Things weren’t exactly off to a hot start. I was waiting at the square at the Isani metro stop, sitting as far away from the homeless as possible. And the stray dogs. It was early, around 7:10, the guide wasn’t supposed to meet me until 7:30, and I didn’t want to talk to anyone besides him. I was tired—I’d been on the road almost a month, and even a private room isn’t the same as your own bed. I looked up and saw a drunk and tough looking man approaching. He was a taxi driver and wanted me to ride. “Rustaveli 10 lari,” he said.
“No, I stay here,” I replied, overly enunciating.
“10 Lari, Didube.”
“I wait for tour. Tusheti.” It didn’t really bother me that he approached. Rather, it bothered me that he was trying to charge me three times the local rate. You can argue double is fair, but triple is just greedy. It had only cost me 6 lari to get to Isani from the hostel. Still too much but acceptable. That driver had been drunk as well, the stench of chacha flooding from his pores, but the streets had been empty, and he had been able to drive in a straight line.
“Tusheti, 10 lari.” Tusheti was about eight hours away, on a dangerous mountain road, and there’s no way anyone would do it for four US dollars. He was full of shit.
“No.” This new driver threw up his hands and walked away. I thought about how I had ended up here. Tusheti hadn’t even been on my radar. Mestia and Vardzia were. Adam, a travel buddy I had met five years before in Albania had just been and told me to go to both places. They looked beautiful. Cory, who had initially collected me at the hostel said that both places were really cool but far away. Then his eyes lit up, “You should go to Tusheti.”
It wasn’t easy getting to Tusheti either, but it was unique, a collection of hamlets in the Caucus mountains. The original plan was for him to get me on a bus to the last town before the dangerous mountain road (once featured on the BBC) and for me to choose a trustworthy and sober-looking driver at the bus station to take me up. Perhaps a lonely trip but an adventure.
As luck would have it, that night I had struck up conversation with a Georgian girl at Cory’s hip new bar, DiveX Fabrik. She inevitably asked me where I was going, and I said I was trying to make it to Tusheti. She knew of a Georgian tour group on Facebook, who put me through to a Georgian tour guide who could speak English—she set up everything for me. Though I’m not huge on taking tours, it seemed less lonely than hiking from town to town by myself. “No one will speak English,” Cory had warned, “but you have about a 10% chance of meeting someone who speaks German. Also watch out for sheep dogs. You don’t know the imaginary line you can’t cross. They’ll kill you.” I had won 300 lari in a poker game the night after meeting the girl at the bar, so I felt pretty good about my travel luck. So I decided on Tusheti.
Back at Isani, the taxi driver had come back with a translator. His English wasn’t great, but it was enough to communicate why I was waiting by myself. The taxi driver nodded and left. I checked my clock. 7:35. No one with luggage in sight. The tour had already been delayed five days. As lucky as one can be, travel luck will never be perfect. I looked to my left, and there was a guy in polo shirt with a piece of paper in his hand.
“Yes,” I said smiling, holding out my hand. We went over a block away to his van. There was a Mitsubishi Delica, steering wheel on the right side (not uncommon in Georgia). It was packed to the gills—with food and bags and everything. We struggled to fit my bag in. I introduced myself to everyone, and I was delighted one of the guys looked about my age. He came up to me. Apparently, the group already knew an American was joining.
“Other languages? German?”
“Ich kann deutsch, aber ich bin Amerikaner. Ich hab’ in Nürnberg und Kiel gewohnt. ”
“Gut.” He smiled. “Mein englisch ist schlecht, aber ich wohne in Frankfurt. Seit acht Jahren.”
Vachu was his name. His English wasn’t fluent, but he’d been living in Germany for eight years, so he could speak German better than me. He was there with his mom. Cory had been right, and my travel luck was back on track. Soon after, Lana, a girl in her twenties, strolled up with her rolling suitcase, and we were on our way.
It’s always fun driving outside the main part of a city, to see how a city really looks. (Never that nice by the way.) Inside the van, all the Georgians were being hospitable in their famous way, offering me their coffee and pastries. I’ve learned over the years to not be “polite” and instead to accept free food and drinks—especially then. I had only brought some pretzels and warm mineral water with me.
We made it to a small town, we parked and paid the driver. He left, and our tour guide joined us. A man from Tusheti. He looked tough, a big, bald forty year old. He wore a traditional vest, hat, and camouflage pants. He sat in the car, put a CD of Tusheti music in the stereo, and we were on our way.
After awhile we made it to the last part of the paved road. The guide said something to Vachu (who was sitting in the front), and they took off their seat belts. It didn’t seam wise to take off your seatbelt right before driving up a tall, winding, one-lane mountain road, but I had to admit it seemed fair. None of the rest of us had seat belts, and I had spent the better part of the morning learning how to distribute my weight to not slam into the door each time we took a hard right turn. (While my foldout chair was crummier than the rest of them, I grew attached to it by the end of the journey.)
The road isn’t scary at first—just bumpy, and we stopped pretty soon for a picnic lunch. As the only non Georgian, each stop we made was a mystery to me. I thought back to my ESL students who couldn’t speak any English whatsoever and noticed I was acting in a similar way—always pretending to know what was going on but often hopelessly confused. I was lucky to have Vachu clarify things. The food was simple but great. I still hadn’t gotten used to how fresh Georgian vegetables are. The tomatoes were superb, even for Georgian standards. The tour guide told me, “Natural. From my garden.” We ate meat pastries, cheese, vegetables, and pickled mushrooms, washing it down with our guide’s homemade wine.
While we picnicked, Vachu pointed at a waterfall up at the top of a mountain. “We will cross that mountain, and then a higher one. Then we’re in Tusheti.”
“How long will that take?”
“Maybe four hours.”
Once we got back in the van and started climbing higher, I started seeing why this road was dangerous—there were hundred foot drops, maybe fifty feet of guardrails the entire five hour drive, and waterfalls that flowed through the dirt road. But it was beyond beautiful; there was something mystic about the road up. At one point, looking at the wet rock side of the mountain next to us, I saw what looked to be a face carved out by the flowing water and, for the first time in my life, I thought I believed in god.
But ten minutes later, once we were climbing a higher mountain, the feeling had already left me. I rationally attributed to my exhaustion. I’d already been on the road for a month. I couldn’t remember when I’d had a full night’s sleep. Later though, Vachu would tell me he was sure he’d been to Tusheti before, even though he had said it was his first time. There is something mystic about this place.
The cliffs got larger. The previous small hundred foot drops didn’t faze me, but when we were three thousand meters up the trees disappeared and the drops became nightmarish. The other ones would’ve killed us, sure, but dropping thousands of feet would give us time to process our doom. I looked out the window. At times it looked like we were just six inches from falling off the edge. When we would turn and the mountain face would be on my side, I’d feel safer, even though I could see the anxious face of Vachu’s mom on the other side of the van, as she peered out the window, down the cliff.
We stopped for a moment to fill up water from the side of the mountain. There was a picnic on the edge of the mountain. The air was crisp so high up. The height of the drops made me dizzy, preventing me from getting to close to the edge. I noticed a grave marker with two people’s faces on it—a not uncommon sight in Tusheti—victims, I’m assuming, of the road.
A few minutes later, after hopping back in the van, we made it to the clouds and the hairiest part was over. The drops had not changed, but we couldn’t see the edge anymore. Afterwards we were almost 10,000 feet (about 3000 meters) up in the sky.
(a five second clip of driving through the clouds)
Once we started driving down from the mountain, things got less hairy. Still, there were hazards. At one point we had to wait for a bulldozer to push enough dirt across a waterfall for safe passage.
About ninety minutes later after making a short stop at the visitor’s center and an outhouse break, we made it to the village where some of us (not me) were staying. It was a welcome change of pace for my aching ass after the long, bumpy drive.
But we’d barely seen Tusheti. After our late lunch, we’d go on a hike, and soon I’d find myself overwhelmed…