Georgia (a country the shape of a badly cut slice of pie with two Russian bites taken out of it in the form of South Ossetia and Abkhazia) is a small enough country to pick and choose where you’d like to see in a short period of time. I choose to go north from Tbilisi, to the small picturesque town of Kazbegi in the mountains close to the Russian border. I’d a romantic half-notion of being close enough to Chechnya that I could hop over the border and make contact with some Chechen rebels but such an adventure would be nigh impossible, not to mention stupidly dangerous. Instead I spend a couple of days trekking through the surrounding hills and valleys, enjoying the unusually pleasant weather. One of highlights of my trip so far is my walk up to the 700 year old Gergeti Trinity Church overlooking the town. After an hour and a half walk up steep terrain through forests, I come to an opening with nothing but the church and mountains in sight. If this was the summer, the place would be swarming with tourists but now, with no one else around, it feels like I’m stepping back centuries.
I stay in a family run guest-house with hearty homemade meals and a helpful landlady. Her husband offers me chacha (a Georgian liquor) with my breakfast as is the custom here. I refuse and his opinion of me sharply nosedives as a result. Later in the day I’m joined by other guests, Aoine and Bernard. They’re the first other Irish (well, they’re from Dublin…close enough) I’ve met since leaving home and it’s good to hear the craic from their travels. They’re English teachers in Georgia, having spent the last few years in Australia and New Zealand, and are on their way home for Christmas. I feel a bit sorry for them, as I know the shock of arriving back in Ireland after being away from it for so long…it takes a while to re-adjust. They also fill me in on the particularities of Georgian culture. It’s still a pretty religious, conservative place despite the hospitality and warm welcomes. The locals are always helpful with directions Pansheti
After another day of exploring the local area, I force myself to leave to start hitching south towards the Turkish border. I don’t really want to leave at all but I’ve received my Iranian visa code and feel I need to get back to Erzurum to collect the visa and have it over and done with. Hitching isn’t as easy as it is in Turkey but I make it to the last big town before dark. Along the way I get lifts with a Russian, a BP manager and two slightly annoying ex-BP workers in their mid 20s. The latter bring me to their home town of Alkhaltsikhe, which is one town further than I’d planned to go but I think I may as well stay the night there. This is a mistake,as I can’t find a guesthouse and am forced to stay in an empty, soulless hotel. The next morning I hitch back to Borjomi where there are guesthouses galore and I stay in a cheap one for a couple of nights while rambling around some of the national park surrounding the town. On my first night, I decide to treat myself in what appears to be a respectable restaurant, albeit a spacious one with sound equipment in the corner. I sit down after a long day and look forward to a good meal in peace but as soon as it arrives, the sound system blasts out Gangnam Style and a few of the younger locals who I thought were there to quietly enjoy their drinks, get up to dance. I was blissfully oblivious to the aforementioned, eh…song, until I was in a cafe in Thessalonica and with no prior warning the video of it came on the flat-screen TV overlooking my table, while I sat dumbstruck wondering, “what the fuck?”. The same thought enters my head as I watch grown men ride imaginary horses around what I thought was a restaurant. After enduring a few more trashy pop tunes, I finish my meal and get the hell out of there as fast as I can. After Borjomi I head back to Alkhaltsikhe and onward to the remote Turkish border outpost in the mountains.