Kakheti: Director’s Extended Edition

My third foray into Kakheti was probably the best so far.

I wasn’t even going to go on vacation this Easter. My plan was to have myself a nice long staycation – sit around the house, catch up on some TV, do some reading, a little writing, maybe work on this little project I’m doing for TLG that I hope to announce any day now – you know, basically have a regular weekend, except three times as long.

I’d been entertaining some options for a trip – Armenia had been suggested by a certain Scottish individual – but I had been sort of pushing for something shorter and closer and cheaper than Yerevan. A friend and former TLGer in Istanbul had invited me to stay over her place but with only six days, almost four of which would have been in transit, it didn’t seem worth the trip. Some other friends of mine were going to go camping in some Georgian national parks, but I never ever sleep well when I camp and the weather was supposed to be cold and rainy. So I decided to just sit this one out in Tbilisi.

And then something strange happened. That little spark of motivation that sent me to Georgia in the first place – that adventurous spirit that pushes me to do more, to live life to the fullest, to endure lots of potential discomfort just for the bragging rights of having done the thing – that spark turned into a little flame. The flame told me that I was being lame and boring, that staying at home while everyone else went on vacation would make me miserable, that even though Armenia had fallen through and Turkey was too far, it wasn’t too late to get on board with the camping trip.

This happened about twelve hours before said trip.

So I made it happen. I stayed up until well after 3am packing, sewing a patch in my only pair of jeans in this country, finishing up everything that needed to be done before I disappeared for four days, and struggling with the part of me that said that camping wasn’t a good idea in the first place and doing it on short notice and three hours of sleep was an even worse idea.

I slept for less than three hours in the end, but I managed to get everything done for the trip. Fortunately my friends had arranged everything already by the time I decided to go along, including packing food and drinks and snacks and arranging for a car and a driver to get around Kakheti. All I needed to do was show up and then I’d be able to relax.

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Our first stop was Lagodekhi. This is a national park and wildlife preserve in northeast Georgia, near the border with Russia and Azerbaijan. When we got there, it was raining, but we walked around a little, arranged for a campground and some gear, and set up our tents.
Then we walked into town to get dinner at the local restaurant.

On Saturday morning, it stopped raining at around 7:30. We had breakfast and then geared up for our first hike – a trip to the “Small Falls.” It turns out that Lagodekhi has both guided tours and marked trails that you can do without a guide, trails that take about five hours and hikes that take up to three days, and hikes on foot or trips on horseback for those who want to take in the scenery without all the extra effort of walking. Actually I think a trip on horseback would be really cool, and I’m definitely set on going back there to do one, probably sometime in fall.

The hike was awesome. The trail started off very easy, then led us across a river (really a small stream) at about the halfway point. The scenery – mountains, the stream, the lush greenery – reminded me of the Poconos where my aunt and uncle used to have a house by a creek that we could swim in when we came to visit. The second part of the trail took us up the side of a mountain next to the creek and past a few points of moderate difficulty – nothing we couldn’t handle, just stuff you need to be careful with.

The waterfall was a little anti-climactic – but they say it’s the journey that counts, not the destination, and it’s true. I had a great time running around in the mountains and wading in the river and splashing through the mud, and the weather was absolutely perfect for it. When we got back I was tired and went to sleep while the others went into town for another meal at the restaurant, which I hear wasn’t particularly thrilling. That night I opted to sleep in the car, which was incredibly comfortable – I need to sleep with my back slightly inclined upward, so a carseat is actually very close to the ideal shape for me to sleep on, and I brought my inflatable neck pillow and slept like a baby.

Sunday was a travel day. We had breakfast, broke down our camp stuff, and hit the road. We made it to Dedoplistskaro by about 11, got some gas, stopped by a cafe for a pretty good lunch, and started to head south-east along the road to Kasristskali. Our driver quickly became frustrated with the road quality, and eventually we came to a point where our little rental car couldn’t really handle the potholes and overall degraded quality of the road. Phone calls were made and we discovered that you can’t get anywhere near our destination – Vashlovani National Park – without an off-road vehicle.

We were all somewhat miffed that this information had not come to light earlier, and our driver was apologetic that he hadn’t known about it, but I decided that rather than dwell on it we should quickly adopt an alternate plan, so I gathered everyone together and suggested that we head for Telavi – a well-known city that none of us had ever been to, where we might find all kinds of adventure and probably pretty good accommodations. The group agreed.

Just a side note – and I realize that I am probably going to be mocked for this – it is really new and strange for me to be in a place without well-maintained, paved roads that go everywhere. It honestly never occurred to me before this weekend that there might be places in Georgia that I literally couldn’t get to because of the condition (or lack) of roads in the vicinity. Having firsthand experience of this makes you look at a map in a new way.

I mean, I’m familiar with the concept of a remote area, from like, movies and stuff, but those all take place within two hours of my life so the three-day hike to get to a remote area never seems real to me. Actually trying and failing to get to a remote area is a totally new experience for me. Knowing that there are essentially two main highways into Kakheti and anything that isn’t on one of them might require special measures and preparation to get to makes the whole place seem kind of mysterious and exciting, even though I imagine it’s mostly farmland. And I’m sure there are places like that in the US, I’ve just never tried to actually go into one before.

The road that follows the train tracks from Dedoplistskaro back up towards the west is beautiful. There are some great views around Ulianovka, if I’m remembering correctly. Gurjaani was a respectable little village, and, like Dedoplistskaro itself, I was surprised at how big it actually was. I guess I had thought of Sighnaghi as being Kakheti’s biggest city, and Sighnaghi is kind of disappointing size-wise (although the views are fabulous). These other towns actually had stuff going on. It was cool.

When we arrived in Telavi, we stopped for a potty-break (someone kept using the word potty and now it’s stuck with me, like I’m two again) and some police officers came by to see if we needed anything. We explained that we were looking for someplace to camp near the city, and the officer – who was basically fluent in English – told us that he’d make arrangements. He managed to get us into this old soccer stadium that seemed to be inhabited only by some horses, a family of dogs, and a rotating staff of groundskeepers. The place was in serious disrepair but there was plenty of grass, a bathroom of sorts, some running water, and awesome views once the weather got clear enough.

The police officer also got us clean blankets and mattresses from this random abandoned building on the stadium grounds that apparently had been kept up for some reason but was not in use. He also brought us two bottles of Kvanchkara, a delicious Georgian red wine. We wandered around the area of the stadium a little, sat in a park for a little while talking about teaching in public schools, and then settled in for some drinking and game-playing. I was destroyed in Guess Who but won every Connect Four game I played. We drank a lot and I ended up trying to photograph a frog and mostly failing.

Monday morning we had a belated Easter Egg hunt, warmed and dried ourselves in the groundskeepers’ cabin, broke camp, and set off toward home. We decided to take the Gombori pass because I wanted to see the mountains. On our way we hit up the Shuamta Monasteries -both New and Old Shuamta – and while I thought the buildings themselves were pretty boring, the forest they were in was gorgeous.

The mountain pass was mountainous, but it was too cloudy to see much. We get to see a giant mudslide that had apparently blocked the road, but had been half-removed so there was a single lane of traffic passing by. We also got to see several sections of road that had collapsed and apparently fallen down the mountain, again reducing traffic to a single lane. It’s really quite fascinating to be on a road that could in theory collapse at any moment. I wonder if it was rainstorms, mudslides, earthquakes, or some combination of the three that was responsible for these particular trouble spots.

And, again, this is something that I’d known the concept of but not the real reality behind. Like, I’d read about roads being blocked by mudslides, or washed out, or mountain passes becoming impasses, but I’d never encountered a situation in which that might be a plausible event. Once we had a rainstorm in Brooklyn that flooded 9th Street down by the canal – and scared a shitload of rats out of wherever they were hiding and onto the streets of Gowanus – but that situation lasted, like, a few hours, and nothing was really destroyed. But you know, I read about things like someone being unable to make it somewhere because the road had been washed out or flooded or otherwise destroyed, and I always think “can that really happen?” and while in NYC it generally doesn’t, apparently in the mountains of Kakheti it’s a real possibility. Funky.

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And of course I forgot the other police that we met. Friday morning, at about 11:30, we stopped by an old castle to see what we could see. I don’t even remember exactly where this was, and it doesn’t seem to be on our tourist map. We ran into some Georgian men who were having a morning supra complete with wine from Gurjaani, bread, cheese, and pickled vegetables. They invited us for drinks and of course I partook, and we conversed a little and my friends were impressed that I could actually put a few broken sentences together in Georgian. The wine was fabulous and I said so, I made a few toasts in Georgian, and I explained that we were teachers and that I used to teach at the Police Academy. Then they told us that they were police and showed us their IDs and stuff and we all had a laugh about coincidences.

So there are two of the things I like best about this country, and that I sometimes need to be reminded of. One, the police here are actually cool. Like, they’re nice, they’re helpful, they’re relaxed, and they’re real people, even when they’re on duty. The guy who helped us in Telavi is a great example, but it’s gotten to the point where I’m just used to it. It’s not even really remarkable any more when a police officer here goes out of their way to help me and my friends. I remember that on my second or third day here I was stunned at how friendly and helpful the police were – when I met those guys at Sameba who came over to talk to us – but now I can actually relax around police.

The second thing is that people are friendly and welcoming, that they’re the type of people who will invite the random strangers sharing a 13th century castle with them over for wine and bread and toasts, just because. It just makes life that much more pleasant when you’re in a country where a stranger is a friend you haven’t met yet.

And again, it’s not like these things don’t exist in America, there’s just much less cultural emphasis on it. My parents raised me to be exactly like a Georgian in these respects – to always put guests first, to be friendly to strangers – and I can’t count the number of times we’d be at a park or a beach somewhere and my dad would get to talking to some random stranger and before we knew it they’d be sharing food or drink with each other. I always thought that was weird, and people used to remark on it – they’d tell me that it was rare to find someone as friendly and open and generous as my dad, and in New York City, it was. But when I reflect back on my life in New York, I think that maybe I was just a little bit alienated by the fact that so many of the people I met were not friendly or open or generous, like I expected them to be, and maybe that’s why I had such a hard time dealing with day-to-day interactions with people in New York.

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So, Kakheti this time around was fabulous, and I definitely want to go again. I want to go to Lagodekhi when the mountain paths clear and take some nice long hikes. I want to go to Telavi and Gurjaani and do some serious wine tourism. I want to explore things I haven’t seen yet, like David Gareji. But until then, pictures:

verdant

valley

mountains

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5 Responses to Kakheti: Director’s Extended Edition

  1. Russ says:

    You’re killing me with these stories! I miss Georgia so much. I especially like your references to the hospitality which always amazed me.

  2. --> says:

    > And I’m sure there are places like that in the US

    mmm… Alaska? πŸ™‚

    No seriously, in Continental States with the exception of 100 miles of coastline on both coasts, everything in between (especially towards the west of Dakota-Texas line) could be described as wilderness with some patches of human population.

    I have some first hand experience to be ‘in the middle of nowhere’ – this is the situation when car radio does not pick up ANY stations not only in FM but in AM dial too. Welcome to UT-21 , US-93 from Nellis AFB till Ely, NV and all US-50 in Nevada, where you can buy a sticker – I’ve survived US-50 – ‘The Loneliest Road in America’.

    Oh yaah – in I-70 between Salina and and Green River there is a sign – ‘Next gas – 105 ahead’.

    • Russ says:

      Yeah, what’s the number of the road in Western Utah that leads to Salt Lake City? I drove through there in the early ’80s and it really was “Last Chance Gas!” I read they couldn’t put gas tanks in the soil there for some reason.

      • --> says:

        Now I will tell something which most people inside and outside of States will have difficulty to believe – vicinity of Great Basin National Park (appx 20000 sq. miles) got electricity from wires in late 70ies of last century. Before than people who lived there were using diesel generators. You will get it once you get there.

        United States is a BIG country.

  3. babalwa says:

    Hi Neal.
    How much longer will you be in Georgia for if I may ask?
    If all goes according to plan, I’ll land on June 15th and am so looking forward to it:)
    Cheers.
    Brook

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