Sunday, 10 July 2016
Georgian Boys Road Trip
“Well we could fly, But it would be expensive.”
I explained what a “Road-trip” was, and he liked the idea. Sometimes it is the little literal things in English, which non-native English speakers find confusing. English is such an imprecise language and so culturally connected.
“Where we go?” Max asked.
“How the hell should I know this is your country. Let's rent a nice 4x4 and just set off like the Blues Brothers.”
“Who is Blues Brothers?”
“I’ll tell you during the trip” Thinking to myself “Man am I stupid or what?”
Renting a vehicle in Georgia is significantly more straightforward than in the west. Pick the car and skip the big insurance upsell. No deposit required. Don’t worry about the scratches and dents as they won’t be worrying about them when you get back. Agree on the days you need and sign the forms when they drop off the vehicle. In this particular case, it was a big V8 Toyota Sequoia. It was silver, had working air conditioning, and comfy leather seats. It was also dead empty. We took it to the gas station and filled it up with 87 liters of fuel. In Georgia, they call it Benzene to differentiate from Gas. Gas is auto propane or natural gas. It has been a year, and I still haven’t figured out if “Gas” is LP or CNG as they tend to use the two as the same just one is compressed more. Not really accurate but it may be like asking “what color are your Bunny Rabbits if you don’t have Bunnies. A common issue when trying to determine translation, and what you mean.
Max dropped me off at my apartment admonishing me to be ready at 0600 military time. The translation being 0600 as zero six hundred is military time. The meaning being I’ll be here at six sharp, be ready to go.
At six Max turned the corner to my apartment, and I could see he was happy to see me standing waiting for him. “Yes, my friend I had understood what you meant.” This day was going to be a long one as we were driving all the way north to Svaneti.
Svaneti is comprised of an upper and lower region. We were headed to the upper region and the town of Mestia, the highest inhabited area of the incredible Caucasus Mountain Range. Four of the ten highest peaks are located in this area. Mount Shkhara at 5201 meters or 17,059 feet, is found in this province. A local villager, herding cows, kindly pointed out Mount Ushba to us as it towered in the distance proudly perched at 4710m or 15453ft.
Before we arrived in the city, we had a lot of kilometers to drive. Max’s wife Magdelinia had discovered an old Russian sanatorium in Saveneti and suggested we visit. I should point out for Western Readers that when you see sanatorium, and it is connected to Russian the meaning is SPA. Yes, I understand sanatorium is usually translated as Nut House or a place for the mentally ill in polite speak. In the East, it is a Spa. This sanatorium was forty kilometers down a atrocious, 4x4 only road. While not the Rubicon Trail, it’s listed as a road, after all, it took some superior four wheel driving to negotiate this goat track. Max was up to the task and even got my joke when the road finally tamed. I told him. “We need to go back you missed one pothole.”
Laughing, with a comfort only usually found amongst friends of similar cultures, we got out of the truck for lunch. Earlier research had shown a retreat guest house and restaurant near the old sanatorium. It was closed and abandoned. Max talked with the residents of the two houses showing any signs of recent habitation while I walked around the old grounds.
The old Soviet architecture is apparent in two ways. The design is recognizable right away. Massive columns hold sweeping arches with bold right angle blocks. The other is was it was still standing despite being built many years ago and uninhabited for thirty plus years. The ground was soft under the huge trees, and the vegetation had advanced on the building. It reminded me of the old growth forests of home, and I was glad when Max rejoined me. He filled in as many details as he could about the history of the place. It had been a rather famous old spa for the Russian elite. Tennis courts, complete with lights were still standing empty waiting to be played on. Residents could take a horseback ride to an alpine mountain lake reputed to have curative powers. The trip took four days. A local had offered to provide horses if we wanted to make the journey. Max had politely declined, and I was glad as after four days on horse back I would need to find the spring of eternal youth to sooth the aches of that journey.
Refreshed and fed we resumed our trip. One of the main things tourists need to know when getting off the main highways in Georgia is that risk is part of the journey. Aggressive driving is the norm and when you mix old CCCP trucks and older cars with modern cars of vastly different horsepower rating chaos is bound to happen. Mix in winding narrow mountain roads, various forms of farm animals grazing where ever they like and crashes are unavoidable. We were lucky enough to avoid a couple of close calls on this trip, and we drove by two ruined vehicles that were not so lucky.
Guest houses consist of a common room or rooms and usually a separate shower room and toilet, with a locking bedroom. The bedroom is yours for the night, and the other room or rooms are shared. We were lucky in that we had no other guests joining us that night, so it was like having a 2000 SQ foot house as your suite.
The guest house had another huge deck off the kitchen and restaurant. Starving Max and I found seats and ordered calf and pork barbecue, fries, and vodka. Max also ordered Kubdari. Max told me Kubdari is the Svans national, ethnic dish. When it arrived, I said I had tried this. My Russian mother in law made this for me every time I arrived at her home. I had just though it was Ossetian Khachapuri. Khachapuri is a baked bread product that varies by region. Georgian has at least nine different types of Khachapuri, but some arguments occur when coming to any agreement on this. But when your talking about food that has been popular since 500AD, and perhaps before, these things happen. Basically, Khachapuri has to contain bread and cheese in the ingredients to be Khachapuri.
The sunrise the next day was breathtaking. The trees were hanging onto to clouds refusing to let them go like a jealous lover. The warmth of the sun chasing the chill from the air and turning the clouds to memories. The colors vibrant, unreal, and shifting as the sun slowly chased its arch. Coffee was hot and too large for my friend Max. Georgians are not used to 20 ounces of coffee in the morning. I can't survive without it!
We left early for Max’s sister's house and another feast that would include Mingrelian Cha Cha. Like the previous discussion about cheese bread each region has their version of this Georgian treat. Be careful as 40 percent is for teenagers. Keeping with traditional expectations I had three and the road was as smooth as silk for the rest of the day. Significantly less scary as well.
That night found us at Max’s father in laws house and another feast. Georgians see guests as gifts from God and treat them as such. Hospitality doesn’t go far enough to explain how you will be treated in a Georgian's home. A huge table was set, and we ate and drank more Mingrelian delights. I went to bed earlier than Max and his brother in law, but then I am not Georgian, so this is acceptable.
The next morning was not kind. Max brought me coffee, Canadian size, and said “fucking Mingrelian Cha Cha.” I nodded and got my feet on the floor. We left early as Max knew a place with a cure-all for a Mingrelian hang over. We arrived at a roadside pullout and walked over to an older looking place with two older women sitting on the front deck. Max ordered a spicy meat stew with bread and some Borjomi mineral water. We ate without appetite, and without many words. Wounded soldiers from the night before.
The return road trip is almost always lackluster. But, not in this case. Inga had managed to get a ride back to Tbilisi after being stuck in Enhotva for almost three weeks. The main road through the Kazbegi mountain range had been wiped out by a landslide. But she was home, and we were going to pick her, and Max’s wife up and go to Signagi.
Signagi is also called the city of love and is located in the Kakheti region of Georgia. Narrow cobblestone streets contained within the old ramparts of the 18th-century fortress. It was a wonderful reunion and a fitting place to visit with the Love of My Life.