It’s Hard Being Georgian


Georgia (the country not the US state!) is a country with a huge mountainous landscape, history as long and colourful as Joseph’s dream coat and some of the most hospitable people on the planet. However on a recent trip to the former USSR state, I found out that travelling around is not all sunshine and puppies!

The food is a odd mix of East & West. The main staple food of most of the country is Khachapuri which is similar to a giant Indian naan bread but is filled with cheese. I am a big fan of cheese. Most meals in my North Wales cottage end with cheese and biscuits, however I will struggle to describe the taste of the cheese without mentioning the smell of your feet after a long sweaty walk. The natural yoghurt related to this cheese is even worse. Matt, my travelling companion, loved it and couldn’t get enough, but he’s always been a bit odd!
To my delight Khinkali was described to me as meat dumplings and I instantly thought of Ma’s cooking with satisfaction. What came was even better! A pastry wrapped parcel of meat boiled in water with a traditional method of eating. The trick is not to spill any of the juice trapped inside all over your trousers on your first day in the country, especially if they have to last another 20!

Driving. To determine the number of actual lanes on a road and therefore where you should be requires some maths. For every two lanes painted on, there is at least one extra one so on a 6 lane system in Tbilisi (the capital) it would not be uncommon to find 9 lanes of cars queuing at the traffic lights. What happens when it goes green is both scary & great! Once in the mountains, it’s usually best to ignore the lanes all together and just drive a lane with least number of pot holes.
There is an etiquette regarding the horn which I think I understand but would struggle to explain, though flicking between dipped and main beam at night was completely beyond me. Local law states you also don’t have to wear your seatbelt in the city because you’ll be getting in and out all the time visiting shops and so on.

The most popular form of accommodation in the mountains are homestays. This is essentially what they sound like, staying in someone’s spare room and sharing some Khachapuri. You pay for evening dinner, bed & breakfast but the home made vodka comes for free. It usually starts before dinner and kills. One vodka fuelled evening was completely by accident. We were staying close to the Russian border near Shatili and arrived late to a big family Supra (the name of a laid table of food). Gatecrashing a party you knew nothing about is awkward enough but it only becomes embarrassing when you are subjected to forced drinking only equalled at uni. The hostess instantly filled a beaker of home made vodka and poured it down our throats. We were instant hits with the rest of the family and treated as such. The spare room was filled with the 15+ family but we got to sleep out on the balcony, overlooking the darkened mountains lit by the starry sky which was infinity better than any other bed I’ve slept in.

This trip came together within three weeks. After a good Alpine season I was happy, but plans for the end of the summer had fallen flat. I resigned myself to North Wales planning future trips and was sat one day with a physical map of Europe open looking up the spelling of the Rhodopes mountains (another story). Looking around I released how little I knew about the white water kayaking in the Caucasus. After a couple of hours of research I found out that it was still in season, the rivers looked exciting and uncharted and it could be done on the cheap. I found a friend, Matt Bostock of Kayaks North West and off we went in search of huge rivers, deep gorges and adventures.

Our ‘plan’ was to hire a driver and head out travelling East to West over mountain passes and to jump on in our boats when the river looked deep enough to paddle. This got us into some amazing places and also terrible trouble.

Kayaking with a guidebook is exactly that – a guide. They do highlight hard sections, portage routes and were to stop. Without this, every corner had the potential to drop us into a challenging and specular gorge or a dangerous impassable canyon. On the Enguri, near Mestia we dropped into a bedrock gorge with overhanging walls. It is beautiful. After a period of attempting to scout the river from the bank we found the gorge to be impassable due to two fallen trees and the only way out was to climb. I found a route I thought I could solo, took 40m of rope with me and started climbing. After a few worrying moments, I was sat at the top in 30°C heat in a dry suit, lowered down the rope and hauled our boats out followed by Matt.

To counter that small story and to attempt to explain why there are people who do this kind of thing I have another, this time on the Tskhenistskali river near Lentekhi. The second day on this river we knew was going to be harder. The gradient of the following road told me it was going to be steep and the water we could see looked big. The question was would it be too hard. We started and instantly got a feeling for the river. Rapids flowed in-between large boulders creating fast movements, big waves, large holes and curling boofs. The river was right at the limit of what we could do and did not let up. The psychological side of white water kayaking really kicks in here. You’re trapped inside a canyon, the water demands no mistakes and there’s a long way ahead. We kept moving slowly but steadily and achieved a first complete kayak descent of the 22km gorge. It was a brilliant feeling.

Though I was not expecting it Matt & I paddled everyday, largely thanks to the passion of our driver Misha, of Georgia Tours & Adventures. He helped us find new rivers or longer sections, he lowered us into gorges and generally kept an eye on us, following our downstream progress. In our 2 weeks we scratched the surface of what is out there. The season lasts from spring to the end of September, with different sections and areas opening up as the season progresses.

If you wanted a pure paddling trip I’d have headed to France or such but we didn’t. Georgia has that something extra. Off the beaten track, it has caves, forts & monasteries from the 10th Century and earlier. It has a different culture, different ideals and bigger mountains but still some quality paddling.

Actually I’m lying, it was all sunshine and puppies!

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