Just one night back in Tbilisi and I was off for more mountain madness, bound for the little town of Gori, famous (or infamous I guess) for being the birthplace of Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, better known as Stalin. There was an ice climbing competition in the Atenis valley the following day and my buddy Mikel and I were keen to make a weekend out of it.
We kind of underestimated how long it would take to get from Gori to the campsite near the tiny village of Biisi. After farting around at a cozy cafe that alleged to serving Spanish coffee (Mikel was happy about this being a Spaniard), we headed down Stalin street to grab some supplies for the next few days. It was about 30km to Biisi, but nobody – no, not even the tourism information center – could tell us exactly how to get there, apart from taking a taxi, which we were sort of intrinsically opposed to unless an absolute last resort!
So we stuck out our thumbs and within five minutes were picked up by a friendly man who drove us to the village of Khidistavi. Mikel’s Russian – which he had learned back in his hometown Pamplona a year prior, before setting off on a solo bicycle trip across Eurasia – came in really handy. Yet alas, even this driver didn’t know where Biisi was. Was this place also some obscure Greco-Georgian myth or what?
At the crossroad in Khidistavi we waited quite a while for a ride, but had heard from a lady that there was a marshrukta on its way through. Yes! It would only take us about half the way to Biisi however, leaving us with a good 8 kms though a snowed up road. And it was getting dark quickly. We squashed our stuff into the back of the minibus, although it didn’t seal tight. A cacophony of schoolkids set the atmosphere in the crammed bus.
Suddenly we heard an old woman cry out, ”Bag!” Immediately the driver slammed on the brakes and looked over his shoulder. One of Mikel’s bags (pretty much a big tough plastic carrier) had gone tumbling out the back of the van! We jumped out and ran toward the tossed goods and a bunch of little kids who were running toward us. One had some bread, another a bottle of wine, yet another a sleeping bag, all laughing and cheering, happy that they could help us out. It was really a classic moment and Mikel and I were in absolute hysterics! Back on the marshrukta we were asked by some curious kids where we were going. We learned how to say ‘frozen waterfall’ using Mikel’s Russian and then had the bus in stitches as we tried to say the phrase in Georgian…
The ride stopped at the sleepy village of Sioni and we began marching in the snow toward Biisi. Our adventure packed day of surprises wasn’t over yet. A 4×4 stopped ahead of us. A group of local climbers also going to the competition, but no space for two wacky hitch-hikers. A bizarrely synchronized moment ensued as we approached the car. Within the space of about 5 seconds Mikel slipped and fell on his arse, Tengo (the driver) did the same as he stepped out his vehicle, and a wild-eyed drunk driver came flying through the snow, not slowing down to take the bend but actually accelerating, then suddenly halted by a thick embankment of powder snow. He then reversed, spinning his tires like crazy, glared at us in disgust, and sped off like a bat out of hell. Probably no bars where you’re going to buddie, but good luck! I’d heard a few horror stories about male Georgian drivers already, so maybe walking on these rural roads was better than hitching.
Stars began flickering and we were getting a bit worried about finding the campsite in the dark. We weren’t praying, but about half an hour later a pair of monks stopped for us. Hallelujah! They so kindly drove us to Biisi, a good few kilometers past their monastery, where they live simple, austere, devotional lives. Along the way we asked a villager exactly where the path to the frozen waterfall was…still nobody knew where this mythical place was. The man had a long exchange with one of the monks, surely giving much more information than what was translated by our good Samaritan. He even offered to put us up for the night if we weren’t able to find the campsite. Didn’t sound like a shabby option, but we were determined to get there and meet up with some other climbers.
While this was going on Tengo and one of his buddies had gone on a rescue mission, concerned that we were lost or still too far away. This we found out from some great German travelers who we met once the monks dropped us off in Biisi. It all worked out in the end and we just couldn’t wait to get some food going and enjoy a drink! It was touch and go at times, but it what a day it was! It felt amazing…so free and exciting…to hitch-hike again and relish in the complete unpredictability of this form of travel.
Trudging through the snow and crossing a dodgy bridge over an icy river, we could hear the festivities brewing in the valley. A fire roared, surrounded by a group of locals, some climbers and others elderly men from Gori there mainly to get shit-faced before, during and after the competition. We were instantly offered a cup of chacha (a put-hairs-on-your-chest pomace brandy ranging from 40-65% in alcohol) and invited to warm our feet and hands around the fire. The national spirit certainly does lift one’s spirits swiftly, and whether at a traditional family dinner (supra), a friend’s house, or out in the wild, chacha soothes the soul and titillates the vocal chords.
Impassioned polyphonic singing soon ensued, younger and older generations joining together in a stirring exhibition of a musical heritage that stretches back thousands of years in Georgia. They were singing Khaketian, one of 16 musical styles in Georgia. Within this style is the famous Chakrulo which incidentally was one of 27 compositions added to the crew’s playlists onboard the spacecraft Voyager 2 back in 1977. Pretty cool story about how it ‘breached the galaxy’, as the song is often toasted to at supras.
Toward the end of the 1970s, legendary astronomer and TV presenter Carl Sagan sparked the idea of creating a project with NASA that involved launching a probe loaded with information about Earth and its inhabitants. Carl Sagan you beauty! The “Golden Record” was thus complied, a plethora of data including mathematical formulas, photographs of humans, animals and nature, as well 27 carefully selected musical recordings. Chakrulo ousted the Russian Moscow Nights, a masterpiece staunchly pushed by the Soviets. Today, Voyager 2 is 16 billion kilometers away from Earth and continues its journey towards the infinite.
We pitched our tents on the hard snow, fingers and feet tingling from the rapidly plummeting temperatures. We stole a few coals to kindle a fire and threw on some pork and beef, paired with a little red wine that iced up on the rims of our cups. The singing continued late into the night, only stopping once the chacha had finished. Well, of course there was more to be acquired from the nearby village. I pulled on my Peru balaclava for the first time as I climbed into my tent. Jesus Christ it was cold! I hadn’t camped on snow for years so it was quite a shock to the system. But I was going ice climbing in the Caucasus and living large.