Tuesday, September 05, 2006


The Greater Caucasus in northern Georgia are bigger and wilder than their Azerbaijani brothers further east. So I decided to make further use of Tawnya and her tentedness as we set off towards the town of Kazbegi, sitting in the shadow of its namesake mountain, for a little mountain adventure. The town was our base for a few days as we made small excursions to nearby mineral springs for a spot of swimming; waterfalls (unfortunately too shallow for swimming, but just the right place for a spot of lunch); and a beautifully situated church with stunning views right up to the iconic, glacier-capped Mt. Kazbeg. We also hung out with other travellers and the host of our homestay, Vano, who, once you could decipher his English, was full of interesting facts and anecdotes, such as the one about his Italian, missionary grandmother who was kidnapped by his grandfather. Apparently bride-napping used to be the main form of courtship in the Caucasus "back in the days", although it is dying out now for some reason.

After a few days we decided to hike over to the next valley along, some 50km away, from where we could catch a ride back to Tblisi. So, armed with a photo of a map of Georgia, plenty of food (chocolate bars, peanuts, bread, cheese, dates and a slab of speck for me) and a vague idea that we were supposed to "head east", we set off for the fabled town of Barisakho and its bus stop. The first day was easy, following a jeep trail to the last village in the valley (called Juta) and so it passed almost without incident, except that when we stopped for lunch outside a church we got accosted by a couple of nuns who decided to feed us. On the second day we headed towards the Chaukhi crags (see below), which would be visible for most of the day. Soon after leaving the village we were joined by a large, white sheepdog, with the customary clipped ears Caucasian mountain dogs all have. Initially we were a bit alarmed as throughout the region we had been warned of vicious sabaka (Russian for dogs) and told to be on our guard. But our companion was friendly and the only danger she posed was from her over-boisterous playfulness. So with Bitch in the lead (I wasn't feeling at my imaginative best for naming her) we carried on, following animal tracks that would disappear and reappear quite frequently. For several hours we passed right under the kilometre-high cliffs that are the rock-climbing capital of Georgia. Eventually we got to a cirque and had to pick from a series of steep, trackless scree-lined slopes to scramble up to get over the pass. After a lot of huffing, puffing and sliding we eventually reached the top of the Chaukhi Pass, some 3400m above sea level, and had a fantastic panorama across the Caucasus, with mountains stretching away as far as the eye could see (most notably to the north, just over the border in Chechnya). We then noticed that we had taken perhaps the trickiest of the ascents on offer, but that didn't matter as it would be all downhill from there. An easy proposition one might think, but not when the slopes are that steep and scree-y. In fact, after less than 30 minutes of descent I was wishing I was still facing an uphill slog. After several slips and bruises we reached the more docile river plain below, complete with meandering rivers, grazing cows and still accompanied by Bitch, who we were feeling really sorry for as we had nothing proper to feed her and she was a long way from home. So, with aching feet we set up our tent, had a quick bite and quickly dozed off.

The next morning, as I opened up the tent I saw that Bitch had been lying in front, guarding us through the night. She was obviously very hungry as she was whining and chewing on grass and so we decided to give her a loaf of bread from our supplies (despite it not being proper dog food she yummed it right up). It was then up for another day of hiking down to Barisakho, though whilst the day before we had had blue skies throughout, the weather had finally turned and the mountains were continually shrouded in cloud and we had frequent showers. Towards the end of the day, and only several kilometres from our goal, I flagged down a jeep to see if we could get a lift down the road. The driver turned out to be a border guard and he wasn't going our way, however he did offer for us to stay at the small army barracks; an offer we no longer found at all odd and accepted with gusto. Soso turned out to be a fantastic host (as all Caucasians seem to be) and he spoiled not only us, but also Bitch, rotten (we ended up getting a room to ourselves with satellite TV!). The next day we caught the morning bus back toTblisi whilst also finding a nice, new home for Bitch with Soso at the barracks.

Tomorrow I will be heading south to Armenia whilst Tawnya is thinking of making another trip to the mountains, probably wistful of the romantic bride-napping stories that she heard and hoping that not all the old traditions have died out.

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