Georgia On My Mind.
I join a well organised off-road tour of Georgia, the fascinating former Soviet country. Not the U.S.A. one!
A quick straw poll of mates in the pub revealed that none of us, amongst a fairly well travelled group of about a dozen, had ever been, or knew of anyone who had ever been, to Georgia. Once we’d got the predictable ‘Taking The Midnight Train To Georgia’ and ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’ comments out of the way, we all realised just how little we knew about the former USSR country that sits precariously between Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan. One of our more well informed mates seemed to remember there was a war there quite recently. It transpires it was with Russia, and as recent as 2008!
An invitation to explore large chunks of this interesting country from the comfort of a Toyota Land Cruiser was irresistible. A 4x4 makes perfect sense when travelling in a country with few paved roads and as we pulled out of the Georgian capital of Tbilisi the pot holes and puddles confirmed we had the best choice of wheels. Our first destination was to the Monastery of David Gareji, in the low Caucasus Mountains. Driving out of Tbilisi the architecture soon changed from cosmopolitan city to dilapidated Soviet concrete on the outskirts of town, then within a very short time we were on a minor road and climbing through villages that looked unchanged in the last 100 years. It was obvious that since gaining independence from Russia back in 1991 regular employment had not featured heavily here. Everything had a faded beauty, often found in poorer countries and a warm welcome from locals who greeted us with genuine affection.
Our minor road became a potholed track as we drove high across green plains that bore striking resemblances to North Yorkshire! The only other vehicles we saw were fellow 4x4 drivers - their choice determined by necessity in this remote landscape, rather than out of a desire to explore. The Monastery sat at the highest point around and overlooked the border with Azerbaijan just 2 kms. away. It enjoyed a commanding view of rolling hills punctuated with the occasional farm house and what appeared to be thousands of dots - each one a sheep, grazing on the rich highland grass. The humble sheep is a big part of the economy up here, supplying everything from kebabs to sheepskin hats and the shepherds that look after them must rank amongst the hardiest men on the Planet. They have help on hand from terrifyingly large dogs bred to keep the wolves at bay. It sounds rather cruel, but the dogs have their ears cut to accentuate their hearing and allow early warning of approaching wolves.
With just five days to experience as much Georgian culture as possible we headed northwest, back through the Capital and on to Gori, the birthplace of Joseph Stalin... a claim to fame they would rather forget, Stalin having the dubious credit of being responsible for about 3 million certified deaths - and the toll could be far higher. On a more cheerful note we were heading for a village high up in the wooded landscape of the High Caucasus Mountains. This was to be our first taste of ‘real’ off road driving. The local industry is logging and the most prevalent form of transport is the old Russian Zil 131, 6x6 truck. An awesome beast, perfectly suited to hauling logs out of the forest and found in varying states of disrepair behind most houses in the village. We had the very capable Toyota 80 Series Land Cruisers and a Land Rover Discovery, all fitted with fairly aggressive tyres.
Up to this point we had shared driving duties, but I was keen to try the big Cruiser in real gloopy mud. These were the non turbo variants and lacked top end performance, but in the mud this was no hindrance. The lazy 4.2 diesel engine felt as though it had a two ton flywheel and nothing was going to stop it turning as we made light work of the ruts reaching the village straddling the top of the hill. These tracks were not easy and really could only be accessed by either a donkey, a competent 4x4, or the mighty Zil 6x6. Having parked we were all thrilled to see two farmers ploughing some land with a home made plough and a pair of Oxen. This was the real thing and a sight you would never see from a tourist coach.
Our guide - Anuka Jorbenadze, a lovely local girl who seemed to know everybody, had fixed it for us to have lunch in one of the farmers’ houses. Valeco was a generous host, splashing out the Cha-cha, a local distilled grape wine that, despite being very palatable, has a kick like a mule and could probably strip the paint off a Zil chassis! We ate local cheeses, fresh bread baked in a log burning oven and a variety of cold meats before handing the keys over to the sober drivers for a bumpy ride back down to tarmac.
Having enjoyed tee-shirt weather down in the valley looking around Georgia’s biggest place of worship, the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, we were soon to be reaching for every item of clothing we possessed as we made our way up to the ski resort of Bakuriana, close to the Russian border. The ski season had officially finished at the end of March, but there was still over a metre of snow to either side of the track and we could not help but be tempted by a little muddy track that led up to our hotel. Quite short and steep, but with wet mud from all the melting snow, this was a challenge no off road driver could resist! The lead Toyota driven by expedition leader Ofir Shurkin went first as we watched. It was the end of a long day and the light was failing, disguising the ruts and making it look easy. It wasn’t! The big truck slewed left, then right, bucked about a bit, then came to an abrupt stop with the wheels spinning! Grinning in defeat, Ofir reversed back down again and we chose an easier route along pot holed tarmac.
Our goal the following day was to continue north over a mountain pass to the Russian Border. There was doubt as to whether the road would be open as it is often closed due to avalanches, but our luck was in, provided we did the highest part before midday. The road would then be closed until 4.00 pm - this four hour slot being the most likely time for rock falls and avalanches. Winding our way up through many hairpin bends and bouncing in and out of deep potholes the snow at the side of the road became deeper and deeper. Dark tunnels cut through the highest peaks, their black walls absorbing the light from our headlights and making progress a challenge.
Once through the mountains we took various tracks up to another remote Monastery. By now it was lashing it down with rain and we shared the track with a few Georgians making a pilgrimage to the Monastery, some on foot, others in a variety of 4x4s. This was difficult going, the ruts and mud churned up by daily use and at one stage Ofir got stuck again, needing a tow to release the Land Cruiser from a deep mud hole. Eventually, everyone made it to the top and admission was granted to this small 12th Century Monastery where a blessing was taking place to a surprisingly full house.
Back down in the valley we had a 40 minute wait before the mountain pass was due to open and, rather than queue with various Russians' cars waiting to drive into Georgia, we diverted to a small cafe for a little local food and drink. The low smoke filled room was charged with atmosphere as others indulged in a lively, vodka fuelled conversation about families, the road, their truck and all manner of other things. It was difficult to make them realise that no matter how slowly, or loudly they spoke, we really could not understand Russian, but the thought was there! All too soon the party was over and we headed back over the top and made the relatively easy return journey to Tbilisi to end what had been a privileged journey of discovery through this remarkable and friendly country.
Toby Savage travelled with Medraft who have been running 4x4 Self Drive tours of exciting places for 11 years in 13 destinations, as varied as Iceland in the North to Guatemala in the South. Their key interest is to promote nature, adventure and culture in each country and they know there is no better way to do this than from a 4x4. All tours are self drive in a variety of 4x4s from the big Land Cruisers to the smaller Suzuki Vitara’s. Most tours are from 8 to 10 days duration and will be run by a local guide. The cost of a 9 day self drive tour of Georgia, the Wild Caucasus and Svaneti heights works out at approximately £1175 per person (2010 prices - check!), plus flights. For full details see the Medraft web site at: www.medraft.com, or call them on 02081500 687.