I asked a gentleman, a while back, why does he travel. Why is it that the lifestyle suits him so, that he chose to abandon the comfort of the social, in favor of a nomad lifestyle? It took him a while to answer, but he did so promptly, without hesitation. “It would seem that some are simply born curious in this way, with a yearning to see new places and understand more than what is simply offered around the area where one lives.”
His answer was one of the things that kept returning in my mind, as we loaded our Nissan Patrol for a three-week holiday in the Caucasus. Some of our friends thought that we weren’t in our right minds to leave for this destination, in winter time, knowing the social and political tensions in the area. But we decided that anything worth doing is worth doing right, and so, without hesitation, we turned the key and drove off.
It would seem that the road was delighted to see us again, as we crossed Turkey, on their impeccable highways. Georgia was our first stop and pretty soon we crossed the border and spent the evening in Batumi. The country was not at all what we’ve expected. With an impressive road network and good infrastructure, it seemed like we were off to a great start in our trip. We planned to visit the entire eastern coast of the Black Sea, heading up into the Caucasus towards Ushguli, by week’s end. The first thing that we found completely mind blowing was Georgian driving. It would seem that the rules of regular driving don’t apply as much as common agreement does. It would seem that theirs is a surprising and utterly dangerous, yet quite practical and functional system.
We drove up north, following the shoreline all the way into Zugdidi We spent the night there, having traditional Georgian meals and enjoying the delightful atmosphere. We were advised not to proceed with our first idea, which was to cross the northern border and visit Abkhazia. The area itself used to be part of Georgia, yet now it stands divided with a border controlled by Russia. Receiving a visa for this would have been quite a complex and lengthy process, so we decided to go ahead with our next point, which was the village of Ushguli.
This particular place was a strong recommendation from all the locals, describing the landscapes and the people as being one of a kind. We set off towards Mestia, which was the closest big settlement to the village. There, we got directions and started our 50 kilometer journey into the mountains. The first event that surprised us took place a close to the town that we had just left, and involved a great big blue Kamaz truck. As we were driving up the icy hill, from around the corner the truck comes speeding and sees us in the last minute. He slams on the breaks, about 40 meters away from us, drifting sideways. The front wheels skid off the road and into the roadside snow that the plow had gotten out of the way. We stop and stare, hoping that it would stop before reaching us. And it did. We went around it and continued our journey, happy that things didn’t get too complicated.
Darkness came and the temperatures dropped significantly. After some difficult kilometers of winding icy roads, our courage dimmed a little. The GPS was of no help and there was no phone signal either. The truck slipped off the road, on a patch of ice, and we found ourselves in need of situation reassessment. We figured out where we were and assumed we’re halfway through. We needed to quickly take a decision about whether we were going to push on or return, because sleeping there was out of the question. And so, we flipped a coin… And it decided that we should push on.
We put the chains on the rear wheels after hearing strange noises from the front wheels, when coupling 4x4 from the transfer box. Turns out we only had rear wheel drive, but we managed quite well. We finally made it to Ushguli, with the help of a local man who we took along for the ride. The odds were in our favor, as the only innkeeper passed by us and took us home, as we were freezing in the middle of Ushguli, close to midnight. His amazing house, built in a traditional Svaneti fashion, was warm and welcoming and he served us Georgian brew and traditional food. Nothing compared to the comfortable beds we slept in that night, tired and cold.
The next day we walked around the village. Built a little less than a millennia ago, the old village houses an incredible community of 300 native Svans, who have their own dialect, separate from Georgians. Being so far away, the place is otherworldly, with free cattle, Caucasian Shepard dogs and domesticated bores. In summer time, it is possible for people to rent horses or trek up Mt. Shkhara (5200 m). Although we wanted, we didn’t venture that far, but took a few hours to properly investigate the village and its surroundings, admiring the absolute serenity and the unbelievable silence, broken only by barking dogs.
We had to bid it farewell, as our three weeks only allowed so much time in one place. On the way back south to Zugdidi, we had the chance to see the road in the light of day and it seemed that we took a big risk going at it in the heart of night. But we made it through the snow and ice and arrived in the town just in time for a tasty evening meal. We had a long journey ahead of ourselves, traveling across the country and reaching Tblisi by nightfall.
The capital was an amazing place. Truly inspiring. We had already gotten accustomed to the Georgian services and excellent infrastructure but, as our travels were aided by the police who were always kind enough to offer directions and advices, we felt at home at all times. The city surprised us through an impressive architecture, with a complex old city, overlooking the river. We had a great time but, again, we had to set off for the rest of our adventure. It was already the 23rd of December and we planned to be in Yerevan, Armenia by nightfall…