Glacier climbing, Mineral waters and fisticuffs in monasteries

Published: September 2nd 2010
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It was time to get out of Tbilisi and to explore the rest of the country; Saventi, a region in the north sounded great - home to unique and isolated villages set in the Caucasus Mountains and a chance to do some walking as well as see the hundreds of stone towers that were built between the 9th and 13th centuries to successfully keep invaders out. The problem was that it would take a whole day to get there (and by an expensive jeep) it just wasn’t worth it unless I was in a group of people to share the costs.

My alternative was a straight journey north along the Georgian Military Highway to the town of Kazbegi and just a few kilometers away from the Russian border. Set in the Caucasus Mountains it would also be a good base for some hikes and Julie Andrews -type prancing around. So I ventured to the chaotic 'bus station’ in Tbilisi - more akins to a car boot sale crossed with post football match rush - I crammed my bag and myself into yet another ‘marshrutka’ and sped north.

It was spectacular mountain scenery and squeezed in the back next to
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ah...Nima my marshrutka girl...
me was a very pretty Georgian girl all alone. I allowed myself to look through the window while sneakily catching a peek at her; she was slim, in a thin dress. She seemed to be smiling to herself and I don’t really know how to explain it but a very strange frisson occurred between us - ah, the refrain of the pervert I hear you say.

Anyway, I was listening to music on my Zune and I offered her an earphone to listen to some music -which we did happily for a while. In between we conversed in broken English and when we stopped for a break we talked about our journeys and took some photos of the scenery. She was visiting her uncle for a few days in Juta and when we got to Kazbegi I got out and she stayed put, but we exchanged contact details and she even offered to take me to Juta - but I wasn’t sure if politeness forced her to offer me so I declined. We said our goodbyes and then a bloke took me in his car to his home stay (Dodo had done her magic again and arranged a place for me in the town).

At 1750 meters Kazbegi is surrounded by mountains and-is-spectacular. The home stay I'd arranged was a separate room in what looked like a farm yard. The hotchpotch chairs, the smell of manure, the old fashioned kitchen with sink. Utterly functional; the stove pipe, the random bits of car parts in the yard. The man and wife in their plain country clothes all reminded me of childhoods in rural Ireland. Except the metal spring beds and sheets from hospital, of course; no, that was just weird.

I then walked into the town and asked about hikes at the 'tourist information office' - a cupboard and a harried woman with a pram. I then spotted two European girls sat outside a cafe and I got talking to them. Both were students from Warsaw who were in Georgia on a holiday before heading back home and a year abroad in Madrid. We had a few beers and they told me how they had hitch hiked from Poland to Georgia - an incredible distance and in their view - pretty easily achieved. It made my trip look like a pensioner’s package tour to the seaside by comparison. I cracked jokes and they laughed - so we agreed to climb to the glacier together the next day.

That evening at the home stay a simple but nice Georgian dinner was made for me and the two French ladies (yes, Dodo had sent them to the same place as me). Lying in bed that night, despite the high altitude I heard the dreaded sound of buzzing mosquitoes - so for the first time in about a year I had to get out my mosquito net and sleep under it.

At 9am the next morning I started the ascent towards the Church of the Holy Trinity at 2200 meters - and an hour and a half later I was there. It was a beautiful spot but I wasn’t able to join the church service in full swing with hymn singing because of the shorts I was wearing. Things are conservative in the Georgian Orthadox Church. No bother, I wanted to leave as the place was spoilt by the religious zealots who actually sent the altar boys outside to shout at tourists who happened to be wearing shorts and who happened to be crossing their legs. Ridiculous - bring back the atheist Soviets I say.

Anyway I bumped into the two Polish girls and we began the ascent to the Gergeti Glacier for another 900 meters. It was pretty hard going at times and after about 2 hours or so of steep steady but steep climbing we eventually made it. There were some pretty spectacular views and to actually be that close to a glacier and its gushing waters was cool. The return journey was tougher and I could feel my legs becoming sun burnt. Back in Kasbegi we had a drink but I was soon at the home stay having a shower and a nap before dinner again. I had a horrible night’s sleep - I thought it was a combination of sunburn, fatigue and just feeling run down but I also knew that my body would need a day’s recovery. I decided that as I wasn’t particularly interested in doing any more mountain climbing I would return to Tbilisi. The girls were staying on so we exchanged contact details and talked about meeting at a Serbian folk music festival (as you do) later on in August. At 8 am the next morning I caught a marshrutka back to Tbilisi and three hours later and I was back in the chaos of the Didube bus station.

Joseph Stalin - Chairman of the USSR and one of the world’s most ruthless and murderous dictators was born (to the surprise of most people) Iosif Jughashvili in Georgia. In his hometown of Gori the family home was preserved in a museum and his life explained for the glory of humanity. I was told that the museum and guide was dull as ditch water and completely white-washed him (for example it ignored the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the gulags and the purges - so much so that even the bald propaganda had lost its interest.) So I reluctantly decided against going - much like Stalin I was being ruthless in my choice of itinerary. So at the bus station I managed to quickly catch another marshrutka westwards to the spa resort town of Borjomi.

A couple of hours later I arrived and carrying a full weighty back pack and with a blaring sun overhead walked around the town for Marina’s home stay which was badly described in the Lonely Planet guide. I eventually found it, was led inside by friendly Marina - a middle aged housewife, led into the kitchen, made a cup of coffee and promptly dispatched to another home stay.

Hers was full and so I was now driven in a Mercedes Benz to Mzia’s place which was much further away from the town. It was however a nice house, large and spacious with a large piano in the living room. I was feeling rough by this point, I’d lost my appetite and felt weak and achey as hell - I self diagnosed myself with gastric food-poisoning - something I’d had before in Bangkok and Singapore. Any food I had went straight through me and so I just stayed in bed and medicated myself with loads of pain killers.

That night I ventured out on a walk into town alongside its river. I then popped into a restaurant - a badly lit affair that sort of suited my mood. It was here that I began to drink gallons of the local mineral water - the salty-sour Borjomi - which is an acquired taste but I loved it and it was meant to be good for you. I hoped it would go towards recovering my faulty health.
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Writing at the homestay

The next day I slept in till late morning and then got talking to Katie the English-speaking 16 year old daughter of Mzia the owner. I asked her to play me some music on the piano and tell me about her classes and friends. She called me a taxi to the headquarters of the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park where I had to register to enter. There wasn’t anybody in the offices or the building so I waited until a sullen woman eventually turned up without a word of apology and took my details. I was so weak that I decided to just do the short 3 kilometre walk but even that was pretty strenuous for me and I realised how little energy I had and so little I had eaten. I got lost because the markings were pants but I did fall upon a Georgian necropolis on the way and if anything that reminded me of the need to KEEP ALIVE.

That evening I went for a walk in the Mineral Water Park which occupies a narrow wooded valley and is full of fun fair rides, restaurants and bars; it’s run down and naff but it’s a great way to see how Georgians spend their leisure time. Back at the home stay some Israeli’s had turned up and we had a good chin-wag with Katie and her friends who had turned up talking about their family, Europe and Georgia, the president, the breakaway regions of Abkhazia, religion (Christianity is alive and well here), their classes at school and what they wanted to do with their lives. Katie was interesting to talk to because despite her young age she was surprisingly patriotic - for example in response to my teasing about boyfriends she said she didn’t want to leave Georgia or marry a non-Georgian. She also had a confused understanding of the South Ossetia and Abkhazia breakaway regions - saying that they were ‘naturally’ part of Georgia - even though they don't regard themselves as Georgian - ethnically or linguistically. But it was fun to ask each other questions about each other’s countries and to learn that ‘Georgians love Israel’ - the Georgian Tourist Board has a prominent TV commercial there which has resulted in a surge in visitors.

Anyway, the next day I was ready to leave Borjomi - I was glad to have been in such a nice house in such a peaceful town when I wasn’t quite myself. The next morning I got a marshrutka along with a bunch of other tourists to one of the biggest tourist attractions in Georgia - Vardzia. Along the way we visited Khertvisi Fortress - a 10th-14th Century castle guarding the river valley that was apparently visited by Alexander the Great. It's towers are now used as stables for cows and donkeys.

Next up was Vardzia itself, which was built in the 12th Century as a cave city and monastery. It contained hundreds of rooms over 13 floors set into the rock face. However, it was a stinking hot day and once you’ve been inside one cell you've been in them all. The highlight, hoowever, was the Church of the Assumption with its beautiful frescoes showing Queen Tamar before and after she was married - these were painted between 1184 and 1186 (the same period as Saladin).

Unfortunately, it was at this stage that I was again the victim of more religious rules - as I placed my foot on a step platform to take a photo of a fresco a young idle man angrily shouted at me. Shocked by his disproportionate outburst I pointed that a simple sign telling visitors of the ‘rules’ would suffice instead of shouting at people in his 'holy' church.

He didn’t take too kindly to this as I walked out and as I continued through some subterranean caves and narrow passages he deliberately switched the lights off which left me in pitch darkness. After a while he switched them back on again but I decided to confront him and his petty act. So we shouted at each other in each other's languages which ended in him raising his fist. I stupidly goaded him into doing it and shouted police until he backed off - I mischeviously followed him a little bit but then decided to just walk on - promising myself that I would write a letter of complaint to the tourist authorities. However, I couldn’t be arsed, saw the humour in it all and have left this as my anecdote of how religion, bored males on shit pay and the abuse of the little power they have over people confronted me on that holy day. Outrageous is one word, daft the other.

Anyway, I’d had just about enough of monasteries, caves, Georgian Christianity and its fucking rules -so I headed for the Turkish border at Vale/Posof - hiring a taxi to take me the last 20 kilomteres along the worst road I’ve ever had the experience of driving on. At the border I was asked sarcastically by the Turkish guards if the Georgians had been asleep or not - clearly no love lost there and I had a good chuckle to myselof at this. After paying a visa fee of twenty dollars I finally left Christian Georgia and entered Muslim Turkey.

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