Here’s a little map of the journey so far. J is where we’re headed now.
First, we had to spend a night in Kutaisi before going directly to Mestia. Nothing really absurd happened on this day, other than us cooking for the FIRST time this whole trip. Usually, when traveling, hostels have a kitchen so it’s just nice to cook now and then and save some money. But the hostels and guesthouses we’ve found have been cheap, but also severely lacking in public kitchen space. Also, the food is extremely cheap and delicious so it’s hard not to just be lazy and eat out or “explore the local cuisine” (even though every Georgian restaurant has the exact same menu).
Cooking is so much more than an effort to save some money, and on a long trip its surprising how much I miss the community of shopping for groceries and cooking with another person. We stay moderately lazy and buy an extremely spicy and salty sauce from the market, which we decide will make a nice pasta base. Then to even out the spice and salt, we add in some fresh cucumbers and tomatoes. The combination was perfect and ended up costing maybe $1-2. This allowed us to justify a trip to our favorite bar in Kutaisi, Prague Bar, which still has the cheapest beers we’ve had in Georgia at $0.60. It’s kind of nice, as both an angry looking Russian couple and a hoard of Croatians are dining next to us. It’ a good day to just relax.
The next morning, we head to the bus stop to find the marshrutka to Mestia. This is a long ride, and they don’t leave very often in the day so we have to catch the 9:00 ride. The driver is about our age, and he’s pretty nice compared to the overweight, continuously angry marshrutka driver that’s the norm in Georgia. The ride north up to Mestia (მესტია) takes about 5-6 hours through some extremely snaky mountainous dirt roads. I get the feeling our driver is bored of driving us, and is just flying through the turns at light speed with complete disregard for the loose contents of our stomachs. We all hold plastic bags, just in case, but everyone’s breakfast stays where it should be.
There are only three Georgian’s in the car, everyone else is apparently from Berlin. There’s a lot of German being spoken in the car, which is perfect because Mestia feels rather Swissy. We arrive on cobblestones, surrounded by small buildings made of hard river rock. Cows walk through the streets with their cowbells dingling wildly, and I half expect to see a yoddler on a hilltop or witness the filming of a Ricola commercial.
The first stop is a little coffee shop run by Ukrainians that tailor to our Western wallets. They make deliciously European priced coffee, and I’m instantly aware that this is a wee bit of a touristy place. It’s not so different from Kazbegi in this regard, as it seems the tourists love to flock to the mountains. Yet the coffees are delicious, and they’ve made windchimes out of used cups that quickly tink away as the breeze moves by.
Walking to our guesthouse, I’m allured by the smell of something amazing. The smell of freshly baked bread. I stop in where the smell emanates from, where a man is profusely sweating while holding two long wooden spears. He stands above a giant earthen mound, and I approach amazed without even asking for consent. The mound goes down several meters, with a burning red hearth at the bottom. Flaky oval shapes are stuck are stuck to the wall, and as I peer in he stabs one and puts the burning hot bread in my hands. “1 lari” ($0.40) he says as my hands scorch under the heat.
As a man constantly baking and culturing my own sourdough, I find this baker more fitting of stardom than anyone in pop music. He works wonders. We walk and I eat almost all of it before making it to our guesthouse. The town is covered in these little towers which were made 1000 years ago as watchtowers to defend against Russian invaders. Now, families nonchalantly put their grain in their 1000-year-old tower attached to their house.
It’s a bit of a wander through cobbled streets and cows, and we end up in someone else’s lawn asking for directions before making it.
I didn’t end up taking a photo of our place because it was a bit weird. We show up and the owner says she can only take us for two nights, even though we had booked three. She says we can stay at her neighbor’s house, and we agree as it’s probably an interesting experience. We ask to borrow the kitchen, and they say sure but say so under hesitant breath. We wander back to town and buy some fresh goodies, which are horrendously expensive this far North. It’s about the same to buy fresh produce as it is to eat out in a bigger town here. But we do anyway and head back to the house. The kitchen is covered in dirty dishes as if nobody has done the dishes for over a week. The owner and what I can only assume is her maid quickly clean up, and we sit and wait. It certainly feels like we’re intruding, even though we’re just making a salad. But it’s a weird way to get off with the host of the guesthouse.
The next morning we wake, and the maid gives us a bit of cake for breakfast. She’s fluent in German, and it’s strangely relaxing to speak to a Georgian in German rather than Russian. The goal of the day is to hike the nearest mountain, where there are some glorious views and the beginning of a famous hike to some glacial lakes. The hike is straight up for around two hours, Ivana is wearing converses and she’s hating it. Several days of hiking didn’t justify bringing mountain shoes, so we just brought what was comfortable enough. In my case, tennis shoes, which are totally fine. I find a big stick and start breaking it down as a walking stick. All of a sudden, like something out of a fairy tale, a wandering babushka appeared. She’s wearing and beige skirt, pink shirt, white bucket hat and what appear to be sketcher’s shape ups. In her hand, a walking stick worthy of Gandalf. Some serious spells have been cast with that thing. She’s thumping by at a fast pace, and as I stand up from my walking stick to say “gamarjoba”, she hands me her perfectly toned and sanded down wizardly staff to me without saying a word. I say “Wow, modloba!” to which she responds, “Kukubu?”
“Ne, kukubu??” while making horns on her forehead with her fingers.
Either she’s asking if we’ve seen the devil or if we’ve seen her cows. As we have seen neither, we shake our heads and she keeps thumping along down the path. New staff in hand, we venture on.
The hikes a challenge but we work our way up and eventually make it to the top for a picnic and mountain watching.
Mountains as far as the eye can see. It’s a bit too cloudy today, and we can’t see the nearest massive peak, Mount Ushba, but this view will definitely do for now. We sit and enjoy, and eventually start the descent as some ominous clouds begin to build overhead.
As is ritual after a hike, we grab a beer on our way down and enjoy a relaxing evening.
We wake up with sore butts and decide to have a chill day without straight upwards hiking. We see some ski lifts on the other mountain and decide that’s our goal. Along the way, we find the Regional history museum. Here they tell tales of how locals inspired the tale of the Golden Fleece, as early gold panning was done with a sheepskin in a basket.
We take the ski lift up, and finally, the clouds have cleared enough for us to see the fabled Mount Ushba.
It feels a bit like I’m looking at Mount Everest. Just a gigantic peak appearing out of nowhere. We brought some seeds, and just watch Mt. Ushba and catch the last ski lift down before closing time. We have to leave our guesthouse and stay with her neighbors, so I pay and when I go to shake her hand she just awkwardly stares at it and moves out of the room. I didn’t realize I would have created a faux-pas but thinking back on it now that was probably a rude gesture in this part of the world. We move past the incident, and the German-speaking maid takes us across the street to our new spot. I’m not sure why we have to move, but it looks like our host is packing stuff into several cars so I won’t ask too many questions.
The new place is literally in someone’s house, and it feels like there are maybe five generations living in it. Babies, baby’s babies, adults, babushkas, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the babushka’s babushka was up in the attic making a rug on a loom. It’s all very strange, but the bed is comfortable and we have to get up early anyway.
We only have three days left in Georgia. We were originally planning on going back to Kutaisi for the ‘safe’ option before taking our flight back on Saturday morning at 5:00 am.
But screw safe options.
The next morning, we get on a bus to the Black Sea coastal town of Batumi. It’s time to see the Black Sea.