Sunday, September 23, 2018

Celebrating my 50th in the Caucasus

Tbilisi, September 22

The face of 50
Impressive Georgian bubbly for my 50th
So it's over a week after my 50th birthday and I am still in denial that I've entered my sixth decade.  The festivities on September 13th itself were wonderful but slightly subdued since I not only had to teach that day but also attend an evening "Meet the Teachers" night and then teach the next day.  Terri, however, managed to make the entire day a series of celebrations, from a gourmet breakfast to a quick luxury afternoon apero between classes and the evening conferences, and finally a wonderful late dinner featuring luxurious wine, including some Georgian sparkling wine that was outstanding and some of the best brandy that I've ever had.  It was capped off by a fabulous chocolate birthday cake.

Since my birthday was on a Thursday, we had decided that the real celebrations should take place on the following weekend.  The next afternoon we were on our way out of town in a shared taxi bound for Kazbegi (or Stepantsminda, as it's been renamed), the same destination we had had two weeks earlier.  We arrived at 8:15, walked up to Nana and Alex's guesthouse (the same place we had stayed a fortnight before) and in no time Terri had warmed up some of the delicious leftovers from the birthday feast.  We were in bed early, worn out by the previous day's feasting and lack of sleep.

A massive breakfast spread that did us for two subsequent lunches
The plan was to mark my 50th birthday in the mountains, the environment that has meant so much to me over the (numerous) decades of my life.  After a brief morning juggling session and an extensive breakfast buffet that was so large that we ended up carrying away more than half of it for later meals., we were ready to go walking.  We started out with a brisk hike up to the Gergeti Trinity Church, the iconic structure perched 400 metres above Kazbegi.  I hiked up to the church twice back in 2009, but Terri had never been there, and we ended up taking a new route that I hadn't hiked nine years ago.  It was a pleasant hike, leading through the village of Gergeti and then up through meadows and a birch forest that brought me back mentally to my childhood in the Canadian Shield.  A new road has been built recently, and is still under construction in places.  As a result, most of the crowd of tourists up at the church now arrive by 4x4 Delica van, rather than on foot.
Mighty Mt. Kazbek flying its pennant of cloud
Stone carving on Gergeti Trinity Church
The church is one of the most dramatically situated churches I've ever seen.  Dating back to the 14th century, it's high above both Kazbegi and Gergeti, the village on the opposite bank of the river.  It took us about an hour and a half to get there from Nana's, and it was just as dramatic as I had remembered, although the number of tourists (probably ten times what I had experienced back in 2009) did detract somewhat from the serenity of the experience.  The stonework on the walls of the church is superb, as is usually the case on Georgian ecclesiastic architecture.  Most of the tourists were Georgian, kissing the icons and touching their heads reverentially to icons and the doorways, reminiscent of what I saw from Tibetan pilgrims in Lhasa.  There were quite a few Russian tourists as well, with a strong minority of French, Swiss and British represented as well.

Wonderful stonework on Gergeti Trinity
After examining the incense-filled interior of the church, we turned our attention to the scenic backdrop.  The view down to Kazbegi is pretty, but it's the wall of 4000-metre peaks behind the town that is the real draw in this direction.  Turning 180 degrees, however, the view is even more spectacular, with the 5033-metre peak of Mt. Kazbek as the centrepiece.  Terri and I spent a while eyeing up possible ski touring routes and hoping that the new road will be kept open all winter, since then we will be able to ski tour right from the parking lot.   We made our way back downhill along another route down a river gully and got back to Nana's moments before a brief cloudburst.

Hillsides below Mt. Kazbek
After the rain finished, we collected our gear and walked back down to the central square of Kazbegi to catch a lift to Juta.  As before, it cost us 60 lari (about US$ 24) for a 4x4 to drive us the 18 km.  With the improvement of this road, it seems excessively expensive, as any 2-wheel drive car can handle the drive (even a few Ladas that we saw parked in the village), but until we get our own vehicle, we are at the mercy of the driver mafia.  We got to Juta by 2:00, shouldered daypacks and hiked steeply uphill out of Juta, a different route than we followed two weeks previously.  We left the village behind, then passed Zeta Campground and made our way to our destination, Fifth Season.

Relaxing below Mt. Chaukhi at Fifth Season
Fifth Season has an unbeatable location, looking straight up a long valley towards the steep stone ramparts of the Chaukhi Massif.  We had seen the other side of those cliffs two weeks before, when we crossed the Sedzele Pass (by mistake; we had planned to cross the Chaukhi Pass, but got confused) and camped on the Roshka side with a brilliant view of the peaks.  The west face, though, was even more dramatic, really similar in feel to Cerro Fitzroy in Argentina.  We spent the afternoon lounging on beanbags, reading, juggling (for me, anyway) and watching the peaks play peek-a-boo through the clouds.  There were a lot of guests when we arrived, but they drifted away as the shadows grew longer.  As the afternoon wore on, we moved indoors into the restaurant, rather reminiscent of a Swiss Alpine Club hut, and had a delicious dinner.  There were several groups of other guests, and we struck up some interesting conversations before retiring for the night.

This was where the experience of the Fifth Season lost much of its charm.  One of the groups of guests consisted of about six Georgians who got extraordinarily drunk and were incredibly noisy in their room.  Since the interior walls of the hotel are very thin, this meant that they kept everyone else awake, despite repeated requests for silence.  Finally the staff, who were also trying to sleep, arrived, gave the offenders a prolonged harangue and, eventually, the noise abated slightly.  It was a miserable night, and we awoke very tired and annoyed in the morning.  This is the sort of behaviour that a more proactive hotel staff should have nipped in the bud, but did not.  Given the high price of rooms at the Fifth Season, we expected much more, and were very disappointed.  It would have been a far better idea to eat at the Fifth Season and then retire to a tent quite some distance from the main building.

The ruffled green velvet slopes of the Caucasus
Sunday morning we ate the final remnants of the previous day's breakfast (the hut didn't serve breakfast until 9:00 am, very late for hikers!) and set off for a walk up the valley.  Since we weren't carrying heavy packs, we made rapid progress upstream, arriving at another restaurant beside a tiny mountain lake after an hour, and a climbers' campsite another 15 minutes beyond that.  The scenery was wonderful, with the steep, undulating hillsides carpeted in textured grass on one side (the sunny southern slopes) and low rhododendron bushes on the other side (the shady northern slopes).  There were big glacial erratic boulders scattered here and there like giants' playthings; some of them were clearly used for bouldering near the campsite.

Terri looking tiny in a huge landscape
We turned left and followed the path towards the Chaukhi Pass.  It was a gradual, gentle ascent all the way, and we eventually turned around when we obtained a clear view of the pass itself, a shortish, steep scree slope at the head of the valley.  The terrain was exhilarating, and as had been the case earlier, Terri and I scouted out some potential ski touring lines on the big wide-open slopes; winter will be here soon enough, and we will want to take advantage of the cold, snow and big mountains!

We scampered back down the valley to the hut, picked up our belongings and were headed down towards Juta before noon.  In the village we asked around for transport and ended up sharing a Delica back to Kazbegi with a couple of French university students who were doing internships with the French Embassy in Tbilisi.  Relatively quickly we shoehorned ourselves into a marshrutka and retraced our route back to the capital.  On the way, we noticed a new ski lift being installed on the north side of the Jvari Pass; if it's operational this coming ski season, it will open up a huge amount of new terrain for skiers!

By 4:00 we were back at our house in Dighomi, north Tbilisi, where Lilian and John, a New Zealand couple of self-described "grey nomads" who are friends of Terri had been staying in our absence.  They had cooked up a feast of Iranian-inspired food, very welcome for a couple of hungry hikers.  Lilian and John have travelled to more countries than I have, with their tally standing somewhere in the mid 150s.  They are inspirations to me to keep up my nomadism now that I am officially old!

You can see more pictures of this trip, and our previous jaunt across the Sedzele Pass, here.

Dinner with globetrotting world travellers Lilian and John

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Thoughts on Reaching My Half-Century

Tbilisi, September 12, 2018

The spirit of travel:  Western Australia, 1996

Tomorrow I will reach a temporal milestone that once seemed unimaginably distant:  50.  I don't think that I ever agreed with The Who ("Hope I die before I get old"), but I just don't think I imagined that I would reach this milestone of decrepitude while still feeling roughly the same as I did when I was 30.  This blog is mostly about travel, but travel through time is another type of travel, one that all of us, even the most homebodyish, undertakes, so I thought I'd look back briefly on my half-century. 

0-10:  Childhood in Thunder Bay (mostly)

With my mother in Ottawa
I was born in Ottawa late on a Friday the 13th; the woman in labour next door to my mother was trying to keep her baby unborn for another half hour to avoid bad luck, but my mother was just glad to get the entire experience over with.  (My high school friend Katherine was born on the same Friday the 13th, and the hospital in Thunder Bay burned down during her labour, so maybe there's something in the superstition?).  I was the first-born, and my first year was spent living in an apartment at 12 Somerset Avenue West, just across the street from where my mother now lives, 50 years later.

With my doting father, 1968
12 Somerset East
After a year in Ottawa, my father quit his government job in Ottawa and drove himself, my mom and me down to Ames, Iowa to do a PhD in forestry.  I spent 2 years in Ames, and then in 1971 my father took us back to Canada, to a job as a forestry professor at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, where he would work until his retirement.  I spent the next seven years growing up on the shores of Lake Superior, with one enormously enjoyable interlude in the summer of 1977 when my father taught summer school at the ETH in Zurich and took the family along to explore Switzerland while he worked.

Thunder Bay, early 1970s

Sailing with my cousin Cris on Lake Superior, 1973
Triumphantly riding my first full-sized bicycle
10-20:  Thunder Bay, Morogoro, Waterloo, First Travels

All four siblings together, 1980

First summer playing baseball, 1979
At age 12, I headed off to Morogoro, Tanzania, where my father had taken a 2-year contract teaching forestry at an agricultural university.  I was unhappy to be uprooted from Thunder Bay, but eventually grew to appreciate the incredible wildlife and adventure of life outside the comfortable confines of Canada.  This experience, more than anything else, got me thinking about travel as a way of life.  As well, since I was doing correspondence courses for high school, I had ample free time to read voraciously for 2 years, something that was far more educational than the formal courses I was taking.

Graduating from Hillcrest High School, 1986
I returned to Thunder Bay at age 14 for the final three years of high school.  I attended an excellent high school, with a number of top-quality teachers, and made a plethora of life-long friends.  I played tennis, played Reach For the Top (quiz bowl for high school), took part in mathematics contests and graduated in 1986 eager to study mathematics and physics in university.

Portrait of the traveller as a young graduate, 1986
Reach for the Top team, 1986
My best friend Hans and I headed down to the University of Waterloo in September, 1986 as roommates.  I enjoyed my first year at Waterloo, but burned out a bit in my second year and took a mid-degree gap year.  I spent three months bartending in London and gorging on theatre, musicals and other art in my free time, then spent a month Eurailing around Europe before heading to Budapest to start my Budapest Semester in Mathematics, a truly transformational experience both in terms of travel and in terms of learning.

My first semester in the dorms of West Two, Waterloo

20-30:  Further Studies, Further Travels

Budapest, 1988
My 20th birthday happened in Budapest, and I felt as though those 4 months, in the days before the Iron Curtain fell, were the most intense experience of my life up until then.  I learned a ton of mathematics while feasting on Hungarian food and wine and developing a taste for opera.  I headed back to Canada poorer in monetary terms, but immensely enriched in experience and knowledge, and certain that I wanted to travel a great deal more.
Off to the rink, Christmas 1989
With my sisters, 1990, rocking the big curls

My last 2 years at the University of Waterloo were largely enjoyable, with lots of tennis, beer-brewing, mathematics contests and socializing, and my first-ever bicycle trip (around the Low Countries, France and Germany) in the summer of 1990.  I did well in my courses and assumed naively that any graduate school would be glad to have me.  I applied only to a handful of places, and wasn't accepted anywhere, so I took an extra year off, applied to far more grad schools and then headed to Australia for eight months.

I had a great deal of fun in Australia, especially travelling around with Hans and another friend, Inder.  After a month in New Zealand, I arrived back in Canada penniless and spent my third summer treeplanting to rebuild my finances before heading off to Harvard to study astrophysics in the fall of 1992.

I had assumed for years that I would be a brilliant academic and win a Nobel Prize for decoding the secrets of the universe.  Instead, although I had a wonderful time socially, played a huge amount of tennis and squash, brewed barrels of beer and learned lots of Russian, I was a poor excuse for a graduate student, unable to motivate myself to work hard enough to succeed.  I was already on my way out the door when I got myself onto the game show Jeopardy, won $17,000 and decided that the money would help finance the start of a world travelling career.

July 1994 saw me headed to Egypt and Turkey on my first foray alone out of the Western world.  I had intended to teach English in Prague after that, but instead returned to Canada to earn a bit more money.  I tried my hand at writing code that winter in Ottawa, and it almost killed my soul.  I was rescued by a job offer from Japan to teach English on the JET program, and headed there, via a couple of months in the UK, Spain and East Africa, in July, 1995.

Fuji, 1996
I loved my life in Japan, working not terribly hard during the week and exploring Japan on the weekends, especially the mountains, either on foot or on skis.  After a year, though, I had itchy feet and headed off on a year-long traipse through Southeast Asia, Western Australia and South Asia.  My first view of the Himalayas in Nepal was life-changing, resulting in numerous return trips to High Asia and its high-altitude magic.
Summer of 1997, Thunder Bay
I rounded out my 20s with a year spent cycling around Europe, getting a TEFL certification, working in Toronto and spending a few months working as a bicycle guide in the Netherlands and France.  I spent much of the summer of 1998 on my first long-distance expedition bicycle trip with my sisters and their partners (the XTreme Dorks) across Pakistan, Xinjiang and Tibet, and celebrated my 30th birthday in France in September, back at work as a bicycle guide.

K2 Base Camp, Pakistan, 1997

Entering China over the Khunjerab Pass, 1998

The XTreme Dorks, Lake Manasarovar, 1998
30-40:  Getting Serious About Travel

Palmyra, 1999, long before the ravages of IS
The next decade was fruitful in terms of travel, much of it on bicycles.  I spent the winter of 1998-9 on a long swing through Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, then headed to Chile to teach English.  The Chilean gig didn't pay much and the English school folded, but I had a lot of fun, learned Spanish, skied a lot and then headed back to Japan to earn some money.  I returned to South America for several months of travel, including climbing Aconcagua with the XTreme Dorks, then went back to Japan to refill my coffers.

Family hiking trip to Macchu Pichu, 1999

Bolivia, 2000 with the Xtreme Dorks
With my sisters in Kathmandu, 2001
Nepal, 2001
Silk Road ride start, Xian, 2002
2001 was spent travelling with my girlfriend Joanne, cycling through Southeast Asia.  Eventually Joanne decided that cycling wasn't her thing and I carried on alone across Tibet.  2002 was supposed to be the year I cycled the Silk Road, but I was felled by rheumatic fever in Urumqi, China and had to abandon the plan 
for the time being.

Cross-country skiing, Thunder Bay, 2004

2004, Pamir Highway, Tajikistan
Another reunion with my sisters, Ladakh 2005
Two rather disappointing years followed, one rebuilding my health and strength in Canada and my bank account in Japan, and one spent slogging through a Bachelor of Education degree in Thunder Bay, as I had had my fill of English teaching and needed to engage my brain a bit more.  In 2004 I rode the central third of the Silk Road, from Urumqi to Tehran, and then went to Egypt on my first teaching gig, but lasted only 4 months as the students were too much to handle and I did more zoo-keeping than teaching.  I went back to Japan, my regular financial fallback position, one last time, after being caught up with Joanne in the great Boxing Day tsunami in December 2004.  I spent a year in Japan, with the summer being set aside for a Himalayan cycling trip in India with my sisters, then rode through Vietnam in the summer of 2006.
Mongolia, 2007
Nepal with my mother, 2007
The next three years were spent teaching at Yangon International School in Burma with Joanne.  It was a wonderful time to be there, and I finally got to enjoy the long holidays of the teaching lifestyle, with summers spent cycling in Mongolia and backpacking around Europe, and shorter breaks in the Himalayas, skiing in Japan and diving all over Southeast Asia.  I played tennis most days of the week, playing better than I ever had in my 20s. I welcomed in my 40s at a huge party organized expertly by Joanne at our palatial apartment in Yangon, glad to be where I was.

40-50:  More Travel, and Five Years in the Alps

Made it!  End of the Silk Road ride, Ayas, Turkey, 2009
The last decade started with my last year in Yangon, and then a year of travel.  I finished my Silk Road ride on Halloween 2009 in Turkey, then rode through the chilly Balkans, toured around Italy, Libya and Malta with Joanne, then flew to Ethiopia for some challenging cycling there.  I got back to Canada to find a job offer waiting for me at a school in Leysin, Switzerland at a school that my mother had taught at years before.
Ethiopian highlands, 2010
Terri in Ladakh, 2012
Latvia, 2011
My five years in Leysin were wonderful from the point of view of lifestyle and travel, although teaching at a boarding school eventually proved too intense for me as I burned out, had a nervous breakdown and was off work for 2 months and on reduced hours for another 5.  The rest of the time, though, I skied, ski-toured, hiked, cycled, played tennis and travelled compulsively.  2011 saw me cycling from Tbilisi to Tallinn, 2012 saw Terri (my partner since arriving in Leysin) and I hiking across Ladakh, then my heading to Kyrgyzstan to try to climb some high mountains (Peak Lenin and Muztagh Ata), an experience that made me conclude that mountaineering was not my thing.  2013 was a year for Togo, Benin and Iceland, while 2014 saw me exploring Indonesia, the Solomon Islands, East Timor and Papua New Guinea.

South Georgia, 2015
Wild camping out of Stanley, Botswana, 2016
The past three years, after leaving my job in Leysin in 2015, have been a whirlwind of "pretirement" for Terri and me:  hiking in Europe, a cruise to the Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica, cycling in South America, a year spent driving around southern Africa in our beloved camper Stanley, and another year spent diving and writing a book on the northeastern corner of Bali, after the death of my father at age 85 in Thunder Bay.  Another spin around Namibia with Stanley, after a tour around New Zealand, and it was time to return to work, this time in Tbilisi, Georgia.  

49th birthday, Bali, 2017

I have to say that I feel relatively youthful at 50, although the onrushing sickle of the Grim Reaper does whistle in my ears occasionally.  My hair is noticeably greyer now, as is my beard, and my physical recovery time from strenuous exercise is enormously longer than it was in my 20s.  I tire more easily, and my memory isn't as razor-sharp as it once was.  But I can still cycle long days, hike over mountain passes and ski tour, so I'm not ready for my rocking chair just yet.  I hope to get another 20 years of active travel in before my body gets too old for this sort of thing, and to get some travel books published.  I'm not sure I'll see out my second half-century, but I am certain that I will have fun trying!

Atsunta Pass, Georgia, 2018