Thursday, 19 August 2010

Georgia, Horsemen and the Apocalypse

"To peace... to Georgia... to our women... to the people who built the paths and huts in this national park."

Georgian drinking. We'd heard so much about it - about the infamous 2-litre drinking horns in Svaneti, about travellers forced to gulp down home-brewed booze at gun-point, about road-side "drinking shrines" where Georgians raise a glass to honour the latest casualty of drink driving.

So I'm not sure whether I should be proud or ashamed to report that we managed to spend 2 weeks in Georgia without once getting properly plastered.
We did, however, hear some wonderful toasts - like the one to the people who built the Borjomi national park, delivered by a ranger who acted as our tamada (toastmaster) in a random encounter at the Lomis Mta shelter after a day's hiking:

We had followed the well-marked Nicolaz Romanoff trail from Borjomi to the shelter, a cute hut with all modern comforts i.e. a spring, stream, bunk beds and a fire pit, and had just unlaced our walking boots when the ranger arrived together with a bottle of home-made wine and a Georgian couple on horseback. Apparently, we were supposed to down our glasses after every toast, but we had two more days of walking ahead of us and couldn't face the prospect of hungover mountaineering. So we merely sipped our wine like...well, like non-Georgians.

The next day, after a 6-hour hike, our trail came to a sudden end - floods or landslides had washed away the path, and where the map showed a bridge, there was a sheer drop. We were so exhausted that we decided to camp by the river, hoping a clever solution might occur to us overnight.

About an hour later, I brushed some ants off my face and peered out of my sleeping bag.

"What's that sound?" I asked Dan, thinking: bears.

"Horses!" he said. "It's the ranger!"

Oh, the relief. The ranger/toastmaster, it turned out, was on his way to the Marelisi hut - another day's walk in our time, but a mere 5 hours in ranger-time. We stumbled through the dark forest, blindly crossing rivers on horseback or greasy poles, losing the ranger, finding him again, until we finally crashed into the Marelisi hut long after midnight.
It was a fantastic hut.
In fact, at that moment, it was the most beautiful hut I'd ever seen.

(We called the park administration the next day to tell them about the path. I can highly recommend the Borjomi national park, and the Marelisi guest house in particular, but do make sure you pack enough food and water to cover an unexpected detour...)

Best breakfast ever after cramming a three-day-hike into two days:

Monday, 2 August 2010

Wild Svans

We're in beautiful Tbilisi, feasting on Georgian wine and watermelons, relaxing on leafy roof terraces and listening to our new friend Kakha's stories about the wild Caucasus. Kakha is also helping us plan our trip to the Borjomi national park and the Svaneti mountains, a particularly wild region even by Caucasian standards, which, as I just said, are already pretty wild.

"So what are the Svans like?" Dan asked Kakha.

"Blood feuds. Vendetta," Kakha said without missing a beat.

Then he smiled and bit into another slice of watermelon. "But don't worry, they only fight among themselves, and they'll tell you to leave the village before they start. And they are really very kind-hearted."
“Tell them the joke about the Svan diary,” Kakha’s son Giorgi suggested.
“The Svan diary…well, it goes like this. First entry – Monday: Today is very boring. Tuesday: Today I killed my neighbour’s mother. Wednesday: Today, my neighbour came over and killed my mother in revenge. Thursday: Today I killed my neighbour’s father and brother. Friday: Today, my neighbour came over and killed my father…and so on and so forth for the next couple of days, and then – “ Kakha leaned back to deliver the punchline – “Monday: Today is very boring.”
We laughed and had more watermelon and thought about the Svans. They seem to enjoy a near-mythical status in Georgia, with their harsh mountain rites and gloomy-yet-heartfelt hospitality. 
And according to Kakha, once in a generation, this mountain tribe, widely ridiculed for being backward and illiterate, produces an amazing Svan intellectual who comes down from the mountains, takes everyone by surprise, dazzles the cultural elite and becomes the pride of Georgia.