Note: This is Shane’s version of the Georgian drive.
The country of Georgia is known for its wine, epic skiing, and natural landscape.
Actually, that isn’t true. Novody knows anything about Georgia. When I was in high school Russia had a military tiff with Georgia that made it to the American news.
“How’d the Russians get their tanks across the Atlantic?” I wondered for a brief moment before I realized I was missing something obvious.
In other words, like a fair few American’s I didn’t know it even existed much less had vineyards.
This knowledge came much later in life, or rather 3 days ago, as I drove the Marabby up the intimidating Caucus Mountains.
The start of the trip through Georgia went lovely, coasting along the resort towns of the Black Sea. The only challenge was a game I call, “Don’t Crash Into a Cow.” This game is very popular in Georgia and will keep you entertained from one end of the country to the next.
“Don’t Crash” gets progressively harder by adding potholes, people, Georgian drivers, semi-trucks with bad brakes, twisting switchbacks, blind corners, flooding tunnels, raging rivers, rickety bridges, and landslides.
The landscape, when it isn’t trying to destroy you, is astounding. I thought Iceland deep in the stormy north Atlantic with its volcanic fissures and waterfalls was intense. Northern Georgia makes Iceland appear gentle and soft.
While driving up steep mountain passes at 10 miles per hour I was kept company by the unfortunate knowledge that the border between Russia and Georgia might not be open to tourists depending on what rumors and websites you visit.
This was intimidating, if the Russians said “nyet” to our visit then “Don’t Crash into a Cow” would go into double-overtime as we trundled back from a closed border and reversed our route around the Black Sea.
Trudging on, trusting to the goodwill of the Russians (Hahaha), the Marabby puttered up steeper and steeper mountain roads. One shouldn’t drive after night in the developing world but one should also avoided sleeping in a car on a blind corner which plunges off a cliff to one side. Therefore, as night dropped in unrequested we were far from any settlements.
Back and forth I drove up the old military highway, the air getting cool outside. You couldn’t see anything beyond the road but the never ending switchbacks hinted that we were weaving our way up the side a mountain.
Being 3 hours from any real civilization (Our map sometimes lies and tells us in big bold letters that we are heading to a city which turns out to be a barn, population: 1 stray cat) we jumped with joy at finding a small wooden building with a flashing “Open” sign. This was exciting because every business past Turkey hasn’t learned to put up signs saying what their business is or turn on their lights to let you know the building their are in isn’t abandoned.
Everything was warm, homey, and delightful. As you will read in Hans’ blog we found a Greek and Englishman on a holiday retreat from their offices in Tbilisi where they work for the UN. What you won’t find in Hans’ blog is how we began with intellectual conversations about Troy, Greek Mythology, and after much red wine began badgering the lovely hostess as to why there were cows so high in the mountain rather than sheep.
No amount of red wine brought forth a solution despite our efforts. Cow conundrum aside, we finished the night happy, warm, and cozy in a loft bedroom of the inn.
The next morning we got up bright and early then fell back asleep and tried again around noon. This worked and Hans started us driving towards the Russian border.
Why they thought it was feasible to put a border through this gauntlet of raging nature. The Georgian government is building an asphalt road to the border but they can’t work fast enough to overcome its destruction by the elements.
The heavy rainfall had dropped rocks the size of bricks and water coolers into the road at every corner. The guardrail had been flattened onto its side by the rolling version of these monsters, allowing cars to follow them deep into the misty canyon below.
The reason for all the mist is a river of the darkest gray, sweeping up sediments from the unstable mountain and crashing down towards Russia.
The rain we got to enjoy first hand while the passport control officer sifted through our paperwork, sipping at his coffee. Why they bothered taking pictures I haven’t a clue. I was half drowned, one eye clenched shut because a drop of water landed in it, and my teeth gritted against the cold. If I go back to Georgia I’m going to have to remember to snarl like a grizzled pirate to make the photos match.
Perhaps at some point I wished upon the border guard a foul future. The ralliers two cars behind us had been standing at the clapboard passport stand when the mountain erupted in a landslide, crashing straight towards the passport control and the startled guard. The rocks petered out just meters from the border crossing, our rally friends having abandoned their passports at the booth to make a run for it.
For us the excitement was a semi-truck plowing into a Russian car as they fought to get into the single line. Many people kept cutting by driving down the wrong lane until the BMW driver behind us, a bald man from Belarus, got out and began arguing with the angry Russians cheaters. We just kept the doors locked and tried to avoid watching the fight outside. This was hard because the Russians demanded we let them cut and the Belarusian looked like he would break our necks if we let them
We decided the Balarusian was scarier and followed the truck in front of us forward, staying about an inch from his bumper lest the Russians force their way in.
We made it through but the Russian passport control battle station lay at least 10km beyond the Georgian shack. At this point we dropped altitude until we were at the level of the dark river.
Much of this river had gotten into the tunnels along this route, or perhaps it was the rain. Either way, I’ve never been in a pitch black tunnel that had jets of water shooting out from cracks in the wall.
At the battle station we were moved from the car line just as we reached the passport control. We were made to park, get out, and follow a Russian man into a key coded interrogation room.
He turned out to be quite kind and concerned about us. He grilled us, politely, with a million questions using his nominal English. He perhaps didn’t understand our responses though, because he concluded that Hans was a construction engineer and that Roberta and I were gynecologists. Serious. There was another priceless moment when Hans clarified with confidence, “I work for Amazon.com”. There was a blank look in the officer’s face, never having heard of the capitalistic construct of Amazon.
When we told him we were headed to Kazakhstan he grew concerned. He asked us how we were navigating and was relieved we were using a paper map. Apparently, google maps and other GPS devices recommend driving through the areas of Chechnya and Dagestan. Look these up if you don’t know why this is a problem.
My plan had included avoiding these areas and with one alteration to avoid a city on my route he was satisfied we weren’t going to road-trip across Russian republics known for their rebellions and Islamic insurgencies.
For our friends behind us, The Battlers, his accent and English wasn’t clear enough to quite explain why they couldn’t follow their GPS straight across these two areas. They are good mates and wrote down his path so that they could follow it, but didn’t know why their route was dangerous. Only after a tense convoy drive to Vladikavkaz and eating dinner with us did they recognize their route went across Chechnya and Dagestan, the most unstable part of Russia.
What none of us realized is that dinner would be just as dangerous as meeting the Chechnyan Rebels…
I’ll let Hans write about this experience, bit I’ll give you a hint:
It included five free bottles of vodka.