So, on the spur of the moment, last weekend I joined a large group of Georgians and Americans, including the original 4 PCVs who started off together here in Gori 2 years ago, on a trip to Khevsureti. I’d been in the general area before, when visiting friends and I went to Kazbegi. Mt. Kazbegi and the town below it, Stepantsminda, are about 3 hours or so due north of Tbilisi, almost up to the Russian border – Chechnya, actually. It’s stunningly beautiful, but to my amazement, Khevsureti, which is the mountainous area lying to the east of Kazbegi, is even more beautiful and mysterious.
We started out in our rented marshutka along the same route we took last September to Stepantsminda, but at the turn off to the Zhinvali Reservoir, we turned right and started a 5-hour climb up to the tiny village of Shatili. The road up to Kazbegi was smooth and paved; this road was dirt or decomposed asphalt, rocky and rough the whole way. We speculated that it was to stop hoards of tourists from ruining the ancient sites we were headed to see, but really, I think it’s just lack of funding to repave.
As we drove by Zhinvali, which I had so admired from the Ananuri Church on the north side of the reservoir last September, it was smooth as a mirror and reflected the surrounding landscape without even a ripple.
We traveled up and up, through leafy, gladed forests with streams and rivers running through them, and eventually began to climb up to higher altitudes where snow still lay on the mountains in June.
Eventually we reached the summit, where we stopped for a lunch laid out on a snow bank consisting of fried chicken, lobiani (bean pie), sausages, bread and … some other things. It was delicious, that’s what I remember, and cold – especially when a few of us ladies snuck down the road to have a pee. Chilly! We snapped a few pics to document our presence there and on we went, down and down, to Shatili.
We reached Shatili in the late afternoon. The owner of the homestay/house where we were staying wasn’t there yet, so we wandered about the tiny village onto a large meadow, where I enthusiastically began my usual obsessive flower photography activities.
Luckily the owner finally arrived just as it began to pour. We piled into the house, where a very complicated discussion ensued about who was going to sleep where. The Georgian contingent was very concerned that someone would have to sleep alone on a bed located on the stair landing; the American contingent was fighting over who got the lonely bed. A cultural divide, for sure. It finally all worked out, we stowed our stuff and started drinking coffee, eating kada (a kind of hard, sugary role, one of my favorites) and playing nardi (backgammon) and spelling games, which resulted in humiliation for me as one of our Georgian friends bested me several times.
Eventually the rain let up, and we hiked off to the ancient ruins of Shatili. Here’s some background. With thanks to Wikipedia: “Located in the deep Arghuni gorge at approximate 1,400 meters, the village is actually a unique complex of medieval-to-early modern fortresses and fortified dwellings of stone and mortar which functioned both as a residential area and a fortress guarding the northeastern outskirts of the country. The fortress consists of the terraced structures dominated by flat-roofed dwellings and some 60 towers which cluster together to create a single chain of fortifications.”
This description, while entirely accurate, fails to convey the beauty and strangeness of this place. We climbed down into it, through narrow, stony passages, between stacked structures built without concrete, but standing since the 1100’s, to a river flowing right below the complex.
Back to the house, where a lavish supra ensued, complete with mtsvadi (shishlik/roasted meat), tomato/cucumber salad, bread, cheese, eggs, onions, mchadi (a type of cornbread, often eaten with cheese), all sorts of pickles, and copious amounts of wine.
And then the toasting ensued. I sometimes don’t enjoy the Georgian toasting tradition too much, because it’s harder for women. Traditionally, women do not join in toasting. They sit, while men stand. They sip, while men gulp. And they most definitely do not speak – they just sit and listen, and listen, and listen … but this night was a bit different. Everyone was young, or American, and tradition was honored but just a little more flexible. I recorded some of these toasts, and named the subject of the toast in the title. It’s pretty dark, sorry, the lighting was not good, but I think the feeling is palpable.
One of my few regrets here is that I never was able to master Georgian to the extent necessary to make toasts on occasions like this. I can shout “gilostav” (congratulations/best wishes – sort of like mazeltov) and “jost!” (as in gamarjost, the most common toast, meaning victory – when people are really enthusiastic, the tamada/toastmaster yells gamar! and the table yells jost! three times, it’s really a lot of fun) with the best of them, but my language skills never approached Russell and Rachel’s. Kudos to them.
Here’s a few more pictures capturing the spirit of the evening.
The next morning, up early to drive further east, right up against the border, about an hour on a crazy bad road to an extraordinary place – Mutso. Again, from Wikipedia: “The village, almost completely abandoned more than a century ago, is a home to approximately 30 medieval fortified dwelling units arranged on vertical terraces above the Mutso-Ardoti gorge, four combat towers and ruins of several old structures and buildings. Difficult to access, the village retains original architecture, and is a popular destination for tourists and mountain trekkers. Listed, however, among the most endangered historic monuments of Georgia, a project of the rehabilitation of Mutso has been developed since 2004. A legend has it that the villagers worshiped the Broliskalo Icon of Archangel. They were renowned as fighters and hunters, and considered themselves permanent members of the army of the sacred flags and guardians of fabulous treasury donated to the Icon over the centuries. The legends say the treasury that is still kept in the high mountains around Mutso waiting for the chosen one to come.”
The journey was as fantastic as Mutso once we arrived. We drove through the most dramatic gorges I’ve ever seen, with a rushing, cold river, high vertical stone cliffs, surrounded by high, snowy mountains and verdant, green meadows. On a few occasions, we had to disembark from the marshutka and clear rockfalls off the road. We snuck below a small waterfall. We saw a gate warning drivers not to enter because on the other side – Russia. And, most extraordinarily, we stopped at a “plague house.” This is a small stone structure, with a tiny window, overlooking the gorge. Inside are ancient skulls and skeletons of adults and children. These are medieval communal tombs wherein times of plague infected villagers would voluntarily enter these tombs and wait for death, looking down on the river. It was a haunting spot, all the more so for being so gorgeous.
Arrival at Mutso, I have to admit, filled me with a certain degree of dread. It was a very long, steep climb, and I’m no hiker! I was actually as worried about going down as up, since my arthritis really acts up under those circumstances. But I was really determined that, having come so far, I was not going to just bail and wait at the bottom. So off we went, straight up a trail that ultimately led … nowhere. We then all had to climb straight up the side of a nearly vertical hill covered in slippery, slate rocks to pick up the proper trail above. I did it, but man -that was kind of scary. At one point I just sat down, while Rachel patiently waited above, trying to decide which was worse – to continue up, or go back down. I went up, but when I finally reached a verandah viewing point, I decided that had to be enough for me on that day. I really enjoyed the view, rested a little, drank some water, and then very slowly and carefully made my way back down. I’ve been paying a pretty high price in terms of hip and knee pain for the last week for that decision, but I don’t care – it was worth it.
We then all got back on the marshutka for the long ride home. It was as beautiful returning as it had been going, and we made a few stops along the way for lunch (best khinkali in Georgia was the word) and photos. Below are the final snaps from what was, really, pretty much a perfect weekend, and a fitting and wonderful way to approach COS. Special thanks to David Poppick, fellow Gori PCV, for sharing some of his photos with me.
Now, a week later, Russell and Rachel are already gone, and I’m due to leave in about a week. That will be another post … but for now: