Eat your heart out Sarah Palin. If your kitchen window in Alaska is the best you can do, maybe you should come to the Republic of Georgia. We can see Russia from the mountain village of Kazbegi, about 10 miles from the Russian border. To get here, we drove about two and a half hours from Tbilisi with Envoy Hostels on
a day trip that took us along the scenic Georgian Military Highway, an ancient passage across the Caucasus mountains, engineered in the 19th century with the Russian occupation of Georgia. The road skirts a reservoir and passes a fortress and chuches before approaching ski areas and the Jarvi Pass, at 7,800 feet, before descending into the town of Kazbegi near the border. It was our first look at the Georgian countryside. Our driver had to stop several times to negotiate his way around flocks of sheep on their way into the mountains for the summer. Cows slept lazily on the road in a few places. The picture above appears on the cover of the Lonely Planet Guide.
Most people come to this area to go hiking and walking in the mountains. It's been in the 80s and sunny most days, with no rain, unusually warm for this time of year. Our plan was to have lunch in the home of one of the villagers, then hike to Gergeti Sameba, a mountaintop monastery overlooking the Russian border. Those plans changed when we met a police roadblock at the entrance to the village. All but local traffic was being restricted due to falling rock from a glacer that cracked, apparently due to the warm temperatures. The rock damaged the gas pipeline that runs from Russia through Georgia and into Armenia, and hiking up the mountain was off limits. So...onto Plan B. Ketino Sujashvili, our village hostess, walked out and met us at the roadblock. Instead of driving to her house in the village, we would walk.
"Small accident,'' she said. "You will go small hiking instead.'' We followed her down a dirt road, past more sheep and along a creek until we reached her house, where she had the table set for lunch. Everything was ready except the dumplings. These little volcano-shaped treats are a staple in Georgia, usually served in restaurants five to a plate, and filled with mushrooms or cheese or ground meet. We were invited to help. Ketino, left in the photo below, demonstrates how to fold the dough around the meat and seal it by pinching the top.
Tom, of course, was a natural at folding the corners just right to create a sealed dumpling so, as our hostess put it, "soup no fall out'' during cooking.
Ketino runs a guest house for hikers, and likes to use English phrases she picks up from her guests such as "My love," and "Not nice situation," referring to the road block. She prepared a huge lunch for us with all regional specialities. There was vegetable soup, a platter of fresh fish, rolled eggplants with walnut stuffing, carrot salad, chicken, cauliflower salad, cucumbers, tomatoes, slabs of white cheese, bread, homemade wine and juice squeezed from a local fruit. Last came the dumplings, a bit mishapen, but intact and juicy. Lastly came ice cream, tea, coffee and small glasses of the local vodka called cha cha.
We would have been happy to settle in for a nap afterwards, but with our hike to the monastery foiled by the cracked glacier, Marine made a few calls, and put together a plan for a climb to a waterfall. We switched to a new driver with a car sturdy enough to make its way through a rocky pasture to get to the trailhead. We got out of the van, and he lifted a piece of barbed wire fence, motioning for us to jump across a rushing stream. It looked too risky, so a Swiss woman in our group used to finding solutions to hiking challenges, went exploring and discovered a work-around path. We avoided the jump across the water, but had to zig-zag our way straight up hilly pasture land to the top of the mountain.
My thighs were burning by now, so I decided to stop here, sit on a rock, relax, and play around with taking my first-ever selfie with my iPhone. Just another beautiful day in Georgia. I'm sure the views were better than whatever Sarah Palin thought she could see from her kitchen window!
Next: Taking the minibus to Yerevan, Armenia