We woke up in our guesthouse and immediately decided we’d book a second night. We wanted to get a lot done that day, and we would have to start with a coffee and a long shower to wash away the hangover.
I wanted to have a look at my dysfunctional rear brake, maybe switch to knobbly tyres to make our departure a bit easier, and check over both bikes for any bolts that had rattled themselves loose. It happens. Walkies first though, so we grabbed our cameras and a comically oversized bottle of beer and headed out towards a glacier in the distance.
Within minutes we were kidnapped by an older guy named Nico, who had a perpetual grin and not a single word of English. He walked with us for a while, chatting away as if we could understand him. After a few minutes he stopped, pointed out his house on the hill and started the old thumb-to-the-neck gesture. Umm, not sure we should start into the vodka just yet; it’s 11am! We thanked him, but explained that we were heading up to the mountains and might need our wits about us and promised we’d join him for a drink in the evening. We followed the road out of the village and along the bottom of the valley.A couple of guys who’d parked their Landrover on a hill and stopped for a picnic spotted us and motioned that we should join them, holding out a five litre bottle of homebrew as bait. It really doesn’t look like we’re going to make it through the day sober. Again we managed to explain that we had somewhere to be, but I’d been tempted enough, and I decided to follow suit and open my big beer bottle.
It’s a really nice walk through wildflower meadows and across streams with almost no-one else in sight, but after two and a half hours of walking we were still nowhere near the glacier. We’d got some good pictures though, so we called it a day and turned round. As we got close to the village again, we noticed more cars parked up on the surrounding hills with little groups of people starting to drink and party. Apparently it was a Christian holiday in the local area, and we were witnessing the celebrations.
We settled into the bar with some beer and Kubdari (a Svanish specialty; flatbread stuffed with meat and onions) and of course we were soon chatting to a table of locals and accepting beers and cha-cha. The night wore on and the backpackers caught their Marshutkas back to civilisation. A severely drunken figure stumbled into the bar in search of a glass of vodka. It was Nico! He insisted on buying us the drink we’d refused that morning and it turns out he’s not a local, but is staying in the region while he’s doing some work. Soon after that the bar owner, who we’d met the day before turned up too, and our new mates were more than a bit surprised when we had to go round the table and introduce everyone to each other.
I’ve yet to meet a nation of people as generous as the Georgians, both with their alcohol and with their time. We passed the entire night in the bar asking questions and (between toasts and shots of cha-cha) we learned a lot. Given that we were so close to the Russian border, we wondered what the consensus was on the Russian rule over the Northeastern region we’d almost accidentally entered. It seems that while the Russian politicians are considered to be fairly crooked, the people are very well thought of in Georgia.
We asked about the route we were planning to take out of the village; east and then south to Lentekhi instead of back to Mestia. Apparently it’s a much less frequently used road, and technically more difficult, though there would be less mud and more in the way of huge boulders. The locals can manage the thirty six miles in about six hours apparently. Most worrying was the fact that there wouldn’t be a petrol station along the route, and we were running a bit low. Luckily, our new mate Kosta offered to siphon a few litres out of his van if we needed it.
As the last stragglers left and the bar staff started clearing up around us while we threw back a few last shots for luck, I sat back and had a look at our table. There were arms thrown around shoulders, every face was reddened and smiling, and Maria’s laughter was floating over the clattering sounds of a closing bar. It’s funny that we’ve travelled along forty miles of riverbed to one of the most isolated places you could imagine, and I feel right at home.