For two and a half days I roamed Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, but in that time I had already begun to habitually trace my own footsteps. I would have grown far too comfortable over the week of my vacation had I stayed there.
It was my first trip by myself in a quarter century and I worried that lone might become lonely - a feeling encapsulated by a mysterious scene on an overcast afternoon, just before a spring snowfall, on Rustaveli Avenue, the main thoroughfare in Tbilisi's centre. A man with a straw broom was sweeping the pavements clean. A younger man drove by, slowly, in a modern street-sweeping van. The older man held up a hand to touch the driver's side window of the van, as if to brush the driver's cheek. The younger man, who seemed bored stiff, did not react.
So I looked at a map of the country and picked someplace new - the last town up on the Georgian Military Highway, the town of Kazbegi in the Terek River gorge in the Greater Caucasus Mountains, elevation 1,740 metres, maybe 10 kilometres to Russia.
Why Kazbegi? Why not Gori, Stalin's birthplace and for decades after his death a stubborn shrine to him? Or Batumi on the coast? Maybe, as much as anything, because I was in a time of transition and felt like being someplace definite, and a town at the end of a mountain road carried with it the comfort of definition. After Kazbegi, there was no place else to go. Well, Chechnya, but I sure wasn't going there.
Outside the Didube metro station, in the north part of Tbilisi, is where you catch a minibusto Kazbegi. The fare was 10 lari (Dh22) for a three-hour trip.
The area where the herd of intercity marshrutkas are massed like wildebeest is a muddy staging ground with no signposts; but just saying Kazbegi was enough to get directions to the right bus. It was to leave at 1pm - and to ensure he was getting through to the simpleton tourist, the driver wrote "1300h" in the dust of the bus window. That gave me a little more than an hour to kill.
The area around bus stations is rarely associated with fine food, but I got lucky and had the best meal of my trip: a clay dish filled with sizzling cubes of meat, pomegranate, onions and peppers, flavoured with coriander (they use a lot of pomegranate and coriander in Georgian cooking), washed down with a traditional barley beverage, for 14 lari (Dh31) at Brewery Mirzaani. Somehow it felt like a last meal at base camp before an expedition.
As the marshrutka ascended to Kazbegi, city gave way to towns and towns to villages, small dogs to big shaggy dogs, cars to cattle and a skyline of satellite dishes to one of mountaintops. The young woman sitting across the aisle from me held her rosary beads in one hand and her mobile phone in the other, protective totems of two eras. We passed the ski resort of Gudauri and, in spots, the snowbanks were nearly as high as the bus.
Except in the intermittent tunnels, it felt as if the steep slopes could wash over us like a frothy wave at any time. The northern Caucasus Mountains form one of Georgia's natural defences, and the highway intrudes upon that defence. Georgia's tsarist Russian overlords began building the highway, at great expense, in 1799; drawing this line in the snow would take more than six decades. It is incredible to think that, in the seventh century BC, Scythian tribes had somehow succeeded in using this forbidding terrain as an invasion route.
In his 1983 travel book Among the Russians, Colin Thubron describes his own drive on this highway: "The road seemed scarcely to rise at all, but to penetrate deeper and deeper into the massif. Alongside, the infant Terek boiled and curdled brown-white. It was barbarously beautiful."
I had planned to stay in Kazbegi for a day and a bit, arriving in mid-afternoon one day and leaving in early evening the next. Through no effort of my own, I found lodging within seconds of arrival. I had not taken three steps off the marshrutka when Vasily, a local impresario, blocked my path with his white Lada. He asked where I was from, then pulled out a schoolboy's notebook and turned to the 11th page, where a testimonial from one of my fellow Canadians extolled the virtues of Vasily's hostel. Each page had a different country represented, and in this way Vasily was as multilingual as his guests.
At the hostel I met six Swiss ski bums, fit and sun-tanned, who had spent five weeks in Georgia and preferred skiing to working. They said they had walked up to the local mountaintop monastery, the Gergeti Trinity, and it was an easy trek of two to three hours. I marked that down for the next morning.
I went for a look around the town and to have a cup of tea. In the quiet, almost desolate town plaza rises a statue of Alexander Kazbegi, shepherd and writer. Rising up behind him are the jagged mountains that encase the town, atop one of which sits the monastery, a fine place to live undisturbed except by snow and wind. In front of the shepherd-poet, cows amble along unguarded and happy dogs lie on the main road as if they own it. Turn to the right, and a tapering memorial with a star at the top commemorates local soldiers who died in the Second World War.
A billboard by the poet's statue lists 15 landmarks for this town of no more than 5,000 souls. One of the landmarks is a WC. Another is "The Trade Center", a collection of small stores that actually don't store much, though two of them somehow have secured the right to use Google in their names. Seriously: Market Google, and International Google Shop. That evening it took four tries to find a shop that sold toothpaste. Finally at the fourth, the shop woman watched my hands-across-the-teeth gesture and said "Pasta?" She charged me two lari (Dh4) for 50ml of Aquafresh 3: Fresh & Minty.
Most of the cafes said they were open but the signs lied. Then I found a cafe that not only said it was open but meant it. The only other patrons were the manager and his three buddies. One was a diamond polisher from Armenia who was travelling north.
He asked where I was from.
"Abu Dhabi," I said.
"Ab-?" he replied.
"Dubai," I said.
I asked him what he would be doing in Russia.
"A little business," he said with a smirk.
The cafe reeked of smoke and conspiracies. The television set played Russian music videos. The cafe manager said I should stay in his establishment rather than Vasily's. No sooner had he said this than Vasily burst through the door and made it clear that this was not a good place for me to be. It is an inescapable fact of village life that people know where a stranger is at all times.
As we rode back to safe haven in Vasily's Lada, he referred to the men in the cafe as no good; but as his English is weak, he used an Italian word.
The Swiss were gone, but in their stead were three young Finns and three Armenian truckers; the truckers were staying the night because the highway to Tbilisi had become blocked by an avalanche. It was unclear when the highway would be open again.
That night I slept poorly. One of the truck drivers snored like he was trying to hail his home planet. In the morning, I mentioned this to the Finns and mimicked the sound of snoring. The truck driver, recognising himself as the topic of discussion, smiled sheepishly and, as a peace offering, later handed me an Armenian lemon.
The Finns and I headed up to the monastery. This was the highlight of the trip for me, but others might find it banal - deep snow, wrong turns, lungs pounding from the altitude, crawling the last bit on all fours, and then arrival. We had risen some 430 metres in three hours and change.
Inside the monastery, a wood stove provided warmth. We left our snow-caked mitts by the stove. The monastery's stone walls rose over a cruciform floor plan and came together in an oval dome. Light came through the keyhole windows in the dome. In one corner of the monastery, incredibly, was a sort of gift shop, selling devotional candles, fridge magnets and postcards.
The lone monk on hand was friendly yet also reserved; as if he welcomed us yet neither did he mind his peace. On his lectern was an Indiglo Night Light, perhaps for timing his devotions. The monastery was filled with artworks, many in mixed media - pressed metal, paint, something that looked like varnished straw. We went outside to look over the valley. Standing there, I could see why a gorge is called just that. Gorge is the French word for throat, and the mountains here are like teeth, and the village sits on a sloping tongue of land, and air rushes through the open throat along the river. The word seemed perfect.
Then we slid down the mountain like children. The road to Tbilisi was still blocked so I spent a second night in Kazbegi. We took a matrushka back to Tbilisi on the evening of the third day. Traffic stopped just before the village of Kobi. A Georgian military helicopter was blocking the road crosswise, its front and back each butting a snowbank. "No picture", a soldier said. The helicopter, of the Russian-built Mil variety, appeared to be dropping off supplies for the villagers. The job finished, the helicopter charged up its rotors, its belly showing as it tilted into a half-circle, as smoothly as if it were on a fixed axis, before it disappeared between the mountains to the south. It was a beautiful thing to see, a dart of motion in a snow-white mountainscape.
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