"Rain", said the Ukrainian man as the plane started to taxi down the runway.
"Rain, ah sure you know what that means"?
"No", he replied.
"Well, we are going to fly into the thunderstorm", and with that I finally put down the book about Georgia that I was reading.
"Now I am frightened", said the Ukrainian man, "because, you did not put your book down during the two aborted landings and not even during the emergency landing in Azerbaijan with people praying and screaming…"
"Yes, I know, but this time, when we hit the air pockets, I think the natives will get even more restless and I want to grip the seat as I am minding my back."
We had been waiting on the runway in an obscure airport in Azerbaijan for an interesting few hours. A few weeks after the airplane had been shot down over Ukraine, there were many possibilities going through the passenger’s heads as we had flow from Kyiv and we were given no explanation. Finally, the pilot had announced the reason for the emergency landing - thunderstorm.
Then he took off - into another one. Ten minutes and four air pockets later, when we got above cloud level, I was able to resume my book. We finally arrived into Tbilisi 5 hours late. Three people had to go to hospital due to the shock and stress caused by the bumpy ride, but on a positive note at least I got my book finished and was ready to face whatever Georgia was going to show me.
At the airport the guesthouse had a driver waiting for me and my first experience of Georgian driving commenced (more about that later !). After a short and very fast drive down the recently renamed road the George W Bush Highway (!) I was at the guesthouse around 7 am. Went straight to bed as I had much to arrange later on that day in Tbilisi. When I got up, I wandered around the hot and beautiful city of Tbilisi, went to The Hangar bar to meet my contact and she advised me where exactly the marshrutka (mini bus) departed for Mestia. After a few glasses of the excellent Georgian wine and some wonderful khachapuri I went home to bed for on the following day I had to face another early and long journey.
I got up at 4 am. The landlord of the guesthouse dropped me at the station and I managed to get a seat (30 lari for one-way ticket) on the minibus before it departed at 05.30. The mashrutka leaves through a bustling market and passes through crumbling Brezhnev era Soviet tower blocks for the countryside. Journey starts off with a long stretch of motorway section to the west along a river valley and then a plain before descending into a single carriage road which is where things start to get interesting.
The landscape here is a kaleidoscope of sights which range from beautiful baroque churches to gaudy neon signs, from abandoned soviet era factories to traditional wooden shacks, from dilapidated buildings in small towns to the new baubles of the nouveau riche - all the time passing through narrow passes and surrounded by ever larger hills.
The road signs read exotically Baku, Yerevan, Tehran, Vladikavkaz and then Gori the birth place of the notorious communist Joseph Djugashvilli (more commonly known as Joseph Stalin), not to be confused with Gorey in Ireland of course, which is long associated with the socialist firebrand and orator Mick Wallace.
At the side of the road at regular intervals were roadside stalls filled with agricultural produce, water melons, oranges, grapes, tomatoes, cucumbers and many other fruits and vegetables under plastic sheeting, held up by metal poles under the baking sun.
Well, after the excitement of the previous day I was looking forward to a nice, restful ten hour journey crisscrossing the towns, rivers, plains, mountains and valleys of the Georgian countryside ... how wrong I was. The driver spent most of the time on his mobile phone and on between switching CDs between Armenian folk music, dodgy Russian pop music or sometimes a mix of both (which even made Disco Polo appealing) and occasionally paying attention to the road.
His overtaking was a style that even the worst of Boy racers would fear to imagine. First accelerate to the engine’s limit behind the vehicle (usually lorry) in front of you to within one metre or so, then beep the horn. This is followed by an overtaking maneuver over a single white line on a bend and just when you get past the lorry there would be a wandering pig, mule or cow on the road. This can be usually spotted even before he started his acceleration as the local women behind him would start to bless themselves and pray. This would be followed by the bus starting to sway from side to side and the next dice with death would start.
The bus, which is packed full of people, bags, dogs and the proverbial chicken would quieten and tense for the inevitable, which somehow, miracles of miracles, does not happen. As we ascend through towering mountain ranges, narrow passes and windy twisty roads, the madness and risk taking actually gets even worse and worse. Fortunately, mountains, steep valleys and turquoise blue lakes with churches majestically situated on every outcrop keep our mind off the driver doing his best to go out in a "Blaze of Glory".
Truly though here as we ascend and descend through the valleys and the steep crumbling landslide, the ravaged and tree lined slopes are staggeringly beautiful. The houses, lived in with fences of wood and concrete and held together by twisted wire are impressive in their simple, traditional style with gardens full of various herbs and surrounded by trees of vines.
The cows and pigs are left to wander by the ways and roads after being let out in the morning to return at night, so accidents involving livestock are a regular occurrence. It is disconcerting for us and not only to the driver to drive through an unlit tunnel to see a herd of cattle on the road.
Road is scarred by evidence of previous landslides which has blocked the road (which I have heard is a regular occurrence there). I counted 11 such scraped and smoothed over sections in a 30 km stretch of road alone. Some of these rocks can be the size of houses, as the cliffs and slopes are generally very steep. Landslides are here very regular especially on rainy days. This stretch of road was only opened as a track to Mestia in 1936 and finally fully paved in 2013.
As a result, the Svan people have thrived in an unique way, separate with their language food, dress and customs. However this does not also take away from the fact they very much feel to be a part of the greater Georgian people.
In Ireland and the UK, when you hear the expression "Mind the Gap", they refer to the gap between the train and the platform. However in Georgia it means a Georgian driver is trying to squeeze his vehicle through that gap!
Anyways I survived the bus journey in one piece arrived in the resort town of Mestia, which is located 1400 meters above sea level to have a beer in the local bar beside the town square. Soon I was greeted by my host and brought to the accommodation I would be residing in on and off over the next 7 days.
I awoke the next morning at daybreak to the sound of the cattle and pigs been left out from the cellar below the partially completed guesthouse. I got up and prepared my rucksack for the day to ensure that I would have all the things I would need (and of course the things I generally don't need but pack just in case of an emergency), laced up my boots and went down for my breakfast. Just like the night before, the table was full of freshly cooked organic food (khachapuri/sulguni/chikhirtma cherba/chakapuli/khinkali/churchkhela) with a variety of dishes to try, all washed down with spicy Georgian tea or Alazani/Saperavi wines.
Mestia is an unusual town whereby the Georgian government has plans to turn it into a ski and hiking resort like you get in most mountain areas in the world. There is already a ski resort there at with 6 slopes and they are starting to build a second one with 12 slopes at Tetnuldi (white mountain).
The town has a huge white elephant of a building at the square which is currently unoccupied, but which will fill eventually as the resort broadens its tourist base and appeal. Despite being empty this building is easy on the eye, overlooking two sides of the square, unlike the garish and impossibly ugly police station on the corner. The tree lined square at the centre has a natural mineral water fountain located right in the centre. There is a small bar/restaurant and tourist office and there are also other restaurants and bars and tourist shops and supermarkets scattered along the main street.
The main sight that is seen everywhere here (and in all of the Svaneti region) are the wonderful Svan towers which measure 5m x 5m to a height of 25 metres. In Mestia they are lit up at night, which adds to the relaxed and friendly feel to the town.
We headed out of town in the fresh spring sunshine – myself, the guide and a Czech woman started to head along the route for the day. This route leaves Mestia and starts by climbing through the neighbourhood of Lanchhvali. This cobblestoned track does not last long however.
After a short but sharp climb the cobblestones disappear and you are on a rutted track. It winds around and around until it eventually leads to the cross at Mount Tshkhakezagari (2201 metres). The views from my first climb here are truly wonderful on a sunny and warm day. As we walk along, we are greeted by large sharp horned cows and bulls, which are incredibly friendly.
Banguriani from Mestia
Jana and Merab head along the track
Obstacle on the path
From here, the vista is wonderful: below you is spread the town of Mestia and the village of Mulakhi.To the east, the snow-capped mountain of Tetnuldi. Should the day have clear skies, you may glimpse Mount Ushba to the north. To the south can be clearly seen the Svaneti ridge and finally to the west your destination, the Guli Pass, beckons.
So time for water, food and a rest. That was a steep, sharp shock of a start! Now we follow the signs, before you descend into the valley below Guli pass and after that follow the valley upwards to the pass itself. Here the route is indistinct and not at all clear at times. The slopes are steep and great care is needed.
As you ascend, gradually the pointed twin peaks of Mount Ushba appear. Eventually you will arrive at the pass itself which is 2,954 metres above sea level. From here the full glorious view of Mount Ushba and the daunting Mazeri ridge can be seen.
Pointer to Guli pass
Path to Guli pass
Looking back from Guli pass
Jana takes a photo
Fergal at the Guli pass (2954 metres)
This is easily the most beautiful peak (or even twin peak) I have ever seen and it is a truly awesome sight. I can see why so many people have tried to climb it, even though there have been many fatalities on it. From what I could see it looks near impossible and on the mountain difficulty scale of one to 6, whereby Everest is only regarding as 3, this is rated 5 to 6 on 40 of the 41 routes up it! That in itself tells you all you need to know about mighty Ushba.
Mount Ushba twin peaks are 4,690 and 4,710 metres above sea level respectively and is regarded as the most difficult mountain in Europe to climb technically - sounds like that needs to be left for another day!
Ushba and Mazeri ridge
Ushba from the slopes of Guli pass
Guli pass from below
The path then descends to the abandoned village of Guli with its church that can be used as a guiding landmark. From here a short walk along a sleigh track to the village of Bagvdanari follows where a ride back to the town of Mestia should be arranged, unless of course you fancy a further 26 km walk! Fortunately, our guide had arranged a car to pick us up and just as we approached the village on a dirt track the 4 x 4 car arrived.
That evening I went to the Cafe Laila which, overlooking the square, had some traditional (sean nos style) singers which was interesting watching this and drinking two excellent Natakhari beers. Then it was back to the guesthouse early as yet again there was an early start.
Continuation of diary, describing trek to Ushguli can be found here.