The land where drunks sing in harmony and chips are a "healthy option".
16/12/10 24 °C
The first town we stopped at in Georgia was called Lagodekhi, set in wooded low mountains. Just outside the town is a nature reserve, which we headed straight to. The girl working there made us immediately welcome and arranged for a homestay just down the road - and what a homestay. The grandmother was probably one of the best cooks in Georgia and immediately set to feeding us up - not that I really needed it! Georgian food is a mixture of really healthy local, home grown fruits and vegetables and some serious white flour and saturated fat combinations. In one meal alone we were given: the tomato, cucumber, onion and herb salad that you get with every meal, potato salad, chicken, dolma - vine leaves with a meat stuffing; chicken; katchapuri, a baked cheesy dough; a delicious broad bean mixture; home-made yoghurt; home-made tomato ketchup/sauce; chips; bread; home-made wine; cha-cha (home-made vodka); freshly picked grapes; cakes; homemade jam and probably a load of other things I've managed to forget.
After a massive breakfast and loaded up with lunch, we waddled up to the reserve to walk off the food. After Azerbaijan, the people seemed twice as friendly. The houses were similar, but everything was scruffier and slightly anarchic. The girl at the centre let me use her computer in the office to copy some photos onto DVDs, gave me book on Georgian birds as a gift and then kissed me goodbye.
The walk we had chosen was apparently one of the easier ones and we set off expecting it to be a stroll in the woods. This is what it was at first and it was easy to imagine that I was in one of the nicer parts of England until I glimpsed bits of mountains through the trees. After a short while a Georgian Cow Dog attached itself to me. I had seen these dogs before in the mountains in Mestia. If you think that sheepdogs are clever, you should see these dogs! Every morning the dogs take the cows from the villages and towns onto the pastures in the mountains - by themselves. They know the routes totally and lead them up some pretty steep tracks, guard them all day and then in the evening, they bring them back down again. If the cows dawdle they are barked at until they get going and the dogs know all the routes so well that they often run ahead or behind at the tricky places to make sure they go the right way. Well, this dog apparently thought I was a poor lost cow and in need of herding. It stayed with us the whole time, making sure we went the right way and impatiently herding me if I wanted to stop and admire the view (usually when going up a steep bit). When we stopped for lunch it accepted our food, but it didn't act like most dogs do, wanting to be stroked and looking for attention, it stayed its distance and backed away if we tried to get close. When we were safely back, it just disappeared again.
After an hour of walking through the woods and across streams, the path became more seriously uphill and became more of a clamber than a walk. This was fine, except it had rained quite a lot in the night and you might remember my fear of going downhill in slippery conditions and this is what they certainly were. Clinging onto the branches and occaisional handrail when the path went steeply up through streams, I put this to the back of my mind until the way back and after another couple of hours we came to a steep climbdown to the waterfall, which was worth all the effort.
Eventually the downhill journey couldn't be put off any longer, and wondering, as I usually do at this point, why I like walking in mountains, I set off determined that it wouldn't beat me. I would be lying if I said I hadn't wanted to be "beamed up, Scotty" quite a few times, but after some tortuously slow climbs down the wet rocks and path, I decided that if I was going to get back that day I needed to speed up and eventually got into the rythm of it. As we got to the easier flatter bit, we met a party of teenage Georgian girls wearing teenage Georgian shoes (the same as English teenage shoes, but more so). "Are we nearly there?" they asked plaintively. They weren't happy with the answer and carried on closely followed by their teachers who didn't look too happy either. It was very beautiful in the woods and I strode along the easy level path, following the Georgian Cow Dog. Those of you who have read my previous blogs might guess what was about to happen - yes, I then slipped on a flat, wet rock and went sprawling on my back with a large rock stuck in my ribs! Pretending I was ok, I got up and carried on, but the reality was that my ribs were painfully bruised for the next couple of weeks. Duh! Going back through the woods we also passed a couple of policemen, their police car parked by a stream with the radio on loud, a bottle of Vodka in hand, enjoying their own private party.
The next day we carried on to another small town called Sighnaghi famous for its grapes and wine. The Homestay here was also very welcoming. I sat on the balcony drinking strong Georgian coffee and lazily reaching down for the occaisional grape from the vine growing on it. Not only was this place very cheap and friendly it also had amazing food, cha-cha and wine (they kept giving us vodka for breakfast). The only reason I'm not still there is that I found the town pretty boring! At first it looked really pretty with balconies overhanging the street, but it was the only place I came across in Georgia which had received the "Poundbury treatment". Everything was pristine and re-built and the streets were neatly cobbled ready for the wealthy Tbilisi tourists, but the character had gone and nothing much went on there. To cap it all I was hassled by a Jehovah's Witness in the street! I read somewhere that Georgians, who are Orthodox Christians, are very tolerant of other religions but attacks had been known on Jehovah's Witnesses.
Just about every second or third woman in Georgia is called Nino after a Georgian saint who is buried in Sighnaghi at the convent. After looking at this we walked down endless steps to Nino's Well, which is reputed to have sprung up there in time of need of water after Nino had prayed for some. Maybe she should have specified that it should have been nearer the convent as they must have had a difficult time lugging it all the way up there in buckets! There was a little chapel at the bottom where a crowd of people were queuing up to be immersed in a pool inside. I was all for trying it to see if it would heal my sore ribs until Rob mentioned that there were probably quite a few people going in there to be cured of their skin complaints and I decided to give it a miss - well it was cold(ish)!
The next day we headed back to Tbilisi by Mashrutka on what should have been a quick easy journey on straight roads. Unfortunately the driver must have been in a terrible hurry as it rattled along like anything, painfully bumping over every pot-hole. We were warmly welcomed back to what was becoming to seem like our private appartment in Tbilisi with a computer with Russian Photoshop at my disposal most of the time and I spent the next few days combining sightseeing, clothes washing and marathon computer sessions.