As a preface to the following I'd proffer two notes of counsel for those who may outlive me:
When a brace of Russian ex-pats asks you, five wines deep, if you'd like to accompany them to the lakes tomorrow, make further enquiries – topographic, itinerarial, nutritional, logistical enquiries.
When a brace of Russian ex-pats asks you, five wines deep, if you'd like to accompany them to the lakes tomorrow, always say yes.
Chugging back a breakfast of the finest omelette ever to have broken an egg, it had been clear for a while now that Kostya was an impressive man. Not in a hubristic, chauvinist, Leg Day sense, nor toxic and withering – just a well-assembled example of rugged, vigilant and smart Outdoor Man in whose company one instantly feels reassured. I was pleased to note this early in our interactions, given what followed (which was me, dear reader: I followed, having idiotically skipped note 1. in my own counsel.)
Sharing notes upon our staggered, happenstance convening at the Korsha guesthouse after comparably profound Shatili excursions, it became mutually apparent all parties were besotted with Georgia and her infinitely variegated terrain. Kostya (abbreviated from Konstantin, which I was later to learn signifies 'reliability') and his wonderful wife Diana raised their intentions to take the rented SUV up to the nearby village of Roshka and from there take a short walk to some lakes of noted beauty. Of course I leapt at this, when I should've been conserving my energy and not leaping whatosever. Post-metaphorical-leap, we relaxed into an evening of abundant rkatsiteli – the terminally drinkable, slightly acrid amber wine of which I've grown immensely fond out here – and spoke openly of Russia, the formerly Great Britain, gastronomy (how Britain has none), Soviet rock bands (with Diana being the only person yet to convince me that ukelele isn't a synonym for 'fire wood' with her tantalizing rendition of a KINO song). We spoke of Anthony Bourdain and raised a glass to him, and then another, yet another, as befits such a figure. The brothers, sons of Shota and Marina who founded and nurture the exquisite guest-house, joined at one point – Berdia a painter, Giorgi a theatre director – and quickly threw down some admirable musical curveballs in the form of Annette Peacock's hypnotically melancholic An Acrobat's Heart, followed by some Meredith Monk (which of course shares intimate DNA with Georgian polyphonic chant, as most vocal music either does or should).
We slept full and well-fed, in every sense.
From Tbilisi I had two nights earlier travelled with my custom levity – some t-shirts, a book and toiletries, plus one indulgent nod to Rugged Man cosplay: my hiking boots. Clambering into Kostya's SUV, taciturn and softly hungover, Diana cranked up the Bluetooth speaker to pump out a country-fied hip-hop song about a kebab and we swerved onto the Shatili road, to a distance with which we were all familiar. It was when Kostya heaved the beast a hard one-hundred-and-twenty degrees counter-clockwise and announced in plangent Slavic tones that it was “time to gear up” that my idle fantasies of a twee English stroll hurtled out of the passenger window, pursued doggedly by the guts I'd only just crammed back in after yesterday's adventure. I'd seen videos of Rugged Men navigating hardy vehicles across ravines, swamps, The Styx, Chernobyl, quicksand, bog and creek and I grew up watching Herzog conduct a steam ship over a mountain, but I never for once thought I'd find myself in the passenger seat of one of these muscular follies! As it turned out K revealed himself to be an absolute maestro at the wheel and never once, as he hurled the thing around steep, muddy hairpin bends, did I even come close to “casting the omelette” as they don't and shouldn't say anywhere.
As the flora and sylvania cleared to reveal an Aguirre-like verdant vista of geological creases and dimpled crests I knew we'd already climbed to some height, the engine bellowing at every troubled turn through the emollient mist. Everything so green, notably me in my naivety. It was exhilarating and I don't wish to do it again for a while. Maybe tomorrow.
The village of Roshka dissolved into view and my first thought was “well that's a fuck of a commute.” before a flurry of puppies greeted us, all chirrups and razor teeth, like a hatchling Cerberus. We intercepted friends of Kostya and Diana – a trio who had only just arrived from Shatili, the route having been severed by an avalanche overnight. Brief introductions notwithstanding it was time to begin our leisurely English stroll, which was to take ten hours and bring us to an ascent of ten thousand feet with precarious scrambles, hailstorms, search helicopters, blood-sugar depletion, and for the last three miles – a lightning storm over the marshes through which we had to tread to get back to Roshka.
How to sour one's cucumber sandwich.
It started out decently enough – fair terrain, vaguely marshy, pleats of mountain skyline unveiling themselves layer at a time; tromp l'oeil on a vast neolithic stage. The wildflower bloom is magnificent mid-June, with dazzling ochres and bulbous tubers offsetting the coy rash of violet orchids nearer the ground; every hard surface tattooed with a neon shriek of yellow lichen signalling crystalline, gorgeous air. Noting attributes common to Alpine landscape we were thrilled to learn that indeed this is an 'Alpine Zone' (yet somehow not in Switzerland, Austria, Italy or France I suspect we all privately, and dimly, marvelled).
Leaping a sodden gully I hastened to ask Kostya the true nature of our mooch: the Abedulauri lakes number three – one green, one blue, one white, with the latter sitting beneath the Chaukhi Pass at a significant elevation. We had another seven kilometres to go. Great! Who doesn't love a mountain lake. Who doesn't love three! The terrain so far was navigable save for the odd patch of marsh. Of course allusions were made to Lord Of The Rings, Prometheus and other such Mountain Porn from recent kino consciousness. Diana asked me who was my favourite hero from LOTR. “Gollum” I replied too quickly, revealing more about myself than I should have liked. We moved to talking about Russian cinema – after Tarkovsky we touched on Konchalevsky, Zvyagintsev (it transpires their honeymoon was spent in the Murmansk Oblast – the district where the latter's starkly pulverising Leviathan was filmed!) and zoning in on Brother and Brother 2 – a sibling-ship of films created just before Putin's ascent to power, both famous for having captured the lawless zeitgeist that was Russia in the years immediately following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. I confided that I bought a t-shirt last year of Brother 2, with the punkishly handsome Sergei Bodrov Jr brandishing a shotgun. Until February 26th 2022, it had been perfectly acceptable to wear this around town, the image simply betraying a niche cinephilia. Now, it's apparel non gratis as Bodrov Jr's Danila Bagrev has been co-opted by the Russian Right as a symbol of true patriotism as they wage war on Ukraine. And while the Human Rights record inches (slowly) forward in Georgia and the Caucasus (enabled by some truly effective and dynamic grassroots groups in Tbilisi and Kutaisi), I'm unlikely to, when challenged as to why I'm wearing the thing, answer “...because I would like to have sex with him, even though he's dead.”, which is the truth. “Oh so you're not a fascist, you're just a homo”. Cognitive dissonance: unlocked. THWACK.
Rounding the valley to a chorus of crackling thunderstorms we're pleased to note are in the distance, our fellowship finds itself hinged upon a steeper incline, though still enjoyable. It was Georgia that gave me vertigo six years ago and Georgia that shall take it away – a mantra of mine since that fateful March day at Davit Gareja cave monastery when a sandstorm whipped me from yonder hills prompting me to screech and lash out for one of the Azerbaijani border railings, an impulse that definitely saved my life. With each hill countered more are made visible – this is the rule of hiking. Think of it, should it lend clarity, as akin to a vast, savoury Vienetta – where with each bite you are privy to a whole new take on the landscape.
The sky took on a lowering, slate heaviness and the thunder neared. The first lake was to make itself known in an hour if we kept to this pace, it was declared. From one tower of cloud a helicopter chuckled into view making circles around the valley and directing our gaze to a snow-capped craggy behemoth of such terrific majesty as to silence all in unison. When I signed up for this post-prandial amble by the cricket ground I had no idea that soon enough I would be half-way up such a beast: in a hailstorm, waving a stick around like Obi Wan, all mountain-loopy, hallucinating bears and screaming my lungs out having fallen down some rocks. Alas, omniscience must be a bore.
As we drew near the first (green) lake the terrain toughened with such subtlety that if attention weren't paid, one might miss the fact that our pastoral valley perambulation had chastened to a cartilege-smashing scramble up a steep, rocky hill. Reservations were aired and met with the unequivocal refrain “we've come this far so...” under whose chant we laboured on: the lake itself was stunning and so we were duly told were the other two. With great relief we came to learn the second (blue) lake was only five minutes from the first. A deserved break was enjoyed here, gazing at its aquamarine invitation in humbled awe. The natural composition of sky-rattling chunk of rock framing cool, blue Alpine lake is one of essential harmony and certainly in this case one of the most beautiful landscape arrangements upon which I've ever laid wide eyes and knackered feet.
Beers were spilled, and meagre pockets of insufficient snacks chowed down upon and away we shambled for lake three (white.) This is where the terrain became positively lunar and while easily appreciated via a postcard, to clamber across these narrow shingle paths and brutal terraces of ankle-bashing rock for two hours, three hours into a hike for which one is preposterously unprepared, is a more a serious business. The helicopter continued its spiral surveillance above us and for this I was grateful as it signified something of an escape clause if things were to get genuinely hairy.
More scrambles followed including everyone's least favourite (I ran a survey): The Staircase, which sounds like one of the torture devices eagerly whipped out by be-gowned secondary school sadists during PE in the eighties. In turn, the experience was not dissimilar – at one point I froze, the old Kartuli vertigo kicking in with grim familiarity. Thanks, sense-memory. Diana proved sensitively expert in coaching me up the remainder of the grim Staircase and she has my sworn gratitude. We rumbled on. Another three kilometres to lake three, apparently. Oh but what a terrain: the remaining three miles as far as we could see comprised increasingly cruel parodies of The Staircase that we'd just countered. I half-expected to meet Pinhead the Hell Priest at the summit of the next gruesome contortion of rocks and misery, and to be asked “what is your pleasure, Sir?” to which the only riposte could be “Well, not this, for a start” before running away like the miserly, insipid Brit I desperately try not to be.
That moment when you're in the midst of a heavy undertaking and you register the early augurs of sense of humour failure? Here. This is where it occurred.
This lake better be really fuckin' white.
I'll never know: as with depleting blood sugar and intensifying vertigo, I said to the others at the base of (ostensibly* ha ha ha) the final ascent whose conquest was to illuminate lake three “Guys, I'm happy here.” which is a popular euphemism for “I'd rather kill myself than climb that sheer wall of rock that you're pointing me towards”.
This is of course a terrible error in both hiking circles and horror movie lore. And sure enough, having perched myself with a whacking stick on a chair-level rock, enjoying the serenity of solitude at an awe-inspiring altitude for ten minutes, meditating on man's place in such a landscape and enjoying the near-silence, my mountain madness kicked in. I remembered there are bears in northern Georgia, whom in the summer would never attack a group, but one person? - One isolated and confused sweetmeat, flailing unattended at the foot of the Chaukhi pass – whose slopes, dear reader are of course pocked with bear-sized caves – what of him? I yelled for Kostya, my call echoing futilely into the ignorant void. After minutes of scrambled nearly-thoughts, hail pelting my panic-seized body I figured I could keep moving, keep yelling, while anchoring one eye on the brink of the rockface by which they'd been eclipsed twenty minutes prior. An angry chasm of moon rock lured me to its passage and I slipped, trashing my elbows. Fine. It is an insignificant bullet. The smarting at my bones was enough to falter me back into sensibility and so it is to that angry chasm that I raised a libation when fielding the marshes on the way back to Roshka. Without that sudden, searing pain I might still be floundering on the rocks, an old, sad, spluttering sack of gibberish-spewing bear food. Thank you, angry chasm. Naturally the anger was all mine, projected, and by no little means directed at myself for encouraging the fellowship to go on without me. Fearful, though, of the diminishing visibility rendered by the dipping sun, and with sanity now restored, I kept one eye on their ledge as I gently dismounted the lunar landscape, only to hear the reassuring holler of my name from Kostya, who emerged waving from who knows what. My relief at hearing his voice can not be understated.
Once reunited we expressed we'd been mutually worried and he told me that indeed they too had been tried: the white lake in fact dwelled three* more rock faces away, each of increasing severity and as the remaining four hobbits came into view I could see their labours taxed on grim faces. Soon, as is always the case unless it isn't, good nature was restored to all and we began the journey back to Roshka, hastened by the dying sun and the galling embrace of thunderstorms. Yes, by the time we'd reverse-engineered the hellish Staircase and set foot with great relief on the pliant green of the valley floor the sky had cleaved in two and thrown at us everything in its arsenal. Yet at this point, through a combination of involuntary fasting, a quasi-religious need to get-the-hell home, and the shared awareness that short of a crybaby acquiescence to helicopters nothing else was gonna get us there, we padded on, and on, and on, in a unified and grim silence. And eventually, as one does, we made it. The generous rainfall (I say generous in the sense of were Santa Claus real: that level of munificence) had applied itself to the bare soil of Roshka to midwife deep trenches of mud and for a while we were sceptical as to the capacity of the SUVs to tackle those hairpins on such terrain. Scepticism be damned: we had nowhere in Roshka to stay and no phone signal and it was pitch-black. I had never driven through an actual river before and I recommend it to every reader.
Little remains to say save for (1) that the muddy, spiralling descent to terra firma brought scenes from William Friedkin's Sorcerer usefully to mind and (2) once it was made known that we hadn't died I garrulously applauded the virtuosity of Kostya's driving in such conditions. I'm truly grateful to my fellow hobbits for this experience – equally parts terrifying and sublime. It will prove a profound and indelible chapter in my Georgian chronicles. As we parted I said to Kostya and Diana that I very much look forward to seeing them again, under less strenuous circumstances. But who am I kidding, it's only two days since I hallucinated myself into being bear fodder, I'd do it again. But a note to the fellowship: do let's take nourishment of substance with us next time. “Transcendent” as a term is the village bike of nature writing, but perfectly pertinent here. Sakartvelos Gaumarjos!