K Johnson rode through treacherous mountains in Georgia, with constant mini-avalanches and rain pouring down, in search of the town of Vardzia. Too bad there are two Vardzias in Georgia …
The most useless sign in the world is triangular. It has a red border and a silhouette of a cliff-face with rocks tumbling irrevocably over the edge. Its lo-fi quality is almost cartoony, like something from Spy versus Spy. But its uselessness does not lie in the omission of detail but rather its purpose. How is someone to respond to a sign that warns of rocks falling on your head while you drive?
For me, the series of events occur like this:
- See sign
- Look up at sheer cliff
- Examine rubble at base of said cliff
- Freak out
I challenge anyone to come up with a more practical response.
The night after we had descended the glacier I slept terribly. A storm had closed in. It raged and did not stop. My dreams were invaded by the sound of rain as it hammered the roof. I remembered the ascent up when the rain was light. I remembered rocks strewn across the road ranging from pebbles to boulders the size of shopping trolleys, all freshly detached from the cliff.
We had to leave in the morning, our schedule sandwiched between the late ferry and a set time for the Iranian border crossing on the other. I woke long before dawn and lay in bed listening to the water as it ran from the roof and splattered on the ground. Eventually Marty woke up. We ate cold cheese pie, drank thick black coffee, then got into our riding gear and rode.
Riding down the mountain involved striking a series of balances. Take going past a recent avalanche that has partially covered the road in rocks, for example. Now, one must be travelling fast enough in order to minimize the time spent beside the unstable rock face and avoid the next avalanche. On the other hand, the road’s surface is now strewn with jagged shale. The big rocks are obviously a problem but the small ones that form gravel which can be just as dangerous due to slippage. This means the speed must be slow enough to weave one’s 250kg motorcycle through said rocks.
Now introduce to this scenario torrential rain. Rain is problematic because it reduces visibility both for you and other drivers. Another balance to be struck was how open one’s visor was supposed to be — too open and the rain would sting your eyes, not open enough and the visor would fog. It also reduced grip on the road as well as increasing the likelihood of more avalanches. Then add other drivers, cow shit on the roads in towns, livestock, pot holes, dark tunnels and road works.
I just rode. My mind was clear, engaged with the task at hand so that at a conscious level there was no room for extraneous thought. No mental run-time to admire the savage beauty of the dark rock gleaming like black diamond in the wet. Nor time to admire the rivulets that had worked their way down, cutting an incision into mountain so that now different species of mosses occupied different heights in the cut valley, bleeding into one another creating a seamless spectrum of colour. No, I just rode.
And yet there were surreal moments that could not be ignored. I rode towards three horses standing in the middle of the road. I was used by now to dealing with livestock and so slowed down, edging towards them. The two brown horses merely trotted slowly to the edge of the road, but a white horse had been spooked, her eyes wild and frightened. She galloped as if in slow motion on the road’s surface, droplets of rain, showered from her mane and back. She stumbled once, then twice, her hoofs slipping on the greasy road. I slowed to a stop, not wanting her to fall and break a leg, and watched her gallop off the road and disappear into an adjoining paddock.
We kept on. The ambling emerald river had become a foaming, muddy force of nature channelled by the valley it surged down. It carried with it anything in its path. The rumble of its raw power was the ever-present score to the proceedings. We stopped halfway down the mountain in a burnt-out bus stop and I was shivering from the raw adrenalin as much as from the cold.
“Did you see that rock that almost hit my head?” asked Marty.
I had not, everything focused through the mist of my visor to the road ahead hurtling toward me. Marty had narrowly avoided a mini-avalanche, being hit in the head by only a tiny rock, the vanguard, while the big one (“the size of a grapefruit”) sailed passed him. There was little time or advantage in thinking at this stage. I still couldn’t shake the thought that this whole thing had been a bad idea. It was the same distance up and down so we had no choice but to keep moving.
Eventually with my attention sharpened to a pin prick for so long that my nerves were like so many flailing live wires, we made it to the dam that marked the base of the mountain range. I could see the surging brown river empty itself into the emerald lake’s embrace, its journey was over. Ours was not. Yet.
The rain had been so heavy that the lowlands had flooded. We reached them to see the road inundated. Here we would have to forget any notion of remaining dry, or even getting dry, the budget soft luggage we had bought for our motorcycles pathetic at keeping out the rain. Now all our clothes were soaked. The water was so deep on the road I could feel it surging against my front wheel, trying to carry me off the road.
We made it back to Zugdidi just as the rain stopped. We rung out riding gear, placing it at different points in a restaurant and made the cavernous place look like a refugee camp. The question over lunch was “Do we ride on?” As far as I saw it, we could not get wetter and if we rode fast enough it would dry our jackets at least. So we did.
Our supposed destination is Vardzia, an entire village that had been carved into a mountain and then revealed after an earthquake had caused half the mountain to fall away. Now you could see the cross-section of the town like a human-ant farm.
We played chicken with a dense black storm cloud that teased us before setting in fully once we had left the paved road and hit the mud.
It was freezing, wet and night was falling but this was not what worried me. Rather the surroundings exhibited none of the characteristics there were supposed to in Vardzia according to the Lonely Planet. First up, there was supposed to be a river. There was none. Secondly it speaks of a hotel. None of the locals knew anything about the hotel. We were forced to call it quits and get out just as the last traces of day leave the sky.
The ride back was hard — I couldn’t see anything and kept spinning out in the mud. Then we hit the bitumen where cars and trucks loomed up just behind me, blinding me. I had one thought: a hot shower and dry clothes. Eventually we got to a hotel behind a service station. There was mud everywhere. I fired up the hair dryer and dug it into my wet boots with one hand and looked at the map with the other. Turns out there are two towns in Georgia called Vardzia.
K Johnson is blogging regularly for Crikey while on his six-month trip to the countries most tourists never visit — think Azerbaijan, Transnistria, Iran, Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Kurdistan etc. Check out all the past stories and adventures he’s written about for Crikey here. You can read more about him at his blog Red Ink Run.