama. I added the meat mixture and gathered the corners, pressing tightly to seal as I went. When finished, I looked expectantly at Mama who gave me a seal of approval (and at which point I told her I cooked with my 'Ruski babushka' which she immediately understood) and I was allowed to continue on my way. Everyone had a go either making their own or making mine and it was a lot of fun.

Lunch was loud and filling and full of toasts. Clay bowls had been set out for us to drink out of, rather than wine glasses which we happily switched to. It might have been psychological but we thought it made the wine taste even better. My kinkale were amazing (more so because of the meat mixture inside rather than the dough) and Mama tried one, nodding politely which was amusing.

It all went downhill from there. Some went back to camp while others stayed and drank with the family. We toasted anything and everything. We made up rules that got people drinking (such as the very valid swearing at the table). Then the grappa was brought out and a shot poured for everyone. It was only as it hit my lips that I realised 1: I don't like grappa and 2: he'd just said it was 50% alcohol.

You can see where this is going. By the time we left we'd bought wine to take back to the truck and Mama had been given a bear hug by Quinn, probably her first ever. Her face was comical as it went from shock to amusement, batting at Quinn after he put her down. We got back to camp to find that the Odyssey truck we'd met elsewhere were set up in the field and we headed down to sit with them before dinner.
16th May

There is no doubt everyone is hurting today to varying degrees!
We packed up and drove back into Telavi where we shopped for two days before driving to our final stop in Georgia: Lagodekhi National Park for two nights. Only 15km from the Azerbaijan border (and also bordering Russia), we'd have a full day tomorrow to walk to one of two waterfalls or chill out at the truck. With ample firewood and a constant supply of water (literally, the tap wasn't turned off and flowed day and night; odd for an Aussie who is used to conserving water if possible), people opted to keep the fire burning and the kettles boiling and fill up the wash tubs for a bath of sorts. It was an early night and a mild one - the first where rain covers were tossed off and we could lie in bed and see the stars.
17th May

Scott, Diego and Alex left at 9:30 to get a taxi to another side of the park for the 14km round trip up to the 40m waterfall while Steph, Quinn, Talbot and Nic left shortly after for the 8km walk to the 9km falls. Suse was working on the truck and Nat and I eventually got sorted and left to follow the others to the short falls.

The park staff had said that it was early in the season and that there may be river crossings involved so I'd packed my flip flops in my backpack. We set a good pace on the flat ground in the shade of the trees with a chorus of birds above and skinks darting back under foliage around our feet below and talked about our ever changing future travel plans. We passed a large group of school children and soon after arrived at the first river. I had assumed that we'd encounter water coming down from the snow capped mountains but I wasn't really expecting the fast and furious rapids that greeted us. We scanned the bank looking for the best place to cross and eventually moved upstream, removing our socks and boots and stepping into the rushing water, just as the school group arrived. Holding onto each other against the force of the water, we got across to the island and then crossed a second, smaller stream. Putting our boots back on, we listened to shrieks and squeals from the other bank as girls tried to cross the river and boys took photos of them. I also noticed that some of the boys were dry, having gone downstream and crossed a fallen tree. The information was stored away for the return leg.

The path climbed slightly and alternated between shaded foliage and the dry side of the river bed, following the yellow markers painted on trees or stones. Occasionally it took a bit of searching for the marker but by now the school kids were amongst us and we left it to them to find them and then followed them. At the next river crossing the water was deeper and faster having been squeezed through a narrow gap further up and we watched as some of the boys jumped from one wet rock to another. I wasn't willing to do it in case I slipped and hurt my knee, fearing it was just that inch too far out of my reach. Thankfully, we stood there deciding so long that the rest of the group turned up and the boys on the other side had found a fallen tree to throw across as a bridge. With a larger than anticipated splash it landed not quite right and it was adjusted from either side. Girls in sandals, ballet flats and even heels got across the wet log while Nat and I looked on in hiking boots. But, expensive as they were, both pairs are old and the grip was gone on them so neither of us had much faith in them. Their chaperone noticed our hesitation and walked into the water, holding out a hand for us to grab. On the other side of the bank, girls more than half our age also waited to help us. Everyone was ridiculously nice and there was a real sense of camaraderie amongst them and now we'd been adopted as well.

From there we had a third river crossing and then we went up. And up. And up. The ground consisted of loose foliage and I started to genuinely wonder if I'd be able to get down any way other than sliding down on my bum. But in places the path was only one foot wide. Not twelve inches but the width of my foot. And on the right side was a sheer cliff. More than once I'd already wondered how Nic made it along this path having seen how fearful she was of heights in Cappadocia when all but she climbed the rocks to sit and watch the balloons. I was still assuming that the other three had talked and helped her through it when the girls in front stopped for a rest and pulled out a map. To Nat's and my horror, they pointed to the high waterfall and mimed that that was where we were heading!

At that point I'd had enough. And Nat had too. We hung back until the group had passed us, had a drink and then very, very slowly began to make our way down. There was genuinely little room for error in places. Safely on flat ground at the bottom, we slid down the steep path to the riverbed and continued on our way, not realising at first that it wasn't the same way we'd come up! But knowing that we had to cross the river further down meant it didn't matter too much.

All in all we walked almost five hours but we didn't find the waterfall. But then, either did the other four! It turns out they were on a completely different path and although we were on the right one, I guess we just didn't go far enough! It was still good to get out and stretch the legs in the fresh air though. Just as it was good to go back and boil several kettles of water and have a shower of sorts behind the tent. It's been hot and it felt good to be clean - before having to cook and smell like smoke again!

Additional photos below
Photos: 18, Displayed: 18


Tot: 0.154s; Tpl: 0.014s; cc: 14; qc: 74; dbt: 0.0858s; 1; m:domysql w:travelblog (; sld: 1; ; mem: 1.3mb