Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Exploring the Debed Canyon, Armenia

Tbilisi, December 5, 2018

Persimmons drying in the backyard of our B&B in Odzun
It's a wet, cold evening here in Tbilisi, perfect for writing up a blog post.  Just under two weeks ago we had a long weekend here in Georgia for St. George's Day, and were dismissed from school at noon on Thursday, November 22nd.  Terri and I packed up Douglas (our Delica, named after the mountaineer and explorer of the Caucasus Douglas Freshfield).  Our plan was to drive south from Tbilisi to the Armenian border to explore the old churches and dramatic landscape of the Debed Canyon.  I had visited the canyon back in 2009 on my bicycle in the company of my fellow cyclists Adam and Cat, and remembered it fondly.  I thought that Terri would enjoy visiting these monuments to early Christianity in the Caucasus, so by 2:00 pm we were rolling south.

Odzun church catching the last rays of afternoon light
It's not terribly far to the Armenian border from Tbilisi.  We drove the longer but less-travelled bypass around the east side of Tbilisi, then headed south through Marneuli.  The weather was grey, cold and miserable, making for unpleasant, slow driving.  It took us a while to get through the border, but after getting our passports stamped, our car perfunctorily searched and our free Temporary Import Permit issued, we paid 44 lari (about US$ 16) for 10 days of third-party insurance and drove into Armenia.  It was slow going, with much of the highway torn either up for construction or from decades of neglect.  By the time we climbed up a steep series of switchbacks from the bottom of the Debed Canyon up onto a high plateau into Odzun, it was completely dark.  Our first choice of accommodation proved to be closed for renovations, but they directed us to another B&B near the church, Aghasu Tun (Aghasi's house), where we settled in for a couple of nights.  Our hostess, the affable Amalya, cooked us up a great meal and we were in bed early, ready for a full day of sightseeing the next day.
An obelisk outside Odzun church

Ancient inscriptions on the Odzun church
November 23rd dawned grey but not actually raining.  After a hearty breakfast, we walked across to Odzun's church to start our explorations.  It's a big, impressive church, first constructed in the 6th century and reconstructed in the 8th century into the three-naved basilica made of pinkish stone we see today.  The church was locked, but we pottered happily around the grounds, inspecting ancient gravestones and medieval khachkars.  The ground was a jumble of carved stones, adorned with figures of warriors holding swords, and other unmarked rocks, and the entire place felt tremendously ancient.  There is an unusual monument of two tall, thin stone pillars with the figures of saints carved onto their surfaces.  These are allegedly a 6th-century gift from an Indian king, but they look (aside from the saints' halos) more Egyptian in style. 
Three exquisitely carved khachkars outside Ardvi church
The petrified snake turned in Ardvi village
From there we drove a few kilometres south and west to the tiny village of Ardvi and its church.  The setting was magnificent, with high mountains rising to the west and a steep cliff looming to the east.  The church building is fairly old, but the ground around it has much older graves dating, according to signs, back to the 4th century.  The church feels as though it has sprouted organically from the rocky ground around it, and the feeling of having 16 centuries' worth of villagers buried in the surrounding earth was impressive.  Opposite the church is a sill of dark volcanic basalt that is said to be the body of a giant snake who was ravaging the surrounding countryside until the local catholicos (bishop), the Holy Hovhan, intervened and turned the reptile to stone.  Water trickles out of the rock at the point that should be the serpent's navel.  We sat and contemplated the passing of time, with so many generations of local farmers having sowed their crops, grazed their sheep and buried their loved ones in the village.  Once again there were lovely carved khachkar stones (distinctively Armenian monuments with elaborately decorative carving adorning crosses) and gravestones of warriors, and we had the entire place to ourselves.
Ardvi churchyard, with its extensive collection of ancient gravestones
The Holy Hovhan, turner of snakes into stone
We bumped off downhill again after a while under sullen skies, headed for Horomayri, another obscure local sight recommended by Amalya.  We made it to the striking two-toned stone church located on the edge of the precipice which leads down to the Debed River 400 metres below.  Peering cautiously over the edge, we spotted Horomayri Monastery, almost invisible some 80 metres below us, nestled into a protected spot on a narrow sill of flat land.  A long hiking trail led to the monastery from the main road up the escarpment, but from where we were standing it would have required rappelling to reach it.  We were content to look out over the edge and watch griffon vultures soaring past on thermals.

An old gravestone in Ardvi

The strikingly coloured chapel on the cliff edge above Horomayri Monastery

Horomayri Monastery, tucked into the Debed Canyon cliffs
From there we had to descend off the plateau and down into the bottom of the Debed Canyon.  We had no Armenian cash and were in need of a money changer.  The gritty mining town of Alaverdi provided a supply of Armenian dram as well as a grocery store in which we bought Armenian red wine, dried fruits and a couple of bottles of obscure brands of Armenian brandy.  We then found one of the very few restaurants in town for a delicious, inexpensive lunch of khorovats (grilled meat, like Georgian mtsvadi or Russian shashlik).  Alaverdi was still as economically depressed as I remembered it from nine years ago, and the streets were grim and Soviet. 

It was a relief to drive away from the mining infrastructure (the copper mine is currently mothballed) and the drab apartment complexes, heading south towards Kobayr.  We parked the car and hiked up through an almost abandoned village to the ruins of a 12th-century monastery complex that I remembered as being incredibly atmospheric.  It certainly would have been atmospheric except for the workers helping restore the ruins; they were busy chainsawing a tree, making for a very noisy visit.  The monastery was originally Armenian Apostolic, but soon passed into the possession of Georgian Orthodox owners, crossing the religious divide between the Monophysites and the Chalcedonians.  Perhaps the most evocative sight there was a human jawbone that had been unearthed during renovation work; it was sitting atop a fallen column rather like a memento mori in a Renaissance still life.
Memento mori, Kobayr

Kobayr Monastery ruins
Terri and Amalya, our hostess in Odzun
It had started to rain lightly as we descended back to Douglas and drove further south in search of the monastery of St. Grigor.  It took a while to find the correct path, and by the time we had been pointed in the right direction it was raining fairly steadily and light was fading from the sky.  We decided to turn around rather than risk a descent in the dark, leaving St. Grigor for another time.  On the way back into Odzun, we stopped again at the church to see the pink stone come to life in the ghostly light of a cloudy sunset (the rain had stopped briefly).  A second delicious dinner at Aghasu Tun and we were ready for another early night, having discovered that Armenian red wine can't hold a candle to its Georgian counterparts.  As we headed to bed, we spotted the full moon peeking through a gap in the clouds, a harbinger of clearer weather to come.

Our Delica Van lives up to its decal! 
We woke up on Saturday morning to see snow on the hillsides above Odzun
Odzun church in the morning light

Light playing over dark interior, Sanahin
November 24th dawned clear, and on the high hill behind Odzun we could see freshly-fallen snow whitening the sere countryside.  We breakfasted, said goodbye with real affection to Amalya and Aghasi, stopped in at Odzun Church for a picture in sunlight, then descended into the canyon and back to the unlovely streets of Alaverdi.  We got a bit lost following a rogue road sign, but eventually found our way onto the steep road leading up to Sanahin, perched above Alaverdi on the other bank of the Debed.  When I visited 9 years before, Cat and Adam (two Aussie cyclists I was with) and I caught one of the mining cable cars up to Sanahin from downtown Alaverdi.  This time we saw a single cable car dangling unused halfway up, and soon found out that with the copper mine mothballed, the cable car is no longer running.  Sanahin was a slightly more cheerful version of Alaverdi, with the same soulless apartment blocks and dreary streets.  Sanahin Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was free, both of entrance charges and of other tourists.  We wandered around for a good hour, poking around the sombre interiors of the church buildings.  They were built in the 10th century from basalt stone that has an exceedingly low albedo.  The inner walls are like black holes, absorbing every last ambient photon and leaving my camera gasping for light, even at an extreme ISO setting of 12,800.  It made every shaft of light sneaking in from outside through the rare tiny windows precious, and provided the opportunity for striking photos in the Stygian gloom.

Khachkar in Sanahin

Crosses carved on column in Sanahin

Me with a MiG-21 at the Mikoyan Brothers Museum
Eventually we emerged blinking into the daylight, took a few photos of intricate khachkars and took ourselves off to the 20th century in the form of a museum to the brothers Mikoyan, Anastas and Artem.  Sons of Sanahin, Anastas rose to become the number two man in the Kremlin, behind only Nikita Krushchev; the museum skated lightly over his role in Stalin's great purges of the late 1930s, preferring to highlight his introduction of ice cream to Soviet supermarkets and his involvement in defusing the Cuban missile crisis.  His younger brother was an aeronautical engineer and was the senior half of the design team for the MiG (Mikoyan-i-Gurevich) fighters that were the calling card of the Soviet Air Force and a major export commodity for decades.  Terri and I posed outside a MiG-21 outside the museum.
Wonderful light and carving, Haghpat

Haghpat light and shadow 
From there we traipsed back down into the valley and back up another 350 vertical metres to nearby Haghpat, site of another UNESCO-listed monastery that was very much in Sanahin style:  solid, beautifully carved, with tiny skylights trying their best to illuminate the profound obscurity of the interior.  Again we had the complex entirely to ourselves, and I spent a happy hour seeking out new pools of light to photograph.  We came out to find that rain had returned, and found a restaurant for lunch in a vain attempt to outwait the precipitation.

Fresco on the walls of Akhtala church
Akhtala fresco (of the three Magi?)
It was raining steadily by the time we finished our repast, and continued as we drove north towards Akhtala, the third in our trinity of big-name churches for the day.  Akhtala's copper mines are still working, but the town looked even more economically depressed and spiritually depressing than Alaverdi; maybe it was just the oppressive drizzle.  We wandered inside the high, cavernous church interior to inspect the blue frescoes curiously labeled with Greek inscriptions.  There were Georgian tombstones on the floor as well, adding to the linguistic and cultural mix.  Apparently the Ottoman rulers of this area imported Greek labourers to work in the copper mines two centuries ago and they converted the church for their own worship.  The frescoes were barely visible in the gloaming, but my camera was able to capture far more light than our eyes could, and gave us a much better view of the delicate colours of the paintings.  The ceiling of the central tower is missing, and a temporary modern wooden roof is now leaking badly.  The church caretaker, a wizened former miner named Boris, told us that a new tower and roof are to be built next summer.  Boris had worked for a quarter century operating a jackhammer, and it had aged him prematurely; we were amazed to find that he was younger than Terri, although he looked a good two or three decades older.

Akhtala church
The skies were starting to open as we trudged back to our Delica, so we decided on the spur of the moment to drive back across the border to Georgia.  It wasn't far to the border, and we were definitely going in the correct direction; we were through two sets of customs in twenty minutes, while on the other side the lineup of Armenian cars waiting to leave Georgia stretched back four kilometres.  After stocking up on prodigious amounts of mandarin oranges, dried persimmons, apples and other sundry items sold in huge stands beside the road, we drove on through the rain and darkness until we found a hotel in Marneuli where we stopped, relieved to be out of the rain.

Our "shortcut" to Gardabani
Our plan for the day was to check out a nature reserve to the east, near the town of Gardabani, which had been highly recommended by the National Museum in Tbilisi a few weeks before.  We set off, following our GPS, and rapidly realized that we had made a mistake.  The road turned into a dirt farm track which, given two days of heavy rain, was a muddy, treacherous skating rink of clay.  I hopped out and let Terri (our off-road specialist during Stanley's Travels) drive, but even she had to admit defeat and turn around.  We drove the long way around on paved roads and eventually got to Gardabani, where we followed the GPS towards the reserve.  It was a hellacious place, a vision of post-Soviet, post-industrial apocalyptica.  Clearly there had once been factories, greenhouses and a collective farm where we stood, but the buildings, which would have been in operation only 30 years ago, looked more ruined than Pompeii, Ephesus or Karnak.  It was unspeakably sad as well as hideously ugly, with chunks of concrete, broken glass and abandoned rusting metal hulks everywhere.  When we finally got to the reserve, we couldn't enter since a group of men were hunting.  We gave up, trudged back to the Delica and drove back north, around the sprawling metropolis of Tbilisi, to our house in Dighomi.
Ruined industrial landscape, Gardabani

Destroyed greenhouses in Gardabani
Overall it was a wonderful weekend, Terri's first exposure to Armenia and a return for me after nine years.  The weather was disappointing, but the history, the culture and the interactions with the people we met were fascinating.  As for Gardabani, at least we now know not to waste any more effort trying to spot the birds and animals of the riparian forest there!

Now, after a couple of weekends spent in Tbilisi, we are busy packing up for three weeks of skiing  in various mountainous corners of Georgia.  (At least that's what we hope; Ullr the snow god is not being co-operative so far.)  It will be fascinating to see new corners of this fascinating country.

Pins in the map showing our various explorations around Georgia

Monday, November 5, 2018

A Week in Magical Svaneti

The idyllic mountain village of Ushguli

Oak leaves

November 5, Tbilisi

A symphony of autumnal tones
There are places that I visit around the world that don't stick in the memory that much after I visit them; Denmark, Uruguay and Saskatchewan spring to mind off the top of my head.  Others are fun, but somehow don't live up to the expectations I created in my mind, like Tunisia or Morocco.  Then there are places that I visit once and spend years thinking about afterwards, hoping to arrange a return visit because I feel there is unfinished business there.  Svaneti, a mountain-girded valley in the far northwestern corner of Georgia, is in this category.

The quintessential Svan structure
I first visited in the summer of 2011, on a bike trip from Tbilisi to Tallinn.  With so many kilometres to cover during summer holidays from school, there was not nearly enough time to spend to get to know the hidden corners of this Caucasian jewel, regarded as the bastion of the purest essence of Georgianness because its remote inaccessibility spared it the not-so-tender attentions lavished on the rest of the country by invaders such as the Arabs, the Seljuks, the Persians, Timur, the Persians and the Russians.  I rolled across the high Zagar Pass and down into Ushguli under grey skies and spitting rain, then rolled onwards to Mestia.  The next day the weather was better, but I had a deadline to meet Terri in Sochi and had no time to linger.  I remembered the views of mighty Mt. Ushba and of the distinctive Svan towers, and cast longing sideways glances at the tributary valleys as I raced past on my bicycle.

Deep burgundy red leaves

For years I had dreamed about returning to Svaneti, enticed by stories of its culture and the wonderful mountain trekking to be done, but there were other adventures to be undertaken, and the dreams remained unfulfilled.  Then in February of this year I signed a contract to teach in an international school in Tbilisi, and I began thinking much more seriously about when and how I would return to Svaneti to do some hiking and to show Terri the sights.

Vibrant fall colours above Mestia
As soon as we arrived in Tbilisi in August, we raced off to Tusheti, the other great mountain wonderland of Georgia, for a week of trekking.  After that, we started the process of looking for a Mitsubishi Delica, the ubiquitous 4x4 minivan that serves as taxis and marshrutkas in regions of the country.  With so many Delicas on the road, we had no idea that it would prove so difficult to buy one for ourselves, but with only a few days left before my fall break, it became clear that we wouldn't have our own wheels and would be travelling by local marshrutka minivans instead.

Terri underneath a Svan tower in Mestia
Early on the morning of Saturday, October 13, we jumped into a taxi with our backpacks and headed off to Tbilisi train station.  The day train to Zugdidi was inexpensive, modern and very comfortable, and the trip across the central mountain barrier of the country and down into the lush plains of ancient Colchis (fabled destination of Jason and his Argonauts, where the Golden Fleece was to be found) was comfortable and scenic.  At Zugdidi station we hopped into a battered Ford Transit minivan and, after much waiting around for passengers, we eventually drove off, past villages lined with walnut orchards and uphill into the first folded creases of the High Caucasus.  We were following the Enguri River and soon found ourselves looking down on the artificially azure waters of a giant hydroelectric reservoir.  The hillsides were cloaked in dense ancient stands of oak and hornbeam, their leaves various pastel shades of orange, yellow and brown in the afternoon sun.  Once past the reservoir, each tributary offered views of tall square-based stone defensive towers up below glaciated pe.  aks.  Eventually we tumbled off the marshrutka in the main square of Mestia, a town that has seen massive investment in tourist infrastructure over the past decade, resulting in a feel not unlike a small French Alpine resort.  We walked to our chosen lodgings, the Keti Pilpani Guesthouse, dropped our bags and then headed into town for a meal.  We picked the most touristy restaurant in the main downtown and ate well, serenaded by a group of the polyphonic folk singers for which Svaneti is famous.

Beautiful late-season wildflowers

Mt. Tetnuldi
Our first full day was spent climbing high up above Mestia town.  The weather, as would be the case all week, was perfect, with cool morning temperatures but bright sunshine and nary a cloud in the sky.  The light on the autumnal foliage was perfect, and it was almost sensory overload to walk through Nature's palette of colours.  It was a brutally steep ascent to a viewpoint just north of, and some 800 metres above, Mestia.  As we neared the top, some of the highest peaks in the High Caucasus hove into view.  Ahead of us to the northwest loomed the steep ramparts of twin-horned Mt. Ushba (4710 m), while behind us the broad pyramid of Mt. Tetnuldi (at 4858 m, it's 50 metres higher than Mont Blanc)  almost obscured the even higher peak of Jangitau (5058 m).  To the south a chain of anonymous 3500-metre peaks sported a heavy white covering of glacial ice caps.  We were on the roof of Europe, with the continent's highest peak, Elbrus (5642 m) just out of sight and out of reach on the Russian side of the international border.  After we caught our breath, we continued uphill for a while towards the Koruldi Lakes, but didn't quite make it, seduced by the perfect picnic spot that we found beside the path.  We ate a lavish picnic, watching Delicas shuttle non-hiking tourists up towards the lakes along a road that looked impossibly steep and narrow and precipitous.

An unusually patterned ladybug

Mighty Mt. Ushba
We walked back down the jeep road, passing a newly-built chalet that wouldn't have been out of place in the Swiss Alps.  It would make an amazing base for hiking, mountain biking or ski touring (although winter access would definitely be a serious issue).  We dropped back into Mestia along a country lane lined by oak trees and stone towers, perfectly content with our day's walking.  We were back in town in time for a matinee showing of the award-winning Georgian feature film Dede, shot entirely on location in Svaneti and with a cast of almost entirely amateur actors plucked from the village of Ushguli.  It was a well-made film, although more than a bit dark.  

The reds of autumn
Monday morning found us in a marshrutka headed towards Ushguli.  The government has been lavishing lots of money on improving roads around the country, and the Ushguli road is no exception.  The climb up to the low Ughviri Pass and down the other side to rejoin the Enguri River (Mestia is located in a tributary valley) was all on newly laid cement.  From that point onward we were in the midst of a muddy construction site for the next ten or fifteen kilometres as the government tries to finish the work before the snow sets in.  The final fifteen kilometres are the same muddy, rutted dirt track that I remember from seven years ago, but the view as you pull into Ushguli is worth it.  We wandered into town, selected a guesthouse from the dozens on offer, then set off to explore the valley.

The view from Ushguli towards Mt. Shkhara
Birch leaves showing yellow against the rhododendron bushes
When I had last been in Ushguli, it was cold and rainy and I had barely even seen its famous towers.  Now the village was bathed in sunshine and the immense rocky ramparts of Mt. Shkhara (5068 m), the highest peak in Georgia, dominated the view to the north.  We pulled on our hiking boots and set off towards the base of the mountain along a valley so gently inclined that a Delica track runs along it.  An hour and a half of quick marching brought us to a point where we could sit and contemplate the source of the Enguri River as it bursts forth from the tongue of the Shkhara Glacier.  Shkhara is a broad, imposing mountain that reminds me of a shorter version of Nanga Parbat.  A half-dozen glaciers drop vertiginously down its steep face, carving deep scars that eventually melt out into pristine mountain streams.  We sat atop a glacial erratic and had a late lunch, contemplating the immense mountain architecture around us, before turning back towards Ushguli.

An autumnal morning in Ushguli
Back in town we wandered around the streets, photographing Svan towers and looking at the outsides of St. George's Chapel and the Lamaria Church, both in improbably grand settings with Shkhara as a huge white backdrop.  As we were returning to our lodgings, we ran into Mose, the eight-year-old child star of Dede, perched precariously over the saddle of a horse.  He was trying in vain to adjust the girth of the saddle, and couldn't quite reach, so Terri gave him a hand.  He gave a quick smile of thanks, then cantered off down the main street.  I thought that having a taste for fast horses was probably healthier than some of the lifestyle choices of Hollywood child actors.

The unbeatable backdrop of the Lamaria Church
That evening we had company in our guesthouse in the form of a Dutch couple, Harry and Roelie, in the midst of a round-the-world cycle tour.  We devoured a typically voluminous Georgian supper while swapping cycling stories and tips for sightseeing.  Harry commented that while on a 3-month bicycle trip the previous year along the Great Divide Trail in North America, they had experienced an epiphany:  they were just as happy living out of 4 panniers as they were living in a flat with three bathrooms and a closet full of tailored business suits in Eindhoven, so they decided on a radical downsizing of their lives.  I thought of all the happy months that I have spent in the same situation and was happy for them.

The bells of the Lamaria Church in Ushguli with Shkhara behind
Tuesday was spent in a state of pleasant sloth, ambling around the streets of Ushguli.  We found the Lamaria Church open and peeked inside.  Its tiny interior still boasts the remnants of medieval frescoes, and has a peaceful, contemplative air that captured my imagination.  I find the atmosphere inside the intimate confines of a typical Georgian or Armenian church to be more conducive to contemplating the infinite than the Pharaonic scale of Western European Gothic cathedrals.  The small dark interior also contrasts vividly with the blazing reflected sunshine and epic scale of Shkhara behind.  Both the Lamaria Church (dedicated now to the Virgin Mary) and the Jraag (St. George) Chapel nearby are repurposed pagan shrines.  Lamaria seems to have been dedicated in pre-Christian times to the Svan sun god Lile (or Lileo), whom many scholars seem to identify with the Sumerian sun god Enlil.  Jraag seems to be the Christian reincarnation of the pagan Svan moon deity, probably associated with the Mesopotamian moon god Sin, whose temple I visited near Harran in Turkey back in 2009 on my Silk Road Ride.  To this day there are strong surviving elements of the indigenous Svan religion overlaying Christianity, and it excites me to think that the ancient Sumerian and Mesopotamian gods live on in some form in this magical out of the way corner of the world, millenia after they died out in their ancestral homelands.

The Lamaria Church in Ushguli, dwarfed by Mt. Shkhara

Terri with Sopho, our new movie star/waitress friend
After saying goodbye to Lamaria, we tried to hike up to another Svan tower high above the town in the middle of an ancient oak forest.  We passed the hilltop tower associated with Queen Tamar, the only female ruling monarch of Georgia and the queen at the time of the greatest medieval flourishing of national independence, power and culture.  Our hike led us steeply uphill through some cow pastures but then petered out in a stream bed that got steeper, wetter and more overgrown with rhododendrons.  No sooner had we given up and turned around then a lone bull with a bellicose attitude came ambling down the stream bed, snorting, pawing at the ground and goring bushes with his horns.  Terri, who has prior history with ill-behaved bulls, hid in the forest along with me until the bull stopped staring at us malevolently and began heading downhill.  We set off quickly on a different downhill trajectory and calmed our nerves with a lunch and a beer in the Cafe Enguri.  As it turned out, our waitress Sopho was another cast member from the film Dede, while one of the patrons drinking chacha at the bar was Nestor, a third cast member.  We sat in the sunshine, soaking up the views, until the attentions of a pack of feral dogs became a bit much, sending us indoors.  There we found a shrine to Dede, with a collection of trophies and awards from film festivals all over the world.  As it turned out, the owner of the cafe is the twin sister of Miriam Khatchvani, the film's director, and the film is shown several times daily on the cafe's video screens.

The trophies amassed by the Svan film Dede, on display in the Cafe-Bar Enguri

The Mulakhi Valley near Zhabeshi
After much fussing about, our return lift to Mestia finally rolled up around 3:45 and we got going at 4:30.  The sun had almost set by the time we got back over the Ughviri Pass and hopped out for the stroll up the Mulakhi Valley.  It was a long walk, but eventually we were offered a lift by a passing pickup truck and were dropped at a huge guesthouse where we got a room and a sizeable meal before tucking ourselves into bed for an early night.

The Gates of Georgia above Zhabeshi

Wednesday saw us up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready for a long hike up into the mountains.  It was a comedy of errors when we set off at 10:00 am.  I managed to forget both the paper map and the GPS unit back with our luggage at the hotel, and we both forgot which valley we were supposed to be hiking up.  We got to the start of the Tvibeeri Glacier walk, then convinced ourselves that it was in fact the Tanneri Glacier we should be heading for.  After backtracking into the village of Zhabeshi, we set off upstream again through a stunning autumn-tinted landscape but soon found our path dying out in series of impenetrable rhododendron thickets that had overgrown the disused path.  We retreated again and tried our luck on the Tvibeeri trek again, and took almost half an hour to find the start of the trail.  Eventually we got onto the right path and climbed steeply up towards the impressive narrow gorge known as the Gates of Georgia.  We had a late lunch under the shadow of these impressive cliffs, contemplating the perfect weather and wonderful views, then trudged back down towards our guesthouse to pick up the rest of our luggage.  We retraced our steps back to the main Ushguli-Mestia road, thumbed down a lift almost instantly and zipped the 10 kilometres back to Mestia in a quarter of an hour, past numerous clusters of Svan towers punctuating the copper and gold foliage of the hillsides.

Looking back towards Zhabeshi

Fall dried flowers
From Mestia we kept heading west, hiring a taxi to drive us along the main Zugdidi highway and then up the Becho Valley to the end of the road at Mazeri.  The road was in abysmal condition up the valley, and apparently a week before our arrival angry Becho residents had blocked the road and staged angry protests until the government promised to hurry along a three-year road improvement project that had to date paved less than one kilometre of the eight-kilometre road.  We tumbled out of the taxi, oohed and aahed at the imposing sight of Mt. Ushba dominating the head of the valley in front of us, then made a beeline for the nearest guesthouse.  Luckily it was a wonderful choice, as the Baba Nikolozi is run by the gruff but hospitable Ange with assistance from her vivacious cousin Miranda.  We spent three nights there, and found it the perfect base for our excursions.

The west side of Mt. Ushba seen above its eponymous glacier
Thursday morning saw us up and off in the crisp cool of morning.  Once again it was a bluebird day, and Ushba looked very vertical and hard to climb, meriting its title of the "Matterhorn of the Caucasus).  We walked up the valley, past a series of mineral water springs bubbling to the surface.  For the first time in Svaneti, the main forest patch was composed of pine, spruce and fir, giving the surroundings a very Canadian feel.  We passed a border police post, then began a long steep uphill slog up a rather treacherous scree slope.  We were bound for a point above a series of impressive waterfalls tumbling down the headwall of the valley, and we had to get up the precipitous incline.  A couple of groups of hikers turned back, leaving Terri and me along with a Canadian insurance broker named Shawn.

Becho Waterfalls
Eventually the path levelled off just below the tongue of the Ushba Glacier, leaving us with an unobstructed view of the west face of Ushba.  This is the standard mountaineering route, and it looked pretty daunting to my untrained eye.  We sat down and had a late picnic lunch, soaking up the view both towards the peak and also down the Becho valley to a series of glaciated 3500-metre summits to the south.  The scramble back down was less treacherous than we had feared, and we eventually found ourselves marching back down the banks of the river, getting back at 6 pm after 8 hours on the trail.  Luckily Ange had brewed up an exquisite mushroom soup (the woods are full of tasty fungi rather like Portobellos, and the soup was rich with their earthy flavours), which took the edge off our hard-earned hunger.  We sat around the toasty warmth of the kitchen stove, chatting in English with Miranda and in Russian with Ange, until we could no longer put off the return to our cold bedroom.
Terri with the irrepressible Miranda at our guesthouse in Becho

Moon over Svaneti
On Friday we took it a bit easier and walked to the deserted hamlet of Guri.  On the way we passed the village school where Miranda teaches (and where Ange once taught as well).  Ange had told us the night before that they had once had 15 or 20 children in most grades; now there are only 40 students in the entire school (with a staff of 20 teachers), a symbol of the declining population and birthrate in rural Georgia.  The walk was idyllic, with not another soul to be seen in the valley.  This route can be extended high above Guri and then down to Mestia, via the Koruldi Lakes that we had almost reached on Sunday from the Mestia side.  We sat outside the locked church, eating the immense picnic of bread, cheese, jam and persimmons that Ange had lavished on us, looking out at the colours of fall and feeling immensely at peace with the world.  I felt as though I could gladly have spent weeks in the Becho valley, walking to perfect little spots like this and soaking up the atmosphere.

Glaciated peaks south of the Becho Valley

Ange, Miranda and Terri in Mazeri, in the Becho Valley
After another convivial evening around the wood stove, talking about Georgian history, bemoaning the collapse of the USSR (a common refrain among many Georgians) and eating more mushroom soup, and another slightly chilly night in our room (luckily our comforters were warm), Saturday morning found us saying goodbye to Ange and Miranda with real regret; we felt that we had been welcomed into the bosom of the family.  We shouldered our packs and ambled downhill towards the Zugdidi road.  Along the way we found the perfect Delica van beside the road being washed by its owner.  He said that he was looking to sell it for the reasonable price of US$ 6000; we shook hands on the deal and continued along the way, happy at having found our vehicle at long last.  (Sadly, it was not to be; the owner kept raising the price when we called from Tbilisi, and eventually we gave up and bought another Delica instead.)  We caught a passing marshrutka back to Mestia and spent the afternoon at the Mestia Museum.  It's a surprisingly good collection, lovingly curated and well displayed.  The things that struck me most forcefully about the museum were the strong trade connections between the mountain fastnesses of Svaneti and the Mesopotamian lowlands 4000 years ago, and the wonderful illuminated religious texts preserved in some of the churches of the region.

Gorgeous gold repousse work in Mestia museum

Vivid fall colours
And then, sadly, after a final meal at Cafe Laila and a night back at the Keti Pilpani guesthouse, we were up early on Sunday morning for nine hours of hair-raising driving back to Tbilisi in a marshrutka.  It was a relief to extract ourselves and our luggage from the cramped confines and stagger back into our house late on Sunday afternoon.

It was an unforgettable week, and it could not possibly have had more perfect weather or fall colours.  Terri and I both look forward to returning to Svaneti over Christmas (this time driving our newly acquired expedition van) for skiing in the Tetnuldi resort, ski touring and (we hope) cross-country skiing.  Svaneti was everything I had hoped for, and I expect to be back there more than once before I leave Georgia.  It was definitely worth waiting seven years for!

Below the end of the Ushba Glacier