There's remote as in “can you pass the clicker” and there's remote as in Shatili. The road to this mythic elysium, 3km from the Russian border, is closed for two-thirds of the year and even when open it's a treacherous drive if not in the hands of a virtuosic jeep-wrangler such as my friend Berdia, who expertly massaged the hazards and tectonics of our mid-June pilgrimage. A vertiginous mountain pass neatly bisects the journey with triumphant Herzogian ecstasis and the narrow, shingle hairpins that wind down into the village could prompt one to keenly consider fasting. But oh my, the sights that greet you upon pulling around the bend into Shatili proper fully justify three days of reinstalling one's purged vitals.
The fortress is estimated to have been constructed two thousand years ago and almost certainly at one point sprawled across a greater area than that presently visible. Unlike sites of historical tenure in the UK, here one can clamber and scurry and dash and scramble and truly get a material feel for the cumulative weight of history that thrums like Glencoe on God's own crack. A home-run for the kinaesthetes. If I were overwhelmed it's fair to say unease would stifle my ardour, but as it is, I'm thoroughly whelmed to capacity; my experiential gourds are full; my zeal brimming to spill, just neatly contained.
With a full quiver of photos I descended the fortress steps – all meticulously stacked slate of blue and black – to be apprehended by Tina – a friend of my driver – who promptly lured us into a supra. Supra is the ceremonial Georgian feast and drinking ritual whereby an appointed toastmaster (the tamada) toasts family, the land, us, the animals, God, peace and anything else on his mind in solemn and invocatory tones. One must down a substantial drink at the close of each uttered toast. (Usually this is a near half-pint of home-spun rkatsiteli: glorious). It is impolite to the point of death-sentence to sit out a round or indeed talk over the tamada. I like the ritual. I mentally substitute “nature” for “God” when it comes around and truck on incandescently. The fire water here is of course chacha – made from the fermented skin of grapes. Speaking with my father on the day of his recent birthday I explained upon being asked that “chacha is the national shot that induces amnesia and unwanted children”. I've run this analysis by a native Georgian and they conceded agreement.
Some way into the ravine descent we pulled over to admire a rock face teeming with cascades of freshly melted snow – spring waterfalls slaking our thirst from cupped hands. Delving through the icy veil I stood dry and shielded, briefly feeling invisible as though the purity of nature's mechanics afforded some kind of cloaking device.
The journey back, post-supra and lazily sodden, entailed three park rangers in the back seat, garrulously whooping and barking in Kartuli's thick and consonant-heavy song - all “ara ara ara!” in unison, clearly at once pleased to have launched the visitor centre and relieved to have shed the ceremonial yoke of visiting dignitaries: they could now get mindlessly and carelessly shitfaced. One thing I've noted in Georgia is that they hate bureaucracy (e.g. in my case I don't even have an address). In the pursuit of shitfacery we abruptly find ourselves chucking back chacha in the clouds – a spontaneous second supra at seven-thousand feet, watched on by jet-black peaks flecked with snow akin to a tiger's plumage, or like a giant orca having burst through the earth's crust, having calcified to rock as humans made themselves obliviously busy. It is profoundly beautiful here, with such topographic variation across a small country as to suggest one might have been either blessed with the faculty of time-travel, or indeed had submitted to a daily micro-dose of an unsynthesized psychotropic, hewn from the same earth that keeps us alive in the bounteous riches of the seasonal Georgian cuisine.
As with every rule there is an exception, so when I say the Georgians hate bureaucracy, I'd like to bring into focus their postal service, which appears to have condensed the infrastructural bureaucracy of the entire land into a single institution. Hastening to the local branch, excited to collect a parcel sent by my family in the micro-fascist, plague state of the UK, little did I know I was launching headlong into a procedural wrangling that would take cumulatively fifteen hours and cost me seventy pounds – the equivalent value of the contents – simply to retrieve my own things. I could narrate every astringent, painful node on the path to liberating my package but I suspect Kafka's estate might sue me for plagiarism; in fact I'm thinking of buying them a copy of The Trial as a manual for streamlining their operation. An honourable mention, nevertheless, to the tax document I had to sign EIGHT times. When they asked me “what is in the parcel”, my knees gave way and with the last breath of my shrieking brain function I mumbled “I don't know...uhhh...I'm not the sender”, clinging to the desk as though it were the wheel of an imminently wrecked ship. I felt less lurching nausea in navigating the hairpins of the Shatili road as I stood their twitching, beaten and diminished, convinced that they could have deployed the Georgian postal service in Guantanamo Bay to extract confessions. Alas, I eventually got handed my own things and fell straight into the nearest bar for some swarthy anaesthetic.
I offer the above anecdote largely as an account of how pitiably ill-equipped I am for such endeavours, and also as (one hopes, prays and pleads) a singular, stand-out example of a culture that otherwise seems to eschew such suffocating man-made nonsense. My experience in every other situation here is of a people that thrives on spontaneity, the simple riches of life – cuisine, music, dance, heatedly friendly arguments, improvisatory road trips, generosity of spirit and spoils and a deep interest in who you are as a human – rather in the minutiae of your property portfolio, number of Instagram followers, or Oxbridge pedigree. It is deeply refreshing, and humbling.
Upon returning from Shatili to the Korsha guesthouse it became apparent I had new neighbours – a couple of ex-pat Russians who had returned from Shatili a few hours earlier. Taking dinner together by the huge, thrilling open log fire, they announced their intention to take the SUV up to Roshka and the Abudelauri lakes the following morning, and kindly invited me along. Of course I jumped at the invitation, and as I sit here writing this with throbbing knees, swollen elbows, and the now-familiar suspicion that I may be unknowingly micro-dosing psilocybin (could chacha indeed be a mycological fermentation about which we're not in on the joke?) I shall hit “publish” and write up the hallucinatory transcendence of that exhilarating, exhausting day, unto which I may bestow the gnomic title “Part Two...”