Heaven on Earth

After my roommate and I tied a towel around the shower faucet at midnight to keep it from flooding our hotel room, our group bussed to Bucharest from ConstanČ›a at 4am for a flight to Tbilisi through Istanbul. Turkish Airlines is a very comfortable airline… Except, of course, on the second flight I got the one row without a window.

We got to our guesthouse (a huge upgrade from the Constanta hotel, with huge homemade breakfasts included) with enough time to walk around town a bit at night. The few of us that did actually felt incredibly safe, compared to Bucharest and Constanta. Cities give off vibes, and Tbilisi has a good one. Georgia is seriously nothing like Americans tend to think, those who have heard of the place, anyway. In the past decade it has become a very westernized place, with well serviced cities and even wifi most places. According to our professor, ten years ago girls couldn’t dress nearly as freely as they do now.

As we had Romanian tour guides our age to hang out with, so we met the Georgian equivalents. We toured the city a bit our first full day, including hiking up to an old castle overlooking Tbilisi. That evening we went to a 9/11 gathering hosted by FLEX students, high schoolers who spent a year in America recently. It was fun meeting them all, although Ultimate Frisbee seemed a little unfair, as they had a bit of a language advantage.

With that, I’m just gonna jump into the story of the next three days, as it was quite spectacular. Only a day after arrival, our trip moved north to the Caucasus mountains. The only reason our first stop was a three or four hour drive was because two of those hours were on a very bumpy, rocky road that would probably take a third of the time if paved. Although, I’m not sure you could pave the steep final climb to the village if you wanted to. The village, by the way, consisted of maybe 10 buildings, 50 cows, and 200 sheep spread across the absolutely beautiful mountain fields.

After a filling lunch with the best jam ever, our guide Archil took us straight for a hike up the mountains. The weather was foggy, cold, and rainy, but it made for some seriously great photography opportunities. The mountains are like a mix of the Scottish highlands and the Himalayas (I’ve been to neither, I’m just basing that on pictures and stereotypes), grassy and bouldery at 7,000 feet. Absolutely breathtakingly peaceful. The villagers spend most of their time making hay and potatoes, before bartering with traders in the fall for winter supplies and heading down the mountain for the winter. The place is so different from anything we know in the US. Spending a night there (in a house that spiders seemed to like) was about equivalent to glamping. I wished we could’ve stayed, although I was slightly relieved to not have to take care of a bunch of spiders before bed again. These weren’t small spiders either.

Anyway, at 9am we dared to venture down the rocky hill. Our bus driver was from our second stop and had experience, thankfully. This drive turned out way longer than expected, though. You can’t cross the mountains, of course, you have to go down and back up, and in our case take a seemingly random left turn onto another hour long rock road. But I cannot stress this enough, we ended up in literally the most beautiful place I have ever seen. Possibly the most beautiful on Earth. It was sunny this time, and just imagine following a river through golden green fields among mountains that shoot up as high as the Rockies, watching wild horses gallop and sheep graze, and of course cows. You come around a bend where the valley opens up to the right and the sun is breaking through the clouds, with rays flowing down the mountains in front of you. There are orange and deep red mineral deposits, with running water that tastes more pure than the mineral water you can buy at the store. A little ways further some ruins personify the landscape among some houses that are still used. A castle in the distance marks the town of Abano. At the ruins we stopped and just enjoyed the fields and the views for a long while, in the moment. Would we ever see this place again?

As life would have it, the day was coming to an end, so we got back in the bus. It was probably another bumpy hour and a half before we got to our guesthouse (with wifi and indoor toilets) in Stepantsminda, 10 minutes from the Russian border on the Georgian Military Highway, the only major road between urban Georgia and Russia. The following day involved two hikes, each also uniquely breathtaking. The first was an hour (in rock road terms) passed the town of Sno, just south of our house, and was a steep hike over grass hills and fields. At the turnaround point some of us tried to climb over hills that were larger than they looked, and I for one ended up alone, in a field, overlooking mountains all around me. Amazing. We also met some travelers from Dubai on the way back; it’s amazing how much you can get to know people who are also traveling when you’re not at home, their stories are the greatest.

The second hike was to a waterfall, through a thin valley that was its own climate with vegetation (like ferns) that is nowhere else around. I felt like I was in the Olympic rainforest, but with more of a mystical feel. Then just because, we drove to the Russian border, if only to mock Palin with her famous words, then headed back to Tbilisi. On the way the paradise didn’t end; we stopped at the ironic and deteriorating Russian Georgian Friendship Monument, but I was more impressed with how the sun rays were shining over the valley far below us; easily a desktop background, or the end of a happy movie. But real life.

Caucasus Mountains

We’ve had a day back in Tbilisi and two lectures, one from representatives at the Georgian Foundation for Strategy and International Studies, but that’ll be a later post when we’ve done more academic work and gotten more experience in urban Georgia. Rural northern Georgia, or rather Sakartvelo as it’s called in Georgian, is something I’ll never, ever forget.

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