Thursday, September 29, 2016

Days of bread, cheese, coffee, and one creepy man

28 September
So many times on this trip, despite the obstacles put in front of me, everything has had a way of working out to get me what I need. Whether it is a place to dry of and warm up, a meal, or just someone coming along to lift my spirits.

Back in the capital I spent my last few days doing wandering the streets and filing myself with bread, cheese, and coffee all day long. There are open air markets everywhere selling antiques, flowers, food, and if course tourist trinkets.

One of the more interesting places is the Dry Bridge Market. Halfart walk and half antique market, people spread out all sorts of goods out on the sidewalks. You can buy Solviet military knives, crystal stemware, antique vessels, records, military medals, jewlery, car speakers, and paintings. Some people are selling their family treasures and others are just selling but it's a wonderful place to wander for an afternoon.

I wanted to go to the museum of Georgia mostly to learn more
about the 70 years of Russian occupation. From 1921-1991 the Solviets took control of Georgia and killed more than 80,000 people. Military, wealthy families, and priests were killed by the thousands along with anyone who participated in anti Solviet activity. Another 400,000 were deported but many of these people were later retried and killed. When WWII started, Georgians were hopeful for their independence but it took public protest and another fifty years before Georgia won it's independence. Between the war and the occupation, over 880,000 Georgians list their lives. There are still two areas in Georgia, Abkhazia and Odessa that are under Russian rule.
After the museum it seemed fitting to go to church. The churches here are very casual in some ways. People walk in and out constantly regardless of if there is a service on session. Georgians were taking photos (so I snuck one in too) letting their phones ring, and walking back and forth to pray and light candles at the various paintings on the walls.

I fortified myself with potato stuffed bread, this is not a place to visit if you are lactose or gluten intolerant, and onward to Vake park. A huge green space West of the city. The formal promenade leads to a giant statue and off the sides are little exercise parks, tennis courts, or running paths. The park was full of children and the first runners I've seen since being in Georgia. Walking up three hill I came to turtle lake, had a coffee, listened to the old men play backgammon, and headed back down.

In the last 15 years Georgia has become a tourist destination and made huge efforts to clean up it's neighborhood. The crime rates is extremely low and while some of the graffiti is fairly odd "My pants make you wet yourself," some is very artistic.

I am so impressed with Georgia. I though one month would be
enough to see what i wanted to, but I have barely scratched the surface. I never made it to Azerbaijan or Armenia, but there is always next time! 

My bike is packed, my laundry is washed or given away. My last challenge is to avoid the creepy guy at the hostel who keeps telling me I need to learn English because if I go to England I won't be able to understand anyone, and wants to talk about the feelings of love. He always seems to be waiting at the table, beer in hand for when I walk through the door. 

Home is sounding like the right places to head towards!

PS- The total cost of my trip (excluding airfare) was $508.00

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

My bike finally says "Enough!" And I find a bus

27 September
The morning I left grandma's house in Lahodekhi, I pedaled down to the middle of town and my bicycle finally decided to revolt against the miles of steep uphill grinds, bumpy rocky roads, and broken pavement. My pedal feel off! It is impossible to stop and do anything in Georgia without someone or many someone coming over to help. So as soon I bent down to look, I was surrounded by helpful hands putting my pedal back on. As soon as it was reattached, a slow pedal around the square unthreaded it and the platform of the pedal refused to stay on my bike. Throwing my hands on the air, I opted for plan B, a marshruka ride for me and my bike back to Tbilisi. Like a game of Tetris, we managed to fit my bike and gear into the van. For the bargain price of $3 for the 140 mile trip, I was on my way back to Tbilisi and the country's bike shop.

After finding a hostel for the night, I pushed my bike to the shop where I learned their mechanic was out of town for a wedding and, "maybe he'll be back tomorrow, but you know how the head feels the day after a wedding celebration!" So instead I took myself out for a delicious dinner of dumplings, which I ate the correct way this time.

I decided to spend the next day going south to Davit Gareji Monastery, a 6th century Monastery that covers the ridge bordering southern Georgia and Azerbaijan. The monk, Davit Gareji is famous for having a woman accuse him of impregnating her. He said that if she was falsely accusing him, she would give birth to a stone, and she did. Since the area is much more arid, the surrounding slabs of rock have grooves chiseled into them to funnel all water into basins carved out of the rocks.
Hiking up to the top of the ridge you can find dozens of caves carved into the rock. Some are covered in fresco's while others are simple niches in the rock. From the highest church, you can see all the way from the snow covered Caucasus mountains in the North to the arid plains of Azerbaijan and Armenia in the south.

The area was in constant use until the 1921 Bolshevik takeover when the monastery was closed to the public and used as a military training ground and fitting range until 1997 when public protests finally restored the area to an active Monastery and tourist destination.

The landscape changed so dramatically just by heading a little ways south. Water became very scarce, grass turned into thorns, and without many trees the wind would suddenly pick up and blow like mad. I was very happy with my choice to bike through the mountains on this trip instead of the lowlands.

 All throughout the countryside there are huge dogs breed to protect the cattle and sheep against wolves and other predators. It is common to clip the dogs ears, I guess to make them look more fierce? But most of the dogs I met were just friendly and hungry.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Wine, Babushkas, and Mountains

26 September

Ah, the warmth of wine country! Such a relief to have paved flat roads leading to wine, monasteries, and more wine. Georgians have been making wine for more than 7000 years. In many of the monasteries there are entire rooms set aside for the making wine. The entire grape and even the branches are put into huge Terra cotta vessels that are buried in the ground to maintain an even temperature. The wine is stirred periodically, red wine sits for 6 months and white for 9. Having the branches included gives the wine a slight spicy, bitter taste. Most Georgian wines are very sweet but more and more dry wines are being produced and can rival most any Western wine at a fraction of the cost. 

The Gremi Monastery sits at the edge of a valley with grapes stretched out as far as you can see. The monastery was interesting as it was used for a dwelling and fortress for hundreds of years, but the most notable for me was the toilet dating back to the 1600s on the second floor of the tower.
I ran into a man who was bike touring with a bottle of wine that he kindly shared with me, it was very good wine and before I knew it the day was getting away. With a quick goodbye I hoped on my bike dodging more dump trucks loaded with grapes to make it to Lahodekhi for the evening.

 Way back in Kazbegi the woman running the hotel I stayed at told me I should stay with her grandmother who only spoke Russian. Having never done something like that, I decided a home stay would be an interesting break from camping. Then with 6 miles left to bike, the world went crazy.

Gusts of wind came wooshing up from behind, rain and hail pelted down. The wind was so strong that it was snapping the power lines and sparks were showering down onto the road. Cows were running every where, trees were falling over, and metal was being torn off the roofs of houses. In absolute mayhem, I was pushed uphill by the wind to Lahodekhi and with the help of neighbors found my way to grandmother's house. The power was out for the whole town but she invited me in, started putting food in front of me and trying to talk. The only thing I had was a piece of paper with Tika's (the granddaughter) name and phone number on it.

Hours later when Tika called she told me her grandmother didn't know who I was out why I was there, but it was OK, I could stay the night. In a slightly akward evening I sat with grandmother and Tika's soon while the thunder and lightning crashed outside. If there was one night I was going to make myself at home, this was it!
The next morning it was clear skies. I was encouraged to "Eat! Eat!" a hearty breakfast and explained that I was going hiking in Lahodekhi nature preserve and then to Azerbaijan. Grandma asked (this is what I understood anyway) when I came back through if I would stay with her. I heartily said yes and set of up the hill.

The nature preserve is Georgia's oldest and the area has wolves, bear, sheep, and tons of birds. There are only 5 trails in this whole northeastern corner of the country and the longest is a 48 km, 3 day trek where you can stay at two different tourist shelters. I quickly paid my fee, staged my bike at the visitor center, and hit the trail.

Of course it climbed quickly up through beautiful but humid forests. As I climbed, the views opened up across the valley and bird curious filled the air. In the early afternoon I made it to the first shelter, thrilled at my good luck to have this beautiful area all to myself, and promptly are all my candy bars to celebrate.

That night was filled with thunder and lightning and the rain poured down so hard I doubt my tent could have stood it. The next morning was still crappy weather. I decided it would be foolish to climb higher with it being so wet and for the first time on this trip I have myself a rest day. At 5pm I heard voices, and suddenly the cleaning was filled with 18 people asking me one after the other,"are you alone?!' The Tbilisi Hiking Club had arrived. My peaceful rest day erupted into food exploding from backpacks as I was given snacks and sweets and asked about my trip. The evening passed quickly and the next morning I set off as they were packing up.

 Before you reach the Alpine lake you must stop and register with the Georgian military since the trail is only 200 meters from the Russian border. Before I got there it started to rain, then snow, and I was quickly soaked and freezing. Finally the military tents looked out of the mist. The 3 men stationed there motioned me inside and put me next to the stove to dry out. As the weather got worse they invited me to eat lunch with them. I was given coffee, chocolate, tomatoe stew, bread, eggs with hotdogs, and shots of vodka. Warm from the inside out and now dry, I set of a little tipsy towards the lake. 1 mile farther along, a second military tent was set up, and again I was invited for a lunch of tea, chocolate, stew, and vodka. I stayed there for at least an hour talking and laughing with the very kind men.

I decided to make a break for it and because they don't have much to do, one of the men said he would walk me to the next shelter. He said they stay up at the tents for 10 days, then 10 days home with their families. As we walked it started to snow and I was told I was very brave since I was the only single female biker they had ever had. I assured him there would be more, but he seemed doubtful.

When we got to the shelter we burst inside, stomping our feet and blowing on our fingers to warm up. It snowed harder and harder, and the man kept looking outside and exclaiming, "sheeet!" He everyday had to go, I crawled in my sleeping bag to warm up, and hours later, very miserable, the hiking club arrived. (Sorry I have no pictures because my batteries died!) They were all shivering, wet, and woefully under prepared. "Elizo!" They enthusiastically shouted out, very happy to see me because they forgot their stove. Using mine, we quickly warmed everyone up with hot drinks and a table full of food. Crossing our fingers for better weather in the morning, we all packed into one room to stay warm.

The morning was beautiful, new snow and clear skies, everyone ran around taking pictures and slowly packing up. Again I left far before the main group. Lucky for me as I was walking I ran into a mountain sheep, a female (I found out later at the visitor center) all by herself perched on the ridge line. Still freezing, i hurried down the ridge to lower elevations and warmer temps.

Back in town I found grandma's house again and kissed her on
both cheeks, so happy to see her. She seemed confused that I was there but determined to put her entire fridge out on the table for me to eat. Again I had a slightly awkward evening but this time it was clear that I was truly heading off for good. I left her with new winter socks, tea, a map and solar lantern for the little boy, and a hearty thank you for everything. She insisted on packing me up bread and cheese to take with me and walked me to the street to wave goodbye. She may still be wondering who the heck I was!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Men with beer vs Women with knives

20 September
At 7:30am, I was the first one up in the hotel. I wandered into the kitchen to find some tea, and the owner of the hotel filled a cup for me, gave me a cookie, and sat me down in front of the television. Throughout the morning he kept bringing me little sweet breads, which graduated to glasses of wine. At 9am, a couple glasses in, I finally sat down to breakfast. When it was time to go, he sent me off with water bottles full to the brim of special mineral water that was so effervescent and sulphurous that every time I took a swig, all i could think about was fizzy farts.

My first stop of the day was the fortress at Ananuri, a 13th century castle that seems to have been a never ending battle site. The church inside the walls was built in 1689 and like all Georgian churches seems more like a museum than a place to gather. It used to be covered with frescos, but now just a whitewashed shell.

I continued on towards Telavi and was meet with 12 miles of non
stop hills and construction. I resorted to pushing my bike for two hours through gravel, sand, and dump trucks. When I finally hit pavement I could have kissed it. At the top of the climb there was a road side fountain, they pop up along the roads so often that I never have to carry extra water. Some are just pipes out of the hill side while others are full on shrines to loved ones. I've been drinking from them since the beginning of the trip without issue, but if I come home with giardia, you'll know why.

After covering far less mileage than I hoped, I found a place to camp in a beautiful area, wide open fields at the top of a mountain. As soon as I found a place, a car full of 3 Georgian men pulled up with a litter of beer. They insisted I join them and we sat toasting each other and getting frustrated with the language barrier. One of the men kept trying to have a conversation which turned into him repeating himself louder and louder while poking at my arm and trying to get my phone number. When the beer was gone, they said they were getting vodka and to wait there for them. As soon as they left I quickly moved my camp.

The next morning I braced myself for another rough day of biking. The road thankfully had a few flat parts, but was so full of rock I could have been biking on a river bed. I pushed, pulled, and sometimes rode my bike the 34km in four hours to Akmeta. 

I was feeling beat down by the bumpy roads so when a car passed and the man driving motioned for me to follow him off the road, of course I did! It was a couple bringing coffee to a group of people harvesting grapes and i arrived just at break time. Instantly I was surrounded by women who stuffed me full of every kind of grape they were picking, gave me a knife and had me cut grapes into a bucket, and served me delicious Turkish coffee. The women sat around me and patiently asked simple questions and erupted into laughter, and claps every time we were able to communicate.
 They sent me on my way with cheers and a bag bursting with grapes. I have never been so happy to be surrounded by a gaggle of women welding sharp knives.

The ride into Telavi went fast and all along the way I was passed by entire dump trucks loaded with grapes. In the city I was able to find a guest house that I liked. My standards have gotten pretty low, if the place has flower pots or a garden, I'm in. Fortunately this guest house was wonderful and after a much needed shower, I set of to explore.

The city is set atop a hill with a castle at it's apex. Standing at the wall you can look out over the valley and see the Caucasus mountains rising up. Behind the castle wall there were bags of bread tied up in the trees. In this part of Georgia (and maybe other parts as well) bread is considered sacred and cannot be wasted or thrown out. Often it is tied up in trees as a way to get rid of it. 

Tomorrow I continue south, I'm crossing my fingers for pavement, but i would take more grapes as an alternative.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Hospitable Offers and Mountain Passes

19 September
Down a dusty bumpy road Truso Valley items up to wide grassy fields with mineral springs that make travertine steps. Tired from hiking and battling a head wind, I was thrilled to park my bike for the night and sweet up my tent. I had just put the rain fly on when a young boy came walking towards me. "Come!" He said, so I followed him across the valley, over a river, and to his family's tent.
The family uses this valley to graze their sheep and cows throughout the summer. Their house was a dirt floored tent cozy warm with a fire in the stove. I was invited to sit and then food started appearing in front of me. Bread, butter, cheese, yogurt, tea, vodka, plum preserves. The family sat around the table, just watching and insisting I eat.
They kept insisting that it was too cold for my tent and I needed to stay with them. When they found out that I was by myself the boy's uncle kept offering to sleep with me. When they found out I had no children, again, the boy's uncle offered to help. Some how I managed to extract myself, stumble my way back across the river and back to my tent. Where I happily slept cold and alone.
The next morning after the ice melted off the zippers of my tent, I was packing up and the young boy appeared again. He wanted to try out all my camping equipment, so while I drank coffee he investigated to his heart's content. He was the most interested in my flashing red bike light and knife. I gave him the knife and he grinned, say with me for another half hour, and left.
Farther back in the valley are ruins of a fortress and a Monastery. I decided to run up the road to see. Truso is mostly uninhabited because of the recent Odessa conflict. The houses and villages are in ruins and only a handful of people live there now. By people's reaction, seeing a lone girl running along the road is not a common occurrence!
The Monastery was beautiful. Inside there was a priest and three women praying. When they saw me at the door, they invited me in, covering my pants and head with scarves and leading me in. The church was light, full of fragrant incense, and chanting. After a short while, I de-scarved myself and ran back to my bike.
 Battling a hearty headwind, I slowly made my way up Jvari Pass passing more travertine along the way. The view from the top was cold and spectacular. There is a memorial at the top with a cafe offering hot coffee and paragliding, I accepted the coffee.

Passing Georgia's most popular ski area, I zoomed down the hairpin turns, over 3000 feet of pure descent on smooth pavement, such a treat after my last week.

Reaching the valley floor, I pedaled for a little while against the wind before deciding to splurge $30 on a hotel. A hot shower and a soft bed did wonders for my morale. I spent the morning lounging, waiting for my laundry to dry, and strangely, drinking wine at 9 in the morning.

As much as I love the high mountains, the nights are frigid and the roads painfully steep. I think I'll battle the slightly lower passes In the foothills and head to wine country.

Mountains! Mountains! Mountains!

19 September

With a beautiful morning view of Mt Kazbek, I took it as a sign to go deeper into the mountains. I ate a hearty breakfast ( I don't think there is any other kind of meal in Georgia) and biked down to Sno Valley. The ride up the valley was beautiful and for once, mostly flat. At the end is a little village called Juta. I was able to leave my bike at the hotel there and after a Turkish coffee (imagine an espresso with all the grounds still in it) I was ready to go.

The trail quickly climbs up past a few guest houses and camping areas and then the valley opens up to a craggy mountain that would make a climber drool. Chaukhi pass climbs to 11,000ft and is steep towards the top. I was feeling pretty impressed with myself until I was passed by a man leading a horse, fully loaded with food for the cafés, down towards Juta.

As I reached the top, fog closed in and the though the trail was easy to follow, I became a little uneasy. After all, I was by myself, it was really high, the nights are cold, what if I cannot find my way back, and on and on.

I started paying close attention to land marks and identifying them out loud so I would remember. Suddenly I heard footsteps behind me. It was the same man, leading the now unloaded horse back down the pass! I immediately felt better about going the right way and this old man became my fitness hero. 
As I headed down the fog cleared and I was able to see my destination, Abdulauri Lakes. There are three of them, Blue, Green, and White Lake  and they gradually get more milky colored as you get closer to the glacier.

I camped next to one of the lakes surrounded by wild rhododendrons and blue berries. Throughout the evening I listened to rock fall of the glacier and the tinkling from the bells of grazing sheep.

The next morning it was foggy and raining, I gathered my motivation, packed up and headed back up to the pass. As soon I crested the ridge, the skies cleared and the sun came out. I think Roshka Valley makes its own nasty weather. I quickly shed my wet layers ate some strange tea biscuits, and headed down.
Back at the café I ate spicy beef and tomato stew and jumped on my bike to ride to Truso Valley to camp for the night.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

From palm trees to mountains, and how to eat dumplings

15 September
Biking to Kutaisi was mostly downhill at a comfortable to exhilarating pace. In 75 miles I went from staring at glaciers to biking past palm trees. Before I made it to town I had one big hill to climb. A very humid hour into it, the sweat was streaming down my arms and legs. Cars had stopped honking at me as I looked more like the swamp thing than a girl on a bike. Eventually I pulled myself into town and threw myself into the nearest shower I could find, a lovely hostel named "Georgianize Yourself." Dinner and a glass of wine almost had me feeling normal again.

To keep my sanity I decided to take the bus, and figured I might as well take it all the way to up Kazbegi, 200 miles away. I was charged double for my bike, but it was worth every lari. I left the bus,walked around the streets of beautiful Kazbegi (aka Stepantsmida) and found a guest house that would take me in.

 I walked in the door of Ananu Guesthouse and was invited immediately to sit at the table and drink wine out of a plastic liter bottle, with the owner and other guests. We spent the night talking and laughing as a video of places in Georgia played on the TV. When an image of Ushguli popped up, I pointed to it and said, " I've been there!" The owner immediately said, "Ah, you know this bitch!" I was taken aback until I saw the video had changed to an image of a gigantic sheep dog, and laughed until I cried.

 The next morning I hiked up to Gergeti Sameba Church, probably the most iconic image of Georgia. Perched on a hilltop at 7100 feet, the church was built in the 1300s and is a steep 3.5 mile climb from town. How they managed to haul the stone to the building site seems impossible.

Though it was very foggy, I continued up the trail to the base of Mt Kazbeg (16,560 ft) crossing my fingers that the clouds would clear up. When I reached the saddle where you can see the glaciers, the clouds parted, the sun kind of came out, and you could see almost to the summit. Since most of the hike up had been in a near white out, I considered myself extremely lucky.
 I took some pictures and just as quickly as the clouds broke open, they snapped shut again and it started to rain. Satisfied, I quickly retreated to town.
In a cafe I ordered khinkali (dumplings) and started to eat. A woman looked at me with my knife and fork and said, "No!!" And marched over to my table. "You are eating this all wrong!" Her husband shouted over, "don't listen to her." She shushed him, had me pick up a dumpling and instructed me to take a little bite. "Now blow! Blow! Very hot!" So I blew on my little dumpling. "Now drink! Drink!" So I sucked the juice out of my dumpling. "Ah, much better!" She went and picked up her plate to show me, "See? Dry. No juice!" She pointed to my plate where my dumplings were floating in their insides. "Very wet! You eat wrong!" Her husband shouted over, "you eat however you want."
Under her watchful eye I ate another, this time with the correct form as I tried not to laugh. She smiled a huge grin, "Better! This is important." Her husband shouted over, "it's not important." She ignored him, "Now you teach friends how to eat right." She gave me a satisfied look and marched back to her table leaving me to practice eating dumpings.