The Lada Niva’s engine whines in protest as the rev counter approaches the redline.
Tyres squirm for grip in the loose snow. Vasil, our driver, calmly smooths out the drift and slingshots his car into the next hairpin bend.
Behind our heads in the trunk our axes, shovels, snowshoes and crampons create a cacophony of steel and aluminium counterpoint to the rubber and leather squeaks and tinny rattles from the Niva. High in the Kazbegi Caucasus, Lisa and I have packs loaded with food, equipment and camera gear for a multi-day snowshoe and wild camping adventure.
A few days earlier, we met Vasil by chance. One of those unexpected meetings that expands your knowledge and alters your world view. We get a detailed primer to decades of hard won local information. Info on which market to find the best pickles, fresh vegetables, strained yoghurt, and local specialties like dried sour plums and walnuts – an integral element for many Georgian dishes.
One such market gave us pause; from the outside, the ramshackle, faded facade speaks of a store long past its heyday. However, it’s dimly lit interior reveals a trove of wonders; fruit leather with a mouth puckering sourness, tangy cheeses, wild herb medleys, delicate beetroots and pungent onions with a green/white hue.
The market visit also pulls into sharp focus the division of labour in this area. On our hike into town there were no women on the road, only men. All the taxis and tourist agencies are operated by men. Yet inside the market, in cafes and in restaurants the staff are almost universally women. It’s as though we’re in the nineteen fifties.
After a dinner of local specialties in one of the small restaurants, Vasil drives us back to our base for the week; on the way, revealing a treasure trove of possibilities for trekking, ski touring and mountaineering in this area. After only thirty minutes, we have a least a months worth of options. We need to head out for a recce.
The next morning we shoulder our packs early and head down a snow covered road, scoping potential trails. Within the first ten minutes we have had four offers of lifts from local drivers, curious as to what we’re doing out this early with laden packs. On the fifth offer, our resistance crumbles and we gratefully accept a lift down the road to the appropriately named Sno village.
Thanking our driver, I offer him a ten lari note. His response is a swift ‘I’m not a taxi’. Fearing I’ve made a faux pas, I look to see if he’s annoyed, but the beaming smile is it’s own answer. This generosity of spirit is present in nearly every Georgian we meet throughout our trip.
Our entrance into Sno is across an off kilter suspension bridge, some planks missing completely. Luckily the river is only metres below us, not the yawning chasms you might encounter in the Himalaya. We find a village almost in hibernation mode. The high peaks and narrow valley floor creates a sun shadow that covers most of the houses. Doors and windows are closed and shuttered, though snatches of laughter reveal life within. Gardens with old style haystacks and greenhouses with broken panes. Rusted trucks without windows lie canted on two wheel hubs the rubber long since cracked and degraded in the deep cold.
Around one corner we have a face off with a cow – Lisa swiftly checking to make sure we’re not playing chicken with the village bull. Eventually we’re on the correct track to the trailhead. Once on the mountain, we can begin to make sense of the landscape and terrain. An multi-day itinerary starts to take shape in our minds. Check lists can be made and crossed off. In this deep cold we will have to find a water source at some point, otherwise we will be melting snow for hours. Heading home for the night, we’re already excited for the adventure ahead.
That evening, the ritual of sorting gear begins. Just enough clothing to keep us warm and dry, with spares for those ‘in case’ moments. Winter sleeping bags have expanded in the house, which now have to be tightly stuffed back into drybags. Lisa agonises over which lenses to pack and if we will have the possibility of seeing the Milky Way (necessitating carrying a tripod).
We won’t be eating freeze dried meals on this trip, only Georgian inspired dinners and breakfasts. Food canisters, silicone pouches and drybags get packed with food for three days.
As though he has read our minds, Vasil calls us asking if we have any plans for the next day?
“Sure! Can you pick us up at 6am?”
“How about 7am?” he counters.
Grateful for the extra hours sleep, we agree.
Morning comes all too early. We briefly question our respective career paths, but the magnetic pull of new mountains is all the incentive we need to get out the door.
One wild ride up a twisting mountain road in that rattling Lada Niva to our drop off point, and we’re alone! Just us and an amphitheatre of peaks, radiant under starlight.
Shafts of gold break the horizon and we pause for morning tea and fresh bread. Time to soak up a little heat.
We head deeper into the hills on worn goat trails. Our snowshoes and ice axes still packed. Though we’re almost at 3,000 metres and it’s minus twenty, the snow is sparse and patchy, with drifting on spurs and piling in mounds on some Northern slopes.
We encounter the first signs of long habitation in this wild corner of Georgia. A ruin of a shrine, its stones worn smooth with centuries of age.
Late in the day, we chance upon a perfect spot for our first camp. The spur widens enough for a comfortable pitch. In the midst of setting up camp my stomach growls, time to make dinner – a Georgian Caucasus dish called ‘Lobio with Mchadi’ or red bean stew with cheesy cornbread. See the full recipe here.
Cocooned in layers of silk and down we fall asleep to the deep silence of remote winter peaks. The next morning plumes of breath swirl and dance above me in the light of my head torch. To my left, I can hear Lisa curl deeper into her sleeping bag. It’s my turn to make breakfast. First order of business; thick, hot coffee. Easing my way slowly through the narrow door, the fly sheet slithers and crackles in the cold.
The sting of freezing air causes an involuntary cough. Burying my face into the hood of my jacket I jog on the spot to create heat. With coffee made and grateful mumbles of thanks from inside the tent, I can get to work prepping our breakfast.
Our winter adventure in this mountain fastness speeds by all too fast. Days pass in a kaleidoscope of sensory wonders; the smell of snow on the wind, moonlight glinting of shards of ice as though the ground is carpeted in diamonds, a dense forest hiding a stone fortress, hot spiced chicken satsivi soup (full recipe here), and the joy of travelling in the wilderness with a close and trusted friend.
Finally, we near our home, the hillside showing small signs of traffic – a slight widening in the trail. However, we don’t want to break the spell of the wilds and return straight to civilisation. Our last mountain lunch is suddenly interrupted by a wild street dog. Whether it caught scent of our meal or it’s in search of company we don’t know. It approaches camp, relaxed and at ease. Lying down, it seems content, but with the expectant air of one hoping for some food in the future.
Our time in Georgia has left us astounded by the sheer number and friendly manner of all the street dogs we
have encountered on our journey so far. Not one has approached us with menace. Though they obviously live semi wild, their manner seems to suggest that locals treat them with respect and human kindness.
After lunch, as though loath to let us escape its enchantment, the Kazbegi Caucasus throws us a last curve ball. The track we were on disappears with no warning. Far ahead we can see the continuation of the track, and a kilometre away our home. Between us and it however is a wide river. Backtracking will take us a few hours. We decide to scout the bank, hoping for stepping stones or a narrow stretch over which we can jump. No joy.
Just as we’ve made the decision to turn back, Lisa spots a possible ford. Assessing the speed and depth of the flow, we’re in luck. It’s safe. Splashing our way across we emerge and almost immediately the hems of our trousers freeze into board like stiffness.
The last kilometre flows swiftly under our sodden boots.
Bone tired and wet we may be, but the enchantment has struck us hard.
We’re in the thrall of this magnificent landscape and its people.
Thank you Georgia.