Ushguli and Mestia, 23rd-25th October, 2012
Hitchhiking the pot-holed, tire-mown dirt-track to the “highest village in Europe” – or so it proclaims itself – was quite some adventure. Ushguli sits atop a 2,200m high plateau, (or at least 2,000m, depending on your sources), in a remote part of the Svaneti region in the North-West of Georgia. The area is famous for its beauty, unique culture and the Svan towers dotted about the landscape, used for harbouring villagers during times of conflict.
There’s almost no traffic at all from Lentekhi. We wait patiently by the roadside – Alfie nose-deep in a book, Emée strumming her guitar and me learning Russian on my MP3 course – for well over an hour before I glance up to see a small blue campervan bumbling along the road towards us: hippies! They’re kind of full already and we’re a lot of people with a lot of bags, but still we squish in and continue our journey together with our new friends Lisa and Tom.
After Lentekhi, the road peters out into a dirt track with more dips and dives than flat parts. The camper lurches, bumps and struggles up the worst ‘road’ I’ve ever seen – in fact it isn’t a road at all. The map told us Ushguli was only 80km and we expected to reach it in a couple of hours. After 3-4 hours we pass a car coming the opposite way. The driver immediately jumps out, demanding with an American accent to know how long the drive took from Lentekhi. “Is the road like this the whole way?” he wants to know. He’s driving a car with Georgian plates, obviously a hired vehicle. Tom, on the other hand, knows their camper well and swerves and dodges the craters with professional zeal. He’s for sure the best driver who could have taken us, save for locals. The American tells us we’ll be another thee or four hours before we reach the village. I don’t believe him, but I’m about to be proved wrong.
We arrive at Ushguli very late. Tom and Lisa, ready to flop into bed themselves, drop us outside the first ‘hotel’ we find. There are potentially others further inside the village, but after the eight hour drive up the mountain, we just want to sleep. We bargain the price with the elderly man who opens the door, using a series of mimes; gesticulations; drawings and the few basic words we know, managing to effectively get one person in for free. There’s a glacier not far from the village and sleeping outside seems unthinkable.
There are also others staying in the ‘hotel’, actually more like a pension: a group of three guys and a woman from the U.S. We decided to eat dinner together and they take us to the village restaurant, putting paid to the lies told by the old man running the pension that there’s nothing to eat in the village apart from his wife’s soup, which she would warm up for us for only the price we saved bartering the room.
The restaurant is also the only bar in the village, largely full of drunk Georgians conversing loudly between toasts. Toasting is a big part of Georgian culture and drinking is traditionally more like a ceremony than a party, with a toast master and various rules and customs. After some minutes, a very drunk man staggers over to us – “Hey, where’re y’all from?” he drawls, a big grin spread across his face. He introduces himself, a young guy from Denver whose name sadly escapes me. He’s come to Ushguli to spend the winter studying reactions to climate change. I am thoroughly fascinated by this information and am dying to ply him with questions. “I’m drunk!” he tells us. Apparently he’s been living here with the villagers for some weeks and they simply will not allow him to be sober. He soon stumbles merrily out of the door and off to his bed, sadly never to be seen again, a thousand questions left unspoken.
After a big exhausted sleep, Alfie and I wander the village, leaving Emée to play her trumpet to the mountains. We gape at towers, coo at animals and offer meek “hello”s to villagers as they carry on about their way. I feel like a big fat shiny tourist, which no doubt I am.
A small doorway pronounces itself an ‘Ethnographic Museum’ and a woman hurries to open it when she sees us walking by. Alfie is reluctant to go in, fearing high prices, but it’s not too much. We peek inside the dimly lit room as another, older woman wanders around the edge selecting random objects and brandishing them for our inspection. She points at the loom – “Ahhh!” we say. She points at an elaborately decorated chair – “Ooooh!” we exclaim.
Another group of four travellers from Slovakia, some Georgians, Tom, Lisa and ourselves sit in a large circle, drinking heavily. I want to drink beer, but I’m not allowed. Whenerver I try I’m strongly, almost forcefully, encouraged to try the Georgian wine instead. It’s a cloudy yellow-green and tastes to me kind of how it looks: like wee. But this is nothing in comparison to the chacha, the strong homemade Georgian brandy, and when that arrives the drunkenness is accelerated.
We were planning on leaving today, on hitching a little way down the mountain to the slightly less remote village of Mestia. I get chatting to the Slovakian guy next to me, who tells me their group are paying for an excursion from Mestia and they have three spare seats in their car – maybe they can take us if we give a bit of money for the petrol. The toast master is actually their driver. I watch him earnestly make another toast with an empty glass, a signal to us all that we should down our drinks in one. He looks very, very drunk. “Great, thanks!”
“To Slovakia, France, Germany, Italy, England – we are all neighbours!” … “To family!” … “To parents!” … “To the women!” … “To the men!” … “To friends!” … “To peace!” … “To the dead!”
As the bright sunny day wears on, the toasting speeches become more elaborate… “Our family is waiting for us. May the roads be good and we will reach our home safe!” … “This thanks and this cheers is not enough, and will never be enough, but we can still do it!”
Finally, it’s time to leave – but there’s a problem. The guy who promised the car seats to us also promised them to two Polish guys at the next table. We are all far too drunk to decide what to do about this, but somehow I end up climbing into the car with all of the other Slavic travellers, leaving Emée and Alfie to attempt to hitchhike their way down.
I’m driven to the guesthouse where the others are staying. The alcohol in my veins has withered into a dull tired lethargy and strong desire for water. I erect my tent in the garden one terrace up from the others and crawl into my sleeping-bag to hide from the cold, feeling extremely unsociable.
I am reunited with my comrades the following day, after their own sleepless night camping on concrete outside tourist information. “This place is shit”, they announce at our rendezvous on the bridge. Mestia is apparently an out of season ski-resort, a clone-town not quite yet constructed, in a mock-historical style. We are under-impressed.
It takes more or less forever to hitch a ride out of town. Plenty of people are stopping, but they all want exorbitant amounts of money to take us to where they’re going anyway. Finally a small car full of friendly Georgians stops and takes us approximately 2km out of town, from where we wait another age for another 3km lift. In this manner we inch our way halfway down the mountain, before giving in and climbing into a mashutka bound for Zugdidi.
Hitchhiking around Georgia, 16-23rd October, 2012
“On the Georgian border there are no cars…”, sings Emée with her small guitar. It’s true, since we got out of the car that took us to the border and began walking, we’ve seen very few vehicles at all. Those that sidle past are generally taxis, the men grunting at us when we say we don’t want to pay.
We hang out with the service station staff and wait. The service station is a large white building with nothing whatsoever inside. An urn of tea sits outside the front door. We sit and drink tea with the staff.
After hours waiting by the roadside, an Iranian coach pulls into the station. Somehow we convince them to take us, with the help of our impromptu translator Zahra, a young political Iranian with bleached blonde hair and caked make-up. She tells us that in Iran, people are lovely but the government is bad. I nod – “I understand”, I tell her. It’s not the first time I’ve heard such things from an Iranian. She tells us she wants to continue her studies in America or Israel. “You can go to Israel!?” I ask, flabbergasted. “Yes. It is difficult, but I can go – but if I go, I can never go back to Iran.”
We ask the coach to stop when we see the first town. We have no idea where we are. A group of cycle-tourists appear as we’re trying to thumb our way out again. They stop – “Helloooo, where are you from?” “Where are we now?” is what we want to know. The round of introductions begins. This is the kind of tourist trail where everyone stops to say hi – other travellers are just rare enough to be a novelty.
Our cycling friends gave us their second map and told us we’re in Akhaltsikhe, which means ‘New Castle’ in Georgian. No chance to go further today with the remaining minutes of light. We climb the grassy bank by the road into some woods and camp on the hill with a view of the castle.
Georgia is hard work when it comes to hitching. After half an hour of fending off taxis and nobody else stopping, we decide to split. Alfie lollops further up the road and me and Emée broaden our smiles. Two Iranian trucks pull in together. One takes Emée and myself, the other Alfie. These guys are Azeri Turks, from the East Azerbaijan region of Iran. I speak Turkish with our driver Rahman, one of the most enlightened truck drivers I’ve met. When we arrive in Borjomi, it’s time for that good old famous Turkish-Iranian-Azeri hospitality – we’re treated to a feast!
“So far I’m really enjoying Iran”, Alfie says as the trucks drive off, “too bad we’re in Georgia!”
The man in the Tourist Information office stands up to shake my hand when I walk in. He asks me to wait and continues speaking in Russian with two women. They hug him as they leave the door. “And how can I help you?” he asks. I ask for a map and he gives me a photocopied page of A4 paper, drawing some extra lines to show me how to get to the famous Borjomi springs. He wants to know how long I’m staying, who I’m with, from which countries. I answer all of his questions politely. “I can arrange a very cheap place for you”, he tells me, giving a price which is indeed very good. “It’s ok, I think we can find somewhere…” I try backing towards the door. “Is it not good for you? I don’t think you can find cheaper. What is your price?” “Err… nothing?” “Nothing?!” “Well, we have a tent…” “Ahh, a tent”, he sighs, “in that case you can pitch your tent by the thermal pool.”
We gape at the woman in the cafe. She makes the sound again and smiles at our confusion. The sound we’re asking her to explain to us is known as an ‘unvoiced p’ – one of the letters in the Georgian alphabet, a sound unknown to English and French throats. This will be a tricky language to learn.
Irakli and Giorgi break an emerging pattern by becoming our first Georgian drivers in Georgia. Every successive lift will have at least one man named Giorgi in the car and I will come to wonder if this is why the country is called Georgia.
Not much to do in Kutaisi. I exhaust the City Museum in five minutes, go up and down on the cable-car with a small tour of the funfair at the top, where the ferris wheel operator stares at his hands and a woman sleeps with her head on the popcorn counter. The Tourist Information Office consists of three large cubes plonked in a small square by a market: one orange, one blue, one green. Inside is the friendliest tourist information-giver I have ever met. She gives us each a free map, keeps our bags for us while we explore and writes notes for us in Georgian: “I am fasting” for Alfie, since fasting here equates basically to veganism, and “I am looking for a place to practice my trumpet” for Emée to take to the music school.
I want to start heading up to Ushguli now, but Emée and Alfie are keen to visit Sataplia, which turns out to be a shitty dinosaur theme park, based on the fact that they found dinosaur footprints there. The footprints are lit up by coloured lights, presumably to make them more interesting for kids. There are big plastic dinosaurs, some cool caves and a glass platform look-out with a nice view. We walk around the whole park with our hitching lift, a nice if rather shy couple, who take us back to the main road before going on their way.
People in Georgia aren’t familiar with hitchhiking. Even the Russian ‘aftostop’ draws blank expressions. People call friends and family members and hold the phone to my ear. “How can I help you?” asks a woman on the other end. “I have no idea, are you driving to Ushguli?”
We send Alfie ahead with a small brown Lada, already packed full with a family. After a wait,
Emée and I also get a lift with some boy-racers, who drop us by an abandoned Soviet spaceship. The girl at the bus stop stares as the first car grinds to a halt and whisks us off up the road, leaving her still sitting there.
Two lifts with single guys with no English, silence but for the music. The lush green mountain smells fill the car. The good road peters out. We swerve and grind over holes, occasionally exclaim “LAMAZI!” – the Georgian word we learned for ‘beautiful’.
We stop in front of Alfie just inside the small town of Tsageri, sitting on the curb with his backpack. He already made friends with the cops, who say we can camp in the small park by the police station, but we want to continue with the daylight hours. We wander further down the road, but a police pick-up truck follows us. The cops get out and begin arguing with us in Georgian and Russian, neither of which we understand. They call a boy over to translate, but his English isn’t good: “You. Leave. No. Here. Sleep. Tomorrow. Go.” We protest, but it’s futile. “Let’s just see what happens”, I suggest: our magic words. We put our bags in the back of the pick-up and climb in. They drive us 2km out of town to an abandoned… something. They show us the place with a proud flourish: we can camp here. But what about food? “Food?” we tell the cops, miming eating. “Ah! Pa yest!” They put us back in the pick-up and drive us back the way we came, stopping outside a small cabin: the town’s only shop. We buy tins of beans, dark chocolate, bread and a beer for me – “Ooooohhh!” say the cops, when they see me take the beer.
Back at the… place, one of the cops struts off into the woods, returns minutes later dragging half a tree, clutching some small sticks. The other is amusing himself pretending to be Elvis with Emée’s small guitar. They heap a load of wood and of course it won’t catch light, being one of the most poorly constructed fires I’ve ever seen. They douse it with gasoline and stand back proudly as the flames flicker up.
The cop that Emée has christened ‘The Fat One’ is insistently trying to help me erect my tent. “No problem – professional!” I tell him, pointing at myself. He laughs. Whenever I get a peg into the hard ground he looks surprised – “Oh! Professional!”
They return again with more wood an hour later, looking suspiciously like they confiscated somebody’s fence. They lob it on the fire.
The cops linger close by us when we return to the road in the morning. They must get terribly bored. A car stops and they convince them to take us, though they’re very full. We squeeze in and head up to the next town, Lentekhi, where we’re again dropped off at the police station.
After Lentekhi, the road ceases to be a road.
24-25th September, 2012
It seems Istanbul is in a mood with me as I cross the Bosphorous back over to the European side on the boat. “What are you still doing here?” she says with cloudy skies, a city shrouded in grey.
I’ve been in Istanbul a week longer than expected. The city is fabricated from a giant magnet, designed to keep hitchhikers from leaving. Some of this, admittedly, has something to do with a young man named Coşkun – pronounced “Joshkun” – whose full name means “Enthusiastic Diamond”, and who I will no doubt miss a great deal when I finally leave this crazy bustling city.
I wake one morning in Tanja, Dağlı and Danielle’s flat, where I’ve been staying for most of my time in the city. I sit in the wide, wooden-floored lounge and open my laptop on the futon, smiling at the sound of the vegetable seller on his megaphone down below. One day, my Turkish will be good enough to understand what he’s calling out.
An email from another traveller on the little used Hitchhikers group on Be Welcome:
I am in Istanbul right now and very very soon, I will start going East, towards Georgia, Armenia and then Iran.
Anyone would like to join, for part of the way?
Hoping to read your messages!
I reply right away, a flurry of excitement:
That’s exactly my plan! I am also in Istanbul now, hoping to leave in the next few days. Let’s meet up soon and discuss it over a çay?
I meet Emée later that day, at the cafe where she does her writing. It’s so perfect that she’s also a writer, also a hitchhiker, also on her way slowly East.
A few days later, we meet at Taxim Square with sizeable backpacks and a blonde Belarussian girl named Alla.
Alla, in my opinion, did it all wrong while she was in Istanbul. To start with, she made an Open Couch Request – a new option on the CS website, where you send your details to everyone in a city stating what you are looking for and wait for them to invite you. She also messaged the entire Istanbul group on the public forum, looking for people to hang out with in the city. The problem is this: in Turkey, there is kind of a ‘thing’ about Russian, Ukrainian and Belarussian women. Particularly blonde ones. She received hundreds of replies from men wanting to meet her and inviting her to stay with them. She had to move hosts two or three times because they wanted to sleep with her and she managed to unwittingly offend hosts and other people, because they made plans for her without asking. There are undoubtably hundreds of truly amazing Turkish hosts in Istanbul, but this is not the way to find them.
“You are no longer from Belarus”, I tell Alla as we begin our journey. “Let’s say you are from…”
“I am from Australia”, she says, and from then on, that’s what we tell our drivers.
We take the five minute ferryboat back over the Bosphorous to Asia and a dolmuş to the highway.
The first car stops. “Where are you from?” ask the two guys inside.
“England, France… Australia”, I tell them, pointing at each of us. We ride with them as far as the next big city. They offer to pay for us to take a bus all the way to Göreme, but we refuse politely – “we really like hitchhiking!” we tell them. Later, we will come to regret this decision, but for now our road is open.
Two different guys take us through Ankara and leave us at a gas station on the other side, where we stop for a çay break. A man woking in the market puts three apples in our bag when we buy bread from him, a gift.
The sun sinks fast and everything changes. We get a short lift with a suspiciously quiet man who seems uncomfortable about it. I think I know why.
Walking, walking, walking, walking… cars and trucks stop often, but not to offer a lift.
I poke my head inside the open door of a truck that ground to a halt in front of me. “Where are you going?” I ask in Turkish. “Here”, he tells me. “Oh.” I start to leave. “No sex?” he calls after me…
They apparently think we are three prostitutes soliciting for customers, and backpacks big enough to contain an entire kitchen are somehow not dissuading them from this impression.
We walk as far as a gas station somewhere close to Kirikale. The owner shakes his head gravely as I explain to him how we came to be there. “But now it is late”, I finish.
“Yes,” he nods slowly, “it is late.” He shows us to a small vine-covered outside area with a sofa and some cushions, just next to the car park. We can sleep here, he says. Awesome. We nominate Alla to sleep on the sofa, since she is bereft of a roll-mat and sleeping bag.
Emée and I begin making our beds on the concrete floor, but soon find ourselves the subject of some curiosity. An entire extended family from Diyarbakır are standing and staring at us, with a fair bit of giggling from the younger family members. Of course, we get chatting with them. They ask if we are married, and when we confess we’re not, they begin discussing which of their cousins we should marry. A photo-shoot ensues.
After waving goodbye to our Kurdish friends, another of the gas station employees comes over to speak with us. After a fair amount of miscommunication, I understand that he is offering us to sleep in the women’s prayer room, in a small separate building next to the gas station. “But, won’t women want to come and pray in there?” I ask him, wondering at the reaction from elderly village women, to three scruffy travellers sprawled out in their sacred space. But no, he says, it is too late now and they will only come in the morning, perhaps 8am.
We set our alarms for 7am and huddle down on the thick red carpet.
They feed us tea in the morning from a big urn outside the gas station. We’re on the road by 8am, but nobody is stopping. A man comes out from the restaurant – “Çay?” We only just got on the road! We decide if we are still here in half an hour, we’ll take a tea, but two guys stop after ten minutes and drive us to a better spot.
We get a long ride to Göreme with two very polite Turkish men who refer to themselves as tourists. We say no when they offer us chocolates and coke, but they buy it anyway, and tea of course. “Where are you from?” they ask us.
“England, France and Australia”, we say.