Earlier in this series: The Southern Caucasus, Part One: From the Eventual Book & The Southern Caucasus Part Two: Yerevan to Tbilisi
The Marriott Tbilisi offered an island of luxury, and we took them up on it for a while before a stroll along main street, Rustaveli Boulevard, down toward the massive old Soviet telephone and telegraph building on the far end of the street. From there a warren of cobbled streets led down to the river Mtkvari.
On the way pensioners sold their family artifacts and whatever else they’d got their hands on, old swords and telephone parts, cutlery and cigarettes, all spread out on mats on the sidewalks, below the leafy canopy.
Never was the sun more brilliant. The air was crisp, the sun hot and the light, somehow, had a northern-latitude clarity.
Impossible to read the Georgian script. The sign outside the first building across the river was doubtless once in Cyrillic, but now it wasn’t in Russian, or in English, but only, proudly, Georgian. Couldn't read the sign, but looking inside, it was a restaurant, and we went inside.
Sometime in Greek antiquity, Jason, in his quest for the Golden Fleece, sailed safely with his Argonauts through the Symplegades, rocks that crushed anything that tried to pass between them, to land in Colchis, the Black Sea coast of present day Georgia. After a series of heroic feats, Jason seized the Golden Fleece.
In the Argonauts' honor we enjoyed Argo beers as groups of men sat at wooden tables, drinking and enjoying khinkali, sort of the Georgian equivalent of pelmini, Russian meat pastries. Three men in costume wandered out of the back, sat on low chairs and played the traditional Georgian reed instrument called the duduki.
An old man in a bright orange jumpsuit with BP on its breast took our picture from a table across the room, so we took his too. He grinned, got up and left, and came back in a minute with ice cream bars for Mirja and me. He showed us the pictures and said something like, “Souvenir for me, gift for you.”
Before we left the U.S., we arranged for a man named Zaza to drive us up the Georgia Military Highway into the high Caucasus. Trouble was, he couldn’t be reached. All day long we tried his cell phone and it rang busy.
Eventually we learned that Zaza’s particular cell phone number required that you press “8” first. Except it was night by now and every time, after a few rings we got an intercept message that said try again later. I called all night and the next morning, right past our planned departure time.
Finally he answered. Zaza’s voice was deep, his accent thick. I gathered, I’m not sure how, that he’d let the driver go because we hadn’t called, but that he’d do some scrambling, and we set a rendezvous for noon.
We waited in the lobby until long after twelve, and I went to the desk to call him again. He answered and I saw him there, outside the hotel, talking to me through the glass. He hadn’t presumed to come into the luxury hotel lobby and was walking up and down the sidewalk wondering where the hell we were.
And so after some considerable packing and repacking we finally got our things stuffed into the trunk of young Zviadi’s old Volga sedan, got ourselves perched onto the springy back seat and we were off for Kazbegi, up by the Russian border.
Not until we stopped for several monasteries, of course. We exhausted the first set in the early afternoon, at the ancient Georgian capital of Msketa, situated at the picture-perfect meeting of the Mtkvari and Aragvi Rivers. Saint Nino brought Christianity east from Cappadocia to Msketa in the fourth century. Still today Nino is a popular name for Georgian girls.
These monasteries comprised the founding of the Georgian nation, one set on a hill overlooking town, and another in town, where Zaza explained the ins and outs of the founding of Georgia, all the while crossing himself and kissing this or that holy object. Kings were buried here.
Georgian toasts are famous, arduous and daunting, and there is a well-developed ritual. Zaza ordered a remarkably large glass pitcher of red wine along with our beers (Zviadi was stoic with his coffee). We’re never gonna down that thing, I thought, but we did.
Zaza’s toasts were masterful little journeys backward to where he wanted to be. He started out with “Now I would like to toast to one man…” and ended up with a salute to the traveling spirit.
“Even little things have a beauty,” he began again, and did a little riff on “be here now.”
In between toasts and shovelfuls of plate after plate of food, Zaza took on the then- current political war (2006) between his country and its huge northern neighbor, which had soured to the extent that Russia had banned Georgian wine.
“All people know in Russia,” this was a simple declaration of fact, “Georgian wine is better. It is only politics.”
A sort of cheese pizza called khachapuri was just stunningly good. The ‘pickle,’ an array of cucumbers, tomatoes, red onions and a salad, like in Armenia, came as a plate laden with green onions, flat-leaf parsley and dill. There were kebabs and French beans and fungus, a beef salad, greens that tasted vaguely like licorice, stuffed baby aubergines, a beef salad and a deep dish of fried cheese, yet more bread, a sauce called Satsivi to go with barbecued meat, more salad that looked like thyme sprigs, lemonade, a pitcher of wine, several more beers and many more toasts.
The Georgian toast is a circumlocutionary skill:
“All good history is continuous” evolves into a toast to friendship.
A really poignant toast, I thought, started out “Every moment is the present” and ended up being to “people who are at home worrying about us.”
It may be the savior of the Georgian soul, or at least its work ethic, that Georgian wine is mild, and doesn’t object to being gulped. We drank and he toasted and he toasted and we drank and ate, until lunch hit the two hour mark and we were scarcely outside Tbilisi, the Georgian Military Highway was still a theory, and by now it was mid-afternoon.
Still the toasts as we lingered, and finally, with a lofty start, Zaza began the parting toast “To safe journey,” which ended sometime later more earthily, with a smile and the assurance that once we’re in Kazbegi, “… then again we can drink.”
When President Putin banned Georgia wine, bottled water and produce from Russia, the pretense was that they didn’t meet basic health standards. It was a political irritant for Georgia, nothing more, but for the record, this particular Georgian wine left us feeling considerably more healthy as we got up to leave.
Zviadi paid a man who had been watching the car a Lari for his time, and three and a half hours after leaving Tbilisi and just fifteen kilometers outside town, we hit the open road, mountains beckoning, traffic light, in the direction of the border, our destination ten kilometers from Chechnya.
Leaving Mtsketa, like coming in, involved a comical set of apparently Soviet-engineered looping highway circles, on this side of the main road then that, as if gaining momentum for the launch up onto the Georgia Military Highway, the traditional route across the high Caucasus used to pillage and trade down the ages.
Mirja and I bounced up and down on the somewhat upholstered back seat of Zviadi’s Volga. Zaza mostly fit in the front seat, needing only to scoot a little to one side to fit his knees up against the dash. He remarked with a twinkle in his eye, that the Volga used to be “for high Soviet officials.” Black, with a black and burnt-sienna interior, most of this Volga’s dashboard appeared not to have worked for years, the Yamaha cassette player included.
Zaza was all decked out in denim, with a silly Putin grin and a crumpled sailor’s cap he’d wear against the sun. Zviadi, after his coffee, was dark and intense, and an unrelenting smokestack. He was much younger than the rest of us and spoke not word number one in English. So rasa was his tabula that eventually we didn’t even try.
He crossed himself like a madman, repeatedly, time after time, as we drove past any kind of religious symbol, and there were many.
Old women sold ice cream and cigarettes on the highway, leaning back against the dividers on the inside lane. The same old round orange buses as in Armenia plied Georgian highways. And of course the road wasn’t that good for very long.
Along the way Zaza allowed that Zviad Gamsakurdia, the first post-Soviet leader, was “better in opposition,” than in governing, and while he understood that Edouard Shevardnadze was hailed in the west, he told us he was corrupt and had “stayed too long.”
As the road inevitably deteriorated farther from Tbilisi, driving became sport, with Zviadi using both hands and his butt, moving and swaying, entirely into it, an active participant.
In time the mountains of the high Caucasus, blue in afternoon haze, stacked up three, then four deep.
Vladikavkaz is the capital of the Russian republic of Ingushetia, just west of Chechnya, and the Georgian Military Highway continues on across the border to there. The mountain resort (a relative description) of Gudari is where the notion of “highway” became a memory, and at 4:30 we found ourselves at a sign reading “Gudari 68, Vladikavkaz 141.”
Here was a reservoir where Zaza had worked as an archaeologist sometime before, and a “center for hunter’s tourism.” A woman tended her cow, wearing an apron and talking into a cell phone. There were as many pigs along the roadside as cows.
All through the Caucasus we spent a lot of time behind the heads of various men – Levon in Armenia, Zviadi and Zaza in Georgia, later Rashad around Baku. As tedium overtook this particular drive I closed my eyes and tried out my sense of smell, and it was easy to remember the old Soviet smell, bad diesel and cigarettes.
Perfect snow-capped cones and pointy peaks filled up the horizon, and then the first snow-capped jagged one, just low in the crook of the near ones. We stopped to peer over a precipice – the verge of a steep defile, at 2395 meters, in intermittent ice fields, with little streams and lavender and yellow flowers.
Up to the border with Ingushetia, the last 36 kilometers were the de rigeur final endurance run, like the Botaghosi stretch in Northern Nepal up to the Tibetan border, or like most cross country drives in Africa. And straight from the screenplay, rain splattered the windshield, kicking up a muddy film the Volga’s vestigial wipers only smeared.
Next: Kazbegi Town and Around Mount Kazbeg
Photos: Top to bottom: 1. Tbilisi and the Mtkvari River. 2. Duduki players. 3. The confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi Rivers at Msketa. 4: Monastery at Msketa. 5: The high Caucasus mountains. Click each photo to see a bigger version, and see many more photos of the South Caucasus in the Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan Galleries at EarthPhotos.com.
This is the latest in a series of excerpts from the eventual book Common Sense and Whiskey. Previous entries: Madagascar, Greenland, Patagonia, Sri Lanka, Tasmania, Paraguay, Climbing Mt. Kinabalu, Tibet Cambodia and Malawi.