Haunted Castles in Wonderland

Five hairpins ahead of us. Some go up, others go down. Go slow, will you? says John. The road is not the most forgiving, but at least it is dry.

This morning we are alone on the mountain. John looks like he’s having a blast.

I’m taking it slow. Since we left I can’t help thinking from time to time that for John it would be more fun to have a more experienced partner. Frankly, I’m doing my best to cope. I’m still scared, I’m still a coward (and I do feel guilty for being the party pooper), and he wait patiently while I gain confidence, and strength. The huge difference between us is not always fun to manage…

It smells of pine trees. The effect it has on me is similar to a cup pof strong coffee: it wakes me up and infuses my whole being with energy. My feet are barely shaking as I stop to take some photos.

I’m thirsty, I ask John, and I reach for the plastic bottle attached to my spare tires. Oups, again we’ve lost one? This is usually a reason to fight, it pisses us both to waste all this plastic for the precious liquid that the mountain offers for free. But these are necessary outlets that allow to regulate any tensions we might have accumulated along the way: the exhaustion of the body, the emotional stress. Small details…  Frankly, the best way to clear our mind the stretch our muscles is doing some good old trails. I was not aware that the mudd has such a therapeutic effect (even if it’s not applied directly on the skin…).

Need I say how cool and rewarding does it feel to feel my back tyre sliding and the bike going berserk, but to make it to the other side of some random swampy pond? Need I say that even my wrists stopped aching, and that I can swear I hear fairies serenading songs through the roar of my engine? But don’t get too cocky Ana, you’ve barely done a few miles of dirt, and even those at snail-speed. Keep you head down, and keep doing the grind. How many more? I ask John. About 17 kms to Ushguli. Wow, we’ve done half. Let’s have a bit of rain…

But the sky is just frowning. The rain will spare us for a while, so we need to step up our game.

These bends will make anyone smile. Too bad the intercoms are not working anymore, so we cannot shout to each other how great does this place feel. In the background of this motorcycling wonderland, the fortified scan towers start popping up like some kind of haunted castles of a mysterious alien race.

After two hours of riding we pass a settlement: the man are knocking about, loading bags of something into a truck. There’s no rush: because of the bad weather the truck can’t go nowhere. They need to wait for the road to soak up the rain, so there’s plenty of time for a beer! The trail is a mushy smelly concoction of dung and mud, and we are happy to find again the stagnant pools of water outside the village. I take John’s advice and example, and avoid the deceiving trails that go around the ponds, and ride straight through. A bit of throttle, and it works like magic.

Soon we start climbing higher and higher. The dirt is gradually being replaced by gravel and boulders, and the trees are just a memory of the past. So no more mud, only the abyss on the left side of the road opens deeper and deeper. We have no choice but to slide on its edge, as we have less than 3 meters to negotiate with any passing 4×4 that would never make place for us (we are met with joyful waves tho’!). Only 5 more kilometres to go! says John. That’s it, the rain cannot bear with us no more, it starts pouring. It melts the road and feed the streams that run along the ravines. Some river crossings though, are still not something I can tackle in full confidence. So John jumps to my help.

It’s raining cats and dogs. And we’re so hungry, having barely taken our breakfast hours ago. Suddenly the mountain pulls over, like a curtan of rock, and behing it we see the valley cracking open to allow a peek over Ushguli. Our destination.

We’re almost there. One more ditch to cross, and I hesitate. In this utterly fantastic mountainscape, I slide, loose control of the bike, and after a few split seconds of remembering the fall of Jackass’s Knoxville, I hit the ground with the entire 150 ok DRZ and luggage on top.

John lifts the bike off me, and I stand up. I’m fine, except for some pain in my left ribs. Could I have cracked a couple? But the bike looks depressing, at least to me it does. I make the inventory of this small and shameful disaster: broken mirror, cracked fairing, broken windshield. The most difficult to stomach is the blow to my pride: I’ve almost made it without any incident, almost…! As ridiculous as it may sound, I feel so pissed that I start crying. As my eyes wet, rain becomes gale. Thank you mother nature!

I’ll leave for another time the technical details: why the fairing cracked in a rather minor impact etc. I’m too busy feeling sorry for myself, while the villagers look at the scene as if we were some sort of aliens :) I’d say this guy with his mobile looks more unusual than I do :)

In Ushguli we sort out accommodation: it’s too cold and too wet and we are too miserable to camp. We find a small guesthouse where there are two more foreigners. Callum is a social worker from Ireland, travelling with Hakan, who is Turkish, but who teaches political science in Glasgow. They have arrived with a guy from Tbilisi, Khaha, who works for CENN, a Georgian NGO. Khaha is a close friend of our host, so we feel like in a family. Tico’s wife sets up the table for a late lunch, and man, how it feels to grab a bite.

But the best medicine for our sorrow and exhaustion comes late at night. Tico is happy to have his house full and says that he can sense we are just like his friends. This dinner is going to be like no other. The wife covers the table with plates full of delicious salads, jam, honey, homemade butter and cheese and many more goodies. It’s time for supra! A Georgian tradition that blends a food orgy with serious amounts of alcohol and plenty of toasting.

To Georgia! starts Tico. To peace! shouts Khaha after we have sipped from our glasses, which are filled with a cloudy homemade wine. To friendship! says Tico, and we have to drink again from the vinery liquid that burs our stomach and inebriates the mind. Hours pass, the math teacher arrives at the supra as well, and the men start singing and dancing. I cannot say how much alcohol was consumed, as the refills were discreet, but very prompt. Let’s assume it was enough to allow us to crawl into our beds for a heavy, yet restful sleep.

In the morning we feel rejuvenated, except for the mild hangover. We go out for a walk.

John: The fortified svan houses are today just outlines of what they used to be – a wooden beams suggests a supporting structure for what may have been an attic, a pile of rocks could have served for a porch. In the eastern part of Ushguli (which is made up for three different villages) the more modern habitat has engulfed the old. There are 5 guest houses, even small tea house. This resurrection of tourism brings important capital into this remote region that is also an UNESCO heritage site. We climb the path that leads to where the most interesting buildings have survived.

There are quite a few Caucasian shepherds hanging around. This old guy can barely see us, but he is happy to cuddle.

It’s quiet, if not for the feeric scenery in the background I’d say it’s a tad sinister. Evidently the originar structures have been altered by their inhabitants to accommodate whatever their needs were, so it’s difficult to be sure how old these things are until a proper study is conducted. Similar fortified houses exist in other regions, like Albania! In winter the best way to move around is by wooden sledge.

Even if Georgia is one of the first nations to have adopted Christianity – as early as the 4th century – the small church has been built quite recently. Up on the hill there is a lonesome tower – possibly for observation or to serve as orientation for the commuters.

From up here, the valley has an indecible charm.

The streets are populated with cows, sheep and of course – the star of our previous blog entry, the pig. .

Now, the next photos are for those many who keep asking where are we in our pics. So here we go (these are meant to be a joke and a nod to trolling)

As we descent, this guy blocks our way. As if he knows too well that we’re gonna eat most of his wife’s milk, after it’s been made into delicious butter and sulguni!

Khaha tells us that most svan families have inherited a fortified tower. The new regulations prevent them from tearing it down or modifying the existing structure, and it’s for now impossible to sell either. Tico’s parents, Shura – the mother  and Tabit, the father, also have one. Their cute niece has no idea what a special dowry she’ll inherit!

Even if for now there is not enough money to restore Upper Svaneti to its former glory, at least there are efforts being made for the conservation of this astonishingly beautiful place. One of the most interesting for sure, that we have ever visited!

Vizualizaţi 2013 – Georgia pe o hartă mai mare


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