After a long summer exploring good old Europe by car it was time to greet autumn somewhere new, further East perhaps. Some years back we traveled to Armenia through Tbilisi, capital of Georgia and knew we had to come back. Much has been written and debated over the question: Where is the exact border between Europe and Asia? No matter what Wikipedia says (Asia it is!), for us, Georgia definitely has a very familiar feel of Europe, despite the incomprehensible language, strange but elegant alphabet and an interesting mess of tribes, cultures, religions, and historical alliances.
But there is one thing that quickly jolts you from the pleasant European reverie: Georgian DRIVING.
We knew that we needed to rent a good 4x4WD car, for our main goal was to go high up into Caucasus Mountains. We found our rental Mitsubishi Pajero waiting at the airport. It was much older and with many more miles on, but with fewer dents and scratches than we expected. At that point we did not know yet that we will also need it as a sturdy protection from the crazy, suicidal drivers.
We did know very well that we will need good weather to make it up the mountains on notoriously bad roads. On a number of phone apps we carefully tracked frequently changing weather patterns in different regions of Georgia and with the prospect of a day or two with blue skies we hightailed it out of Tbilisi (Tiflis) within 12 hours of our midnight landing.
We could enjoy drinking Georgian amphora wine, visiting monasteries and churches and exploring museums or the night life of the capital even if it rained cats and dogs.
Struggling with blinker, lights and wiper indicators, and with Maps.me (a better alternative to Google maps) fully loaded and open on our phone, we left town in dense traffic on the newly, very partially built freeway towards Svaneti.
The first few hours in this kind of traffic is a test of any newcomer’s patience and skill. In dealing with the local drivers one has to be on alert every minute, employing the deepest life defense instincts and capabilities.
Almost exclusively all males, Georgian drivers seem to be born with a so called “Michael Schumacher Gene” which, as they reach legal driving age, in some cases even earlier, prevents them from driving behind any car for longer than a few seconds. When their eyes detect any semblance of any kind of vehicle less than a few miles in front of them, the above mentioned gene releases a hormone rendering the male driver clearly suicidal. He will not stop attempting to pass the vehicle in front of him NO MATTER WHAT, (double white line, blind curve, no overtaking sign, oncoming truck, or cistern full of explosive gas) until his mission is accomplished or he is involved in a fatal accident! The first fifty miles on the freeway is all you get, then you leave the relatively easy traffic of vehicles moving, at least some time, in the same direction!
You are now thrown straight into the lions’ den – the real world of Georgian roadway system where the danger from the local drivers can come from all possible imaginable directions. Enjoy it! But please be also aware that any road, freeway included, serves all kinds of traffic, which can include herds of different domesticated and wild animals such as cattle, sheep, (with shepherds instead of their flock, watching YouTube on their cell phones), goats, pigs (with baby piglets following closely behind) horses (mounted or on their own), chickens, cats (quite rare), dogs (plentiful, many of them limping from previously acquired traffic injuries). Those of mountain variety large enough to have their own breed of Caucasian Shepherd and can easily be mistaken for mountain lions, only more vicious.
Closing all your windows is well advised; besides large snarling dogs there are also bears (we were told they were plentiful, but luckily we did not get a glimpse of any, other than their skins hanging in the houses of members of the local tribes, who enthusiastically shared stories of their superior shooting capabilities pointing to the rifles used first in the Russian-Turkish war of 1877, hanging on the wall next to the aforementioned skins.)
After acquiring the basic minimum crazy driving skills don’t forget to turn towards Svaneti right at the Abkhazia border (the cross country relations are still at the explosion point as Georgians mourn their territory stolen by Russia).
On our way we passed through the town of Gori, its only (dubious) fame as a birthplace of Comrade Stalin. We deliberately did not stop to see (very few, we are told) documents of his murders. It was enough for us to deal with potential bloodshed on the roads of today’s Georgia.
We could not help but notice the state of Stalin’s communist dwellings in Gori and all other small Georgian towns. While most of the money and young people are concentrated in the capital the post soviet towns and villages are pretty much neglected with crumbling facades and moldy balconies. What a blight on the beautiful country.
A more positive architectural impact has lately come from another well known Georgian: Mr. Saakashvili. Being US educated lawyer and later elected as a President of Georgia during his term he seriously attempted to fight corruption and mafia influence, and used significant revenue increases to re-build police stations and historical places. He did better with the former, as he insured that each design was different and quite futuristic looking. One could make a whole blog on that, but don’t worry, we won’t.
In Mestia, the center of Svaneti, where we arrived late afternoon (now former) President left the biggest impact. He funded the reconstruction of old medieval towers and beside a new police station and airport and bridge (all unusual to say the least) also a big concrete Ethnographical Museum. After arguing for a while whether we like it or hate it (that’s what happens when you have an engineer and an art historian traveling together), we entered and were immediately charmed by the beautiful exhibits. We acquired a capable private English guide and for an hour and well into closing time were transported to a glorious past. Turns out despite (or because of) the geographical isolation Svaneti was rich in gold and precious metals and it is said in times of danger royal treasures from other parts of Georgia were sent there for safekeeping. The gold was found in such quantities that Svans could simply leave sheep furs in the mountain creeks and rivers for a day or two while waiting for heavy gold particles to get stuck in the dense fleece. After getting tired of waiting or getting short on cash they pulled the fleece out, they let it dry and then by turning it upside down the heavy gold particles fell out, they collected them and….voila, became easily rich and in the process created the famous tale of the Argonauts’ “Golden Fleece”.
No wonder they had to build high defense towers… to protect the residents and treasure, when facing attacks by whatever enemies were approaching Svaneti towns and villages in their quest to put their dirty foreign hands on their wealth.
Mestia is a perfect place for travelers like us. With the access to the mountain town pretty far and difficult, it still has only a limited number of young hikers, but already enough tourist infrastructure to provide decent services. Standard of housing is simple, but comfortable and clean, Svan people are pleasant and welcoming, food is fresh, local and amply spiced up with famous Svaneti salt. Yup, many Svans are blond with green eyes. This is a student/waitress that we drove from her village to work one morning.
The next day we pressed on to the village of Uzhguli which has more defensive towers in its otherwise smaller area. It was the photo of this exact village titled something like the highest continuously inhabited Medieval village in Europe, that years back I saw in National Geographic, that made me want to go to Svaneti in the first place. Because of all the diligent internet research we were weary of this difficult track but we were encouraged by the guesthouse owner. What was supposed to be an 8 hour trip turned into 2. We happily reached this place on over 44kms/28miles long road which must have been a torture even for 4-wheel drive vehicles just a few years ago but…not anymore. The upgrade/construction is continuous and moving fast forward. A part of the roadway that was just being paved with concrete on the way up, we could already drive on on the way back! It may not move with a speed of light but with only some 10km/6 miles left of the bumpy road full of muddy potholes deep up to my knees and two or three fordings of smaller creeks, it won’t take long till the tourist buses head that way. Beyond Uzhguli there is only a bare semblance of a track following the river, yet gifts of civilization reach even that far. There is a mirage of a café below the glacier serving drinks (forget espresso, go for Turkish coffee instead) and facilities (the outdoor toilet with the best view for sure) providing hiking parties a break on the sun if they do not mind screaming red plastic chairs and umbrellas, the hit of this season in all of Georgia.
On our hike up towards the glacier we enjoyed the pleasant company of a Czech couple, of surprisingly similar travel taste and style. We shared the bumpy ride in their 4×4 WD the following day up to spectacular Kuraldi lakes. Until it could not handle the steep incline, that is, and we had to continue on foot. Which was just as well, as the slopes were full of wild blueberries ready for the picking and the lake shores full of friendly horses. As we stayed longer and experienced more of the Georgian roads, and drivers with their crazy driving style, our self confidence and the dirt on the car has risen by a notch or two. Then I was unexpectedly thrown into an experience qualifying as the worst driving time of my life. For this part of our trip we were blessed with the company of a group of three Americans sharing our car to the Kazbegi mountain region. After reaching the town of Stepantsminda on a well paved Georgian Military Highway leading to the Russian border, we decided to press on to a small but most famous Gergeti Trinity Church high on the hill, promising a spectacular view. After a few attempts to find the correct road for our fully loaded rented vehicle our expectations were suddenly significantly downgraded, as after a few hundred meters of perfect surface we found ourselves on a construction site in the latest stages of its life. If I started to think this must be the worst drive of my life then I should have been prepared for something even worse after the next sharp turn. The steep dirt road had changed into a rather narrow opening between the trees, which resembled a US Army durability testing site for Abrams tanks. I have to apologize for lack of photo documentation from this part of our trip because everybody in the vehicle tried to grab any available handle and if some hands had stayed unengaged, they were busy praying for survival rather than looking for a f…ing camera!
The holes were getting bigger and deeper, while at the same time closer together. Two-way traffic in the steep narrow forrest corridor was full of aggressive Georgian drivers honking nervously at anything or anybody delaying their progress upwards to the church or way down to Stepantsminda asap. Overall conditions would not allow any margin of error even for professional drivers of Abrams tanks. Not to say me, a real amateur in this field with no appetite for attempted suicide among those willing to kill themselves or others! To make this story shorter, we did make it to the top for the church and the view. But the driving experience made me less appreciative of the view and in the sanctuary all I could do was pray that the few bad (and loud) hits I allowed to the internal organs of our rental car, mightn’t have caused any permanent damage to its mechanics or a fatal leakage of whatever liquids are necessary to get down to the nearest public road, where help may reach us if needed. Luckily, in more than half an hour’s stay on the top, no large slick of oil could be detected. I drove down the hill slowly and carefully, ignoring the hateful screaming of Georgian drivers unable to overtake us in the narrow corridor. Everybody in the car heaved a big sigh of relief when we reached again the “downtown”, where we immediately ordered large portions of pork shashlik and a large quantity of alcohol.
Thus we accomplished two High Caucasus visits and we left happily for the gentle wine region of Kakheti. Above it the wild Tusheti were beckoning, but whatever we have read and whoever we talked to told us it was impossible to get to and over the so called most dangerous high pass in Europe. What really happened, shall be revealed in the next blog post.