Apprehension can be measured by the density of smoke in a room. So it was on our cargo vessel, Greifswald, as it sat motionless in the Black Sea just outside Georgian waters, the room thick with the stuff as everyone smoked and waited.
A storm had cracked and crashed its way over the boat during the previous night, leaving in its wake an interminable calm. The barman who spoke some English was our Minister of Misinformation — always providing an entirely incorrect appraisal of the situation with false projections and a set of impossible scenarios that could not and would not follow. “Boat is broken down” he said at the bar, handing a German truck driver another espresso. You could rest assured it was something else.
The boat had not broken down. The storm had closed the port which meant more and more waiting. This four-day trip had now taken ten days if you include the time waiting in Odessa for repairs to be made. Everyone was a little strung out as we looked out of the foggy windows at the relentless rain and continued to smoke like the industrial revolution.
Big things seem to move slowly. So when the massive Greifswald finally began to dock in to the ugly port of Poti — all puddles, shipping containers and greasy green sea — it seemed to inch forward. Customs moved at a deathly pace, as did the fat lady in front of me in the passport queue.
But by early afternoon we were whipping through the Georgian countryside. The children, just out of school, looked at us like we were Santa Claus. The animals, on the other hand were indifferent. Doe-eyed cows, stood plump and awkward in the middle of the road and watched the cars go around them, while the pigs, all business, trotted up the main road as if to buy the newspaper.
That evening we stayed in the town Zugdidi and decided to try some famous Georgian cuisine. I don’t believe I have ever seen a Georgian restaurant outside Georgia, but if you ever get a chance to visit one, do it. Do it straight away. Don’t even finish reading this sentence. How was it? See, I told you so.
The Caucasus is in the vice-grip of empires (between Russia, Persia and Turkey) and incorporates all of these culinary influences. Yet of all the Caucasian countries, Georgia offers the most original cuisine. With three bottles of very mellow Georgian red, Marty and I ate, cursing the Ukrainian ferry company for committing us to our brutal schedule. But once the food arrived our wrath lost its edge.
We had chakapuli, veal soup with tarragon that tasted like a noodle-less Vietnamese pho. We had khachapuri, a type of cheese pie. The winner was pkhali, think baba ganoush but with walnuts, beetroot, eggplant and rubies of pomegranate resting on top. For an Australian palate that has long since had at its disposal a panoply of international cuisine, a range that has left this writer’s tastebuds a smoking ruin from the sensory overload, pkhali refused to be likened to any of the pre-registered flavours. It stimulated the base electronic charge from which, out of the primordial soup, a new flavour is born.
The next day, our destination was to be Mestia in the region of Svaneti deep in the Caucasian Mountains about 10 kilometres from the Russian border. We were to ride on a road which on the map had the shape of al dente spaghetti slowly lowered onto a white page. It was supposed to be a new highway but reports we had attained, from truck drivers interrogated on the Greifswald varied from “like Autobahn” to “not like Autobahn”.
I have spoken to many Western Europeans that say with a dismissive flick of their hand that the Caucasus is not part of Europe. Well, not really anyway. Let me address this once and for all: It is. The Caucasus mountain range separates the North Caucasus (think Chechnya and Dagestan) from the South (Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia). Culturally Georgia and Armenia at least are very similar to Europe, and if you take into account the technical bounds of Europe that is everything West of the Urals and, say, North of Iran, it is too. What’s more the Caucasus Mountains are taller than the Alps, with Mt Elbrus coming in at 5642 metres.
Marty and I awoke in the morning, packed, got on our motorcycles and left straight away, our triple-red-vino hangovers close in tow. We passed village shaped blurs to the side, toward looming mountains to the front until we hit the foot of the range. Ascending for a few moments we reached a dam that reigned in a lake, which lay marking equilibrium between the mountains above it. I will never forget its completely opaque, emerald colour.
“Maybe it’s because of the limestone,” said Marty as we stood on the edge of the cliff looking out over the expanse. I had no reason to doubt him as he is bizarrely up to speed with Geology, forever pointing out sedimentary cross-sections and igneous formations.
Almost instantly after continuing on from the dam, a new world opened up. The sandstone of the lowlands was replaced by hard dark shale. The trees were a mix of dark green alpine and deciduous trees which, this being mid-autumn ranged from yellow to burgundy. The density of their foliage gave the mountainside a powdery texture, as if each tree was the dab of a paintbrush, dipped in different coloured powder then pressed onto the page. All this rested above the emerald river that fed the emerald lake.
As we ascended further, the mountains became more rugged and exposed black rock faces became more frequent. The road varied wildly from freshly paved to muddy sections of unpaved. Also it began to rain. Of particular worry were the tunnels, which were unlit, the road and my pathetic headlights quickly swallowed in the obsidian. When travelling through, torrents of water would gush from the roof and pound my helmet.
Eventually we made it up to the town of Mestia, snow-capped mountains surrounded the town, which seemed busy reinventing itself as a rough-around-the-edges version of St Moritz. We found a room in the guesthouse, little more than a freezing wooden box, and went out again to eat.
The next day the plan was to hike up Chalatis Glacier. A pamphlet we found in the guesthouse announced it was “an easy round trip of six hours”. Marty and I got up and went to have breakfast in a small café. We ordered “spicy soup with rice” which was hearty but not spicy nor with much rice and had a cow’s vertebrae partially submerged in the bowl’s centre. It was not yet 9am.
There were a group of five middle aged and weathered men, sitting at the next table, clearly in the more advanced stages of alcohol fuelled revelry. One plump one began a conversation with us in Russian:
“Where you from?”
“Ahhh you must drink”
One of them stumbled over to our table, placed two shot glasses the size of tea candle holders on our table and poured from a clear vial a liquid right to the top. I smelled it and my nostrils burned.
“To Australia” said the fat one and raised his glass.
The others murmured.
We all sunk the shot. It tasted like raki, kicked like mule and burnt like a thousand suns. It was chacha, a Georgian moonshine made out of prunes or some other fruit, probably distilled in a bathtub and stirred with an oar. Hoping our initiation complete, I went back to my soup, its taste now severely muted. My plan was to make a hasty exit but the five were seated between us and the door. As soon as I got the bill, their drunken attention became once again fixed on us.
I should emphasise at this point that this was hospitality, not some sadistic game on their part. But it was Georgian hospitality. You have most likely experienced it before but by some other name. It is the kind of relentless hospitality that flicks away your protests like flies, the kind that if repeatedly refused could cross the line into offense, the kind that stands over you, its breath smelling of Georgian moonshine, slams down a large shot glass for the second time and demands “drink!” And so we did.
We managed to extricate ourselves from the café but not before they offered to drive us up the glacier in their trucks — a task impossible not just due to their level of drunkenness but also due to the laws of physics. I have trouble remembering the next few hours. My supposed alpine rejuvenation was not really going to plan. I can remember yearning to pat a herd of cows as they passed us up the street. There was an old babushka sweeping her front yard with a branch, who scowled at us. But like most day-time drinking, everything came to a screaming halt. Luckily at that time we were at the base of the Chatalis Glacier, from which an ice cold river ran. I drank freezing water and looked at the spectacular scenery.
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 Crikeyhere. You can read more about him at his blog Red Ink Run.