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A Svan Song

An excursion into the Svaneti Mountains of northern Georgia....

....without getting lost. I promise. Sort of.

So here's a bit of a story.

A close friend of mine and his wife had concluded that they needed some time away from the circus that is Tbilisi. This led them to the beautiful coastal city of Batumi; the jewel of the Black Sea.

However, they had one problem.


While invited, I had also agreed to come along. Something to which I don't think either party had given any thought. While we're mutual friends, all needing a week away, we had not planned for it to be done together.

Nonetheless, as my family says so flippantly to dismiss unpleasant matters, we proceeded to our seaside adventure. And it was so. Beach, an abundance of delicious food, gratuitous amounts of wine, and of course as luck would have it, the weather that would have otherwise seen us off back inland. It rained, but nevertheless we persisted.

During the course of our final days in the city, another mutual, indeed Irish, friend and I agreed to take a side adventure. A more minimalist one. While my primary friend and his wife abdicated to the city of lights and love, Tbilisi, my Irish friend and I proceeded to savor one more day in the Black Sea Jewel. And more.

However, there were to be some adjustments, and while welcome and much appreciated, they were a stark contrast to the past few days.

Despite the continuation of the wine and dinners that preceded us, we relegated ourselves to more…Spartan...quarters.

This hostel, while inexpensive and stripped of confusing luxuries, was something reminiscent of my early military life. A large room, ten bunk beds and two windows, with nothing more than that to comfort one. Truly minimalist. While it felt nice to harken back to days I once had as a young infantryman, it was not something the adult traveler adored. The older lady that presumably owned the institution was a kind soul, and even invited me onto the separate balcony to, through my broken Georgian and her broken English, discuss the issues of the day, the future, and matters of my young heart, where she felt so inclined as to tell me to rapidly seek a wife. Duly noted, hostel lady.

Nonetheless, I endured. Upon the completion of our time there, we ventured to the bus station that would be our junction to the next city: Zugdidi. After being mistaken for a Russian several times, I managed to get us tickets, a place to eat, and a seat on the marshutka (mini-bus, think Mercedes Sprint but with an Eastern European flair complete with bad 70’s Russian pop music playing and seats packed closer than herrings in a tin can).

The ride was comforting despite everything. Seeing the change from tropical to mountainous was truly intriguing. The country is really just as diverse as the US. Only smaller and more unified….

Arrival in Zugdidi came fast, and the atmosphere of the hustle of the inland cities rushed back to us. Zugdidi is, to be so bold, an unimpressive city. People don’t come from miles around to see the old soviet statues on the main drag, or the fountain surrounded by large federal style apartment buildings. While my definition of “charm” may be more fluid than some, the city does not offer too much to the posh traveler. However, to two rough backpackers, the city had jewels abound.

After an expedition into the local botanical gardens and ancient ruins of old Zugdidi, we retired to a hostel bar tucked into the recesses of a touristless building with no sign. The man in command, Edo, was a sharp business minded man with more than a few ideas to expand his bar/hostel operation.

Retiring for the night to a hostel, but more of a converted large home, we fought again with mosquitoes and the oppressive heat for a few well-separated hours of sleep. Rising once again for the day, we set off on the mission for our caravan to Mestia.

Finding the next marshutka was not an issue, it was more about waiting for the departure. Since there is no set departure time, it is simply when there are enough people to satisfy the profitability of the journey. Can’t say I argue with his strategy, as it is a money struggle, and I a humble capitalist. Though the lane of convenience and customer service leaves something to be desired.

The road to Mestia starts unassuming, meandering through the outskirts of Zugdidi and into the foothills of the Caucasus. Farms and country homes skip by, while cows and pigs make their presence known as much as they can as you whisk away towards the rising peaks of the mountains. As the road begins to wind into the heights, you feel the atmosphere change. Things get calmer, slower, and even seems as if some of the areas you pass are frozen in a time before modern convenience. Some homesteads haven’t been touched since Napoleon walked the earth.

Arriving in Mestia is always a treat. Bustling streets, with both people and livestock, and a vibrant scene overall. The town is surrounded by neck craning mountains covered with a pine mixture. Dismounting from the marshutka into the considerable cooler mountainous environment is a welcome respite from the lowlands heat and humidity. First objective: food and wine

After a fair feast and libation, we relegate ourselves to finding our lodging for the night. I found my quarters at what I would describe as an upscale hostel that models it after a hotel. However still has some of the communal properties of a hostel. A kind and friendly young woman almost fluent in English helped me to a fresh room with everything a salty and tired traveler, such as yours truly, could dream of.

Like most epic journeys, this will be expanded in another piece, so stick around.

To be continued...

"Lets suppose that you were able every night to dream any dream you wanted to dream, and you would naturally as you began on this adventure of dreams, you would fulfill all your wishes. You would have every kind of pleasure, you see, and after several nights you would say, well that was pretty great, but now lets have a surprise, lets have a dream which isn't under control. Well something is going to happen to me that i don't know what it's gonna be. Then you would get more and more adventurous, and you would make further and further out gambles as to what you would dream, and finally you would dream where you are now."

- Alan Watts

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