Suitcase and World: Svaneti and Ushguli.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Svaneti and Ushguli.

Ushguli. The snow capped ridge is Shkhara which at 5,193 meters (17,040 feet) is the tallest peak in Georgia.

Pat, Salome, and I left Hotel Chubu at 9a. Shalva was to come with us today but decided to stay back to rest which was fine as we had a new car and driver today. Lasha, our driver, was already waiting outside with his Mitsubishi Delica 4x4. He would be taking us to the remote mountain village of Ushguli and back. After a quick stop to get gas, we hit the road.

At the gas station.  Our van is a right hand drive car which explains why I'm sitting on the left side.

View of Mestia as we headed out of town.

Deeper into the heart of the Caucasus we went. It was a great day to be out and about. Yesterday's cloudy sky gave way to a brilliant blue one with barely a fluff of a cloud in the sky. Dramatic views of the craggy mountains, green valleys and raging waters of the Enguri River unfolded before us.

Paved road soon gave way to unpaved road and Lasha had to drive very slowly to avoid ruts and large puddles of water. He even had to drive across waterfalls that flowed over the road. We were off-roading our way to Ushguli!

Every now and again we would pass through a small village, most of which were filled with run down buildings.  Life is simple but hard and for the most part, people are very poor here.

We made a couple of stops along the way.  The first was at a riverside tower home.  There was an elderly couple working nearby so we didn't venture to the tower but it was good enough for us to appreciate from afar.

But there is a story behind this particular tower home.  Long ago, a young man and a woman, from two different villages, fell in love but the people living in their villagers did not consent to their marriage.  So, instead of getting married, they chose to build their house (this tower) on this spot on the Enguri River, between the two villages and lived out their lives. Supposedly, the people living nearby are their descendants.

The river was running hard and fast from snow melt.

A very friendly Georgian sheepdog approached us.  They are BIG dogs!

Water streaming down the hillside to the river.

Our second stop was in the teeny, weeny hamlet of Khe.   It's Sunday today and Salome wanted us to see the hamlet's small church. 

Lasha parked the van alongside the main road and we walked up the hill to the small church.

The river as it flows past the small village.

We walked pass the crumbling homes to the church with its small cemetery out front.

The hamlet of Khe.  The church is behind the blue fence on the right.

At the gate to the church, we each took a skirt from the communal bin.  The front door, to the church, was closed but as we approached it, I could hear the sound of a choir singing.  Salome and Pat entered but before I could even put my foot across the threshold, the door was closed on me.  I dare not open it so I walked around the church for a few minutes.  Pat and Salome didn't stay inside long.  They told me that the room inside was so small - it could barely hold 15 people, that after they entered, there was literally no more space for another person which explains why the door was shut after they went in.  They also said they got some stares from the people inside.  Considering how small the space is for worshippers, I'm not surprised that the local attendees did not appreciate available floor space being taken up by curious tourists!  Salome really wanted us to see the church so we decided to give it a second try on our way back to Mestia.  Services should be long over by then and we're sure to have better luck.

We continued our journey to Usghguli.  The road switched from paved to unpaved, straight to windy, wide to extremely narrow.  Lasha had to drive very carefully which meant going very slowly.  Personally, I wasn't in any rush and in fact, Lasha driving slowly made it easier for me to take photos....except when he was on road filled with large ruts.  The scenery here is just spectacular and the fact that it was a picture perfect day made being in it all that much more enjoyable!

I got a bit obsessed with taking photos of the tower homes.  They are most definitely a unique element of the landscape here!

Eventually, we saw the road sign.  Yay!

Given many of the far flung places I've traveled to, offroading is not an unusual experience for me.  I have to admit, I rather enjoy it!  Here's what our experience today was like.

As we approached Ushguli, we caught up the one and only other car we had seen on the road all day.  I really going to off the beaten path places that typical tourists don't travel to.  I know pretty much every spot in the world has been discovered but traveling this way, I feel like I'm just one of a few travelers adventurous enough to come to such destinations.

Whatever effort it takes to come to a place like this, I can assure you that the pristine beauty of the landscape here makes it all worth it!  Most certainly, this is a view that I rarely get to see so I make all the effort to take it all in while I have the chance!

Ushguli is actually comprised of four separate settlements - Zhibiani, Chvibianu, Chazhashi and Murkmeli.  The settlements are situated 2060m-2200m above sea level and are considered as the highest and most certainly one of the most remote, populated places in Europe.  I can only imagine how isolated this place gets in the heart of winter!

We were on our way to Zhibiani and so we passed the other three along the way.  Don't ask me which village we passed first, second or third - there were no road signs to identify them.

Zhibiani, at last!  Nestled in a valley at the converence point of three mountains.  What a lovely view!

First stop in Zhibiani was Lamaria Church aka St. Mary's Church.  Even from a distance, the church did not have the outline of a typical church for it too had a defensive tower attached to it!  At first glance you would bell tower at first glance but you'd be wrong!

A view of Ushguli from the road leading up to Lamaria.


Getting to the church was not easy.  Thank God, Lasha has driven this road countless times.

Snowbanks and muddy potholes were blocking the road so Lasha parked the car as close as he could to the entrance of the church.

As I stepped out of the car, I had a full unobstructed view of Shkhara which at 5,193 meters (17,040 feet) is the tallest peak in Georgia.

Shkhara is the high point and the eastern anchor of a massif known as the Bezingi (or Bezengi) Wall, a 12 kilometer (7 mile) long ridge.  There was a group of three French men and a French woman staying at Hotel Chubu.  There were here to hike and we passed them on the way to Lamaria.  Maybe they will attempt to climb Shkhara.

When I got out of the car, this is the view I saw.  Shkhara makes for a gorgeous backdrop!

The ground was still snow covered and with the melting snow, muddy in spots. They had not shoveled the path leading to the entrance. I had to walk carefully to avoid slipping and falling.  We passed under a very low arch in the stone wall to enter the courtyard.

Lamaria Church.

Here are the church bells.

Looking back at where we entered in from - that rectangular opening next to the bells.

Crude bas-relief work on the façade of the church; the only exterior decoration.

A view out the entrance door.  I think this is how people approach from the village below.

The entrance door.

Sunday service had just ended when we arrived.  The women were chatting and the children scampering in the grassy areas out front of the church.  This is pretty much a scene that plays out at every church on Sunday.

The door was still open so we headed inside the church.  I was definitely curious to see what a church in a small remote village in Georgia looks like.  I was not expecting anything on the scale of the Church of the Virgin Mary at Gelati Monastery but I was pleasantly surprised by what I did see.

The church was built between the 9th and 10th centuries and local residents believe that Queen Tamar is buried in the ground underneath.  Somehow I find it hard to believe that someone of her royal stature would be buried in such a humble location.

Inside, it was not structured like a typical church and I did not expect it to be.  There was a small narthex with a few small paintings displayed on shelves.

The apse was an equally small space and the only light was the bit of sun that flowed in from a small window. 

It was such a challenge to take photos in this dim room. 

Although much of the paint work, on the walls and ceiling is now damaged or faded, you can imagine how beautiful it must have been when it was originally painted.

With just two small rooms to see, we didn't spend a whole lot of time inside Lamaria.  There was something very endearing about Lamaria - perhaps because it's so humble and unpretentious.  We exited the church the same way we entered - through the small opening in the wall.

Salome is the same height as me and I am height challenged so you can imagine how low this opening is!

Lasha was waiting for us by the van.  He was a quiet man most likely because the only person he could speak with was Salome.  You can't tell with his sunglasses on but what they shield are a pair of steel blue eyes.  Pat and I both agreed, he's a good looking man.  He may be married with two kids but we can still admire! #blushing

According to Salome, she would normally have us walk from here to the community nearby but the road was muddy and covered here and there with snow. If I had had two good feet, I might have considered the walk but not today. Instead, we all got back in the van and Lasha drove us a short distance down the hill, towards the community. I had Lasha stop for a photo op and after that, we decided to walk the rest of the way to the community. I took it slowly and carefully.

We met back up with Lasha outside the entrance to a local restaurant where we would be having lunch. Today's local specialty would be kubdari aka Svaneti meat pie. I love meat pies but looking at the landscape around me, I set my expectations accordingly. It's not going to be anything like a Cornish pastie or an Australian meat pie - not going to have any fluffy puff pastry :-(

Salome had obviously been here before. The moment she entered the restaurant, she was warmly greeted by a large, chubby woman who turned out to be the owner. Salome conveyed to the owner that we wanted kubdari for lunch. We had to pick from a four piece kubdari and a six piece kubdari. I presumed that was a reference to size. Of course, that did not convey how big a four piece kubdari is. Georgians eat large portions so I was certain a four piece one would be more than enough for me. Pat and I each ordered one. We also ordered chvishtari.  Don't ask me how to pronounce the name.  I just heard...."blah blah dari" :-) Salome explained it was bread but made from corn and then filled with cheese. Pat and I interpreted it as cornbread with cheese.  It's a specialty of the region and we ordered one to share.

We all wandered back into the kitchen to see how the kubdari was made. The woman went about showing us the process of making the kubdari. After dicing and seasoning the meat, the woman patted out a large circle of dough and piled a bunch of the meat on it. I again asked how big the four piece one. When she drew what looked like a 9 inch circle and I saw just how much meat was piled on top of it, I looked at Pat and we decided to share one kubdari rather than having one each!

Dicing the beef.  The woman had huge slabs of beef stored in a chest freezer in the kitchen.

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The only stove and oven. 

Our kubdari *baking*.  One for Salome and the other for Pat and I to share.

The woman's cute son.  He got cranky at one point and she had to stop cooking to quickly breast feed him.

Why so serious?  No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get him to crack a smile :-(

The woman also had some Svaneti salt for sale. According to Salome, Ushguli is home to the *real* stuff so I decided to hand over 5 lari for a small bag's worth of the salt. It's basically sea salt that has been mixed with some finely ground, dried local, mountain herbs - there's a green tinge to the salt. I tasted a bit of the salt - definitely less salty than the batch I bought yesterday. I think it would be good on grilled meat like lamb chops.

We had to wait a while for the kubdari so to kill time, we chatted and I wandered outside to take a look at our surroundings. I can't complain about the wait time as it was being made fresh for us and there's only the woman doing the cooking. Poor thing, she was being pulled in multiple directions - she had to stop for a few minutes to breast feed her son, answer questions from a few people who had wandered in to the restaurant, and deal with neighbors stopping by. 

I guess if you see this view everyday, it's nothing impressive but for me, it was another "Wow" moment.

Very peaceful here.  I never noticed anyone walking around or out and about.

In the meantime, another small group of tourists had wandered in. I heard the sound of English speaking voices - at least one sounded very American to me. It was an older Asian man. I. Made myself a cup of tea and when I walked back to the table where Pat and Salome were sitting, the Asian man, who had obviously heard Pat and I speaking, asked if we were from the US. He introduced himself as Dennis and told us he lives in Oakland. I continued to chat with Dennis, who seems to be quite the intrepid traveler. After Georgia,he's headed to Paris for a few days and then it's off to Lahore, Pakistan where he begins a tour. After that, he returns home for a short 9 days before flying off to Jakarta for a tour of Indonesia. I thought I loved to travel!! We weren't able to chat for all that long but before he left with his group who has basically stayed just long enough to enjoy a cup of tea, he asked for my email address so we could remain in contact. He said he would email me tonight.

UPDATE: I got the email from Dennis a few minutes ago. A bit surprised as I so often exchange email addresses with fellow travelers and it's rare to reconnect after you leave someone behind.

Time to eat!

The first thing that was delivered to our table was the chvishtari which indeed turned out to be a dough of cornmeal encasing cheese.  Unfortunately, by the time I made it to the table, the other two had already dove in so I didn't get a chance to take a photo before my greedy travel mates cut into it.  I must train them to wait.....though, unfortunately, patience is not one of Pat's virtues.  Thankfully, they did leave me a piece.  The whole thing had been fried so it was crispy on the outside and ooey gooey on the inside. Quite delicious!

My bit of chvishtari.  I think we could have all had seconds of this.

Then came the kubdari. So piping hot, we could not handle it to cut it. The dough was also a bit tough. I gave up trying to separate the sections with the kubdari on the plate so I lifted it and put in on top of the wooden table. The pie was quite tasty. The meat had been seasoned with salt, some local herbs and mixed with pieces of onion. There were also small chunks of beef lard. Too much fat for me so I pulled out pieces as I saw them. The pie was super filling. Pat and I could only down a slice each, leaving two behind which I decided we would share with Lasha and some of his fellow drivers who were seated at the table next to us.  Salome also had slices left over so she also handed them over to the guys.  Thank God we didn't order a pie each!!

After lunch, we headed back to Mestia via the same road we had arrived in from.  Bye bye Ushguli.  It was a fun visit.

More beautiful views.  This time I was in the back seat so most of what I saw was from the side window.

Salome handed her USB flash drive to Lasha.  She said it contained some traditional Georgian music. My ears were captivate after just a few notes.  I have no idea who's performing but it sounded like a choir to me.  When you're offroading, you're jostled about like clothes in a dryer.  It's not always enjoyable but the gentle a capella music that was coming out of the car's speakers was so soothing, I forgot completely about the bumpy ride.  In fact,  I enjoyed it so much, I took a snippet of video thinking perhaps I can use Shazam to identify it.

I decided to Google "Georgian choir music" and at the top of the results list was a Youtube video, on the UNESCO channel, presenting what is known as Georgian polyphonic music.  I don't particularly like the sound of the song in the video but the description that accompanies it is very informative.   The music is featured on the UNESCO challenge because Georgian music has been designated by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Furthermore, I've learned that most Georgian songs, both sacred and secular, are sung unaccompanied in three-part harmony, symbolically associated with the Trinity. As you might expect, there are considerable regional differences in singing styles, and some songs, particularly from the Caucasus Mountains in the north of the country, are known to date from pre-Christian times.

As promised, we did make a quick stop back that church that we had attempted to visit this morning.

We walked up the hill to the church, past the remains of a house tower.

Suspecting that the front door might be locked, Salome found a village resident who unlocked the door for us.
Headscarf on. Borrowed skirt tied around waist.  She's ready to head inside.

As with Lamaria, the church here was very modest - in size and in decoration.  I don't know when this church was built but the paint on the walls and ceiling had long faded.  Still, there was a bit of simple, naive beauty in the design style.  The villagers made the most of what little they had.  I'm sure that's still true today.

At the end of our visit, I asked the kind man who had let us inside the church if I could take a photo of him.  He wasn't shy about having his photo taken but he was most certainly uncomfortable about smiling as his teeth were in poor condition.  I did not press him to smile.  I don't think there are any dentists here and I don't know where villagers go for medical attention.  It's not easy living in a remote part of the world.

Back on the road with Lasha and more scenes of the Svaneti region along the way.

It's not just cows, sheep, and goats that can be seeing freely grazing here.  Of course, I am partial to pigs :-)

When I sit back, this is my view.

When I look out the window, this is what I see.  So much better looking out the window :-)

We arrived back into Mestia in the late afternoon.

Mestia.  A pretty spot in Svaneti.

It was much too early to be holed up inside our room so we decided that we would take a stroll through town. More specifically, I had noticed a view of Mestia that I wanted to photograph and decided to use that as the reason for the walk. Salome offered to join us. The plan was to head out at 5:30p which gave us some time to rest in our room.

Back in the lobby, there was a Bollywood movie playing on the TV in the lobby. As always happens, all 3 of us started watching the movie and before you knew it, we were sucked in by the drama that was playing out on the TV. The movie was dubbed into Georgian. Funny that we were watching an Indian movie and we needed the Georgian girl, aka Salome, who was interpreting into English for us Even without understanding the words, we were able to decipher some of what was going on.

We decided to not watch the whole movie. When we made it to the front gate of the hotel, Shalva pulled up in our car. He was looking and sounding much better today than he had at dinner last night when it was obvious he wasn't feeling well. Shalva drove us to the spot where I wanted to take the photo. He drove off after leaving us behind.

I had barely walked a few feet when I looked up a hill and saw what looked like a cow laying across a small stream. At first, I thought the cow was taking a cool dip in the water but when it started to flail its legs, I realized that something was not right. I pointed out the cow to Salome and Pat and all three of us decided to climb the hill to check it out. The cow was laying in the water and it was obvious that she had stumbled and fallen into the water. Her head was out of the water which was good as the water was running hard.  I was so preoccupied with what was going on that I didn't even take a photo of the poor cow lying across the stream so the photo below was shot by Pat.

Not in a good position, poor thing.

As we stood around her, we watched her struggle to get up but the ground around her was too muddy and soft for her to get enough traction to push herself up. Salome tried to pull the cow out but was not able to. I didn't think she would have enough strength to drag a creature weighing several times her weight. Salome was looking distressed, not knowing what to do. I told her to go get help.

Salome giving it her best shot.

There was a house higher up the hill and I expected her to go their first but instead, she scampered down the hill and headed towards town. We kept and eye from a distance until she disappeared around a corner.

As we waited for Salome to return, a pair of tourists, a young man and a young woman, noticed us standing on the hill. I'm sure they also noticed the cow and were curious about the situation as well. When they approached, we told them what happened and that our friend had gone to look for help. The man replied that he would look for help as they walked. Ok. Thank you.

A short while later, we notice Salome walking back towards us. Walking alongside her was a large Georgian man. I noticed he had a uniform on with the word *Security* embroidered on the sweater patch on his upper left arm.

The man walked over to the cow and grabbed her by the horns. With just a few tugs, he was able to get her out of the water and standing. Strong man!! We were all so wrapped up in watching the man pull the cow out of the stream that none of us even took a single photo!

As she stood up on solid, dry ground , the cow hook off the water. She was okay and we imagined, in a bit of shock. She didn't move but she was breathing. Poor man though. As he attempted to straddle the stream to cross over it, he slipped and both his feet went ankle deep into the water. I was certain his shoes, socks, and feet were now all wet!  Not exactly a nice reward for a good Samaritan!

A curious passer.  I would have sent it to get help had we been able to communicate but unfortunately, I don't speak cow :-)

We stood by the cow for a few minutes to see what she would do. I thought she would slowly walk away but she just continued to stand as still as a stone statue. After a few minutes of no action on her part, we decided to continue on our walk. As we climbed down the hill, we all occasionally looked back to see if the cow was still okay.

We followed Salome back to the center of town.

Another view of Mestia.  The small village is filled with tower homes!

On the way, we passed the town's small museum where Salome told us she had found the security guard who had rescued the cow. We all laughed at the fact that cow saving was most likely not a requirement in his job description!

The museum. In hindsight, we probably should have paid a visit considering what we put the guard through.

We took the long way back to the hotel - walking through town.

We ended up back at the square with the statue of Queen Tamar.  Salome still doesn't like it.  I think it would look awesome in my front yard though I don't think the residents of Mestia, even the ones who don't like the statue, would be willing to part with it.  Not to mention, that I probably couldn't afford to buy it so this photo will have to do!

We stopped at the park for a few minutes.  Salome took the opportunity to wash her hands.  After all, she did have to use them to try and pull a cow out of a stream.  I think she's done her good deed for the day.

These three cows appear to be a permanent fixture - standing in this same spot, the same time now both yesterday and today.  I think they know to come here to wait for their owner to come get them.  They are so used to standing in the path of humans that they don't mind one bit that we walked right between them!

Salome playing chase with the friendly dog at our hotel.  They love each other.

Apparently, he was abused as a puppy but he's well treated now. He nows his commands!

Tonight, we decided to have an earlier dinner - at 7p. Overly fried fish served in a green sauce of some sort and overly fried chicken served in a walnut sauce. Neither looked appealing to me so it was a veggie night for me.  The French fries were tasty :-) I must say that I've not gone hungry here, meaning Georgia in general, mainly because the Georgians eat so much carb mainly in the form of bread and potatoes and cheese. They also use a lot of oil in cooking - good for lubricating the system and keeping me regular. :-)

There's a lot of food on the nightly table. 

Tomorrow, we begin our trip back to Tbilisi. It's been wonderful being in the mountains but we have more to see so it's time to move on.

Goodnight from Mestia!