Thursday, October 13, 2022

Part 3 - Down with the Sickness

Tusheti and Beyond

After our bout with whatever fun parasite decided to ride along with us, we thought it would be a good idea to get out of the city.  Initially we had wanted to get to a place in the north of the country that is very famous called Stepantsminda, but an opportunity presented itself that we did not expect.  In the very north-east of the country there is a region called Tusheti.  The only road into the region is usually closed starting in Sep-Oct and doesn't open again until May-June.  It just so happened, with it being a relatively mild fall, that the road was still open and there was an organized tour making a late season trip.  We quickly jumped on that, not thinking about the how.  

The How...

Our trusty steed

Tusheti is a protected area in the very northeast of Georgia, only accessible by one road built in the 70s.  The road winds through a gorge and over a narrow mountain pass at a height just under 3000m over a distance of 70km.  With the condition of the road, it would take 5 hours to drive those 70km's.  We loaded into our 4x4 Delica with our driver Bacho and our tour guide Gurleen and began the journey. 

The view looking down at about the halfway point

To say that we didn't properly mentally prepare ourselves would have been an understatement as we wound through the countryside from Tbilisi to the Khaketi region of Georgia oblivious as to what was to come.  As we stopped in the last village before the infamous road, I pointed to a sign that said "Omalo 70km" and asked Gurleen if that was our destination, 'Yes', the quick response.  Well, how long will it take us?  5 is that possible?  

That's how...

If you have Amazon prime, I suggest you go and watch the "Most Dangerous Roads" episode on the road to Tusheti.  The series is only 6 episodes and it does a pretty good job showcasing the insanity of this 'road', a term I use to describe it rather tentatively.  A single gravel track switchbacking its way up and over the mountains.  It's used heavily by tourists and locals to get to the remote region of Tusheti and is filled with memorials to people that weren't so lucky on their journey.  The destination though cannot be outdone as the raw, natural beauty is second to none.  

The view from our guesthouse in lower Omalo

Arriving at our destination of Omalo on the first day, we were so glad to be out and walking around on solid ground.  Surrounded by massive peaks on all sides, you really can see the appeal of living here.  One almost hopes that the road stays as it is to keep the masses of tourists out.  

Our guesthouse

We stopped for a few minutes to get oriented with our guesthouse and store our things in our room and we were off again for the highest permanently settled village in Europe.  The town of Bochorna has one permanent resident, a doctor in his 80's who stays because of a lack of medical care in the Tusheti region.  He stays year round, using horse in the summer and homemade skis in the winter to traverse the mountains and trails between each town providing the necessary care for the residents of Tusheti.  

Rae in the village of Bochorna

Rae still maintains that the road to Bochorna was the worst part of the whole driving trip...I'm not sure that I can make that decision; it was all terrifying.  

The road to Bochorna

In Bochorna, the rain that had been coming down all day finally started to let up and we were treated with the first break through of sun and a double rainbow.  After spending around 20 minutes in Bochorna we loaded back into our van and Bacho took us to our next location, an overlook of the town of Dochu, accessibly only by horse or walking.  

Rae on the overlook trying to get that perfect shot of Dochu below

As it was getting dark, it was now time to head back to Omalo.  We just hadn't thought about the 'how'...we came out on this road, and it's obvious we have to go back the same way.  Of course, that makes perfect sense, but where do you turn around when the road is one lane on a steep drop?  Right in the middle of that road obviously.  It was at this point, backing up towards the edge when everyone in the van was yelling "NO NO NO" over and over that Bacho learned his favorite line of the weekend.  From this point on, until we arrived back in Tbilisi 2 days later, every time we'd hit a scary section of the road Bacho would yell out "NO NO NO" mocking our lack of trust and even though you can't help but laugh, I'm still not sold on the comedy of it.  

Our second day started early with a trip to the town of Dartlo and the valley and villages beyond.  We were worried about the weather as it was forecasted to rain the entire day but we were greeted with a beautiful morning and hoped for the best.  The trip to Dartlo took around 45 minutes and we made a quick stop to survey the town before continuing on down the valley to the village of Girevi, passing herds of cows and sheep as the shepherds were busy pushing them out of the mountains before the winter hit.  

The village of Dartlo and the location of our lunch in Dartlo later in the day

Arriving in Girevi, we were greeted by the local Georgian shepherd dog who hadn't quite yet grown into his job.  We were also given a few warnings:
1. The women would not be allowed to wander the town; they could wander around but not inside it. 
2. Careful how you take your photos as there is a military base. 
3. Do not approach the church.  

We learned that this region has an interesting mix of religious beliefs that include a mix of both pagan and orthodox teachings.  Interestingly enough, they also do not eat pork while in the mountains.  

The Georgian Shepherd pup and the village of Girevi.  Only 5km's from Chechnya, Russia.

After climbing up to the stone towers, we made our way back to the village and back towards Dartlo.  It was at this point that the weather decided to turn and the rain started and did not let up for the rest of the day.  
We made it back to the village of Parsma and stopped for tea while a couple of us hiked to the stone towers overlooking the village.  

The towers of Parsma.  The tea house below Parsma on the left.  Valley behind Parsma

By the time we arrived back in Dartlo, it was raining very hard and we quickly scrambled into a guesthouse for our lunch and a reprieve from the rain.  In our entire time in Tusheti, this guest house was by far the most attractive that we had visited.  They had beautifully redone the exterior and interior of their home and the garden entrance had obviously received a lot of love and care.  The food matched as well and was by far the best food we've had so far in Georgia.  That is not a slam on other food in Georgia as honestly, the food here has been great, it's just that the pair of ladies running this place could seriously cook!  One thing you learn here as well when eating; never fill up on what is first offered because there are ALWAYS dishes still coming that weren't on the table when you started.  

More views of Dartlo

After dinner we were treated to some amazing folks songs, sung by our driver and one of the ladies that ran the guest house.  She had an amazing voice and it was beautiful to listen to.  With the rain pounding down outside, we were unable to hike to the castle over-looking Dartlo and it was decided to return to Omalo for the evening where we would be treated to another amazing meal with dish after dish.  

Upon arrival at our home base, we realized that we were no longer the largest group there as a large Polish tourist group had arrived for a few days and were very excited to have arrived (no doubt, excited to have avoided death on the road in).  The supper quickly devolved into a dance party in the dining area with us being forced to macarena with them as they wouldn't take no for an answer.  Rae got to put her amazing mennonite dance skills to the test and I can only say that they were all very impressed.  I must say though that one of the girls was obsessed with Raeleen and how young she looked; she couldn't believe Rae was 35.  At the point when I found them, she was busy trying to convince Raeleen to leave me and come back to Poland with her and she would find Rae a good Polish lover.  After a few more songs and some wine we decided to retire for the evening, and were serenaded to sleep to the sounds of a Polish dance party.  

Day 3

It had rained the entire night but we woke up to a clearing sky and we were hopeful that we'd have a beautiful, final day in Tusheti.  With the amount of rain, we had to change our itinerary again as the roads were becoming less than ideal.  We would visit the fortress of Keselo and the goat panorama before heading back through the pass and back to Tbilisi.  

Keselo Fortress is a fortress overlooking the town of upper (old) Omalo and was used to defend against raids on their villages and was constructed during the mongol invasions in the 13th century.  After that, it was also used as defense against Dagestani tribal attacks as well.  At one point there were 13 towers, but now only 4 are left standing and have undergone some restoration.  

Rae trying for that shot from Keselo.  From the fortress.  View of Keselo from old Omalo. 

After that it was off to the Goat Panorama; a massive gorge with an overlook where you can sometimes see the native mountain goats to the region.  Supposedly, these goats can be quite tempermental and are known to be aggressive.  Unfortunately, we did not get to see any but the view was still very much worth it.  

Goat Panorama

It was now the dreaded make our way down the mountain back to Tbilisi.  Another 5 hours of clutching the handles, trying not to pay attention to the cliff; we all joked about how beautiful the rocks looked on the side up against the wall of the mountain.  Bacho made sure we were safe, but still always made sure to mock us with "NO NO NO" around every few hairpin curves.  

Full cloud at the top of the pass.  Our group.  The road descending out of the cloud. 

Our Apartment

We managed to secure an apartment before the Russian mobilization announcement, luckily, and moved into our place on October 1st.  I truly believe that if we had not found this place we would have had to leave Georgia, as rental prices are insane right now.  Price increases of 100-200% are commonplace.  
Our landlord has been amazing so far, helping us figure out how to pay bills, driving us over to the place with all of our things, and checking on us every few days to make sure that everything is alright. We also took the next few days to stock up on stuff for our apartment to make it a bit more comfortable.  Visiting smaller bazaars, we were able to find some reasonably priced items.  I'm trying very hard to keep track of every dollar spent from October 1st going forward and will be providing a breakdown of overall expenses per month.  Mostly this is for my interests but I'm sure the information will be useful to others.  With all of our purchases for the apartment in October, it probably also means that the amounts will be inflated.

The return
Just before we moved into our apartment, whatever it was that had been causing us to feel unwell made a resurgence and put a stop to some of our plans.  We went back on medication for a week and are feeling much better again at this point and are hoping that we're finally past that point where it returns again.  We bought a brita filter in case it was water, have cleaned as much as possible, threw out some food that we weren't sure of, and taken some other precautions just in case.  Hopefully that's the last of it.  We have a couple of trips planned in the near future and are excited to head out again and I will update this as days allow.  Again, I'll add random photos at the bottom of stuff I didn't include.  

"Dirt Dog"!  as we've affectionately started calling him.  During the day he's sleeping in the dirt outside the metro station.  At night, he's up and active and protecting people crossing the streets.  If a car honks at the pedestrians he's quick to run at the car barking like crazy!
One of the bazaars in Tbilisi. 
Khachapuri.  A bread bowl filled with cheese, butter, and an uncooked egg on top.  You then mix it all together and then break off the bread and scoop out the insides and eat.  It is incredibly tasty! 

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