A woman had to unlock the giant door and let me out downstairs into the back courtyard. I walked around to the front and found a diesel station on the corner where the guy charged me 0.11 tetri more than what the pump read but I wasn’t going to argue over 3.5 cents. I drove away from Martvili with the sky varying shades of blue thinking the sun was just twenty minutes away from shining, but I had forgotten that I was in Georgia, in the winter, and was heading up into the snowy mountains.
The darkness would lift, but there was a pervading gray and storm-white color that would persist throughout the morning. I passed a couple churches with their familiar warm yellow glow calling out for attention but I know that not every building was made for me to enter nor every fence built for me to cross so I continue to pass houses and forlorn structures with a reverence for rest even though it’s been decades since some of these places have seen life inside them, let alone sleeping in past 8:30 am.
I arrive in Tskaltubo and though some factories look abandoned I’ve seen homes that look the same way with fresh laundry on the line. Georgia sets the standard of not judging a book, person, or country by their cover, clothes, or architectural appearance. The only movement I see is a taxi driver in a roundabout that seems to be having a smoke while standing outside the car, even though smoking wasn’t banned in taxis, houses, psychiatric clinics, penitentiaries, or casinos when it was restricted from schools, hospitals, libraries, etc in May 2018.
I can start to see snow on mountaintops in the distance but the ground around me is mixed with green and brown grass with gray rocks scattered about. The roads are getting windier as the mountains are getting whiter with ice crystals and as the car’s ice warning comes on I make my first stop in a verdant landscape — a roadside waterfall. I unzip my coat as I climb 80 stairs and pass two picnic tables and a tombstone for a 37 year old (his preteen image etched in the black stone) to get closer to the water flow.
I appreciate road trips for the music diversity they introduce, not always a language thing but whether the state or country prefers rap, country, hip-hop, religious chants, or children’s songs. On my radio is a mix of English, Georgian, and Christmas music which I’m not sure is because they celebrated the holiday five days ago or if they just really like the genre and the mood it invokes. For foreign films, they will simply dub over them or just repeat after, like a translator for a public event.
Further down the road and I have a white horse sighting, which for Christians means just as much death as a black cat. It’s a good thing that this stallion also stands for freedom and the balance of wisdom and power (as all animals have during their short lives in their realm). I also see another beautiful waterfall and then a flock of birds against a grey-blue sky above leafless trees but the only thing I read into it is, “I’m having a fantastic day and it’s only just beginning.”
The mountains seem to climb up around me as the clouds begin to lay their bulk on the building tops. I look to my right and notice a small stone tower of light and dark rock with two small windows, so I detour and park along the Tskhenistskali River and by the Monastery of Saint Maximus the Confessor and begin to climb these open stairs as I take in the expansive view. What I hadn’t noticed was the way the staircase zigzags up the terrain and includes over 675 steps (I counted) of elevation, not including the ramps. I thought it would be a short excursion but the steepness continued to increase as I climbed into the clouds.
I took my coat off halfway up and didn’t put it back on even when it started to sprinkle again. The most amazing and terrifying part of this journey is the plastic boards, like a child’s popsicle stick project, that are just stuck into the mountain side, some of them loose. The trail continues over the cliff and begins to go down further from the river. I’ll leave that to come back for as I turn around and make a quick descent because gravity makes falling down easier than climbing up.
The sky is starting to fall wispily as I find a parking spot in front of Svanian Kubdari, a cafe complete with dining room that I thought was just two women working in a bakery. I saw the loaves of bread ready for the oven and pointed to one. The woman said it would take some time and showed me through the door to a rounded triangular room with a patio and a view. I wasn’t sure of the fireplace’s efficiency until I stepped outside where the loo is downstairs with its own patio and view, if you leave the door open; which of course I did, because there’s something freeing about watching snow fall and listening to the river run while your water performs its duty too.
There’s a little curtained window that draws my attention with chatter as the smell of bread baking wafts through, but mostly while I wait I stare longingly at the fortress across the bridge knowing that’s where I’m going after I finish my kubdari, a Georgian quesadilla-calzone. I’m known to eat a lot, but I’m only able to finish half of this bean and cheese concoction before going to the car to get the 6 lari and grab the rest to go as some guys show up to replace my quiet contemplation with carbonation and laughter.
The snow seems to be falling more aggressively as I make my way on foot over this rickety walkway, that’s probably as sturdy as the day it was built, only to find this stone keep, Lado Museliani Lentekhi Local Museum, to be closed. Back on the road, I follow in the tread marks of the car in front of me until I stop for a photo or a chance to crunch my foot through snow, so I don’t slip again, while getting out to de-ice the wipers, for a second time, and thin the ice sheet that’s growing on the windshield. It’s moments like this I miss sitting in the warm car while watching Caleb do this for us.
I slow down and stay in the middle of the white path using the fences as markers for their guarding ditches nearby. There’s just a memory of cars ever being here as I pass a man walking away from a dog sitting in the road. Snow starts to cover everything — statues, rocks, houses — and is transforming the landscape. I’m easily drawn in by its magic and am ready to move into one of these abandoned-looking structures, but nervous I’ll have to explain to the owner what I’m doing there.
Soon trees replace the fences job and sometimes there are railings to mark cliffs with water at the bottom. Maybe I haven’t seen snow in so long or maybe this place is still just a winter wonderland, minus children and consumerism (which have a time and place), that has me mesmerized by bark, foliage, and water in their various forms. And as thrilling as this all might seem, especially since I spent over two hours driving amongst its beauty, I would encounter some difficulty — how to handle the guy sliding down a hill towards me in his car and which path to take next.
With the snow comes one-lane travel as tires wear down the middle of the road and allow this fluffy, sticky, slippery powder to build up into little car traps on the sides, but more on that later. I pass Guesthouse Rati, not knowing that I’m still two hours away, on a sunny day, from my goal of reaching Ushguli which is on the UNESCO list for being one of the highest continuously inhabited settlements in Europe, before seeing the road closed sign; there’s no misinterpreting that.
brave it be dumb enough to get stuck somewhere and have a family take me in over the winter and make me work while my husband worries about me actually having a job or not moving at all and becoming a blob of carbs and wine while the rental car company continues to add daily fees. That’s what rushed through my mind before I slowly turned the car around to avoid sliding off the road unnoticed because then I’m not a damsel in distress, just a lady with a lonely problem.
Backtracking, something only done by me if there’s only one way in and out of a park, or on a hiking trail that doesn’t loop, or some other time that Caleb will remember; I notice more kid boys on the road than cars when it snows, or grand (elder) folks and 24 year-old guys standing around. There’s a car throwing sand out in an effort to escape its snowy grasp, another driving half on the road, and yet another producing a black cloud while it struggles in this weather.
I make it back down to Lentekhi and stop at a market for some sugar to celebrate my loss and the ride ahead and whatever adventures await. I lift the lid to a double layer sheet cake and someone else’s hand gently closes it — a universal sign for no. I settle for a cherry apple juice, a chocolate bar, and a bag of homemade brittle bars for 8.1 lari. I’m listening to “Close Your Eyes” (though the more I look through all the genres the less I remember, but it seemed to continue… and I’ll put you to sleep at the wheel). Not what I had in mind at 4:20 going downhill in darkish weather with alternating rain and snow.
It seems to brighten just before nightfall and I’m listening to “Russians” by Sting, a pop song released in 1985, “if the Russians love their children too.” I need to listen to more music when I’m at home and not just save this experience for youthful memories, Dad’s house, and road trips because music definitely helps return you to a moment. I stop in Senaki and with 45 minutes until Zugdidi I will call it quits for the evening and decide to skip that as a detour instead of a connecting loop coming from Mestia that I had planned as a tour of the Upper Svaneti and their museums.
Stopped at the first hotel I saw and didn’t bother to ring the bell to bring the lady out of her room because it looked out of my price range. I went to a bigger hotel, Versali (which translates to Versailles), and got a room on the 4th floor for 50 lari. I had to sit in the lounge to talk with Caleb and tell him about my two beds, two pillows (one lumpy and one comfy), two heaters, a mini tub, and some soap from Ukraine that I’m bringing home. Caleb shared that he’s back in four-section duty and finally back to the same work schedule as the rest of the island with Fridays and Saturdays off, when applicable.
I steam up the bathroom and then semi-plan for tomorrow knowing that places might be closed because it’s Monday; the day when some Georgians will go to graveyards to pray, light a candle and sit with their family (explains why the graves look so inviting). This tradition began under Soviet Rule, 1921-1990, when churches closed and their priests left. Parks, museums, banks, and bakeries can be closed on any day they choose as there is now more religious freedom throughout Georgia.
So though tomorrow gets to maintain its mysterious appeal as to openings and weather conditions, the wedding party on the ground floor blasting English songs well past 2 am held enough allure to draw me down the stairs, between phone call and shower, to peek at the tables covered in food and dishes, the chairs filled with gossiping butts, and the dance floor a mix of laughter and swirling attire. This did not keep me up and I did not invite myself in. I went back upstairs to my warm bed and dark room, as they have all been, except for Zemeli having the blinking Christmas lights in their courtyard.