The road surface on the Georgian side was immediately better, and despite the twisty narrow road we made good progress. The road wound through small villages, past crumbling grand Russian builds and the odd Soviet era apartment block. Our route followed a wide river, sweeping through the lush forest covered mountains. It was unlike anywhere we had ever been before, and absolutely beautiful. The standard of driving however (which had become noticeably worse as we travelled East through Turkey), was still horrendous. Bends are to be approached with caution, as drivers here take a liberal approach to using the correct side of the road. To be fair though, the worst offenders seemed to be the Turkish vehicles...
Despite some heart-stopping traffic moments, we made it to Borjomi without needing a terror-caused change of underwear, and happily stumbled across the tourist information point just as it started pissing it down with rain. The advice available was excellent, and we were pleasantly surprised to find that the man working there spoke perfect English. After asking our price range he quickly found us a place to stay, loaded us up with maps and leaflets and arranged for the owners to come and collect us.
It was lucky that they did, as we would never have found this place on our own. The rain got heavier as we made our way there, turning to hail as we approached the guest-house down a very narrow lane. Oli was wearing his fingerless gloves, and kept shouting out as the chickpea sized balls of ice hit his hands. By the time we arrived, we were thoroughly soaked.
Once we had picked our room and unpacked, the owners kindly offered to drive us back to town to buy food. The guys who drove us didn't speak any English, but we managed to explain what we needed okay. In the shop, Oli tried to purchase a few slices of meat from a huge sausage. Turns out you couldn't just buy a few slices, and with our communication difficulties we ended up with the whole thing. The shop sold no vegetables at all, but Oli spotted some old ladies selling some on the street opposite. We ended up with enough food for a feast for a ridiculously cheap price, even including the sausage and a couple of Georgian beers.
We decided to spend the next day walking in the national park, and went downstairs with the intention of walking to the information centre around 4km away. However, our hosts were having none of this, and insisted on driving us there. On arriving, they wanted to wait for us. Despite communication issues, we eventually managed to convey that we were planning to be out all day, so they should go back. All became clear when the national park centre guide gave us directions to the park entrance – it was back the way we had come.
We set off down the road, not entirely sure where the entrance was. Evidently standing out as lost, it wasn't long before a driver pulled over and asked us in rudimentary English where we were headed. Oli showed him the piece of paper, and he gestured for us to hop in. Seeing as giving lifts seems to be the done thing in Georgia we readily complied, and were soon dropped off at the little road leading to the park entrance. Turned out this was actually the very same road our guest-house was located on. No wonder they had wanted to wait for us...
Our walk itself was fabulous. The forest is unspoilt and undeveloped, a proper wilderness. The trail we were following was named the Wildlife Traces Trail, which alarmed us slightly as the local wildlife includes bears, wolves and lynxes. In the event, we only saw an enormous beetle and a snake. I nearly trod on the latter as it was so well camouflaged, contradicting my earlier assurances to Oli that snakes would scarper when they felt vibrations from our footsteps.
Aside from the wildlife, we clambered up an enormous and steep mountain, eventually being rewarded with beautiful views just as the sun decided to make an appearance. On the descent, Oli accidentally managed to drop the camera lens cap, which rolled down the steep mountain side into the undergrowth. I was thinking we would have to let it go, but Oli had other ideas, and started scrambling downwards. Initially I kept warning him to be careful, then thought I might as well do something useful and take pictures. They don't really show the steepness fully, but it really was a long way down.
We rewarded ourselves for our exertions in the evening with another big meal, washed down with some of our Cappadocian wine. You can buy biscuits loose by the gram in Georgia, so this was our pudding accompanied by a cup of tea. We really are learning to appreciate the little things whilst travelling, and this felt like a genuine luxury.
Our next destination was the town of Mestia in the Svaneti region. Set high up in the Greater Caucasus mountains, close to the Russian border and sandwiched between the two breakaway regions of South Ossettia and Abkhazia, it is fairly isolated from the rest of Georgia. We had read that this region differed from the rest of the country considerably, and that people might be unfriendly to tourists. With this in mind, we weren't quite sure what to expect, but thought it was worth seeing for ourselves.
The journey there was long, tiring, and incredibly scenic. The last three hours of the drive were along winding road carved into the mountain, following a river that transformed from a wide, lazy expanse to a raging and roiling torrent as we climbed. Evidence of recent rockfalls was apparent every few hundred metres, so we approached each bend with caution. This is a very wild landscape with very few settlements, and cows and families of pigs often occupying the middle of the road. The local dogs are at best unfriendly, and we got chased down the road by several of these antisocial jerks.
We arrived in Mestia expecting finding accommodation to be easy, but the tourist office that had proved so excellent in Borjomi was closed. We started asking around, but the first place had no hot water, the second no rooms. A lady asked us if we were looking for accommodation, and said we could follow her in the car, a mere 0.5 km away. After following her for three times this, we gave up and turned around, as we wanted to be near the centre. Eventually we found a decent room in a guest-house, the only slightly weird aspects being no locks on the room doors and the owner's clothes being kept in the wardrobe.
Although we had enjoyed excellent weather for our drive, we woke up to rain and thunderstorms the next day. The snowy peaks that had been so beautiful in the evening were now completely obscured by cloud and fog. Unsure of what to do, we lingered over breakfast and got chatting to the other people staying at the guest-house. We met a lovely English couple, Jackie and Adrian, who inspired us with their travel experiences.
We decided to head down to the tourist information office to get their recommendations, as we had but one rainy day to experience the area. Whilst not expressly unhelpful, the lady was definitely not interested and seems to be in somewhat the wrong career. Through a combination of direct questioning and persistence, we were advised to walk up the mountain side, where we would find a cross at the peak.
Finding this path was no easy feat, and we wandered around in the rain for quite some time before an elderly lady speaking no English took pity on us. We managed to communicate that we were trying to walk to the cross, and she gestured for us to come with her. She led us down the road, confidently shushing a barking dog that took a vehement dislike to us, eventually leaving us at the entrance to a narrow track.
Finding the correct route up the hill was as difficult as finding the initial path, but we eventually found something resembling a well trodden route. With confidence, we began our climb with the rain showering us intermittently. We laboured up the hill for an hour and a half, pausing at a meadow with pretty views over the river valley. After what seemed an age, we reached the peak, only to find that the cross was absent, and instead we had arrived at a field with a bull in it. After pausing for a few photos, we saw said bull run towards a landrover further up the road. It probably wasn't aggressive, but this seemed like a good cue to leave.
The rain had thankfully paused for our descent, and we were rewarded with beautiful views. This area still has many ancient watch towers studded through the hills, and they looked suitably dramatic rising out of the hillside and into the overcast sky. Typically, finding the way back to Mestia was no easier than leaving it, and we wandered around the village back streets, encountering several dead ends before we got back to the main road. As a silver lining however, we saw some interesting sights, including old Soviet lorries still functioning after all these years.
We had been unable to get online since arriving in Georgia, but had heard that wi-fi was available in the local cafe. Looking forward to catching up and posting our East of Turkey blog, we excitedly made our way there. In the event, the internet was down. Apparently this was the case for the whole town, and was due to the rain. Luckily, it was no wasted trip, as we got chatting to another English couple, Fiona and David. It turned out they used to work for the same company as I did, although a few years prior to my employment. They were true globe-trotters, and gave us plenty of inspiring tips for Burma and Nepal.
As we had arrived too late the previous evening, we decided to eat that night at our guest-house. Happily, the other three couples staying had the same idea. We had a brilliant evening enjoying good conversation, food, wine and cha-cha (the local spirit, made from apples). Thankfully we didn't overindulge too much on the cha-cha, as we all had to be up early the next day!
Our onward plan was to ride as far as Kutaisi and stay there for the evening, before heading to Tbilisi via Gori the following day. Mestia itself is well worth visiting but also seems slightly in flux. The road we used to get there was built less than five years ago, and it was this new route that has opened up possibilities for tourism. We almost had the impression that the town can't decide whether the visitors are a good thing, or whether the change has been so sudden that it almost feels like an invasion. Hopefully the town will find its balance. However, we had a brilliant stay in Mestia at Eka's Guesthouse, and would definitely recommend it should anyone feel like a trip to this fascinating country.