Labor Day Week-end, 1998

Early Saturday morning I left Tbilisi in my Niva (small cheap Russian Jeep Cherokee) with Valerie (Uzbek USAID computer programmer), Archiko (Georgia Tax Department who would rather be a hunting and fishing guide) and his friend Fridom (mostly unemployed but carves wooden combs and other implements). Our mission was to visit Racha Province, north and west of Tbilisi. Racha is rural and mountainous with many small villages and much poverty. In communist times there were coal mines but they have all closed because there is no market for the coal. Georgians tell jokes about people from Racha implying that they are not very bright, the same way we used to joke about Polish people.

Our departure was delayed a bit because my car would not start. The battery was dead. And my high-tech burglar alarm makes it harder to jump-start the car by turning off the ignition when the system thinks that someone may have disconnected the alarm. I didn't want to be stuck in the middle of nowhere with a dead battery, so I traded batteries with Fridon and we were off.

We drove two and a half hours west on Georgia's only good road. It doesn't have many pot holes, but it is only two lanes and it is not unusual to catch up to an old truck or bus that can't go more than 20 or 30 kilometers per hour (12-18 mph) up a hill. Many Georgians go ahead and pass on curves or when traffic is coming, figuring that the road is wide enough for three cars to pass. I'm not brave enough, so even though the speed limit is 80 kph (50 mph) and many people drive much faster than that we are lucky if we can average 60 kph (36 mph). So I have decided that a kilometer in Georgia is a lot like a mile in the US.


About 150 km (90 miles) from Tbilisi, the road leaves the river valley and heads for the pass that separates Eastern Georgia from Western Georgia. We stopped and bought some honey from a bee-keeper by the side of the road. Then we stopped at a restaurant run by a tax department colleague of Archiko's. We had a fine lunch and there was no sign that any money changed hands. We bought gas (aka "petrol" or, in Georgian, "benzini") for the car and also a spare five gallon can because they said that he gas in Racha was often bad.

Shortly thereafter we headed North for Racha. The valleys got narrower, the hills steeper and the roads bumpier. The scenery was spectacular and I was glad that Fridom had offered to drive so that I could pay more attention to it. We found two caves in the village of Nikortsminda (Saint Nicholas). One was a limestone cave with many passages. The other was more like a big open hole in the side of the hill.

We headed for the village of Shovi, high in the mountains near the Russian border. We found two large hotels that looked very closed. In communist times many Russian tourists came to these mountains. It was cold and rainy so we agreed that we would rather not camp out in our tents. Archiko finally found a house in the village that had a couple of small guest houses for tourists. The young man who lived there couldn't find his parents but eventually he let us in without them. There did not seem to be any running water or cooking facilities or restaurants, but Archiko produced plenty of bread, cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and wine. Our young host joined us for dinner.
Dinner--Valerie, Fridom, local resident, Archiko

When we woke up in the morning the rain had stopped but we were still in a cloud, so we decided to head down from the mountain pass and find a lake reputed to be beautiful and have good fishing. We drove for about an hour on mediocre paved roads, then turned up a rough dirt road that was very slow going even in my Niva. We finally came to a village and, in good Georgian fashion, asked for directions to the lake from the young men who were sitting by the side of the road. One of them said that he would be happy to show us the way. (Only after we returned did Archiko explain that he was really asking whether it was safe to camp by the lake and there response was that it would be safe if someone from the village came with us. The village is near the border with South Ossetia, one of the provinces that fought to break away from Georgia.)


We parked the car, gathered food and camping gear and walked for a couple of hours up an impassable road. We passed apple and pear trees with good fruit and admired the mountains towering over us. Then we came to a fine lake in the middle of nowhere. It was mostly wooded, but we found a fine field on one side and decided to camp there. Archiko and Fridom went fishing while Valerie and I explored the area.

We had the traditional Georgian camping meal of shishkebab, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, cheese, and lots of good bread. Of course there was also wine and vodka. We had hoped for trout, but the fisherman had no luck.

Valerie and I slept in my tent while others improved a lean-to we found. Our local guide/host had a heavy wool felt cloak that doubled as a sleeping bag.

Combination Coat and Sleeping Bag --
It's warm

In the morning the fishermen got up early and caught a couple small fish. After a leisurely breakfast we walked back to the village to begin the long drive home. When we got to the village we were greeted by the parents of the young man who had shown us the way to the lake. They insisted that we stay for lunch. There house had a very nice garden in front and they kept bees to make honey. I would have enjoyed the three hour lunch more if we hadn't been facing a seven or eight hour drive home. And I knew I wouldn't have much conversation on the drive home because English was not easy for any of my companions and they had drunk enough wine that they were ready for naps.

After we started home we were delayed by an hour as we sought to deliver a letter to a relative of one of our party. The mail in Georgia is not reliable and small villages may not have telephone service, so people take advantage of opportunities to deliver messages.

At nine o'clock we finally got back to the main highway. We had not had dinner and still had at least a three hour drive ahead of us. So we stopped at the house where Archiko's father had lived until his recent death. Except for the lack of electricity or running water the house was in fine shape. We ate a modest dinner and picked some grapes that were growing in the backyard. We arose early the next morning and got to Tbilisi only a little bit late for work.

Lunch -- Valerie, me, Fridom and our host

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