Trip Archives: Bloody Feet

Approx. 12 days of traveling and hiking in the Caucasus in the summer of 2012.

Bremen - Amsterdam - Kiev - Tbilisi

In hindsight the route we chose to get to Yerevan is unnecessary complicated and time-consuming.

But we were looking for the cheapest option and therefore left very early in the morning for Amsterdam. Trains were on time and everything went soothly.

From Amsterdam we flew to Kiev, Ukraine, and from there to Tbilisi, Georgia. Unfortunately, Justus’ backpack didn’t make it to Tbilisi. Enquiries at Lost & Found revealed it’s still in Kiev. They (we, too!) hope it will arrive here tomorrow.

We’re staying in the Why Not hostel, the same one I stayed in last year. Not much has changed. Ben is still working here, which is great.

Where the heck is the guy going again, you might ask.
I’m on a short 2-week trip to Nagorno Karabakh, a de facto independent region in the Lesser Caucasus of Azerbaijan, which was shaken by a bloody war in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, with Armenian and Nagorno Karabakh troops on one side, and Azerbaijan on the other side.

Nagorno Karabakh, also known as Mountainous Karabakh, declared independence when the Soviet Union fell, at the same time as Armenia and Azerbaijan. But since it used to be part of the Azerbaijan Oblast its independence declaration wasn’t recognized by Azerbaijan. A war ensued and most of the Azeri population was driven out.

There is a cease-fire in place since 1994 and the region is safe for independent travel. A few volunteers have created a hiking trail that crosses the region from North to South, and together with Justus it is our plan to hike a few days there.

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Tbilisi

Justus called the airport a couple of times this morning but nobody answered. Around noon we decided to go there and check ourselves.

We learned that the backpack was still in Kiev and would arrive with the next flight in Tbilisi (around midnight). They said they would deliver it immediately to our hostel.

We then did some shopping for groceries for our trip, as well as wine for tonight, and strolled around the city for a bit. We also changed our plans completely. Since our time here is limited we’re going to stay in Georgia and will try and hike from Kazbegi in the North to Tusheti in the East. It is a route that I wanted to attempt last year but ran out ouf time.

Later we went out for dinner with Ben to sample the gorgeous Georgian cuisine.
Another call to the airport at night revealed that Justus’ backpack had arrived, but they claimed not having enough drivers to deliver it tonight. It would be here by 7am, they said. We didn’t quite believe that and asked Irakli, the hostel’s taxi driver to collect it later at night when he was going to pick up other guests from the airport.

So, if the backpack is here in the morning we’ll head to Kazbegi tomorrow.

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Tbilisi – Kazbegi – Sno Valley

The backpack arrived with Irakli last night!!!
We’re ready to set out.

We took the metro to Didube station and hopped on a somewhat touristy marshrutka, together with two girls from Belarus and four Chinese guys, that took us to Kazbegi, north of Tbilisi close to the Russian border.

I slept for most of the ride, but what I saw of the countryside was stunning as almost always in Georgia.

In Kazbegi we stocked up on locally produced bread and cheese and started walking towards Juta, the last village before the mountain ranges that separate the region of Khevi from the region of Khevsureti. We were soon approached by more or less official taxi drivers who asked for our destination and offered a ride. We had to haggle quite a bit and still paid a lot for the 20 km to Juta. Justus liked the idea of travelling in a Lada Niva very much, so it was worth it.

In Juta we met a guy and his kid, and and he recommended the northerly route across the Sadzelisghele Pass (3056 m), which was supposed to be snow-free, and not the route across the Chaukhi Pass (3338 m).

We followed the Juta river for a while. Or was it still the Snostskali? Anyway, we approached a military checkpoint and were stopped. The border with the Russian republic of Ingushetia was less than 3 kilometers to the north. We had to produce our passports and received a document permitting us to travel further.

So we continued along the river, higher up the valley. The path branched and we decided to stop and pitch tents for the night.

Walked 10km.

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Sno Valley - Gudani

After a hearty breakfast of Georgian bread and cheese and German müsli bars we continued our hike. We started by wading through the river we were following yesterday. Our path climbed quickly towards the Sadzelisghele Pass (3056 m). The pass itself was free of snow but covered in low-hanging clouds. A chilly wind from an eastish direction brought cold drizzling rain. We had a quick snack and descended towards Roshka on a winding path. On the way down we met a guy, a Georgian, with a horse who asked us about the distance to Juta.

Roshka is a small village. We didn’t really stop but continued our hike on the track that connects Roshka with the main road between Tbilisi and Shatili. After a kilometer or two an old and massive Soviet-era truck came down the track from Roshka and we hitched a ride on the back. It started to drizzle and when they dropped us off at the junction it was pouring. At first we sought shelter under a tree and were hoping to hitch another ride towards Shatili, but when we realized that this part of Georgia sees very little traffic we rain-suited up and walked.

We made it to a crumbling structure made of concrete which might have been a bus stop decades ago. But at least it had a semi-functional roof. We waited until the rain stopped and then decided to have a look at Gudani’s guest house, for which there was a sign nearby. Best idea ever. The hot shower from the ancient-looking wood-fired bath boiler was amazing, and the dinner… beyond words. We had loads of khachapuri (Georgian cheese-filled kind of bread), butter, roasted potatoes, beef soup, fresh veggies, sulguni (Georgian cheese), pickled cucumber and onions, matsoni (Georgian yoghurt) with fresh blueberry(?) jam – everything fresh and home-made.

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Gudani – Chanchakhistskali Valley

After an awesome Georgian breakfast we continued our hike towards Shatili. We passed by a few hamlets – Biso and Khakhmati – lying in the valley below the road. Traffic was low (i.e. almost non-existent). Eventually we spotted a marshrutka in the distance and were prepared to flag it down and hitch a ride to Shatili. The van was filled to the brim and didn’t even stop. At that point we realized that we would not make it to Shatili today. The original plan of hiking from there to Tusheti in the East was ditched due to timing constraints. Instead, we decided to keep on walking on the road until after we crossed the main Caucasus range via the Datvisjvarisghele Pass (2676m), then deviate off onto less trodden paths, cross another pass and descent into the Chanchakhistskali valley, then continue to Shatili from there. By now we were too proud of what we had already achieved to negate that achievement by using cars. From Shatili we’d take a marshrutka back to Tbilisi to arrive back there in time.

Datvisjvarisghele Pass was covered in clouds. On the way there we could hear a shepherd shout after his flock of sheep. We even saw him high above the road on a steep slope, until he was swallowed by the fog. We imagined the life these people lead here, always outside, always on the move, no matter what the weather is like, sleeping in tiny and cold huts.

The wind blew coldly across the pass, but as soon as we had descended below the clouds again the view was breath-taking. The valley which the road followed was astoundingly beautiful. Green grassy slopes left and right, bare of any trees, a large flock of sheep grazing just across the valley. We were almost feeling sad about leaving road and valley behind. We walked down to its bottom, left the road, crossed the river Arghuni which has its source near by. Since we had just crossed the water divide, the Arghuni flows in a northish direction, towards Chechnya.

We continued eastish, climbing up to an unnamed (as far as I know) pass, on a narrow footpath, not far from the sheep mentioned above. The shepherd didn’t seem to care much, unlike his dogs. Two of them followed us for quite a while, barking, making sure we didn’t feel like having lamb for dinner. Eventually they decided to let us go scot-free, and we disappeared in the fog.

After crossing the pass, the Chanchakhistskali valley opened up beneath us, again stunningly beautiful. While descending towards the Chanchakhistskali river, we heard gun shots and voices shouting. However much we strained our eyes, though, we didn’t see anyone in the valley below or on the slopes across.

We followed the winding path and when we reached the river at the bottom we decided to call it a day. Fog crawled up the valley and we had just finished pitching the tents when the world around us disappeared.

Walked 23km.

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Chanchakhistskali Valley – Ardoti

The night was chilly due to my worn-out sleeping bag.

We continued our hike along the Chanchakhistskali river to the north, on narrow foot paths. The slopes around us were covered with grass, no trees anywhere yet.
The weather changed frequently from sunshine to drizzle or light rain, and back to sunshine.

We reached Khakhabo, an old village built on a steep hillside. Almost all of the houses are abandoned and in ruins. Just one seemed inhabited. A man was working on a field nearby. He took a break and we had a short bumpy chat due to the lack of a common language. However, he told us that there were two people living here, and that there was another inhabited place a few kilometers down the river where two more people lived.
There we met Michail, whos Russian was more fluent than mine. Interestingly, he said that there was only one person (himself) living at the place. Apparently he didn’t count his wife. He also mentioned that he had just returned from the south, and that he had seen us from the marshrutka a few days ago when we were walking on the road.

These places are truely remote. There is no way to get there by car, walking is the only viable transport. The guy in Khakhabo had a horse, but given the paths we walked on I doubt that you can actually ride there. People do subsistence farming and probably have a few cows grazing somewhere. They do have however, and that was a tad surprising, small solar panels mounted near their houses.

Eventually we arrived in Ardoti. Khakhabo was stunning, but Ardoti topped that by quite a bit. It is built completely on top of a narrow ridge. Again, it is mostly abandoned and in ruins. We pitched tents just below, near the river, and then walked up to have a look.
Two houses were in very good state and at least one is inhabited by a family with 3 children. Communication was somewhat impossible but we manged to get a loaf of bread and some sulguni (cheese).

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Ardoti - Tbilisi

After breakfast we were visited by a herd of cattle. They were quite nosy and we had to prevent them from tasting our tents.

We continued along the Andaki river. There is now an actual track, which makes the hike a little easier, but also less adventurous. It was obvious that we were approaching inhabited areas again. However, the next human dwelling was another military checkpoint. We were stopped and our passports checked.

Then we saw Mutso. Mutso is another fortress-like abandoned village, built on an almost vertical rocky cliff. It is even more impressive than Ardoti and Khakhabo before, and has more buildings.

There is only one inhabited house, at the foot of the mountain, close to track and river. We left our bags with a guy living there while we climbed up to see the ruins. There were other tourists there, too. Georgians or Russians, I forgot. Probably on a day-trip from Tbilisi.

We marched on and came through a tiny village which was at least partly inhabited and built at the bottom of the valley, and therefore obviously younger than the fortress-villages. The daily? weekly? Tbilisi-Shatili marshrutka drove past and returned a while later. We asked whether there were any more marshrutkas going down to Tbilisi these days. The driver said there were none, and if we wanted to reach Tbilis any time soon, we should hop on. So we did.

The ride back to Tbilisi was not spectacular, even though the countryside was.

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Tbilisi

We spent the day in Tbilisi, aimlessly walking around, visiting Mother Georgia, checking out the daily fleamarket, etc.

We also made plans for the remaining days. We decided to head down to Lake Sevan in Armenia tomorrow, just for a day.

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Tbilisi - Lake Sevan

We got up early early in the morning (well, Justus almost had to force me), and took a marshrutka to Armenia. We arrived at the northern corner of Lake Sevan in the afternoon, near the town of the same name, Sevan.

The weather didn’t promise to be very good. The wind drove massive rain clouds along the opposite shore of the lake. We had lunch next to a bunch of Iranians at the beach, then went on to explore the area, looking for a place to pitch the tents. We found a deserted picnic area at the far end of a small peninsula, and got trapped under a roof there by heavy rain and hail. We were joined by two police officers who sought shelter for their cars under trees nearby.

After the rain stopped we decided to stay there and pitch tents under one of the picnic roofs. That turned out to be a wise decision because at night the thunderstorms came back.

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Lake Sevan - Tbilisi

At night I was woken up by a noise that sounded as if someone or something had tripped over my tent’s guy-ropes. I yelled into the night but when I didn’t hear anything else I went back to sleep.

After waking up in the morning – Justus just returned from a swim in the lake – I noticed that one of the ropes was cut. Why and by whom, that remained a mystery.

We relaxed in the sun for a few hours before we started hitch-hiking back to Tbilisi. We managed well in Armenia and hitched rides with at least 5 or 6 people. A guy selling dried fish at the street side gave us some for free, and a truck driver we hitched with invited us for a coffee.

From the Georgian border the hitching went a bit slow and it started to rain, so we took a cab to Tbilisi.

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Tbilisi

Another relaxed day in the city.

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Tbilisi - Kiev - Amsterdam - Bremen

The night was short. We got up at 5am, only to learn that the water had been turned off in the whole quarter. That meant: no shower with a full day of traveling ahead.
In the hostel’s lounge I met Misha, one of the owners, who I knew from last year and who had just flown in.

Irakli dropped us of at the airport and I received a precious gift from him: the magnetic taxi sign from his car’s roof (a look into the future reveals that it will be my fridge’s door handle).

We arrived in sunny and hot Kiev not much later, and took a crowded bus to the city center, which dropped us off at the central station after an hour’s ride. We had a quick look around and also had lunch there before we had to climb back into the bus. Another sweaty hour later we were back at the airport and hopped on the plane to Amsterdam.

This time all our luggage arrived just fine. We took a train to Groningen. This was probably the most uncomfortable part of today’s travels, as the train was packed and we ended up standing in an aisle with a crowd of other people, with no aircon for more than one hour. When everybody left we, realized we’d been on the wrong train all the time. We changed to the right one (miraculously that wrong train had gone in the right direction until now), which was completely empty.

From Groningen it was just another 2-hour bus ride to Bremen.

So, even though the entire trip went completely different from what we had had in mind when we left Bremen almost 2 weeks ago, it has been totally amazing and made me realize once more how beautiful Georgia is – in terms of people as well as nature. I’ll be back.

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