Before you read on, a bit of a preface and a mild content warning. I started writing this way back on the day it actually happened. I picked it up again about a month ago when I decided I needed to finally start posting some things about Georgia. Finishing it right now feels weird, for a variety of reasons, but it’s definitely added a new dimension.
I realised as I was adding the links to Tomato Nation that, while it is so well-written and so refreshingly far removed from the 24-hour news cycle, and I highly recommend it as a very human snapshot of that moment in history, I should probably include this note: If you’re likely to get very upset reading about September 11th, especially with the added anxiety of our current situation, you probably should save those links for another day.
That being said, once this is all over, I hope over the next few posts I convince you to start planning a holiday to Georgia. It’s an incredible place.
And the food is just. So. Damn. Good.
Sometime nearing 11pm on our last day in Mestia, the four of us were making our way up the hill out of town on the deserted road. When booking our accommodation for this bit of the trip, I’d made the decision to stay somewhere a bit further out based solely on the pictures of the breakfasts and dinners provided by the hosts (this should surprise no one). Having never been to a place quite like Mestia, I hadn’t considered that 5km out of town was half a world away. And it makes returning home late at night a bit more of a challenge when you don’t even have a local data plan let alone a car.
An hour or so earlier, sitting over the remains of our second dinner just next to the square where all the taxis in town congregated, we failed to notice that the taxi drivers were disappearing and not coming back. Because after 9 in Mestia there is nowhere to taxi to, unless you’re us. When the restaurant was emptying, one of the waitresses laughed at the idea that she might be able to find us a ride at this late hour.
We had a look around and Chris disappeared off down the road to see if he’d have better luck, but there was really no one left. Two guys, possibly local, definitely on the happy end of a bottle of wine or two, noticed us standing around trying to work out what to do and offered us a lift. They had a white jeep, and the four of us, Eva on Holly’s lap, crammed in a space that was very much for three. We quickly discovered that trying to communicate that we wanted dropping off at the side of the road 4km out of town was A: rightfully baffling, and B: far too much for discussion via drunken google translate to handle.
After being stopped on the edge of town for 5 minutes trying to work this out whilst piled on top of each other, we surrendered to the fact that we were just going to have to walk. So we thanked our would-be rescuers anyway, poured out of the car, and started up the hill.
It was dark. Like the real kind of dark. The town was lit up, but this is not your usual city light pollution. I put my head torch on and the high-vis, reflective rain cover on my backpack thinking that it might save us if someone did happen to drive up the narrow road after their own smidge too much wine.
Chris and I were walking in front. I was suddenly incredibly awake and alert. He was destroyed-level tired. The frustration of now having to walk another 5k mostly uphill after having done a full day’s ridge walk was coming off him in waves, and I was busy looking around in awe, so there was not much chat aside from me saying something like, ‘I know you’re fucking tired and this is the last thing you want to be doing right now, but you have to admit this is really fucking cool.’
There was enough moonlight to see the massive mountains surrounding us, snow and all, but not too much that you couldn’t see the stars, which were, at long last, not obscured by cloud cover – something I’d been hoping for since we’d arrived. The towers and the town below were lit up, out here still in a low yellow, hopefully never to be replaced and ruined by harsh, blue, modern LEDs. Our eyes were now adjusted enough to the pitch dark of our path that all these things popped.
I mean. It was. Really fucking cool.
Holly and Eva were around mrghlpfpt meters behind us (I am not good at estimating distances, but let’s just say right out of intelligible earshot in the near-silent night), having a grand old time drunkenly giggling their heads off and stopping for experimental night phone photography. I was trying to keep the giggles in earshot to make sure we didn’t lose them completely, as they were mostly out of sight aside from the reflective strips on Eva’s jacket catching in the light of my head torch when I turned around to check.
Halfway up the hill I received a text from the sister of our airbnb host, who lived in Tbilisi and had been doing most of the English communication, asking if we were safe since we still hadn’t appeared home. I assured her we were on our way, although I’m not sure she got the text when it mattered. I think they thought we were absolutely mad when they realised we walked home.
Given our exhaustion and drunkenness, we made the trip in impressive time – definitely under 40 minutes. Once we got to the turn off the main road, I was able to get rid of my safety light and take in the view fully. We tried hard not to disturb the silence and set off the valley’s farm dogs, but I don’t think we succeeded.
When we got back to the house, our host looked in on us and laughed, probably with relief he hadn’t lost his guests off the side of a hill. We proceeded to finish off the rocket fuel chacha we’d taken with us from Batumi before falling into bed. Naturally, I couldn’t sleep.
This was just one tiny piece of one of many epic days on this trip. And it was the only day in two weeks we’d split up for, as the sort of walking Chris and Holly wanted to do was well out of Eva’s and my realm of comfort or ability.
The day before, we’d all walked straight up a ski run because the second half of the chairlift to the top of the hill wasn’t working. It was beautiful and sunny but also hot and incredibly steep. I’m glad I got pushed to continue, because the views at the top were worth the pain, but holy shit I was exhausted. And completely unwilling to do anything nearly as strenuous the next day.
So on this day, Chris and Holly left the house immediately after another enormous, delicious breakfast (the pictures in the listing did not lie) to do their 9-hour walk of the Chkhuti ridge. Eva and I decided to walk down into town for a coffee before finding a taxi out to the start of the trail to the Chalaadi glacier. We did not expect that we’d be making the same walk in reverse 14 hours later.
After our coffee, we found the driver who’d taken us home the previous night. He agreed to take us out to the head of the glacier walk and come back to collect us three hours later. On the way out of town, he stopped at the side of the road, motioned for us to wait, and then returned with hot, fresh bread for us. And our love for Georgia (and our taxi driver) grew again.
The trail out to Chalaadi was mercifully mild after the previous day’s exploits, running mostly through the woods alongside the Mestiachala river. When we got as close to the glacier terminal as we dared, we pulled ourselves up onto a massive rock and ate some of our bread, watching and waiting for bits of ice to fall.
I looked up at the hills and tried to work out which was the ridge Chris and Holly were on, figuring they were probably somewhere near the top at this point. The weather was still clear so it was probably looking pretty amazing up there. On cue, a few minutes later we got a message from Holly that they’d made it to the top and were now headed back to meet us in town in a few hours. (Later when we all shared our pictures, because of timestamps, we could see where we each were around the same time, which is pretty cool.)
We made the walk back down to meet our driver and got dropped off in town to find a beer and do some nosing around shops before heading to a little cafe to see the local, award-winning film, Dede. Yes, they have a local, award-winning film! And a cafe pub that is dedicated solely to showing it multiple times a day. It was a good watch, if a bit of a melodrama. It provided more context for the local culture and history, so I was happy we got to see it.
The experience was suitably enhanced by the overly crowded basement full of an Australian tour group – a total sellout. Who knew? And there was a power cut in the middle of the film, during which we all sat slightly awkwardly cramped with nothing to focus on, waiting for everything to come back on and the computer the film was running on to boot back up.
When we emerged from the basement we went back to the main square and found Chris and Holly sitting outside a restaurant drinking. A band was setting up on the deck around the corner and we ordered a bottle of wine.
This is when I realised, in that I’m-on-holiday-and-I’m-not-entirely-keeping-track way, that it was September 11th. Which is just a day, like every day is just a day. But given that I am American who was old enough at the time, it’s got an extra marker. I was nearly 18 in 2001, and it occurred to me while sitting outside with my glass of Georgian wine that it had been another 18 years. And here I was in this remote place in the Caucasus mountains with these stone towers everywhere that had lasted centuries.
The Svan towers featured heavily in the film we’d just watched. They are all-in-one family homes and fortresses designed to protect against the multitudes of different invading armies over the years, and many of them date back to sometime between the 9th and 12th centuries. The fact that this area would need extra fortification to provide protection seems unbelievable, as even with modern transportation and roads, getting in to Svaneti is a fucking task. The drive in is not for the faint-hearted or carsick-prone. To attack someone there, you’d have needed some serious motivation. But serious motivation is something humans seem to pull out in spades for all sorts of often questionable reasons. These highland passes were routes from one place to another, which was enough.
Here’s what I remember about the 2001 version of this day: I was in AP studio art doing not very much yet. No one had a tv or radio on in any of my classrooms. Smartphones did not exist. There were some whispers. Maybe a vague-ish announcement. My grandfather was not in good shape, so when I got called and told to meet my sister at the office and drive home, I thought it was because he’d died, but I was a month early for that.
We got in the car and I turned on the radio and I knew why we were driving home then. It was Tuesday. Tuesday used to be new album release day, and that particular Tuesday was new Ben Folds. I had planned on going to Record and Tape Traders after school to get it. Now I wasn’t allowed out. And all anyone wanted to do was watch some towers come down on a loop on TV.
One of the clearest memories I have of that day is turning my TV off.
I don’t really recall much after that. I probably walked the dog extra so I could get out of the house. Everyone seemed to want to pause and rewind and pause and rewind and pause and rewind. I just wanted life to continue, even if it sucked for a while. Because it has to go on. Surely it sucked for a lot of people in a lot of other places too for all kinds of reasons we barely ever paid attention to. Now we were just the same. But America seems to have a hard time with that.
A few days after, Sarah Bunting, whose blog, Tomato Nation, I used to read religiously, posted what had happened to her that day. She was right there in lower Manhattan. She’d met someone that stuck with her. A disaster buddy, if you will. She never managed to find him again. Every year since then, she’s written something about it. I stopped reading her blog at least 10 years ago, but I always go see what she’s written on September 11th. Every year. I think because I’m hoping that in the course of life going on, she’ll have found Don somehow.
In any case, I sat there in a rare moment of allowing myself to get lost in my phone instead of paying attention to my absolutely knackered friends, and read what Sarah had written this year – which was very good, as always – and thought how life had continued. Half my life since then. And I have gone so much further than I could think of in 2001.
I was sitting in a part of the world most people I’ve spoken to know very little, if not nothing, about. (‘The country, not the state’, ‘Ohhhhh. pause, puzzled look Why would you want to go THERE?’ being the most common exchange I had in the months preceding this trip.) A place that doesn’t get nearly as much consideration as it should. I like places like this. And my friends wanted to be here with me. And two of them got to be up a crazy high hill just like they like to be. And a stranger became a pal simply by giving us bread.
At that point, we were all exhausted and hungry. So we left the square and went to a place where we’d smelled the bbq when passing, thinking it would be great, but it wasn’t as great as we’d hoped. In fact it was probably the only disappointing meal we had the entire trip. But it didn’t matter, because that in itself actually made it kind of great.
The toilet there was also broken, so I was directed vaguely across the street and behind a building. You are probably aware of the toilet scene in Trainspotting – The Worst Toilet In Scotland. I experienced what I believe is the Georgian equivalent in a building site in Mestia. The toilets in Georgia were not bad on the whole. This, however, was so terrifying it was actually hilarious. Had it been in a city, it probably would have been a personal safety issue that I’d have, you know, just held it.
But here. Here I was full of wine and love for the day, and I felt safe, and my friends knew where I was (well, roughly) and I was just going to go for it. All I could keep thinking was how horrified my mother would be.
We went back to the place we’d been having drinks to order some better food and more wine. And there was another power cut. And the dogs were begging. And the lights came back on and the band started playing again and one of the dogs managed to snarfle my last piece of khachapuri when I let my guard down. I was admonished for being a sucker. But that’s ok. Those dogs are smart. It’s how they survive.
Some towers survive and some do not. I think that’s a bit of a crapshoot. We happened to be among a few of the ones that have. And we ate and drank and laughed at each other and listened to the music and got ourselves home on our own two feet.